Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Our Bucket List Ski Trip

I’ve long been a cross-country skier but have never gone downhill skiing because of my knee problems.  However, downhill skiing somehow landed on our bucket list so we had to try it!  A skiing trip was different than all our others so it took some significant preparation: particularly shopping for cold-weather clothing.  Between MCI Sporting Goods and Farm & Fleet we were able to pick up everything we needed.  BTW: Farm & Fleet has a much better selection and their prices are half what you pay at MCI.  That means all of my gear came from Farm & Fleet and Mona’s came from MCI.

We started our western expedition much like Lewis and Clark did; by starting in St. Louis.  We visited a few of our old haunts, touched base with some friends and ran into Mona’s niece, Taffy.   It’s a great way to start a trip! Note: Several people have asked if we saw any of the destruction caused by the riots.  No, we didn’t.  We drove all around downtown; out to Clayton; through Central West End, and then to and from the airport.  All was normal.  We didn’t drive through Ferguson itself but ended up driving all the way around it.  Also, we felt safe as normal walking the downtown streets.
A few of the lights in Frisco

We arrived in Denver and were met with 57 degrees of warm sunshine.  It wasn’t looking good for skiing, but we continued on our westward trek anyway. We caught our pre-arranged shuttle and settled in for the two hour drive to Breckenridge.  It’s a beautiful drive on I70 through the Rockies and you get to see great mountain scenery; some incredible highway engineering and you go through the Eisenhower Tunnel.  This tunnel is the world’s highest automotive tunnel at over 11,000 feet and is located on the Continental Divide.  

As we approached Breckenridge we started seeing snow…about two feet of snow.  About ten days earlier they had received 94 inches of snow in three days.  Since then the weather has been above freezing every day and it melted down to 29 inches on the ground.  We were relieved because it meant we would get to ski!

The View From Our Room
We stayed at Grand Timber Lodge which is at the base of Peak 7 and only about a thousand feet from the ski lift.  It’s a beautiful lodge with lots of indoor and outdoor gas fire pits as well as indoor and outdoor jacuzzis and pools.  (I loved being able to start my swim inside and to swim through an opening to the outside pool and into the crisp night air!)  The lodge is nestled into a pine woods and there’s lots of wildlife around.  In fact, we opened the door to go outside on our first night and came face to face with a beautiful fox!  He was the largest fox we’ve ever seen and he had a beautiful red bushy tail.  We were about ten feet from him and he wasn’t the least bit disturbed.  We were too dumbfounded to take pictures.  Later we found out that he’s the “resident fox” and his name is Pancakes!

Our friends, Paul and Ali, came from Denver to take us to dinner the first night.  They drove us to Frisco where we enjoyed a great meal and got to see the town’s beautiful lighting displays.  The huge pine trees were decorated with lights and they had what looked like fireworks shooting down through the trees.  We’ve never seen anything like it!

Monday morning was our ski day.  We had reserved our ski equipment there at the lodge and had arranged for all-day lessons at the Beaver Run Resort, just 1000 feet away.  All was set!  We grabbed a quick breakfast and headed to the ski shop.  That’s where our troubles began.

Neither of us had ever worn ski boots before and we got quite the education.  First off, they have to fit tightly….really damn tightly!!!  After some struggling Mona got hers on.  However, I couldn’t get my feet into mine due to high arches and last year’s foot surgery.  The ski dude insisted they would fit and I insisted they wouldn’t.  After ten minutes of painful trying the ski dude relented and gave me a larger size.  Finally, I got my feet into the larger boots but even then I was in pain.  Nonetheless, we were in skis and we headed out to the slope!

Me Skiing!
Not so fast!  First we had to get on the ski trail and it was about 20 feet lower than the ski shop.  Since we didn’t know how to ski we had to figure out how to get down that slope.  I was carrying the skis (which are freaking heavy!) and Mona had the poles.  Neither of us fell, but it took us at least 15 minutes to go down that 20 feet.  Then we had about 500 feet of snow-packed trail to go on.  We walked it, neither of us thinking to put the skis on.  DUH!  Finally we got to the sidewalk for the final 500 feet.  That was even worse than the snow because of the awkward way you have to walk in ski boots and because of the ice patches.

Mona Skiing!
Finally, after about a half hour of painful struggles, we were at the ski instruction area.  We were both exhausted and frankly we were ready to quit.  But, we had come this far; we had already paid $300 for our lessons, AND it was a bucket-list item so we were determined to trudge onward.  However, we were so tired that a nice young lady took pity on us and carried our skis to the training area.  (Humiliating!)

No ski boots and loving the fire!
At last we got our skis on and we began our lessons: forming our vees, leaning forward, pushing off, etc. etc. etc.  We also had a little “carpet-lift” which we would ride up the hill a little ways and then ski back down.  Up and down; up and down; up and down.  It was fun, but exhausting and still quite painful for me.  After about 2 1/2 hours Mona said she had had enough and would just watch me from then on.  I was so relieved because I wanted to quit, too!  I was in severe pain by then and it felt as though I had rebroken my toes!   (Surprisingly neither of my bad knees hurt, but my ankles and toes hurt for days later.)

