Fort Castillo de San Marcos

By: Heather

Today we made the short drive north to St. Augustine, FL and visited the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It is a Spanish fort, built in 1672, that was built out of Coquina, a rock made of compressed shells and sand. It was very interesting to see how the fort was operated in different ways over time and how people lived inside the fort. After going over the draw bridge,and over the moat (the kids thought this was SO cool!), we passed through the front gate and explored all of the different rooms and displays in the lower level. The kids worked on their Jr. Ranger books and were done before too long. A Ranger had a special display set up about spices and the spice trade that we found very interesting. The ranger explained how the sailing ships utilized the trade winds and Gulf Stream currents to maximize speed and distance while traveling between Spain and the Americas.

Little Miss Kicky Feet had quite a bit of fun walking all over on the lower level. She was not very interested in the displays. We had to watch out for mosquitoes as there were quite a lot of them. I am not sure any of us escaped without at least one bite.
When we went up to the upper level we mostly looked out at the view across the surrounding landscape and river. The upper level was comprised the roof of the fort, which doubled as a platform from which canons could be fired, troops could fire muskets from, and sentries could stand guard. I spotted some dolphins playing in the water nearby. That was a special treat. We also watched a few modern sailing vessels travel down the river which required the drawbridge just to the south of the fort to be raised for safe passage of the vessels. The older two kids liked watching the drawbridge raise and lower.
After our visit we traveled south along route A1A to Captain’s BBQ in Palm Coast, where we all had a very delicious late lunch! Mmmmm! Now that we are all completely stuffed I am ready for a nap before watching the Indians baseball game tonight.

A week of wandering/Mammoth Cave

We packed up and were pulling out of Springfield, MO on Friday, September 8th. Our final destination was sunny Daytona Beach, FL. However, our plans had a problem…Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Florida coast. We contacted the hospital where Kevin was supposed to start working the following Tuesday and we were advised to stay away and make it down to Daytona when it was safe to do so. So, what shall we do with our time that has become free, but without a definite end-date? Go exploring! The nice thing about living in an RV is that one is open to change itineraries almost with no advance planning. We decided to wing it, as they say.

We left Springfield on Friday as planned and headed east through Saint Louis, then on to Mammoth Cave in Bowling Green, KY. We took a tour of the cavern, enjoyed the woods, and the kids made some new Fulltime RV friends also staying at the Mammoth Cave campground. We opted to stay for two nights, which allowed us the time to make a side trip to Louisville, KY to get Heather’s iPhone fixed at the Apple store and explore the Louisville Slugger factory & museum.

From Mammoth Cave we trekked further east, keeping a very tight watch on the storm predictions and path, to Spartanburg, SC to visit a friend who Kevin worked with in Ohio (prior to traveling), who is now a Nurse Practitioner. We visited, ate together, and the kids enjoyed playing on our friend’s X-Box Kinect while the adults visited and the dogs investigated the house.IMG_5344

We had paid for two nights at the last spot in the campground in Spartanburg with no idea when we would be leaving. By Tuesday morning the storm had passed and the sun had come back out. We had only lost power for part of the night and had barely noticed since we had not been hooked up to the electrical grid since before leaving Missouri. We tried contacting the campground where we had planned to stay near Daytona Beach but were not able to make contact. Kevin also contacted some of his friends in the Daytona area to see how they had fared. It seemed that power was spotty and some places had flooded but it was mostly ok. We had been worried since the prediction was that some places would not have power again for more than a week. After that, we contacted another campground that was fully up and running and had a spot for us. Great!

