Monthly Archives: August 2016

Bear Country USA


I have two words for you:

Baby Bears


A dozen baby bears.

We spent our day at Bear Country USA.

All it took was seeing the photos of dozens of scampering and tumbling baby bears in an area of their park called Babyland to know we had to make Bear Country USA one of our stops in Rapid City, South Dakota.

We arrived just as they opened, knowing that  cooler temperatures earlier in the day would result in more active animals.

We made a decision, upon arriving at our RV park and talking to the camp host, to rent a car for our two days in Rapid City. We found a place that rented cars very inexpensively to RVers who might find maneuvering some of the switch backs and narrow tunnels cut into the rocks challenging for larger vehicles.

We are so glad we did. We realized the wisdom in our decision while traveling the narrow roads and low clearance rock tunnels of Custer State Park. We would have never fit in the bus!

Our first opportunity, however, to enjoy our temporary rental car was at Bear Country USA.

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We were a bit nervous as we entered and were told that the Elk were in rut. We were told to not tarry through the Elk enclosure long, as Elks who catch sight of their reflection in your car’s shine might charge it. I could only imagine how we would explain the antler dents in the side of the KIA to the rental car company.

Bear Country USA is a drive thru animal park that winds through the scenic Black Hills, moving you from animal enclosure to animal enclosure.

We were told to drive slowly, keep our windows up, and to under no circumstances exit our vehicle as we would be passing through areas containing wolves, black bear, and brown bear.

We all loved the park. The experience began with tamer animals like deer and sheep,

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and concluded with the wolf and bear enclosure.

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It was absolutely thrilling to have so many bears right outside the car window. There we probably 30 bears strolling around the enclosure and walking around the car as we slowly drove through.

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They were all such laid back, personable things that it was easy to see how humans could foolishly get themselves in trouble when the desire to touch or approach one of these “teddy bear” like animals gets to be too much to resist.

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As we watched them roll around, splash in the water, and sit and scratch their belly we could see how the character of Baloo, in The Jungle Book, was created. All these fellows were very Baloo-like in their mannerisms.

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Then it was onto the walking part of Bear Country. We parked the car and walked into the Discovery Land.

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Here there were small enclosures housing creatures like porcupine and skunk and other smaller animals.


There was a hands on educational center where the kids could touch, feel, and learn more about the fur, antlers, and prints of the animals found there.

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They had an interesting display laying out the differences between American Black Bears and Brown Bears. While we were there we ran into our friends and RV neighbors from our stay in Mitchell, SD. We were wondering if we would cross paths again since we are traveling a similar route and sure enough, we turn around, and there they are. 🙂

Then it was time for BABYLAND!

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Here, in their own small enclosure, a dozen cubs played, frolicked, climbed, wrestled, swam and generally got into mischief. They were like a pack of puppies chasing each other, tumbling and rolling and chewing on each other’s ears.

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Here cubs are stacked four high as each chews on the ear of the cub in front of them. 🙂


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I could have spent all day watching the antics of those bear cubs. As it was ,we spent almost an hour standing at the fence thoroughly entertained by those furry babies.

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It was an AMAZING experience!

From there we drove over to Custer State Park where we spent the afternoon. (More on that in the next post!)

In the evening we headed back into Rapid City for dinner. We have a couple dinners out planned for the duration of our trip. Most of the time we are cooking all our meals in the bus or packing lunches to take with us as we site see, but we did plan a couple special dinners as a treat.

This happened to be one of those few dinners out that we made reservations for.

I was thrilled…not only by the fact I didn’t have to cook dinner, but also because of the dinner we had planned.

 We were going to a cowboy chuck wagon dinner and show at Ft. Hays.

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When we arrived we had 30 minutes to walk around the Ft. Hays old fashioned town before we went in for supper.

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At 6:30 we were seated at long picnic style tables.

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Dinner was a traditional chuck wagon meal of BBQ beef, baked beans, applesauce, baked potato, homemade biscuits with honey, lemon aid to drink and spice cake for dessert.

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We were called up to the kitchen by table.

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The process began with everyone grabbing a tin plate. First food received was our baked potato, which was smashed onto the plate to mash it and keep it from rolling off.

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From there we worked our way down the line getting all our wet foods: beans, meat, and applesauce.

Then another cowboy tossed a piece of wax paper on our plate and we were ready for our next layer of food: biscuits, butter and cake.

The wax paper kept our dry food from getting wet.

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The dinner was delicious! Everyone cleaned their plates but each had a favorite part of the meal. Molly voted the baked beans the best part of the meal. Grace felt the homemade chunky applesauce was the best part. Toby, Rusty, Ozzie and I loved the BBQ beef best. And Tyler voted the spiced carrot cake the winning dish. In fact he liked it so well he asked if I could go ask for the recipe.

After dinner the show part of the evening began. It was a mix of music and comedy. The music played ranged from classic cowboy songs that would have been sung on the prairie to more modern country favorites.

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The band was incredibly talented, particularly the female fiddle player. The best song of the evening was her rendition of “When the Devil went down to Georgia.”

They ended their show, and the evening, with a tribute to all the military and veterans in the room, acknowledging them and showing their appreciation by ending the show with the song, “Proud to be an American.”

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What a fun end to another wonderful day!



Our stop at Badlands, South Dakota was one of the most memorable stops of my childhood journey to the west. I remember feeling as though I had stumbled into a different land or had landed on a different planet. The barren landscape was almost lunar in its starkness and yet eerily beautiful in its simplicity.

I remember vividly climbing the rocks with my siblings and delighting over the prairie dog town.

I couldn’t wait to share the experience with Toby and the kids and see if reality would do justice to my memories of Badlands National Park.

The Badlands are desolation at its truest. There are no obstructions to mar the horizon. The land unfolds unceasingly until it meets the sky. It is a land close to the sun.

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The Badlands sneak up on you. The monotonous grassland of the plains seem to stretch  for miles when suddenly that ocean of prairie transforms into the rock faces of the Badlands.

We began our journey through Badlands National Park on the grassland side of the park, away from the rock formations. It was a beautiful drive in with very few other visitors.

