Friday, April 29, 2011

Beautiful Bandelier

There are so many places that neither my kids nor I had never even heard of before we set off on this south west adventure, and Bandelier National Monument is one of them. It's also probably my favorite of my discoveries. Bandelier is in the Jemez mountains in the northern part of New Mexico. It's an easy drive from Santa Fe, which was a lovely little town in it's own right, with some especially awesome chili. To get to Bandelier you wind your way up through these mountains and canyons that reminded me of northern California. The scenery was spectacular- and such refreshing treat to our desert weary eyes- there were trees and greenery everywhere.

But the coolest part by far was the homes of the ancestral Pueblo people- they were these amazing cave condos built right into the cliffs. After setting up camp, we explored and explored. Some places were for looking only, but I couldn't believe they actually let us climb right into some of the cliff-side dwellings.

The highlight was at climbing up 4 or 5 ladders, something like 140 feet up, and looking out at the beautiful valley below from a home that people lived in 800 years ago or so. The ladders weren't as scary as my Girl Child had imagined, although looking down was a little freaky. We were so impressed with how neat these cave homes were though that we really didn't care about the heights.

What I can't imagine though, is climbing up and down the ladders carrying pots of water on my head, or a baby on my back or a big sack of corn like the ancient people must have. I think I am semi hardy, at least by modern American standards, but when I think of things like that, I always feel a little less competent in my athletic prowess.

Anyhow, at the very top of the multi-story dwelling was the entrance to the great kiva- a round ceremonial room that you had to climb another ladder down to get into. We spent some time in there talking and imagining the lives of the people who had lived there- how many prayers were given, decisions made, and even babies born, right in the same spot in the ceremonial room we were sitting in.

Another very cool thing about Bandelier is the man that it was named after. He was a 40 year old self taught anthropologist whose story shows that you're never too old to keep learning, teaching yourself, and enjoying the gift of life. Bandelier was not happy working at his father's family business, which he was expected to run for life, so he wrapped up his work there, and took himself and the knowledge he had acquired, and went to explore the Indian ruins in the west. He found some amazing things, probably enjoyed himself a lot more than he would have if he hadn't gone for it, and ended up with a National Monument named after him.

As a family that is committed to life learning and following dreams, that kind of story is always inspiring.

We also saw plenty of not so wildlife while visiting. There were deer on the trail, a crazy big eared squirrel who ran at people at extremely high speeds like he was playing chicken, and a coyote who just cruised right next to us as we ate lunch one day, pausing only to look at us like "hey, what's up?" before he headed on his way.

For the beauty in nature, the history, the story behind the name, and the over all cool factor, of all the ancient native dwellings and ruins we visited on this trip, I have to say, Bandelier is at the top of the list.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Petroglyphs- Rock Art, Ancient Graffiti or Something Sacred?

We have had the pleasure of seeing lots and lots of petroglyphs on this south west journey we are on. These ancient artwork symbols adorn rocks for hundreds of miles, and many of them are 700 or more years old. Some of the best were at Saguaro National Park. We also went to Petroglyph National Monument, and those were nice too, but honestly, the place didn't have the magic. That's probably because there is now a subdivision of big look alike houses that comes practically right up to the chain link fence around the monument. When we climbed the hill trail, and looked out beyond the petroglyphs, what we saw was suburbia encroaching on a large scale.
At Saguaro, we looked out and saw nothing but desert and mountains and cacti, and you could just imagine the people who were once there. It was much more conducive to contemplating the messages that these ancient people might have been sending than a housing tract. I am glad that they did at least fence in Petroglyph National Monument, and that they are preserving it, but still, we all wished they could have sprung for a little more land around it. I guess budgets affect everything.

In any case, Boy Child had lots of questions on the meanings of these drawings. Were they just art or were they messages? Were they ancient graffiti artists? Why do we see the same images in so many places? Do they have a sacred meaning? Will anthropologists someday in the future be mystified by the graffiti of today when they uncover crumbling bridges and walls in cities of our time? We all got a kick out of that idea.

Boy Child also spent some time making petroglyphs of his own (not in the National Park or anywhere near the ancient ones of course, just at our campsite and on random rocks.)

No one really has an answer to his questions, but in any case, these ancient drawings were pretty cool to look at and ponder the what and why they are still there.

