no matter where you go, there you are

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all - laura ingalls wilder

Our time in St. Louis was short; early the next morning we ate a quick breakfast, packed up the car and were on our way west towards southwest Missouri to the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though her childhood is chronicled in her "Little House" book series, her home in Mansfield, MO is where she spent her later years with her husband and children and is where she wrote her series.
getting gas, we saw this huge inflatable chicken bucket
The town of Mansfield is quite small and the Wilder house is located a mile or so from the downtown area. We arrived and the next tour wasn't for a little while so we took our time browsing the small museum which housed a great number of treasures from Laura Ingalls Wilder's past. There were photos, drawings, toys, clothing, kitchen utensils, name it. Items were organized starting with Laura's childhood on the prairie, through her marriage to Almanzo Wilder and through her later years as a writer, and even had a lot of information regarding her daughter Rose's writing career.

The tour then began with an informational and background video followed by a lovely tour through the small farmhouse. Explanations of the furniture, kitchen appliances, design, architecture were all quite interesting and I thought the guides did a great job with everything. The group had a hard time squeezing into the small rooms but it never became claustrophobic. After the tour it was suggested to check out the house down the road where the Wilder's lived for a short period, but moved back to the original house because Laura didn't like the larger one. However, since we still had quite a bit of traveling to do for the day we opted out on that visit and instead visited the Wilder's graves before heading out of town.

Continuing west, we traveled into Kansas where we subsequently got lost. Note to future travelers: when searching for a cabin in the middle of Farmland, USA don't trust GoogleMaps. Where we were was the definition of middle of nowhere Farmland, USA. Where I had thought we needed to go turned out to be really far from where we actually wanted to go. Luckily, Molly was able to access limited internet on her phone and looked up the actual directions to the "Little House on the Prairie" cabin from their website. This was something I probably should have done instead of relying on GoogleMaps getting their address correct in a land where streets are called "County Rd 4100."

example of road signs in southeast kansas
the roads of Farmland, USA
kansas, you name your gas stations well
Although we were only on Day 3 of our trek, this "failure" on my part didn't make me very happy but it was only 1 of 2 blunders we really incurred. I know people get lost all the time and we didn't even have a GPS, or recent map for that matter, but I still felt bad about getting us lost on roads that weren't even paved. I knew Molly really wanted to see the cabin and the prairie, but we were also losing time in getting to our housing in Omaha for the night. I had thought we'd be arriving around 930 or 10pm, and now it was looking like 11 or 1130. Since it was a college friend of my mom's we were staying with and we didn't want to make her wait up, this part of the afternoon was lousy for me with deciding what to do. Looking back it probably wasn't that bad of a situation, but I get anxious and nervous over schedules and keeping people happy and such.

Finally at the cabin, we made it there with 5 minutes to spare before closing. It really is just a cabin on the prairie; free admission and there's even the cutest little post office and school house to go into as well. There's a gift shop as part of a neighboring farmhouse and miles of fields and farms to look out over. Bales of hay littered the land and it was quite picturesque.

replica of the "little house on the prairie"
travel wagon
"welcome to sunny side"
inside sunny side schoolhouse
wayside post office; was in use until the 1970s
farmland, USA

Our "Little House on the Prairie" tour was now concluded and all that was left for the day was to drive north through the back highways of Kansas and Nebraska. Based on where we were, the interstate option may have looked faster but because it was out of the way to get there, the mileage was longer so taking them would have been no faster. And as we had quickly learned to hate the massive 18-wheeler trucks, we wanted to avoid the interstates as much as possible. Taking the back highways was really quite fun for the most part and driving through all the different towns was a great way to see "Small Town, USA" One town was having some sort of event like a rodeo or something that seemed to attract many of its citizens. Molly and I also discovered the wonder that is Sonic in one of these small towns. More on Sonic and other fast food discoveries later.

