Thursday, March 18, 2010

Homeward Bound

We’ve been slowly inching our way back towards home and to reality the last few days. It’s hard to believe our trip is almost over already and we’re both back to work on Monday.

Determined to continue to enjoy our vacation while heading home, we took a detour off the highway in California to drive along the coast for awhile. After a series of narrow, windy roads, we ended up on an even narrower, windier road that had our van just kissing the edge of cliffs. While the detour added on about five hours to our ETA, it was completely worth it. There were hardly any other vehicles on the road and the views were magnificent. Huge waves splashed against giant rocks jutting out from the water with mile after mile of whitecaps and rock cliffs.

We spent a night at an…interesting RV park. I cannot tell you how many times Gerry and I have arrived somewhere, looked around us, looked at each other, and started humming the song from Deliverance. This was one of those times. The mobile home for the owners was nestled in behind several rusty pickup trucks, an abandoned hot tub, several garbage cans, a huge mound of 20 or so garbage bags, a half-inflated rubber dingy boat and a collection of various tools and scraps of wood and metal. There were also a couple of shacks that teetered precariously on the edge of a cliff and looked like they’d keel over with the next big gust of wind. The place was full of campers and RVs but none of them looked like they’d been used in the last 20 years or so.

We should have just turned around and kept driving, but we didn’t. What kept us there was the view. We backed up into our spot, five feet or so from the edge of a rocky cliff. From there, we could look out at the endless ocean and down at the jagged rocks with the waves pounding against them (there was also part of a fence dangling over the edge five feet from us where land had once been—I ignored that). The view was worth having to cringe in the bathroom that looked like it was used more for flicking cigarettes and ashes into than anything else. For the sake of the view, I closed my eyes to everything else around us and just soaked it in.

And in the morning, Jaxon excitedly came and grabbed me from where I was washing dishes “Mommy! Hurry! You’ve got to see this!” When I got outside, I was shocked. Looking down from our cliffside, I was delighted to see a group of seals lazily sleeping away on the rocks below us. So cool! Yeah, I can hold my breath in a disgusting bathroom for this.

Last night was another memorable RV park after a day of driving through the Redwood Forest. This one was on the site of what used to be a drive-in theatre. Every Saturday, the owners hook up a projector and show movies still, but only for guests at the RV park. We were disappointed that we were there on a Wednesday and not a movie night, but still thought it was neat to be able to stay there. Since it was St Patrick’s Day, they had a free dinner for everyone with corned beef and cabbage. While we were at the dinner, one of the staff members mentioned that we should keep Jaxon up late because they were planning on showing Cars that night. It seems they also thought it would be a great treat for him.

So last night we cleaned the windows on our van, snuggled up with our pillows in our bed, and watched Cars on the drive-in screen. It was a great way to end the day, even though it did make for a very tired and cranky little boy for today’s drive.

Tomorrow we’re planning to hit the outlet stores in Seattle and then be home in time for supper and sleeping in our own beds again. It’s been an incredible adventure and I’m sad to see it coming to an end already. We made some incredible family memories and had a lot of really special times.

Every night at supper, we talk about what our favourite things have been on our trip. Here are some of them:

1. Disneyland (of course), specifically, getting wet on the rides at Disneyland.
2. Sand sledding at White Sands National Monument (and all the times we wiped out and rolled down the dune).
3. Our first bike ride of the trip where we stopped to look at the cacti up close.
4. Stopping on the side of the highway to climb a mountain (where Jaxon and I both landed on cacti and screamed in pain).
5. Indoor skydiving.

Now we just need to figure out a way to win the lottery so we can quit our jobs and do this traveling-around in a van thing fulltime. Hmm…any ideas?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fish and Beans

(Written March 15)
We’re now at 8,484km and two oil changes into our trip with only a few short days left to go. While we’re on our way home, we’re determined to continue to enjoy the trip and make frequent stops along the way rather than rushing to get back to the real world.

Yesterday, we rolled into San Francisco in the late afternoon. After a bit of research, we made a plan to take the ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf, then do the nighttime tour of Alcatraz. Unfortunately, as we arrived at the ferry terminal, we saw a ferry riding away. It turns out our RV park host gave us an outdated schedule and we’d just missed the last ferry for three hours—and also the last tour of Alcatraz for the day.

Not to be discouraged, we decided to drive to Fisherman’s Wharf instead and wander around there for the evening. As soon as we walked out of the parkade on the pier, my senses were shocked by all the excitement around me. Seagulls flapped their wings in the air, on the sidewalks and around fallen food on the ground, buskers banged drums and shouted out, the smell of fresh seafood tickled my nostrils, the colourful jewelry, trinket and T-shirt shops delighted my eyes and the balmy sea air invigorated me.

We zigzagged our way through the bustle of people and made a beeline to Pier 39, where I’d read that sea lions were living. Apparently, shortly after the 1989 earthquake, several sea lions moved into the area and never really left, to the delight of tourists (and local shop owners as well I’m sure).

