Adventures History Museums Illinois

Exploring Galena, IL

Galena, IL

I knew I had to return to Galena after spending a weekend there with C’s Boy Scout troop for Grant’s Pilgrimage back in March. I fell in love with the Victorian homes, the eclectic stores on the main drag, and the massive amounts of history. The town is beautiful, nestled in a valley with houses rising up the hills around the Galena River. It was the home of US President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant plus eight other civil war generals. But the connections to history don’t end there.

We returned to Palace Campground, where we stayed with the boy scouts. Setting up camp was a challenge since the bugs drove us nuts even after spraying down with bug spray. We got the tent and the easy up set up then decided to go into town for dinner instead of trying to cook dinner over the fire as planned. It was way too hot to start a fire, and I was way too tired to cook.

Little Tokyo Restaurant

We drove into town, parked, and perused the storefronts while we looked for a place to eat. Most of the stores had closed for the day, but it gave us an idea of where we wanted to go the next day. It took us a while before we could agree on a place where everyone wanted to eat. We had nearly reached the end of the road when we came upon Little Tokyo Japanese restaurant. We finally had a unanimous decision.

Little Tokyo had an impressive menu; a mixture of sushi, noodles, teriyaki, and other Japanese dishes. K had udon with a sunny side up egg on top and the most delicately panko covered shrimp tempura I’ve ever tasted. C had his favorite rainbow roll and California roll while I had a salmon avocado roll and tuna nigiri sushi. After our delicious sushi, we headed back down the street to get ice cream.

Pretty much every shop and restaurant was closed by the time we left, including the ice cream shop we hoped to visit. We decided to get some custard at Culvers near the campground. Afterward, we settled into our tent and everyone crashed. Unfortunately, we started sliding while we slept. It turns out we were on a slight incline, so we all slowly slid down the floor of the tent during the night. C even wound up asleep across my feet at one point. At least he slept. I woke at the crack of dawn and had trouble falling back asleep.

By the time all three of us had woken up, it started to rain. I grabbed the bagels and cream cheese from the supplies which we ate in the tent while getting ready to return to town. Once there, we found a parking spot up on Beech right near the Galena and US Grant Museum. I was happy to find a spot that didn’t have a time limit on it. This meant we could leave it there all day.

“Peace in Union” by Thomas Nast 1895

The Galena and US Grant museum is housed in an 1858 Italianate mansion that began as Daniel Barrows’ home. We paid admission then were ushered into a room where the “ghosts” of Ulysses and Julia Grant told us all about Galena’s history. The house is crammed with memorabilia and artifacts. It even had a real mineshaft! Surprisingly, the original painting by Thomas Nast of Lee surrendering to Grant is also there.

C piloting a model steamboat

We found a model of Galena in one of the rooms. At first, we wondered why some buildings were detailed and others were just unfinished building shaped blocks. Turns out there was a fundraiser where people could choose a building to finance. It looks like they are all taken but now are in the process of being completed. The coolest part of this model was the working riverboat. You can use a steering helm to pilot your steamboat up and down the Galena River. C had lots of fun doing this. It was a reminder of how the steamboat contributed to Galena’s success in the 19th century, making it larger and more bustling than Chicago in it’s heyday.

K and I had a good giggle about Grant’s left boot, on display alongside his cigar. As the story goes, General Grant changed to a pair of dry boots at the Illinois Central Railroad station while on his way to New York. He gave his boots to Edward Jeffrey, owner of the City Hotel, who put them on display. The right book was lent to a traveling theater troupe who used it in a play. The troupe left town, and took the book with them! Apparently, the right boot was never seen again. K and I wondered if a member of the theater troupe kept it as memorabilia. We imagined their descendants wondering, “Why the heck do we have this boot?? And only the right one??”

Galena Art and Recreation Center

After finishing up the museum, we headed down Bench past many Victorian era buildings. K found the Art and Recreation Center a bit creepy but in a good way. She’s a fan of horror video games and this location seemed perfect for one. We also found several small rocks someone painted and placed in random places along our walk. The ladybug one is my favorite.

We continued down the street, crossed the bridge, and walked over to The Belvedere. There we purchased a discount ticket for both the Belvedere and the Dowling house before being taken on the house tour. Our guides were informative and funny. I wish all tours were as lively and entertaining as this one. The furnishings in the house were exquisite as was the small garden in the side yard. After the tour, we walked down the street to Grant Park. K and I rested our feet while C played on the merry go round and swings. We headed through the park and over the bridge so we were back on Main Street. It was time for lunch!

Another walk down the street found us at the Market House Restaurant. C couldn’t resist the temptation of the tomato soup and grilled cheese lunch special. We walked upstairs and were greeted by a friendly staff. K and I had delicious tuna salad sandwiches. K had hers as a half sandwich, along with soup and salad. I had mine sandwich with some tasty homemade potato chips. I was the only one not to order the tomato soup since I’m usually not a fan. K was so full she couldn’t finish her soup so I decided to take a sip. It was the tastiest I’ve ever had and I wound up finishing her bowl! With our lunch completed, we decided to walk off our meal with a visit to the Dowling house then some shopping, with a stop for ice cream along the way.

Just up the street, we found the Dowling house. There was such juxtaposition between the posh Belvedere and the simple Dowling house. The house is the oldest in Galena, built by John Dowling in 1826, and one of the oldest stone buildings in IL. Dowling ran a trading post out of the bottom floor of the limestone house while he lived upstairs. We enjoyed the tour as the kids learned what Dowling offered in his trade post and how he and his son lived upstairs. At the end, C told them he had fun on the our which our tour guides took as a great compliment. They said most kids look bored on the tours.

Inside American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shop

Then we went shopping. Main Street has everything; clothing, jewelry, furniture, antiques, toys, and gifts between restaurants, coffee shops, and candy stores. We had scoops of delicious Cedar Crest ice cream at American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor. Later, after shopping all along the north side of the street, we took a break at Kaladi’s Coffee Bar. K thought her blended matcha green tea was delicious and I cooled off with an iced caramel latte. After our rest, we headed down the south side of the street. Some of our favoriters were Poopsies (filled with toys, décor, and the most fun collection of socks) and Wild Birds Unlimited’s bird feeders and bird themed décor. We spent quite a bit of time in Peace of the Past, an antique store with a wide variety of items plus a ton of books.

Fascinating photo by our table at Vinny Vanucchi’s

Dark ominous clouds hovered just outside of town, and around it started to drizzle at we approached dinner time. We decided not to go back and cook at camp but go out to dinner instead. We passed Vinny Vannucchi’s Little Italy on the way to the car and decided to check it out. The interior was made up of several floors of seating with rough-hewn stone walls. We had a tasty meal while watching the lightning flashes out the adjacent window. Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time we headed to our car and back to the campground.