Art in El Paso

Since we are trying to see each of the 50 states in the next 5 years, we wanted to hit as many as possible on our south western adventure. But, at the same time, we didn't want to just do drive-throughs- we actually wanted to spend some time and explore each place. So, we came to a bit of a problem with Texas. we would be very near the border, so we felt we should hit it. Our primary stop in the state would have been to see our friends who live in Austin, which I hear is a pretty hip town, but it's nowhere near the border we were near, and Texas as you know is a really big state.
When we realized our friends were about 14 hours each way out of our way, we decided to save that travel time to enjoy the other sights on the way. But, we still wanted to at least see some of Texas, which led us to El Paso.
I had two different people advise me against going to El Paso, no offense to those who may be connected in any way to the place, but these people basically said it was a dive and we should not bother.
Well, we didn't listen. I just kept hearing that song "Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl...." and I thought, how bad could it be? Besides, in her travel research, my Girl Child found that the art museum in El Paso had an incredible impressionists exhibit covering Monet to Matisse. That was enough to get us there.

It was awesome, awesome, awesome- the art museum that is, not the city overall. The city overall was a border town, and we drove down some depressing poverty stricken streets on our way to check out a mission. I had an unreasonable fear of somehow accidentally crossing the border and getting stuck in Juarez, with all of it's dangerous travel warnings, and without our passports. We didn't though- we made it in and out without unintentionally ending up in Mexico or getting run down by any of the giant trucks driven by testosterone fueled men wearing big hats. The mission was pretty, but the art museum- that was impressive.

Their regular collection featured all sorts of cool sculptures and a large Renaissance collection, which you were allowed to photograph and were splendid in themselves, but  the impressionists display- that was simply awe inspiring. Not only did we see works by both Monet and Matisse, but also Degas, Chagall, and so many more. We made a list of the artists all on a napkin, which of course we lost, probably after someone blew their nose on it. I do love the fact that I can take my kids to art museums, and they like it though. I am a lucky lady indeed.

The museum also had interesting information about the artists lives, their connections and the time periods, so there was an educational component along with the beauty, and they did a great job at making it interesting.

Boy Child was amazed at "how you could see how much paint they glopped on up close, but it looks really cool when you stand back at a distance." Girl Child was just all around appreciative of seeing all those great works in one place. Of course, you can't take pictures of those great works, but we will remember the experience, for sure.

We got in a tad bit of trouble when I did take a picture of this hands on, movable felt art piece, and my flash caught the eye of  the security man. He rushed over and scolded me severely. I was under the impression that since we were allowed to touch and alter the piece, in fact a sign advised us to do so, which of course we would not even consider doing to a Monet, that I could also take a picture. Mr. Serious Security Man however thought that it might confuse other people into thinking that they could photograph  the other valuable works (even though those all had very clear "No Photography signs with both pictures and words.) Apparently, he has no faith in common sense, but I didn't argue with him. Another guest did though, because she thought he was being ridiculous, so while they discussed his lack of logic, we snuck off.

So, while I don't have much else to say about El Paso (other than don't get lost on scary side streets) I can honestly say that their art museum is well worth a visit. Just watch out for the security man.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Kind People of New Mexico

