Monday, June 18, 2018

The Last Park of the Trip: A National Park Odyssey Days 43-44

Great SandDunes National Park to Rocky Mountain National Park

Josh packs the car which is parked just steps from our room.

It will surprise no one to learn that I’m a bit of a hotel snob.  I love me some high thread count sheets and kind of feel like a concierge lounge is a need rather than a want. Plop me down in a JW Marriott pretty much anywhere in the world and I’m a happy girl.  But this trip may have changed that just a bit.  It brought to light the glorious simplicity of the roadside motel. Why?  Because you can park right in front of the door of your room!!!!!  And when you’re unpacking and repacking your car every day or two for an entire summer, not having to schlep your luggage more than a few feet is HEAVEN!

(And yes, I know that there are people who never have to unpack their cars when they travel because they are avid RVers.  I am not those people.  I do not want to be responsible for washing my own towels or making my own bed while on vacation.  Now, if that RV were actually a Holland-America ship whisking me from exotic port to exotic port with a cabin boy in charge of my linens, sign me up.  I’m all about that kind of not having to unpack and repack. But I digress.)
In this picture you can see how the landscape at Great Sands Dunes goes from prairie grass to sand dunes to Colorado peaks.  Oh, and there's an elk, too.

On day 43 we packed the car—right outside our motel room door!—and then set out for the visitors’ center so that the kids could finish up their Junior Ranger booklets and earn their badges before we took off for our last park.  On our way into the park, we saw an elk in the distance, beautifully framed by the prairie grasses, the dunes, and the majestic mountains.
At the visitors’ center, the kids checked out the exhibits and finished some last-minute questions before being sworn in.  
Knox interacts with an exhibit that simulates the growth and change of a sand dune.

Kinley finishes up some pages in her Junior Ranger booklet.

Getting sworn in for the 22nd time on this trip!

From there, it was a 3 ½ hour drive to Denver where we had planned to meet up with Josh’s cousin, Beth and her family.  We couldn’t wait to see them and hold little Roman!  The drive was long, but the payoff was big—plenty of Roman snuggles!  Knox read him a book, and then Josh and I took turns reading to him.  He was very attentive and willing to listen.  And later, at dinner, he let me carry him all around the restaurant, Casa Bonita.
Todd Parr was a favorite author of both Knox and Kinley, and Roman seems to appreciate his talents, too!

Casa Bonita is not the kind of place we normally would have chosen, and Beth and Karsen certainly didn’t have it at the top of their lists.  In fact, it’s kind of corny.  The 52,000-square-foot facility seats 1,000 and entertains guests during dinner with puppet shows, a fire juggler, and a guy in a gorilla suit who dives off a 30-foot cliff into a pool below.  But we didn’t choose it for the food or for the atmosphere.  You see, Josh’s sister, Kelsey, was born in Denver.  In December of 1980, when Josh and his parents found out that a little baby girl was being placed up for adoption and could potentially join their family, they flew to Denver to meet her and bring her home.  And the day that she was placed in their arms for the first time, they celebrated with dinner at Casa Bonita.  Josh has great memories about that evening, and he wanted to share the experience with us.  And a memorable experience it was!  Plenty of cheesiness but also plenty of things to entertain a busy toddler while the rest of the group got to enjoy all-you-can-eat Mexican food.
Josh outside Casa Bonita where his family brought their new baby girl for dinner in 1980.

The decor at Casa Bonita is kind of over the top, but we still enjoyed it.  (From left, Karsen, Roman, Knox, Kinley, me, Josh, and Beth.)

The next morning, Karsen had to work, but Beth and Roman met us bright and early at our hotel in Longmont to join us on our visit to our 23rd and final national park of the trip—Rocky Mountain National Park.  At the visitors’ center, Josh and the kids stamped their National Parks Passports, and Beth stamped Roman’s for the first time. 
Roman gets his first ever National Park stamp in his passport!