Our first hint at arrival was the sound of chirping coming from outside the windows of the bus. We soon discovered the source of the noise. We had arrived in the land of prairie dogs.

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Tyler was enthralled and could have spent all day starring through the chain link fence at those personable rodents.

The only way we managed to get him back in the bus was the promise that more prairie dos were ahead…thousands of them.

Our first stop was Robert’s Prairie Dog town: a vast open stretch of prairie, dotted with hundreds of prairie dogs mounds that lead to a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the ground.

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The kids were delighted by the way the prairie dogs would stand watch on the raised dirt of the mounds and then scurry down the hole as they approached.

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We couldn’t get over the shear number of prairie dogs that surrounded us.

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Ozzie doing his prairie dog imitation. Travis, who does this remind you of?!


After spending ample time oohing and aahing over the prairie dogs, we were back in the bus on our way to the barren rock formations synonamous with the Badlands.

But were weren’t done seeing wildlife. The kids soon learned not to turn away from the window because you never knew what wild animal might wander past while your back was turned.

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Along our way we came across a herd of buffalo,

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and a daring family of pronghorn sheep climbing the cliffs near the road.

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The terrain became more and more magnificent the further into the park we drove.

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The Badlands are composed of 160 square miles of prairie grasses, unearthly rockscapes and fossil beds.

In those fossil beds the Badlands preserve the world’s greatest fossil beds of animals from the Oligocene Epoch of the Age of Mammals. Once much wetter than today, the area was home to saber-toothed cats, miniature camels and horses, and even gigantic rhinoceros-like beasts called titanotheres.

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Walking fossil trail.


In the visitor center we were able to watch paleontologists work to excavate fossils from chunks of rock found in the Badlands. The kids loved being able to watch them work, up close, and ask them questions.

We soon found ourselves in the terrain that the Badlands is known for. It is so unearthly unique that it felt as though we had stepped onto a movie set. Surely this couldn’t be real. It caused all of us to pause and acknowledge was a mighty and artistic Father in Heaven we have, to create something so incredible.

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Rusty playing with the whip he bought at Wall Drug. The whip and the background scenery was very Indiana Jones-like!

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We decided to check out the views up close and left the comfort of the bus for some climbing and exploring.

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We walked trails and let the kids climb the rocks. They loved it and it was so much fun to watch them delight in an experience that brought me such joy 20 years ago.

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Can you spot my kids? Look for red!


After spending the afternoon exploring Badlands National Park we drove into Rapid City, South Dakota. This will be home base for the next few days as we explore all that Rapid City has to offer. The starkness of the Badlands were a shocking contrast to the Black Hills of South Dakota that we find ourselves camping in now. It is hard to believe such different lands can exist only miles apart. The Black Hills are stunning and we can’t wait to explore them more fully.

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Next stop: Bear Country USA and Fort Hays Chuck Wagon Dinner

Free Ice Water at Wall Drug


We began our day yesterday morning with a trip to Wall Drug. We had spent the night across the street at the Sleepy Hallow campground, so when we woke in the morning we needed only to cross the street to find ourselves at the kitschy mecca of Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is huge tourist trap, but one that must be visited at least once in your life. Anyone who traveled across South Dakota as a child will remember with delight their stop at Wall Drug.

I remember being delighted with Wall Drug when we stopped there when I was a child. I thought it was a magical place with its giant roadside statues and sprawling aisles of bumper stickers, magnets, souvenirs, and t-shirts.

For those who have never heard of Wall Drug here is a bit of their story:

“Wall Drug Store, often called simply “Wall Drug,” is a tourist attraction located in the city of , South Dakota. It consists of a drug store, gift shop, restaurants and various other stores. Unlike a traditional shopping mall, all the stores at Wall Drug operate under a single entity instead of being individually run stores. The New York Times has described Wall Drug as “a sprawling tourist attraction of international renown [that] takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some two million annual visitors to a remote town.”


The small town drugstore made its first step towards fame when it was purchased by Ted Hustead in 1931. Hustead was a Nebraska native and pharmacist who was looking for a small town with a Catholic church in which to establish his business. He bought Wall Drug, located in a 231-person town in what he referred to as “the middle of nowhere,” and strove to make a living. Business was very slow until his wife, Dorothy, thought of advertising free ice water to parched travelers heading to the newly opened Mount Rushmore monument 60 miles (97 km) to the west. From that time on business was brisk. Wall Drug grew into a cowboy-themed shopping mall/department store. Wall Drug includes a western art museum, a chapel based on the one found at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, and an 80-foot (24 m) apatosaurus (formerly brontosaurus) that can be seen right off Interstate 90. It was designed by Emmet Sullivan who also created the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City and Dinosaur World in Arkansas.

Marketing campaign

Wall Drug earns much of its fame from its self-promotion. Billboards advertising the establishment can be seen for hundreds of miles throughout South Dakota and the neighboring states. In addition, many visitors of Wall Drug have erected signs throughout the world announcing the miles to Wall Drug from famous locations. By 1981 Wall Drug was claiming it was giving away 20,000 cups of water per day during the peak tourist season, lasting from Memorial Day until Labor Day, and during the hottest days of the summer.

Most of Wall Drug’s advertisement billboards can be found on an approximately 650-mile-long (1,050 km) stretch of Interstate 90 from Minnesota to Billings, Montana. Wall Drug spends an estimated $400,000 on billboards every year.



The Wall Drug Dinosaur

To date, Wall Drug still offers free ice water, but as they have become more popular, they have started to offer free bumper stickers and signs to aid in promotion, and coffee for 5 cents. Some popular free bumper stickers read “Where the heck is Wall Drug?”, “How many miles to Wall Drug?”, and “Where in the world is Wall Drug?”.

When the United States Air Force was still operating Minuteman missile silos in the western South Dakota plains, Wall Drug used to offer free coffee and doughnuts to service personnel if they stopped in on their way to or from Ellsworth Air Force Base (50 miles (80 km) west on Interstate 90). Wall Drug continues to offer free coffee and a doughnut to honeymooners, veterans, priests, hunters, truck drivers, and other travelers.

