Thursday, September 03, 2015

NW Day Four: Big Sky

NW Day Four: Big Sky

This morning, we managed to get out of the hotel only 50 minutes behind schedule. I don’t understand what’s happening in the morning. We didn’t have this problem on any of our other road trips. But it is a definite issue now.

On the bright side, we did have caramel rolls from Krolls CafĂ© for breakfast. (Ok, I still haven’t figured out the name of that German American diner. ) Also, the Jedi’s patience with us is remarkable.

Our first stop was just thirty minutes down the highway at the Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There was a trail down into the canyon, which I had presented to the family as an option when we were trip planning. 

--A word about how our trip planning process went this time. We wrote to all the states, technically, we filled out a ‘pleae send me stuff’ form on the states’ travel websites. When we got tourism brochures, we spread them out on the coffee table and looked through them to make a wish list for each state. We also solicited for suggestions on Facebook and through friends. We checked out suggestions on And from all that, we made a wish list.

At this point, the Jedi sat down and plotted out a route based on the key places we wanted to visit (Glacier, Seattle, Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore.) Then he tried to break the drive time into manageable chunks each day, while still leaving us with time to make stops for food and activities each day.  He selected cities and towns to be our destinations for each night based on the route and the drive time.

Then the Jedi and I went back over the wish list to rule out locations that were too far off of our route. And then, the work of actually forming a possible itinerary started. Beginning with our first day, we went over the route, looked at the stops we wanted to make, searched trip advisor and road food for places to eat. Used google maps to come up with how long it would take to drive between each location, and came up with a potential working itinerary. (On the itinerary document, we include the name of each location, its GPS co-ordinates if needed, information about hours and ticket prices, and a link to its website.)

When we had about a weeks worth of stuff planned out, I printed a copy of the itinerary for each child, had them get a pencil and a clip board, and then the itinerary got graded. We sat in the living room and used the media center to pull up a map for that day as well as a link to information/website/pictures about each potential stop for food, recreation, or whatever. The kids then wrote on their clipboard and gave each idea a grade A—F. I told them that I would take their grades into consideration, but that some things we were doing because the Jedi or myself really wanted to do them.

--Back to us in the Painted Canyon. There was a hiking trail, but the hiking trail had received D’s from both kids, so we declined taking it. Instead we just took pictures at the overlook. 

I forced Boybot to take a selfie with me and Sweetling.

We spent a little longer than I had planned enjoying the view and the beautiful day.
Painted Canyon was right off the highway. I mean right off. It was marked as a rest stop. As we had pulled into the visitor’s parking lot, we drove over a cattle grate. We paused on the cattle grate as we drove out, because the kids didn’t know what it was. The Jedi was explaining that the cattle don’t like to walk over them, because they sense that their hooves would get stuck in the grating. 

“Although,” said the Jedi, “this grate is probably to keep the bison in the park, rather than keep the cows out.  Not that the flimsy little fence they have would stop a bison.”

We all agreed, the five foot tall not even chain link fence, would not stop a bison. 

We’ve seen a bison charge before; that stuff is no joke.

And yet, as we pulled out of the park the Jedi said, “Oh look, there they are now. Down by the fence.”
And indeed they were. Down by the fence, happily grazing. That’s twice we’ve seen bison on this trip. Both times they were acting like peaceful, calm animals. (I don't have a photo, just a movie taken from the passenger window as we passed. Those never load on the blog well. Sorry!)

The Painted Canyon was right off the highway, and I *thought* our next stop was also right off the highway. It certainly was right *next to* the highway on google maps.
It turns out right next to is not the same as right off the highway, so we had a bit of a drive to get to it. But this turned out to be a wonderful thing because our drive took us past….


Their burrows filled a field along both sides of a park road. We sat in the van and watched them and listened to them squeak. One of us, I won’t say who, tried to hatch an elaborate, yet fool proof plot to lure one or two of them into the van to take home. Sadly, this plan got vetoed by the rest of the family.

Sweetling said, “That’s ok, Mommy, maybe we can find you a stuffed animal prairie dog to take home.”

The Jedi said, “At least that option wouldn’t have the plague.”

