Tag Archives: Rolling Gnomes

Road Trip Video #4

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3 1/2 months have now passed since we returned from our trip of a lifetime. With life consuming us, these days of exploration and ease seem like a lifetime ago. It was an amazing adventure, one we will look back on with fondness for decades to come.

Grace collected photos and little videos from every leg of our journey with the goal of documenting our adventure in a series of 5 (10-20 minute) videos. It has been a couple months since her last video. With all that has been going on she hasn’t had a spare moment to finish her last two videos of the trip, but last week, with the conclusion of the second quarter of school, she had a few days off and finished video #4. This video highlights our week and a half of vacation following Disneyland but before we reached Missouri. (Our adventures in Missouri will play out in Gracie’s final video.)

Some of the stops included in this vacation highlight reel include:

The Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park, Petroglyph National Park, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Roswell NM, and Carlsbad Caverns.

I think Gracie did an excellent job of capturing the adventure, the beauty, and the incredible memories we made as we rolled cross country in our converted school bus.

Enjoy #4!

What a Trip it has Been!

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It was almost 10,000 miles.

We traveled through 22 states.

Over the period of 7 weeks.

We visited 13 National Parks,

and hiked miles and miles of this beautiful country.

Brand new shoes, purchased at the start of the trip,

were worn clean through by the end.

A walking testament to all that was seen and done.

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For those who have forgotten or our joining us more recently, here is a recap of where we have spent the last 50 days.

Day 1: Travel to St. Louis, Missouri with a stop at the Columbus Zoo.

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Day 2: Tyler’s 10th birthday! Explore the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri

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Day 3: St. Louis Arch

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Day 4: Tour Hannibal, Missouri. Home of Mark Twain.

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Day 5: Drive to De Smet, South Dakota

Day 6: Tour Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead and then on to Mitchell, South Dakota to see the Corn Palace.

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Day 7: Visit 1800’s town, South Dakota.

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Day 8: A stop at Wall Drug and a visit to Badlands National Park.

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Day 9: Day 1 in Rapid City, South Dakota: Bear Country USA, Storybook Island, the Dinosaur Park, and a chuck wagon dinner.

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Day 10: Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park to see the world’s largest free roaming buffalo herd in the morning and then a visit to a mammoth fossil dig site in the afternoon.

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Day 11: Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

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Day 12: Check out Devil’s Tower.

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Day 13: Day 1 in Yellowstone National Park

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Day 14: Day 2 in Yellowstone National Park.

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Day 15: Visit Grand Tetons and go swimming in hot springs.

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Day 16: College tour of BYU Idaho.

Day 17: Visit temple square in Salt Lake City, Utah and swim in the Great Salt Lake.

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Day 18: College tour of BYU in Provo, Utah.

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Day 19:  Travel to Yosemite National Park.

Day 20: Visit Yosemite National Park in California.

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Day 21: Visit Sequoia National Park, California.

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Day 22: A day swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Newport Beach, CA.

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Day 23-27: Disneyland, California. This was the big surprise of the trip. The kids just found out the day before we left.🙂

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue at Disneyland California. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Day 28: Las Vegas. Tour Hoover Dam.

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Day 29: See the sites of Las Vegas.

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Day 30: Another (unexpected day) in Las Vegas.

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Day 31: Visit the Grand Canyon.

Day 32: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

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Day 33: Arches National Park, Utah.

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Day 34: Visit Mesa Verde National Park to see the cliff dwellings and stop at Four Corners monument.

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Day 35: Visit Petroglyph National Monument.

Day 36: A stop in Roswell, NM while driving past on our way to Carlsbad Caverns.

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Day 37: A cave tour of Carlsbad Caverns with my brother, Travis.

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Day 38: Drive all day to Branson, Missouri. (See David and Jen along the way)

Day 39: Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

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Day 40: Second day in Silver Dollar City.

Day 41: Explore Branson, Missouri and tour the Titanic Museum.

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Day 42: Branson, Missouri.

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Day 43: Rusty’s 15th birthday. Spend the day in Marceline, Missouri, home of Rusty’s hero: Walt Disney.

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Day 44and 45: Visit Mimi Joy who is serving a mission in the Independence Missouri mission.

Day 46: Visit Nauvoo, Illinois.

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Day 47: Drive toward home.

Day 48: Home Sweet Home!

For 7 weeks our family 0f seven lived in our converted school bus which was lovingly named, “The Rolling Gnomes.”

We slept, ate, did school, and traveled together in 280 square feet.

For 7 of those days our 280 square feet felt like 20 square feet as we lived without the boys’ ADHD medication thanks to restrictive state laws regarding controlled medications.

Our little bus climbed mountains almost 10,000 feet high feet and at Carlsbad Caverns we explored 750 feet below the earth.

We crossed wind swept prairies, majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and desolate deserts.

We made it to the Pacific Ocean and then turned around and drove back home.

Along the way we gained a greater appreciation for our country, and a greater connection as a family.

As a family we grew and learned lessons about ourselves, about our nation, and about each other.

We learned:

About the incredible natural beauty found in the United States of America and gained a greater appreciation for the conservation efforts that have preserved this country’s natural beauty.

On the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service we were able to explore some of the prettiest sites we have ever seen.

In the NPS’s “Find Your Park” campaign we each found “our park…

each of us falling in love with certain areas of the country and the beauty found there.find-your-park

Here are our “Find your Park” National Park choices:

Toby and Grace’s favorite national park was Grand Tetons National Park.

Rusty’s favorite was Arches National Park.

Molly’s favorite park was the Grand Canyon.

Ozzie loved Mt. Rushmore.

Tyler’s chosen park was Badlands National Park.

And my personal favorite was Devil’s Tower.

Some favorite stops included the City Museum of St. Louis, Silver Dollar City, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, Titanic Museum , 1880’s town,

and of course, Disneyland!

We fell in love with the Black Hills of South Dakota,

and were little impressed with Nevada and California.

But the greatest revelation that came from our travels was how good the people of this country are.

We met some of the kindest people in our travels, and in all our interactions with thousands of strangers we had only one negative experience.

It was reassuring and empowering to see the goodness that shone forth across this great nation. In an era of sickening news reports and political filth, it is easy to assume that the loudest voices, the ones highlighted on our evening news, represent the majority of American opinion.

But I have found that to not be the case.

The people of this country are good…no, great.

They are moral, and kind. They are friendly and helpful.

They are proud people who love their country and long for its leaders to raise their standards and be better.

On this trip we made many new friends and the experience lit a flame of hope in me that despite the immoral, disgusting, self serving faces seen clamoring to be the representative and voice of the American people,

the people of America are so much better than the faces that represent them.

As we traveled I fell in love with my country and came home with a renewed spirit of pride in our history, our culture, and our citizens.

Through this experience I discovered a buried gypsy within my soul that fell in love with the simplicity of tiny house living and the life of a nomad.

It is good to be home…

To see the people we love.

To soak in a bathtub rather than shower in camp showers.

We loved being reunited with our animals,

But I’m already missing life on the road and look forward to seeing where the Rolling Gnome bus takes us in the future!

Thanks for traveling with us.

It has been a grand adventure!

Historic Old Nauvoo

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From Missouri we moved into Nauvoo, following the path of early church members as they moved to Nauvoo…

“As the Latter-day Saints fled Missouri during the winter of 1838–1839, having been threatened by the governor of that state with extermination, they crossed into Illinois and settled in a swampy area along the Mississippi River that they named Nauvoo. Over the next few years, an estimated 16,000 Latter-day Saints took up residence in the city and its surrounding communities. It became one of the largest cities in Illinois at the time and an important commercial center on the upper Mississippi.