To hopefully avoid some of the crazy amounts of traffic that we had heard were flooding back into the Sunshine State, we got up early in the morning (3am) and were on the road by 3:30. The night traffic was not bad at all and really neither was the early daytime traffic. Traffic was not too crazy and we made our way steadily down toward Daytona. We were a bit surprised when quite a few I-95 exits in southern Georgia were blocked by State Patrol cruisers and/or Army National Guard Humvees. We had plenty of fuel and were able to top-off in northern Florida after waiting in a quickly moving line. We topped everything off in case we were not able get fuel closer to Daytona. Enroute to Daytona we saw many convoys of power company trucks, tree trimmers, and emergency relief organizations. We even got passed by an official FEMA convoy in Northern Florida.IMG_5331

We arrived at our destination shortly before noon on Wednesday, and after getting all hooked up, we went exploring instead of going straight to bed. We viewed some of the damage, visited the beach, and enjoyed dinner at Outback Steakhouse before returning to our campground for an early bedtime. As we were enjoying our Bloomin’ Onion we noted that we were feeling kind of badly since we were eating dinner at a restaurant while Kevin’s sister was still without power and had been taking cold showers for the past 3 days on the west coast of Florida.IMG_5335

St. Louis Arch

A symbol of Westward Expansion

By: Kevin

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Today, on the way to Ohio for the weekend, we visited the St. Louis Arch. While the arch visitor center is under some renovation and the Museum of Westward Expansion was closed, the arch itself was still open to visitors and we were able to walk through the base of the arch, view the 30 minute informational video detailing the construction of the arch, and walk through the gift shop. The kids were able to complete the Junior Ranger program booklet for the arch and received their Junior Ranger badges. I really am appreciative that the National Parks Service has continued the Junior Ranger program at all their parks for the kids as the kids really seem to enjoy it.IMG_5024

The arch itself is quite large, standing approximately 640 feet tall along the Mississippi river, beside the Missouri/Illinois state line. Made of structural steel and concrete and skinned with stainless steel, it is an impressive sight to see in person. While it can be seen for miles around, and we viewed it from the freeway last May on our way through the city, I am glad we took the time to actually visit the site this year. The fact that we have a National Parks Pass made it even better, as admission was free with our pass. I will note that we made this a side trip with just the van. Trying to find parking near the arch for the truck-RV combo or the van-box trailer combo would have been much more difficult if possible at all. In all we spent about 2.5 hours at the arch before piling back in the van and continuing our trip to Ohio. As with most, if not all, of the National Parks sites I would recommend making the stop if you are in the area.

Petrified Forest National Park

We had already been on the road for a day, and had made good progress along our trek to Missouri, having covered 500 miles and traversing the mountains that run through NV and AZ. I was originally looking at the map along our route to see what we had in store for us the following day when I discovered Petrified Forest National Park along the way. I figured we could pull off the freeway, spend an hour or two in the park, and be back on the road fairly quickly. Yeah…that was a nice thought. The park was very interesting and we all loved examining the many pieces of petrified wood that covered the expanses. We also thought the layers, lines, and color differences of the hills and rocks were quite exquisite. We left the truck and RV in the visitor center parking lot and took the more maneuverable van through the park. We stopped at Newspaper Rock, a site of many petroglyphs, as well as taking a short 1-mile walk along a paved trail. Dixie, who had been cooped up most of our visit in California, was happy to be able to walk along the trail with us. The hour or so that I had planned on turned into over 4 hours, but we all really enjoyed the park and the kids completed their Junior Ranger booklets and collected their Ranger badges before we loaded back into the vehicles and returned to the freeway. At this point I was a little grumpy and worried that we would be behind schedule by making the originally-unscheduled stop, but by the time we pulled off the road for the night around midnight we had made it another 500 miles, and I was at ease again.