We followed the sound of the barking to the water and sure enough, on top of a group of nine or so brown wooden floats, laid a group of 30-40 giant sea lions basking in the sun, without a care in the world. Every now and then, one would slowly use every ounce of energy he had to stand up, give a mighty stretch of his neck, then promptly plop back down to rest some more. If another one happened to be under him when he fell, none of them seemed to care too much. It was as if protesting was just too much work and it was better to just let another one lay on top than to complain. It was quite a sight and I could have stayed there for hours watching them.

My curiosity satisfied, we wandered around the pier, soaking it all in and loving the energy of the place. We had supper, watched Jaxon jump on a trampoline for a bit, then capped off the evening with a delicious chocolate crepe. Yummers.

Today, we decided to try something different and visit the Jelly Belly factory, just 15 minutes away from our campsite. The factory offers free 40-minute tours and a sample bag of beans for you to take home. Plus, there’s a free sample bar so you can try whatever flavour your heart desires before you plop down your money to buy some.

Some interesting tidbits I picked up during the tour:
-it takes 7-21 days to make a Jelly Belly
-Ronald Reagan was a huge fan of Jelly Bellys
-Reagan had a custom-made holder made for holding his Jelly Belly jar on Air Force One and the beans were in the room during almost every meeting during his presidency
-the most popular flavour is cherry, followed by butter popcorn and licorice
-the coconut Jelly Bellys have real flakes of coconut in them

To our amusement, we found out that there are now gross flavours such as boogers, barf and skunk spray. The real kicker? They look exactly like other, delicious flavours like butter popcorn, licorice and apple so you can mix them up and give them as surprise gifts to your friends (or enemies, as the case may be).

Of course, our free tour ended up not being quite so free—we picked up some candy of course, and Gerry and I each got dispensers to keep on our desks at work. I have a feeling I might be getting more visitors to my office soon. Don’t worry, I didn’t pick up any of the gross flavours—or did I?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Happiest Place on Earth

I love Disneyland. In fact, I love it so much that Gerry and I spent a few days at Disneyworld on our honeymoon (I got white Minnie ears with a veil, Gerry got black Mickey ears with a top hat). So when we started off on this trip, Disneyland was the only definite stop we had planned. And when we mentioned our plans to my parents and my brother, they decided to meet us there as well—yay!

Disneyland truly is the happiest place on Earth. We spent three days going on every ride we could and were really lucky with short lines and comfortable weather most of the time. Everywhere we went, we were excited to see what there was and give it a go, with repeat rides on our favourites (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, Wild River Rafting and last but not least, Buzz Lightyear’s Astroblaster). By far our biggest laughs came from anything that involved splashing water and people getting wet, the wetter, the better. Jaxon loved telling everyone on the water rides that “La-de-da-da, it’s just a nice, relaxing ride on the river. No getting wet at all,” and then laughing hysterically when a giant splash got Dad soaking wet.

I was prepared to not be able to take Jaxon on a lot of the rides but thanks to a recent growth spurt, the top of his head just grazed the bottom of the minimum required height stick for almost every ride, except the California Screamer rollercoaster. I was actually happy about that one because, even though Jaxon was incredibly sad that he couldn’t go on the ride with Gerry, I don’t think I could have stomached the anxiety of watching him on the ride.

Jaxon is definitely my child in a lot of ways but he’s much more fearless than me. I couldn’t believe how nothing seemed to faze him or concern him—he was up for trying every ride at least once. He even wanted to try the horrifying Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Gulp. Really? Yep, really. Sigh…OK. Somehow, this meant me, Gerry and Dad all went as well. I took my seat, strapped myself in and took a deep breath.

A spooky voice with a sinister laugh set the mood by telling us about some visitors who had stepped into the elevator at the hotel years ago and then had an experience that forever changed their lives. Then there was a bolt of lightening, a cackle of electricity, and the lights went black. Our ‘elevator’ shot up into the air and then plummeted down towards certain death. Then back up again, then down. Again, and again and again. I willed myself not to scream and instead grabbed tightly onto my handles and repeated a mantra of “it’s almost over, it’s almost over.” Jaxon grabbed onto my arm and buried his face in my side. And when it was finally all over? Instead of hearing a sobbing, breathless child next to me, I heard “That was so awesome! I want to go again!” AHH!!! That may have been the scariest part of the whole ride. Luckily, he later decided that once was enough, even though it’s one of his favourite rides.

Yep, the happiest place on Earth for sure.

Jail Time

Can you imagine going to high school in a building that once served as a prison? That’s exactly what happened in Yuma, Arizona. After Yuma Territorial State prison ceased to house criminals, it was converted into a high school. Apparently, the high school sports teams are still known as “The Criminals.” That’s one way to intimidate the opposing teams.

We stopped by earlier this week to check out what remains of the prison. Built in the late 1800’s by its own first prisoners, it was actually considered an innovative centre for its time.