The rangers told us that one parking lot in the park was already full, so we drove to the park and ride lot.  It was already full, too, so we decided to try to park at a picnic area that was near the trail to Bierstadt Lake.  We found a spot and figured out how to take a horse trail that connected to the actual Bierstadt Lake Loop Trail.  The 5.1 mile roundtrip hike had some steep-ish sections, but it was a good choice for our group.  Beth carried Roman in a baby backpack, so the rest of us couldn’t complain about the climb since we weren’t carrying an extra human on our backs. 
Knox, Beth, and Roman on the trail
Ready for adventure!

It was the perfect time of year for wildflowers, and we saw lots of interesting varieties as we hiked.  I was desperate to see a pika, a little mammal that lives in the mountains and looks kind of like a tiny rabbit with smaller ears.  But despite keeping an eye out for one (and perhaps calling, “Here, pika pika,” off and on a few times), I had no luck.  Along the way we did see a group of park interns who were hard at work on trail maintenance, but otherwise the trail was relatively empty. The view at the end was lovely, and we enjoyed watching Roman explore his surroundings when he got out of the backpack.  The lake was calm and reflected the majesty of the surrounding snow-covered peaks.

Lovely Rocky Mountain wildflowers

The beginning of the trail took us along a beautiful mountain stream.

Lumberjacks (park interns) at work on trail maintenance.

The beautiful Bierstadt Lake was our destination!

Knox and Roman explore the lake.

Josh shows Roman a duck hiding in the reeds.
Group selfie at the lake

Back at the visitors’ center, the kids got sworn in as Junior Rangers, and then we grabbed something to eat in Estes Park at Smokin’ Dave’s Barbecue before heading back to our hotel in Longmont.  One day certainly isn’t enough to completely explore Rocky Mountain National Park, so we’ll have to make a return trip someday.  Getting to introduce Roman to the joys of collecting National Parks passport stamps and share a part of our journey with family that we love made this park particularly special.  It might have been our last park of the trip, but it certainly won’t be the last stamp in our passports.
Junior Ranger badge number 23!
Our 23rd National Park of the trip!

Friday, June 1, 2018

How 10 Yuan Helped Me Survive Roarin' Rapids at Shanghai Disneyland

On our second day at Shanghai Disneyland, Kinley really wanted to do Roarin' Rapids.  It wasn't a warm day (in fact, Josh wore his down coat most of the day), and I didn't really want to get wet on a cold day when I wasn't sure we'd dry out.  But Kinley made the point that we might never come back, and besides, she and Josh had gotten FastPasses for the ride early in the day.  Our FastPass time had arrived, so Kinley campaigned hard to convince us to do it.I could see her point about this possibly being a one-time trip, so we headed to Adventure Isle to ride it.

It was still chilly, and I was none too thrilled, but we got in the queue for a locker so that at least our stuff wouldn't get soaked.  There were four or five people in front of us for a locker, so we waited.  And waited,  And waited.  For some reason, the kiosk that assigned lockers wasn't working.Just when we were about to give up, the line started moving, and we crammed in our stuff and hustled off to the FastPass line.  By this time in the day, all of the FastPasses for Roarin' Rapids had long since been given out, so this was clearly a popular ride in spite of the cold.  But all day I had been scanning the massive crowds for evidence of dripping-wet patrons who had just finished the ride.  I wanted to get a sense of just how wet I was going to get and how long it would take to dry out.  But all day long, I hadn't seen anyone who appeared even remotely wet.  In the FastPass line, the reason for this became evident.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, wore a poncho.  There were actually people - not Disney employees, just random people - selling ponchos in the line for 10 Yuan each.  Mystery solved.  But I wasn't sure I wanted to encourage these people by buying from them.  I mean, this behavior would not be tolerated at any other Disney property in the world, so I didn't really want to participate in this particular entrepreneurship exercise.  We talked about it as a family, and stood in line for maybe 15 minutes hemming and hawing back and forth - should we or shouldn't we?  The longer we stood, the chillier it got.  And in line, we could see the people on the ride getting drenched with water, saved from sogginess only by their cheap Chinese ponchos.