We struggled to the ski instruction office and let them know that we were dropouts.  They took pity on us and gave us a complete refund!  So, the downside was pain, but the upside was that we got to ski for 2 1/2 hours for free and we could cross downhill skiing off our list!  We called the Lodge shuttle and they came to haul us and our equipment back that 1000 feet to Grand Timber.  One of the best feelings I have EVER had was taking off those ski boots.  OMG….I could have cried with relief!
Angels Hollow

We spent the rest of the day exploring Breckenridge.  It’s filled with lots of speciality shops, restaurants and even a marijuana shop right on Main Street.  We really enjoyed the town and found a new favorite restaurant called Angel’s Hollow.  It’s a biker bar/restaurant with a CIA-trained chef and it specializes in New Mexican food.  They have Blue Coyote-worthy margaritas and their chili rellenos are the best I’ve ever had, bar none!  We ended up our day in the jacuzzi and the pools.  That’s the best way to ease the pain of ski boots!

Barney, Bess and Mona
Tuesday’s feature event was riding in a horse-drawn open sleigh.  The stables picked us up at the lodge and drove us about twenty minutes away to where our sleigh awaited.  There we met Bess and Barney; the two Belgians who would pull us through the snow.  They were properly festooned with sleigh bells which truly jingled all the way!  We loved the sleigh ride and Mona said that she didn’t realize it, but a sleigh ride was actually a bucket list item for her!  We rode in the sleigh for almost an hour and finished the ride with hot chocolate and Jameson’s by the fireplace.  We highly recommend a sleigh ride through the white and drifting snow!
Hat Shopping in Breck

As many of you know, Mona hates snow and cold.  But even she loved this trip.  We were never cold and the beauty of the snow-covered mountains is captivating.  It’s picture perfect!  However, in addition to the ski-boot pain I must forewarn you about another issue: breathing.  Breckenridge is at 9600 feet above sea level.  Decatur is about 600 feet.  That 9000 foot difference is very hard on the lungs.  We found ourselves panting quite a bit whenever we did anything difficult…like taking a step or sitting down.  It was truly tough!  We were very glad to get down to the low level Denver (5200 feet) and breath deeply again!!!

We both loved the trip and we’re talking about going back.  We love the mountains and we love the wildlife; we saw fox, elk and bighorn sheep.  However, we won’t be skiing again….hmmm….but maybe we’ll try snowboarding!!!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Rest of Our Trip

We spent two weeks on Sanibel Island.  We never left the island the entire time because we were too cheap to pay the $6 toll to go over the bridge. :-) Our typical day started with a quick breakfast in the condo; then shelling for a few hours; afterwards spending time in the pool talking with new friends (particularly Joan & Jerry and Pete & Mary); and then finishing the day with a seafood dinner at one of the many great restaurants on the island.  Whew, rough duty, but someone has to do it!

Who knew Lettered Olives could
write Cristie's initials?!
We loved all the wildlife we saw on the island: birds, lizards, gators and sea creatures including manatees, dolphins, mollusks and bivalves.  It was a thrill to finally see a Roseate Spoonbill in the late evening in the Ding Darling Refuge.  It was a totally different thrill to see an alligator eyeing us as we left Bowman Beach!  Most of all, we loved the shells and the creatures that inhabit them.  We were so glad we visited the Shell Museum and took the guided Shell Walk where we learned so much about these creatures.  Afterwards, we knew what to look for in the sand so we could dig down and see the live whelks, olives and other critters.  One of our favorite times on the beach was at low tide when the Lettered Olives were out…writing in the sand.  Too cool!
Roseate Spoonbill

All too soon we had to leave.  We packed our bags and headed east across Alligator Alley to Ft. Lauderdale.  The last time I drove through here it was a two lane road with Seminole “villages” along the road.  Now, it’s I75 and you speed along with no distracting alligators nor roadside stands along side the road…kind of a shame.  However, we still saw lots of ibis, egrets and even a few storks along the way.  We also took time to visit the Florida Panther Refuge.  Saw no panthers, but even the potential of seeing a panther was fun.

Our first Guy's of the Trip
Next up was our eight day cruise on the Carnival Freedom.  The Freedom weighs in at 110,000 tons and carries about 3000 passengers along with 1200 crew members.  It has 13 decks, three pools, at least 6 restaurants, countless bars and music venues, a three story inside theater, an outside movie theater, and a large Serenity Deck for adults only.  But most importantly, it has a Guy’s Burger Joint.  In our opinion, these are the best burgers we’ve ever tasted and so as soon as we got on board we headed to Guys!  Mona got in line to grab two burgers and I found us seats with a good view of the ocean.  Mona quickly made it back to the table and I thought she was going to bite off my fingers as she waited while I took pictures of the burgers.  As soon as my snaps were done she devoured her burger.  I mean, seriously and without exaggeration, it was gone in less than sixty seconds.  Mona is a little scary at these times so I lowered my head and tucked my arms around my burger so I could dine at a more human pace.  (In the meantime she got seconds!)