Ted Hustead died in 1999. The following day, the governor of South Dakota began his annual State of the State address by commemorating Hustead as “a guy that figured out that free ice water could turn you into a phenomenal success in the middle of a semi-arid desert way out in the middle of someplace.”

Media references

In 1981, Wall Drug was featured in Time magazine as one of the largest tourist attractions in the north. In his 1989 book The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson wrote, “It’s an awful place, one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”

The kids had no idea what to expect when we entered the doors of Wall Drug. There are no words to describe it. They were even a bit puzzled, after I shared with them the story of Wall Drug, and wondered why we were stopping at a drug store for free ice water.

Then we stepped inside and their jaws dropped.

It was old 1950’s, roadside America at its best, with everything tacky and delightful that goes along with it.

Here is a peek into our stop at Wall Drug:

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Free Ice Water!

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Molly gave Tyler two quarters to put in the machine so that he could see the gorilla play piano and sing.


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Toby gave the shooting gallery a try.

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Playing in the splash pad.

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The inside was enormous with store after store.

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Molly making friends…

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And you can’t leave Wall without riding the giant jackalope!!

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Next stop: Badlands National Park

1880 Town


Yesterday we stepped back in time to the days of cowboys, and gunfights, and the wild, wild west.

Yesterday we visited 1880 Town.

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At the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead we were able to experience life outside of town as it would have been in 1880. At the 1880 town we were able to experience life if we had lived in town.

This stop brought back all sorts of memories for me. When I traveled west with my family as a girl this was one of the stops we made in South Dakota and I thought it was so cool!

I was excited to share the experience with my own children.

“South Dakota’s Original 1880 TOWN has more than 30 buildings from the 1880 to 1920 era, authentically furnished with thousands of relics, historical accounts and photographs, a Casey Tibbs exhibit, and Dances with Wolves movie props.”

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Here is a little history about 1880 Town, as taken from their website:

“When Richard Hullinger bought 14 acres at Exit 170 back in 1969 he had no plans for an attraction. In 1972 a gas station was built at this location along with forming an idea of an old west attraction. Later, an additional 80 acres was purchased.

About that time a movie company came to a small town nearby to film an 1880 era movie. A main street set was constructed from old buildings and a number of Indian relics and antiques were borrowed from Clarence Hullinger, Richard’s father. Winter set in and the filming was abandoned. The movie company returned home giving the main street set to Clarence for the use of his artifacts. The movie set was moved to the 80 acres and the 1880 TOWN was born!

Along with the beginning of the 1880 TOWN began years of collecting what is now an authentic 1880 to 1920 era town from buildings to contents. Clarence and Richard have kept historical value on an equal balance with public appeal, choosing buildings that not only interesting to look at but are also historically correct for an early South Dakota town. The displays and buildings range from Indian relics from the 1970’s to the fourteen-sided barn built in 1919.

The tour of the town begins here. The barn boasts an automated hay and manure handling system. It took three days and thousands of dollars to move the barn the 45 miles from its original location south of Draper, SD. In the barn you will see fine antique buggies, toys, stalls with horses in them and a working, turn of the century, coinola, saloon piano from Deadwood.

From the barn, the whole town lies before you in a beautiful panoramic view! The first building on the north side is the Vanishing Prairie Museum. The museum was built to house the more valuable collections, many from the General Custer period. Items displayed are a pair of boots and an old army saddlebag from the Custer battlefield that were found at an Indian campsite, parade helmets worn by U.S. Cavalry Indian Scouts with the crossed arrow insignia, Indian dolls, arrowheads, a complete authentic cowboy outfit, photographs and selected interiors of fine Dakota homes. The collection also includes Buffalo Bill items and a tribute to the late Casey Tibbs, 9 time World Champion Rodeo Cowboy.

The Dakota Hotel was moved from Draper, SD. Built in 1910, it still carries the scars made by cowboys’ spurs on the staircase. The Gardel & Walker Livery Barn holds a variety of early engines and two wagons from the Indian war era. On an open lot next to the livery is the antique machinery display.

St. Stephan’s Church, built in 1915, was moved from Dixon, South Dakota, with everything intact, from the stained glass windows to the bell (which along with the school and fire bell, you are free to ring).

The C&N Depot, Express Agency, and Telegraph Office was relocated from Gettysburg, SD. It is filled with railroad equipment right down to a piece of wood with “Tex K.T.” carved by the king tramp in 1927.

The town hall which came from Belvidere was renovated in 1984 and the film “Love for the Land” can be seen throughout the day. Step inside the back door to see the Mayor’s office. Next door are the lumber yard and pioneer home.

The one-room schoolhouse will bring back many memories for those who were lucky enough to attend one. Ring the bell and step inside to see the ink-well desks, textbooks, reciting bench and roll-up maps. Up front by the blackboard sits the huge stove that never did heat the back of the room and the view through the windows is still the same beautiful prairie that lured the attention from many young students’ studies.

About a quarter of a mile east of the town is a homestead complete with windmill, corrals, barn, house and of course, outhouse.

This history of the 1880 TOWN is just a snap shot of what you’ll see and experience while visiting our attraction.”

As we walked through the gates we found ourselves transported back in time 130 years, and boy did we look out of place. If we were going to blend in with the townsfolk we were going to have to get new clothes.

So our first stop was to the dry goods store where the kids traded out their jeans and t-shirts for cowboy boots and chaps.

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For $7.00/person you can rent a period costume for the day. We decided to let all the kids get dressed up. In the store two ladies dressed the kids.

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It added to the fun of the experience to have the kids be able to choose their outfits and get dressed from boots to hat in cowboy gear. They even got holsters and play guns.

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The girls had the choice between dressing in prairie dresses, saloon girl dresses or dressing as cowgirls. They both chose to be cowgirls for the day.

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When everyone looked the part of an 1880 cowboy we headed to the saloon for a cold one…cold Sarsaparilla, that is.

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Our timing was perfect because a show was just about to begin. There in the saloon we met the McNasty Brothers, Trouble and Awful.

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Awful fell for Molly in a big way and proposed marriage. She turned him down even when tempted by an impressive diamond.

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It was a good thing she did because those McNasty brothers turned out to be nothing but trouble. They convinced my boys to help them rob the saloon! The boys loved it especially when the bar maid tossed them a bag of gold.

