US-101 Vacation – Part II

So where are we now…June 7th? Oh yes.

By this point, Brooke was using her specialized Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip travel guide to find things to do along the way. She picked it up in late May and skimmed parts of it, but hadn’t really looked at it too much because we wanted to remain flexible: find things we may want to do, but nothing that we’d plan an entire trip around. It was helpful in finding some things near places we thought we’d stay, but wasn’t organized as well as we’d have liked. For example, it had “northern Oregon” and “southern Oregon” sections of the book, but they weren’t all logically laid out in order as you’d pass them on US-101, so you had to bounce around a bit to find where things were organized. Not the end of the world, but could have been better.

One of the things she found was the Tillamook Creamery in Tillamook, OR, which is west of Portland. It seemed to hit a lot of the things we were looking for: a “halfway through the day” kind of stop; a self-guided tour; they made cheese, which all people like; and ice cream, which again, all people like.

There were a lot of people there! We didn’t see any literal tour buses, but it sure seemed like the place a bunch of elderly people would do as they traveled in buses to tourist destinations. The operations of the cheese factory were interesting, we got some free samples, and they had a few children-centric exhibits to check out (the kids milked a “cow,” for instance).

After that, we continued on to Florence, OR to stay the night. We stopped off at a beach to see Thor’s Well, which was kind of cool, but really only gave us 15 minutes to kill before we went into town for the night. We dropped off stuff at the hotel and went to Rosa’s Mexican Restaurant, and that was very nice. For once, we were at a hotel before 9:00 pm, so that was a plus!

The next day, again, we had to make it just under 200 miles until we reached Smith River, CA, which is where we were going to stay for another 3 days. That meant we had some time to kill, but more importantly, some opportunities to see and do some fun stuff. One option was a sea lion cave that Meg really wanted to do, but the timing of making that work would have meant some substantial backtracking, and we figured we’d see some other places along the trip (also, the time of year we were there wasn’t really the best time to see sea lions, apparently). Another option was renting a dune buggy to drive over some sand dunes.

First, some background. I watch quite a few car videos on YouTube, and one I ran across last year (after we knew we were doing this trip) was one from Driving Sports TV where the host drove a Subaru Outback like ours on some sand dunes in Oregon. Apparently, as I learned then, Oregon Dunes National Recreation area is “a thing,” where you can take your vehicle, ATV, buggy, or whatever and just drive on some sand dunes, including along the beach! Which sounded really cool!

Brooke saw some rental locations in the book she was reading, I called one up, and they had a few slots available relatively early the next morning as we were heading down to Smith River! As you can see in the satellite image above, the dunes we went to are relatively large and give you access to the ocean (we went to Spinreel Dune Buggy and ATV Rentals), but we only wanted to commit an hour to this part of the trip. If we did a two hour rental (or longer), then we could have taken a buggy to the ocean and driven along it, but alas, not this trip. We went through a safety training video and had someone draw on a map where we should go with an hour to spend: if we went past the hour mark, we’d have to pay for another hour, so we didn’t want to go too far.

It was fun! As I’m not a huge fan of heights, I was a bit wary of trying to drive up the big, steep dunes, but Brooke was more willing to give it a go (note: we didn’t die). I was more willing to drive faster in open spaces, so we both piloted the buggy in different ways, which was nice. We wore jackets because it was relatively chilly. It cost a decent chunk of change to do it, but it was totally worth it!

This was at Spinreel before we went out on the buggies. I don’t know what Calvin was doing, but I made a GIF of it. Enjoy.

We left Spinreel and went to Coos Bay, OR, where we had lunch at 7 Devils Waterfront Alehouse. The food was good (I had fish tacos) and the beer was nice, too! We started stocking up on beer at this point to bring back to share with folks, as most of the beers up there, you can’t get in Missouri.

We drove for another 2 hours and stopped at a beach about an hour outside of our final destination. The house at Smith River wasn’t ready yet, so we stopped a beach near Myrtle Creek, OR to kill some time. We also started using our new Cliq folding chairs that Brooke found. I can’t get over how awesome these things are. We wanted something compact that we could take without sacrificing room in the car. Four of them fit in an approximately 6″x10″x20″ bag, which is nuts. Were they ridiculously expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? Also yes.

We made it to the house at Smith River by 6:30 that night. It’s something of a “resort cabin,” meaning the houses were all relatively close together and, because of that, they were all smaller than maybe we’d have preferred, but we got a room and the kids got a loft with two twin beds, so it was better than nothing.

Importantly, this place was right on the beach, so we could walk down the stairs and we were there. Again, it was kind of “shared space” in that anyone from our “resort” could walk down there, but it was a pretty secluded beach and we rarely saw other folks. Mostly, just people out for a walk. We didn’t even really see many families out there.

The sunset was pretty nice, too. Especially from a hot tub.