The prison offered an extensive rehabilitation program, including skills training in the prison bakery, workshop and library. Prisoners were also encouraged to work on arts and crafts for the popular monthly craft sale that the whole city would come to shop at. Any money earned was put into an account for the prisoners that they would receive when they were released to help them get a start on a new life.

The prison also had better food and medical services than most at the time. In fact, it was common for sick prisoners from other centres to be transferred to Yuma to recover.

Yet despite these forward-thinking ideas, the facilities themselves looked horrible. A small cell housed two bunk beds, each stacked three beds high. I doubt there was enough room for all six of the roommates to stand up at the same time. The dank, cold stone walls made for bone-chilling years and the Dark Cell, where delinquent inmates spent time in solitary confinement, looked like it would drive anyone mad.

However, the building was also considered progressive and innovative for its time, which got me thinking—what were the other prisons like?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Look Mom! I’m Skydiving!

So today we took Jaxon skydiving for the first time. Kindda.

Eloy, Arizona is home to a huge skydiving facility. Featuring the world’s largest fleet of skydiving aircraft, a full-service restaurant, bar, coffee shop, heated pool, souvenir store and massage therapy, SkyDive Arizona is also home to numerous world record holders and world champions.

But one of the really cool things it also has is an exhilarating indoor wind chamber that you can try out during an activity called indoor skydiving. The chamber gives you the thrill of diving and is a great tool for divers to try to stunts and routines out. To our surprise, kids as young as three can use the chamber and Jaxon was ecstatic when we mentioned it to him.

After watching experienced divers twist, roll and fly around in the chamber for 30 minutes, we suited up in our gear, listened to a short set of instructions, gave each other high-fives and got ready for our adventure.

Jaxon wanted to go first and I was so glad he did. Our instructor, Shane, got him in position and pulled him into the chamber with him. Jaxon dove right in, did exactly what he was told and was soon flying like an old pro. Shane even took him for a little spin around in circles. Jaxon had a giant grin plastered on his face and was giving a thumbs-up and waving the whole time. I think most of the people in the gallery had more fun watching him than they would have had going themselves. The contagious expression on his face was just absolute blissful joy.

I went next and then Gerry. Gerry did great and got to move around inside quite a bit. Me? Eh…I had a lot of fun but found the pressure from the wind overwhelming and had a hard time breathing. I didn’t fare as well as Jaxon and Gerry and never got into a comfortable flying position. Still, my heart was pounding from the thrill of it and it was a huge rush that I’d do again for sure.

Sound like fun? It was. And if you want to try it yourself without going all the way to Arizona, we heard a rumour today that there may be a similar chamber coming to Vancouver soon.

After today’s experience, and spending 30 minutes watching a steady stream of divers coming down 6-10 people at a time outside at the centre today, Jaxon now wants to go skydiving for real. We told him we’d take him when he’s 18.

To finish off the day, we drove to Yuma where we’re spending the night and made a quick trip into Mexico for dinner. Fantabulous!

PS: We also went to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument yesterday—a 1,000-year-old multileveled building built by the Hohokam people, true engineers that could teach today’s builders a thing or two.

Lions, Bears and Birds, Oh My!

(Written March 4)
When I think of zoos, I tend to think of animals enclosed in small square cages, sentenced to a lifetime of pacing back and forth from side to side while others throw stray garbage at them or tap on the glass insistently. Perhaps that’s why you won’t find the word ‘zoo’ used at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Instead, the centre offers huge, sprawling areas for the animals to roam, complete with fake rocks that replicate the natural environment of the animals. One volunteer told us the black bear came here from another zoo where she had a small cage to walk in. The various levels and varied terrain of her new habitat at the Museum proved a shock to her system and it was taking her awhile to get used to the more natural environment.

We saw all sorts of animals, plants and insects that call Arizona home, including beavers, wolves, mountain lions, bees, bighorn sheep, skunks, and my favourite—hummingbirds.

When I was little, my grandma had a hummingbird feeder outside her kitchen window on the farm. I would sit at a chair and watch the tiny birds hover over the feeder one after the other, a steady stream of them. One would come, take a sip, jerk back nervously, then jerk in again for another quick sip before fluttering away to check out the scene from a distance as others flew in for a drink. I loved those birds and watched them for what seemed like hours whenever I’d visit my grandparents.

Today, I enjoyed just sitting on a bench and quietly watching the hummingbirds darting by, inches from my face, while I thought of good times at the farm. While I’m not generally a big fan of birds, the constant, nearly invisible quick flutter of a hummingbird’s wings has always fascinated and calmed me. I’m just glad I got to see them at a museum today and not a zoo.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Arizona Rocks!

Yesterday, we said goodbye to New Mexico and started heading west again. It’s hard to believe we only have about two weeks left of our trip and that this time next week we’ll be in Disneyland.