Many in the surrounding communities continued to harass the Latter-day Saints, and on 27 June 1844, a painted mob shot to death  Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Despite the rapidly escalating tension in the area, the Latter-day Saints continued at great sacrifice to complete a temple in the city, even while they prepared for a mass exodus to the West. Between February and September 1846, most of the Latter-day Saints took up their march to the West, leaving their homes, their city, and their temple to the hands of those who had not built and the hearts of those who did not care.

Today Nauvoo is a significant historic district, with many of the buildings in the original townsite rebuilt or restored and open for the public to visit.”

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This was our first time to Nauvoo and we fell in love with this quaint corner of Illinois. It had a feeling much like historic Williamsburg, as we moved from  building to building, through a town of historic and recreated buildings from the 1840’s. The senior missionaries were dressed in period clothing and demonstrated life from the 1840’s through activities in each shop.

Historic Nauvoo consists of 30 different historic buildings in the village, the visitor’s center and the Nauvoo temple.

What sets Nauvoo apart from other historical villages is the spirit felt there. I loved the education we acquired at each stop about what life would have been like in historic Nauvoo, but appreciated even more the spiritual messages and sweet testimonies born by our tour guides.

Here are some of the favorite stops we made as we discovered Historic Nauvoo:

Visit the Scovil Bakery to experience a baker’s lifestyle before the days of electric and gas ovens. See the baking equipment of the 1840s, original Temple Plates, and many other items used for baking during the Nauvoo period. The Scovil Bakery was one of several such establishments in Nauvoo in the 1840s

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Here we were able to taste the bakery’s homemade gingerbread cookies.

 

Chauncey Webb, along with his father and brothers, owned and operated this blacksmith and wagon shop.

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 This shop has been reconstructed on its original foundation. When you visit, you will learn how wagon wheels were constructed, and you will see a wagon, loaded with supplies, ready to cross the plains. Everyone who visits receives a “prairie diamond” ring, made from a horseshoe nail, to take home as a souvenir.

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We were given a souvenir horseshoe and each family member received a “prairie diamond” ring.

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Imagine setting type for a weekly newspaper by hand, carefully placing each tiny letter in a composing stick backwards. Here you can see a period printing press and learn about the time-consuming labors necessary to print documents in the 1840s. In this shop, you’ll learn various printing terms and see the process of printing a newspaper in Old Nauvoo.

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Discover the interior of a log schoolroom and cabin. Visitors have fun doing lessons on old-fashioned slates and learn fascinating facts about life in Old Nauvoo. Calvin and his family left Nauvoo in 1846. At Winter Quarters, he was asked to remain with Jonathan Browning to provide guns for the pioneers who were headed west.

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Tour the Jonathan Browning Home and Gun Shop and learn about the humble beginnings of the worldwide Browning Arms Corporation. See authentic rifles, handguns, and shotguns from the early 1800s and their present-day counterparts. In this shop, you’ll see a fine display of firearms made by Jonathan and his descendants.

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Brickyard: Many early settlers lived for years in log cabins while they built their brick homes, only to enjoy them for a few short months before they left to begin their trek westward. The brickmaker will demonstrate how bricks were formed, dried and baked here in Old Nauvoo. You may take home a souvenir Nauvoo brick to help you remember your visit

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Here we received one of the souvenir bricks made daily at the brickyard. I loved the spiritual message given here as the gentleman described the process of hardening the bricks in the oven and the affect additional heat has on the bricks and how that analogy compares to the heat or trials in our own lives. Those times can make us hard or they can make us strong.

In the evening we attended one of the many wonderful shows offered to the public in historic Nauvoo: “Rendezvous in Old Nauvoo.”

 

If you are coming to Nauvoo, you must see this show. This delightful musical comedy, performed by senior tour guides, tells the story of the Latter-day Saints who built Nauvoo in the 1840′s, and then had to leave the city they loved.

 Will George find the peace and quiet he needs?
Will Abigail ever get a pickle barrel?
Will horses with wings ever leave Nauvoo?

 Find out the answers and come and see the story, laugh, ponder and shed a tear for Old Nauvoo.

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The next morning we spent time at the Family Living Center, an area geared toward children, where crafts and trades of the 1840’s are demonstrated. This hands-on area was a hit with the kids.

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Guests can view demonstrations in a wide variety of 19th-century trades such as spinning,

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bread making,

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candle making,

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pottery, rope and barrel making.

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Tie everything together as you help the rope maker create another length.

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Finish it all off with the baker, and taste delicious bread from the brick oven. A must stop for the children!

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This homemade bread was incredible. Here is the recipe as shared on their website:

Family Living Center Wheat Bread
8 Loaves
 
In a large mixing bowl, add all the following ingredients in the order listed.
 
2 Tablespoons yeast 1 cup Sugar (if honey, add after water) 1 cup Powdered Milk ½ cup Potato Flakes 5 cups Warm Water  Stir mixture with wooden spoon to dissolve milk and potato flakes.
 
Then add: 5 cups Wheat Flour 6 cups Bread Flour Mix ingredients until gooey ball (shaggy mass) is formed.
 
Add salt and oil on top. (do not mix in until after the dough rests) ½ cup oil 2 tablespoons salt Let the dough rest 10 minutes to allow time for flour to absorb moisture.
 
Lightly mix oil and salt into the dough then empty onto a floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic – about 10 minutes.  Additional flour may be needed to produce a medium dough – but not too stiff.
 
Place dough back into the bowl (oil inside of bowl) and place in the proofer box to rise until double.  (bowl of hot water should be in the box prior to this point).  No need to cover dough with a towel. (at home you can warm oven to lowest temperature,  put in a pan of water and then turn off the oven and this will be like a proofing box)   After dough has doubled (about 1 hour) empty onto the floured surface and divide into 8 pieces (do not punch down).  Flatten (pinch and push) and round each piece and cover and let rest for 15 minutes – dough will start to rise again.
 
Flatten (pinch and push) and round dough again and place on baking sheets.  Cover for final rise.  When finger indention remains in dough it is ready to bake.  Score each round with a tic tack toe pattern (on the four outer edges) or score across the top — only ¼” deep.
 
Ideal oven temperature for the bread will be about 420 degrees. After baking 20 minutes insert the temperature probe into one of the loaves and close the oven door.  When the temperature reaches 195 to 200 degrees the bread is done.  The second batch of bread should take 10-15 minutes longer because of the lower temp at the start of the bake. At home you can bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes.

We ended our visit to historic Nauvoo with a oxen ride. What a cool experience!

A yoke of real oxen will pull you in a covered wagon across the “Mormon Trail” – in the record time of fifteen minutes! Oxen were used by many migrating pioneers because of their great strength. However, they could take some time to train, as Abner Blackburn noted about his near-wild oxen:  ”I was in the trail part of the time, and that was when I was crossing it.” Oxen would also eat anything that was green, unlike a horse or mule who preferred grain. This is one of the best photo opportunities in Nauvoo.

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From there we drove to Carthage, Illinois, the location of Carthage Jail where the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith took place.

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“At the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, a mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who thus sealed their testimonies of Jesus Christ with their blood.

Several days earlier, Joseph Smith and others voluntarily went to Carthage, the county seat located about 20 miles southeast of Nauvoo, to answer charges of civil disturbance. Joseph and Hyrum were held in Carthage Jail pending trial and were guaranteed protection from mob violence by the governor of Illinois.