After Mona was sated we explored the ship.  The Freedom has the same basic layout as the Liberty which we sailed on about a year ago so it was relatively easy for us to get around.  

Something different about this ship was the productions.  The show on the first night was a tribute to 1980’s music and it was AWESOME!  This was easily one of the best productions either of us had seen anywhere in our travels.  The music rocked; the vocals were awesome; and the sets were amazing! This set the tone for all the shows for the week.  Each of them was a tribute to a different style or vintage of music and they were all good!  We talked to the Cruise Director about them and she said that these were new shows just now being rolled out to the ships.  We’re just glad we got to see them!

There were three “at sea” days on the ship.  We spent all three doing basically the same things: going to the pool, playing trivia, hot-tubbing, people-watching, dancing and dining.  Each night would end with a show or the comedy club or a movie on the big screen outside.

Our first port of call was Grand Turk.  I woke up to find we had already docked at Grand Turk…yes, I slept in and missed the docking.  I hurriedly dressed and headed to the Lido Deck. There I saw a huge building next to our ship which surprised me as I didn’t think there were any large buildings on Grand Turk.  Turns out I was right…and wrong.  There are no huge buildings on the Island; instead, that was the Carnival Breeze which at 130,000 tons is the big brother to our Freedom.

Freedom and Big Brother
We disembarked and decided to first find a cache.  Took us a few minutes but we soon had the cache in hand (and poison ivy on my ankle) and then we set out to see a little of Grand Turk.  We first visited the memorial to the 1962 splashdown of John Glenn’s Mercury Spacecraft. Afterwards we headed about a quarter mile down the beach to Jack’s Shack.  We chilled there for awhile, taking in the beach scenes and just cooling down from the tropical heat.

Castillo de San Cristobal watchtower and cannon embrasure
The next day we were in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The ship docks at old town San Juan so it’s easy to just get off the ship and start exploring.  Here, we had booked an excursion to take a three hour walking tour of old San Juan.  Mistake.  Don’t get me wrong, the tour itself was great…we walked all through the city and learned so much.  We also got to climb up to the highest point of Castillo de San Cristóbal which is one of the oldest forts in the Americas and a marvel of 17th century engineering.  We also got to go inside several buildings including the capital and the Spanish House which reminded us of Spain.  All that was good.  What was bad was the heat.  All that climbing in the heat was exhausting!  Even Mona sweated (Is that a word?)   and by the end of the tour we were drenched.  Ugh!  On the other hand, our tour guide was dressed in long pants and a long sleeved shirt with a tee over it and she was perfectly dry.  How can that be!?!?

After the tour was over we found a geocache, had a quick drink and headed back to the ship to cool in the pool.  I think the pool steamed as we let our hot bodies finally chill!

Our next port of call was St. Kitts.  This time we decided we would just relax.  But of course we had to find a cache first.  The nearest cache was 2 1/2 miles from the port so we hired a taxi to take us there.  We had a wild ride on the wrong side of the road to the Veterinary College where the cache was hidden.  Interesting that most of the students at this college are Americans!
Let's hear it for the monkeys!

We then had the driver take us to the opposite end of the island to The Shipwreck Bar.  This place is literally built with pieces of wrecks that have landed on the island.  Here we relaxed and watched all the monkeys and mongooses (what is the plural of mongoose?).  The monkeys are Green Vervet monkeys originally brought here by the French as pets but now they run wild on the island.  There were lots of them near Shipwreck until about 1:00 when they all disappeared.  I guess they were on lunch break.

Our final port of call was Sint Maartens.  Actually, this island has two countries on it…the Dutch Sint Maartens and the French Saint Martin.  These two countries have shared this island since 1648, most of the time peacefully.  The ship docks in downtown Phillipsburg on the Dutch side.  Here we had booked another excursion; this time to do a 90 minute photographic scavenger hunt.  Need I say the word “Mistake” again?  Yes, we had a blast solving the mysteries and taking pictures of the solutions.  Yes, we learned a lot.  But damn, it was HOT!  We finally were so worn out we ducked into a McDonalds to cool down and have a beer.  Yep, McDonalds sells beer here…and of course it’s Heinekens.  Due to our McD’s chill down we came in second on the scavenger hunt. 
Oh well!
Mona loves Orient Beach!

We found a geocache on the Dutch side then hired a taxi to take us to the French side of the island to find a cache there and to see how the French do islands.  We quickly found the cache and landed at Pedro’s, an island bar right on the beach sands.  Here we chilled, listened to island music and watched people….and oh, the people we watched!  This was indeed the beach for people watching! 