Joshua Tree National Park

One of the days while we were in California we took the opportunity to visit Joshua Tree National Park. We didn’t arrive at the park visitor center until mid-afternoon, and by the time all 6 kids had made a bathroom stop and Miss Kicky Feet was changed, it was approaching evening as we headed into the actual park. We found a trail that interested us and off we went. We were not on the trail very long when the kids were again off the trail and scaling the rocks and boulders that are common in the park. This sort of thing is not frowned upon, if not encouraged, so we too took to climbing after them and enjoying acting like mountaineers. We eventually returned to the trail for a bit before climbing more rocks. This did, however, significantly slow our progress along the trail so a 1.1 mile loop trail took us over 2 hours to complete. By this time we were quickly approaching sunset. We had originally planned to watch the sunset from another trail-head in the park, but with 10 minutes left before official sunset, we knew we would never make it in time. We instead drove through the park enjoying the sights along the way. When we reached the next trail-head the sun had set, but we had a decent glow still on the horizon. We took the time to eat dinner from our cooler at a randomly chosen campsite picnic table before loading up under the bright moon (now well after dark) and driving back to the campground (outside Joshua Tree) at which the RV was parked. Bug did not even make it out of the park before I heard his long even breaths and found him completely asleep in the back seat. While we did enjoy ourselves in the park, I was glad we had our National Parks Pass and did not need to pay the admission fee of $25 for our vehicle. If we had not had our pass I would have wanted to start earlier in the day and hike more of the trails to make it worth the money.

For those of you not familiar with Joshua Trees, they are actually not trees in the traditional sense of the word, but rather large Yucca plants that resemble a small tree is shape and size. They were named Joshua Trees by Mormon settlers who thought the upward reaching branches resembled Joshua, a Biblical man, reaching for the sky in prayer. Heather found it neat that the park visitor center sold Joshua tree seeds.

A side note from Heather: Climbing lots and lots of boulders with a baby strapped to your chest is a great (or terrible depending on your perspective) thigh workout. Yep, I was sore for days and days. Need to do this again.

A Day of Ups and Downs

By: Kevin

Today was an interesting day. We are currently outside of Los Angeles, CA to visit my sister. She offered to watch all three of our children for the day while Heather and I enjoyed some children-free time. We had such lofty goals for the day on our own, but alas, reality set in part way through the day and our fun was cut short. We started the day off by dropping the fifth wheel, our home, at a repair shop for them to determine why the trailer brakes are not actuating when the brakes are applied. Then we dropped off the kids, and we were on our own!

We started our day alone on a high note as the truck climbed 4,000 feet of elevation into the San Bernardino National Forest. We strolled down the Sequoia Nature Trail at Heaps Peak Arboretum. It was a peaceful stroll through the forest listening to the birds and admiring the trees and bushes along the trail. We then stopped by the Hotshots Wildland Firefighter Helipad at Heaps Peak. One of the crew members showed us around the aircraft and let us climb up into the helicopter as he explained the functions and features of the aircraft.

After pulling out of the Helipad, we drove along the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, which offered some fantastic views out across the San Bernardino valley below. As we descended out of the forest we got a call from the RV repair shop informing us that we would need all 4 of the brakes completely replaced on the RV (to the tune of $1,100), and that it would not be done until tomorrow, which posed a problem for our full-time RV family, as it is our home. The shop said we were not allowed to stay in the RV on their property, so we would need to get a hotel room for the night. We spent most of the remaining drive getting a pet-friendly hotel booked, handling miscellaneous logistics, and thinking of what all we would need out of the RV for the next 24 hours. We stopped by the repair center to retrieve items from the RV and load them into the truck. It was now going on 2:30pm, so we stopped for some very good Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and onion rings before returning to my sister’s house to reclaim our children and heading to the hotel for the night. We heard that the kids thoroughly enjoyed the day spent with cousins, which was not a surprise.

The night ended on another high note as I got to sit in the hotel room watching baseball and eating buffalo wing flavored pretzel pieces as the kids played on the floor and beds of the hotel room. Tomorrow we should have the RV back and will be off on our next adventure.

Addendum: At 10:40pm the fire alarm went off, water flowing in the sprinkler system. Fire Dept now on scene as we watch from the parking lot.

White Sands National Monument

By: Kevin

IMG_5571While at Big Bend National Park in Texas we purchased an annual National Parks pass. We did this in anticipation of us visiting more national parks this year along our travels in the western US.