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Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards were in the jailer’s upstairs bedroom when a mob stormed the jail shortly after five o’clock. Joseph and his brother were shot and killed, John Taylor was seriously wounded, and Willard Richards escaped unharmed. The mob fled, and the martyrs’ bodies were taken back to Nauvoo the next day.

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The jail was used for about 25 years and then became a private residence. The Church purchased the building and property in 1903. To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Martyrdom in 1994, the jail was restored to its appearance at the time of Joseph and Hyrum’s death.”

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Witnesses

Willard Richards  1840–1854 

Willard Richards, an eyewitness of the assassination of the Smith brothers, wrote these words the same day: “A shower of musket balls were thrown up the stairway against the door of the prison in the second story, followed by many rapid footsteps. . . .

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“A ball was sent through the door which hit Hyrum on the side of his nose, when he fell backwards, extended at length, without moving his feet. . . .

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“Joseph attempted, as the last resort, to leap the . . . window, . . . when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he feel outward, exclaiming, ‘Oh Lord, my God!’

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As his feet went out of the window my head went in, the balls whistling all around. He fell on his left side a dead man.”

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What an incredible experience touring this place was.

From there we began driving east…almost home!

 

Walt Disney’s Hometown

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“A Dream is a Wish you Heart Makes”

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Rusty had dreamed of visiting the hometown of his hero, Walt Disney. This trip afforded us the opportunity to take him to Marceline, Missouri on his 15th birthday…

A  magical way to spend his special day!

The United States has three permanent museums devoted to Walt Disney. Each is terrific in a different way. In San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum is the most spectacular—a real “E” ticket. In Central Florida, Walt Disney, One Man’s Dream, a “must see” attraction for Disney fans at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is the most convenient to visit—at least if you’re a Walt Disney World guest. And somewhere near the center of the continental United States, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is the most personal.

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We drove into Marceline, Missouri (pop. 2230) on Monday morning and discovered a small Midwestern town that seemed trapped in time, looking much as it might have when Walt was a young boy walking down Main Street with his mother.

We arrived at the museum to find a lovely, older woman watering the flowers in the beautiful garden that sits beside the old train depot where the museum resides.

She sadly informed us that the museum was closed on Mondays. What a disappointment! We were so looking forward to this special birthday experience for Rusty.

She encouraged us to return later in the week when we were passing back through, but told us that there were other Disney sites that we could see around town, despite the museum being closed.

We decided to do just that and then return on Thursday (as we headed to Nauvoo, Il.) and visit the museum.

This woman is one of many volunteers that run the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. She also happened to be one of the volunteers that personally knew Walt Disney and his family when they lived in Marceline.

It was thrilling to hear her share stories of Walt and his life when he called Marceline home. She graciously stood outside the museum and spoke with us for 30 minutes before she went inside to get a map of Marceline, marked with the various Disney sites, to guide us around the town.

Our first stop was the Zurcher building on Main Street. Behind this building was a huge Coca-Cola sign that was there when Walt was a child. This sign became the inspiration for Coke Corner in Disneyland. A few years ago this mural was uncovered when the building that was built around it was torn down. The paint was so worn and faded that the original Coca-Cola sign was barely visible.

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When Coca-Cola heard about this old sign painted on the brick wall of Walt’s hometown, and heard about its connection to Disney, they sent painters to Marceline to refurbish this historical sign for the city.

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The CEO of Coca-Cola then had it photographed and turned into a Christmas card which he sent to the Disney Company for Christmas that year.

As we walked along  the Main Street of Marceline we caught glimpses of what became the inspiration for Main Street USA in the Disney Parks.

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Main Street USA

Walt made the decision that every visitor to Disneyland would walk down Main Street USA, inspired by his hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Today, you can shop at Murray’s Department store, at the same location for over 100 years (and also the store where Walt purchased his first pair of engineer overalls), and visit other quaint shops on the “original” Main Street USA.

Have lunch in the same building Elias Disney served an oyster dinner to local farmers in hopes of organizing them inot a union.

Stroll past the Zurcher building and see the original Coke mural that inspired Coke Corner at Disneyland.

See specially designed street signs that were personally dedicated by Mickey Mouse

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On Main Street we also discovered the Uptown Theatre. A very special place in the Disney Story:

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From there we drove over to Walt Disney’s childhood home.

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Walt’s family came to Marceline when Walt was only 5 years old. They moved from Chicago in an attempt to keep Walt’s older teenage brothers out of trouble and live a simpler life on the family farm.

Walt’s father purchased a plot of land from his brother who owned land in Marceline and they proceeded to build a home and establish themselves in this small, Missouri town.

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Walt lived here from age 5 to age 9. While not a long period of time, it was a time that greatly affected his life. In fact he has often said this about the town of Marceline:

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Walt Disney’s childhood home is now a private residence, closed to the public. And while visitors can’t go inside there is a sign marking the home from the outside.

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Behind this home sits another important part of Walt’s time in Marceline. This area is opened to the public. Just past Walt’s childhood home sits a small parking area with this sign:

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It was down a grassy path that we found Walt’s Dreaming Tree.

. Daydreaming under this tree, a young Walt would observe the nature surrounding him. He later called these adventures “belly botany” and drew from these moments in his early works. He apparently never outgrew his need for inspiration from his favorite spot. On trips back to Marceline, Walt always put aside time for reflection beneath it, spending hours alone with his thoughts, back under his Dreaming Tree.

The Original Dreaming Tree, the place where Walt sat as a boy and let his imagination take him on incredible adventures, was hit by lightening a few years ago.

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Instead we visited the Son of the Dreaming Tree, a sapling planted from a seedling of the original Dreaming Tree with soil brought from Disneyland and water from Disney World.

As we walked along the grassy path to Walt’s barn we passed signs that gave us even more insight into Walt’s childhood there and the significance it had in his later life.

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In the barn, also known as Walt’s Happy Place, visitors are encouraged to sign the walls and leave messages of love and hope.

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By his own account, Walt’s happiest childhood memories were of his time in Marceline and the family farm there. Walt and his sister Ruth spent many happy hours playing in the Barn. Visitors from all over the world have come to Marceline to spend time at “Walt’s Happy Place”, located in its original place on the Disney family’s old farm in Marceline.
Visit this very special Barn, which was rebuilt by volunteers in 2001, and leave your mark among the thousands of signatures, messages and memories already there to share with the rest of the world. There’s no doubt about it, when you come to this Barn, you’ll feel a special heart connection to Walt.

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It was incredibly moving to read the words of previous visitors and witness the profound effect this humble, inspiring man has had on so many lives.

On Thursday we returned. We arrived as the doors opened and told the volunteers about our attempt to visit on Monday for Rusty’s birthday. They kindly gave him this pin as a special memento.

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The visit to the museum began with a guided tour of the first floor, where the volunteer walked us through the story of Walt’s life in Marceline, beginning with his childhood in Marceline and ending with his visits back when he was an adult.

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The museum is housed in the town’s old train depot. A fitting location for Walt’s museum since he was an avid fan of trains his entire life. In fact one associate said, “Walt got more joy from hearing the sound of a train whistle than he did from an arm full of Oscars.”

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Later in life Walt even built a miniature train track around his California home for his daughters.

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In the museum there are 3,000 artifacts from Walt’s life,

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including…

His elementary school desk where he carved his initials WD:

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A car from the Autopia ride he had built in Marceline for the children of the town:

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The Mickey Mouse flag he donated to be flown on the flag pole of the local elementary school:

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The recording he made from the interview he did with his parents at their 50th anniversary party:

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The first Mickey Mouse dolls:

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and the TV he bought for his sister.