When we were in Tombstone last week, we shared a table at Big Nose Kate’s with a friendly retired couple from Canada (there’s lots of retired Canadians around here as you can imagine). They told us that we had to check out Chiricahua National Monument, just south of Wilcox.

Since we were in the area yesterday, we took a detour to see what they were talking about. Chiricahua (pronounced something like “cheery-cow-wa”) is full of rock formations that were deposited by volcanoes and then shaped by glaciers and wind over millions of years.

We’ve seen a lot of rock formations on our trip, but none like these. The park is full of giant, majestic towers of rocky towers that look like crude totem poles. Giant boulders rest precariously atop other boulders and look like they could teeter over at any moment (we tried, they don’t budge). On our hike, we kept pausing to drop our jaws in awe at the scene in front of us: hundreds of rocky spires reaching up to the blue sky with the bright sun melting the white snowy patches (yes, we went towards snow again…sigh…).

After our hike, we camped at the base of the park in a pristine campground with old trees and a running creek. It was a great ending to a great day.

It’s been really interesting traveling during the Olympics. Everywhere we go, including on our hike yesterday, we get stopped by people congratulating us on the Olympics, and especially on the hockey game. The sense of goodwill and respect is really heartwarming. We’ve witnessed how the Games have really raised Canada’s international profile in way that can’t really be described in dollars and cents. And I think the Olympics have united Canadians in reaffirming that yes, we have a pretty awesome country—and that we can kick some serious butt.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fire and Ice

When the people in the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico decided they needed to attract more tourists, they came up with a unique publicity stunt—they teamed up with a game show and renamed their town Truth or Consequences. Unique? Yes. Effective? Err…judging from the nearly empty streets yesterday, not so much.

The town is known for its fantastic hot springs though (hence its original name) and we decided a trip to the kooky, artsy town was in order. With nearly every corner in town proclaiming to have the best springs, we deferred to our Lonely Planet guide and chose the ‘swankiest’ one available for a real treat.

Ahh... We had our own private hot-tub-sized hot spring bath in our own room, complete with a beautiful mural of a desert scene on the walls to set the mood. With the door left open a bit, we had a refreshing breeze and an hour or so of family relaxation and fun. The spa setting with fluffy towels and iced water delivered to our room was calming and indulgent and to our surprise, the whole thing only cost us $30. Definitely worth it.

We topped off the day by parking early to watch Canada kick some serious butt in the hockey game to bring home the gold. Whoohoo! (On a side note, I can't believe how many people have been smiling and congratulating us when they find out we're from Canada. Makes me proud to be Canadian.)

From heat to snow. Yep, snow again. We have to laugh over the fact that we came south largely to escape the cold and enjoy hot weather, yet we seem to keep intentionally driving towards cold.

Today, we decided the Gila Cliff Dwellings sounded pretty darn cool and we should go see them. When the turnoff from the highway, in the middle of the New Mexico desert, said “Warning: Ice on road. Road closed 27 miles ahead,” we laughed. Seriously? 27 miles to a road that’s so icy it’s closed?

What followed was 27 miles of incredible scenery—jutting rocks, deep gorges and trickling creeks amongst nearly abandoned old mining towns. We saw maybe 4 vehicles on the way and felt like we’d been transported to our own movie-set world.

And at the end of the 27 miles was, you guessed it—a closed road. Yes, there was some snow around us, but ice? Nope. While we contemplated bypassing the signs that were surrounded by tire tracks, we thought better of it. We knew the elevation was increasing and the temperature was decreasing and the road we had to go to didn’t really have a way back or off it. The prospect of driving backwards or turning around on a twisty, narrow mountain road didn’t really appeal to either of us. Over the edge of a cliff wasn’t where we wanted to end our vacation.

So, instead, we looked at each other and laughed hysterically, turned around, and drove on to Silver City, New Mexico. Instead of ancient cliff dwellings, we browsed through Victorian buildings that now house offbeat art and coffee shops (and quite a bit of junk as well). Instead of a hike through the forest, we went for a bike ride and played some bocce ball at the campground. It was a great day, but certainly not what we thought we’d be doing today.

Tomorrow, we leave New Mexico and start slowly making our way to California.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sand in our pants

So today we did something I didn’t even know you could do: we went toboaggoning on sand. Yep. Sand, I say.

The White Sand Park sand dunes of Arizona stretch on for miles. Pure white, soft piles that you could easily get lost in if you have a poor sense of direction. That in itself is pretty coo,l but when I saw that the gift shop was selling sleds, I was intrigued. And when I found out they even sell blocks of wax to make you go faster, I was sold. We picked up three of them without too much hesitation (two of them were used and when you return them by the end of the day, you get part of your money back).

The three of us, along with Muppet, ran up the hill, crossed our legs on the sleds, wiggled to the teetering point, leaned back and blasted down the hill! Whoohoo! Hill after hill we conquered, laughing, wiping out and rolling over ourselves. It was just what we all needed to really let go and de-stress from the driving and close quarters.