Everywhere we went in the state of new Mexico, we ran into very kind people. At first it was a string of nice old men who like to chat, and I mean that in a good way, not a creepy way. Sometime after we crossed the border from Arizona, we stopped at a gas station, and there was a good old guy working there who told us all kinds of stories about how he remembers when gas was 19 cents a gallon, and that when he was a boy of about eight years old, his father would send him to the store with 50 cents to buy a pack of cigarettes, and that he had to always bring back the change. My kids got a kick out of imagining someone trying to send their eight year old to buy cigarettes, but they got even more of a kick out of when he told us how excited his whole family was the first time they got a car that would go 55 miles per hour.
Next stop was a hotel in some town outside of Las Cruces because it was too late to keep driving or to set up camp. The old fellow there treated us to stories about a painful mule ride into the Grand Canyon. The same old fellow was very kind when for some mysterious reason our shower the next day only had scalding hot water, and would not, no matter what you did or how many knobs you turned, offer any cold. At first I thought my Girl Child was being dramatic about the temperature, but it was honestly so hot you could make tea. Since no one could figure it out, the nice old gentleman offered to just let us have another room to get showered in without my having to ask.
By the time we hit Albuquerque, I had a chance to see other kind New Mexicans in action. In fact, at a little stop in the historic old town district, I somehow managed in a moment of grace to knock a decorated ceramic cow scull off the wall and send it shattering to the ground. I have no idea how much this cost, but as in most touristy gift shops, everything else was expensive. I figured I would have to pay for it, as these kinds of places usually have a "you break it, you bought it" policy, and I was fine with that, even though it was the kind of thing that I wouldn't even like if it weren't broken. But, almost instantly a very nice young sales girl asked me if I was OK, and when I started to apologize, she totally took the blame and said that it was hung in the wrong way, that it wasn't my fault, that she was so glad I wasn't hurt, etc, etc. I was embarrassed and grateful at the same time, and we hurried out of there.
We met similarly nice folks in Santa Fe who took the time to explain the particulars of making the chili we bought, and who gave us a lighter and a pack of matches at our campground in Bandellier when our lighter died.
All of us were very impressed with the people, and the state of New Mexico. It's so refreshing to confirm how many genuinely nice people there are in the world. We would love to come back to visit again, especially the beautiful mountains in the north.

Monday, April 18, 2011

White Sand Everywhere

Taking a snow sled down sand dunes is something that has never occurred to me, but we spent a super fun day doing just that in White Sands National Monument.

The place is amazing with miles and miles of glowing white sand hills in every direction. It's a little like being on another planet.

The gift shop is all over the idea of sand sledding, and of course it sells snow disks- overpriced round little plastic sleds that look a bit like a trash can lid.

I am so glad we did it. The dunes are beautiful to walk around and explore, but the sleds were really the funnest. There are a few advantages to sliding on sand versus snow. The first and most important- it's not cold! Going back up the hill though- Whew- what a workout that was. At the time, I was thinking a chair lift would have been convenient, but in hindsight, I guess that my cross the line of over commercialization of a National Park.

We thought this sand / snow crossover thing was so cool that we attempted making sand angels. They didn't quite turn out the same and required a bit more imagination to picture the end result as an angel, but it was entertaining anyway.

The sales girl talked us into also getting a bar of wax to make the sled go faster, which seemed like one of those useless add ons, but it was 75 cents, so I bought it. The wax was a good call, and actually really helped you move and not get stuck- especially when the largest and heaviest member of our party (me) got going.

You can even return the sand disk at the end, in case like me, you have no other use for a sled in the middle of the desert, and you get $5 back. The only problem with the whole roll about in the sand, slide around and make sand angels, is that now we have sand everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. 

When we arrived, there were signs everywhere asking us not to take the sand. Apparently, some people fill up jars to take back home, which seems like a semi pointless souvenir to me when a picture could get the point across just as well, not make a mess, or take up as much room. While it seems like the miles and miles of sand dunes could never be depleted, I guess with enough usage they could. Anyway, we hadn't planned on taking any with us, but it was in our hair, clothes, and shoes. This apparently, is the primary disadvantage to sand versus snow. At least snow melts and eventually dries. Sand is with you for a long time- possibly forever.
Now I am a firm believer in the "Don't take anything" from National Parks rule. We respect that the area is meant to be preserved, so we don't take rocks, sticks, plants, anything. Plus, I realize that if everyone who went to the popular parks took just one thing, it would all be gone soon. Honestly though, we brushed off, and had no intention of taking any of the lovely white sand dunes with us, but still, every stop we made for the next few days, we would leave a mini pile of white sand in our wake. In fact, nearly a week later, I opened Boy Child's backpack, and out dumped another pile. We swept our contraband into a baggy figuring it was already out of the park and just going to get sucked up by a shop vacuum if left there.

So, like it or not, we have a messy and beautiful reminder of the beautiful white sand dunes. We're still in awe of the beauty of them- unlike much of the desert where you really need to stop and look, the beauty here just jumps out at you, and apparently, it sticks with you as well.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chimps in Space

Apparently, New Mexico is a hot spot as far as the history of space projects, and the Museum of Space History in Alamagordo is a great place to go learn about it all. The museum and its grounds are full of replicas and actual models of all kinds of space crafts from around the world that range from the earliest days of space exploration to current models.

