Tag Archives: school bus conversion

We have New Neighbors!

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What a bizarre reality we find ourselves living in. A month ago feels like a lifetime ago. It is hard to believe that just two months ago we were cruising the Caribbean and now we find ourselves locked down at home for the next five weeks (or maybe longer). Things that were consistently “normal” in our daily lives are now absent and we are slowly finding our new normal in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

We now have everyone except Ozzie back at home. Molly, who was scheduled to fly out to Utah on March 27th is now home for the next month as she does her missionary training online in her bedroom rather than at the MTC. Daily anchors in our weekly schedule have been lifted. Trauma therapy, equine therapy, tutoring, sports practices, visits with Ozzie, family therapy sessions, shopping, errands, and even work for Toby has been canceled. As a construction worker his business is considered “non-essential” by the state of Pennsylvania, which means he, Zach and Molly are now home all day.

On Saturday the stay-at-home order for our county was extended from April 6th to April 30th. This news led to Grace and Zach making the decision to move into the bus for the next 5 weeks (or at least until they get sick of us)! At their little apartment they just aren’t set up for an extended lockdown. Their apartment has no laundry facility, and as newly weds they don’t have the food storage, supplies, or even outdoor space to make living under quarantine doable/bearable.

On Saturday they called and told us their plans and we got to work getting the bus ready for occupants.

“Bus?” You ask. Let me explain…

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Four years ago our family purchased a used school bus at a school bus auction with the intention of taking it on a 6 week tour around the country. We gutted the inside, removing all the seats within, and over the course of a year (as Toby had free time) we turned the bus into an RV.

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The inside offers all the comforts of home including a master bedroom, extra bunk beds, a kitchen with a full size fridge, microwave, and stove top, a bathroom with a toilet and sink, as well as plenty of seating for our family.

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Once completed, we used our bus to carry our family on the road trip of a lifetime from one side of the country to the other, hitting all the major historical sights and national parks along the way. It was the ultimate home-schooling fieldtrip.

(If you want to read more about our adventures check out the blogs written from August 2016-September 2016. Here is the link to the first of that series: https://ktmccleery.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/the-first-day-of-school/)

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It was an amazing trip and our converted school bus, which we christened “The Rolling Gnomes.”

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Now the bus is parked in the yard and is used for local camping excursions as well as being our guest house when company visits.

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The bus is now Grace and Zach’s home away from home during this pandemic.

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It is an ideal set up, as it allows them to choose how much family togetherness they want. They have their own space to lock themselves away, have quiet time, watch a movie alone, or cook their own meals, but when they are craving more contact they have a house full of people to visit just across the yard.

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As for the rest of us, we have been filling our days with schoolwork and projects, trying to balance the gift of rest and downtime with productivity.

In the next blog I will share our “Coronacation” schedule so that you can see how we are using our time at home, and what a “typical” day in lock-down looks like at Patchwork Farm.

A Monthly Update

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Often in my focus to report on the “big” events of life I procure a pile of photographs documenting the smaller moments that add up to life here on Patchwork Farm. This blog is dedicated to that collection of captured moments. Here’s to the moments that make up our ordinary, extraordinary life!

Searching for Buried Treasure

Toby is a member of a local metal detecting club. The Beaver County Metal Detecting Club is comprised of 20+ men and women who gather monthly to compare notes and swap stories of their best treasure finds over the last month, as well as organize formal hunts a few times a year.

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A few Saturdays ago was the annual fall hunt with the club…something Toby always looks forward to. The hunt keeps him out of the house all day as club members participate in a series of hunts, searching out buried treasure hidden by members of the club earlier in the day. Toby always returns home a bit sore from all the up and down movement that comes with an all day hunt, but with a smile on his face, eager to show off his haul.

Tyler is always first in line to help Daddy sort and count his loot.

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Great Blessings

We would just like to thank you all for the outpouring of love and support you have shown our family and Ozzie during this hard season of life. We have felt the sustaining and strengthening power of many prayers and are happy to report Ozzie is doing better than we ever imagined. He is thriving. The results of the therapeutic support he is receiving is nothing short of miraculous and we are so proud of him and the hard work he is doing to heal. He will be starting EMDR therapy this week with a licensed EMDR therapist and I firmly believe this therapy, used with patients suffering from PTSD, will be the answer we have been seeking to unlock the memories of abuse at the hands of Ozzie’s birth mother and birth father, and open the door to begin healing from that trauma.