Finally, our cruising days were over.  We docked, debarked and then as usual Mona got in trouble at Customs and had to pay a fine (No, I’m not telling why.) Finally, we were on the road north much to Mona’s dismay.  She kept pleading with me to turn back and let her find just one more shell.  Nonetheless, we landed in Savannah, Georgia for our first night back in the real world.  We checked in to our hotel and then walked down to River Street for Shrimp n Grits.  Mmmmm...good!  Next morning we drove through the historic district and reminisced about our stay there last year.  We ended our visit by bidding farewell to Forrest Gump’s bench and hit the road north.

Our trek took us across South Carolina and to Asheville, North Carolina.  There we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway which travels 469 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Parkway was a Depression-Era construction project to link the Shenandoah National Park with the Smokey Mountain National Park.  It winds up and down and side to side of the mountain tops with breathtaking views at every turn.  There are lots of tunnels blasted through the mountains and pulloffs seemingly every mile where you can stop and take in the vistas.  The trees are just beginning to turn color making the views even better.
Some early splashes of color on the Parkway

We were on the Parkway for several hours and it started to rain.  Frankly, we were tired and ready to stop looking at breathtaking views and instead look at the views from a comfy bed. However, you don’t simply get off the Parkway.  There aren’t a lot of exits and we had reservations in Boone for the night so we had to keep going.  Unfortunately, for me, Mona was driving and she began pushing the speed, especially on those hairpin curves….going downhill…in the rain…with no guardrail on my side.  White knuckle time!  At long last we found our exit and made our way to Boone and much needed rest.  Whew!

Now, our trip is basically over, even though about once an hour Mona says she wants to find a shell. Tonight we’ll visit Lexington, Kentucky and then head home.  It’s been a great trip but it’s time to go home, visit our family, do our laundry and make plans for our next trip.  

Till then I'll say goodbye!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Florida More

This trip was intended to be a beach trip and that’s how it’s working out.  We have spent hours on the beach shelling and wading.  It’s been wonderful.  In between beach time we’ve hit the pool. All in all it’s been very relaxing.

Some of our treasures
We’ve found lots of shells, none of them incredible but treasures nonetheless!  To learn more about shells we visited the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum just outside of town.  There we saw two movies about the creatures who live in those beautiful shells.  Mollusks are very interesting critters!  Did you know that whelks’ egg casings are two to four feet long and they take about eight days to lay them?!?!  Neither did we!

Big Jellyfish!
Our favorite evening  dining spot so far is the Starfish Grille.  Soft blue neon lighting; illuminated starfish hanging from the ceiling; and a huge tree trunk upside down in the middle of the dining area.  Sounds odd, but trust me it works.  The seafood there is awesome, too!

We’ve also visited the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge which covers about two thirds of this island.  The first time we took a guided tour.  Our subsequent visits were on our own and free because they accept the National Parks Pass.  We’ve seen four large alligators (No rocks were thrown at them.), lots of different birds and even tree crabs.  Who knew trees had crabs!?!?!
Trees Got Crabs!

Yesterday morning wasn’t as fun.  I was on the beach when I got a text from Mona, “I’ve fallen.  I need u!”  I rushed back to the condo to find that she had taken a full body slam after slipping on the tile.  Bruises up and down her left side.  These aches are now added to the two badly stubbed toes she already had.  She has managed to soldier on and went with me on a guided shell walk later in the morning.  She even managed to float around in the pool for awhile, but she spent most of her evening with a heating pad.  (Yep, we packed a heating pad for this trip.  The last few trips we’ve needed one.)

Becca (in black) teaching us about shells
The Shell Walk was led by a marine biologist (I always think of the Seinfeld episode when I hear that.) who has a Masters in Squid.  Seriously.  She, Becca, thinks squid are the most interesting creatures in the sea so she spent all those years in college studying them.  I think that’s totally cool: knowing what you love and making a career of it.  Becca also knows everything there is to know about shells and she walked the beach with us explaining what we were seeing and filling us in on all the details.  She knew every detail about every shell and she could spot even the tiniest shells.  One of the coolest things she showed us was a whelk egg casing.  The casing was about four feet long and had about a hundred pods.  Each pod was filled with tiny whelks…you could fit 20 of them on a dime.  Amazing!

It’s now the day after Mona’s fall.  She’s bruised but not broken.  We walked the beach for a couple of miles, then relaxed in the pool.  The rains came back so we went back to Doc Ford’s for appetizers and then to the Sea Breeze to listen to live music.  It’s time to turn in now.  