But, still, it bugged me.I mean, this wasn't the only example of random people selling things at Shanghai Disneyland.  As I mentioned in a previous post, there are guys scalping tickets every morning outside the guys without even trying to hide it.  There are people selling knock-off Minnie and Mickey ears or other little doodads in the queues for attractions.  There are even people selling FastPasses to high-demand attractions!  (This explains why the FastPass lines are so long in the morning and why people get in line for FastPasses in the morning at all when they could just jump on the ride right then when the line is minimal.)  Here's an entire post from another blogger about the phenomenon.

So we caved.  Josh went back in the line and bought four ponchos.  We sheepishly put them on and continued to wait.  We were in sight of the boarding area when the ride broke down.

These riders were stuck for quite a while before they officially closed the ride.  We were SO close to the boarding area.

I can't express to you how annoyed I was.  Here I was, using a precious FastPass on a ride I really didn't want to do, waiting a half an hour in the FastPass line (which is usually less than 15 minutes), preparing to get wet, and then compromising my principles to buy a flimsy piece of plastic from a Communist opportunist only to be told the ride was broken.  Ugh.  We exited the ride and were given FastPasses for later.  

You may think this isn't a bad deal, but here's the thing.  We had burned a FastPass to do this ride.  And now EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN LINE was being given a FastPass for later. Not just the people in the FastPass line to start with, but EVERYONE.  That meant that all of these people would be in the FastPass line later making our next wait even longer.  For a ride I didn't want to do.

I call this "Poncho Sadness."
What to do to make myself feel better?  TRON.  Definitely TRON.  Off we went.  And it worked.  Gosh, I love that ride.  Feeling significantly better after TRON, we checked the app to see if Roarin' Rapids was open again.  I certainly didn't want to wait to do it after the sun was down since then there would be no chance of drying out.  The app indicated that the ride was operational again, so back to Adventure Isle we went.

Sure enough, the FastPass line was exceptionally long because of all of those people who got freebies when it broke down.  But we got into the line anyway with our ponchos prepared.  But this time, there was an actual Disney employee with an actual name tag selling ponchos!  Go figure!

This looked much more official, but it was still kind of strange!

I'm doing a pretty good job of looking happy about waiting again for a ride I wasn't to thrilled about.

Eventually our turn came and we sat down in our already-soggy seats.  And you know what?  The poncho helped.  A lot.  We emerged from the ride only a little bit drippy and actually had a good time!  It was 10 Yuan well spent.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Things I Learned at Great Sand Dunes: A National Park Odyssey Day 42

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Listen to our podcast about this park here!

Park number 22!

We made it to the Great Sand Dunes lodge so late that Kinley, Knox and I had a hard time getting moving, even after waking up late.  Josh, on the other hand, went to the visitors’ center, got Junior Ranger booklets, and researched sled rentals and dune trails all while the kids and I slept.  Once I finally got up and going, here are the things I learned.
We look so optimistic here at the beginning of our trek.  Little did I know....

*Planning activities for the day, every day, for forty-something days is hard.

*When you’re struggling to make a plan, having everyone list the one thing they want to do helps.

*When you almost never have a real fight, it freaks your kids out when you do.

*Josh is far more quick to say he’s sorry and be ready to move on than I am.  I need significantly more time (and possibly time alone) before I’m ready to get over an argument.

*When Josh and I are really angry with each other, I can see my kids taking on the roles that my sister and I took on as children when our parents fought.  Knox is like Gennifer who just wanted to make peace, and Kinley is like I was, just trying to lay low (and convince my sibling to lay low) until it all blows over.

*Josh doesn’t like hot springs.  I don’t like climbing sand dunes.

*Brazilians in Natal have the whole dune thing figured out.  You ride a dune buggy most of the time, and when you do sled down, the rental dude hauls the sled back up the hill for you on a rope.  And if you make a fool out of yourself and fall just ten feet from your starting point, the rental dude takes pity on you and gets on the sled with you to make it go down the hill the right way.

*If I ever visit Great Sand Dunes National Park again, I’m bringing a lawn chair and a book.  I’ll sit and read with my feet in Medano Creek while everyone else gets a workout sinking ankle-deep in sand with every step as they try to climb the 700 foot High Dune.  Did I mention that you start climbing at an elevation of 8,170 feet so those 700 feet feel even tougher?