Family-Based Rocks!

Because Ozzie will be away for a few months, our Family-Based services are coming to a close. Family-Based is another layer of therapeutic support we implemented in hopes of helping Ozzie stabilize and heal at home. That was not God’s plan for Ozzie and our time working with Family-Based was short lived, but it served a purpose. I can now look back and see why God opened a door that closed so quickly after entering it. Our time with Lisa and Valerie was short but they provided support and resources that were key in helping our family heal…particularly in meeting the needs of the older kids who were dealing with their own trauma…trauma that comes as a result of adopting a child who had been abused and suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder. It was Valerie that introduced my older kids to the Ready Yourself Youth Ranch that they now volunteer at two mornings a week, helping with horses and learning the skills they need to become mentors at the ranch.

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Last week was our last home visit from our Family-Based team. They brought cupcakes to celebrate and a craft project for the kids to do while they talked and helped the kids process the muddy mix of emotions everyone is struggling with since Ozzie left.

They painted river rocks together. In our area there is a fun movement taking place that involves painting rocks, tagging them with #beavercountyrocks, sealing them and then hiding them around the county. Once found you can follow the travels of your rocks on Facebook as seekers take photos of your rock, post it, and then hide it in a new location.

The kids had fun painting their river rocks to get into the #beavercountyrocks game.

The results were fun and creative!

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Now, where to hide our rocks?!

Ukulele Adventures

For Molly’s birthday she received a ukulele from my parents. She has been toting it back and forth to co-op each week where her friend, Caleigh, has been giving her lessons. With all the toting back and forth Molly decided a case was in order. She found one online and used some of her hard earned money to purchase this charming panda themed case. Molly is thrilled!

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PSATs…BLAH!

Last Wednesday Molly and Rusty had their PSAT test. This test…preparation for next year’s SAT test, is just a sad testament to how old my babies are getting. I look at Rusty and Molly and can’t wrap my brain around the fact that we are creeping closer to college searches. Neither were particularly thrilled with taking the PSAT but were excited that they were able to test at our school’s new Pittsburgh location and see their Pittsburgh based teachers.

Tatum and Annaliese, two of Molly co-op friends, were also signed up for testing, so we volunteered to load up Big Bessie and take everyone down on Wednesday morning. Rather than have everyone drop off kids off at 6:30 in the morning, we just had the girls spend the night. It worked out well. They managed to take something they were all dreading and make it fun.

Earlier in the day Molly prepped the bus for their sleepover. She thought it would be fun to camp out in the bus, and I was thrilled to see the bus getting used after a summer of sitting dormant. Molly made the beds, carried out movies they could watch on the TV, and filled the fridge with snacks and drinks.

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I think the girls had fun,

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And everyone survived testing, although I think they would all say they are glad it is done and over with!

Rusty on the Road

Rusty is slowly and hesitantly embracing his role as a new driver. Being the third child I have taught to drive, I find it interesting how personalities shine forth in each child’s driving style. Rusty, who has always been extremely careful and conscientious, is a slow and steady driver. There is no speeding, law bending, or bone breaking moves with him behind the wheel.

Tyler must disagree, as he has taken to wearing safety gear when Rusty is behind the wheel. 🙂

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I fear the day it is Tyler’s turn to get behind the wheel. I think I may have to borrow that helmet!!

My Mini-Me

Grace is now a red head and I think she plans to stay that way. After years of bemoaning the fact that I ended up with three blondies, I finally have a redhead… thanks to L’Oreal!

I don’t know if it is the red hair or if the genetic connection has become more pronounced but I feel as though I now have a younger (and much cuter)  mini-me!

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My Buddy

Tyler is now my buddy. With Ozzie away and the older kids engaged in school, social activities, and work, it feels as though it is often just Tyler and I hanging out. Between therapy and tutoring appointments 5 days a week, we spend a lot of time on the road together or at the table together doing school. After a decade of juggling the teaching of 3-5 children their lessons every day, it is bizarre to have hours to spend working with just one. The older kids are so independent now that they only come to me when they need clarification or help with a question, which frees me up to work with Tyler all day…

and I must admit I’ve loved.