We were barely at camp for 30 minutes before another storm arrived. We decided to wait that one out with a drive down the road since we weren’t comfortable sitting out the lighting in the tent. The storm lasted so long we wound up driving to Dubuque (a much shorter drive than I thought) and checking out a little of their riverside historic district before heading back across the Mississippi River and returning to camp. C thought it was funny that we spent about 3 minutes in Dubuque.

It was a rough night since there was another even worst storm in the middle of the night. We only got a few hours of sleep. In the morning, we broke camp, packed up the car and headed to breakfast at the Victory Café on Main Street. From there we drove to nearby Elizabeth to check out the Apple River Fort.

The walk up to Apple River Fort

I had read there was going to be living history demonstration over the weekend at Apple River Fort. Unfortunately, when we got there, the historical re-enactment didn’t seem to be going on, most likely due to the weather. The fort and interpretive center were much smaller than expected but big on history. The people were friendly and we learned quite a bit about the Black Hawk war and the struggles between settlers and local Native Americans.

I think the kids were happy it didn’t take us long since they were exhausted and ready to go home. K and I are looking forward to return later this summer on our own. We had hoped to check out the ghost tours but C was a hard no on that one. I’m also hoping to check out their cemetery tours. We’ll be back soon, Galena!

Illinois Looking Local

Finding Fun in Nearby Forest Preserves

boy using rocks to cross creek above small falls

The kid’s summer schedules left us with very little time for an extended road trip this year. We were going to be limited to three-day trips, overnighters and day trips. This limitation presented me with the challenge of finding places to go that we haven’t been before within a day’s journey. For a family that likes to explore, I was worried this would be difficult. It turns out that I’ve barely scratched the surface locally. I hadn’t expected our local forest preserve to have so much to offer.

Both of the kids are scouts so I also wanted to catch up on some badge work. K is both a Venturing Scout and an independent “Juliette” girl scout. As an independent scout, we look for opportunities to work in badgework and add some fun patches too. Looking for summer fun also means looking for ways to cross stuff off those requirement sheets. I started out looking for hiking patches, like the ones I used to get as a girl scout when I hiked specific trails. This search lead me to several local forest preserve websites. I didn’t find much for scouting, well not for older scouts anyway, but I did find more than I expected.

I was surprised to find not only extensive trails but a variety of amenities like canoeing, kayaking, camping, and archery. Of the three counties I looked at, my own plus two neighboring, I found a plethora of preserves throughout each of them. Some were simple; hiking trails, maybe a lake or two, playgrounds, and perhaps a picnic area. Some were filled with hidden gems like nature centers, historic homes, and working farms. Many of them had classes and events for all ages, including lots of options for scouts, school groups, and other youth groups. I was also surprised to find campgrounds that not only had tent camping but offered cabins too.

I found options for camping that were inexpensive and a short drive from home. These options are great if you have kids that haven’t camped before, have limited time, or you want the option to bug out early. If you have to break camp because someone is just not into it or the weather goes bad, you’re not going to have to drive home with cranky kids for very long. It also means a short drive to civilization for provisions if you’re missing anything.

Many of these locations offered gear for rent or purchase. This way you can rent a tent for a weekend instead of having to buy one. Some sites offered cabins, both large and small, equipped with bunk beds. I even saw bunkhouses for large groups. Many others had spots for RVs, usually just with electricity but no water/sewage hookups. Nearly every location had a fire ring, picnic table and portable toilets nearby. You can even find electricity, showers and flush toilets.

There’s not hiking and camping; many offer boating and fishing. You can rent a rowboat, canoe, kayak, or bring your own. There are stocked lakes for fishing, and some have fishing related events. Check your local preserve for rules about fishing license requirements. Some preserves have horseback riding and others have water parks. I even found one with an indoor climbing wall we should check out. Another one nearby offers a free archery range, something I can’t wait to try out. Into model boats and model planes? There’s a place in the preserves for that too.

So far we’ve been to one preserve in the next county and found a gorgeous walk through the woods along a creek that led to a small but pretty waterfall made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The path to the Rocky Glen falls was a tiny fraction of the trails available at Waterfall Glen, we were short on time since a thunderstorm was moving in. We’ve been trying to return to do their orienteering course, but the weather has either been stormy or dangerously hot on the days we planned to go. It’s still on the docket for this summer; it looks like fun and both kids can work on a scouting badge.

There are also lots of events all year long that we can’t wait to check out. There’s so much we want to try like observing bird banding, astronomy nights, paddling adventures, full moon hikes, identifying frog calls, and learning about then looking for bats!

The preserves hold events all year long which reminded me that the forests don’t close after labor day, there are lots of things to do even in the winter months. K and I walked through a local park covered in snow this past winter, and it was gorgeous. We should make sure to check out the preserves even in the dead of winter.

If we chose only to visit all the mid-sized and up preserves within a 30 min drive, we’d be busy all year long. I have a long list of nature centers we can’t wait to check out. Checking out your local county forest preserve is as easy as finding their website and checking out all the amenities. You can find printable maps, brochures, and guidebooks. Your local library may have info too.

The great thing about local preserves is they provide so much for very little expense. You can have a fantastic family outing for only the cost of the drive there and anything you bring from home. Many of the events are free, and even the paid events like summer camp are reasonably priced. You can also check out forest preserves nearby your next vacation location. You might find something fun to add to your trip and perhaps some local history too.

Here are some photos of our trip to Waterfall Glen in Darien, IL. Waterfall Glen is not called this because of the waterfall below but named after Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the District’s Board of Commissioners

Adventures Washington DC

3200 Miles in 32 days : Part 7- Washington DC Day Two

3200 Miles in 32 Days - Washington DC

Start with Part 1 here. Go back to Part 6 here.

The next morning we ate the hotel’s complimentary breakfast then headed back to the subway. We had hoped the day would be cooler since we were starting in the morning. No such luck. It was just as hot and humid at 10am as it was at 2pm. I was so thankful I brought a filtered water bottle with us since both days were spent refilling it at water fountains around the mall to stay hydrated. We started where we left off, exiting at the Federal Triangle stop, and headed up towards the American History Museum. On the other side of this museum, we would be back on the path around the National Mall.

It seemed a shame to walk past all the Smithsonian museums but there just wasn’t enough time to see them all. We stopped in the butterfly garden just past the Natural History Museum. We didn’t see any butterflies but the garden was lovely. We continued down past the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden, the National Gallery of Art West and East on our way to the Capitol Building. Much like everything else on the mall, it was under renovation. There was scaffolding on the building and the Ulysses S Grant Memorial was covered with white tarp. We continued past the Capitol Building’s reflecting pool, a wide fan shape as opposed to the long rectangle of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool on the other side of the mall. We snapped some photos on the sidewalk but did not go up the path nor ascend the stairs. We were hot and tired and looking for a place to cool off.

We continued around the corner to start the trek up the other side of the mall. I finally got to see the National Museum of the American Indian but only the exterior. I was a charter member having donated while they were building it. I decided to skip it this time since I really wanted to share my favorite museum on the mall with the kids, the Air and Space Museum. I loved going there as a kid.

Entering the Air and Space Museum was a welcome respite from the heat. We seemed to have chosen to visit during the national time of renovation because not only was the Capitol Building and the center green space running nearly the entire length of the mall under construction, so was this museum. Some of its exhibits were removed and some rooms were closed off. We still had lots to see in the Milestones of Flight exhibit as we entered, just a few things had been removed from the ceiling. We headed to the right to Early Flight, the Golden Age, and America by Air. On the other side, we checked out The Space Race, How Things Fly, Exploring the Universe, and Lunar Exploration Vehicles. We went upstairs briefly but we were running out of time. We got a few souvenirs in the gift shop then headed back out onto hot and humid Jefferson Drive.

A short way down from the Air and Space Museum was the Smithsonian Castle. Beside it was a lovely little garden called the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. It had a wrought-iron fountain complete with cranes and a delightful cherub of a boy that seems to be holding a fish on top. There are ornate wrought iron benches to sit on. It was another short-lived stop but we enjoyed the surroundings. We had to figure out how to get back across the mall which was completely closed off due to reconstruction. We wound up back at the Smithsonian subway entrance where there was a walkway back to the other side of the mall. At least this brought us closer to our destination, the National History Museum. We had lunch in their restaurant and walked through a few of the galleries on our way out. We grabbed some ice cream right outside and started on our final walk to Federal Triangle. We returned to the hotel, got in our car and headed home.

One final thought from the kids about Washington DC.

K – We’d stop inside of some of the Smithsonian museums when we when ever we were really hot to cool off. I’m glad they were free because then we could go and eat lunch there and get water.

C – That just reminded me that on movie night we watched Night at the Smithsonian. We watched all three movies. Very good movies.

K – We watched all three Night at the Museum movies and one was at the Smithsonian. Was fun to walk through through the Natural History Museum and think about the movies.

Our last leg took us through Pennsylvania so we stopped in Pittsburgh, a town I lived in during grad school, for dinner. I hadn’t been there in years so it was fun to drive around the old haunts then have dinner at Ritter’s Diner. We decided not to stay there for the night then found out the hard way that all hotels off the highway near Cedar Point were booked. We found a place shortly after midnight and got a few hours of sleep before heading out again.

We arrived home both happy that we had our amazing adventure but also happy to see our own beds. Not sure if the kids will ever want to take this long a trip again but I know I’d love to take a month to explore new places again. 3200 miles in 32 days will be one of our greatest memories.

 

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Adventures Washington DC

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 6 – Washington DC

3200 Miles in 32 Days - Washington DC

The next morning we loaded up the car again and headed north. We drove over a bridge into Newport News (the name prompted me to do Bugs Bunny quotes, “Hocus-cadabra!” “Walla Walla, Washington!”), which brought us past historical locations such as Yorktown and Williamsburg. All places on the list for future visits. We arrived in Arlington around noon and checked into the awesomely retro Americana Hotel.

I discovered the Americana while looking for a place to stay in DC that was affordable. Hotels in DC proper were expensive this time of year, so I started looking in Arlington knowing that the Crystal City area had easy access to DC’s subway system. The Americana originally opened in 1963 as a small motel and grew to a 102 room fully functioning hotel over the years. It still has the 1960’s styling from its neon sign to the early 60’s style furnishing and décor in the lobby. They didn’t have the most modern rooms, but they were in great condition and very comfortable. We checked in and headed to the nearby subway stop. We were going to see how much of the Mall we would do with the rest of the day we had available to us.

We got out at the Smithsonian station and headed towards the tidal basin. We quickly realized it was far more hot and humid than expected. The heat was oppressive, but we were determined to slog on. We passed the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, took a photo of the Jefferson Memorial across the basin from us, then headed towards the memorial.

Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial; a circular domed building that looks out over the tidal basin. Inside the rotunda, a tall bronze statue of Jefferson gazes out towards the water surrounded by his quotes along the walls. We drank some water and rested while reading some iconic words from the third president, the most notable were his words from the Declaration of Independence. We didn’t stay for long since we had a long way to go to get around the basin, and much more to see. We exited past the massive columns, down the steps and got back on the path to the next memorial.

Next was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It wasn’t until we had walked halfway through this impressive sculpture and water feature filled memorial that we realized we were going through it backward. Four sections celebrated Roosevelt’s four terms as president. Bronze sculptures and quotes take us on a journey through the 32nd president’s time in office that stretched from the Great Depression to WWII. Many of the things Roosevelt said touched KJ deeply, words of perseverance, hope, and unity. Much of what we were reading felt so relevant to even today’s political climate. She also loved the sculpture of his adorable Scottish terrier Fala.

The next memorial we reached was for Martin Luther King Jr. We came upon it from the side so we didn’t enter the way we should have, through the center. Just like the Roosevelt memorial, we realized this after we had walked around for a bit. The memorial consists of a long wall with a timeline of Dr. King’s speeches that has an opening in the center. The sculpture of Dr. King himself seems to have pulled out of the center of the long wall, an example of his words “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” We exited through the center of the timeline and headed to the Lincoln Memorial.

We first passed the World War II Memorial, an enormous fountain surrounded by pillars, as we began our walk along the reflecting pool. At the other end, we saw the Korean War Memorial off to our left and an installation of Korean War memorabilia at the other end of the reflecting pool. We stopped for some ice cream and water from a nearby cart then rested a bit while watching the water in the reflecting pool and watching the hordes of tourists ascend the steps.

We then headed up into the memorial itself. We all needed a restroom stop, so we entered a lower area that happened to have a museum. We walked through the Legacy of Lincoln exhibit before taking the tiny elevator upstairs. Viewing Lincoln’s statue is breathtaking. Just like the other memorials the statue is immense with the entire Gettysburg Address and the entire Second Inaugural Address on either side.

We headed through the tall columns, back down the marble stairs, and started our way back towards the National Mall on the opposite side of the reflecting pool. This path brought us past the Vietnam Memorial but not close enough to see it clearly. At the end of the reflecting pool, we were back at the World War II Memorial. The day was getting increasingly hot and humid, so we decided to take a break beside the large central fountain. It was just slightly cooler as we sat by the edge of the fountain. We resisted the urge to put our feet in even though everyone else was using it as a wading pool. We noticed the sign that asked people to respect the monument and not enter the fountain. The sign must have been too small, or the cooling waters of the fountain too much to resist since many people were ignoring the request to stay out of the water. If you find yourself at this memorial or any other public fountain, always make sure you’re allowed to enter.

We couldn’t sit for very long since we wanted to see a few more monuments before dinner. We headed north along 17th Street to the large green space in front of the White House known as the Ellipse. Once we reached the viewing area, we could see where the National Christmas tree stands during the holiday season. We waited for an opening along the black wrought iron gate as people for all around the world snapped pictures with the White House in the background. Eventually, we got a clear spot and snapped a photo of our own, both KJ and CT looking sweaty but smiling.

Since it was just a photo op moment, we didn’t stay long. We continued along the walkway and headed back towards the subway station that according to Google was near a sushi restaurant. Little did we know this would be quite the adventure.

The restaurant that I thought would be out in plain sight turned out to be underground. Once we finally got inside the building that my map assured me contained the sushi restaurant, we began our descent into what appeared to be an underground mall. Our sushi restaurant turned out to be a counter among other counters in a food court for the federal building we were in. Hey, it was cool and the food was tasty, so we weren’t going to complain. It was also near the Federal Triangle stop so once we finished eating it was an easy walk to the subway back to the hotel.

The kid’s take on the first half of our DC adventure:

KJ: Oh boy, Washington DC in August. Man.

CT: Oh yeah it was hot.

KJ: It was it was a nightmare

CT: The most significant thing that I remember was getting a SpongeBob popsicle, I don’t even know why I got one because I don’t like SpongeBob but it melted and broke and fell on the ground and I tried to get mom to get me a new one. I got over it, though.

KJ: I remember the Lincoln Memorial and the Roosevelt one, the entire Roosevelt one, it was all the Roosevelts.

DJ: That’s right; they had statues of Eleanor and their adorable Scotty dog.

CT: We also saw this wall dedicated to Martin Luther King. We saw his memorial.

Once we returned to the hotel, we took much-needed showers then collapsed on the beds to enjoy the air conditioning. We had to get some rest, the second half of our DC adventure continued tomorrow.

 

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Adventures South Carolina Virginia

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 5 – Georgia to Virginia

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 5 – Georgia to Virginia

Read 3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

We left Georgia to begin the last part of our month long trip, the family vacation in Virginia Beach.

KJ and CT remember the drive to VA and time spent on the beach.

KJ: It was a lot greener and had more fields, there were a lot more cows.

DJ: I remember the giant peach

KJ: Oh yeah! CT – James and the Giant Peach!

The giant peach was a water tower called The Peachoid in Gaffney, SC. Something we weren’t expecting to see on our drive north. I later found out it was featured in House of Cards. We stopped at a friend’s house in North Carolina along the way then eventually made it to the beach house on Sandbridge Beach.

The kids remember Sandbridge Beach and fun at the beach house.

CT: Virginia was fun! Got to spend time with the cousins

KJ: All of our cousins on our father’s side.

CT: I had a lot of fun there. We went to the beach and I got to go boogie boarding again. It was my favorite thing to do at the beach in California until that one time I wiped out and didn’t want to go back to the beach again. But I was brave and faced my fears, yay.

KJ: I remember not being used to the water and sand, it had been a pretty long while. Walking into the water I was like, was this ever this cold? We hung out at the pool at the beach house. I don’t know why a beach house would need a pool, but it was a nice break from the beach. There was a floaty dolphin that you were supposed to be able to ride but was for really tiny kids

CT: Oh yeah, the Evil Dolphin!

KJ: The evil dolphin that kept flipping everyone over.

CT: No one could ride on the dolphin

KJ: Not even the tiniest cousin.

After a few days of swimming and boogie boarding on the beach followed by afternoons in the house’s pool, we decided we needed to get away for the day. We decided on another aquarium, the Virginia Aquarium.

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 5 – Georgia to Virginia
©KDCAdventures

The Virginia Aquarium didn’t have whale sharks, but it was still impressive. Snaking corridors took us from exhibit area to exhibit area with a variety of sea life on view. After we had taken in all the fascinating exhibits in the Bay and Ocean Pavillion, we walked over to the Marsh Pavillion.

The path across to the other pavilion took us on a nature trail with various observation areas and what looked like a totally awesome Adventure Park. We didn’t have time to try any of the zip lines or the rope and platform climbing trails above our heads. Instead, we continued to the Marsh Pavilion where we saw river otters, snakes, frogs, crabs, and seahorses. We walked through the macro marsh and checked out the mammal and bird exhibits. Nearly all of the cousins crammed into the hurricane simulator together. After some shopping in both gift shops, we headed out to dinner.

Dinner was at Captain Groovy’s Grill and Raw Bar, a seafood restaurant in Norfolk. We sat outside out on the porch near the front door. Inside the restaurant, you could view menu items written on chalkboards, warm wood tables and chairs, and a long bar. The porch had a fish market/fishing shack theme with hanging barn lights and eclectic art. The food was delicious, and I fell in love with their logo. I bought a hat and a t-shirt adorned with the funky sunglasses wearing fish.

KJ: I remember the Virginia Aquarium, that was amazing. I remember that we went to the outdoor area. It was a nice day.

CT: We all did the hurricane machine, except Katelyn.

DJ: There was an adventure rope thing but we didn’t do it, just walked through to the other pavilion. We didn’t have time because we were going to dinner at Captain Groovy’s,

KJ: The fish place!

CT: I remember why you got the hat because it was a fish with sunglasses.

DJ: Yeah, I loved it. Don’t know why I love the fish with sunglasses.

CT: Because he’s a gangster fish.

DJ: No, he was a cool lookin’ fish, not a gangster fish!

CT: You add some sunglasses and bam instant MLG.

DJ: They see me rollin’ they hatin’

We laughed for quite a while about that. My kids crack me up.

After our fantastic meal, we headed back to the beach house. The kids reminded me that we had yet to see the ghost crabs that come out at night on the beach. The night before we left, we got flashlights and walked down to the beach. The full moon provided a little bit of additional light so we could walk a bit on the shore without our flashlights on. The evening was the Atlantic ghost crab’s time to take over the shore. These small sand colored crabs, with a large fiddler crab-like claw, would scuttle en masse as we walked by. We could catch a better glimpse of them with the flashlight but many of them would rush out of the beam of light or disappear into their burrows.

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 5 – Georgia to Virginia
©KDCAdventures

In the dark, it looked like the beach itself was moving as we approached. Some people will bring a net or a bucket with them to catch the crabs, but we were happy just catching glimpses of them as they froze for a moment in the light of the flashlight then fled for the cover of night. Fireworks started farther down the beach from us. The kids played in the rolling surf, beams from their flashlights bouncing on the water, while we watched the small circles of fireworks along the distant shore. We then had to head back since we had a long drive ahead of us the next day. We walked back chattering about the great view and the cute crabs. The kids had thoroughly enjoyed their Sandbridge vacation.

But our vacation was not over yet. We got back on the road and heading to Washington DC

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Adventures Atlanta Conyers Covington Georgia

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 4 – Georgia

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia

We made it back to Georgia near midnight due to the limited visibility during the storm. State roads without streetlights and buckets of rain made it difficult to see the lines on the road. Watching lightning flash sideways was something I rarely ever see, and it looked even more startling against the ink black sky. Once back in GA, we made plans for our weeklong stay.

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
Whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium
3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
The inner courtyard of Fernbank.

The kids really wanted me to see the Georgia Aquarium and I’m so glad they convinced me to return. I’ve been to aquariums all over the US and this one was one of the most impressive. It’s the second largest aquarium in the world, the first being in Singapore. I finally got to see the manta rays and whale sharks that the kids were telling me about, and it did not disappoint. Four adolescent whale sharks share a tank with four manta rays and a multitude of other fish. It can be hard to get a sense of scale even when you know the whale shark is the size of a bus and the manta the size of a car.  I sat in in front of the large viewing window (63’ long and 26’ high) and watched these gentle giants as they circled the tank. The whale sharks made continuous circuits around the tank while the manta rays would occasionally swim somersaults, a method of filtering for food. It was hard to pull me away from that tank. I could have watched them for hours. As CT said, I wanted to “Just admire the majesticness of the whale sharks.”

The rest of the aquarium was amazing. It’s all separated into different themed galleries. We saw beluga whales, sea otters, a fascinating jellyfish exhibit, alligators, river otters, penguins, dolphins and more fish, cephalopods, reptiles and birds than you can shake a stick at. We enjoyed the Aquanauts adventure where the kids carried around interactive iPads. We also got to see the spectacular fantasy epic (someone really needs to invent a sarcasm font) that is Dolphin Tales.

Dolphin Tales stars a caped ancient mariner Star Spinner (queue the start of my constant eye rolling in this 30 min long show) who has to defeat a sea monster with the help of his dolphin friends. Oh yeah, and there’s a star map, and songs, and Star Spinner’s lighted cape. If Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame had written a dolphin show, this would be it. The kids loved it, and I did as well, to a certain extent. The dolphin behaviors were amazing, and it was the most production value I’ve seen in a dolphin show since Sea World’s Blue Horizon (which I think is a much better show). Still, it was difficult not to scoff at the cheesy Broadway-style songs and Star Spinner’s dramatic overacting.

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
The inner courtyard of Fernbank.

Next, we took a day trip to Fernbank Natural History Museum. While smaller than what I’m used to here in Chicago, it was still fun. The building’s architecture was beautiful. We enjoyed the exhibits and the hands-on features they had available the walk through time in Georgia was an interesting way to present the state starting in the Dinosaur era to the present day.  The kids spent ages in NatureQuest, although KJ is getting too big for most of the exhibits, and by big as in height. The kids also enjoyed the Seeing Nature exhibit and couldn’t seem to stop trying to make large bubbles. Reflection of Culture was small but informative. My favorite exhibit was Brain: The Inside Story. It was very well designed, both informative and fun. The mug I bought at the gift shop there points out the different parts of the brain.

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
Koi pond in Conyers.

We decided to check things out locally since we were not staying in the city but 30 miles south in Conyers. This is Vampire Diaries/The Original’s territory, so it’s become a bit of a tourist destination. Conyers’ Olde Town Main Street, established in 1853, was decked out to look like New Orleans for the show The Original, which shoots there. We also checked out the cool store The Black Cat Curio Co. It bills itself as an authentic New Orleans Voodoo shop and, indeed, has everything for your Voodoo, Wiccan, and druid needs. My daughter was excited to meet the cat she had seen in the window earlier. A couple of blocks from The Black Cat we found the Lewis Vaughn Botanical Garden. This small but beautifully maintained park had several interconnected ponds with vibrantly colored koi fish and white water lilies.

We also found on the road running parallel to Main Street, Railroad Road, a depot that doubles as a museum/welcome center. We read about the history of Conyers and how it fit in with Sherman’s March to the sea. General Sherman marched his troops past here in 1864. KJ got very emotional while reading about the history of Sherman’s march to the sea and how it affected the town. The original depot was destroyed as Sherman’s troupe made their devastating route through town. For a kid on the spectrum, KJ is extremely emotional and empathetic. She found it very hard to hide how upset she was with the stories she was reading. It did provide us with an opportunity to talk about the history of the south in that time and choice people had to make during the Civil War. As we left the depot, we noticed down the road a piece was the “Dinky,” a 1905 Rogers steam locomotive engine. Under a projective pavilion, it’s one of three left in the world. It turns out there’s lots of history in this little town.

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
Court house in Covington.

From there we decided to check out Covington, a 20 min drive down the highway. We didn’t know until we started reading about Covington’s history that we were also continuing on Sherman’s path. Covington is famous in popular culture because of the large number of films and television shows that have been shot there like In The Heat of the Night, Duke’s of Hazard, My Cousin Vinny, Sweet Home Alabama, Selma, and it’s resident star The Vampire Diaries. We parked in the town square and headed to the Visitor’s Center. This brought us past Vampire Stalkers, a storefront that is also the start of the Vampire Diaries tours.

There were many history buildings to look at as we walked by, including the magnificent Newton County Courthouse built in 1884. I would later find out this building featured prominently in the Vampire Diaries. At the Visitor’s Center, we looked at memorabilia from productions that have filmed there and got a map to locations around town. While making a circuit of the town square we found Scoops, an ice parlor/candy shop that we instantly fell in love with.  We continued around the square afterward to walk off the ice cream. We walked past the Mystic Falls restaurant on our way back to the car. We knew we definitely needed to come back for more ice cream.

3200 Miles in 32 Days Part 4 Georgia
Sculpture on Stone Mountian

The last Georgia landmark we visited before we left was Stone Mountain. Located just west of Atlanta proper, it’s what’s called a Pluton (a type of igneous extrusion or basically a huge mound created by swelling magma) made mostly of quartz monzonite. There is a gigantic bas-relief carving of famous confederate soldiers (Davis, Lee, and Jackson) along the side. We took the Summit Skyride tram up to the top where we were treated to an amazing view from the top at an elevation of 1,686 feet. There are trails you can take to get to the top too. We did the Duck Tour which took us all around the area at the base of the north side of the mountain. The duck boat then took us out onto the lake where we saw the fascinating Carillion, which contains 732 bells that can be played like an organ and often has guest players. After our tour we hung out at Crossroads, a park where the kids enjoyed climbing the Sky Hike, playing in the water in Geyser Towers, and having fun shooting balls in the Great Barn. We ended the day taking the Railroad that circled the entire mountain.

KJ and CT memories:

KJ– Fernbank was beautiful. It was small, but it was amazing. It had spiral staircases that took you from floor to floor.  There were two floors, and all of them were paved with this tile that had fossils embedded in it. They gave you this little thing where you could check off each fossil. They had a brain exhibit going on that was amazing.

CT – I remember Fernbank that was a pretty fun place.

KJ  – I remember the shop The Black Cat in Conyers. It had cats in it. It was a little witches shop. I also remember the train museum, the train depot that was a museum.

KJ – Covington was like TV show central. It was mostly for the vampire diaries fans; all the vampire diaries stuff was everywhere.  I know there are a lot of them. There was even this one store dedicated to it. Scoops, the ice cream parlor that was also a candy store. They had really good ice cream.

After a week it was time to leave for North Carolina and Virginia Beach. We’ll be back to explore more in GA next year.

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Adventures Florida Georgia Orlando Theme Parks

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 3 – More Universal Studios / Back to Georgia

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 2 – Georgia to Florida

Read part 2 here.

Right off the bat, Diagon Alley was impressive. The facade is breathtaking, and the triple-decker Knight Bus outside has a chatty shrunken head to entertain guests. Inside you feel like you’ve literally entered the world of Harry Potter. You can’t see the rest park once you’re inside and you walk through streets filled with recognizable establishments.

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Trying to get the toilet to do something magical.

The kids wanted to get a wand as fast as possible. They had heard about it before our trip and saw kids waving their wands around Diagon Alley as soon as we entered. Rather than waiting to go to Ollivanders, the kids stopped at Wands by Gregorovitch instead. It took a while to get the magical moves just right (we only bought one for them to share, it was a little pricey) but they had fun trying to figure it out. Just about every shop from the Potter universe was here, but we needed to head to Gringotts since the wait time for the ride would be long. Before entering, we watched the dragon above exhale its fiery breath.

 

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Hard at work or hardly working?

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts was worth the wait. True to form, it also had an entertaining inside queue. Waiting in line in Gringotts we watched the goblins work at their stations, walked past vaults, and looked at newspapers with moving pictures just like the movies. They take your photo before you head into an office like room. There you get to virtually meet the rarely seen Bill Weasley (Brother of Ron. This actor is now famous for the role of General Hux) before taking an elevator ride down to the carts. That’s about 10 minutes of show before you even get on the ride! The ride is another moving car that takes you from scene to scene, but it’s so entertaining that you don’t care that we’ve done something like this already at Transformers and Spiderman. This one feels more like a roller coaster. At the end of the exciting ride, we checked out our photo taken in queue. We liked it so much we bought that one too.

We continued our exploration of Diagon alley with some butterbeer ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s and a walk down Knockturn Alley. Reluctantly, we left to finish what we could in the rest of the park.

KJ – Universal was amazing. We went to Diagon Alley it was awesome, even though I did not have a very extensive knowledge of Harry Potter at the time.

CT – And now you’re on the fourth book, and you now know way more about Harry Potter than me. The thing that I remember the most was Diagon Alley because I had a really fun time there.

KJ- They had a dragon on top of the Gringotts ride that breathes real fire.

CT – I remember getting ice cream and then almost having it melt from the fire breathing stone dragon statue. I don’t know if they actually froze a dragon into stone…

KJ – No, it’s supposed to look like the actual dragons that guard Gringotts.

CT- Oh yeah I remember seeing the dragon in the ride. And the ride was pretty fun too.

KJ – It’s like being the movie, it’s really cool.  I remember most the Gringotts mine cart experience. It’s not like having Hagrid behind you, but it’s like being in one of those carts. It’s actually kind of funny. We definitely had fun with the wands. There were lots of Leviosa jokes.

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It’s showtime!

Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem had a painfully long wait in a rather uninteresting queue, but the two preshow rooms and the 3-D adventure were lots of fun. We spent the rest of the time doing more classic attractions like Disaster! The Motion Picture, Twister (featuring some old school effects that reminded me of the early days of Universal Studios Hollywood), and ET Adventure. We caught a showing of Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Review. The short rock musical was near to my heart because it was one of the live shows I worked on in my Universal Studios Hollywood days. The show was a little different than the Hollywood one, but we still loved it. I will miss it once it closes since it’s slated for its final demise in 2016.

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All that’s left of the Jaws ride.

After taking the traditional photo in front of the hanging Jaws shark, now located in the San Francisco wharf, we decided to head to City Walk for a quick dinner then take our tired, hot, sweaty selves back to the hotel. The kids can’t wait to come back again. I also want to take them to Islands of Adventure too.

KJ – The Simpson ride was definitely an experience.
CT – Oh yeah that was weird because I don’t understand anything about The Simpsons. I didn’t know what the heck was going on.

KJ – I had a very vague knowledge, just enough to know the character’s names and what they do.

KJ – The Minions ride. That was fun, the wait though…

CT – Oh yeah that was fun. It was a really long wait, but it was worth it.

KJ – Good thing we waited, could have been a two-hour wait if we hadn’t gone then.

CT – Since the wait was so long, I probably wouldn’t have gone on if it wasn’t Minions. I wanted to go because it was Minions.

After another day of family and pool time, we got back on the road for Georgia. I stopped for gas at an exit that sported a sign directing you to Jimmy Carter’s Boyhood home. We were just outside of Cordele, GA. I found myself staring off into space while waiting for the pump to finish. Then I noticed it. Well, I’ll be, it’s that rocket we passed on the way down! KJ looked it up on her phone, and it turned out to be a retired Titan 1 nuclear mission that was purchased and positioned here in 1969. We had gotten on the road rather late in Orlando, so that was about all we saw of the Confederate Missile. We got back on the road.

After the sun had gone down, we were on the back roads to Conyers when a terrifyingly intense thunder and lightning storm started. The lightning was beautiful and frightening at the same time. I think Georgia showed us the most spectacular lightning I’ve even seen since my summer in Santa Fe. KJ described the storm as being like buckets being thrown onto our car with gigantic bolts of lighting.  The rest of the week we would be treated to some spectacular thunder and lightning as we spent more time exploring around the Atlanta area. We still had many more miles to add to our adventure.

Next up: Part 4 – Georgia

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Adventures Florida Georgia Theme Parks

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 2 – Georgia to Florida

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 2 – Georgia to Florida

Read Part 1 here.

After a week in Georgia, we took a relatively short drive down to Orlando. Well, relatively short when you consider the miles between Chicago and Conyers. I had originally hoped to do some sightseeing on the way down to GA, at least a roadside attraction or two, but we spent the entire time on the road. The drive down to Orlando made up for that. On the way down Route 75, we passed what looked like a rocket standing by the side of the road. Further down the road, we were treated to the World’s Largest Peanut in Ashford, GA. Designed by A.R Smith Jr. and erected in 1975, it’s comprised of a marvelously detailed peanut sitting on a crown that reads “Georgia 1st for Peanuts.”

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 2 – Georgia to Florida
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We arrived in Orlando in the late afternoon. The original hotel we were supposed to stay in had a fire a week earlier, so we were moved to another hotel farther up International Drive. We stayed at The Point Orlando Resort just off I-Drive, and we enjoyed our stay there. Even though we have family in Orlando, we found staying at a hotel with a pool an easier way to keep the kids busy while we visit with family. Too many years of the kids getting ever increasingly bored while sitting around as grownups talk made us realize the kids need to be more active during family visits. This way the kids can play in the pool while adults sit and catch up. KJ and CT spent hours in the pool and even made friends with other kids there.

KJ and CT remember Florida:

KJ – The pool, and how we got completely sun tanned because we were in there for hours. There was a thunderstorm when were in the pool and we had to get out for a little while, that was actually pretty cool. We got to see the lightning actually strike the lighting rods. I had never seen that before.

CT – I was afraid it was a hurricane.

KJ – I remembered the pool the possibly the most because the tan got to everywhere but my eyes around where my goggles were so I was constantly reminded every day that I had spent hours in the pool because I had light rings around my eyes.

CT- You got raccoon face.

We did one theme park visit on this trip, Universal Studios. I hadn’t been there since the Jaws ride was still considered a new attraction. I thought it was an awesome ride, but it’s no longer there. The kids had been to Disney many times and this trip we decided to do something new. They’re also older now and with one Harry Potter fan and another a roller coaster fan this would be fun. It was a hot and humid Sunday that got off to a late start. We met local friends there and set off for a day of exploring the park

The first thing I noticed was how different City Walk was since the last time I had been there. I’d spent many a night hanging out there before the kids were born but hadn’t been there in about a decade. While core restaurants seemed to still be there like Pat O’Brien’s, there were many new smaller stores and restaurants. There was also a new retro look mini golf course.

In the park, we started out with Shrek 4-D and Transformers: The Ride. Shrek was a fun 4-D ride where the spirit of Farquaad kidnaps Fiona. It’s very much like other 4-D shows such as Honey I Shrunk the Kids, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, and just about every other “Let’s watch a 3-D movie while stuff sprays, pokes, and prods you” kind of attraction. Transformers: The Ride was a much more immersive ride which reminded me of The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride over at Islands of Adventure. There’s also a cool meet and greet with Optimus Prime outside.

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We had lunch in the Simpson’s themed Fast Food Boulevard. We loved the variety of foods at different counters. It was also helpful that everyone could separate and choose the food they wanted to eat then meet at the cash register to pay for all the food at once. We got a big table together and enjoyed our meals. I really wanted some Duff Beer put it was so hot and humid I decided to have Buzz Cola and lots of water instead. We would have stopped at Moe’s Tavern, but long lines meant we had to be stingy without time. The whole Simpson’s areas was a fun immersion into their world. CT got to listen to character’s talk to him on a payphone, and the arcade area was Crusty the Clown themed. The Simpson’s ride was a bit surreal for A and I as we had loved the Back to the Future ride it replaces. The layout was still the same; just the décor and film were different. We enjoyed the new ride, though. It was lots of fun, and the movie car within the large projection dome still feels like you’re really there.

We followed that up with Men in Black: Alien Attack. The kids had never seen the movie, so they weren’t sure what was going to happen. It was a shooting game similar to Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters at Disney, so they got that hang of it quickly. I enjoyed the queue with its retro World’s Fair exhibit, our prompt recruiting as MIB agents, and then entering Men in Black headquarters. We then entered the cars and got to shoot aliens. We usually don’t get photos when we go to the theme park, but this had all of us in one car so we couldn’t resist. From there we headed to the piece de resistance, Diagon Alley!

Next up: Continuation of Universal Studios and driving back to GA.

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Adventures Georgia Illinois Indiana Kentucky Tennessee

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 1 – Chicago to Atlanta

3200 Miles in 32 Days: Part 1 - Chicago to Atlanta

Yep, you read it right, 3200 miles in 32 days. The mileage is rounded up, but it’s darn close. We didn’t plan on making this a marathon trip; it just sort of evolved over time. The original plan was to drive down to Georgia at the beginning of summer break since A was down there working. We originally planned to drive down to Florida from there to see family then drive back. Then A’s side of the family decided to have a family vacation in Virginia Beach. We thought it would work out fine since we could do Georgia/Florida in June then Virginia Beach at it’s planned time of the end of July.

Then baseball season happened. Baseball season wouldn’t end until June 27th. This meant no traveling in June. Scramble to change travel plans. Realize with horror that you don’t want to say no to either family, so you keep both plans. You decided to just smoosh those plans together into one marathon month of travel. Then you panic because the kids have never been on the road that long. But you’re also excited because you’ve been dying to do more traveling and this will make up for the past decade limited travel. Then you plan, lots and lots of planning.

We would have to pack a month’s worth of necessities into our already compact sized four-door Mazda 3 hatchback. We would be staying at or near places with a washing machine, so we only brought five days of clothes. I packed a bag of snacks and drinks, so we didn’t have to make any unnecessary stops for food. A narrow plastic file bin I found fit well between the kids in the back seat. I filled it with blank paper, lined paper; printed out coloring pages, maze books, search-a-word books, comic books, and magazines. Each kid had a pencil box full of colored pencils and markers. They each had a giant clipboard to color, write and draw on. They each bought two new books that they weren’t allowed to open until the trip. They also each bought a new 3DS game. I bought a life-altering piece of electronics accessories, a DS charger. With this arsenal against boredom, we could go on longer stretches of drives.

I also brought a baseball glove and ball, along with a soccer ball and Frisbee. I was worried the long hours sitting would be tough on my son with ADHD. I wanted something active to do during any stops just in case the constant sitting was too much for him. Luckily, he kept himself busy with video games, the art bin, and magazines, so he surprised me with this ability to sit for extended periods of time. I had also put an audiobook on my phone, but we never listened to it. Preferring to listen to local radio, Pandora, or the selection of songs on my iPod.

Looking at the estimated drive time to our final destination in Georgia, I thought we would have to stop for the night before continuing. I was thinking somewhere around Nashville, TN. We got on the road later than I expected, around 8 am. It took longer to pack the car than I thought. Rather than leave things behind I Tetris-ed it in as best I could. Every part of the car was full, but I could still see out the back window. Our first stop was lunch just outside of Indianapolis.

KJ and CT’s take on the start of the trip:

KJ – I was very excited. It was our second extremely long road trip, and we were going to go down to FL again. We were going to go see Dad, and I was also looking forward to Universal since we had never really been there before.

CT – I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t survive long enough without being to play on my ps4 for a whole month during the summer. I kind of wanted to go, but kind of didn’t want to go at the same time.

On the road to GA:

KJ – I remember that C got bored as he usually does. Most of the time CT and I swapped the DS charger back and forth.