We spent the next few days using the house as a launching point for other adventures. More on that next time!

US-101 Vacation – Part I

The (ongoing) pandemic forced us to make some adjustments to vacation plans, where 2020 was supposed to be a trip to Yellowstone, but was unfortunately cancelled, leading us to instead head to some Missouri State Parks near Ironton, MO. We were able to do Yellowstone last year, then, which is actually fortunate for us because had we tried doing that this year, we would have been shut down again because a metric ton of rain ended up hitting the park, causing them to close practically the north half of the park for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, then, we just had to shift things by one year, putting us on track for the next destination on the list: Disney(something). Brooke and I both went to Disney World in our youth (decades ago…, we’re old….), and that experience becomes a whole thing when you look into costs (indeed, we decided we’d rather spend the money on plane flights to Puerto Rico than spend it on a week at Disney in Florida…).

Now, Disneyland, though, that sounded more reasonable: it’s a smaller park, it has fewer “sections” (there’s no Epcot or Animal Kingdom, for example), and lodging is far more reasonable and way closer, so parking is less of an issue.

So, Disneyland became the target: the question was what else we do to make it align with the “spirit” of our other vacations (e.g. mountains, driving, beaches….an experience). Well, as we tend to do, we just decided to do all the things!

We made the call to do the Pacific Coast Highway, which goes by a few names depending on which section you’re on. US-101 starts up near Seattle, WA and continues down to California, where eventually CA-1 takes over as the “PCH,” which then returns to meet US-101 again further South. Eventually, US-101 ends as it merges with I-5, effectively at Los Angeles, CA.

Obviously, this was going to take a lot of time, but thankfully, Brooke’s job now affords a bit more flexibility so she can be gone for a ridiculously long vacation. She got some books and plotted out the basics of how far we’d go each day, what the lunch/hotel strategy should be, and we did our best to book it to and from the West Coast, and then spend more time on US-101 where possible, including 3 days at a house overlooking the beach.

So on June 3, Brooke worked the morning while the kids and I finished prepping the house and loading some stuff up. We left just after noon that day with a goal of getting to Sioux Falls, ND. Had Brooke worked more that day, we probably would have just stopped at Sioux City, IA, but with timing, we opted to go further, get in later, but then have a bit more time the next day in South Dakota. After nearly 8 hours and over 400 miles, and a stop for dinner at an overcrowded Pizza Ranch, we made it to Sioux Falls right around 9:30 pm.

And then we promptly crashed for the night, only to get up and do it all again!

However, this time, we were going to stop at a few icons of a classic road trip experience to help break up the day a bit. The goal this time was to get to Billings, MT, as that would set us up where we could get to (or near) Seattle the next day so we could begin the real vacation.

We drove for about an hour before we got to Mitchell, SD, so we could see the Corn Palace. This is a place Brooke and I both experienced growing up in various capacities, so really, we were only subjecting our children to it because that’s what happened to us. I’m not sure they really “got it,” so much, but it was an odd distraction that they can hopefully look back on and think, “you know, I don’t really know why we went to that weird corn place.”

We then hopped back in the car (after getting me some more coffee and talking to a rando at the coffee shop about how expensive farming is now….his idea, not mine) and headed to Wall, SD to visit the infamous Wall Drug, another experience Brooke and I had decades ago. This one didn’t really live up to Brooke’s memory of the place, though, so she was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t much to do except walk through it and buy things we didn’t need. The kids got to sit on a jackalope though, so there’s that.

We ate lunch out of the back of the car (which was the intent – we borrowed Mom and Dad’s smaller, but good, cooler and tried to pare down what we’d actually eat and what we actually needed to keep cold). A brief aside, we used the cartop carrier, as always, but Brooke had us all pack as light as we could, so shockingly, we were able to see out of the back of the car nearly the entire time! This is a first for us.

The next leg was a 2 hr drive to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. This one took us off I-90 a bit, but it was worth the trip. Brooke had been there before, but I’d never seen it. I think the kids were ready to be done driving for the day, so while I think they “liked it,” part of their attitude smelled of “why are we here again?” There were a lot of people there hiking around the Tower, many of which had been in Yellowstone, so we saw a lot of t-shirts (and I was, coincidentally, wearing mine from last year’s trip). I think we hoped there’d be a bit more of a National Park Service presence there to see some exhibits, but it was a pretty small operation and there were a lot of people, so we didn’t stay more than an hour.

On the ride out from Devil’s Tower, we had our first real experience with “late afternoon rain.” Nearly every day we were in the Northwest, rain hit, and to the point where it was difficult to see where we were driving. We weren’t on I-90 yet, but we could see plenty of dark clouds off in the distance. Calvin had been complaining about his loose tooth for a few days now, so he had a granola bar for a snack. Of course, on a two-lane road with threatening thunderstorms, he lost it 🤦‍♂️. We pulled off in the parking lot of a remote Reservation casino so he could spit it out onto the ground and look for the tooth. Brooke decided to not do that, so she handed him a dollar and we kept driving.