We have had a lot of fun delving deeper into subjects that interest him, seeking out fun science experiments and art projects to enhance his online school lessons, and having the time for weekly trips to the library. Here are some of his recent projects:

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The Monster Under the Bed

All of the one-on-one attention has been a blessing in other ways too. Tyler is struggling with monster sized fears, fears we are working to address in therapy. These fears are driven by the abuse he suffered as a small child and while he struggles to express the thoughts consuming him in his head I have been able to piece together the fact that they are trauma driven simply by where and when they are most prevalent. His PTSD seems to rear its ugly head after the sun goes down. Nighttime is scary time and his bedroom and the bathroom are the places he fears most. From his child profile I know that dark, closed places and the family bathroom are where most of the abuse took place, so it make sense that those are the places he fears most.

Miss Tina, our therapist, has been working with Tyler to help counteract the negative emotions connected to those locations with positive ones. We do this by making happy, light, funny memories in those locations. We play family board games on his bedroom floor, we have shaving cream battles in the bathroom….whatever we can think of to bring light and peace and laughter to a place that is dark and scary in Tyler’s mind.

One way we have done this is with the use of bathtub crayons in the shower. Bathtime is a nightmare with Tyler. He is terrified to shower or bathe. And knowing what was done to him in his birth family’s bathroom, I understand that. But we have to help him overcome that fear, so we bought some bath crayons, and enlisting the help of the other kids our shower wall has now become a message board for the kids. Tyler’s curiosity of what funny photos, messages and game boards have been drawn on the shower wall since his last bath has surpassed the fear of bathing (as long as we do daytime showers.) And I have LOVED reading the dialog back and forth. What an awesome way to battle a fear, encourage writing, and strengthen bonds between siblings, all in one swoop!

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Healing bonds via Snail Mail

Strengthening bonds has been a focus in all our family’s relationships this past month. We have all felt the polarizing affects of RAD and trauma after the last 8 months of being in crisis mode. This ongoing, escalated state has a huge effect on relationships and the family dynamic. Now that everyone is stable we are trying to begin healing the damage. One way we are facilitating that healing is through weekly letters between Ozzie and the other kids. Every Sunday they write him a letter which are then mailed out through the week. Ozzie then can write back and the kids can begin reconnecting again.

This week we did something different. We each did a handprint on paper using paint. When our handprints had dried we flipped them over and everyone wrote something they love or admire about Ozzie, using the line, “A high five for…”

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I then laminated our handprints and connected them with a metal ring as a special momento for Ozzie, allowing him to reach out and touch our hands whenever he feels lonely.

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Well, there you go…

A small snapshot of our ordinary, extraordinary life.

God is good!

 

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!

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!

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

Vacation Highlight Video #2

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Grace has completed her second highlight video of our amazing journey, stealing snippets of time between schoolwork and touring to work on it.

This video highlights Week 3 of our trip, covering our time at Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, Salt Lake City, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Newport Beach, California and Downtown Disney.

 The next video will be of our five days at Disneyland

We hope you enjoy reliving some of the highlights of  Week 3 with us.

What a trip it has been.

It has been a marvelous journey!

The Grand Canyon

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“Vast, magnificent and inarguably beautiful, the Grand Canyon is easily Arizona’s most distinguishable landmark – and a natural wonder that you simply have to see to believe. Stretching 277 miles from end to end, steep, rocky walls descend more than a mile to the canyon’s floor, where the wild Colorado River traces a swift course southwest.

In the Grand Canyon,

” Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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Grand Canyon National Park encompasses canyons, river tributaries, and surrounding grounds. The Grand Canyon is situated in Arizona’s northwestern quadrant. With five million visitors making the trip to the canyon each year, Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. In addition, the park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. 

The Grand Canyon had a long and arduous road to becoming a national park, beginning in the 1880’s with several failed congressional bills. After making multiple visits to the area, Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908. The bill to grant national park status to the area was passed in 1919 and signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson.
 
There are two public areas of Grand Canyon National Park, the North and South Rims. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the Grand Canyon South Rim is the most accessible section of the national park, with numerous places where visitors can pull over to admire the views. The Grand Canyon North Rim, 1,000 feet higher than its southern sibling, isn’t as popular because it is harder to get to, especially when harsh winter weather closes access roads. By car, the trip from one rim to the other is 220 miles. However, if traveling by foot, the distance across the canyon is 21 miles via the Kaibab Trails.”