Today we made use of our pass by exploring White Sands National Monument (WSNM) in New Mexico. For those of you who are not familiar with it, WSNM is a huge deposit of gypsum in the middle of the desert. We could see White Sands from miles away as it looked like a large snow bank in the middle of the tan desert sand. The monument was small in comparison to Big Bend, but it was impressive, none-the-less. It had a nice visitor center where we picked up the kids’ Junior Ranger booklets on the way into the park.

We purchased plastic saucer sleds at the gift shop as well as board wax to help the sleds slide on the gypsum sand. We drove through the park until we found our “perfect spot” and the sledding commenced! Our calves got a good workout as we trudged back up the hill after each sled ride down the dune. The gift shop recommended that we re-wax the sleds about every 4-6 trips down to ensure a good glide over the abrasive sands, which we tried to stick to….well, most of the time.

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The gypsum sand was quite hot on the surface, but surprisingly if one digs down in the sand just a few inches, the sand below the surface was cool and comfortable. Pie, who declared she was “roasting” dug a small fox hole in the sand, laid in it, and covered herself with sand. Then both she and Bug took turns rolling down the hill before jumping back on the sleds. Miss Kicky Feet enjoyed playing in the sand as well, and was able to get her fingers in her mouth quicker than we could grab them, so she tasted some gypsum sand as well.

It wasn’t long before we were all quite warm, so we piled back into the vehicles and headed off down the highway en-route to California for a visit with family.

Big Bend National Park

By: Kevin & Heather

Before we leave Texas for the season we were highly encouraged to visit Big Bend National Park. We did some research, found a string of days in which to make the trip, and started planning. We even borrowed some materials from one of the doctors at the hospital at which Kevin works. The good doctor made some recommendations of trails he thought we and the kids would enjoy and gave us hiking sticks that his (now grown) kids had used at the park.

We hitched up our residence-on-wheels and were off across the oil fields to the entrance of the park. As we rolled across I-10 the truck started to develop a fairly persistent squeal, which I thought I had better check when we topped off the bulk diesel tank in the bed of the truck before leaving the interstate. I was not so happy to find a much larger hole in the center of one of the idler pulleys than I was expecting. I quickly found the nearest Napa parts store and gently drove the truck and trailer the few blocks to the store. It took about an hour, including a trip by the Napa staff to another parts store in town for me, but I was soon on the road again squeal-free. A near-miss that could have caused major problems in the middle of Big Bend.

We arrived at the gate, took some pictures, then continued the 50 additional miles from the gate to the Rio Grande Village campground on the east side of the park along the US-Mexican border. We chuckled at the thought that Big Bend is actually larger than the state of Rhode Island, the state we had explored last summer as I worked at a hospital up there. We pulled into the campground shortly before dusk and got the RV set up for a peaceful night of sleep without the glare of security lights or city traffic.

The next morning, with 5 passports in hand, we headed for the border crossing. We were greeted by US Border patrol and given some basic info about the border and village within Mexico we were about to visit. Once across the border, we took a row boat ride across the Rio Grande, although we probably could have waded across the river in a few spots without getting our shorts wet. We were offered a truck or donkey ride into town, but we opted to walk the half mile into the village of Boquillas del Carmen. We had a self-appointed tour guide that led us to the Mexican customs office, which was inside a metal trailer next to about 6 rows of solar panels. This was the only place in the village that had air conditioning, which I realized was the reason for the number of solar panels. The village did have some electricity, but the reliability of such service may be questionable based on the number of solar panels we saw throughout the village. Even the street lights had solar panels on top of them to keep them running. After getting our passports stamped we were free to explore the village, with the help of our self-appointed guide of course. He explained that the village was home to about 140 people, had 2 school teachers for all 9 grades (note only 9 grades vs. 12 grades in the United States), and the hospital/clinic was open 25 days a month. There was 1 ambulance to transport patients to the next closest village on the remaining days of the month or if patient acuity necessitated transport. The next village was a mere 160 miles away, so I hope it’s not urgent. On a side note, the entire hospital ran off a single 30 amp breaker. This is in stark contrast to our power-hungry hospitals in the U.S. Heather says this is also probably in stark contrast to what they can save you from. We also had a small lunch at the local restaurant. The children were quite interested in a sink at the restaurant that drained into a flower bed.

