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.