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We stayed to watch the McNasty brothers perform. It was a hillbilly musical show and comedy routine and they were hilarious. Awful McNasty kept winking at Molly from stage.

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Tyler and Ozzie were invited to come up on stage and play the washboard and cow bell with the McNasty Brothers.

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After the show we began touring the town. We were able to walk in all the different buildings in town and it made us feel as though we had truly stepped back in time.

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It was all fun and games until Rusty decided to rob the bank,

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And landed himself in jail.

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Luckily I was able to sweet talk the sheriff and spring my boy from the slammer.

Just when I think I have my brood under control I turn around and find them robbing a train.

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You give these kids guns and bandanas and all civility goes out the window!

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Where’s Molly??

Found her…In the saloon playing poker!

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Time for a stagecoach ride out of town before they get into any more trouble…hand over your guns, kids, we are just riding the stagecoach, not robbing it!

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Needless to say, everyone had a wonderful time at 1880 Town. I just pray that that they turn from their wicked ways before we return to the year 2016.

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The Corn Palace


After a wonderful day at the Ingall’s Homestead we had one more stop to make before we stopped for the night in Mitchell, South Dakota at a KOA.

This stop was one recommended by Toby’s father, Rich, years ago after he stopped there on a cross country road trip with Joy. We remember him going on and on about this cool and unusual site in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota. He was so impressed with the ingenuity, creativity and uniqueness of this structure that he made us promise if we were ever passing by  we would stop and take the kids to see the famous Corn Palace of South Dakota.

Well it just so happens we were passing right by the city of Mitchell on our way to 1880 town, our next stop on our journey west, so we detoured downtown.

We happened to arrive in the midst of Mitchell’s annual corn festival. Main Street was closed off and the streets were filled with musicians, vendors and carnival rides.

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But we were there for one thing: The Corn Palace!

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Here is a little history about the Corn Palace as taken from their website:

“The World’s Only Corn Palace is Mitchell’s premier tourist attraction. Some 500,000 tourists come from around the nation each year to see the uniquely designed corn murals. The city’s first Corn Palace was built as a way to prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate.

A Rich History

Eight years before the turn of the 20th century, in 1892 (when Mitchell, South Dakota was a small, 12-year-old city of 3,000 inhabitants) the World’s Only Corn Palace was established on the city’s Main Street. During it’s over 100 years of existence, it has become known worldwide and now attracts more than a half a million visitors annually. The palace was conceived as a gathering place where city residents and their rural neighbors could enjoy a fall festival with extraordinary stage entertainment – a celebration to climax a crop-growing season and harvest. This tradition continues today with the annual Corn Palace Festival held in late August each year.

By 1905 the success of the Corn Palace had been assured and a new Palace was to be built, but this building soon became too small. In 1919, the decision to build a third Corn Palace was made. This one was to be permanent and more purposeful than its predecessors. The present building was completed in 1921, just in time for the Corn Palace Festivities. That winter Mitchell hosted its first boy’s state basketball tournament. The building was considered to have the finest basketball arena in the upper Midwest area.

In the 1930’s, steps were taken to recapture the artistic decorative features of the building and minarets and kiosks of Moorish design were added restoring the appearance of early day Corn Palace.

The Corn Palace Today

The Palace is redecorated each year with naturally colored corn and other grains and native grasses to make it “the agricultural show-place of the world”. We currently use 13 different colors or shades of corn to decorate the Corn Palace: red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow and now we have green corn! A different theme is chosen each year, and murals are designed to reflect that theme. Ear by ear the corn is nailed to the Corn Palace to create a scene. The decorating process usually starts in late May with the removal of the rye and dock. The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.

Cherie Ramsdell is the current panel designer. The Corn Palace is known around the world as a folk-art wonder on the prairie of South Dakota.”

The theme for 2016 was Rock of Ages,

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and the murals, made of corn and grasses, each depicted a famous Rock and Roll artist.

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The sheer artistry of such large murals, made only of agricultural products, is impressive and worth stopping for, even if just for a few minutes!

That evening we camped at the Mitchell KOA. It was a beautiful campground that offered many kid friendly amenities.

There was a pool, playground, mini golf and these cool trikes that you could rent for $4.00. Tyler decided to use some of his saved money to rent one. He spent the next hour pedaling around the campground making friends and burning off energy.


While there we made friends with our neighbors. Tyler has become a different child on this trip and is now our social butterfly. He no longer hangs back, a bit nervous with social situations, but rather is the first to walk up to a stranger and introduce himself.  We keep finding him at other people’s campsites introducing himself and making friends. At the campsite next to ours Tyler befriended a couple from Texas, John and Kay, who were traveling with their parents on a cross country road trip. He went over and started visiting with them.

They were very kind to Tyler and we enjoyed getting to know them. They even gave us a jug of milk from home that came from their cow so that the kids could try real milk, straight from the cow.

We enjoyed the milk with dinner last night. The kids all gave it two thumbs us, declaring it sweeter, richer and tastier than store bought milk.

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We are traveling a similar route west so perhaps we will run into our friends again.

We have found, as we have traveled from campsite to campsite, that the fellow campers we have met along the way are some of the nicest people in the world, and the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends have just made the experience all the richer.

Next stop: 1880 Town, South Dakota

Little Town on the Prairie



This summer Little Town on the Prairie was one of our summer reading books. Like reading Tom Sawyer in preparation for our stop in Hannibal, Missouri, this book was read in preparation for our stop in De Smet, South Dakota.

This was one the stops I was most looking forward to. I have loved the Little House books since I was a young girl and fell even more in love with the series when it was turned into a TV series starring Michael Landon. I couldn’t wait to walk the grounds that were the catalyst of much of my childhood imaginary play.

On Friday night, as the setting sun turned the prairie sky brilliant hues of pink and orange, we pulled into the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead.

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Located a mile or two down a dirt road just outside De Smet, South Dakota, we camped for the night at the Ingall’s Homestead. The Ingall’s Homestead offers a few lodging options including 4 RV sites, tent camping and the option of spending the night in a covered wagon. Oh, I was so tempted to book one of the covered wagon sites but just couldn’t justify the extra cost when we had our own gnome bus to sleep in.

