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No, you haven’t missed any updates. The last week has been blissfully internet-free. Now we’re home, and spending way too much time plugged in. It was much nicer the other way.

We had a wonderful 4 days in Northern Michigan with Grandma Pitcher; we didn’t do much of anything, which was a nice change from our previous pace of go, go, go. We ate well, of course — how can you not when Grandma serves 2 different kinds of dessert after every meal? Grandma taught us the secret of her apple pie, and Nora made her own little mini pie. I spent most of the time reading, which was a treat.

After a quick visit to Aunt Karen (also in Michigan), we headed for New York and my mom’s. Eric was determined to hit one more National Park before we ended our trip, so we had a picnic at Cuyahoga Falls National Park, beside a fabulous water fall.

When we picked up Livy (the dog) at our friends’ home, she wasn’t quite sure if she was really coming with us, or if she was supposed to stay in Connecticut. I think she liked it there. She seems to miss her greyhound friends. Thanks, Bob and Myra, for dog-sitting, and welcoming us back with such a feast.

We’re home now, but the girls are still in NY visiting with their Grandma. It’s odd to have the house so quiet, and we miss the kids terribly — especially after being with them constantly for 5 weeks. I will be happy to have them home next week.

I’ll probably wrap the blog up later this week with a detailed day-by-day itnerary, but really, the trip is over. We traveled 9,096 miles. Of that, I drove 5 miles (to the laundromat and back). My car seat is now molded to Eric’s posterior.

The question everyone seems to ask: what was our favorite thing we saw or did. And our answer is always the same: it’s impossible to choose. (The girls’ answer: it’s a tie between Disneyland and Las Vegas). We saw so much of this beautiful country, and now we want to see even more. This trip was like a chef’s tasting menu; now we want to go back and explore so many places, and see new ones, too. Our only regret is that we didn’t have even more time, though we realize how fortunate we are to have had as much as we did.

And even though we knew that we had good kids, I can’t believe how great the girls were. I don’t think there was a single complaint about being in the car too long. Yes, it helped that they had video games and other things to occupy them, but they also did a great deal of looking out the window. They were interested in everything. And seeing things through their eyes made this vacation that much more special.

Now it’s back to real life. I hope this blog has entertained you, and inspired you to take a trip of your own — even if it’s just down the street to a park you’ve never been.

Happy travels,
Ann

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We took no photos today. For the first time since we left home, the camera remained in its bag. I suppose I could have snapped a shot of Eric driving, because that was the most exciting thing that happened today. We drove, ate, stopped for gas, and drove some more. We’re in Lansing, Michigan tonight — about 3 1/2 hours from (my) Grandma Pitcher’s house in Northern Michigan, near Lake Huron. The girls have been asking for about a week when we were going to Grandma Pitcher’s house, and now I can tell them, definitively, tomorrow.

The plan right now is to stay there until Wednesday or Thursday. We’ll spend the time catching up with Grandma, hiking, fishing, boating, resting and yes, eating. I hear rumors that there are baked goods in the works.

Visiting Grandma is truly “getting away from it all.” That means no internet access — and not just at Grandma’s house, but anywhere in town, as far as I can tell. I think that’s probably a good thing. I have several books to read, and I welcome the lack of distractions. We were far from unplugged this vacation. I took a quick inventory, and here are the electrical devices with which we traveled:

1 GPS unit (our beloved Nuvi)
1 Laptop computer
4 iPods (yes, we each have our own)
2 Nintendo DS Lite video game units
1 Leapster (Ellie’s game)
1 portable DVD player
2 cell phones
2 digital cameras
1 digital video camera
1 Blackberry

That doesn’t include my hair dryer, which has remained unplugged the entire vacation.

So we’ll check in at the end of the week, when we’ve left Oscoda. For now, relaxation awaits.

girls in St. Louis

St. Louis is known as the ‘gateway to the west,’ but for us, it marks the end of our western journey.  From this point on, we will be back on familiar ground, visiting states and places that we’ve been before.  Though there is comfort in the familiar, especially after a month of moving from place to place almost on a nightly basis, we are also a little sad.

Today we explored the city of St. Louis.  I lived here from the ages of 5 to 10, but I don’t remember much about it, and certainly not about the city and geography.  We started our visit at the Gateway Arch, which is officially known as the ‘Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.’  Built as a way to honor Thomas Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, it has come more to symbolize the opening of the American West and the spirit of the pioneers.

arty arch kids at base of arch

The Arch is massive; it rises 630 feet in the air and measures 630 feet between the two legs at the base.   You can go to the top of the Arch.  You get there by riding a funky tram that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.  Each party of 4 or 5 people rides in its own individual “pod” with 1960s style plastic seats.  The pod kind of “stairsteps” up the Arch.  The ride to the top takes 4 minutes.

At the top, you peer out tiny windows to the city below.