When he invited Ruth to the opening of Disneyland she informed him that she didn’t like crowds, so he purchased a TV for her so that she could watch the opening ceremonies from the comfort of her own home:

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The first floor is filled with Disney movie memorabilia, hand written letters by Walt, receipts, and other family heirlooms. It really is a treasure for Disney fans!

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Upstairs contains a replica of Walt’s front porch and the story of him convincing his younger sister to paint the house with tar,

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A replica of his childhood classroom,

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a piece of the original Dreaming Tree,

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and a miniature model of Disneyland.

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We fell in love with Marceline, Missouri and made some magical memories in this place that was the root of  so much Disney Magic.

Happy 15th Birthday, Rusty!

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On Monday Rusty turned 15 and we celebrated our second birthday on this trip. The road trip began with Tyler’s birthday celebration and it is coming to a close with Rusty’s birthday.

We began our day with our family tradition of waking up the birthday kid with a cupcake and the birthday song.

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Rusty had requested certain foods for his meals throughout the day. The birthday menu began before we left Branson for the four hour drive to Marceline, Missouri. He asked for bacon and an oatmeal bar for his birthday breakfast.

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So we laid out all the toppings for the “create your own” oatmeal station.

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Then we were on the road, headed to Marceline, Missouri, Walt Disney’s hometown, to visit the  Walt Disney Hometown Museum for Rusty’s birthday. Rusty considers Walt Disney his personal hero and has a dream of one day working for the Disney company, so it seemed wonderfully fitting to spend his special day at the home of Walt Disney.

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We arrived in Marceline and easily found the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, unfortunately in all our planning we never took note that it was closed on Mondays! All was not lost. We did visit Marceline, MO but we split our visit into two parts, and had to return a few days later.

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(I will share our visit to Walt’s Hometown in the next blog)

The result was an open day and no special plans for Rusty’s birthday, so we improvised…

and we headed into Kansas City.

We had already planned on dinner at the T-Rex Café in Kansas City so we drove there first for an early dinner.

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Rusty had eaten at a T-Rex café on our Disney World Trip, loved it, and was looking forward to revisiting it. Ozzie and I had never been to a T-Rex Café before since the family had eaten there during the 3 day period of our Disney Trip that Ozzie and I were down with the flu,

so we were really excited to see what all the hype was about.

The T-Rex Café is themed around dinosaurs.

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From the moment you step through the door you are greeted by animatronic giants that make you feel as though you have stepped into a prehistoric world.

There are different dining rooms, each themed a bit differently. There was the fern room,  the ice age room, and the sequoia room.

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We found ourselves eating in the ocean area,

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and dining beneath a giant octopus.

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T-Rex Café is as much about the atmosphere as it is about the food,

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although the food was equally delicious!

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Rusty chose the “Make your own pizza” option and had a T-Rex approved pizza… topped with MEAT!

He chose to top his pizza with BBQ sauce, chicken, pepperoni, and bacon.

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At the end of the meal they brought out a cupcake and sang to Rusty.

After the meal we surprised Rusty with a fun, very Rusty-esque experience. Rusty loves mind-benders, puzzles and riddles. So we found the PERFECT birthday experience for our puzzle master….The Escape Room!

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These escape room experiences are popping up all of the country and are become the fun alternate entertainment to movie or bowling nights. The premise behind these rooms is to put you into an interactive scene that you have to figure your way out of in a set amount of time. These rooms require problem solving, a keen sense of observation, critical thinking skills and a whole lot of team work.

Here is a little more of an overview as taken from their website:

TEAM

The best team is a group of people who can work together. Teamwork is a must when you play this game. You can come in groups of 2 and up to 16 people, depending on the room. The more players – the more chances you have to get out in time.


  • 60 MINUTES

    The team has 1 hour to escape from the room. Time is of the essence. There is a counter in every room, which shows how much time you have left to escape.


  • PUZZLES

    There are a lot of puzzles hidden in every room. You and your team need to find and solve them in order to escape. These are not brain-crashing puzzles, but aren’t childish riddles either.


  • CODES

    You have to find codes and crack them, or use them on several combination locks, in order to open boxes, crates or doors. Codes are not in obvious places. You need to seek them.


  • REAL ESCAPE

    If you ever played room escape game on the internet, it’s the same thing but in real life, and the player inside it is YOU. Live escape is the new fun entertainment you must try!


  • FUN

    When you try one of our escape game rooms, you will get addicted. Its an absolutely joyful, fun and adrenaline raising fun activity, for a price of a movie. Come and try it, and you will come back to the other rooms.

 

The escape room we chose to book was:

 

Description

This is a safe house of a secret agent. He was spying on a traitor who stole the agent list from his own agency. Your mission is to find out who the double agent is and turn the information over to the director before safehouse is compromised. You only have 60 minutes.

We arrived and were given the rules of the game. One of which was no photography (so you don’t spoil it for the next guests) and no using smart phones to help solve the clues.

It was a blast!

We were locked in the room and began scouring the shelves for clues. The set up was incredibly creative. We had to take apart a camera to find a clue within, use found combinations to unlock a safe hidden behind a painting, and observe to spy’s obvious love of photography (by the many cameras around the apartment) to figure our that we needed to look up the word “photography” in the encyclopedia that sat on the shelf to find a photo that led to our next clue.

We had to use a black light to find codes painted on the wall, use a mirror to reflect a laser beam to a spot on the wall, and unscramble letters to come up with the rouge spy’s name.

It was a thrilling, fast paced, adrenaline filled experience.

Just when we would think we were opening the door with the right code, another hidden door (behind a painting or mirror) would open, leading us into another room with more clues.

If we got stuck the puzzle master (an employee who is watching you in the room via hidden cameras) would type additional clues or hints onto the TV screen in the corner.

We did escape…with four minutes to spare!

And the first thing Tyler said as we ran out of the room:

“Can we do it again?!”

Everyone LOVED it!

What a fun family adventure!

Branson, Missouri

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We have now been in Branson for four days. It has been wonderfully relaxing.

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The first two days of our stay were spent in Silver Dollar City (more on that in our next blog) and the other two days were spent touring the town of Branson and all it has to offer.

Branson, Missouri is a fun tourist area. Known for its shows and musical entertainment, it reminds me a bit of a G-rated Las Vegas with its lights, unique architecture, and fun atmosphere. The difference, however, is that Branson is surrounded by the beautiful rolling hills of the Ozarks and is completely family friendly.

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The ability to walk down the street without having to be on high alert of sights the kids needed to avert their eyes from made Branson a much more enjoyable entertainment center than Vegas…at least for me.

Our time in Branson has been spent catching up on grocery shopping, laundry and school…

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As well as enjoying our beautiful campsite.

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For the first time since the start of our trip we are allowed campfires. For much of our trip we were traveling through high drought areas that were under extreme risk of forest fire, so campfires were prohibited. The kids we very excited to find out we could have fires here.

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We have enjoyed our evenings relaxing by the fire,

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Roasting marshmallows.

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and playing games as a family.

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During the last few days we have been exploring Branson, having fun walking down the main drag and checking out the cool sites and unique buildings.

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Yesterday we drove over to the Shepherd of the Hills fish hatchery. This free to the public site has a great display of local wildlife and a lot of conservation geared information about Missouri.

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“Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery is the largest trout-rearing facility operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It is located six miles southwest of Branson on Highway 165 just below Table Rock Dam.