It was amazing how many of these machines, that I am assuming are very complicated, and for the most part successfully manage to perform amazing feats like flying through space, yet they look like one of the many inventions my Boy Child has put together and are strewn all over my yard, except he uses a lot more duct tape than NASA.

In addition to all kinds of space craft, they have space food, astronaut / cosmonaut info and my personal favorite- an exhibit on the chimps who traveled in space. In fact, Ham, who was the world's first astro-chimp, is buried right there on the premises, so of course, we went and paid our respects.

Girl Child is very sensitive to injustice in the world, and anything that involves cruelty to animals will get her hackles up in a hurry. We were all glad to learn that neither Ham nor his two training buddies were hurt or died in the process. The same can not be said for the poor little Soviet dog who went into space before them.

While three chimps were trained, only Ham actually went into space, and in a very cute little space suit I might add, and after flying at some ridiculously fast speed, he landed, and was recovered.

I wonder what was going through his head as he was zooming through space in that little capsule. Did they have him drugged so he didn't freak out? Maybe he was just a really easy going chimp. In any case, he made it back OK, which proved that people had a chance at space flight as well. They retired Ham after that ride to a zoo where he lived a long life for a chimp, and passed away at the ripe old age of 27. We were all glad to see the recognition of Ham and his contribution to space flight (even though he technically didn't sign up for it, and didn't have much say in the matter.)

Part way through our tour, a very large group of excited children bombarded the museum- like three busloads. I like kids a lot, but in those numbers, things tend to get a little loud and crazy, and it's really hard to focus or appreciate things at a mellow pace. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our few hours of immersion into space history, and were able to learn a few things about rockets, satellites, missiles, astronauts, chimps and more, all while staying a few exhibits ahead of the large, loud group most of the time.

My kids and I were all amazed at the minds that go in to creating machines that will fly into space, and at the people who are brave enough to fly them. Even my Boy Child, who is pretty much a dare devil, wasn't sure he would go on one of those missions. The space food and gravity free restroom facilities didn't help sell any of us on the idea. Scientific minds are incredible, indeed, as are the adventurous souls who fly off into the unknown.

While I don't see myself ever lining up to fly off in a space ship, I am glad that we took off on this little journey of ours into the unknown. Discovering new places and seeing new things and very old things that just new to us has been amazing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Saguaro and a Shoot Em Up

Saguaro (the "g" is pronounced like a "w" if you don't want to go around saying it wrong over and over a baziliion times before anyone mentions it, like I did) is the stereotypical cactus that would most likely come to mind if you were imagining a cactus in the desert of the American south west. Saguaro National Park is, as you might guess, covered in miles of them. It's actually two parks in Arizona with the city of Tuscon right smack in the middle.

Some of the huge saguaros are up to 200 years old, and they have a woody stem that can be used for building when they die. They seem more like trees than cacti in that case, but as massive and magnificent as they are, they aren't really the kind of trees you want  to go hugging. While still alive, they are home to several cute little birds who manage to hop on and about the spines without getting hurt. They even nest in holes in the cacti. One species of the birds may look adorable, but finds its dinner by snatching lizards from the ground, and impaling them on the spikes to dry out and be enjoyed later.

Saguaro National Park doesn't have camp grounds, but there is another park connected to it that does. We spent a night there, which is where we found the angry scorpion under our tent the next morning.

We decided to get in some Wild West style gun slinging action while we were in this part of the country. Very nearby is Old Tuscon Studios, where over 300 western movies, including some John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films were shot. Now, I don't even actually like westerns, but apparently they filmed some Little House on the Prairie there too.

Anyway, it seemed kind of pricey, but we were all set to go until we found out the gun fight wouldn't take place for several hours. In the mean time, we headed into Tuscon, where we found a marvelous collection of gems and minerals from around the world at the Flandrau Science Museum. After that, I really wanted to put some miles behind us, so we opted to head east, and find our wild west action elsewhere.