At the Arch gift shop, Nora finally spent her souvenir money (buying the game National Parks Monopoly) and then we headed for the riverfront.  St. Louis has a long River Boat tradition.  We took a one-hour sightseeing trip along the Mississippi River aboard the Tom Sawyer.

river boat on mississippi

We learned a bit about the history of St. Louis and the river, but the ride was overshadowed by the uncomfortable heat and humidity.  It was sweltering.  You know that thing they say about the “dry heat” not feeling so bad?  It’s true.  This was “wet heat” — 100 degrees with almost 100% humidity.

And of course, we couldn’t leave St. Louis without tasting its version of barbecue.  Smokin’ Al’s was the place for us, recommended by friends who had been there before.  Eric tried the pork steak, for which St. Louis is famous, and also Snoots.  Yep, pig snoots.  I married an adventurous eater, to say the least.  (Even for him, one bite was sufficient).  Sorry, St. Louis, but Rendezvous Ribs in Memphis has our vote for the best barbecue so far.

Smokin' Als Ted Drewes

A quick detour for another St. Louis tradition, Ted Drewe’s frozen custard (why, oh why, does no one have good frozen custard in New England?) and we headed across the river to Illinois to find our hotel for the night, east of the mighty Mississippi once again.

Nora eating ribs

OK, I admit it up front.  We came to Kansas City just to eat.

When we were planning our itinerary (as you can see from the map on the blog header), we had expected to leave Colorado and drive through Nebraska and Iowa on our way to Michigan.   At some point, though, it occurred to us that the alternate route, through Kansas City and St. Louis, was home to some of the best barbecue traditions in the United States.  And since we had already experienced Memphis’ version of BBQ, it was an easy decision to make this portion of the trip a little mini-barbecue pilgrimage.

We spent most of the day driving.  We tried to find some interesting site to see along I-70, but there was nothing that wouldn’t take the entire day.  And we had barbecue to eat, so we wanted to be in Kansas City by dinner time.  Aside from our roadside picnic, we spent the day in the car.

Jack Stack'sJack Stack's

It wasn’t a clear choice, but our research told us that Jack Stack’s was the most-often recommended place to have Kansas City barbecue.  Unlike Memphis-style barbecue, Kansas City style relies on a lot of sauce.  It also features something called ‘burnt ends‘, which aren’t burnt at all, and are the ends of a brisket.  They are considered a delicacy, and Eric and I agreed.  We liked the burnt ends more than the ribs, which were similar to barbecue ribs we’ve had elsewhere.  We gave high marks to the sides: one of Jack Stack’s feature items is ‘Cheesy Corn Bake‘, which is kind of like scalloped potatoes, but with corn.  The restaurant’s baked beans were the best I’ve ever eaten.  If I lived in KC, I would go here just for the beans.

Overall, so far we prefer Memphis ribs, and Kansas City sides.

And yes, that is all we saw of Kansas City, Missouri.  I’m sure we missed some interesting things to see and do, but we must continue east.  St. Louis awaits tomorrow.

water world

If they had only one wish, I have no doubt that Nora and Ellie would request a trip to a Water Park. Long before we left home for our vacation, we learned that Water World, in Denver, was considered one of the top 10 water parks in the U.S. We had to schedule a trip to see it for ourselves. Wednesday was the day.

The girls had no idea that we were going to a water park. When we told them to put on their bathing suits in the morning, they thought we were going rafting again. When we pulled into the parking lot, they started cheering.

Our first impression of the park were that the Top 10 rating was well deserved. Water World does a lot of things very well. Most shockingly, they not only allow picnics, they encourage them. The park has many, many picnic tables and grassy areas where you can park your cooler for the day and enjoy lunch from home. And if you do want to buy food in the park, they offer a wide variety and at very reasonable prices. Lunch for the four of us, including drinks, was under $25. For an amusement park, that’s unheard of.

The park is very spread out, and the rides are far from each other. That makes it feel very uncrowded. However, it was also a point of frustration. Ellie was not tall enough to go on about half the rides, and the height restrictions were poorly marked and did not appear on park maps. As such, we found ourselves walking quite a ways to a ride, only to find that Ellie couldn’t ride. I quickly sent Eric and Nora off to ride the “big” rides, while Ellie and I hung out in “Wally World.”

ellie water slide Ellie kersploosh

We met up in the afternoon to take a few rides together. The lines were incredibly long, so we ended the day floating on the Lazy River. Our overall impression: we like Cedar Point’s Soak City better.

lazy river

Before we left Denver, we had a few errands to run, and that took us into a shopping plaza that also contained Bass Pro Shops. Eric has been unable to fish this trip (though we’ll make up for that in Michigan) but we went in to take a look. We didn’t buy anything, but the girls had a blast on the 40 foot high rock climbing wall. We weren’t sure how much they’d be able to do, but Nora made it all the way to the top, and Ellie made it to the bell that was about 2/3 of the way up.