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Our RV site was located right outside one of the historic building with front door access to the old fashioned playground.

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As we pulled into the Ingall’s Homestead and piled out of the bus the first thing we noticed was the significant drop in temperature. It felt like fall and the kids went searching for sweatshirts. This was a big change from 24 hours earlier when we were melting our way across Missouri.

Halfway across Missouri we had a mini panic attack when the generator stopped working. When we are parked at a campground we run our lights, fridge, air conditioner, and water pump off the campground electricity, but while we are traveling or camping out at a rest stop we are dependent on the generator that is strapped to the back of the bus to run our power, so the death of that generator would be a very expensive and tragic hiccup in our trip.

So you can imagine our relief and hymns of praise when we discovered that the cause of its issues was a pin hole in a rubber tube that feeds diesel to the engine. It was a simple $22.00 fix and we were back in business. God is good!

We woke the next morning to a beautiful prairie view, ate breakfast, and walked over to the visitor center to begin our tour.

The Ingalls’ Homestead is the very land that Pa filed a claim on in early 1880 and proved on in 1886. The land is now privately owned, but generously shared with the public as an attraction with a knowledgeable staff and many hands-on activities to introduce families to prairie life and homesteading.

It was here, on this land, that five of the Little House books, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years, take place.

The tour began with a short video that highlighted the history of the Ingall’s family and life on the prairie in the 1800s.

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We were then given a map of the property and encouraged to take our time, explore to our heart’s content as we worked our way from site to site around the Ingall’s Homestead. The Homestead is very kid friendly and kids are encouraged to touch, climb, and experience life on the prairie with the interactive exhibits.

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We began our day at the lookout tower that allows you to climb high above the Homestead for a glimpse of Pa’s 160 acres of homestead land.

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After getting an overview of the property we began working our way from building to building.

The first stop was to see a Dugout and a Shanty.

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The Shanty, though small and cramped, was definitely the more appealing housing option when compared to the Dugout.

Although you could see why a Dugout was the necessary choice for so many settlers:

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From there we worked our way to the well. Water was the key to survival on the prairie and a good, reliable well with a steady stream of fresh cold water was a blessing of immeasurable worth.

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Next we headed to the hayroof barn.

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Here in the hayroof barn we spent almost an hour. The kids walked in and discovered a litter of kittens and a baby cow who call the haybarn home. They settled in the hay with kittens in their arms and had a wonderful time. The smell of fresh hay, the meowing of kittens, and the smiles on my children’s faces were a great reminder that the simplest moments often bring the most joy.

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From there we moved on to Ma’s little house.

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Although not the original, it has been rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original.

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This was the largest home they had lived in up to that point.

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The house originally looked like this:

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Then in later years an additional bedroom was added and finally the organ room.

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In the organ room (which was their living room) there was a braille display where the kids could learn to read braille like Mary.


Here at Ma’s little house the kids were able to participate in experiences  of daily living on the Homestead.

The kids got a kick out of washing, ringing and hanging laundry. Monday was Ma’s laundry day and it was a full day’s work.

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Rusty hanging the laundry while Ozzie mows the grass in the background.

Then it was time for school. The kids were lucky enough to get a wagon ride to the one room school house. Most children, like Laura and Carrie, would have walked to school daily. Local school houses were erected every three miles so that no child would have more than a three mile walk to school.

We climbed on the wagon and the kids were each given an opportunity to drive the team of horses.

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Grace driving. You can see the schoolhouse in the distance.

When we arrived we were greeted by the teacher ringing the bell to announce the start of school.

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This school house is an original 1880s school house, although not one of the three local schools that Laura taught at. The inside was filled with the original black boards and desks.

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 When we entered the kids were dressed in period clothing and asked to take their seats.

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The teacher then led the kids through a typical school day, sharing with them how a day would play out, what would be expected, and even taught them a lesson that Laura may have taught in her classroom.

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She talked about how the classroom was kept warm, what chores the children would have had assigned to them each day (like bringing in buckets of water from the neighbor’s well and feeding the pot belly stove during the winter months) It was fascinating and informative and a whole lot of fun!

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Ozzie was asked to come up to the front and read out loud to the class from the fourth grade primer.

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 He read aloud the following riddle. Can you figure it out?

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Rusty guessed it. The answer: An egg.

Then the bell was rung and the students were dismissed. Back at the barn the kids had the opportunity to ride a horse. This was a new experience for some of them.

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We all fell in love with this one month old foal. His momma was tied up but he had free reign of the farmyard. It was delightful to watch him run, and jump and kick up his legs in youthful enthusiasm.

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Like most kids this little fellow plays hard and then sleeps hard!

In one of the out buildings we learned how to make hay twists. During the Long Winter, Pa and his family couldn’t get any coal so he and Laura had to sit out on the porch making hay twists… 300 a day to burn instead! Sometimes Pa’s hand hurt so bad he couldn’t play the fiddle.

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While at the Ingall’s Homestead we also had the opportunity to do some hand crafts. In one of the out buildings the kids were able to make a few pioneer toys to take home as souvenirs from their day. They began by making corn cob dolls like the one Laura played with as a young girl.

First they ran the corn through the corn sheller to strip the cobs of the dried kernels and then they were able to pick the fabric and string needed to transform the cob into a doll.

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They also were able to make their own jump ropes.

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To weave the jump ropes one would sit on the seat of the machine and turn the crank while someone else, (usually Toby since he was strong enough to pull back against the machine) would hold the other end of the ropes while they weaved into a jump rope.

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It was so neat!

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The kids loved the experience as well as the fact that they were able to leave with some really cool mementoes of their day at the Ingall’s Homestead!

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From the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead we drove over to the De Smet cemetery.


Here can be found the resting places of Pa, Ma, Mary and Carrie.



It was a delightful day. As a little girl I fell in love with Laura and the Ingall’s family and longed to step into her world and live her life. Today I had that opportunity, if just for a moment, and it was just as magical as I dreamt it would be.


Next stop: The Corn Palace.