The hatchery includes a conservation center, where the public can learn more about trout culture, aquatic life, fishing and the Missouri Department of Conservation’s role in aquatic resource management. The center is open throughout the year and is free of charge.

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Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery produces between 350,000 and 400,000 pounds of trout each year. Both rainbow and brown trout are raised at the hatchery with 80 percent of production going into Lake Taneycomo. The remainder of the fish are stocked into other Missouri trout management areas.

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Construction of the hatchery began in 1957 and production of trout in 1958 with the completion of Table Rock Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This dam created a large, deep lake that varies in water temperature from surface to bottom. The water near the bottom stays cool, averaging 48 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. During hydroelectric generation, this cold water is released into Lake Taneycomo. Although the cold water release caused the loss of the native warm-water fishery, it created the ideal environment for trout, a fish that thrives at lower water temperatures.”

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It was fascinating looking in the various tanks that displayed turtles, frogs, spiders and snakes from this area, including the five venomous snakes that call Missouri home.

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Tyler was especially enamored with the hatchery itself, where thousands of brown and rainbow trout are raised for release in the lake.

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The kids were even able to feed the fish by inserting quarters into the fish food machines located around the hatchery pools.

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Tyler was in heaven and could have spent all day watching the fish and exploring the different displays in the conservation center.

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It took the doors closing at 5:00 pm to get him out the door.

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Here are some of the cool facts we learned at the conservation center:

“Less that 1% of Black Widow bites result in death.”

“There are no known deaths attributed to the bite of a tarantula.”

“Geese and Bald Eagles mate for life and raise their young together. Only the death of a mate will cause the bird to search out another mate.”

The way to tell a cottonmouth from a non-venomous water snake is by observing how it swims through the water. Copperheads swim on the surface of the water while non-venomous snakes swim with their heads above water but the rest of their body below the water’s surface.”

“Armadillos can now be found wild in Missouri. This is not the result of humans introducing them to the area, but simply the northern migration of southern armadillos.”

“You can tell the air temperature from a cricket. This is one of the more amazing facts of nature. By counting the amount of trills a cricket emits in 15 seconds and then adding 37, this will give you a close estimate of the temperature in Fahrenheit.”

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The following day we headed into Springfield, Missouri where we continued our fish-themed entertainment with a visit to Bass Pro Shop. I have fond memories of visiting here as a kid when relatives would visit us in Missouri. I knew Tyler would LOVE this stop, and since he has been such a good sport about touring places like the Titanic Museum, it seemed only fair that we do something Tyler loves…which is to look at fish!

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Affectionately known as the “Granddaddy of all Outdoor Stores” this 500,000 square feet wonder is dedicated to the beauty of the outdoors. The Springfield, Mo Bass Pro Shop is the original and largest of all the Bass Pro Shops and we had a blast exploring it.

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When we walked in we were greeted by this magnificent site:

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The store was filled will beautiful taxidermy dioramas:

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Aquariums filled with fish,

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and alligators,

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and even a turtle aquarium.

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Everyone enjoyed exploring the store and all the unique, special details,

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but none was more enamored than Tyler.

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It was a fun, free way to spend the day!

The Titanic Museum

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For those who might be wondering where we have been and why we have fallen off the radar… we have spent the last few days in Branson, Missouri enjoying this wonderful area of the country.

It has been so nice putting down roots for more than a night and enjoying our campground for an extended stay. The lack of travel means a lack of time to blog, as we have been making the most of our last week of vacation, making many memories and enjoying our family time together.

Today we headed into downtown Branson, to visit the Titanic Museum.

The girls and I were especially excited about this museum tour, being lovers of history and stories of human nature.

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We went into the experience knowing that photography would not be allowed because of federal copyright laws, a bummer for this blogger who loves recording our experiences with photos, so instead the photos you will see from inside the museum were all taken from Google images.

(We were able to take some photos of the outside of the museum…an impressive piece of architecture in its own right!)

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Everyone knows the story of the RMS Titanic. The remarkable sink-proof luxury ocean liner that met disaster on her maiden voyage, becoming the the largest maritime disaster of that time. The loss of life was horrific. Over 1,500 men, women and children perished on the night of April 15th, 1912.

This museum, dedicated to educating the public through interactive displays walks you through the story of the Titanic- from building the ship, to boarding, to the fateful disaster.

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Our self-guided tour can not be described as “fun.” It was too solemn an experience for that, but it was incredibly moving and thought provoking as we viewed photos of the faces of those that excitedly stepped on board the ship in the United Kingdom. The world was watching and the people were excited as the largest ship ever made set sail for America with First, Second and Third Class passengers.

While waiting in line to enter the museum, we were each handed a boarding pass with the name of a passenger.

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The little boys were given the boarding pass for young male passengers (2 of 133 children that were aboard the Titanic), and the rest of us received boarding passes for men or women that were on the Titanic. My pass bore the name of Emma Bliss, a 45 year old stewardess who was the oldest female crew member on the ship.

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Toby was:

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Grace was:

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Molly was:

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Rusty was:

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Ozzie was:

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Tyler was:

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As we toured the museum we kept our eyes open for mention of our individual passengers in the various displays.

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Entering the Titanic museum felt almost hushed, as we began to move through the exhibits, solemn as though we needed to pay our respects.  We were each given an audio wand that corresponded to numbers throughout the museum. We would punch in the reference number and hold the audio wand to our ear to receive additional information about that display. Often the recordings would be actual testimonials and stories of Titanic survivors that were recorded in their own voice before they passed away.

The last survivor passed away in 2009, so to have these audio journals of the survivors is a real historical treasure.

(There were separate numbers on the displays that corresponded to a recording describing the display that were more kid friendly in their length and information…Perfect for Tyler.)

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As we walked through the museum we learned just how long it took to build the Titanic and how many workers it took. We saw how large the Titanic truly was thanks to a scale model.

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We also viewed rare photos in the Father Frank Browne collection. Father Browne sailed on the Titanic from Southampton, England to Queenstown, Ireland via Cherbourg, France where he departed the ship, even though he’d received an offer to accompany a wealthy American couple to NYC. I can only imagine the relief and despair he must have felt at news of the disaster just days later. Father Browne’s photographs are some of the only photographic evidence of life on the Titanic before the fateful disaster, and integral in telling the story of the Titanic as they offer that human element that reconstructed rooms and surviving artifacts alone, fail to do.

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His photos are the faces of the Titanic. Some of his photos include a picture captured of the Captain and his dog.

PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN BY LATE IRISH PRIEST INCLUDED IN BOOK TITLED 'FATHER BROWNE'S TITANIC ALBUM'

This is one of a collection of photographs of the Titanic taken by the late Irish Jesuit Father Frank Browne. “Father Browne’s Titanic Album” has been reprinted to mark the centenary of the demise of the massive liner. Father Browne became a prominent documentary photographer and a much-decorated chaplain in the British army in World War I. (CNS photo/courtesy Father Browne S.J. Collection) (April 10, 2012) EDITORS: Mandatory credit as given. For one-time use with TITANIC-BROWNE April 10, 2012.

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Another moving area of the museum was the musicians’ room, an area of the museum that tells the story and celebrates the heroics of the seven musicians on board who bravely stayed on deck and played as the Titanic sunk below the icy waves in an effort to calm the passengers in the midst of the tragedy.

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The head musician was Wallace Hartley.

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While there is some debate which song was the final song played before the ship sank (There are 5 different songs that passengers record as the final song) It is widely believed that “Nearer My God to Thee” was the final song played.