We ended up going to Tombstone, which proudly bills itself as "the town too tough to die" and most certainly has the wild west, shoot em up spirit going on. It was the home of Wyatt Earp's famous shootout at the OK Corral, and they do a fabulous reenactment of  it a couple of times a day. As I mentioned, I'm not normally a fan of western themed things, nor do I particularly like guns, but the energy of the place was contagious, and really fun. Of course in the end, bullets were flying, and in the real gun fight, three people died. I wouldn't recommend it for really little kids for that reason, but I must say, the actors were great, and the show was even funny in parts- definitely worth the $10, which included the Historama, which was like a rotating, moving diorama / slide show / presentation on the history of the area narrated by Vincent price. You also get to stroll around the actual site and a bunch of historic and fun exhibits- some, my kids found fascinating, like the stuff about Geronimo- others, like the working ladies known as "soiled doves," went right past my Boy Child, but first confused, then shocked the heck out my Girl Child. My explanation was an edited version, but still, she was appalled.

We explored the old stagecoaches, and buildings, and Boy Child tried to rope a stationary bull. There were people in period costume everywhere in the town, not just at the gun fight site. There were also signs in lots of stores asking people not to carry weapons inside, and I wondered how many people actually would be carrying guns in the first place. Then, I remembered we were in Arizona.

Having had our fill of Wild West style action, and learning more than we bargained for, we headed off towards New Mexico with the sun setting setting behind us.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Danger in the Desert

Not to sound too much like the title of a Hardy Boys novel, but there's no denying there is "Danger in the Desert."

Our first brush with the dangers of the desert on this trip came while camping at Joshua Tree when we ripped shorts, shoes and some skin on the abrasive rocks. But this was mild, and while it was slightly annoying to have to need new shoes and shorts less than a week into a 5 week adventure, it was not truly scary at all. (Of course if anyone had been behind me when my shorts tore, now that could have been scary.)

Our next brush came on a leisurely stroll with our friends near Mesa, Arizona. Since it was hot, we chose a mellow walk rather than an intense hike. I didn't really think of changing out of sandals, but I learned that sandals on a poky cactus trail are not the best idea. Boy Child was the first to get poked. Somehow, while staying on the trail, he managed to wind up with barbed cactus thorn stuck in several places in his shoe and his ankle. While he knelt down to try to pull the needles from his skin, he did not notice that there was another entire mini cactus chunk stuck to his other shoe, and he was leaning his rear end about a half an inch away from it. We all frantically tried to warn him, but he was so obsessed with the difficulty of trying to pull out the needles in his ankle that he just bounced about in a kneeling position, barely missing far worse injury than what he had on his ankle, and having no idea he was even in danger. By some miracle, he managed to escape his backside connecting with the cactus, but it was a narrow escape. Girl Child and I each wound up with quite a few needles in the toes of our shoes, and we had never left the trail either. It was like these spines had a magnet for our feet.

A few days later, we camped near Saquaro National Park. When we were rolling our tent up in the morning, a very grumpy scorpion came out from under it, and got all wiggly with his tail at me, presumably because I messed with his shady spot under my tent.

Another few nights after that, we were camped near Alamagordo, New Mexico, and heard a little rattling noise near our campstove. I shined the lantern out of the tent, expecting to run off some little squirrel like creature, and what do I see? What I saw was the back of a very large skunk who looked like he was standing up on the bench seat of the picnic table and playing with the knobs on my stove. Once I realized who, or should I say what the creature was, I decided against my original plan of yelling at it to frighten it away. Instead I stuck my head back in my tent and zipped the flap while praying for my guest to leave without making a stink. Thank goodness he did, but he hung around right next to me for quite some time.

Our final scare has been another less than pleasant hotel room. For some unknown reason, the nicely rated public campground we had planned to stay at at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area was closed off with a locked gate, and we were out in the middle of nowhere with darkness on the way. I was wide awake so we just drove on towards Albuquerque. Boy Child wanted to just sleep in the car in a parking lot, but that sounded not only uncomfortable, but embarrassing, and possibly unsafe as well. We slept in the car once, but we were in a camp site we had paid for, which is entirely different than a parking lot. Anyway, we were still about an hour or more away when I started getting tired. There were no campgrounds around, so we just pulled over and checked into a room. Why, oh why didn't I ask to see it first? To avoid being negative, I will just say that after being in here a bit, I really, really prefer my own tent and sleeping bag, even in a wind storm. I do not even want to contemplate the dangers of slacker hotel keeping, but on the bright side, I have the best wifi I have had in the whole state of New Mexico.