BTW: Today we found out that mermaids are for real!  Found one that had washed up on the beach!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


We’ve been planning a trip to Florida for over a year and finally it was time to go!  We gave ourselves three days to get there, giving us time to geocache in eleven Illinois counties and eight more in Florida.  Geocaching along the way breaks up the drive and allows us to see more of the local countryside than we would from the interstate.  At one of the Florida caches someone had posted a DNF (Did Not Find) saying they were unable to make the find because an alligator was sleeping next to the cache.  You can bet we were watching where we stepped very carefully!
Driving down I75 we started reminiscing about the Florida attractions we had visited as kids: Ross Allen Reptile Institute, Busch Gardens, Waltzing Waters and of course Cypress Gardens.  These attractions along with many others are all now closed because of a mouse.  Yep, Mickey eats up almost all the tourist revenue that used to keep the old attractions alive.  Kind of sad when you think about it.  Virtually everything in Orlando is made-up…it’s cartoon and movie based.  People have abandoned the old reality entertainment; alligator wrestling, water skiers, and dancing colored-water and have switched to the illusions of Orlando.  Oh well, at least us old-timers have our memories!

Our Beach Path
Our first week in Florida will be spent at the Shell Island Beach Club.  This resort is on the eastern end of Sanibel and is within wading distance of the Sanibel Island Lighthouse.  We have an upper floor condo which fronts over the dune giving us a great view of the beach.  It’s close enough to the water that we can hear the surf.  We leave our doors open all the time so we have a constant background noise of the water.  Love it!

There’s not a lot to do on the island other than beach stuff: look for shells, watch the water, swimming, watch the wildlife and of course, eat seafood.  Mind you, we’re not complaining!  

One of the great things about visiting Florida this time of year is the lack of tourists.  The summer tourists are gone because the kids are back to school.  It’s too early for the snowbirds, so that leaves pretty much no one.  The locals have told us repeatedly that this is the perfect time of year to visit…no long lines for dinner, empty beaches and the traffic isn’t snarled at ten miles an hour.
Moon Jelly Fish

Yesterday, we drove to Captiva Island for a boat tour.  While waiting for departure we got to watch two manatees graze near the dock.  While standing there we also saw a moon jellyfish swim by.  It was the size of a dinner platter; beautiful, but we are so glad to see it from the dock and not while we were wading!

One of the pod showing off!
The highlight of the boat ride was when a pod of dolphins started frolicking in our wake.  They would swim to within 20 feet of the boat and then jump out of the water and splash heavily back in.  They followed us for five or ten minutes giving us a fantastic show!  Everyone on the boat had big smiles on their faces and there was a lot of whooping and hollering as the dolphins jumped and spun in the air.  

Later in the day, we visited the Mucky Duck where after dining on great seafood you can watch the sunset.  People from both islands (Sanibel and Captiva) gather here and watch the sun go down.  I don’t what it is, but it must be some primeval instinct that draws people to the setting sun.  I just know that wherever we go we look for sunsets; and the best spots always draw a crowd.
Sunset from Mucky Duck's - Captiva

As I mentioned, we’ve been eating a lot of seafood.  Our favorite place so far is the Sanibel Fish House where you can get a 1/2 pound of peel and eat shrimp for $5 and/or a half dozen oysters for $5.  One great thing about Florida is that the seafood is fresh and cheap!
5 Bucks! 5 Bucks!

The sun is rising….gotta go!  

Sunrise Over Ft. Meyers Beach

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our Monumental Trip

We've had three places on our Bucket List that we've talked about for several years: Arches National Park, Four Corners and Monument Valley.  In fact, we've even tried to visit them a couple of times only to be turned back by snow or closing times.  (Four Corners closes at 5 PM during the winter season.)  We decided that 2014 was to be the year that we visited all three.

Paul and Ali
We set out on August 13th with our first night's stay in Salina, Kansas.  All was good! Next morning we stopped and found the world's oldest geocache: Mingo.  Next stop was Denver where we linked up with Paul and Ali for some Colorado pizza.  Love the honey on the leftover crust. Yum!  All was well.

At precisely 12:05 AM on August 15th “all was well” turned to “not all is well” as Mona got sick….like stay in the bathroom all night sick.  Not good. Not good at all. She suffered through the night and in the morning we discussed canceling our plans. She didn't want to do that so around 10 we hit the road.  Obviously, she couldn't drive so she did her best to sleep as I drove through the mountains and into Utah.  

Balancing Rock at
Arches National Park
Our hotel was in Moab, but Arches National Park was just north of there so we went there first to finally see this park.  It’s indeed beautiful with all of the red rock and the incredible rock formations.  We drove through the park, spending about 90 minutes there.  We got out of the car a couple of times, but with Mona being ill we needed to cut our visit short.  Not as much of a visit as we planned, but we finally made it to Arches!  Scratched it off the Bucket List!

Moab is a neat little town tucked in the middle of several national parks.  It would be a great base camp to use for a week or two of National Parking.  However, for us it was a one-nighter as we were determined to hit Monument Valley the next day.  