The drive up to Omaha was pretty uneventful until the sun set. From then on it was all delirium and craziness. Doing our best to stay awake, we'd run out of music to sing along to and topics to talk about so we resorted to singing songs from the old "Wee Sing" kids videos. We performed the whole repertoire from "Wee Sing in Sillyville" and touched upon some of the numbers from "Grandpa's Magical Toy Shop." Added to the singing delirium, we were also killing thousands of crickets by the minute. I think some of the carcasses are still on Molly's car. It was an interesting night to say the least but we did make it to Omaha around 1130 and Sandy, my mom's friend had graciously stayed awake to let us into her house. Just like the night before, Molly and I went to sleep so fast you would have thought we hadn't slept in days.

Friday, March 18, 2011

feeling hot hot hot

Finally in St. Louis, a little less than half way across the country from our homes in Massachusetts, there wasn't much we planned to do besides visiting with my family who live there. Probably the most famous icon of St. Louis, and maybe even the Midwest, is the Gateway Arch so we pulled off the highway and headed through the park along the Mississippi River to see the massive architectural wonder up close. Depending on the line and price to ascend to the top, we weren't sure how long to spend but after just the short walk from the parking garage the one thing we did know was that whatever we did should be INSIDE! Except for Death Valley, I think our day in St. Louis was the hottest of the entire 5 weeks. I can sustain a lot of heat since I don't sweat much, but depending on humidity and breathability level, there's only so much I can handle. And this day was just on the edge of being unbearable.

The wait to get into the arch was at least an hour so that was now out of the question. We gazed at the arch, walked to the top of the hill to look over at what I think was the State House and then strolled down to the waterfront overlook. The sun's reflections on the arch were pretty spectacular especially with all the Arch's unique lines and angles. I had some major flashbacks to being around 12 years old and seeing the Air Show on that very same lawn during one of my summer vacations.

At my grandma's house we dropped our bags off, grabbed a bite to eat and pondered what to do next. Our evening plans consisted of dinner and then taking my cousins to the Muny's production of "The Sound of Music." But since it was only early afternoon there was time to kill. My aunt suggested the zoo since it was free so we headed into Forest Park and into the zoo. We didn't last very long though. Between the excruciating heat of the day and being terribly tired from driving 1200 miles in a day and a half, it was hard to stay on our feet and interested in the animals. The animals also decided it was too hot to be out so almost all were hidden somewhere in their habitats.

After the zoo, I took Molly to Ted Drewes, the famous custard place in St. Louis. We got some to go and then spent the rest of the afternoon at Grandma's house. She treated Molly, my cousins and I to dinner, then we headed over to Forest Park (again!) where the Muny is located. The Muny is the largest outdoor theater in the United States seating 11000 people with about 1500 being given away for free every performance. Each summer they perform 8 professional musical productions, each for a week. Throughout my time visiting my family in St. Louis during the summer I've seen a handful of shows there so I thought it would be something fun to show Molly. Our week was "The Sound of Music" with Ashley Brown, the original Mary Poppins on Broadway, playing Maria. The sets and costumes were wonderful but without binoculars you can't see too much detail from the free seats. The people on stage are teeny-weeny. The show was pretty well done for the most part, but the movie will always surpass the stage version in every way.

We arrived home late and couldn't fall asleep fast enough. It had been a really, really long and HOT day. I don't think I've ever fallen asleep faster than I did that night.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

tower of the devil

Along our way across the grand state of Wyoming, we stopped at Devils Tower National Monument. Residing in the Northeast corner of the state, we arrived mid-morning after departing from the Black Hills. Devils Tower is one of those really astounding natural landforms that really makes you wonder how in the freaking world it got there. Surrounded by low, low hills, Devils Tower is a very prominent fixture in the area.
Winding up the hill to the "base" of the tower, there was a prairie dog village to stop by. The lil creatures were quite cute and I could only imagine what their labyrinth of tunnels must look like underground. After parking we checked out the teeny museum where it explains the geological history of the "Tower" and where it's name came from. Originally, the Native Americans gave it a name that related to a bear, but it was an 19th century expedition leader who changed its name due to a misinterpretation of the multiple Native American terms.
All around the base are massive rock fields, some larger than others, yet all were so tempting to climb. There was a sign saying rock climbing was forbidden past a certain point, and I completely mis-interpreted it. I thought they meant all the rocks, not just the vertical ones leading to the top that you need a permit and rock climbing gear etc. for. So we "sneakily" climbed on them as we took the short hiking path around the base. It was a lot of fun.