So, there's a number of lessons learned here about not wearing flip flops in the desert, being careful where you step or reach and above all, trying at all cost to avoid hotels in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Casa Grande Ruins

I am just loving how much my kids and I are learning on this adventure we are taking though the south west. A recent stop was at the Casa Grande Ruins in Arizona. The site houses the remains of a very big house, as well as several smaller houses, or buildings built by ancient Sonoran desert people over 600 years ago.

At first glance, we all thought it looked interesting enough, but the ranger filled us in on lots more details about the structures and the people who built them that really impressed us all.

First, the structures- the big house is four stories tall, with walls about three feet thick making the temperature inside a comfortable 75 degrees year round- that's pretty impressive in a place that can be 120 degrees on a summer day and 28 degrees on a winter night. The windows and roof openings placed to align with celestial and solar happenings, presumably as a calendar of sorts, and the single fireplace was designed in such a way that heat from it could spread to all the rooms of the house. They don't know the exact purpose of the big house, but there were several smaller ones nearby and they were all built with wall thickness and angle that was engineered to hold the load based on the height of the building.

Speaking of engineering, they also built an irrigation system which may not look very exciting, but it is a pretty fancy ditch that gets water going fast enough on the downhill, that they were able to get it to then get going UP hill. That's pretty impressive if you ask me.

They farmed beans, corn and squash, as well as cotton in in various colors, and apparently at that time there was a river nearby with fish. Now, there does not appear to be water for quite some ways.

Their whole compound was set up gated community style with ladders to get in. Apparently, six tribes lived there, all with different religious and cultural traditions, but without much evidence of conflict- again, pretty impressive in my opinion. They had enough leisure time for art, and they traded with tribes as far away as the Pacific Ocean.

The whole place was abandoned several hundred years ago, and historians don't really know why. They do know that the structures have suffered more damage after being discovered and vandalized than they did in hundreds of years of weather. The Ranger felt strongly that this civilization rivaled the Romans for their ingenuity and understanding of building concepts and engineering. They certainly were pretty clever in managing to create these structures and to work with the harsh climate they lived in, rather than fighting it. And managing to get along with each other despite differences is pretty clever as well.

I can't wait to see what we learn about next.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Phoenix Friends

Our welcome to the state of Arizona began when we crossed the border along with the biggest group of bikers I have ever seen in my life, at least of African American bikers. Every gas station and rest stop was clogged with Harleys, snug fitting leather and body art, and some really tough looking ladies.

We had gotten a late start due to my car not starting due to a slight battery issue, but we finally made it to Phoenix. The first thing I noticed was the L.A. style freeways, but I'm pretty sure that the people of Phoenix were even more aggressive in their driving. It was like the Wild West meets L.A. We headed downtown- at least we were trying to head downtown, but we had a few added turns, which are not so fun in a land of crazy, mad drivers. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that I saw 6 separate accidents on the freeways of Phoenix that day.

Anyway, we finally found the Arizona Science Center amongst the one way streets, but unfortunately, we only had about an hour to explore. They had some really cool exhibits on how the human body works, particularly the brain. It was unfortunate that we had to rush- I always feel like I'm encouraging a short attention span, or ADHD when I rush kids who are trying to explore and learn. But, the place was going to close whether we had seen it or not, so we semi rushed, and had a skip a lot too.

We braved the Phoenix freeways again to head to our friends house near Mesa. Did I mention that while the speed limit is a generous 75 miles per hour, many people prefer to drive 90, and there does not appear to be a motorcycle helmet law in this state either? These things, combined with the fact that people can smoke in public places and carry weapons around too, confirmed the fact that we weren't in California anymore.

Anyway, we made it to our friends house where we got the Bed & Breakfast style welcome complete with tasty food, wine for me, and soft beds. The next day, we somehow managed to land on the hottest day in the area so far this year, and I was really glad we came in the spring, not the summer.

We opted out of a hike, and instead to head to the Phoenix Zoo. First, my friends helped me find a place to drop my car off to get the battery issue looked at while we went and had fun.

The zoo was a perfect outing for the kids. The habitats were pretty nice, which made me happy, and you could see that it was set up with the animals in mind, not just the viewing public.