It was a shock to our systems moving from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.

This probably wouldn’t have been the case had we visited the South Rim but we chose to visit the North Rim so we would be in closer proximity to our next few stops. As we climbed from the desert of Vegas to 8,000 feet elevation the temperatures dropped from over 100 degrees to 58 degrees.

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We also encountered our first rain of the trip since our first day in St. Louis. 

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The drive in was beautiful. The drive into the Northern entrance takes you through a forest of Ponderosa Pine and yellow Aspen trees. You have no clue you are approaching the Grand Canyon until you run into the Grand Canyon Lodge, situated right on the edge of the canyon.

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When we got out we were greeted with chilly temperatures, drizzly rain, and thick, pea soup fog. We were a bit disappointed by the limited visibility due to the fog but were determined to make the best of it and enjoy this once in a lifetime experience, nonetheless.

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“Can you see our breath?”

 

Our first stop was to the Ranger Station to walk through the visitor’s center and so the kids could pick up Junior Ranger booklets to work on while we explored the park.

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One of the requirements for earning a Junior Ranger patch at the Grand Canyon is to attend a Ranger led education program. We headed over to the lodge to sit in on one about condors.

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After the program we stepped outside where Toby and the kids caught their first sight of this awe-inspiring view. I had visited the Grand Canyon as a kid but was still blown away by the awesome site, not fully remembering how impressive the Grand Canyon is in person.

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The low laying fog prevented us from seeing the full vista, but it was still an incredible experience. We were able to walk along the rim and even step out  on a walkway that extended over the mammoth crevice.

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The walk out to the end of the walkway was heart stopping for Rusty and I. Precarious under the best of circumstances, after a day of rain the muddy walkways made the climb out to the edge feel down right treacherous.

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As Rusty creeped to the edge he just kept saying,

“Why are we here? Why are we doing this?!”

It definitely didn’t feel OSHA approved with its crumbling walkways and large gaps in the railing.

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Rusty was shocked by the complete lack of safety measures and expressed his concern with:

“Really?!! Someone could die!”

To which a passing stranger responded with a laugh, “Only if they jump.”

Seeing the risks for two impulsive boys off their ADHD medication, Toby kept an iron grip on both boys.

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The walk out was terrifying for this Momma, who is scared of heights, but the views made the risks worth it.

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WOW!

We opted not to hike, as originally planned. The muddy trails made hiking challenging and by the end of the day the boys were having a harder time controlling themselves. So we stuck close to the lodge and just walked around the rim of the canyon.

After an hour in the rain and cold everyone was chilled so we stopped in the lodge café for hot cocoas to warm us up while the kids finished their junior ranger booklets.

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We left the Grand Canyon by 6:00pm for the long drive we still had ahead of us to reach our campsite for the night just outside Bryce Canyon.

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Next Stop: Bryce Canyon National Park

California Adventure- Day 2

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Waiting to enter!

 

Disney California Adventure is divided into seven themed areas called “districts”. While our first day at California Adventure was spent primarily exploring Cars Land, our second day was spent exploring the rest of the park.

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California Adventure was my favorite of the two Disneyland Resort parks. I enjoyed the fact that it was unfamiliar and didn’t resemble a park we had visited before. This park had an old Hollywood feel and celebrated all things California, from its seaside amusement parks to its National Parks.

Buena Vista Street

 

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As soon as we entered the park Ozzie spotted Oswald, the precursor to Mickey Mouse. He was Disney Studio’s first animated character in the 1920s and 1930s. Ozzie was so excited to tell Oswald that they shared the same first name!

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We also ran into Mickey Mouse on Buena Vista Street!

Buena Vista Street is the first “themed district” inside the main entrance of California Adventure Park, taking its name from the street on which the Walt Disney Studios are located. Buena Vista Street includes an immersive recreation of early 1920s Los Angeles when Walt Disney first arrived with Mission and Art Deco facades housing shops and restaurants. A recreation of Carthay Circle Theater, which showcased the world premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 sits at the end of the street, serving as the visual anchor for the district.

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, titled Storytellers, is located near the Carthay Circle.

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The Red Car Trolley travels from the entry, up Buena Vista Street toward the Carthay Circle, then down Hollywood Boulevard towards the Tower of Terror.