*When you’re really struggling, you use your tried-and-true method of making yourself feel better – singing show tunes in your head.  And it just so happens that there is a show tune from Aladdin the Musical that mentions sand dunes!  And when even that doesn’t help, you’re in bad shape.
I'm singing show tunes in my head here.  It's not helping.

*In the midst of the climb with a good 200 feet or more left to go, when you are alternating between complaining in your head about how hard this is and giving yourself a pep talk to keep going, you sometimes have a moment of clarity.  You are a grown up.  You don’t have to do this.  This is not a loop trail.  The family will have to come back this same way to get down, and you can plop down right where you are on the ridge of this beastly dune and wait.  

*While you’re sitting there waiting for your family and the wind picks up and starts pummeling you with tiny grains of sand that feel like microscopic arrows being fired at you from point blank range and so you try to put a positive spin on it and think of it as a free exfoliation treatment but then you get just more irritated at the whole situation, you should just hike back down.  You don’t need to worry about your family not knowing where you are.  It’s not quicksand.  It’s not like they’ll think you got swallowed up by the angry sand that hates you.  They’ll figure it out.

*Trying to write a message to your family in the dry dune sand so that they know where you went and don’t worry about you does not work.

*Watching people less than half your age huff and puff their way up does make you feel slightly better.

*Watching people less than half your age scurry up the dunes with no problem whatsoever while carrying a snowboard and then try snowboarding down the dune only to take an epic tumble to the bottom makes you feel WAY better.
Josh and Knox celebrate making it to the top.  Not pictured : Me being miserable several hundred feet below.

*Having another moment of clarity while you sit there thinking about how your kids want to do this whole thing again later in the day only this time hauling rented wooden sleds to the top so that you can all slide down and get sand in your private places and then realizing again that you’re a grown up and you don’t have to do this is a really good thing.
Kinley and Knox prepare to haul their rented sleds back up the dunes later in the day.

Kinley and Knox sled down the dunes.

Josh takes a turn with Knox.  I'm still not sad that I missed this.

*Getting up the dune is only your first problem.  Going down is a different kind of hard.
That's me in the red shirt.  Far ahead of the rest of the family.  Ready to be done with sand dunes.

*Eating lunch at a place with ten varieties of homemade pies and watching the pie lady bring out even more freshly-baked confections as you eat your lunch helps your mood considerably.

*It’s way easier to be nice and forgiving over a big slice of coconut cream pie.

*It takes Knox a long time to get all the unwanted mayonnaise off of a BLT, but when he does, he can eat the whole thing.

*Staying behind at the motel to nap and blog while the rest of the family sleds down the dunes is an ok thing to do.

*If you wear a hot pink shirt and red shoes sitting outside near a bank of hummingbird feeders, you’re going to get up close and personal with lots of curious hummingbirds who think you might be lunch.
Just one of the ten or so hummingbird feeders behind our hotel that attracted swarms of hummingbirds all day.

*Getting a picture of a hummingbird while it’s dive-bombing you is hard.

*Having crappy wifi is actually worse than having no wifi.  You keep getting your hopes up only to watch the little circular “loading” symbol over and over and over. 

*When your family returns from sledding on the dunes with tiny grains of sand seemingly permanently embedded in every single orifice of their bodies, you do not regret staying at the motel one little bit.
Sand.  Everywhere.

*Josh Boyd does not, in fact, hate all hot springs.  Only the naked ones, apparently.
The water was so pleasant!

*Sand Dunes Recreation is a great place to go from 9:00-10:00 at night.  The 98° spring-fed pool has two diving boards and plenty of room for family swimming.  Plus, that late at night you get in for half price.  And the 107° pool is nice for a brief dip, too.

*Blogging makes me feel better and helps me to look at myself and my circumstances more objectively.

*I’m grateful for readers like you.  You’re cheaper than therapy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: A National Park Odyssey Day 41

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Checking out our 21st park of the trip!

Check out our podcast about this park here!