Ultimately, we made it to Billings, MT right around 8:00 pm MDT. We went to an Applebee’s for dinner to use a gift card Brooke had from Christmas, which actually was pretty solid because all four of us could easily find something to eat and not complain about it. Night #2 where we got to the hotel after 9:00 pm. At least this time we got beers and margaritas before bed…

The next day was June 5th….and we did nothing but drive. 12.5 hrs of driving. 853 miles. We were tired, but made it to Lacey, WA, which is just south of Seattle by (you guessed it) just after 9:00 pm PDT. That night, we went to Wendy’s so we could all get Frostys.

Another brief aside: this whole trip, Meg branched out in her eating quite a bit. She actually had a quesadilla and didn’t complain about it! She had chicken tenders and didn’t complain (much) about it! She went to Jersey Mike’s and had a veggie sandwich…and didn’t complain about it! So proud.

So, now we were on June 66h, and the goal was to make it around the northwestern part of Washington, as pictured below:

So obviously, we didn’t have to do that. We could have just cut to the West from where we stayed in Lacey that night. But that’s not what US-101 does, and if we’re doing the whole thing, then we need to do. The. Whole. Thing.

It took us 7 hours to make that trip, though we did stop at a few spots along the way, including Olympic National Park.

Honestly, there wasn’t much to see there? It was an oddly laid out park, in that some parts of it were a decent distance away from the main visitor center office. It’s like it was laid out in patches near Port Angeles, WA. Still, we hiked up to a water fall and experienced some shockingly cool weather, compared with the 95 F that Missouri was experiencing around that time (we missed out on a nearly 2 week long heat wave in Missouri. Our plants all survived).

We drove awhile until we got to Ruby Beach, which is one of many state parks along the Pacific to keep the beaches public. It was the first time the kids saw the Pacific Ocean! They also noted how cold the water is. We wanted to stop a few times like this to make sure they notice how the beaches change as we make our way down the Coast, so it seemed as good a place as any to stop.

Lastly, we arrived in Aberdeen, WA, where we stayed at an AirBNB. Part of this calculus was because our destination in Washington that we were originally going to stay at for 3 days ended up getting sold a month before we left, so our reservations weren’t necessarily guaranteed. That place had laundry services available, but the place Brooke had to replace it with didn’t, so we weren’t going to make it with the 6 changes of clothes each of us brought along for the trip. She found a house in Aberdeen that had a hot tub and a washer/dryer available, so we took the opportunity to just do that and spread ourselves out a bit for a night. We also went to Breakwater Seafoods & Chowder for dinner that night, which was quite good.

The next day featured a 6 hour drive! But we’ll save that for Part II.

Destin(ation) Wedding – Part III

So, the morning of June 3, we were on the beach for awhile in Destin, yet later that day, we were due to hit the rehearsal dinner a few miles from the condo. Again, traffic was ridiculous down there, so any trip back and forth wasn’t trivial. We hit the venue late-afternoon and, considering it was early June and we were all mostly dressed up, the temperature wasn’t all that crazy. Definitely warm, but not unbearable.

The venue was pretty cool! It was a building with plenty of space, and a kitchen (that we didn’t need), as well as another out-building where the bridal party could get ready the next day.

The rehearsal didn’t take all that long, of course, so we got some pictures, met the other half of the family, and kind of went through the motions so we’d be ready for the next day. After we were done, we went to a very nice restaurant called Marina Cafe for seafood that had a lovely ocean view. The dinner was mostly uneventful, but everyone had a great time!

The next day involved a lot of back-and-forth, as Meg and Brooke needed to be with the bridal party at points, so Calvin and I had to shuttle people back and forth, and get lunch to take to them while they were all getting their hair done. Calvin went to the arcade with Uncle Jimmy for a bit, so he was entertained well enough, whereas I just had to field text messages and load stuff up when requested.

The wedding itself was lovely, of course! The weather was (again) surprisingly beautiful, despite being in Florida in June. My one complaint was that there were quite a few folks off partying in the bay while the wedding was going on, which obviously no one could do anything about. The wedding only took 20 minutes or so, but being able to hear everything was a challenge at time. Still, everyone looked and felt great, and that’s what matters most!

Calvin didn’t have any duties for the wedding, really, but Meg was handing out bubbles to folks as they came in, along with the groom’s niece. She was happy to help out, but Calvin was just happy to wear a jacket and tie. And getting super cool sunglasses as a wedding favor was extra special. 🙂

The dinner was mostly standard fare, with the speeches, cake cutting, etc. Rachel’s speech was really good, as was the Best Man’s speech, which was a pleasant surprise compared with other weddings we’ve attended! Again though, the food was good, the cupcakes were good, and everything came out really well!