That afternoon, after crossing back into the U.S., we headed back to the RV to check on our dog, Dixie, to ensure she was doing ok in the heat of the southern Texas sun. It was still decently cool inside the RV but we decided to start up the generator to run the air conditioner and charge the RV battery while we had lunch. After about 20 minutes of fighting with the generator it was determined that the inverter in the generator had failed and the only voltage we were going to get from it was 12 volts. This meant that we had a problem. We have a deep freezer in the RV, and while we were not exactly sure how long the freezer would last in the 100 degree heat with the contents still frozen, we were pretty certain that 5 days was not it. We were already about 30 hours without electric to the freezer. We were now faced with basically 2 options. We could either acquire a spot in the RV lot in the Rio Grande Village that had full hook-ups, or we would have to pull out early whenever the freezer contents started to thaw. We were very happy to find the RV lot had 1 open spot, so we took it! Now that our electric crisis had been solved, we were headed back out on the trails. Even the popsicles were still frozen and Dixie got to bask in the air conditioning.

 

Our full photo album from our trip to Big Bend can be found here: Big Bend Photo Album

 

Heather’s comments:

On that first day we also visited a nearby Ranger station where they informed us about the Jr. Ranger Program. Bug and Pie each got an activity book and could complete a certain number of activities (depending on age) to receive a Jr. Ranger Badge. We love the Jr. Ranger Program! We all learned so much and it kept the kids engaged.

There is SO MUCH to see at Big Bend. We barely scratched the surface while we were there. There are so so many trails I want to go back and hike. Also, it would be nice to be in a bit better shape before going back. Kevin has been running daily which does well to prepare him for hiking but I have been doing things more like dishes and laundry and cooking and schooling the children and taking care of the baby. None of these things helped to prepare me for long hikes and I was quite exhausted by the end of this trip (and the middle and beginning too, haha).

Shortly before sunset on that first day we hiked to Boquillas Canyon which was beautiful. We saw a road runner and had fun exploring and the kids got to slide down a sand slide and play in a shallow portion of the river. We thought it was interesting that many of the trails that are closer to the border have things for sale: It would appear that someone had crossed the river, set up a nice pile of rocks with wares for sale and some hiking sticks (super light made out of Sotol, a desert plant) and a plastic container to collect money.  Yep. We thought that was interesting.

 

Lost Mine Trail:

On the second day we hiked the Lost Mine Trail. It was hard work. We started out pretty high up and just kept climbing. The big kids were pretty whiny. I was keeping my whine on the inside and little miss kicky feet was sound asleep against my chest. After passing some signs about bears and cougars I was also a bit nervous. Trying to keep the kiddos within arms reach to keep them from being cougar lunch kept me going at a much quicker pace than I may otherwise have been able to attain.

When we finally got to the top of this trail (2.4 miles later) and stopped and saw the view we all agreed that the hard climb had been well worth it. And thankfully we never saw any signs of bears or mountain lions (on this trail).

 

Over the rest of our time here we experienced the night sky undiminished by light pollution, played in the hot springs, hiked and climbed numerous other small trails, visited all of the Ranger Stations, spent many hours driving through the park, spent much time wishing we could have come for two weeks instead of 3 days (and maybe at a slightly earlier time in the year because it was HOT). We saw beautiful sunsets and ate at the local restaurant. We learned a lot about the climates of Big Bend and the wildlife including javelinas who are not pigs but look similar and eat prickly pear cactus. We saw a bear and jack rabbits and a road runner and many other bird species.

