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!