The town of Montrose, Colorado, where we had stayed the night is about a 20 minute drive from Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  We didn’t get a particularly early start on our day in the park.  In fact, we barely made it to our free hotel breakfast before breakfast hours were over.  Once we had cleaned up, availed ourselves of the free wifi, packed the car, checked out, and made the drive to the park, it was approaching 12:00.  We went to the South Rim Visitors’ Center where we picked up junior ranger booklets for the kids to work on and then checked out the overlook out back. 
The view from the overlook at the South Rim Visitors' Center was breathtaking!
The canyon was so different from what we saw at the Grand Canyon, Kings CanyonZion, or Bryce Canyon.  Its dark grey walls were streaked with white and fell in dramatic jags more than 2000 feet to the Gunnison River below.  While Josh and I were enjoying the beauty of the overlook, the kids started working on their junior ranger booklets.  I couldn’t keep myself from occasionally checking out the stability of the overlook structure because the steep canyon walls meant that there was nothing to break a fall to the bottom.  *shudder*
The kids wasted no time getting started on earning their badges.

Since it was nearly lunch time, we decided to head back to Montrose, let the kids work on their booklets during lunch, and then drive back afterward to see more of the park.  We found a brewpub called Horsefly Brewing Company that was highly rated online, and while the food was good, the kids had plenty of time to work on their booklets because the kitchen was painfully slow. 
Participation in a ranger-led program was required to earn the junior ranger badge at this park, so back at the park we joined one already in progress on the 1.6 mile Warner Point Trail.  Juniper and pinyon pines lined the trail, and Josh and the kids followed the junior ranger book’s directions to get an up close look at the forest floor. 
The place was packed, but the kitchen was slow.

Josh was a little more willing to go all in on checking out the forest floor than Knox was.  He preferred to squat.

Getting an ant's eye view of the ecosystem.

The ranger explained that there are no trails to the bottom of the canyon but that this doesn’t stop intrepid hikers from doing it anyway.  Josh had read one author who explained the hike to the bottom as more like controlled falling.  Hikers who want to go off trail must apply for a wilderness permit, and rangers limit the number of permits given.  Our trail guide told us about the many times that hikers have had to be rescued and easily convinced us to stay on the safe side of this wilderness sign.
After the trail, we went to check out the famous Painted Wall of the canyon which at 2250 feet is the highest vertical wall in the state of Colorado.  To give you some perspective, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago is 1450 feet high.  The white streaks that give Painted Wall its name are actually veins of pegmatite, a type of granite.  We took in the stunning views and then went back to the visitors’ center to let the kids collect their next badge.
I was happy to stay on the marked trails, thank you very much.

Painted Wall with the Gunnison River below

Enjoying the view

From there, it was nearly a four hour drive to our next destination, Great Sand Dunes, so we piled in the car and took off, marveling at the beauty of Colorado along the way.  Small roadside streams surely filled with native fish called to Josh as we drove, and we decided then and there that this definitely would not be our last trip to this area.
Just one of the many inviting trout streams we saw on the drive

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Modern Disappointments: A National Park Odyssey Day 40

Mesa Verde to Montrose, CO

Listen to our podcast about this park here!

Mesa Verde National Park's Cliff Palace
Our fortieth day began with a free breakfast at Mesa Verde National Park! The night before I had noticed that the trash in our hotel room hadn’t been emptied after the last guests checked out.  Disgusted, I called the front desk to complain, and we were given four complimentary breakfast passes at the Far View Terrace Café to make up for the mistake.  (They also sent someone to empty the trash, of course.) 
Free Breakfast!!
After breakfast, we drove to the Balcony House area of the park for our first ranger-led tour of the day.  Balcony House is an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Puebloan people who lived in the area from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.  The people lived and farmed on the top of the mesa for 600 years before moving into the cliff dwellings in the late 1100s, and then they migrated south less than 200 years later.  Ranger Diana warned us in advance about the tunnels and the 32 foot entrance ladder, making us even more excited to visit this cliff dwelling.
We loved the fonts on the park signage.
Josh and Knox climb the 32 foot ladder that leads to Balcony House
Josh prepares to squeeze through one of the tunnels to get to Balcony House.
Kinley emerges from one of the tunnels through an ancient doorway.
Ranger Diana teaches us about the ancient Puebloans at Balcony House.