So, I was unjustly forced to leave my prairie dogs behind, and we continued on down the road, out of North Dakota and into Montana. 

Oh, though the prairie dogs were clearly my favorite, the view from Vista Trail was also cool.
 As was the not-really-too-long drive up and back.

We stopped in Glendive and ate lunch at Li’s Chinese Restaurant. It was a small family run place and shared half a building with the Wagon Wheel Saloon. Li’s was clearly the place to eat lunch on a Sunday, because the little dining room was packed. We got the last empty table. The buffet was, like the restaurant itself, small but good. We all filled and cleared at least two plates. The Jedi and the kids ordered smoothies from the surprisingly long list of options. They ordered strawberry-banana, strawberry-kiwi, and mango-banana. We got them to go, and headed out to find a park with river access.

For a small town, Glendive had a LOT  of city parks which included everything from a splash park to a skateboard park. But in the end, we found a boat access ramp with some parking. We parked, walked down the ramp, and headed out along the rocky shores of the Yellowstone River to hunt for agates. Within a minute or less, Boybot was holding a huge stone with some (we think) agate deposits. Our rock hunted adventure was SO plentiful, that we spread all of our finds out to pick just the best specimens to keep. It was a huge success and rated on the kids lists of favorites for the trip.

Fun fact: Did you know the distance across Montana, from east to west, is about the same as the distance between New York and Chicago? This made for a long drive day.

With rest stops with signs like this...

Between the late start and the extra time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we wound up rolling into Pompey’s Pillar just 15 minutes before the gate closed. The ranger at the gate gave us 30 minutes to drive up, hike the steps up the rock, take our pictures, and  get the van back out. OR, he said, we could park the van outside of the gate and walk the half mile or sso to the rock and take all the time we wanted. We did the drive and the power walk up the stairs to take pictures of Clark’s engraving on the rock.

With 3 minutes to spare, Boybot and I ran (Yo Adrien!) up to the very top of Pompey’s Pillar to take photos from the top. Totally worth it.

We jogged back to the van, and was out of the gate in the allotted time. From outside, I took some distance photos of the Pillar.

And of the field of sunflowers between us and the pillar.

This, of course, had us hitting Billings Montana around 8:30 for dinner. We had originally planned on eating at The Rex, but it turned out to be a bit more high-brow than we wanted. We were all in the mood for cowboy steak, not fine-dining steak. So instead, we did a quick trip adviser search and headed to Montana Rib and Chop House. 

We walked in, and there were patrons sitting at tables with cowboy hats on. One of the staff complemented Sweetling on her Strongbad shirt. There were posters on the walls for Monday night football specials. We knew we had found our people. The steak was *amazing*. I was too hungry to remember to take a picture of mine, which is a shame because it was incredible. 

The Jedi, on the other hand, remembered to take a photo of his steak and the loaded potato Sweetling and I had to split because it was bigger than either our our HEADS.

Oh, and our server wrote her name upside down and backwards on our table in a single second in cursive with two crayons. (It was right side up for us who were sitting at the table.) We were pretty impressed by that trick.

We were too stuffed for dessert, which is saying a lot for us. We wound up rolling in to the hotel around 11:30. Fortunately, we have a late start morning the next day and don’t need to wake up till 8.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

NW Day Three: Vikings and Bison

Despite a late start to our day, we’ve managed to stop and see everything we wanted too….and are still close to on schedule. (Lesson learned, I’m lying to myself if I think uploading a blog post and adding some pictures will only take 10 to 15 minutes or so. I need to not do anything but get ready and get the room packed up in the morning.)

Sweetling, however, was completely ready to conquer Minnesota.

Our first stop was a giant otter statue in Otter Tail County MN. 

There was a picnic table pushed up against the back of the statue, which people had obviously used to climb up onto the statue. I was sorely tempted to do the same, but even Boybot thought this sounded like a bad idea. So we settled for photos in front.

I drove my family crazy trying to get the perfect picture of a pretty little lake in the country side. But they just flew by too quickly. I had to just settle for trying to take a snapshot of any lake. There were MANY to choice from. 