Jaxon’s been begging to go back tomorrow and while we won’t go tomorrow, if time allows, we just might be tempted to take a second crack at those hills later in our trip.

On a side note, I think we’ll be finding bits of sand in our van for years.

Snow, Missiles and Gunshots

Yes, I know I promised to make these shorter. But dammit, I keep not doing it in time and want to make sure I write everything down for ourselves at least—even if most of you just skim through. That’s OK, I’m not offended.

You know it’s not a good sign when the park ranger who’s there to take your money warns you that you won’t see anything interesting in the park. It’s also not a good sign when there’s a sign on his window saying “Poor weather. No refunds” and he proceeds to tell you why you shouldn’t go visit the Grand Canyon.

Nevertheless, despite warnings, we knew that we’d gotten that close, we had to at least try to see something. We paid our park admission fee and drove on, leaving the park ranger shaking his head and rolling his eyes, likely muttering “Canadians!” to himself. We hopped out of the van, walked up to the edge of the canyon, looked over and…admired the fog and snow. But then, just as we were about to leave, a cloud moved to the side and we had about 90 seconds of a beautiful view of the canyon. Pretty impressive but to be honest, I think we’ll have to go back some day to get the full effect. Still, we were glad to have been there and given it a shot.

From there, we went on to Phoenix, Arizona. I love all the cactuses in the area—they are truly the quintessential symbol of Arizona. The tall ones with arms that most people tend to think of apparently don’t start sprouting their arms until they’re 50 years old. It’s another 50 years before they bloom flowers. Arizona is in the midst of record-breaking winter rainfall at the moment so cacti are extra swollen and bloated from retaining water. Luckily, none of them asked me if they looked fat or I might be picking thorns out of my butt.

My newly-retired parents are in Mesa at the moment so we gave them a call and met up with them at the Hall of Flame, a museum dedicated to all things firefighting related, including some impressively old fire trucks. This was a fun stop. Jaxon got all dressed up in a firefighter’s garb and climbed aboard a real truck and pretended we were fighting a fire at his school (wishful thinking? I hope not).

From there, we ventured on to Tuscan, Arizona and visited the Titan Missile Centre to get a look at a real missile up close and learn more about the program. I knew these missile centres were scattered underground throughout the deserts, but I never really thought about the operation of them before. During the Cold War, these centres were operated by 24-hour shifts of four people at a time. The crew would inspect the entire centre from top to bottom at the beginning of every shift and then spend the rest of their time waiting for the call to launch that never came.

The security measures taken were strict and thorough. In every area except the kitchen, there was a “two-man” policy meaning you were not allowed to be alone, lest you decide to sabotage the operation. The code needed to launch the missile was not kept anywhere onsite and was not given out to the personnel. Instead, in the event of an attack, the president would call in and give the code just before launch. And there was a series of characters that the president would have to say at the beginning to verify that he was actually the president, not some angry teenager playing a prank. There was even a code word that would be used if something was being said under duress to discreetly warn team members.

Our guide used to work in the centre himself and was proud of the program. He said a few times that while some people may scoff at the millions of dollars spent on missiles that were never used, they were actually used, even if they never launched. Without the missiles, he said, we surely would have been destroyed by other countries who had the missiles and weren’t afraid to attack.

For something a bit lighter, we drove on down to Tombstone, Arizona, home of the OK Corral and the inspiration for numerous Hollywood movies. The movies, Tombstone folks will tell you, are far from factual (although they are entertaining). Still, in the town too tough to die, Allen Street remains true to its roots with cowboys, wagons, and old buildings still standing tall. From Big Nose Kate’s Saloon to a recreation of the famous gunfight with the Earp brothers, it was fun to immerse ourselves in the Wild West for a day or so.

Yesterday morning we got up at 6:30 to get in line for our chance to get a spot on a tour of the Kartchner Caverns. Spots are often reserved several months ahead of time and the park worker told us that if we weren’t there by 7:30, we wouldn’t get a ticket in.

The caverns were discovered in the 70’s by two spelunkers out for a leisurely day of exploring. When they creeped into a sinkhole and looked around, they couldn’t believe the find they’d come across. They were so paranoid about keeping the caves safe from others, that they kept them secret from everyone except the owners of the land for 14 years. When they finally decided the caves needed to be carefully preserved and opened to the public, they took their secret public and told the State of Arizona who then promptly purchased the land and spent four years developing it into a park.

And wow! This park was definitely worth getting up early for. This cavern was different from the caves I’d gone through on Vancouver Island the last couple of summers. No muddy crawling and squeezing necessary here. Instead, the State called in experts to make the caverns accessible yet strictly protected. The result? A series of air-tight doors at the entrance, an easy pathway with handrails, a de-linting misty shower, and strategically-placed dim lights throughout the cavern—and strict instructions not to touch anything.