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It was here on Buena Vista Street that we found the Newsies performing. Molly was thrilled to stumble across this impromptu performance, being a huge fan of this Disney musical.

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Paradise Pier

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Paradise Pier spans 15 acres and is the largest themed “land” in the Disneyland Resort. Paradise Pier is themed as an idealized version of popular coastal boardwalk.  The district’s attractions, such as California Screamin’ (a launched steel roller coaster built to appear as a classic wooden coaster) resemble the timeless amusement park rides found at many boardwalks.

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This became a favorite ride for Toby, Grace, Molly, Tyler and I. Ozzie and Rusty opted to stick with some of the tamer carnival rides.

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Here you will also find Toy Story Midway Mania. Toy Story Midway Mania! is an interactive 3D attraction inspired by classic midway games.

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This is a favorite ride at Hollywood Studios, Florida, so it was fun to ride it again. The Paradise Pier landscape was a perfect fit for this ride that takes you through Andy’s new Midway Mania toy game.

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This ride was our longest wait since they don’t offer fast passes for this particular ride. While we waited for 45 minutes to ride we kept ourselves entertained by playing “Heads Up” on Toby’s phone.

 

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Finally it was time to embark. We grabbed our 3-D glasses and were ready to play!

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Mickey’s Fun Wheel is a 160-foot tall Ferris wheel overlooking Paradise Bay, a large body of water that dominates the Paradise Pier area.

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We chose to ride in the stationary cars for the sake of those of us with a fear of heights…Rusty, Ozzie and I 🙂

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Toby looking bored. Grace enjoying the ride. Tyler scoping out the shortest lines… and Ozzie trying to not throw up with anxiety!

 

In the evening we returned to Paradise Pier for Disney’s big nighttime show. All I can say is…WOW!!

A hydrotechnic show, World of Color is performed nightly on the waters of Paradise Bay (using fountains, projection, and flame effects) and showcases a series of vignettes from numerous Disney and Pixar films.

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What an incredible show!

Much like the Disney World show that uses the castle as a backdrop for projections, this 30 minute show uses a wall of sprayed water as the “screen” for various Disney movie clips as they tell a story through music, lights, and fire.

Grizzly Peak

 

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Riding Grizzly Run Rapids

Grizzly Peak Airfield is themed to an airfield in California’s High Sierras in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The featured attraction is Soarin’ Around the World, a ride that simulates a hang glider tour of locations, landscapes, and landmarks across six continents of the world.

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We were excited to see the new “Soarin’ around the World” ride, after so enjoying the original “Soarin'” ride that highlighted sites in California. Our reviews of the new version are mixed. Some preferred the new Soarin’ while others felt the original was better. My thoughts… I prefer the sites and video clips on the new ride, but miss the smells and experiences of the original ride.

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Pacific Wharf

 

Pacific Wharf is based on Monterey‘s Cannery Row area, especially as depicted in John Steinbeck‘s novels, and also resembles San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It includes the Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill, Pacific Wharf Cafe, The Lucky Fortune Cookery Chinese restaurant, Wine Country Trattoria restaurant, Mendocino Wine Bar, Sonoma Terrace, a Karl Strauss beer truck, and a margarita stand. The district also features the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, and the Boudin Bakery‘s Bakery Tour, touring the sourdough bread-making process, featuring a video of Rosie O’Donnell and Colin Mochrie explaining the history of the bread.

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Here the majority of our time was spent buying homemade sourdough bread. After trying our first sample of this amazing sourdough bread while on the bakery tour, we found ourselves returning to buy a $5.00 loaf a couple times a day to snack on while we walked around the park…a cheap and delicious Disney treat!

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Hollywood Land

 

Hollywood Land, is an area inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s.It includes attractions based on film, television, theater and a subsection called Hollywood Studios which is designed to appear as an active studio back-lot. A variation of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction from Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened in 2004. The Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! attraction is also featured in the district, based on the characters from Disney·Pixar‘s Monsters, Inc..

Grace was excited for this particular ride and she dressed accordingly for the experience.

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At Disneyland costumes are restricted for guests older than 14 years old. This rule has resulted in a Disney fan tradition called “Disney bounding,” in which guests dress in street clothes that are reflective of a certain Disney movie or character. It is a more subtle nod to their Disney favorites.