Lunch was Crave’s Burgers in Moorehead MN. They were good burgers with some fun topping options. Boybot has decided we need to make their avocado burger when we get home. Boybot is making quite the list for me.

My favorite quote of the day also happened right after lunch. It’s a little less horrible if you at least know that we were in a restaurant, seated at a table, when this was said. I’ll let you figure out who the speaker was. “What is this? Should I eat it? I’m going to eat it. It’s crunchy. I still don’t know what it was.”

Also in Moorehead, we visited the Hje….. Cultural Center to see the Viking ship and the stave church. 

Before we went in, the Jedi had to be on a short conference call, so the kids and I went on an explore. We found our way down to a river bank, to look for a rock from Minnesota. (In retrospect, I think it’s the river that forms the state line between Minnesota and South Dakota.) Under a street overpass, we found a canoe launch/dock. We explored a little, dug in the mud for two rocks and headed back up to meet the Jedi.

The Viking ship was really cool. You should look up its history and read about the people who built it and the crew of 13 who sailed it from Minnesota to Norway.

Outside, a beautiful stave church had been built and hand carved to be a near exact replica of the ----- church in Norway.

I think one of the things that impressed me most with each of these were that they were the result of some hard work, dedication, and initiative of local residents who decided they wanted to really explore and celebrate their Norwegian ancestry.

We drove across the little river to visit Fargo North Dakota. (That’s when I realized the river the kids and I were exploring was a state line.) We stopped to add another sticker to our van. 

We had planned on visiting the Fargo Air Museum, but when we got there, it was super tiny…especially for the $8 admission price per person.

Instead, we decided to drive on and visit the Pioneer Village in Jamestown.

You know how much I like all things pioneer.

This village was right next door to a Buffalo Museum, which had a small herd of bison grazing the hills nearby.

And, of course, the world’s largest buffalo monument.

Though we had slated a dinner stop at the Frontier Grill in Jamestown, no one was hungry yet. As I type this we are driving on to Bismark for dinner at Happy Joe’s Pizza.

 Addendum to add--

Sadly, Happy Joe's Pizza wasn't quite what we were expecting. We decided not to go in and instead found this nice little German-American Diner. I hope the name shows up in a photo, because I surely don't remember it.

We had some yummy yellow soup. If it weren't past midnight local time, I'd try to find these names. 

And we had some ground beef patties wrapped in a flaky pastry and deep fried. 

AND we stopped at k-mart for batteries for the camera. And visible through the big glass store front were those coin-eating machines that dispenses cheap toys in little plastic bubbles. Both kids want to go in and look for "guys". So I took a roll of laundry quarters and went in with the kids while the Jedi hunted down batteries. No guys were found, but some little animals were.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

NW Day Two: Ride from Outer Space

We decided that even though the waterpark opened at 9 a.m., we were going to sleep in since we were up so late last night. I woke up around 6. I tried to go back to sleep, but gave up at 6:30, when I got up and started quietly blogging. The Jedi was up not long after, and both kids were up and awake before eight.

We still took our time De getting ready for the day. We used the microwave to heat up the $8 casserole bake I found at Fair Oaks the day before. It was yummy, and beat the $15 per person breakfast buffet the resort was offering.

We had the van reloaded, had checked out, and were back in the waterpark by 10:20 or so. It was 64 degrees and raining, but the outdoor park was open. I offered to go out and do the outside slides with Boybot. But Boybot looked at me like I was crazy and pointed out that there were lots of great slides *inside*. (Boybot has also repeatedly mentioned that Wisconsin Dells isn’t TOO far away from Cincinnati.)

 I made a second trip down the toilet bowl. It was just as pleasant as it sounds. This was a deal struck with Boybot in exchange for him standing in line for Master Blaster with me. That was a two person raft ride, no single riders. Boybot at least taught me how to ensure I went feet first through the drop hole.

 I considered trying the FlowWave or Flow Rider, whichever it was. The Jedi went out the van to get a camera to film this memorable experience. But the line was pretty long, it was past lunch time, and I didn’t want to delay us overly long. We had showered, changed, bought a postcard, smashed pennies, eaten some ice cream, and were ready to head out by 2:40.