The story of Wallace Hartley was told by a member of the crew in the music room. Upon completing his oratory of this unsung hero the worker sat down at the grand piano that sat in the middle of the musicians’ portraits and biographies, and played “Nearer My God to Thee.” As we quietly walked around the room looking into the eyes of those black and white portraits, and listening to the hymn play, we had the opportunity to consider their unique bravery in the Titanic story.

“Nearer My God to Thee” was not only the final song he played but also the song that was played at his funeral, as it was always his favorite hymn.

From there we climbed to the second floor of the museum along a scale replica of the beautiful Grand Staircase where a costumed docent checked our boarding passes before granting access to the First Class quarters.

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We stopped for a moment to really take in the grandeur of that staircase, so familiar to those who have seen the Titanic movie.

In the museum, in addition to enjoying magnificent Titanic artifacts like the menu of the final dinner, we were also able to see a replica of a 3rd class room, a 1st class suite,

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and the bridge where Rusty’s  boarding pass crew member tried to save Titanic from the inevitable collision with the iceberg.

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There were a mere 37 seconds to try to change the fate of the ship from the moment the iceberg was spotted until contact was made. Then only a short 2 hours and 40 minutes from impact until she sank below the waves, taking many lives with her.

From the bridge we stepped onto the promenade which was cooled to the chilling air temperatures felt on the deck of the Titanic the night of its sinking.

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The reality of what it would have been like on the deck of the sinking Titanic is brought to life with a display where we were able to  try to walk up a mock ship’s deck which is slanted at varying degrees as the ship sank:

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The ship at 1:50 am as it tilted at a 12 degree slope.

The ship at 2:05 as the ship tilted at a 30 degree slope.

And the ship at 2:18 as it tilted at a 45 degree slope.

It was chilling and unreal to imagine trying to move to safety as the ship tilted at such extreme angles.

 We also learned how to send an SOS signal and we were able to dip our hands into 28 degree water (the temperature of the water the night the Titanic went down) to see how long we could keep our hand under the water. It was painfully cold and none of us could hold our hand in place longer than 30 seconds. I can’t even imagine the pain those passengers felt in their final moments as their bodies splashed into those frigid waters.

One of the final displays we passed was of the only surviving Bible of the sinking of the Titanic. It was handed over by a male passenger to his sister in law to be passed onto his wife at home. Later it was donated to the museum. It sits on display, open to the passage of scripture it fell open to when workers put it on display:

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John 6

“16And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea, 17And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. 18And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. 19So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid. 20But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. 21Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went. 22The day following, when the people which stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was none other boat there, save that one whereinto his disciples were entered

Before we exited the museum into the gift shop, we walked through exhibits that showed the recovery of the Titanic. We also learned if the person on our boarding passes survived. Grace, Molly, Tyler, Ozzie and my passengers survived, but Toby’s and Rusty’s passengers did not. As I looked around at my family, the reality of the fate of many families that night, hit me. Families were torn apart that night in a heartbreaking tragedy.

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 This is not a feel good museum but it is an incredible museum.  The Titanic Museum is somber and quiet, and lends an atmosphere of thoughtful reflection. I was moved and can honestly say it is one of the most fascinating, beautiful, well done museums we have ever visited.

Carlsbad Caverns

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Location: New Mexico

Established: May 14, 1930

Size: 46,766 acres

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“The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil. Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture built an extraordinary variety of glistening formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.

Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles (five kilometers) on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.

Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects. The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.”

This stop was one that we were all excited for.

We are “cave people,” and I mean that in the kindest way possible…not that we are Neanderthals in our actions and manners…

well, perhaps a little bit,

but what I really mean is that our family loves touring caves.

As a family we have toured a dozen caves and never turn down the chance to explore another underground labyrinth.

Last year we had the opportunity to tour Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system in the world.

When we were planning our cross country trip and realized how close we would be traveling to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, we knew we needed to add this stop to our itinerary. This stop had two added benefits:

#1: We were within three hours of my brother, Travis, who lives in Midland, Texas. So we planned to combine our visit to Carlsbad with a visit with Travis.

#2: It was free to visit and take Travis with us on a cave tour with our America the Beautiful pass.

We arrived in the area on Sunday night. The plan was to meet up with Travis on Monday morning, but we drove over to Carlsbad Caverns the night before so we could catch their evening bat show. This show is a must-see event if you visit the caverns. This show that you watch at the mouth of the cave is just as spectacular as anything you will see below ground.

We arrived at 6:15 and found a seat in the open amphitheater that faces the bat cave entrance.

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There we were instructed to turn off all electronics; including phones and cameras. No photography was allowed at the bat show as the lights put out by our cameras and phones can disorientate the bats in their flight and cause them to crash into vegetation.

We were also asked to sit still and quietly as we waited for the bats to emerge.

As we waited, a ranger spoke about the bats at Carlsbad Cavern, in the most interesting ranger led program we have attended on our trip. We learned that the colony of bats found at Carlsbad Caverns are Brazilian free-tail bats.

This colony is composed of 1/2 million bats, which was an incredible site to see when they began emerging from the cave, but we discovered that today’s colony of bats was a small percentage of the colony that was found there in the 1930’s. That same colony used to be  8-9 million strong.

The primary cause of the shrinking of the colony can be traced to the use of DDT in the 1970s.

Carlsbad Caverns is considered a maternity roost where the colony comes to give birth and raise pups each spring. These bats typically give birth to one pup every June or July. The pups are raised in the cave until the are old enough to join their mothers on their nightly flights beginning in September.

In October they leave Carlsbad Caverns for the winter, choosing to migrate to Mexico each year rather than hibernate like some other bat colonies do.

Around 6:45 pm the bats began to fly, beginning their flight pattern by flying in a vortex, creating a tornado of bats as they worked their way from the bottom of the cave up to the entrance.

The ranger explained that this movement is much like L.A. traffic and by flying in a spinning vortex bats are able to merge into “traffic” allowing 500,000 bats to exit the cave in a orderly way.

It was an unreal site to see 1/2 million bats leave the cave in search of the 4,500 pounds of insects the colony eats nightly in the 20 mile radius around the cave.

As the crowd sat in complete silence under a wave of passing bats, the experience was almost spiritual.

(Images taken from NPS website)

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I don’t know when I have experienced something so affecting.

The only sound was the whoosh of air as they flew above our heads and moved in a dance of dips and spins.

It was one of the neatest experiences of my life.

The next morning we returned to Carlsbad Caverns to meet my brother, Travis, for the day. Since he moved to Texas, visits with Travis are a rare and treasured treat. We decided to make this his belated birthday celebration since last week was his birthday.

He arrived and the kids ran over to greet him.

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Toby picked up our tickets for the tour and we began our visit in the visitor’s center, where we were able to learn a bit more about the formation of the cave, the history of the cave, and the bats that occupy the cave.

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From there we moved to the elevators that would take us deep within the Caverns.

There were multiple cavern tours available from self-guided, walk through tours  to more adventurous, ranger-led tours.

We opted for the Big Room tour:

“The basic tour through Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room route, a one-mile, self-guided underground walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave, the Big Room. Taking approximately 1.5 hours, this circular route passes many large and famous features including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. Highly decorated and immense, the Big Room should be seen by all park visitors.

Access to the Big Room is provided by elevators located in the visitor center.

Just how BIG is the Big Room? At about 8.2 acres in size, roughly 6.2 football fields would fit into the Big Room!

It is definitely well-named as this is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America.