The reception moved outside for dancing under the lights after dinner was done! Steve and I had gone to Sam’s a few days prior to stock up the bar and, though lots was had that night, we still didn’t go through nearly as much as we bought. I can only assume that they’re still working on it post-wedding.

The next day, we all convened at the beach one last time before we took off. The rest of the family hung out another day or so, whereas we had to head back to Marshall so Brooke could start her new job in a few days!

We loaded up and headed out by noon-ish that Saturday and took off for Tennessee, heading on a different route than we did on the way down. The plan was “speed” this time, rather than a more lackadaisical fashion as we did on the way down. We made it as far as Franklin, TN that day, after stopping at a Panera for dinner (turns out both kids found things to eat there, so we need to add that to the list as a place to stop on road trips).

Sunday, we pushed it and made it home by mid-afternoon, giving us enough time to reset a bit and get some laundry started before Brooke’s new job started the next day. In the end, Yellowstone was probably more the vacation for 2021 whereas Destin was more of a trip, but both gave us a wide variety of experiences within a month of each other! In retrospect (as I’m writing this quite awhile after we actually went…obviously….), we’re glad we took these trips in May/June rather than now, because it sounds like just about everywhere in the US is inundated with tourists. Hopefully it calms down by next year when we go to the west coast!

Destin(ation) Wedding – Part I

We found out months ago that Brooke’s sister was getting married (yay!), but the wedding was going to be in Destin, FL on June 4th. Of course, when we found out about this, we’d already begun making plans for our Yellowstone trip. It was a lot of driving (and we ended up with two cracks in our windshield between these two trips, for the record), but made the most of it!

Brooke ended up starting a new job in early-June, so we timed things where she could end her previous commitments and take the time off where we could make our way to Florida without having to do it in one shot.

As such, there was a lot of driving that we tried spreading out over a few days. The first target was New Orleans, but we stayed in Natchez, MS that first night. On the way down, we stopped for dinner at a place called The Dock for some seafood. The experience was….fine, though the folks out on their boat docked at the literal….dock…were rather “impaired,” so we didn’t stay outside very long. The food was pretty decent, though the parking lot could have been better…

The hotel also could have left a bit to be desired. The hotel itself was alright, but it wasn’t the cleanest we’d experienced and, more importantly, we rolled in to find out the TV didn’t work and couldn’t be fixed until after Memorial Day (um…days after we would be there…). So yeah, we arrived late enough that it wasn’t a huge deal, but still wasn’t great…

The next day, the drive to New Orleans took maybe 4 or 5 hours, so it was a relatively short hike for us, giving us some time in Louisiana before we’d head to Florida. When we arrived, we were too early for our hotel to be ready, so we made plans to hit up Central Grocery to grab muffalettas (for Brooke and me….the kids got other stuff we’d brought along…).

We parked maybe 5 blocks away from the French Quarter, but passed Louis Armstrong Park on our way, so we figured we’d return there to actually eat. It was a nice respite from a long drive, and a beautiful, albeit warm, day.

Walking around the French Quarter was something of a rude awakening. We’ve only been around a lot of people a few times in 2021 and, well, New Orleans sure felt like 2020 never happened. TONS of people. Everywhere.

Anyway, after we finished off lunch, we had an appointment just outside of town at an alligator farm, which wasn’t really a “farm,” per se, but more of a preserve where alligators tend to live. We went off on a boat (kind of a pontoon, but not really…) and saw a ton of ‘gators out in the bayou. The dude running the tour was tossing big marshmallows out toward the boat, drawing in multiple alligators and giving us some of the history of the area. Apparently, the tour company bought some acreage in that area, and they try to maintain it in order to privately take folks out while also preventing randos from coming in and hunting alligators (by the way, “alligator season” is a thing down there).

The tour was pretty cool! It wasn’t horrifically expensive and lasted at least an hour and a half. The tour guide definitely had his schtick , but it was an entertaining experience and we all got to hold an alligator (something I never thought I’d say/type).

We returned to New Orleans to get our hotel in order, only to find it wasn’t ready yet (not the first time this would happen on this trip…). We killed 45 minutes by walking to the Mississippi River (pictured at the top) and generally getting our bearings.

After we finally got into our room, we found a restaurant to visit a few blocks away. We went down, found out it would be a 45 minute wait (again, the aforementioned “metric ton of people” in town…), and decided to hang out. Calvin and I walked down to Bourbon St. to grab some drinks to bide our time a bit, leaving Brooke and Meg in the virtual line…

….that ended up lasting 2 hours…. Again, there were tons of folks in town, so just about everywhere had a long line, but this one was quite a bit longer than we were expecting. Calvin and Meg did the best they could, of course, but eating dinner after 8:00 is something they are most definitely not used to.