All of these precautions were put in place to protect one of Arizona’s incredible wonders. Fantastic rock formations were everywhere—soda straws, popcorn and drapery protruded all around us. The lights cast eery shadows from the formations onto the walls and the dripping of water reminded us that the cave was continually changing slowly over time. So cool and so humbling.

Yesterday afternoon we headed to El Paso, Texas. And of course, in a town like El Paso, we had to go out for some Mexican grub. Julio’s, winner of several awards, was our destination for the evening and it didn’t disappoint. Chocolately mole sauce, cold drinks, fresh salsa, and perfectly fried chimichangas all delighted us with their extra little kick added to everything. Yummers.

After supper we went to a place called Lynx Exhibits: Deep Blue Sea (or something to that effect). The marketing materials were pretty slick but when we arrived at what looked to be a previously-abandoned warehouse, we started getting sceptical. The exhibits themselves, with mock-ups of mini-submarines, touch pools of stingrays and displays of undersea wonders were lots of fun and well-done. However, it seemed like a fly-by-night operation as the shaky, hastily-painted walls looked like they’d fall if you leaned against them and some of the piping near the concrete ceiling was disguised by black garbage bags. Not overly professional. My theory is that Lynx set up the space in an attempt to sell a traveling exhibition to other science or marine centres but I’m not sure. It seemed very odd and incredibly temporary.

Of course, none of that mattered to Jaxon, he was just thrilled to try his hand at operating a robotic arm and dressing up in scuba gear. And last night, when he came back from the bathroom, he told me that we couldn’t see the big dipper but the view of the city lights was still beautiful. Right he was.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Arizona has more snow than Cypress

We started off this morning with sunshine, +18, blue skies and are now in the midst of a minor blizzard. And yes, we're still in Arizona.

First things first. We decided that driving over Hoover Dam and taking a boat ride nearby was not quite sufficient to grasp the magnitude of the dam's coolness. So this morning, at Jaxon's insistance, we took a tour of part of the dam. I've got to say, had I not taken the tour, I don't think I would have realized what a truly incredible feat of engineering the dam is. The massive project took six companies, including 3500 men at any given time, five years to build and was completed two years ahead of its projected end date. I dare you to find a developer in Vancouver who finishes a project two years early. On the list of innovations that made this marvel possible, there was included using smaller cubes of concreate instead of one massive slab, using cooling pipes to help the concrete cure quicker and issuing hard hats. Hard to believe hard hats were considered a major innovation once upon a time, isn't it?

We left Hoover Dam all aglow from the sunshine and excitement of the experience and headed down the highway towards the Grand Canyon area. After awhile, Gerry pointed out that there was snow in the mountains but they were off in the distance so we convinced ourselves that it would be OK. Now to be clear, we've been leary of the weather at Grand Canyon for the last week but haven't been able to get a straight answer from anyone about if we should go at all or what to expect weather-wise. We decided we're tough enough, hailing from Alberta's winters and we'd be fine. Cool in Arizona couldn't really mean "cold", could it?

By the time we approached Williams, about 100km south of the Canyon, snow was pelting (yes, pelting) our windshield and the wind was blowing snow across the highway. Needless to say, we abandoned our plans of continuing north to the Flintstone RV Park and hunkered down in Williams instead. Luckily, we've got wifi and cable tonight and our furnace has been running nearly continously since we stopped.

Nevertheless, we figure we've made it this far, we'll head up to the Canyon tomorrow, hop out of our van, take some pictures, admire the view (which hopefully won't be too snowy) and then hop back in our van and promptly head south to warmer climes. We'll see how that goes.

Fun in the Sun!

(Written on February 20)
We’re now over 3,000 kilometres, five states, not enough showers, five loads of laundry, one hour with an RV repair mechanic, and one oil change into our five-week trip. So far we’ve managed to stay sane while in our cramped van with two adults, a spirited five-year-old and a dog who seems to want me to give her water every ten minutes.

After having internet access at nearly every campground we stopped at in California, we’re now on night four with no wifi, so I decided to pre-write this blog posting to avoid getting too far behind.

We spent a night in Tehachapi, California, another city I stayed in for a week ten years ago when I was still in IT. When I was there before, I was amazed at the dry, desert mountains and the miles of windmills that top them to generate electricity. I also had the incredible experience of flying in a glider plane.

Though we didn’t go gliding on this trip, we camped in the RV park adjacent to the airstrip and watched the planes take off and land. Tehachapi has one of the best wind locations in North America for gliding (hence the windmills) and, as we found out, is also a great place to fly a kite. Between plane landings, Jaxon pulled out his Star Wars kite and easily got it high in the air and flying around.

From Techachapi, we made the four-hour drive through the Mohave desert to reach Needles, California, a Route 66 town. We pulled into a campground just north of Needles, in Bullshead City, Arizona and got a site on the beach, right next to the Columbia River. The campground. Davis Beach, was originally made to house the men who were working on Davis Dam, just downriver. Once I heard that, I realized why the bathrooms were so disgusting and made me feel like I was in a prison. However, it was a really pretty spot and across the river to the south, we could see the lights of the “strip” in Laughlin, Nevada.