We all enjoyed the cool walk in aviary habitats that housed not only birds, and plants but also cute little monkeys. Elephants are my favorite wild animal, but the elephants were not in the mood to be viewed that afternoon, so we only caught a glimpse while they hid behind bushes and ate. We did get great views of some magnificent rhinos, tigers, lions, and giraffes, plus a bunch of cute otters, other awesome animals.

At one point, after climbing and conquering statues, Boy Child for some reason decided to pull out his little finger skateboard, and show me some "really cool tricks" along the railing above some animals habitat. I mentioned that the trick was indeed cool, but to make sure he didn't drop the skateboard in the habitat. Of course, that was the signal to some force of nature that made his finger spasm and the board fall and drop to the bottom of the habitat, and completely out of reach.

The animal was sleeping in it's hiding cage, so we never even saw it, and luckily, it never saw the finger skateboard. I had a horrible vision of this rare, endangered animal eating the toy my child dropped in the cage and dying. I could picture us being on the news as "the family that led to the extinction of a species." After my head spun around and I shot flames out my eyes at my Boy Child, I made him go find an animal keeper and confess to his crime. He suggested that he could "easily just jump right in and get it" but I decided that his idea had the potential to make things much worse, plus, I could make him suffer more the other way.

So, we tracked down a zoo emploee, who tracked down the animal keeper, and Boy Child dutifully confessed. I expected them to at least give him a stern look, if not a big lecture, but they were all jolly, like "oh, this happens all the time." They even offered to retrieve the finger skateboard. I didn't want to be a total wicked witch because it was his "very favorite, special one with the cool stickers on it" but we needed to pick up my car before the mechanic shop closed for the evening, and waiting around for a skateboard retrieval operation didn't seem to be fitting in the schedule. The nice zoo folks got it out in a hurry though, we made it out of there in time, and Boy Child left the zoo very, very relieved.

I'm sure we all learned a bunch of interesting factoids about animals that day, but I think Boy Child's biggest lesson was not to play with your toys over the edge of rare and endangered animal habitats, or any other areas with difficult retrieval options.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Colorado River Kamping

After four days without showers at Joshua Tree, even my Boy Child was ready to hit the road and find some cleanliness. We drove through the south part of the park, and came out, not surprisingly into more desert. All I could think of was how unpleasant this route would have been 100 years ago or horseback or in a wagon in the blazing sun with no air conditioning or cold drinks. Not to mention no sunscreen or lotion. Thankfully, we do have air conditioning, ice and lotion, and we can move at 70 miles hour.

We headed east, and eventually, just as we were about to leave California, we came to the Colorado River, where we found ourselves a not so primitive campground.

KOA campgrounds are definitely a different type of camping- in fact the billboard advertising the Colorado River KOA announced, "It's not's Kamping!" As much as I dislike intentional misspelling, it was more important that I find a shower, a laundry facility, and I was hoping for some wifi as well. We found all three and more at this little kampground.

It was about a bazillion degrees out (ok- maybe it was 80, but I think my layer of grime was holding in the heat) so I was very pleased when the owner offered to drive us around in a little golf cart to pick the best spot. We found a shady site right by the river near a bird sanctuary.

Boy Child was immediately ready to hit the pool, and was not pleased when I made him shower first. But, I figured that he would leave a dirty brown wake in his path if he jumped in first. So, we all showered (I was so happy, I washed my hair twice) then we headed poolside.

None of us was in the mood to unload the car or set up the tent with the sun blazing overhead, so after a long time of lounging, reading and snacking, we delayed our responsibility further and took a walk down to the lovely little palm tree covered beach on the river where we lounged, snacked, and read some more. There were swift current signs everywhere, which Boy Child actually noticed himself, and realized that anything beyond wading there would not be such a good idea. He was happy enough to mess around in the sand and rocks as we gazed across the river over to Arizona.

Eventually, the sun began to set, and we decided to make dinner. Somehow, we got the idea to skip setting up the tent altogether since we were only staying one night, and just sleep in the back of the car. It's a wagon, and with the seats folded, it was plenty long. The width however was a bit snug, but it saved us a lot of work. I realize that it may have looked slightly hobo style if anyone had seen us sleeping in a car, but I'm going with the theory that by this time it was dark, and I was up early cooking breakfast and packing up anyway, so maybe no one noticed.