As the morning progressed, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. It was really beautiful and we took our time appreciating every angle we could get of the miraculous, monstrous geological formation.
A neat thing to see was climbers shimmying their way up the sides of this thing. I don't know how they were doing it, but it was crazy watching them make their way to the top.
As we completed the loop trail, we saw lots of people climbing on the "front" boulder field. There was even a Ranger down below watching all the people exploring. Here, I reread the "climbing is forbidden" and saw how I totally misunderstood it before. You could climb up until the tree line, then it became "permit-only" hiking. So we took off our flip flops, and Molly in her sweatshirt and leggings and me and in my Old Navy sundress swiftly climbing the large, very rectangular, rocks. We made it to the top quickly and another hiker we passed even complimented us on our skill with lack of footwear. We took some time at the top to look out at the view and I tried to comprehend the natural wonder of this place. The boulder field was great to look at and it was a fantastic place to be.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

yea, though i walk through the valley of the shadow of death - psalm 23

Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the United States and I plugged it right into early August on our itinerary without blinking an eye. Yes, I may be slightly crazy. But my rationale in thinking was that it's a really famous place that I'd heard was quite beautiful, and the chance I would be able to see it in the near future save for this trip was slim to none. So I said "screw it" and planned the Valley as a passing through from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon. Originally I thought we could camp in the park, but my mother quickly talked me out of it and we ended up finding a great deal on a hotel in Las Vegas and made our Death Valley visit a quick drive through day trip. 

We entered the park on the west side after driving from a campsite in "middle of nowhere valley", California. Legit middle of nowhere. Choosing to drive through was definitely the best way to see the park (especially in the middle of August.) Good tunes, water, air conditioning...all great things to have while taking in the wonders of the valley around you. When looking at a map you can see it is a MASSIVE park, but since we just had the afternoon to peruse, we stuck the main tourist attractions.

The curvy roads first led us through Rainbow Canyon. Taking us up and down in elevation it certainly built up my anticipation of when we would hit the lowest elevation point in the United States. Panamint Springs was the first "valley" area we hit; dry, cracked earth spread into the distance for miles, hidden and protected by the surrounding mountains. We spent about 5 minutes outside and it was only after about 30 seconds Molly decided that that would be enough for her. But I ended up being able to drag her to a couple more places.

Our next stop was at the "village" of Stovepipe Wells which, during August is like a deserted ghost town. There were no tourists mingling about that we could see and the ranger station was fairly empty. Yet there were plenty of people at the Mesquite Sand Dune Flats and the Badwater Basin so I don't really know where they came from. We got out at the Sand Dunes, but the walk to the closer viewpoint wasn't my cup of tea. And Molly was happy with staying as close to the car as possible.

As we were very low on our water supply since our campsite the previous night had no water, we stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to fill our water bottles and use the bathroom. The water was NO help whatsoever because it is so hot in Death Valley that the water is hot when it comes out of the faucets, fountains name it, the water was hot. Not too good, but it made our arrival in Vegas that evening that much better.

We quickly drove down to Badwater Basin passing by the Devil's Golf Course on the way. The Badwater Basin is a massive salt flat and at 282 ft below sea level, the lowest elevation point in the United States. The basin seemed endless and I took the 20 minute walk to the end of the path solo as Molly made the decision to stay with the A/C in the car. It was the same view at the end as it was the beginning, but looking out and was still pretty neat. The phenomenon that impressed me most though was how instantly my mouth became parched. It was an interesting experience trying to process how hot 114 degrees of dry desert heat really was.

On our way back to Furnace Creek, we took the scenic Artist's Drive, a one-way road that tightly weaves through the beautiful curved mountain walls of such a variety of colors. Yellows, reds, oranges, greys, browns, blues... And finally, on the way out of the park we made one final stop at Zabriskie Point, a great overlook of rolling rock (kind of similar to ones at the Badlands.)

After surviving the 114 degree heat, we headed out of the park and on through the deserts of Nevada, eagerly awaiting our hotel room at the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.