Nora on rock climbing wall Ellie rock climbing

Leaving Denver, we headed east. Just as we passed into Kansas, the skies darkened. Eric and I joked about tornado alley, and the Wizard of Oz. The clouds continued to gather. We saw flashes of light to the side that were unlike anything we’d ever seen; we figured out later that it was lightning, but it was not like any lightning we’d experienced.

Then the skies opened up. It started to hail, and Eric couldn’t see the road. We pulled over to the side, along with several other cars. When we turned on the radio to the local station, the “Emergency Broadcast System” came on. It was not only a test. Severe weather was in the area, and there was the possibility of isolated tornadoes a few counties away.

It was memorable, but in the end uneventful. We rode the storm out in a restaurant, while having dinner. When we hit the road again, it had stopped. Still, it seemed apropos to have menacing weather while in Kansas, even if Toto was nowhere to be found.

girls at vail

Today we played in the mountains of Colorado.  The Rocky Mountains are as spectacular as they appear in television ads.  The main highway follows along a series of gorgeous rivers, and you are surrounded on all sides by scenery that will make you cry.

Our first stop for the day was the ski resort of Vail.  Skiing is one of our favorite activities to do as a family; Nora is especially passionate and would rather ski than do just about anything else.  So this stop was a must.  In summer, visitors can ride the Gondola to the top of the mountain.  Many visitors are avid mountain bikers and take their bikes in the gondola and ride down along the ski trails.   Others, like us, ascend to enjoy the view at 11,000 feet.  It was all we could do to keep ourselves from spinning around like Julie Andrews and singing “The hills are alive…”

girls on top of vail

After leaving Vail, we headed east on I-70 towards Denver.  We took a last minute detour to Idaho Springs, Colorado, home of the Phoenix Gold Mine.  I had seen the mine mentioned in the AAA tour guide, but wasn’t sure what to expect.  Let’s just say that it’s not a shiny, glossy tourist attraction.  They’ve been mining gold in these mountains since the 1850s, and the mine looks like it hasn’t changed much.

Phoenix Mine

We donned hardhats and took a guided tour of the mine, which is owned by a third-generation miner and still operates today.  We saw veins of gold in the rock pillars that hold up the “ceiling,” and got a fun tour full of anecdotes and tall tales that may or may not be actual truth but make for an entertaining half hour.  The girls even got to try out some mining operations for themselves, here preparing a hole to receive blasting dynamite.

girls in mine

The tour ends with a chance to try panning for gold in the stream that runs alongside the mine.  A lot of the mining byproduct ends up in the stream, so there really are small pieces of gold in there, and reportedly, larger nuggets have been found.  We got a quick lesson from a local and headed into the stream.  Eric found a piece of gold!  OK, it was a fleck — to be more specific, a fleckette.  We played at mining for a few minutes and gave up our dreams of hitting it rich.  Evidently it requires patience, know-how, and a whole lot of luck–all of which were in short supply today.

panning for gold

Tomorrow we’ve got a surprise planned for the girls, and we’ll get our feet wet some more.

Cheers from Denver.

moab river raft

Moab, Utah was a complete surprise. We planned to stay there over night and use it as a base for a trip to Arches National Park (see previous entry), but when we got into town, we realized that it was a destination unto itself. Moab is an adventure junkie’s dream town. It’s the place where mountain biking was born, and the town’s economy thrives on tourists coming there to hike, bike, rock climb, off-road in Jeeps, and raft the Colorado River.

When we found out that Ellie was old enough to go on some of the rafting trips, we made a quick change of plans and decided to hit the river. We awoke before dawn to find an outfitter that had some open spaces, and we got lucky. The blistering morning heat convinced us that it was the right decision. It was 87 degrees at 7am, and we needed to cool off.

After a quick hike at Arches National Park, we changed into our water clothes and boarded a bus that would take us 45 minutes up-river. Nora and Ellie were both a little bit anxious.

in lifejackets eric and ellie rafting

There were 10 people, plus our guide, in our raft. One family was from France, and the other family was from Germany. This made for some interesting sign-language and not much conversation. The guide broke the ice shortly after we started floating on the river by standing up and doing a back flip into the river. The rest of us soon followed, sans back flips, of course.

eric and ellie in river

eric and nora in river

This trip was a ‘family’ trip and so was on a relatively calm section of the Colorado. Fantastic scenery. No heavy whitewater, but there were some very fun rapids. Nora and Ellie each got a chance to swim in the rapids, assisted by Eric.

At one point, the guide pointed out a cliff on the river bank that was a safe spot from which to jump into the river. Eric was one of two brave souls who decided to try it.

eric on cliff

And at that point, my camera batteries ran out. You’ll have to take my word for it that he did a perfect, Olympic-caliber jump.

This was one of those things that we had never planned on doing this trip, but it made for a very memorable day for all of us. I admit, we are now dying to try “real” whitewater rafting. It’s something to look forward to in the future.

Tomorrow we’re off to Denver … will update when we can.