This place was a very welcome change of pace from the roughing it style of camping we had been doing. The facilities were clean, and they had a pleasant little rec room where we were able to plug in our laptops and charge our phones while we worked. The store was very convenient since we needed ice and a chocolate fix, and it wasn't even really overpriced. The staff and the owner were super helpful and friendly folks, and even gave us a jump start when we drained our car battery. We were also able to do all of our laundry for $5, which would have been worth double that price. We even got in another shower each before we loaded up, said goodbye to California, and headed east to see some friends in Phoenix.

If you're ever on the border of California and Arizona, and looking for a spot to "kamp" I definitely recommend the Colorado River KOA.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Joshua Tree

OK-  two kids and a tent in a campground that has no has no water and no showers, only pit toilets, is surrounded by giant boulders and caves that beg to be climbed, but could potentially lead to major injury, not to mention nearly 100 rowdy homeschoolers- that pretty much describes the 4 nights we just spent camping at Joshua National Park. It was an amazing place and we had a great time.

I hadn't ever heard of Joshua Tree National Park, let alone Indian Cove that can recall, and we probably would have missed it on our southwest adventure, but when I heard about the big homeschool group camp out, we decided to head off on our trip a week early, and add it into our itinerary. We were all so glad that we did. 

This group gets together for camp outs all over the state, and many of them already had established relationships that went back for years. We didn't really know any of them, but they were a friendly bunch, and we felt welcomed. We had decided to go after the group site had already filled, but I think an individual site was the best choice for us anyway. I like to be social and have been known to chit chat for hours, but I also like a little time and space to myself, and so do my kids. So, we had to walk up a hill to get back and forth between our site and the group one for the nightly potluck, but it was no big deal, and the ability to be unsocial until after I've had coffee was worth it.

We spent the first day lounging, well, I lounged, and Girl Child semi lounged. Boy Child climbed, climbed and climbed. Our campsite was up against the rocks and we had our own personal little cave right behind us that was a nice cool hangout in the heat of the day. We read, drew, played games, climbed a little more, and that evening, I had a delicious margarita on the rocks, literally.

Every evening, every evening, we hit the potluck and campfire. We ate like kings, and there was some lively singing. The kids ran around playing capture the flag and flashlight tag for hours.

Some days, we hiked and found natural springs as well an oasis in the desert. I'm pretty sure we hit the park at the perfect time, as wildflowers were blooming, and it was hot, but not deathly hot. We drove through most of the park as well. The north end with Indian Cove was my favorite because of the rocks that provide shade, beauty, and entertainment, and are not found in the southern part. We also explored ruins, cactus gardens, and the visitors centers / museums, which had lots of info on the plants and animals, the history of the native peoples and the settlers, and the woman who saw the beauty in the desert that most people didn't, and had the foresight to convince the government to set aside the land. Some areas had cacti and other plants popping out of the rocks at such perfect intervals, it looked like a master gardener had designed it, and it gave me lots of ideas of drought tolerant plants I'd like to try back at home.

Hauling water wasn't as bad as it sounds, but the pit toilets were very, very bad, and something I would rather not have experienced. Also, despite our efforts at sponge bathing, we were all beyond ready for a shower and hair washing by our last day there. At least all of that food I packed was paying off because even aside from the potlucks, we were eating really well. I was also pretty impressed with how well my creative coffee making turned out.

Boy child climbed so much he actually wore out his shoes. I slid down some rocks on my bottom and tore a small hole in my shorts, which promptly turned into a huge tear when I bent over. So, I guess a shopping trip will be in our near future.
We met some very nice kids and parents both from the homeschool group and from the campground in general, saw some fabulous sites and had a wonderful and relaxing time at Joshua Tree. One thing about the desert is that you really have to pay attention to really see all the beauty there is. Sometimes the harshness and heat of it can make people miss the wonder. It's a perfect place for peaceful, reflective thinking, especially if you are in a nice cool cave with a margarita and snacks and not in the blazing sun. I am so very thankful that we made it to Joshua Tree and for the peace, space and time to think it allowed us all. Not that I came to any major revelations or anything, but the relaxation was great.  Next stop- the Colorado River.