Milepost 13, Forrest Gump's Point
Next morning Mona was feeling some better and we were hopeful for a better day.  We hit the road early and headed south.  Our first stop was at milepost 13 on Highway 163.  This is the spot where Forrest Gump stopped running.  It’s an iconic view and actually a little dangerous as tourists stand in the middle of the road and tend to ignore the traffic speeding by at 70 miles per hour.  Yep, I’m a tourist too…got my pic and managed to not get hit.

Just a few miles further south we crossed into Arizona and turned onto the road to Monument Valley Navajo Park.  We crossed back into Utah and headed for the restaurant.  Mona was hungry!

Our dining view.  By luck we had the
same table for three meals.
There is only one restaurant on the property and it is owned, like everything else here, by the Navajo Nation.  Since we were pretty much a captive audience I had low expectations for the food.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the Navajo Taco…at least I was pleased after i got some extra green chilis to put on it.  Mona was taking it safe with her food…understandably.  Good food or not, the view was incredible!  The restaurant is perched on the rim of the valley and you get a birds-eye view of several of the monuments from your table.

At 1:00 we went outside to meet Will, our tour guide from Navajo Spirit Guides.  We had done our homework and learned that these guides are considered to be the best in the valley.  We climbed into the back of the tour truck, modified with cushioned seating for twelve.  We shared the truck with a family of four from England.  We loaded up and headed down the “road” to the valley floor.
Marlboro Man

The road is basically just soil hardened by the passage of countless trucks vehicles touring the valley.  It’s full of ruts, potholes and huge mud puddles making driving a challenge.  Car rental companies don’t allow their cars to travel this route and I was really glad we were in a four wheel drive vehicle.  Nonetheless, we saw several nice cars, including a few new Mustangs, bumping along on this road.  (Speaking of Mustangs, this is open range country and horses wander around freely.  More on that later.)

Will, singing in Navajo to us.
Down in the valley you get a better idea of just how huge these monuments are.  They rise 700 to 900 feet straight up and loom over you like structures from an alien world.  Even though this was a first-time visit for us we felt like we had been here before.  Will explained that was because of all the movies and commercials that had been made here.  While he was talking about this he pointed at Merrick Butte and told us of the time they had helicoptered a Cadillac to the top for a commercial.

The valley floor has an area open for all tourists and tours.  However, there is another section deeper in the valley that can only be accessed if your driver is Navajo.  That’s where Will took us next.  The roads were worse here and we bounced all over the seats.  Thank god those seats were cushioned!!!

Totem Pole Formation
It was worth it.  We got to see the Totem Pole formation, several arches and the Big Hogan where Will and another guide sang songs to us in Navajo.  These songs probably made fun of us tourists, but they were cool nonetheless.

Finally, the tour was over and our truck climbed the steep valley wall back to The View.  (That’s the name of the complex which has the restaurant, the hotel and a trading post.)  As we attempted to climb out of the back of the truck we realized that our previously-broken tailbones were reinjured.  Ouuuuuuuch!!!  Poor Mona now had this to add to her list of ailments.

We waddled to the Highlander and drove over the campgrounds to check into our cabin.  There we were thrilled with our little cabin.  It was brand new and had an awesome view of the valley.  It felt like we could reach out and touch the West Mitten Butte.
Merrick Butte from Our Porch

That evening, we sat out on our private porch (on pillows) and watched the sunset show.  As the sun set in the west it caused the red rock monuments to turn bright red with an other-worldly glow.  Now, this is the way to complete a Bucket List item!

After sunset we were enjoying the dusk from our porch and we heard some kids clomping towards our cabin.  Much to our surprise, the kids turned out to be a horse…wandering around checking the garbage cans and hitting up the campers for handouts.  That horse had no sooner rambled by when another horse turned the corner and sauntered by.  You just never know what’s going to be out there when you’re sleeping on the open range!
Night Stalker Horse

Early next morning, we began the turn towards home stopping first at Four Corners…another Bucket List place for us.  Here’s where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico come together.  You can stand in four states at once and then shop at the Navajo stands that circle the corner stone.  Yep, it’s touristy, but remember we are tourists so of course we loved it!

We spent our next night in Santa Fe.  Had to stop here and get a good New Mexican dinner and we had a great meal at a local’s place called Artisco.  Definitely a memorable spot!

Four Corners at Last
We had decided to cut short this trip and get Mona home to see her doctor.  She was some better but still not herself.  She was a trooper but even troopers have their limits.  We were aiming for Wichita via Dodge City for our next target.  We wanted to see more of the local country so we cut across New Mexico on a two-lane road; enjoying the grass-covered mesas and the occasional butte.  Mona was driving and as she was cresting a hill she saw a police vehicle, lights flashing, facing her in her lane.

You could see the near-panic in Mona’s eyes as she tried to figure out why she was being pulled over in this dramatic fashion.  What more indignities could she be facing?!?  She pulled over on to the shoulder and the cop pulled up alongside her window.  The officer and Mona both rolled down their windows and exchanged pleasantries.  This officer looked just like the Mexican officer in “We’re The Millers”!  He said, “I bet you’re wondering why I pulled you over.”  Well, duh!  