Other caves might be longer or deeper, but few can live up to the grandeur of the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns”

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We took the elevator down 750 feet into the heart of the cavern,  which was equivalent to over 70 stories of descent and took about a minute to go down. Rangers operate them with a pre-orientation.

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The first thing that greeted us below was the cafe and store carved under the rocks. It was pretty amazing how they were able to carve out a small underground center here.

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The other thing we noticed upon stepping out of the elevator was the temperature, which remains a steady 56 degrees year round inside the cave.

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The trail around the Big Room was incredible. Pictures didn’t prepare us for the vast size and incredible beauty.

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We have toured many caves, with some prettier than others, but I have never visited a cave more beautiful than Carlsbad Caverns.

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I’ve often said there’s no comparison with pictures and seeing things in person. In this instance, our pictures don’t even begin to capture the beauty and size of these formations.

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These decorations were all spectacular sights. We saw the Stalagmites growing from the ground and created by water falling on the floor.

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Water dripping slowly from the ceiling created the Stalactites hanging down. The thinner, hollow ones are called Soda Straws.

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When stalagmites and stalactites grow and meet together, they create these massive formations called Columns.

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Sometimes, water gathers in the cave and form Cave Pools. This one was clear and made for some wonderful reflections.

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Their imagination ran wild picturing what some of the formations looked like. Some actually had names like this one called Lion’s Tail.

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It was an amazing experience and it was fun to be able to share it with Travis.

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After our 1.5 hour walk around the Big Room we stopped at the underground cafeteria for Travis’ birthday lunch.

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Where else in the world can you say you had your birthday lunch 750 feet below ground.

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“The Underground Lunchroom came into existence in 1928, two years before the cave became a national park. At that time there was a desperate need for food and drink for tourists who were exhausted by the six hours walk required to get in and out of the cavern’s Big Room. The hike had such a reputation for making visitors hungry that the last few hundred yards were known as ”appetite hill.”

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The Underground Lunchroom serves small meals such as sandwiches, salads, yogurt, parfaits, and other food that does not involve cooking in the caverns, so as to protect the delicate cave environment, although in the early years of its operation there were no prohibition on cooking. Visitors can still  eat at a personal lantern lit table.

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One of the most popular activities for visitors is to write and send postcards from underground. There is a mailbox in the caverns, and you can stamp your postcard “Mailed from 750 feet below ground.”

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We had a few postcards to mail out and sent them from this underground post office.

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Then we took the elevators up to the surface where we headed back to the bus to give Travis a tour of our home on wheels.

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There we gave him his birthday gift: a Carlsbad Caverns t-shirt and hat to remember his birthday visit to the caverns.

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Travis also gave Tyler his birthday gift: a really cool mega squirt gun, that Tyler was thrilled with!

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All too soon it was time to say our goodbyes. It wasn’t a lot of time, but we were thrilled to carve out some special one on one time with my Texan brother. It was a visit we will never forget!

Petroglyph National Monument

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While much of our trip was planned out down to the smallest detail, we have had some impromptu adventures along the way.

There is something quite fun and exciting about veering off the beaten path for an unexpected adventure.

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On our way from Mesa Verde National Park to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico we passed a sign for Petroglyph National Monument. Stumbling across this national monument was a wonderful case of serendipity.

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We veered off our planned route and found ourselves at the Visitor’s Center, unsure of what we would find at this national monument. I only knew that I wanted to see (and have the kids see) some ancient petroglyphs in person after having studied them in art and history class.

Petroglyphs are rock carvings. Unlike petrographs which are drawn on or painted on rock faces, petroglyphs are images that are scratched into a dark faced rock revealing the lighter stone underneath.

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Petroglyphs have been found on every continent except Antarctica and are associated with prehistoric people.

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Located just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, Petroglyph National Monument is home to one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in North America. 25,000 petroglyph images can be found scratched into the dark boulders of the park.

At the visitor’s center we were given a map of the different trails in the area where we could view these ancient works of art.

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At the ranger’s suggestion we opted to head to Boca Negra Canyon. She explained it was the closest, easiest to access, and most recommended for kids.

As we were leaving Ozzie took a seat outside waiting for the rest of the family to emerge from the visitor’s center when Molly whispered urgently,

“Ozzie, don’t move!”

To which Ozzie responded by jumping up with a panicked yell, “Why?!”

Across is foot slithered a snake.

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Unsure of whether it was venomous or not, Ozzie jumped in the air, landing back on top of the snake.

We finally got him away from the little fellow. I think Ozzie’s and the snake’s hearts were racing a bit after that encounter. A local who was passing by informed us that it was perfectly safe and not to worry.

Whew!

We then drove a couple miles away to the Boca Negra Canyon to hike and view the petroglyphs up close.

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It was thrilling seeing these ancient images in person.

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Carved into dark, Basalt boulders that were created by ancient volcanos, the hike became an exciting game of “I Spy” as we searched for these ancient, primitive images dating 700-3000 years old.

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Some of the images were easy to interpret while other shapes and designs were more abstract.

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It was fun guessing at what they could be and what they might mean, as many were grouped together as if meant to tell a story.

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The meanings behind these petroglyphs are for the most part unknown but it is fun to guess at what stories they tell.

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The petroglyphs we encountered included serpents, birds, horses, humans, masks, four pointed stars, spirals and even hand prints.

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As we hiked we were also treated to some real animals in the form of long eared jack rabbits. You could tell we had traveled through South Dakota when Tyler asked,

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“But where are their antlers?”

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We had to break his heart and explain that jackalopes weren’t real. 🙂

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It was a fun, unexpected stop on a long travel day. Sometimes the best memories come from the unexpected, unplanned moments of life.

Next Stop: Roswell, New Mexico

Mesa Verde

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On Friday night, after our stop at Four Corners, we arrived in Cortez, Colorado. We were staying at a KOA and Tyler was beside himself with excitement. In our KOA book he read that this KOA had a fishing pond, the first KOA to offer fishing since Devil’s Tower KOA.

Toby had packed two poles and a tackle bag for just this opportunity and Tyler couldn’t wait. We made sure to get to our site before dark so that he would have a chance to fish.

When we arrived we were guided to our site by the camp manager who also gave us a little background information about the area.

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It was a fascinating history lesson. Then he pointed out the mountain range in the distance and told us that the mountains we were looking at were the land of the Ute tribe and what we viewed as the mountain range was actually believed to be a fallen Ute warrior.

If you look at the mountain from left to right, the small peak at the far left side is his toe. The next peak, moving right is his knee. The highest peak is his crossed arms, and finally you see his head sloping down to his hair.

Can you see it?

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The river that runs from the mountains is his spilling blood.

It was a beautiful campground!

Toby took Ozzie and Tyler fishing while the older kids helped me with our weekly laundry. This stop also allowed us to get our grocery shopping done for the week. It is such a good feeling when the cabinets are restocked with food and the drawers are filled with clean clothes.

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That night we all stepped outside to witness stars unlike anything we see in the east. The Milky Way was vibrant and the number of stars visible, was astounding.

The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park. I woke with mixed feelings about our visit there, excited to see this neat place again and share it with my family, but also a nervous wreck about the tour we had planned.

As a child we toured one of the cliff dwellings. I still have nightmares about climbing down the side of the cliff to walk through those ancient ruins, and I am convinced that at least a portion of the reason I am scared of heights comes from that experience.

We arrived at the visitor’s center and research facility. This visitor’s center houses a small display area that showcases some of the artifacts found on site but is comprised mainly of a ticket desk and gift shop. The main visitor’s center is found deeper in the park.