The next morning, we got up in the 7:00 hour and headed toward Cafe du Monde for beignets for breakfast….and got in line…for another hour and a half!!! We’d been seeing headlines about Yellowstone and how lines were 50% greater than 2019 numbers, but I guess we weren’t expecting New Orleans to be this crazy.

In the end, the kids said it was “worth it,” though. And we ate a lot of beignets.

After breakfast, we headed down the road to Pensacola to meet up with more of the Baumann clan. More on that later!

Yellowstone NP Vacation – Part III

For our last full day at Yellowstone, we first took a trip to an area called Artists Paintpots. We were looking for somewhere to hike where there wouldn’t be a ton of folks, so this looked like it fit the bill. We ended up having to park at the entrance to the parking lot because it was still blocked off for winter.

The “trail,” as we’d seen in other places, was mostly boardwalk. Still, the weather was beautiful and we were alone with the surroundings, so it was a nice change compared with what else we’d seen.

The “paintpots” name came from the bubbling pools of travertine (read: calcium carbonate) that looked like a white magma of sorts. There weren’t that many examples, per se, of this particular formation, but the ones we saw were still pretty impressive! They were also relatively loud, as it sounded like bubbling goo moreso than the other pools we’d seen before (again: magma).

After that, we didn’t really have much of a plan, but since the weather was so great, we figured it was worth a return trip to Grand Prismatic. The sun was shining, the temperature was above freezing, and we hoped we’d actually be able to see things a bit more clearly.

First we got stuck behind some bison, though. This was not going to be the last time….

As we’d hoped, the weather was much better, so we could see things much more clearly! Seriously, it was a night-and-day difference.

We did note, though, that crowds were starting to heat up a bit. It was Thursday, by this point, so now we were getting close to the other arms of the park opening up to let in more people. This traffic came in the same way we did, but the line to get into the park each morning was getting longer and longer. Grand Prismatic definitely had more people there than we’d seen earlier that week.

Of all the sites we saw, Grand Prismatic was probably my favorite. Sure, Old Faithful is impressive, but all of the varied colors and pools at Grand Prismatic were a bit more memorable for me, personally.

See? Look at that happy family. 🙂

As we left Grand Prismatic, we were stuck for 20 minutes behind 3 bison heading in the same direction. In our lane. And because we were going around a curve, all of the cars heading in the opposite direction had to slow down and take pictures of the bison…each and every time…. It was truly infuriating. Still, can’t visit Yellowstone without a story like that, I suppose.

The next day, we left through the East Entrance near Cody, WY. We got to pass by Lake Yellowstone on the way out, which still had a great deal of ice on it. We also passed by some vistas where we hoped to see some bears, but alas, we’ll have to try again our next time out. We actually wanted to leave through Lamar Valley, where there should be all kinds of wildlife, but it would have added an hour or two to our trip due to road construction, so we’ll have to do that next time, too.

The trip home was mostly uneventful and took up a lot of driving time, but we did stop in Thermopolis, WY for a few hours that afternoon that we left the park. It’s an indoor and outdoor pool set with a few slides that have hot spring water piped in for patrons to swim in. Pretty neat, honestly, though it didn’t smell particularly great! The kids went down the large slides multiple times (20 times or so for Meg…which may or may not have made her feel sick in the car later that afternoon…). It was a relatively cheap excursion on the way home that will hopefully stick in the kids’ memories for years to come!

I think that’s about it! More happened, of course, but I’m wordy enough as it is, so we’re going to stop there. As a brief side-note, the month of May got kinda busy for us (the kids went back to school for two weeks and I had to prep for my summer classes), and then we went to Florida for another long trip.

More on that later, though. 🙂

Yellowstone NP Vacation – Part II

The next day was Wednesday, which normally back home would be a “distance learning day.” As we were in a different time zone, we brought a Chromebook (or two…) along so Calvin and Meg could join in on their morning calls if they/we were available. It turned out that Calvin was the only one needed that morning. He had a good time telling his classmates about what he’d seen so far, but then he had to do some math problems, so his fun was short lived.

We hit the road to explore another end of the park, aiming for Mammoth Hot Springs. We stopped at a few hydrothermal features on the way, as the brisk, cool air of the morning made for some nice views. There were relatively few clouds in the sky this time, too, so the weather overall was substantially better for viewing the park!

Mammoth Hot Springs provided some interesting rock formations called travertine (which is, well, calcium carbonate…), where minerals bubbled up from beneath the surface for years, leading to neat terraces. There were a decent number of folks at Mammoth, so it started getting more difficult to avoid people. Thankfully, we were outside, so we weren’t all that concerned about the ongoing pandemic.

There was limited hiking around Mammoth, most of which was on boardwalks (some of which got kinda steep), but we did find a trail/road combo that took us away from all the people.