Turns out, there was a huge wide load coming down the road and the police were making everyone pull over to the side of the road.  So we pulled over and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, we decided to move forward anyway.  Just then the wide-load caravan came into view.  There
Wide Load!
must have been eight vehicles in addition to the tractor-trailer itself.  The tractor-trailer had a semi in front, then the load, then another semi pushing.  We were glad we had pulled over because there was no room for anything else on the road.

That was our last excitement of the trip.  We continued our diagonal track across New Mexico, caught the northeastern corner of Texas (literally, we found a cache a foot inside of Texas), and sliced through the Oklahoma panhandle.  We stopped at Dodge City for a short time then headed to Wichita for the night.  Next day we were home.

This trip wasn't as smooth as we had hoped and we had to cut it short so Mona could go see her doctor. But, in spite of her ills Mona toughed it out enough to where we could scratch three items off our bucket list and have some fun doing so.  Now we’re safely at home, sitting on pillows.

P.S. Mona is feeling better and hopes to be back to normal soon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fallingwater Road Trip

We have been talking with Sheryl and Laura about a road trip for a couple of years and we decided it was time to make it happen. We choose Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as our objective because Laura has long been a fellow FLW (Frank Lloyd Wright) fan and because Sheryl loves art and this building is an incredible piece of art. Okay, I’ll also admit that we wanted to pick up a few more caches in a few more states. All four of us love to geocache so it sounded like a perfect trip for us all! 

This was slated to be a whirlwind trip because we had only a two day window to make it all the way out to Pennsylvania and back. We figured that would be pretty easy as we had four good drivers and we could easily split the driving burden. We set out about 6:00 AM and headed east. The drive was nice and the company was fun. Lots of silliness from the three women, but I of course, demurred. 

Our lunch stop was in Springfield, Ohio, at Rudy’s. It’s a BBQ joint where you order your food before you sit down. After a short wait we got our pulled-pork sandwiches. This was some of the most tender pork I’ve ever had and on the softest of buns. Oh man, this was excellent BBQ!!! Must come back! 
Everything in the town
fit on one sign!

A couple of hours later we were rolling into West By God Virginia. Of course, everyone knows you have to sing as you enter this state, so we all sang along with John Denver as we sped through West Virginia’s 28 miles on I70. “Take me home, country roads!” 

Laura uses her Zen Geocaching skills
After about eight hours of driving and caching we checked into our hotel in New Stanton, PA. It was too early to eat, so we went geocaching, of course. The first cache was across the street from our hotel. Easy. Second cache was near a wildlife preserve. Easy. Third cache was “The Local Cat House”…easy, but I was a little disappointed. Then came the last cache of the day, “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. All had gone well up to this point, but the location of this one was a little circumspect. Now, is when the true geocaching skills needed to kick in. Unfortunately, I had three geocaching navigators EACH with a different idea of where to go. “Turn left here!” I heard. So left, I turned. Wrong way. “Stop, go back!”, yelled another voice. So I stopped and turned back. Wrong way. “Left! No, right! South! Six miles! NO, two blocks east!! Over there! No, OVER THERE!” The commands came fast and with increasing intensity!!! OMG, it was liking driving in the Bermuda Triangle with a church bus of yelling monkeys telling me where to go! OMG! 

Finally, after about twenty miles we found the cache about two blocks from where we had begun. Oye! All that “fun” caching made us hungry. We had driven by our targeted dining place at least three times on our geocaching journey so we knew exactly where it was. We were quickly seated and ordered our food. We almost immediately knew we had made a wrong choice for dining. The lighting was subtle with lots of pastels. The clientele was nicely dressed and chatting quietly. The place settings were immaculate and our waitress had all her teeth. Argh!!!! We had violated Road Trip Rule 3.26, “Never eat anywhere that has linen table service.” We suffered through our pasta and wine and got out of that hell hole as fast as we could! 
Beer Express!

Just down the street we had seen “The Beer Express”, a drive through beer store. Sheryl and Laura had never seen one of those so we had to drive in! Even though there were stacks of cases of beers all around us and the attendant walked up to the truck apologizing because they were almost sold out. “Sold out” and there must have been a thousand cases of beer in there! After buying a case and taking the appropriate pictures we headed to the hotel to crash. 

 Next morning we met downstairs for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. All had a good night’s rest except Sheryl and Laura had been awakened by a tornado siren. Apparently, this was a siren for only their room because no one else had heard it and there were no storms within 400 miles of the hotel. Not sure what happened in their room, and I’m not sure I want to know! 
Ohiopyle Falls

We hit the road and with only a few incorrect turns we were soon on country roads headed to Fallingwater, which is in the middle of nowhere, just down from Yogi’s Yellowstone Park. In fact, we actually passed Fallingwater and first visited Ohiopyle. This is a little village in the middle of Ohiopyle State Park. We had about thirty minutes before our Fallingwater reservation so we decided to pick up an Earthcache here. Glad we did because this is a charming little area with rapids, a waterfall and hundreds of white-water rafters. Very cool place! But couldn’t stay long, because Frank Lloyd Wright was waiting on us! 