Grace had planned Disney-bound outfits for the week we were at Disneyland with Wednesday’s outfit being a nod to the Monsters Inc. movies. She made a Monsters University hat to wear by dying a white ball cap blue, distressing the edges. and sewing on patches. She also wore a sock pinned to her back.

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Her “2319” may have been too subtle a nod however, because she spent the day explaining the sock  to well meaning adults that would stop her and whisper, “Honey, you have a sock stuck to your back.”

The joke wasn’t lost of the Monsters Inc. cast members though. As soon as she approached the ride they began shouting, ” 2319…We have a 2319!”

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One of the coolest experiences of our time at California Adventure was the Frozen show.

The 2000-seat Hyperion Theater located in the center of Hollywood Land currently presents Frozen – Live at the Hyperion.

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This is a new show, replacing the live Aladdin show that used to call this theatre home. Having watched clips of this live musical on YouTube, I was SO EXCITED  to see it in person.

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It exceeded my expectations.

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It was a Broadway worthy production of  a favorite Disney movie.

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I think the live version may have been even better than the original cartoon with its charming puppet portrayals of Olaf, Sven and the trolls.

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It was a magical way to end another magical day!

Downtown Disney

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When we left the beach we headed 20 minutes away to our RV park; home for the next five days. Located only a mile from Disneyland, this RV park offers everything we could possibly want from a swimming pool to laundry services. It even has shuttle service from the campground to Disneyland, which means we don’t have to worry about unhooking each day for the drive to Disneyland.

It felt good to park the bus, hook up, and get settled for a longer stay.

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I know Toby is excited that he will get a five day break from driving.

Our stop at Disneyland was the big secret of this cross country trip. We wanted to surprise the kids so we didn’t tell anyone about this magical detour until the night before we left when we surprised the kids with their tickets.

Being HUGE fans of Disney World everyone was beside themselves with excitement, but none more than Rusty who is the biggest Disney fan of us all. His dream is to one day work for the Disney company and considers Walt Disney his greatest hero, so to be able to visit the park where Walt walked and where he personally led the creative process, is thrilling for Rusty.

The big kids have been to Disney World twice, and the little boys have been there once, and it is always a tradition to visit Downtown Disney the night before our Disney vacation begins.

There in Downtown Disney, an area of Disney filled with stores and restaurants, the magic of Disneyland can be felt. It is a fun way to soak up the energy and get excited for going into the park the next day.

After showering and eating dinner we caught the shuttle to Downtown Disney. The kids wore their trading pins so that they would be able to trade with employees they met along the way.

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When we arrived, after our 5 minute ride, the energy and excitement was palpable.

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There in the plaza that connects Disneyland, California Adventure, and Downtown Disney, Disney music was playing, Mickey hands were waving and the smiles stretched on for as far as we could see,

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We had stepped into a world of princesses and pirates and mouse ears.

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We spent the evening strolling around Downtown Disney and enjoying the sites and shopping available.

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The boys loved the Lego Store. The large, Disney themed Lego creations were amazing and the boys loved the racing station outside where they could build their own race cars and race them against other guests.

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The biggest hit of the evening, however, was the Build-A-Bear store. My older kids have fond memories of making a Build-A-Bear creation when they were little but we haven’t been back to one in 10 years, so you can imagine their squeals of delight when they saw this:

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They stepped inside and discovered that it wasn’t an ordinary Build a Bear store, with the typical stuffed animals and outfits. It was Disney themed with creations and gear not found in their typical stores.

Then they discovered that many of the stuffed animals were on sale 50% off, Well, that was all the incentive they needed to use some of their hard saved money to buy a special sort of Disneyland souvenir.

The process began with choosing their critter:

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Once they knew what they wanted they got in line to have it stuffed. It was fun watching them relive a special childhood memory, as overgrown teenagers.

After stuffing their bears,

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Making a wish on their hearts,

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and sewing them up,

it was time to dress them. The girls opted to just buy the stuffed animals. (Grace picked Nemo, and Molly bought a 60th anniversary Disneyland bear with special markings on the paws and feet.)

But Rusty wanted a Disneyland outfit for his Build a Bear, so he picked a Disney t-shirt and mouse ears.

Here are the completed creations:

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Twins!!

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Then it was back to the campground so that every one could get a good night sleep before our first day at Disneyland tomorrow!!