We drove 10 minutes to “downtown” Wisconsin Dells. The town has set itself up as a family vacation mecca. In addition to the numerous waterparks, there are mini-golf courses, small theme parks, river excursions, arcades, family entertainment shows, and a stretch of shops, cafes, and such along the main street that really gave it a ‘boardwalk’ feel.

We ate lunch at Mac’s (Mac and Cheese.) It was universally decided that I needed to learn how to make mac and cheese this good. Then we could have a mac and cheese buffet style dinner. I could set out a bunch of toppings, and everyone could load a dish of mac and cheese up with what they wanted. Then we’d pop the dishes in the oven for a final bake. Given that my recent attempts to make homemade mac and cheese has included something that the kids said tasted “horrifyingly” like “birthday cake”, I think this is a pretty lofty goal.

 If it weren’t still chilly and rainy, we would have spent another 15 to 20 minutes wandering the main street. But instead, we got back in the van, the kids snuggled under blankets, and we started a movie. The Jedi has resolutely driven through nasty constant rain for three hours now, and we are still an hour and forty-three minutes from dinner.

Ta-da! Dinner at Space Aliens Bar and Grill! Because that’s where all the coolest aliens go to eat.

To be honest, the Jedi and I were expecting a catchy theme, some video games, and mediocre food. But the food was OUTSTANDING! The Jedi ordered ribs. I didn’t because I didn’t want half-@ss bbq. The Jedi’s ribs were COMPETITION QUALITY. I was jealous. The Jedi had a chance to talk to the chef and complement him.

 Desserts came with 20 tokens each, which the kids had a great time spending.

Our projected hotel arrival time of 9pm turned out to be 11pm.

Friday, August 28, 2015

NW Day One: Spilsh Splash!

General Facts about the first day of our road trip--

Time I thought we we supposed to leave the house: 8 a.m.
Time the Jedi actually wanted to leave the house: 7 a.m.
Time we actually pulled out of the driveway: 8:15 a.m.
Amount of frustration the Jedi showed about this: None.

Number of times I failed as a navigator: 3
Number of times the Jedi got upset about missing our turns in the middle of construction when we were already behind: 0

Money we had budgeted for souvenirs: $1 for a postcard
Money we spent on an unscheduled stop where we found The Best Chocolate Milk in the World (and lactose free!): $38 plus ice cream and no postcard

Hours of sleep I got before we left: 6
Hours of sleep I got last night: 6 1/2
Why I am up right now writing: too excited to sleep

Number of awesome water slides we went down: ALL THE SLIDES (except the stand up and have the floor drop out from under you while you get shot into a watery death drop. Screw that noise.)

Amount of fun we are having SO MUCH FREAKING FUN.

After we had rolled out of Cincy an hour and fifteen past when the Jedi wanted to leave, we discovered as we were driving into Indianapolis that the entire freeway was shut down some place north of Indianapolis (at the intersection of I-90 and Rt 52 if you are really curious.) We got detoured off the interstate into corn fields. It was scenic. Boybot asked, "What do these people do when they need to go to the grocery store?"

And we did drive through this massive wind farm. That *was* really cool.

But best of all, somewhere in the middle of I-don't-where-we-are-Indiana, we made a stop for gas, and just happened to find ourselves next to Fair Oaks Farm. Our first clue that the farm next door might be awesome was the cow in front of the BP...

And then the cow display on top of the refrigerators inside the BP...
And while they sold Fair Oaks cheese and ice cream in the BP, it was a bit pricey, so I thought we should just head next door and see if it was cheaper and fresher from the source. So we drove over for ice cream at the COWfee
But before we went in, I just wanted to snap a few photos...

And since we were already walking around, we might as well go in the bakery shop, since it was RIGHT THERE. Inside the bakery, we discovered cookies as big as my face, the Best Chocolate Milk in the World, raspberry cream fudge, and other delicious baked goods...including a blueberry loaf and a breakfast casserole. (Later we would discover that breakfast at our hotel was $15 a person, so my $8 casserole purchase to feed the whole family was a real win.)