Knox and I listen as Ranger Diana tells us about the kiva below us.

Balcony House has about 40 rooms including kivas which are ceremonial rooms.  The room for which the site was named has a window with a little wooden balcony that has endured for more than 800 years.
Josh climbs out of the Balcony House cliff dwelling.

After our tour, we had to hurry to our next tour.  The drive to Cliff Palace was only about 5 minutes, but a wrong turn on a one-way loop made us fear we’d miss our time slot. We made it in time to hear Ranger David Nighteagle make his introductory remarks before leading us through the locked gate and down the cliff for our hour-long tour.

Cliff Palace is a larger dwelling than Balcony House and probably housed about 100 people when it was in use.  Ranger Nighteagle pointed out ancient artwork and handholds carved into the stone walls that allowed the Puebloans to climb up to their farmlands on top of the mesa.  He talked to us about the lives of the people who inhabited the area and about possible reasons for their migration south.  But the best part of his tour came at the very end when he took out his handmade Lakota flute and played a song to thank the spirits of the ancient Puebloans for allowing us to visit their home.  It was haunting and beautiful and poignant and perfect.  As we made the climb back to the top of the mesa, Ranger Nighteagle told us about his Lakota grandfather who refused to be referred to as a Native American.  “All my life I’ve been called an Indian and now you want to change that?” his grandfather had asked.  “No way.  I’m an Indian.”
Knox, Kinley, and I with Cliff Palace behind us

Knox and Kinley at Cliff Palace

Ancient painted walls at Cliff Palace

Ranger David Nighteagle prepares to play his Lakota flute for us.

Knox climbs out of Cliff Palace.

Back on top of the mesa, we continued on the loop drive to the Pit House, an ancient remainder of the dwellings the Puebloans used before they built the cliff dwellings.  Continuing around the loop we came to an overlook where we could see Square Tower House, and then we decided it was time for lunch.  The Spruce Tree Terrace Café near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum had a smoker set up outside and was serving up some delicious barbecue.  We chowed down on ribs and pulled pork before wandering across the street and into the museum.

Inside a covered shelter was the foundation of an ancient pit house where the Puebloans lived before the cliff dwellings were built.

The Square Tower House as seen from above on the mesa

Time for some lunch!

Inside, we were all fascinated by the 1960s-era dioramas depicting Puebloan life.  The hand-lettered interpretive signs were like something out of a museum time capsule with hand-drawn borders decorating the sides of many.  We were most impressed with the ancient sandals and 1500 year old corn.  The kids found plenty of information in the museum to help them finish up their Junior Ranger booklets, and at a table in the courtyard, a ranger waited to swear them in.
Kinley admires a diorama depicting ancient life.

Artifacts from the cliff dwellings including sandals

Hand-lettered signs and ancient corn cobs

The kids earn their Junior Ranger badges.


Badges in hand, we piled back in the car started our 3 hour drive to Montrose, Colorado, just outside of Black Canyon of the GunnisonNational Park.  This park has no park lodge, so we were staying in the Black Canyon Motel in Montrose.  In the motel lobby was an advertisement for the town’s county fair which was apparently happening that very night within walking distance of the motel.  Since I’m a sucker for small-town Americana, I convinced the rest of the family that we really needed some carnival rides, rigged midway games of chance, and fair food in our lives.  They grudgingly agreed, and we followed our noses to the fairgrounds nearby singing “Our State Fair is a Great State Fair” the whole way.

Much to my dismay, there were no carnival rides or midway games, and the only fair food was being served at two lonely booths sandwiched between the Port-a-Potties and the Montrose County Emergency Management information table.  In fact, the fair was really just a small-town horse show with deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries. So, of course, we ate some deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries.

Disappointed and no longer singing about great state fairs, we walked dejectedly back to our motel to turn in for the night, holding out hope that the park we’d be visiting the next day wouldn’t bring the same amount of disappointment.