The kids and I escaped the summer heat of the Sonoran desert the past two summers, and as we were thinking about the coming year, it was fun to recall our favorite moments of last summer. We spent some time taking in the vastness of the great plains, because, though the adults in this family spent years biding our time in Oklahoma, the kids had no idea what it was all about. We visited some big cities: Chicago and Detroit, where we joined Bryan at work for a bit. We popped into Canada to see the mighty Niagara Falls. We visited family and the kids sloshed through a super wet summer camp in PA. And we rounded it all out with a swing by Disney World for a serious vacation. [That blog here] And then we came home, driving across Texas again: something I loathe. Here are the most memorable moments in the order they occurred:
1. Eating breakfast with the Prairie Dogs in the Wichita “Mountains” of Oklahoma.
We rolled into Oklahoma in the evening and had great evening biking around Quartz Mountain State Park, if you don’t count Avi falling off the handlebars while I pedaled. The memorable moment, though, we the next day when I woke early and drove to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and stopped the camper at their prairie dog dog town in time to enjoy some breakfast sitting on the curb while the little doggies yipped and munched their grass around us. One even came right up to Avi. We did not feed them!
2. Surprising ourselves by really really liking the area around Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (Maybe the barn cats helped)
Again we arrived in the evening and again loved our little campsite beside the water at Chase State Fishing Lake. The kids loved it so much, they caked themselves in the local mud as preparation for a ritual cleansing in the frog filled lake. I did allow them each a super-short navy shower afterward, even though we were dry camping. Stinky kids. We spent most of the next day at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve where we learned that the massive grassland appears to roll endlessly with ne’re a tree in site from the top, but holds secret cool forests along the canyon-esque riverways. And they are gorgeous. We hiked, we visited a prairie school, we saw bison from far off, and visited a rich family’s farm. But, the best part were the purring cats in the barn.
3. Seeing the same Washed Ashore art pieces from the kids’ Highlights magazine at the Shedd Aquarium and getting in for free (thanks for honoring the military)
Zoe was super impressed with an article in her Highlights magazine this year. It featured an artist who was taking trash and debris from beaches and turning it all into amazingly detailed statues of marine life. It’s called Washed Ashore, and I found out the art would be displayed at the Shedd Aquarium. She was so surprised! We parked our camper in the truck parking downtown Chicago. (thanks to the Gone with the Wynns blog for info – and I didn’t pay an extra day for our departure, I just booked it departing at midnight but left first thing in the morning when we woke around 6am… booking website HERE). We also lucked out with pretty sunny days, and just biked up to the aquarium from our parking lot of crazy RVers. Easy Peasy, and the art work was even more amazing in person… LARGER than the magazine made it look. As a bonus, Shedd Aquarium participates in the Blue Star Museum program, so we were able to enter for free and absolutely loved it all! We even spent the afternoon at the beach. What a magical day.
4. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me Live at the Chase Bank Auditorium!
For real, I researched ahead, got online, and booked us tickets to the live taping of the NPR show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me“. It was fascinating to me to see how it was all done, and then to listen to the show later. The kids were beside themselves to know we were really seeing the show they listen too every Saturday back home. Sadly, Peter Sagal was on vacation, but we still got to see Bill and the panel and it was so fun!
5. Kayaking around the canals in Detroit
Bryan was working for a few weeks up near Detroit, so we made a point to visit with him and it turned out to be an eye opener! Detroit is definitley trying hard to refurb its downtown, and its working! There was a cool bowling/bar/eatery we went to downtown for brunch, and we happened upon a local park artisan market. Out of downtown, though, there are still areas that are either quite impoverished, or have gorgeous large homes that are falling down, or spaces simply full of vacant lots. Until, you cross the boundary into Gross Pointe, and then its full of riches and excess. But, kayaking took us past it all. We followed a tour along the old canals past homes and an old mansion, out into the Detroit river, and back. It was sunny and fun and not what I expected near Detroit!
6. Seeing Niagara Falls
The Canadian side of the falls very impressive, with plenty of additional attractions beyond just seeing the water. At first it seemed bit cheesy with the surrounding town full of sideshows, but we stayed out in a campground, stuck to the bus, and the Niagara Parks sites included in our pass. We went at night for the fireworks and the Niagara Fury show, then returned for a sunny day to see Journey Behind the Falls, the Hornblower boat, and the White Water Walk. All were worthwhile and enjoyable, but I think what made the trip the most fun for the kids was staying at an RV resort with its putt putt, bouncy castle, and pool.
7. Our very First Geocaching Adventure on a Flamingo
While in Pennsylvania we were introduced to geocaching by my sister and her boyfriend, and for one of our first forays we decided to go for a cache that happened to be on the other side of the little lake we were beaching on. The only proper way to get there was via a long trail around, but we had a nice gigantic flamingo inflatable and it seemed better to just go directly across on it. Didn’t seem to make much difference that we would have no shoes or anything when we wound up on the other side. The kids reveled in the search and the swim, and we were successful!
8. Digging for some archaeological evidence at Colonial Williamsburg
The entire Williamsburg National park was fun – seeing the old homes and shops, the old governor mansion, the cannon; trying on the costumes; and stomping in the clay. But the best was the free kids’ archaeology program. Both the kids quite enjoyed their chance to dig and sift and analyze their results.
9. Searching for the Geocaches at South of the Border
The first exit on I-95 south in South Carolina is the location of an aging attraction called South of the Border. It began as a liquor store servicing the dry counties of southern North Carolina, and grew over time into a mega tourist shop / hotel / attraction place. Though it has seen better days, whomever places the geocaches here has upped South of the Border into a good rest stop again. We spent a few hours, a few dollars on gas and food, and had quite a wonderful time finding the set of creative caches.
10. Learning the history at Fort Davis National Historic Site
So, Texas is tedious to drive across. We’ve done it too many times, so it was nice to find a new place to stop and learn. We were able to see the officer quarters and enlisted barracks, tour the fascinating museum, and learn about old medical methods in the hospital. One of the rangers took us into the barracks past the barrier to see the layout and personal spaces of each soldier. It was so neat! As a bonus, both kids did the activities required to become a Junior Ranger. We were having such a great time, and enjoying all the buildings that we barely made it back to the office before closing time…marked by the bugle calls, which interestingly sound all day to mark all the old times of day.