Right before we left the kids got their Jr. Ranger badges and each got a patch for the completion of a certain trail and then we were off, headed back to our current home. On the way home we had to stop and change a tire which we have become pretty efficient at. The trip was otherwise uneventful.

Hot Springs National Park

By: Heather

Today we visited Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was quite a chilly day (in the 50’s) for people who had just spent the last 4 months in Florida. We all wore hats and long sleeves. We started out walking by beautiful blossoming trees on the way to visit Bath House Row where we could visit the Visitor’s Center and Historic Fordyce Bath House. img_4047Bug and Pie were quite surprised when they stuck their hands in a fountain outside and the water was HOT! It was also surprising to see steam coming off the fountain due to the cool outside air.img_4040 Inside the bath house we visited many rooms where patrons had once come for baths, medical treatments, and massages. img_4028Bug asked us if the water was heated by lava deep under ground, which sounded possibly feasible to us. Apparently though, the water is heated by radioactive isotopes deep under ground, and still is around 140 degrees when it comes to the surface. That was a bit harder for him to understand. After visiting the many rooms of the bath house and the natural spring in the basement, we went and had lunch. img_4038When we came back we were ready to tackle the trails on Hot Springs Mountain and the observation tower at the top. We could see quite far from the top of the tower, including bath house row where we had just explored. img_4050img_4562Afterward we went hiking on the trails. Kevin had a map but Pie was leading the way. Both kiddos were quite excited to be running through the woods. Little Miss Kicky Feet slept through most of the hike, snuggled warmly in her Tula carrier. I especially liked the flowering trees along the trail.

Once we were back down off of the mountain we stopped at a couple of water stations where we filled up water bottles with spring water to drink. One station was from a cold spring and another was from the hot springs. The water was quite good and there were some people filling up there that had many many gallon jugs to fill. All in all it was a very nice relaxing day spent together. 🙂

Little Rock, Arkansas

By: Kevin

Today we explored the Little Rock, AR area and downtown. Our first stop was Little Rock Central High School (LRCH), the first integrated public school in the United States. I knew about the Little Rock 9 (originally 10), but we learned additional details about the court cases leading up to the crisis, as well as the events surrounding the riots and necessity for the 101st Airborne to be deployed to protect the school and children from the hatred of their peers. It was neat to see in person a location that one has only read about in history class until now. We also learned about the significance of the Magnolia/Mobil gas station across the street from the school. These are places where history has been made. I also found it interesting that the school, while being a National Parks site, is also a fully functional high school. We were not allowed to go inside the school today because classes were in session and I had not submitted a request early enough to pass the security requirements to be inside the school while in session. I wonder if the kids attending school at LRCH ever stop and think about those who walked the halls before them.

Bug also discovered this old telephone with a rotary dial. He exclaimed that it would  “take forever” to call someone using the rotary dial phone! I remember making calls on such a phone growing up.

After LRCH we explored the Little Rock River Market District. There is a riverfront amphitheater, Arkansas River Trail, Junction bridge, and the market itself. The market is similar to the North Market in Columbus, OH or the Quincey Market in Boston, Mass. There were food vendors with cuisine from around the globe. Heather, the kids, and I all had different nationalities of food for lunch. Bug even got a free T-shirt from one of the vendors, which was pretty neat for him. The kids enjoyed the pig statue on the river bank side of the market.

Junction bridge is an old drawbridge converted into a pedestrian bridge that spans the river. It was a bit windy up on top, but a nice vantage point from which to view the area.

This afternoon we went to Burns Park, a 1,700 acre park in North Little Rock. The kids loved playing on an old military tank and a rocket ship themed playground. Pie made a new friend, who she will most likely never see again, and enjoyed playing tag until she and her friend had to part company. The park offered many hiking trails, rec facilities, a RV park, and even a small amusement park (which appeared to be still closed for the season).


Now it is time for a late afternoon nap to catch up on lost sleep and hopefully improve the attention span of Bug. Tomorrow is another day of exploration.