The kids dealt with it well initially, but grew tired as the morning drew on. We were also fighting with the weather changes a bit, where we had layers on like the day before, but this time we felt the heat of the sun, so we had to lose some layers and carry them with us. Not a big deal, but somewhat unexpected given the weather experience from just a day before!

After we finished up at Mammoth Hot Springs, we went into the nearby town for a picnic lunch and some ice cream from the general store. It was a beautiful day, so it was a nice opportunity to regroup a bit and decide what the rest of the day would entail.

While we were at Mammoth Hot Springs, we also finally saw some elk. We saw one when we first approached the initial travertine formation, but we saw more in the town outside of the formations. In all, we probably saw 6 or 7 elk while we were in that area.

While we were out in the northern-ish part of the park, we figured we should head toward the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which gets its name for obvious reasons. Given that we’ve actually been to the Grand Canyon, the Yellowstone version wasn’t quite as impressive, but we still got some great views in!

Unfortunately, due to the fact that half the park was still shut down, we were limited in what we could do. Brooke wanted to hike down to the bottom of the canyon, but sadly that wasn’t an option. To be fair, the trails around this area were pretty slushy still, so even if we had gone, it would have gotten messy…

Still, the view of the waterfalls was pretty nice. 🙂

That night, Brooke had the idea that we should do “TV dinners.” We had a microwave and fridge, so it provided a relatively cheap option while also giving everyone something, er….different…for dinner on this trip.

Calvin had fish sticks and Meg had a rigatoni dish. They were pretty pleased with this arrangement, though personally, I feel like my chicken alfredo wasn’t all that impressive. It was fine, but…not really as much as I’d want for dinner. Maybe lunch. Not dinner. Ah well.

As with the other nights on this trip, we capped off the evening playing Hearts. It’s a game that I’d played before, though it’d been years, but we figured Calvin would be old enough to handle it. For the most part, he could do it, but keeping his attention (and dealing with strategy…) was still challenging. Brooke was winning by a lot for the first night, but Meg took over and ended up absolutely destroying everyone in the end. She still won’t tell us what her strategy was…

More next time!

“Staycation” 2020

We had this grand plan in mind for our vacation this year. Reservations were made, days were claimed to be taken off, and tents were being bought in preparation for the journey. The plan was that we would drive out to Yellowstone National Park and camp at one of their campgrounds, then stay at an Airbnb closer to Grand Teton National Park for another few days, then circle down through Colorado and see Brooke’s cousin.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

The kids and I still needed to get out of the house though, and Brooke has an innate need to go on a road trip every year, so we decided to knock a few more state parks off our list and head out to Pilot Knob, MO, where we could stay in a motel (with a swimming pool), and hit up 3 state parks while we were in one central area. Pilot Knob is pretty close to Elephant Rocks State Park, Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, so we’d be able to spend part of the day at each one while we went for an extended weekend. We actually drove through Onandoga Cave State Park, but because they weren’t doing cave tours, we figured we should just go back there when all of this is finally over…

So yeah, because we’ve got a whole other thread of posts for state park visits, I’m going to make separate posts about those. Here, I’m going to speak more broadly about the trip.

Pilot Knob is about 4.5 hrs from Marshall, and luckily for us, St. James, MO is on the way, so we stopped off at our favorite winery in the state, Heinrichshaus, to pick up some bottles. While we were there, we had a picnic lunch and enjoyed being out of the car for a bit. It was a pretty short stop, but it had been a few years since we were last there (Meg and I stopped in last Spring on the return trip from an excursion with my Biology students,, but we didn’t exactly “stock up”).

That afternoon, we stopped off at the Huzzah Conservation Area to play in the water for a bit. Really, it was just an excuse for Brooke and I to relax with our feet in the water and let the kids mess around in a fast-moving float trip river.

We only stayed for an hour or so, but the kids could have done that all afternoon. They’d float their bodies while their hands kinda shuffled them along with the current, and then they’d do it again, and again, and again. It was like sledding.

There weren’t many options for where to stay in Pilot Knob or Ironton (which is practically attached…), and we weren’t thrilled with the prospect of camping in late-July humidity, so Brooke booked us a room at the Fort Davidson Hotel. It has an attached restaurant with a nice patio, it had exterior access to the room, and it had an outdoor pool, so we figured it was a relatively safe bet. The place turned out to be pretty nice, all things considered! We had an issue with the toilet constantly running, but the owner of the hotel came right over and took care of it for us. That night, I went out to Casey’s to get pizza, so the kids were more than satisfied.

The next morning, we went to Elephant Rocks (more on that in another post), and thankfully, it wasn’t all that crowded. More folks kept showing up and, as we were being responsible human beings, we tried avoiding others to the best of our ability, so it was good that we went relatively early so we could leave before the crowds got really bad.