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It was here we purchased tickets for a cliff dwellings tour. While our America the Beautiful pass allows us to enter any National Park for free, some parks have an additional charge for special tours or events. It you choose to tour one of the cliff dwellings in the park you must sign up for a ranger led tour which was surprisingly affordable at $4.00/person… A bargain for the amount of education and experience you get during that 60 minute tour with a ranger.

There is plenty to see and do in the park that doesn’t involve one of the cliff tours, but if you want to see these unique dwellings up close there are 3 different tours available to the public.

There is…

The Long House Tour:

“This is the most in depth tour. This two hour tour involves hiking 2.25 miles and climbing two 15 foot ladders.”

The Balcony House Tour:

This is the tour I did as a kid that was so scary.

“This is considered the most adventurous cliff dwelling tour. On this one hour, 1/4 mile tour you will climb a 32-foot ladder, crawl through an 18 inch, 12 foot long tunnel, and climb up a 60 foot, open face cliff with stone steps and two 10 foot ladders.”

The Cliff Palace Tour:

“On this one hour tour you will descend uneven stone steps and climb four ladders with an elevation change of 100 feet.”

We opted to sign up for the Cliff palace tour.

After purchasing our tour tickets for the 1:30 tour we began exploring the rest of the park. The drive from the Visitor’s Center to the ruins at the top of the mesa takes around 40 minutes. Once at the top it was easy to move from one archeological site to another.

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Our first stop was the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum where the kids began researching and filling out their junior ranger booklets. Here at the museum we were able to view dioramas of the different dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblonians as they moved from pit houses, to pueblos, to cliff dwellings.

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Here they also had a scavenger hunt of sorts. In their booklets they had puzzles about the Ancestral Pueblo people, formally known as the Anasazi people, and their lives at Mesa Verde. The kids had to work their way through the museum, reading the displays to find the answers to the puzzle.

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It was fascinating to read more about this ancient people that we have studied about in history class.

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Here is a little information about Mesa Verde and the people who used to call this area home:

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Location: Colorado

Established: June 29, 1906

Size: 52,074 acres

“At Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table,” multistoried dwellings fill the cliff-rock alcoves that rise 2,000 feet above Montezuma Valley. Remarkably preserved, the cliff dwellings cluster in canyons that slice the mesa into narrow tablelands. Here, and on the mesa top, archaeologists have located more than 4,800 archaeological sites (including 600 cliff dwellings) dating from about A.D. 550 to 1300.

The sites, from mesa-top pithouses and multistoried dwellings to cliffside villages, document the changes in the lives of a prehistoric people once dubbed the Anasazi. They are now more accurately called the ancestral Puebloans, and modern Pueblo tribes in the Southwest consider themselves descendants of these ancestral people. Some 40 pueblos and cliff dwellings are visible from park roads and overlooks; some of these are open to the public.

Beginning about A.D. 750, the ancestral Puebloans grouped their mesa-top dwellings in pueblos, or villages. About 1200 they moved into recesses in the cliffs. So sheltered, these later villages seem to stand outside of time, aloof to the present.

In 1888 two cowboys tracking stray cattle in a snowstorm stopped on the edge of a steep-walled canyon. Through the flakes they made out traces of walls and towers of a large cliff dwelling across the canyon. Novelist Willa Cather later described the scene: “The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.”

Climbing down a makeshift ladder, the excited cowboys explored the honeycombed network of rooms that they named Cliff Palace. Inside, they found stone tools, pottery, and other artifacts in rooms that had been uninhabited for some 600 years.

Why the Mesa Verde people eventually left their homes may never be known. Indeed, they lived in the cliff dwellings for only about the last 75 to 100 years of their occupation of Mesa Verde. Early archaeologists guessed warfare, and the evidence for this seems to concur. Archaeologists also think they may have been victims of their own success. Their productive dry farming allowed the Mesa Verde population to grow perhaps as high as 5,000. Gradually woodlands were cut, wild game hunted out, and soils depleted. Years of drought and poor crops may have been aggravated by village squabbles. By the end of the 13th century the ancestral Puebloans had left the plateau, never to return.”

The kids finished their booklets and earned their junior ranger badges. Since we still had an hour to explore before we had to meet up with the ranger for our Cliff Palace tour, we decided to drive the Mesa Top Loop and Cliff Palace Loop and explore some of the other dwellings in the park.

Our first stop was the Pit House:

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It is here we find the earliest evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans, from around 600 A.D. Their first dwellings were shallow pits dug into the ground, covered with pole and mud roofs and walls, with entrance through the roofs.

This pit house is one of the best preserved anywhere.

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The larger space was the living room with a fire pit in the center where cooking was done. Adjoining the larger space was a smaller room, called the antechamber, that was used for storing firewood and food.

From there we moved to the Square Tower House Overlook:

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This dwelling is dated 1200-1300 A.D. and represents the move made by the Ancestral Puebloans from the top of the mesa down to cliff dwelling residences.

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It is unknown why the people moved from the top of the mesa down to the cliff dwellings but some possibilities include better protection from enemies or simply needing all available land at the top of the mesa for growing crops.

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The name for this cliff dwelling comes from the striking four story structure still standing against the curving wall of the alcove. About 60 of the 80 rooms still remain intact . A spring behind the dwelling provided water for the residents and hand and toe holds were carved into the cliff face for climbing in and out of the dwelling up the side of the cliff.

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Look! The Rolling Gnomes bus!

 

From there we drove to Sun Point View.

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The view at Sun Pont is one of the best in Mesa Verde. From this overlook a dozen different cliff dwellings are visible.

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From here we drove to the Cliff Palace overlook where we were meeting up with our tour group. At this point I was still debating whether to tour Cliff Palace with my family or whether I should wait for them at the top.

Especially when I saw how we  would be exiting our tour. Can you see the ladder in the distance?!

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I finally decided to face my fears and be brave. I am so glad I did!

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800 years old, the Cliff Palace is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park. The Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

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We walked down steps carved into the rock, and up our first wooden ladder to reach our first stopping point of the tour where we were educated by the ranger on the construction of Cliff Palace.

The construction of Cliff palace was a herculean effort. The basic raw materials were abundant  and available. Many of the stones were formed by hand using harder quartzite hammer stones. Water had to be hauled down the cliff face to be mixed with sand, clay and ash to make mortar. When water was in short supply urine was used. Logs were cut and hauled down the cliffs to create roofs and support beams. In the end about 150 rooms were built.

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From there we walked to the center of the Cliff Palace where we stopped again and learned more about life for the people that resided at the Cliff Palace.

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It is believed that 100-120 people called Cliff Palace home. This number was determined by the 25 living room hearths found at Cliff Palace and the belief that each living room would have housed 3-4 people. It is in these living rooms that meals would have been prepared, and where families would have eaten their meals, slept and engaged in daily living.

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The life span for these people would have been 30-40 years.

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From there our tour moved to the far side of the Cliff Palace where we learned more about the Kivas, subterranean rooms where religious ceremonies would have been held.

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We were also able to look inside one of the towers and see some of the original wood beams and ancient paintings high on the wall.

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Ozzie was beside himself as we toured Cliff Palace, having just studied the Anasazi people last year in school.

It was an amazing tour!

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Then it was time to climb back out. Though not as scary or challenging as the Balcony House exit, it was still an exciting climb up carved stone stairs, narrow walkways between boulders, and wooden ladders.

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As we passed the original hand and toe grips that would have been used to exit Cliff palace 800 years ago, I was grateful for my wooden ladders!

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What an incredible place!!

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Next Stop: Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico