Wednesday, October 11, 2017


I was really excited about our next 4 stops.  The first was “Home-aha”.  As much as I wanted to leave Omaha (me and the weather don’t get along) I couldn’t wait to go back and see all of our Omaha family.  That’s right, they are so much more than friends.  Living there from bachelorette-hood until mom of 3 there are people from our days in Omaha that will always be family to us.  We’ve celebrated birthdays, holidays, homecomings, and marriages with these amazing people.  Not to mention, our house, THE house.  Jon proposed to me in the house, he moved in to that house after 3 years of geo-marriage, and we brought all 3 babies home to that house.  And now someone else lives there, a concept apparently challenging for AJ to understand.  He begged for us to do a drive-by, and we did.  I never thought I’d be so attached to a house.  I never thought so much of my story would’ve been written in that house.

We relished the time we had with everyone there.  We met up with friends everyday.  We hosted a bbq at our campground so we could see even more people.  We saw the zoo that we had frequented while living there and is now almost unrecognizable (in a good way), we went to our home church we attended almost 2 years ago and we drove by the 2 places the kids were born.  Something AJ really enjoys pointing out.  We had some repairs to do on the both the truck and trailer, I know it’s shocking, so we had parts shipped there and Jon was ready to do the repairs at the base Hobby Shop.  He got the truck fixed with little issue, but the trailer was going to be a bit trickier.  You can’t use ust any jack stands with the trailer.  After finding a way to get it high enough and secure enough, Jon climber under the trailer only to find the bolts he needed to remove to be completely seized up, on a Friday evening…the day before we were supposed to leave.  After making about 10 phone calls we finally found someone who was willing to squeeze us in to work on it on Saturday.  We very slowly and carefully hitched up and headed to the shop only to find that the parts we had ordered were incomplete.  We dropped of the trailer and alternated eating lunch at Pizza Ranch with the kids and running around to different hardware shops for the part we needed.  After 7 stores we had what we needed spread out through 3 different franchises and got back to the repair shop just in time for them to close.  They’ll open back up and get right to work at 8am on….Monday.  <<insert Charlie Brown sad music>> 

SLEEPOVER!!!   Some of our Omaha friends, who had moved away before we did, just happened to be passing through and staying with another good friend who had also moved away and moved back.  Did you follow all that??  So 6 adults and 8 kids hunkered down for a fun night together. 

Fortunately, there were no more complications with the trailer, we got to spend bonus time with Omaha family and were back on the road.  Next stop…St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Minnesota, A Fair Place to Visit (Location T)

Steph and Todd are also Omaha friends, but they had moved up the Minnesota about 3 years ago.  Steph and I had a mutual friend that introduced us, but it wasn’t until years later that we became great friends.  We were chick-fil-a, get-out-of-the-house mom friends.  It was a fast friendship and one that I hope we’ll have for life.  Steph’s 3 girls are about the same ages as AJ and LJ, and Baby A is about a year older than Steph’s newest addition, a little boy.  The best part of this visit, was being able to park in their front yard.  They had a ready-made RV spot just waiting for us.  It was so nice to just be able to visit with them without worrying about a commute or taking a day away from visiting to get household chores done.  The kids ran around the yard, collecting eggs from their chickens, played with the dog and made a mess of the “playroom” basement.  We ended up extending our stay here, partly because we couldn’t find any campgrounds available for our new dates over Labor Day weekend, and mostly because I just didn’t want to leave.  Did you know Minnesota has a fair that makes the Iowa Fair look like small potatoes??  You may not know Iowa has a reputable fair, but it down.  One of the biggest I had experienced until we went to eh Minnesota State Fair.  Fired cheese curds, deep fried cheesecake, deep fried Oreos, buckets of soft homemade cookies, ice cream, deep fried pickles, and my favorite cream cheese filled green olives wrapped in bacon and deep fried.  It was amazing!!  And now my body hates me and we are doing Whole 30.

 We spent the next night in Duluth, unfortunately spending our entire time there grocery shopping and cleaning house, but we were headed for Pictured Rocks National Shore in Upper Peninsula Michigan next. (Location U1/2)

The plan was to take a very overpriced boat to see the Pictured Rocks, but the winds were too high.  So we hiked instead.  The kids got another Junior Ranger badge and we got to see a small peek at the cliffs that make this area noteable.  It was really beautiful!  Jon and the kids got to hike around the campground along the shore of Lake Au Train.  After our stay in the area we did a night at Mackinac Bridge followed by a long drive to Ann Arbor.

More friends!!!  Brooke and Todd are both students in Ann Arbor who we met back in Navigator school.  Todd was there when it all began for Jon and I.  I followed Todd and his then fiancĂ© to Omaha where we timed our first two kids within a few months of each other, unintentionally.   We spent a lot of time just hanging out at home with all the kids playing together.  It was great to catch up and just spend some downtime with their family.  We even got the stamp of approval from their oldest daughter who shared that she liked playing with the boys. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Badlands, South Dakota

(Location P) We've been once before when AJ was just three months old.  Our memories were so fond of our adventure through the wilderness of Badlands National Park that we were excited to do it again.  We stayed at a campground just a mile south of the National Park, and it met our very low expectations just fine.  The town of Interior, SD doesn't offer a whole lot, and it may be the only town we've stayed at to this point with a population of less than 100 people.  Though the landscape is beautiful, I fully understand why there aren't more people living in the area.  Badlands is essentially a stopover for most people anyhow, able to see the essence of the park in just a few hours.  But to really enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of this park, it really deserves more time.  Which is why we were so happy to have stayed so close to the park, even if only for two nights.

     To really see the Badlands, you have to realize several things.  First, this is the only National Park in the country that is entirely open to hiking (so we were told).  There are essentially no "off limits" areas, to include the pinnacles and rocky peaks throughout the park.  That makes for some pretty great hiking adventures, as seen in some of our photos.  We retraced our hike from 5 years prior, though not quite as far this time.  AJ and I even encountered a lone bison hiding behind a dune, just as we did 5 years before.  And we were somewhat nervous stumbling upon such a massive creature in the wild, just like before.  

     Second, the Badlands is one of the most fossil rich areas in the world.  New fossils are found regularly by visitors to the park, making it pretty exciting for the boys knowing there is a chance they too could find a "Big Pig" or some other animal's ancient fossilized remnants.  The boys may have found a small fossilized jawbone on our final hike, but our novice eyes quickly lost track of it among the rubble.  

The "Big Pig" fascinates AJ.  At nearly 7 ft long and with a jaw able to crush a small child, this Archaeotherium is quite the beast.

     Finally, with absolutely nothing around, the night sky in the Badlands compares with remote Nevada and Utah stargazing.  We rode our bicycles the mile into the park after dark to enjoy what may be the country's best Ranger Talk, due mostly to the fantastic ranger, whose name eludes me.  We had marshmallows and campfire songs, all without the campfire.  The talk concluded with telescopic viewing of a pair of twin stars (blue and white) and Saturn.  Finally we began an extremely dark bike ride home, with our bikes lit up with every type of flashlight and strobe.  We biked through groups of bats enjoying the night bugs, came face to face with a hungry group of mule deer, and avoided disaster with a striped skunk stumbling along the roadside.  

     We may find ourselves back at the Badlands again one day.  We enjoy seeing the prairie dogs, bison and bighorn sheep.  The landscape is absolutely spectacular, and the adventure of fossil hunting is enough to keep us busy for days.  Hopefully we'll choose  to make any future trip in cooler weather.  

Baby A rocking it on the rocks.  She slept in my arms for the hike back to the car.

AJ on the move

Abandoned bird nests made of mud

The arch in the rocks towards the top center of the above photo is easily large enough to walk through, giving you a sense of how vast the area is, even within these canyon hikes.  Rugged terrain, but very unique hiking for us compared to the usual forests.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Black Hills Bonanza


(Location N/O)   Mt. Rushmore?  I've heard there isn't much to see.  Some faces on a rock.  It'll take what, 45 minutes to get a few good photos with the fam, maybe throw in a diaper change?  So we'll very generously give two nights at our Black Hills campground so we can have a little down time.  Things have been busy, so some relaxation is overdue.  A solid plan for sure.

     Oh, what's this National Park around the corner?  Wind Cave?  That could be cool.  The boys have been racking up their LJ dubbed "Badgination" Junior Ranger badges (7 at this point), so we can't pass up another cool cavern for yet another badge.  We'll add that to the to-do list.  

     I punch the route into Google Maps to plan out our visit.  Hey  now!  Looks like smack dab between Wind Cave and Mt. Rushmore is Custer State Park.  I rarely pass up the opportunity to get a glimpse at wild bison, and hey, it's on the way.  Add it to the list!

     Now that we have our plan I'm starting to see our relaxing day is going to be a little busier than first planned.  At least we'll still have our arrival evening and late morning departure 36 hours later.

     We roll into our campground mid-evening and what do we see?  A tractor-pulled "choo-choo train" equipped with music fit for a train ride, joyfully towing kids all over the campground.  Looks like we have our evening planned!

     After unhitching, connecting the utilities and unloading the storage shed/children's room, we head over to the "train depot."  A quick ride before dinner is the plan, since it stops running at 8 and its already 7:30.  Along the way we spot a communal fire pit with free marshmallows for roasting.  That closes at 8 too, so we'd better make an exception and have some pre-dinner dessert.  

     The train ride - a fun chance to watch the kids faces light with joy as we wave to all the neighboring campers on our journey.  The marshmallow roast leads to campfire conversation with a family from North Dakota.  That's right - people actually do live in North Dakota, and those accents aren't made up for TV and movies after all.  Better still, they are considering a move to Nebraska to "enjoy some milder winters."  The idea of this leaves me dumbfounded and completely speechless.  Late conversation allows the boys to explore the fantastic playground and get some peer interaction time.

     And now it's after 9pm.  Dinner... yeah about that.  We'll slap together some leftovers and try to get to bed as soon as possible, because tomorrow is now a busy day.  We have Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore National Monument, and to top it off our campground is hosting a real deal summer rodeo series.  5pm kicks off "Mutton Bustin'."  The boys aren't exactly pumped to try it out - rightfully apprehensive I'd say, but we want to be back by 5 to give them the chance should they tap into some courage from their inner cowboy.  They have the boots after all.  Oh, and some friendly campground staff said a nearby drive through bear zoo called "Bear Country USA" was a must see.  Adding that to tomorrow's plans is just too much, so maybe we'll hit it up the next morning before hitting the road to Badlands (details on this in the next blog post).  And of course AJ has his third day of virtual kindergarten we need to make time for.  No time like the present!  We knock out some lessons the night prior to our big day, further pushing bedtime for all but Baby A (well past 10 pm now).  Oh, and to add to our already full schedule, Brynn has a non-negotiable Trades of Hope event at 7 the next night, so we'll definitely have to be home by then.  I guess she'll have to miss the end of the rodeo.

     So how does it all play out?  A late night is followed by a late morning - 8:30 or so.  We enjoyed a fresh egg scramble on the patio and packed lunches and supplies for the day.  Then we hit the road for a near 90 minute drive to Stop 1 - Wind Cave National Park.  We are treated to two scampering coyotes in the field right outside the campground - and about one thousand prairie dogs hoping not to be their next meal.  Wind Cave, named for the rushing of air into and out of the cave mouth depending on outside air pressure (winds reaching 75mph at the entrance), was actually pretty cool*.  The boys earned another National Park Junior Ranger badge, and Brynn and I, now spoiled with Skyline Caverns, Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, were both disappointed the cavern tour was so limited, but equally happy to be done quickly as their wasn't a whole lot to see compared to our country's more famous caverns.

     Nearing 2pm we head on to Custer State Park.  We see bison - many bison.  Pronghorn - many pronghorn.  And an absurd amount of prairie dogs - by the thousands.  How every one of those bison hasn't sprained an ankle walking through those pot-holed prairies is beyond me.  We even nearly slam the truck into a doe leading her spotted fawns across a winding mountain road.  Definitely plenty of wildlife viewing here.  The Black Hills were gorgeous with outstanding views, some of Mt. Rushmore through old square tunnels.  A view I'll never forget.  But we had no time to stop and admire.  We'll miss Mutton Bustin! (My favorite rodeo event, by the way).  

     Mt. Rushmore greets us with its grand achievement, both in art and American history.  Between the photos, museums, short film, virtual dynamite blasting, Junior Ranger workbooks, a hike around the base of the mountain, and yes, ice cream, Mt. Rushmore was no 45 minute stop.  We didn't waste a ton of time, yet found ourselves driving away after 6pm.  There goes Mutton Bustin'.  And now its crunch time before Brynn's Trades of Hope party.  

     So the rugrats and I clear out to give Brynn some quiet.  The campground is running hay rides to and from the rodeo.  Awe-some!  These are the things that make being with the kids fun.  As expected, we show up to the rodeo after Mutton Bustin'.  We even miss the bareback bronco riding.  But at $0 price of entry (a kind soul donated the $5 tickets to any military that showed, and free for kids under 10), this rodeo was surely worth the price of admission even showing up midway through.  What we did get to see was saddle bronc riding and about a dozen bull rides.  Better still, since we showed up late and the bleachers were already full, we sat in the grass up front, just feet away from the heavy duty fencing.  The bucking broncos would tear out of their gates and come full speed right at us, hitting the brakes just before crashing head on into thick steel.  Some didn't make the turn so quickly, giving the kids a pretty good scare.  And these horses were BIG.  AJ repeatedly asked me if the fence was strong enough to hold the angry horses back.  "Could they get hurt running into it?" he asked.  "What about the bulls?  Can the bulls get through?  If they hit their horns on the fence then could they get through?  Oh, they'll probably break a horn," he reasoned.  Despite my reassurances, AJ took a few scooches back when a horse kicking those back legs higher than the fence came within 6 feet of him.  And just about each horse did the same, growling a mean sound all the while.  I wish I had my camera there to capture it.  Small town rodeos are a real thrill!

     By 9pm the rodeo shut down and we hay-rode it on back to camp with two dozen other jovial (some likely drunk) campers.  For some odd reason [still confusing to me now] I decided we'd pop into the rec. room for a little foosball with the boys.  It's after bedtime, I  haven't had dinner (the kids ate burgers and granola bars we brought to the rodeo), and I'm constantly stressing about LJ getting a foosball pole slammed into his forehead whenever they play.  So encouraging a late night game probably wasn't the smartest choice of the day.  And yet, we play for 10 minutes or so and eventually I peel them away for bed.

     The next day we manage to squeeze in "Bear Country" after a little shuffling of where our camper is parked.  Hitch up - drive to parking lot - unhitch - go to drive through zoo - hitch back up - head to Badlands National Park. 

All in all, what a 36 hours it ended up being!  Certainly no relaxing to be had.

The recap:

6:30 pm: Arrive at Black Hills campground (Hart Ranch RV Resort) and set up camp

7:30-7:45 pm: Train ride around campground

7:45-9pm: Marshmallows by fire and playground time

9-9:30pm: Dinner

9:30-10:15pm: Homeschool AJ

10:30pm: Sleep

8:30-10 am: Wake, Eat, Go out the door

10-11:30 am: Drive to Wind Cave National Park

11:30-2 pm: Wind Cave National Park tour and "badgination"

2-3:30 pm: Custer State Park driving visit

3:30-6 pm: Mt. Rushmore National Monument

6-6:30 pm: Drive home

6:30-9 pm: Rodeo     7-9pm:  Trades of Hope party for Brynn

9-9:15 pm: Foosball

9:30 pm: Kids asleep

9:30-midnight: Brynn and Jon eat, read and asleep around midnight


7-9 am: Homeschooling

9-10:30 am: Breakfast/Pack up/break camp/hitch trailer/unhitch at new place

10:30-1 pm: Bear Country USA

1-1:45 pm: Hitch up/trailer maintenance for rear bulb/refill diesel/inflate tires

2-3:30 pm: My body begins hating me for choosing to dine at Pizza Ranch buffet style restaurant (followed by playing basketball)

3:30-5 pm: Drive to Badlands National Park

All in all, its really closer to 48 hours, but boy was it jam packed.  Honestly that wasn't too far from a normal day for us lately, with no sign of slowing down.  It's a whirlwind of a summer for sure!