That afternoon was mostly spent out by the pool! The kids were pretty proud of themselves swimming in the 11 ft deep end of the pool for much of the time. Meg was able to get diving sticks from the very bottom, though it took her some practice to get there. Calvin touched the bottom a few times, but again, he hadn’t really done that before, so diving from the surface was tough!

That night, we ate at the attached restaurant. We had the option of eating inside or outside, but the patio was nice enough and the weather wasn’t too bad, so we were comfortable. The kids got some Fitz’s soft drinks and their beer selection was surprisingly decent, considering how far Pilot Knob is from….er….anywhere… And my fried catfish was spectacular.

Across the street from the restaurant sits the namesake of the hotel: Fort Davidson. It was my first “earthen fort” that I’d ever visited, so there wasn’t really all that much to see aside from a hill with grass on it in the shape of a square. Apparently, the Union were holding the fort and then lost a battle with the Confederacy, who then subsequently took over.

So yeah, it was a nice evening stroll after eating way too much. An excuse to walk around a bit like normal people for a change. 🙂

The next morning, we went to Taum Sauk Mountain, and that afternoon, we went to Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Again, I’ll have separate posts about those, but here, I’ll point out that Taum Sauk was a nice little hike where we got to sit and enjoy some small waterfalls, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins was a madhouse. We figured on a Sunday afternoon, the “St. Louis Crowd” would have waned a bit as they were all heading back home, but nope…totally wrong on that one… We had to park almost a mile away from the main area of the park, and it was very difficult to maintain any form of social distancing, let alone 6 ft. We only stayed for an hour or so, and while the kids would have liked to have stayed a little more (and seen more of the park), we just didn’t feel comfortable.

So we went back to the hotel and swam there again! 🙂

That evening, we went to a Mexican restaurant in Ironton called Checo’s that was pretty good. Not a lot of good mask-wearing in that building either, but we were seated relatively far from anyone else, so we felt at least okay about it.

In the evenings, we played some games that we brought alone. The first night, we played Skip-Bo, which is a family favorite. The second night, we played a family edition of Trivial Pursuit that actually worked shockingly well. The kids get their own set of cards separate from the adult-level cards, and we think they did a good job of getting that mix right.

Monday morning, we decided to hit up Meremec Caverns on our return trip home, as Onandoga Cave was closed and we had played up how cool caves can be (literally and figuratively).

The kids definitely enjoyed it! I’m not sure I’ve ever been there, though I’ve been to others in the state like Mark Twain Cave, Bridal Cave, and Jacob’s Cave. Like those, this one is definitely a tourist trap, but again, it provided a bit of “spectacle” for the kids to experience. Hopefully they’ll remember it!

We were wearing masks, but very few others in our tour group was. Our tour guide did, but most of the folks with us weren’t doing their part. When we passed other tour groups, it looked like there were others there wearing them, but the majority of the visitors didn’t have them on. Definitely disconcerting.

Again, I think the kids enjoyed it quite a bit, and they did a great job of following directions and listening to the tour guide as he pointed out various aspects of the cave. They also very much enjoyed when they turned all the lights out, just how dark it gets in there. Of course, as we were vacationing in southern Missouri in late-July, we didn’t have jackets with us… next time, we should try to remember to bring long sleeves. Calving got a little chilly after being in there for an hour, but overall, they did a good job!

After we finished at Meremec Caverns, we continued home via Highway 50! Mostly, it’s because that was a different route than we took to get home (it also rained quite a bit on our return trip, so that was lovely…..), but the real reason was that we would pass through Jefferson City a little after lunch time:

For the record, Brooke did not eat that entire banana split. Meg did eat the mint chocolate chip sundae in its entirety, though. And she didn’t throw up, for the record.

That’s it! We had a ton of laundry to do after this, but for an extended weekend trip, it was “good enough” to tide us over until next year. We’ll have to double back and get to Yellowstone eventually, but assuming things get better in time, next year’s plan is a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway ending at Disneyland!

Biloxi Vacation

Getting our feet wet...
Getting our feet wet…

Brooke wanted to go on a little vacation this year, but wanted to go a bit early in the summer to avoid being far away from home when she’s closer to her due date.  She was also thinking this would be a good time to take Meg to “see the ocean” and experience a beach, as we likely won’t be going very far next year with a newborn.

Thus, she looked into a few options and we decided to head down toward Biloxi, MS, a place neither of us had been to before, but close to the ocean (or “gulf,” technically).  This was a relatively short trip, as we spent two days driving, and two full days actually at our destination.

We got up last week on Wednesday morning relatively early, leaving just after 6:00 am.  We expected a 9+ hr drive, based on Google Maps, most of which would be a straight shot down I-55 towards New Orleans, cutting off on US-49 at Jackson, MS.  Unfortunately, Google didn’t understand that US-49 is filled with small towns and stoplights, so our 9+ hr trip became an 11 hr trip…grrrr…  Meg stayed entertained for most of the trip, with an assortment of books, stickers, and movies, and thankfully was able to sleep for a few hours that afternoon.  In total, the trip down really wasn’t all that bad, despite the traffic lights.