Then we headed in for ice cream (and white chocolates and pork rub from yet another gift store area)

We didn't hit lunch in Chicago until what would have been 3:30 EDT, so the stop for ice cream and snacks was well worth it.

Lunch was Chicago deep dish pizza. The Jedi had emailed the restaurant several days before our trip to make sure they had a smooth sauce option for Boybot. The pizza was good, but I have to confess, it wasn’t as good as the wood fired pizza we make in the smoker at home.

 Because of the late start, the road construction detour, and the stop at Fair Oaks Farm, we didn’t get to Wisconsin Dells till late evening….just as they were closing the outdoor waterpark. Still, the indoor water park was enormous, and we had a great time there. (Of course, we knew it would be great as soon as we pulled up and were greeted by elephants. How can you go wrong with elephants? There were elephants everywhere, including on the wall of our room. Sweetling was beside herself with joy.)

We stayed inside the water park all evening, skipping dinner. We rode nearly all the slides, many of them more than once. It being a Thursday, there weren’t that many visitors and so there were hardly any lines at all. The park also had a small wave pool and the Jedi joined us in that.

We all liked all the slides….save one. They had one body slide that was a pretty straight shoot into a “toilet bowl”. For some reason, I decided that I might want to try this slide. The four of us stood at the bottom of the slide and discussed this notion. (Though in fairness, it was mostly Toa and I discussing this notion. Sweetling and the Jedi wanted nothing to do with this insanity. Boybot wanted to know just how bad the slide was, and was willing to let his mother go be the Guinea pig.)

So, I found myself eagerly heading up the stairs. Partway up the stairs, it occurred to me that essentially flushing oneself down a giant toile might not be the best of times. This could be like a full body swirly. This could be like a spider's last few terrifying seconds of life. But I intentionally failed my sill save and continued up the stairs.

The good thing about the slide was that the whole experience was over in a few horrifying moments. Yet those moments still gave plenty of time for reflection on one’s current circumstances. Here, approximately, is my train of thoughts. “Not so bad. Not so bumpy for a water slide. Completely dark though. Why do they do that. Ouch. Not a comfortable ejection into the toilet bowl. Hey, sliding around the bowl is pretty fun. I like this part. I wonder when I’ll hit the….” And then I was falling, head and shoulder first, out of the hole in the center of the toilet bowl. This was not the most comfortable angle to hit the water four feet below.

At that point, my thoughts switched to a panic stricken “Can’t-tell-which-was-is-up-nose-is-full-of-water-lungs-are-empty-drowning!” Sheer thoughtless panic took over. Somehow my flailing limbs thrashed me to the surface, though that was difficult to discern at first because of the gallons of water still falling on my head from the toilet bowl above. More instinct got me moving towards the edge of the pool. Out from under the deluge, I treaded water and wiped my eyes clear, gasped for breath, and tried to get my bearings. I become aware that my family was standing at the edge of the pool. I think they might have been laughing at me, but I’m pretty sure that was my imagination. They surely wouldn’t have been laughing at me.

As I worked my way over to the ladder and was climbing out of the pool, I realized there were words coming out of my mouth. They went something along the lines of “horrible, this was horrible idea, whose idea was this, this was horrible.” The Jedi came over and helped me out of the pool and put his hand comfortingly on my shoulder. Boybot looked at me and asked, “So, how was it, Mom?” I then launched into a play by play tirade about my experience. Boybot listened intently and then decided he needed to TRY THIS FOR HIMSELF. (Boybot loved this slide. He spent a good part of the rest of the night on this slide.)

We stayed until close to waterpark closing at ten. Then headed back up to our room, got changed, and headed back down to find dinner. Everyone was dangerously hungry at this point, but most of the little restaurants and food places had closed for the night. One walk-up grill was open, selling off the last of the chicken fingers and mini corndogs sitting in paper trays in their warming racks. Yum. But beggars can’t be choosers, so we cued up for what I was sure would be overpriced and disgusting food. Sweelting got a slice of cheese pizza and Boybot and I had a couple of burritos assembled from the options still sitting in their steam table. We took these with some bottles of juice from their fridge back up to our room and found them to be surprisingly good. We wound up getting to be around midnight local time…which was 1 in the morning for us.