On the Road


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We are five days into our journey and we now have a routine that drives our days. Here is just a quick peek into the blueprint of daily bus life…life that is happening when we aren’t site seeing.

Our days begin between 7:00-8:00 am when everyone begins to stir. Actually if we are being honest our day begins when Tyler opens his eyes, because when Tyler wakes up no one can sleep! He always wakes with a joyful noise!

The first task is making beds and converting the futon back into a coach so we have walking room in the bus. Then everyone takes turns in the bathroom or in our bedroom getting dressed. We pick our color for the day and everyone grabs the corresponding rolled outfit from their bucket.

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We attached a small mirror to the bedroom wall to create another area where hair and make-up can be done so as to help cut down on bathroom congestion.

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Once dressed everyone has a chore they must get done before they can have breakfast. Just like at home everyone takes ownership and responsibility in keeping our home clean. Each child has been given a daily cleaning task that is theirs for the duration of the road trip.

Grace is in charge of making the bunk beds.

Rusty is in charge of empting all the trash cans and taking the trash the dumpster.

Molly ties open the curtains that were closed for the night and windexes the finger prints off the door.

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Ozzie Clorox wipes the bathroom sink and swishes the toilet clean.

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And Tyler shakes out the mats and sweeps the bus.

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While this is all going on I put dinner in the crock pot and lay out breakfast for the day.

Then everyone gets their breakfast and we are on the road. This morning routine takes us about 30 minutes and we try to be on the road by 8:30 each morning.

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While we travel we do school. Because we are traveling during the school year the kids all have assignments that need to be completed daily. This means that we need to use road time as school time. The time of day that happens depends on what traveling and site seeing we have scheduled for the day.

The bus gets very quiet during school time. The highschoolers log on to their school and start working on lessons. The girls usually set themselves up on the coach, while Rusty likes to lay in his bed.

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Ozzie does his work seated in his seat,

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and Tyler and I go to the back of the bus and lay on my bed. By closing the door we are able to block out the noise and do school without too many distractions.

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When Tyler is done with his worksheets and online lessons he is free to go play and I then work with the other kids who need my help.

Tyler can often be found pedaling his way across America while visiting with Daddy in the front seat. Before we left our therapist, Miss Tina, lent us her under desk bicycle. It is a neat contraption that allows those who sit at a desk all day to get some exercise. She thought it would be a great outlet for Tyler’s energy when he is stuck on the bus for long stretches. It has been a great tool. He likes the fact that it is recording how many miles he is pedaling as we travel cross country!

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In addition to using the bike to help Tyler with his excess ADHD energy we also make a point of stopping at rest stops a few times a day do that he can run and toss a ball for 15 minutes before we are back on the road.

Yesterday we also made a stop at the grocery store for our once a week grocery shopping. Because I don’t have the kitchen cabinet space or fridge space to store more than a week’s worth of food for a family of seven, we need to shop once a week. We look at our itinerary for the week and pick the day that is most open or a travel day to stop and shop.

This time we stopped at a Walmart in Nebraska.

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We knew we were in a different area of the country when we saw bison in the meat cooler.

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Then we put the groceries away and were on the road again!

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We drive until dinner time or until we reach our next stop. On Thursday night we were driving our long 9 hour stretch from Hannibal, Missouri to De Smet, South Dakota so rather than booking a campground we opted to spend the night at a truck stop.

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While I fixed dinner the kids played Frisbee in the grass and then we enjoyed a spaghetti picnic dinner. For a treat we let each of the kids pick a soda from the vending machine to have with dinner.

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Molly volunteered to do dinner dishes and Tyler kept her company as he colored in the kitchen.

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In the evenings we pull the curtains closed, put on PJs, play a board game or watch a movie as a family before having evening devotionals and family prayer.

As part of our evening routine everyone records their top three moments or experiences of the day on index cards that will be added to the vacation scrapbook so that they will be able to read their own account of this trip, years down the road, and remember the experiences they had.

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Then it is time for bed. The boys climb into their bunks and the girls settle into their bed.

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Winter Quarters, Nebraska



After four hours of travel from Hannibal, Missouri toward De Smet, South Dakota we found ourselves in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was an significant stop on the Mormon pioneers westward trek.

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We arrived early, before the visitor center opened and let Tyler burn off some energy, before we asked him to be still and reverent for the next hour, with a game of football in the parking lot.

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When the senior missionaries assigned to this historical site arrived they walked us through the history of this site:

“In the Kanesville Tabernacle, built by 200 pioneers in just two and a half weeks, Brigham Young was sustained as the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The present log tabernacle is a replica of the original meeting hall. The tabernacle now serves as a visitors’ center, where you can learn more about the epic history of the Latter-day Saints’ migration westward.”

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The sod fireplace was very cool. The original sod fireplace would have stretched across the entire wall of the building. It was neat touching the sod and getting a feel for what living in a sod home would have been like. I can’t imagine how they would have kept things clean.


The kids were even invited to play the 150 year old organ. Linda Neeley, you would have been proud!

Then we drove 15 minutes away, across the Missouri River, to Winter Quarters in Omaha, .Nebraska.

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“Winter Quarters encompassed the area of North Omaha near State and 33rd Streets. Historic sites include the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge, Florence Mill, Florence Park, Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Cutler’s Park, and the first Mormon pioneer camp after leaving Winter Quarters. A major interpretive center was built by the L.D.S. Church at Winter Quarters Historical Site in 1997.

Witness glimpses of the great “Mormon Migration” as you walk beside a covered wagon, pull a handcart, climb in the bunks on a steam ship, and imagine a railroad journey. Exhibits also explore the expulsion from Nauvoo, the crossing of Iowa, and temporary settlements in the Middle Missouri Valley, including Winter Quarters, where the center is located.”

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Parked across from Winter Quarters Temple

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Winter Quarters Complex – Omaha, Nebraska

“Built on Indian land with permission from the U.S. Army, Winter Quarters served as the main settlement of the Mormons on the Missouri River until they moved the fitting-out site to Kanesville in Iowa.”