Technically, we stayed in Ocean Springs, which sits northeast of Biloxi.  Our hotel was maybe 10-15 min from the nearest public beach, so we checked it out Wednesday night.  After a long day in the car, though, we grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant and headed back to the hotel to go to sleep (even I was asleep by 9:30…).

Fillin' my bucket...
Fillin’ my bucket…

The next day, we drove to Gulfport, where we boarded a ferry to Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  After an hour (and a brief dolphin sighting), we crossed the island to the Gulf of Mexico side, where Meg played in the sand for 4 hours.  The high was in the low 80s that day and, while it was quite comfortable out on the beach in a swimsuit, it wasn’t quite warm enough to get into the water.  Then again, as Meg can’t swim yet, we probably wouldn’t have been out there much, anyway.  Still, she had a good time dipping her toes in and letting the waves chase her.

There was also a Civil War-era structure, Fort Massachusetts, to see.  It’s amazing that building has survived so many hurricanes.  There were displays of pictures showing how buried everything got during Hurricane Katrina, suggesting it was quite an undertaking to restore it yet again.  Still, it was an interesting bit of history to see while on the island.

DSC_0034 (1)
Fort Massachusetts

After we were done at the beach, we went back to the hotel for a few hours. Meg fell asleep in the car on the way back, and then fell asleep again on her bed once we got back to the hotel.  Once we finally convinced her to get up, we went to a good seafood restaurant in Gulfport and filled up on plenty of fried fish.  Pretty sure I ate enough to never eat again.

The next day was rainy, so we didn’t do all that much.  We still took some time, between showers, to hit the other portion of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, closer to the bayous.  This was your typical national park visitor center-type exhibit, complete with a video describing the history of the area, and some child-friendly activities.  The bayous were cool to see, but we didn’t observe much wildlife.  We had a good time getting Meg to help us search for alligators, though.

By Saturday, it was time to leave.  As we weren’t about to try and take US-49 again, we looked at the alternative route to I-55 by way of I-10…and as that route takes us right by New Orleans, we opted to stop in for breakfast at CafĂ© du Monde for beignets, and Central Grocery for muffulettas.  I was just in New Orleans for the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2012, but Brooke hadn’t been there since our honeymoon back in 2005 (pre-Katrina).  As expected, everything was wonderful!

The rest of the ride home was mostly uneventful, though the amount of time in the car and the constant proximity with her parents had finally worn on Meg.  This was a looooooooong 11 hr drive home…but, we survived.  🙂

It was a good trip overall!  A nice little excursion for a few days, seeing new places and having new experiences.  Though Meg likely won’t remember this particular trip, we can at least point to the seashells in her fish bowl and say “you found those down in Mississippi when you were three.”

A Three Hour Tour…


Brooke and I went on a float trip over the last few days… Sunday to Tuesday seemed like the best time to do it, as we’d be avoiding all the crowds, and it wouldn’t be in the dead center of the week, which would just disrupt all kinds of other things. We went down to Jacks Fork River, near Eminence, MO for a 24 mi, 2-night trip.

The weather was absolutely perfect. The high was supposed to be in the upper-80s or lower-90s, but it never felt like it really got above 85 F while we were along the river. The sun was out the whole time, it never rained, there was a distinct lack of humidity, and there were no mosquitoes (although, there were plenty of other flies and gnats…not as big a deal, though). I’ve posted some pictures up on Picasa if you want to check them out.

We got started Sunday afternoon and floated for a few hours, then spent most of the day floating on Monday (around 9:00 am to 4:00 pm). On Tuesday morning, it only took us 45 min or so to get to our final destination, indicating that we’d gone 23 of the 24 miles by the end of Monday…which pretty much rocked. It got us back to St. Louis in plenty of time for Brooke to grab a shower and relax before heading off to teach her ACT Prep class.

As you’ll see in the photos, we had quite a bit of fun taking pictures with the new camera. (Note: we were quite careful with it…taking it along in a water-proof container and only taking it out on shore…never whilst in the boat) We got to toy with the shutter and aperture settings, which are things I’d never really experimented with. The ability to take as many pictures as you want on an 8 GB card makes it easy to toy around and see what you can make happen. We took, like, 50 pictures of the fire on Monday night while messing around with those settings (I’ve only posted a few of those, though).

Anyway, it was an excellent trip and we’ll probably need to do it again! Likely not this year, but who knows…

We’re back….

…from 3 days of floating on the Jack’s Fork near Eminence. We had a great time and didn’t get too sunburned. More pictures will be on facebook once we finish sorting through them!