Mona introduced me to FLW (Frank Lloyd Wright) not long after we began dating by taking me to visit the Dana Thomas House in Springfield. I was pretty sure I would be bored to death, but instead I was captivated by the genius of this incredible man. Over the subsequent years I've read many books about FLW and we've managed to visit about twelve of his creations scattered across the country. Mona also introduced Laura to FLW at an early age and Laura likes to talk about a paper she wrote in eighth grade about him. Laura has also visited the Dana Thomas House and last year she visited Taliesin with us in Wisconsin. 

This was our second visit to Fallingwater, Laura’s first and this would be Sheryl’s introduction to Wright. In my opinion, visiting his masterpiece is be a pretty good introduction! As I said, Fallingwater is out in the middle of nowhere. You enter the property from a county highway and wind your way through the woods back into the property. You end up at the Visitor Center which seems to have organically grown out of the forest. It’s high on a hill above Fallingwater, yet the forest here is so dense you can’t see the structure. Here, the lower reaches of the forest are filled with Laurel Trees. It appears we had just missed the peak blooming but it was still beautiful. 

At last, it was 10:00 and our tour began. We walked down the hill along the rock bluffs and were soon in the valley below. The first view of the valley is of the Preservation Foundation’s flower garden. Hundreds upon hundreds of black-eyed Susans, purple phlox and other varieties of native flowers were all in full sun and full bloom! 
First view of Fallingwater

Walking a little further you begin to hear the sounds of Bear Creek. A little side trip of a hundred feet to the right reveals the creek rushing its way to Fallingwater. We’re happy already, but in just a few hundred feet we get happier as we get out first view of Fallingwater! Even just this view of the back corner is breathtaking! From here you can clearly see how FLW used cantilevers to float the house over the water, literally within feet of the water below. The building is huge, but at the same time it seem to fit perfectly within its surroundings and it feels as though the building and the location were always destined for each other. 

We had a wonderful tour guide, Shelby, who spent an hour sharing this incredible home with us. It was built in the 30s, but its design is so modern that you think it’s actually yet to be built in the future. Although modern, it is designed to bring the outdoors in…to make the people at home with nature. Large, open rooms with horizontal lines that match the lines in the stone outside; lots of windows and terraces; and even steps from the great room to the rushing water below. It’s magical! 
Okay, maybe it's not iconic!

All too soon our tour was over. We strolled through the backs to the overlook where we took our “iconic” photos and recorded our presence here for history. No carvings in the tree, just photo-electronic proof we were here! 
Proper Road Trip Food!

It was time for lunch so we headed back to Ohiopyle. There we had a true and proper Road Trip lunch where we ordered inside and sat outside with a view of the nearby rapids. Locals wandered around us with their dogs and finally our lunch was served. Our server had lots of tatts and was appropriately missing a tooth. Ah….this is fine dining! 

After lunch we determined that we were only about 45 minutes from Maryland, and since neither Sheryl nor Laura had a cache from that state….well, we hit the old National Road and sped on to Maryland. We soon found a cache in Maryland at the Bear Camp Historical Marker. Here in 1755, George Washington was marching with General Braddock to Fort Duquesne. Washington came down with a violent fever and was forced to stay behind here until he recovered. The things you see and learn while geocaching! 

It was time to head home so we turned east on I68 and soon we were singing with John Denver as we again entered West Virginia. Then Pennsylvania again, then WBGV again with more John Denver and then no more singing until Indiana wanted us. We kept those miles steadily moving behind us until Laura finally turned us in to Decatur on Route 48 about 10:30 PM. It had been a short and fun-packed trip, but it was good to be home. Can’t wait for the next Road Trip!

Post Script: About 11:30 I was checking to be sure the doors were locked before I went to sleep. All
Welcome Home!
seemed well, except for a persistent high-pitched noise. Thoughts of Sheryl and Laura’s one-room tornado siren went through my mind, but I pretty much dismissed it as a new tune from my ever-present tinnitus. About then Mona said, “What’s that squeaking noise?!?” She quickly narrowed it down to the vestibule closet. She opened the door and just like in the cartoons a pile of everything fell to her feet! The sound was coming from a timer for Taboo!

My first thought was that Monte had again been doing pull ups on the hanger bar. But, apparently, the shelf that held all our games and coats had given way while we were gone and the pile had been waiting for Mona to open the door and get her surprise. We couldn't close the door so we left it and went to bed.  No way would we let that spoil our road trip to Fallingwater!