The spot was so pretty that even Jaxon really wanted to soak it all in. Gerry and I discovered him doing something shocking—sitting on the shore of the river, staring out at the water, the mountains, the stars and the lights. “Look, Mommy,” he said to me. “Isn’t it a beautiful view?” As anyone who has spent any time with Jaxon knows, it’s rare for him to have down time like that—the kid goes (and talks) non-stop and doesn’t really slow down until he crashes into a solid, heavy sleep at night. The three of us (and Muppet) laid down and stared up at the stars and lights for a long stretch of time.

The next day, we headed to Oatman, Arizona, an old-fashioned Wild West town on route 66. The highlight of the day was the much-anticipated cowboy gunfight in the streets. Jaxon had been asking about it every day since we first mentioned it to him last week and he couldn’t wait to go. The gunfighters didn’t disappoint him one bit, even when the wild burros were in danger of getting in the line of gunfire.

The outskirts of Oatman yielded us our first real taste of the classic route 66. This section of the road twisted and turned through red rock mountains with steep hills and sharp shoulders. Luckily, we hardly met any other vehicles on the way so my fingernails didn’t leave any marks in the dash as we went around the corners. We kept thinking that we saw the most incredible view and then we’d turn around another corner and be even more amazed. It was a slow, long drive but one of the best parts of the drive so far.

We spent yesterday afternoon and today in the Hoover Dam area, camped along Lake Mead. Driving over the dam was pretty cool yesterday and today we got a different perspective when we took a boat tour up to the dam. Pretty cool.

Tomorrow is Gerry’s birthday (happy birthday honey!). We’re headed over to the Grand Canyon area and plan to stay in a campground called Flintstone RV Park, modeled after Bedrock. It’ll be interesting to see which rocks impress Jaxon more—the Grand Canyon or the campground (any guesses?). We’ve heard rumors of really cold weather in the area, possibly even snow, so we’re not sure how much time we’ll be able to spend there but we figured we’d check it out anyway.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Whistle while you work...or else!

We stayed in Rogue River, Oregon two nights ago. Nestled in the mountains along a river, the location offered lots of promise. However, when we crossed the bridge to enter the town, Gerry and I both felt uneasy. Yards were overgrown dumping grounds for pickup trucks, buses, and deep freezes in various states of disrepair. Fences were full of holes and broken pickets and houses had layers of paint peeling off them like the hardware store had run out 20 years ago and never gotten new stock. The local store had a spray-painted sign that proudly boasted of "Jelly Bellys and Olives," items that are apparently hard to come by on that side of the river. The town seemed to be gunning to be included in the remake of Deliverance.

Yet when we walked into the RV park, we received the warmest welcome and biggest smile from the grey-haired lady whose whole body tremored with signs of Parkinson's. I couldn't help but admire her diligence and the pride she took in showing us around the campground and offering us freshly-made cookies, brownies and muffins. I love seeing people who love their jobs and as she slyly told me which of the washers and dryers were her favourite in the laundromat, it was obvious that she loved her job.

We had an incredible drive yesterday. Near the snow-capped Mount Shasta in Northern California, the Canadian in us shone through and we pulled over and built a snowman, a bit of a tough task without gloves. The foot-tall snowman we made on top of a giant rock was melting quickly in the sunshine as we stuck a Canadian flag in it and took a picture. Immediately afterwards, Jaxon started chasing us around and pelting us with snowballs--something he's been wanting to do all winter in Vancouver but hasn't had the chance to yet.

We drove on past Shasta Lake and Redding, California--a place I'd spent a week at 10 years ago when I was installing software at cement plants in the States. The red rock all around and the glistening water on Shasta Lake were incredible.

Further on, the drive turned into flat, straight highway with miles upon miles of tidy, perfectly-planted crops. It reminded me a lot of Saskatchewan but with fruit trees instead of wheat. Gorgeous at first but it did get a bit monotonous after awhile.

We ended up staying in a small RV park down the road from a farmer's field and took a bike ride in the evening (it was +21 after all, our first real taste of the warm weather we came south for). Bike riding is one of our favourite things to do as a family and it was the perfect night for it. We made a couple of stops along the way to check out cactus plants and point out the beehives near the fruit trees. Without realizing it, our bike ride turned into a mini-science lesson and any worries I may have had about taking Jaxon out of school for a few weeks quickly disappeared.

Today, we gave Jaxon the choice of a tour of a gold mine at Sutter Creek or a ride on a zipline further south. Gerry and I were really rooting for the zipline but the picture of a "dune buggy" ride at the gold mine sealed the deal for Jaxon--no way was he going to miss a ride like that! It was a cool ride and Jaxon's exclaims of "AWESOME!" as we rode the buggy underground convinced us that we'd made the right choice.