“The winter of 1846-47 was devastating, and with inadequate shelter and food they died by the hundreds of malaria, scurvy, dysentery, and a host of other unidentified ailments. Louisa Barnes Pratt recalled in her memoirs, “I hired a man to build me a sod cave. He took turf from the earth, laid it up, covered it with willow brush and sods. Built a chimney of the same. . . . I paid a five dollar gold piece for building my sod house, 10 x 12. . . . A long cold rain storm brought more severely again the chills and fever. These with scurvy made me helpless indeed! . . . Many of my friends sickened and died in that place, when I was not able to leave my room, could not go to their bedside to administer comfort to them in the last trying hours, not even to bid them farewell. Neither could I go to see their remains carried to their final resting place where it was thought I would shortly have to be conveyed.”

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As we walked around the visitor center we really got a feel for the stories and sacrifices made by those who found themselves wintering over in Western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Their losses were great but their faith was even greater.

December 1846- Diary of Lucy Meserve Smith

“We moved down to Winter Quarters when my babe was two weeks old. There we lived in a cloth tent until December, then we moved into a log cabin, ten feet square with sod roof, chimney and only the soft ground for a floor and poor worn cattle beef and corn cracked on a hand mill, for our food. Here I got scurvy, not having any vegetables to eat. I got so low I had to wean my baby and he had to be fed on that coarse cracked corn bread when he was only five months old. We had no milk for a while till we could send to the herd and then he did very well till I got better. My husband took me in his arms and held me till my bed was made nearly every day for nine weeks. I could not move an inch. Then on the 9th of February I was 30 years old. I had nothing to eat but a little corn meal gruel. I told the folks I would remember my birthday dinner when I was 30 years old. My dear baby used to cry till It seemed as tho I would jump off my bed when it came night. I would get so nervous, but I could not even speak to him. I was so helpless I could not move myself in bed or speak out loud. . . . When I got better I had not a morsel in the house I could eat, as my mouth was so sore. I could not eat corn bread and I have cried hours for a morsel to put in my mouth. Then my companion would take a plate and go around among the neighbors and find some one cooking maybe a calf’s pluck. He would beg a bit to keep me from starving. I would taste it and then I would say oh do feed my baby. My appetite would leave me when I would think of my dear child. My stomach was hardening from the want of food.

The next July my darling boy took sick and on the 22nd, the same day that his father and Orson Pratt came into the valley of the great Salt lake my only child died. I felt so overcome in my feelings. I was afraid I would loose my mind, as I had not fully recovered from my sickness the previous winter” (“Original Historical Narrative of Lucy Meserve Smith: 14 Aug. 1884–1889)”

I can’t imagine packing up my family and heading to an unknown land with minimal provision, propelled forward only by a hope of a better life and a faith in God.

In the visitor’s center there was a display showing the provisions allowed for each wagon headed west. These are the provisions for a family of 5. Handcart pioneers were more limited in the weight they could pack because of the fact they would be pulling their carts across the country without the help of oxen.

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The boys got to try out their Tetris skills as they attempted to get all their supplies to fit in the toy wagon.

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On one display we were able to see the means used to track the pioneer’s mileage west. By tying a rag to the wagon wheel, and by measuring the size of the wheel, one person was assigned the task of counting each rotation of the rag, recording the daily number, and calculating  the mileage for the day. Can you imagine having that job?!

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We left with a better appreciation for our pioneer heritage and gratitude that we are trekking west in an air conditioned bus with running water rather than a handcart!

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Mark Twain’s boyhood home


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover” – Mark Twain

This morning we found ourselves in the charming, riverside town of Hannibal, Missouri, home of the beloved author, Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain..

Knowing that a stop in Mark Twain’s hometown was on our itinerary we decided to add The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to our summer reading list. Every morning, while the kids ate breakfast, I would read a couple chapters from the book. I knew the older four kids would enjoy  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. A few had already read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and liked it. I was surprised, however, how much Tyler liked it. He found Tom to be a hoot and very relatable, commenting often, “He is just like me!” (I don’t know if that is a good thing, but I had to agree!) 😉

After reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer all the kids were excited for this stop.

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We found parking at the riverfront and walked across the street to the Mark Twain Visitor Center.

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There we purchased our tickets and began our tour. The admission tickets include entrance into the Huckleberry Finn House, Mark Twain’s boyhood home, the Becky Thatcher House, J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, and the Mark Twain Museum, all of which were located within a block radius.

The tour began in the interpretive center where we walked through a timeline of Mark Twain’s life. Many of the displays were narrated with Twain’s own words from his autobiography, printed on the walls.

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As we walked through the building reading the story of his life, penned by his own hand, we were blown away by his gift with words and for story telling. He truly was an artist and words were his medium.

Next stop was Huckleberry Finn’s House. This was a replica of the childhood home of Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend of Twain’s from which he based the character of Huck Finn.

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It was fascinating as we moved through the various exhibits and read the stories of his life in Hannibal, Missouri because we could see that so many of his beloved fictional characters were reflective of the people of his childhood.

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The next stop was Mark Twain’s boyhood home.

It was fascinating to walk through the home that served as a catalyst for so many of his stories.

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Outside the home was the infamous white washed fence that Tom Sawyer tricked the neighborhood boys into painting for him when he was sent out to paint it as punishment. Tyler, who loved that particular part of the book was eager to recreate the scene. Identifying with Tom, Tyler played that role and assigned Ozzie the role of gullible school chum. Unlike Tom Sawyers friends, however, Tyler couldn’t talk Ozzie into taking on the task of white washing the entire fence.

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From the cobblestone square outside Mark Train’s home we faced Becky Thatcher’s House and J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office.

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We then walked a block along the Mississippi River to the Mark Twain Museum. We were charmed by downtown Hannibal and the girls had fun poking their noses into cute little shops.

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The Mark Twain Museum was wonderful. The downstairs was comprised of vignettes taken from five of his books.

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In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer vignette  they had the famous white washed fence with boxes that lit up revealing the treasures turned over by Tom’s friends for the privilege of being allowed to white wash his fence.

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Tyler was thrilled to see that his favorite payment collected by Tom was represented:

The rat who was tied to a string.

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Other scenes included Huck’s raft where the kids could sit and watch the old black and white version of the movie, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,

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and the castle from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, one of my favorite Twain books.