CT – Kind of the same thing as Katelyn

We experienced intense rainstorms between Indianapolis, IN, and Louisville, KY. The rain would come down so hard I had to slow down to 25 MPH. Visibility was awful. I learned that a common thing to do during rainstorms was to put your hazards on so other can better see your car. Had never seen that anywhere else I’ve lived. The driving was harrowing, but the lightning was incredible. We watched the most intense lightning strikes we’d ever seen. Thunder and lightning storms would turn out to be our constant companion on the trip.

We skirted around downtown Louisville and left the flat plains of the Midwest into beautiful hilly terrain. We encountered another thunder and lightning storm, but this stretch seems to be less time-consuming. Having trees and hills made the drive less monotonous and less instance of me calling out “cows!” as we drove along. We reached Nashville at sunset and decided to stop for dinner. Just like the other cities, we skirted about the downtime Nashville then stopped just outside the city to eat dinner. Looking at our remaining drive, it seemed better to just knock out the rest of the drive. We arrived at our final destination at 11:30pm.

I missed some of the events over July 4th weekend because I went to a three days education conference. A took DJ and CT to an Atlanta Braves game (Star Wars Night!) then to the Georgia Aquarium for a 4th of July event. They watched fireworks from the roof of the aquarium’s parking garage. When I returned the next day, I heard all about the whale sharks and manta rays at the aquarium. We only spent one extra day in Georgia then drove down Florida. We would return to GA in a week.

KJ and CT: 1st week in GA:

CT – I remember it was fun. Dad took us to the Georgia Aquarium which was really really fun. They had whale sharks there, so it was really really cool.

KJ – Yeah, whale sharks, and manta rays. I also remember the aquarium, who couldn’t. I vaguely remember most of the 4th of July party before the fireworks. For some reason, I don’t remember the fireworks at all.

CT – I remember the fireworks and I remember doing the spin art, which was really fun

KJ – Yeah, the spin art was fun

Next up: Part 2 – Florida

 

 

 

 

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Adventures Arizona Missouri St Louis

KDC and A’s Trek to the Midwest: The Gateway Arch

Trek to the Midwest: Gateway Arch

It was hard to drive away from the Grand Canyon, but we needed to get back on the road. We got back on the 40 and headed east. I made the family stop in Albuquerque, NM because I just couldn’t drive through NM without getting some sopapillas. I had lived in Santa Fe for a summer and was addicted to them. They are impossible to find outside of New Mexico. It was late, so we needed to find something quick. A Google Maps search helped us find a place. It also put us on route 66 again. We had managed to get back on the mother road.

My sopapilla fix destination, Mac’s La Sierra, turnout out to be a small corner diner with a delightful vintage neon sign and a fiberglass cow, doesn’t get much better than that. It turns out Mac’s has been around since 1952 and is famous for it’s “Steak in the Rough” dish that consists of strips of beef that are breaded and fried. I didn’t order the specialty of the house; I ordered half dozen of sopapillas to go. Back at the car, we enjoyed those warm pockets drizzled with the honey they supplied in little packets. On our way out we got a good look at the neon route 66 sign before getting back on the highway. We drove until the Texan panhandle when it was far too late to go any further. We stayed overnight there then drove through Oklahoma to Missouri.

Mac's La Sierra - Gateway Arch
Sopapillas at sunset from Mac’s La Sierra.

We got to St. Louis after nightfall and decided on a hotel on the north side of town. The next morning we headed to the Gateway to the West. After a bit of confusion that resulted in an unexpected round trip journey across the nearby bridge, we found the parking garage. The whole property and related buildings are known as the Jefferson National Expansion Monument. A walk through the park led us to the concrete base with the Mighty Mississippi to our left. A quick trip through a metal detector and we were inside looking for the counter to get our tickets.

We got our tickets for the trip up, and while we waited for our time slot we checked out the museum. The Museum of Westward Expansion was an informative journey through the history, starting at the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the end of expansion in 1890. The displays were amazing; they even had a covered wagon and full-sized tipi. I thought we would only be checking out the view but there is a surprising amount of history to be learned here too. There are also two theaters, the Tucker Theater on the north side of the base and the Odyssey Theater on the south side.

The walk to the tram took us through the history of the arch’s creation. From the early planning and announcement of the architectural contest to pick a design for the monument, all the way through Eero Saarinen’s winning design and construction. The Tram itself was much smaller than I expected. It looked like it the EVA pod from 2001 to me. I would later find there was a reason for this as the film took inspiration from Saarinen’s work. Each of the eight pods has five seats. Once the door shut, we were able to watch our ascent within the arch’s leg. The tram moves in a curve as it goes up and it rocks like being on a Ferris wheel. We got a great view of the emergency steps, but that was about it. We arrived at the top fairly quickly.

Tram - Gateway Arch
Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Once inside the observatory deck, it reminded me of the Statue of Liberty’s tiny high set windows. Windows are on both sides so you could see out over the Mississippi River into Illinois on one side and the Old Courthouse along with downtown St. Louis on the other. The views are spectacular. It’s also worth mentioning is that the deck is curved since you are at the top of the arch, 630 feet at its apex. After taking our photos and enjoying the view, we headed down the tram on the other leg.

Gateway Arch
View from the top – The Old Courthouse

We decided to make a pit stop before returning to the car since we would be driving to Chicago after this. On the way to the restroom, I noticed a display of the pod with a sign showing an illustrated example of the tram in use and an explanation of its history.

Gateway Arch
Thanks for the tram info, 80’s family.

We made our way back to the parking structure and headed back on the road. We wanted to get to the new house by dinner, and we had miles of southern Illinois farmland to drive through. Not much happened on the last leg of our drive other than trying to figure out how to say Kankakee (turns out it’s KANkakee and not KanKAkee), looking at barns and silos, and corn… lots of corn.

I did some research while writing this post to make sure I was using the correct name of the arch’s museum. I found out that the museum is going away, along with the Odyssey Theater. They’re building a new entrance so you can enter on the west side of the base and the Theater will become a brand new store. There will be another museum space elsewhere since the new entrance will be where the museum once stood. Seems the kids and I got to see a piece of history that will no longer exist. Considering the arch was opened in 1963 it makes sense to change with the times. We plan to return to check out the new entrance. A great excuse to go back and spend more time in St. Louis.

Here is CT’s take on his visit to the Gateway Arch:

The St. Louis Arch is a really really really tall arch in Missouri that you can go in. When you go inside it, there is some history about it and a video about when the

last piece was going in, which was a big deal because it took forever to build. Then there is an elevator that takes a long time to get to the top. At the top of the arch it wobbles and rocks side to side, and it’s really high. There are windows so if you are afraid of heights do NOT go up there.

(DJ: It only takes 4 minutes to get to the top. Also, the arch does not sway. It is designed to withstand an earthquake and high winds but takes a 50 mph wind to move it an inch and a half.