Interesting fact that I did not know: The song "Whistle While You Work" really comes from old mining practises. Apparently, powder monkeys, the young boys who carried dynamite, were required to whistle all day long. If they stopped, it was a sign that enough of the nitro from the dynamite had seeped into their bloodstream to make their face numb. After face-numbing would come fainting, causing the dynamite to fall and possibly explode. Not good.

We're not too sure where we'll end up tomorrow but hope to be in Tombstone, Arizona in a few days. The promise of an old-fashioned gun fight outside the OK Corral is almost as exciting as Disneyland for Jaxon right now. (Although I think he might change his mind once he realizes just how cool Disneyland is.)

Things are going fantastically well and Jaxon is proving himself to be a great traveller which helps make everything much less stressful.

Until next time...make sure you whistle while you work lest people think you're about to keel over and kill them.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cauliflower is Evil

Last time we drove to the States in our van, I meticulously and foolishly pre-planned two-weeks' worth of meals. I had ziploc bags lovingly packed with marinating steaks for BBQ-ing and pre-cut chicken for a stirfry. I was incredibly organized and very proud of myself.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten about that pesky Mad Cow crisis that was on at the time. Needless to say, we spent a good 45 minutes or so at the border while the guards went through our van with a fine-toothed comb and confiscated most of our food, including our dog food. Sigh...lesson learned. Sort of.

This time, we were determined not to make the same mistake. Yet, when I was cleaning out our fridge before we left home yesterday, the carrots, asparagus and cauliflower just looked too good to throw away. "Ah," I told myself. "They couldn't possibly have a problem with any of those. I'll bring them along." Wrong.

We arrived at the border last night quite sure that we'd get through without any problem. We answered the guard's questions easily. Meat? Nope. Firearms? Nope. Knives or other weapons? Nope. Vegetables. Uh...yes. What kind? Carrots, cauliflower and asparagus.

"Oh," said the guard. "I'm not sure our current regulations on cauliflower." You've got to be kidding me. "Our agriculture guy will have to take a look at it and let you know."

Seriously? I'm sure there may be some perfectly legitimate reasons for banning cauliflower imports. It's possible that the Americans don't want to have our Canadian flatulence further polluting their air. Or perhaps they're afraid that we might share it with American kids and get them hooked on it. Then what would happen to the obesity problem? They might have kids eating vegetables instead of chips on the side! The horror!

Anyway, after a relatively quick 15 minutes, the border guards informed us that cauliflower was not a threat to national security or air quality. We were allowed to keep our precious vegetables and continue on our way. Whew! Crisis averted.

Ultimately, we ended up staying at a lovely RV park by Birch Bay. Judging by the number of RVs that had decks and gardens, and by the fact that the office was already closed when we arrived at 8-ish, I'd say the place catered to retired folks. However, the highlight of the place was that we got cable TV (!) and were able to watch the opening ceremony for the Olympics (although from an American station). Yay! Way to go Vancouver--you did good!

Tonight, after a pit stop in Seattle to pick up a new bike rack that would accommodate Jaxon's trail-a-long bike, we arrived at another great RV park just north of Portland. It's right on the river and has cable TV and wifi. Yep, we're really roughing it. Great spot, especially because it's really too cold to be outside sitting around the fire or anything like that. Instead, we played a couple games of UNO and Battleship while watching the Olympics on TV.

We're having a great time and are looking forward to seeing some sun and warm weather soon. We're following the Olympics as closely as possible although without Internet access, it's hard to get Canadian news. We have gold, silver and bronze paper with us and Jaxon's job is to make a paper medal every time Canada wins a medal. We're hoping by the end of our trip, our cabinet doors will be covered in them.

Take care and happy Valentine's Day. And Americans, watch out, I'm planning to eat cauliflower tomorrow!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We're going on a trip!

As many of you know, Gerry, Jaxon, Muppet and I are piling into our Roadtrek camper van and hitting the road for a five-week trip starting tomorrow (eep!). The plan? Head south as quickly as possible and see where we end up. Our trip isn't mapped out at all but we're hoping to hit Arizona, New Mexico and maybe Texas before meeting up with my brother and parents in Disneyland on the way back. However, aside from Disneyland, all of that is up for discussion, depending on where the road (and our Lonely Planet guide) takes us.

To be honest, much of our planning has revolved around how to keep our five-year-old entertained for the long drive. We've got surprise loot bags (shhh...), activity books, homework from his teacher, audio books, craft supplies galore and, yes, some movies. Combined with frequent breaks for hikes, playgrounds and attractions along the way, we should be in good shape. But just in case, we've also smuggled along the Star Wars movies that he's never seen before as our secret weapon for when things get desperate.

I'll try to update this every few days, depending on how often we can get an Internet connection. I'm doing some work while we're on the road as well so we'll certainly be making an effort to stay somewhat close to civilization (ie: a Starbucks or some other such place with Wifi).

Wish us luck!