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Upstairs there was a replica of a Mississippi River steamboat. Here the kids could try their hand at the wheel and blow the steam whistle.

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We were very impressed with the museum and enjoyed visiting with the staff, all of whom were retired school teachers that volunteer there part time.

As we walked back to the bus we decided to take a detour down to the river where replicas of the Nina and Pinta were on display for the public.

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These are moving “museums” that travel up and down the rivers of America, docking in various cities, so that the public can experience what life would have been like for those who set sail for a new world with Christopher Columbus in 1492.

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We didn’t go aboard since we had toured them last fall when they were docked in Pittsburgh, but it was fun to see them again, even if just from the shoreline.

Then it was back in the car for the nine hour drive to De Smet, South Dakota.

We spent the day with Twain…

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Next stop will be spent with another one of our favorite authors…

Laura Ingalls Wilder!

The St. Louis Arch


We couldn’t have asked for a better day than the one we had at the City Museum. We stayed until closing, which on Tuesday was 5:00 pm. As we walked back to the Metro station we made an impromptu decision to head over to the St. Louis Arch. Everyone was still holding up well and rather than go through the process of taking the Metro back into the city the following day we decided to go ahead and stay in the city later than planned and visit the St. Louis Arch a day early.

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We got back on the Metro where we met a kind young man who filled us in on all the must see stops of his city. He also guided us through the process of getting to the Arch via the Metro.

When we stepped off the Metro we knew he hadn’t steered us wrong:

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There was a lot of excited and nervous energy as we walked toward the Arch. Everyone was excited to see it up close but some were less excited to travel up inside. Before we left on our vacation I worked with Molly and Ozzie (my two that were most scared to go up inside the Arch) to prepare them with what to expect. We watched YouTube videos of the experience so that they could see exactly what would happen. I told them I would stay on the ground with anyone that didn’t want to go up. (I was not too thrilled with the prospect of climbing into a little capsule and riding 630 feet into the air.) As we approached the Arch I could see that both were facing an internal battle with their own fears, not wanting to miss out on this cool experience but both shaking in their boots.

Because of renovations currently taking place on the grounds of the Arch you now have to go over to the old justice building to purchase your tickets to the top.

Inside there was a sample capsule that guests could try out prior to making a decision about riding up to the top of the Arch. It was such a helpful tool. Everyone was able to get a feel for whether the experience was beyond their comfort zone BEFORE getting locked into the capsule for the 3 ½ minute ride up. After sitting in the test capsule both Ozzie and Molly decided to go for it, which meant I was going up too…Eek!

They were nervous, but both felt they would regret it the rest of their lives if they didn’t try.

Testing out the test capsule also gave me a chance to snap a picture of them all together in the capsule since we would have to ride up in two separate groups.

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As we waited for Toby to purchase tickets we wandered into the domed center of the justice building. There the kids were educated by a wonderful park ranger about the history of the building. She had them each take a turn standing in the exact center of the dome where they got to experience the cool phenomenon of acoustics and amplification. She explained that in years past, before the use of microphones, politicians would give speeches in that very spot. Because of the amplifying effect of the architecture thousands of onlookers positioned around the balconies would be able to hear the speech.

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I was amazed! The effect was incredible. It truly did sound like I was speaking through a microphone as my voice amplified through the domed room…so cool!

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As we walked through the back doors of the justice building we were greeted by this amazing site:

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We then headed over to the Arch for our 6:30 pm tour. The crowds were low, due in large part to it being a Tuesday and because so many kids are back in school. Just a month ago we were told the lines to get up to the top were 3 hours long. We are SO glad we decided to postpone our trip until fall.

As we approached the Arch we were astounded by the sheer size and visual impact. As you drive by and view it from a distance you really don’t get an accurate feel for how large and magnificent it is.

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As we moved inside we went through security and then got in line for the ride to the top of the Arch.

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The capsules move like connected train cars. You are assigned a door to stand in front of and you wait for the capsules to arrive caring passengers down from the top of the Arch. Each capsule holds 5 people…very tightly, with shoulders and knees touching.

Tyler, Ozzie, Toby and I rode in one capsule and the big kids rode in another.

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The ride to the top of the Arch took 3 ½ minutes. It is a slow moving journey since it can’t go straight up and down like a traditional elevator. I was very anxious but didn’t let Ozzie in on that fact, knowing how he feeds off the energy of those around him.  So I kept things light hearted as my heart pounded in my chest.

When we arrived at the top we stepped off the tram cars and found ourselves at the top of the St. Louis Arch, looking out those tiny windows we saw from the ground.

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The top of the arch is comprised of a hallway with narrow windows you can lay and look through.

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Each of the kids wanted a picture of themselves at 630 feet, especially Molly and Ozzie who were proud of themselves for overcoming their fears and making it to the top.

As we looked out the windows of the Arch we were rewarded with stunning views of the Mississippi River and of the city. We could see for MILES!

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It was Toby who spotted our bus. I never cease to be amazed by his eagle eyes and keen sense of direction. I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for our parked bus, but within a minute of looking he had found it. He then helped the kids find it.

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Can you see it??

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How about now??

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We were pleased to see that it was still where we left it, although at that distance we couldn’t tell if anyone had added any new” details” to our paint job. (FYI- It was just fine!)

After spending 20 minutes at the top of the Arch we got back in line for the ride down. The ride down was much quicker.

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When we arrived at the bottom we headed to the theatre to view “Journey to the Top,” a film documenting the building of the Arch.

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All I can say is, “Wow!” The movie scared me more than the ride to the top. As they played the actual footage of the workmen, cigarette in one hand and wrench in the other, hanging over the edge of the Arch hundreds of feet up, to tighten a bolt…WITH NO ROPES OR HARNESSES…I felt my limbs go numb.

For a person with an extreme fear of heights that movie is crazy!

But boy, did it give us all a more profound respect for the monument and the men who labored so diligently and dangerously for two years. I found it a miracle that no lives were lost during the construction of this National Monument.

When we finally left the Arch the sun was low in the sky and the St. Louis Arch was bathed in lights. What a stunning symbol of American ingenuity and pioneering spirit.

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 Next Stop: Hannibal, Missouri!