Tuesday, June 10, 2014

ROAD TRIP: Richmond, VA to Las Vegas, NV

It's hard to believe, but Connor, Mikaela and I are just wrapping up our 7th year of homeschooling!  When I began  homeschooling the kids, I had all sorts of cool visions of these epic adventures we'd have together.  I imagined us studying the ancient Egyptians while sailing the Nile and climbing over ruins in Luxor. I could picture us becoming fluent in Spanish by studying the language at some small school in rural Guatemala.  I envisioned us going back to Cambodia to do volunteer work with sex-trafficked kids and I dreamed of us taking epic backpacking trips, perhaps along the Appalachian or John Muir trails.

Somehow, these epic adventures never transpired.  We have taken at least a gazillion field trips and mini-trips (only just a slight exaggeration) over the years, but somehow life, work, time, school, lessons, extracurricular activities and money managed to get in the way of us doing something really extraordinary.  Several months ago it dawned on me that if we were going to do it, now was the time.  We only have one more year of homeschooling before Connor and Mikaela head off to public high school and we'll then be totally tied to a school schedule.

So after giving it much thought and talking it over with Bob and the kids, we decided that I'd take the kids on a 5 week road trip out West--camping, hiking, backpacking and exploring along the way.  I invited my Dad to join us for the first week.  My mom, sisters and I have taken dozens of "female bonding" trips literally all over the world over the past 20 years, but I had never done anything like that with my father.  Several months ago, Bob's Dad passed away and it really hit home for me that time is short.  I really wanted to spend some quality time with my Dad and this seemed like a fantastic way to do so.  Fortunately, he agreed to join us and drive with us from Richmond to Las Vegas.

And so, on the morning of June 2nd, we packed up Scarlett (my minivan) and off we went.

Our first stop was to one of my absolute, very favorite places in Virginia and it's only 2 hours from our home--the Virginia Safari Park.  This park is by far, one of the coolest animal experiences I've ever had--which is saying something since I've been on two African safaris!  Basically, you purchase buckets of feed and slowly drive for 3 miles through the safari park and all the while, dozens of animals come and literally stick their heads in your car.  My Dad had never been there before and Connor and Mikaela didn't remember it, so I couldn't wait to take them.  Fortunately, it was every bit as fun as I imagined it would be.  We loved it and laughed so hard!

This deer let me rub the velvet on his antlers which was so very soft!

I couldn't help but laugh at my Dad as he quickly rolled up the window when the bison approached the car.  I can't imagine why he didn't want that head with its horns sticking in the window just inches from his face!

We drove through the park 3 times so everyone could have a chance to sit up front and feed the animals (the downside of a minivan).  Here's Mikaela with an ostrich.

Connor cracked me up the most.  Here he is being quasi-brave with one lone dromedary camel.

However, when two bactrian camels poked their heads in the window, he was almost in my lap!

The camels are notorious for stealing the buckets of food.  We lost 3 of our 4 buckets to them!  They are the only animals behind a fence, yet they still manage to get inside the car.

After leaving the Safari Park, we drove a couple of hours to our first campsite at Claytor Lake State Park in Dublin, Virginia.  Claytor Lake is a small, but beautifully maintained park on a large lake, flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

The next day, we drove about six hours to Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee.  This park had a small lake, great trails for hiking and running, and it had a restaurant which claimed to have a "famous seafood buffet." So all day, we chatted about how we were going to splurge and get the buffet.  We could almost taste the king crab legs and broiled salmon as we motored down I-40.  Well, let's just say that my Dad, Connor, Mikaela and I, do NOT believe that fried and broiled tilapia and mediocre southern food constitutes a famous seafood buffet! Can you say majorly d-i-s-a-p-p-o-i-n-t-e-d???

The next day we drove for another six hours to Meeman-Shelby State Forest which is located just outside of Memphis, TN.  This huge forest is located on the Mississippi River and has decent campsites, plenty of hiking trails as well as a lake.


At around 4:30, the kids and I headed into Memphis.  We wanted to see the National Civil Rights Museum as well as visit Sun Studio and Beale Street.  Unfortunately, Memphis completely closes down at 5:00--everything was closed except for Beale Street, but to be perfectly honest, I found it a bit depressing.  It was little more than a bunch of middle aged people getting drunk all over the place.  It just wasn't my "scene."

The next morning we decided to forgo the Memphis sites and go directly to Little Rock to visit the Clinton Presidential Museum.

My Dad is pretty conservative.  In fact, before we set out we agreed that we wouldn't talk about politics nor would we listen to any AM radio stations.  I was thrilled that he was willing to visit the Clinton library and jokingly told him I was going to photoshop in a Hillary 2016 sign in this picture.  :)
The library was interesting.  We got to sit in the "oval office" and learned that each president can pick which portraits and sculptures he wants in that office.  Clinton chose portraits of Lincoln, Jefferson and T. Roosevelt.

We also got to see what Clinton's office looked like and learned about the history behind the Presidential desk which has been used by many of the Presidents.  This is a replica.  The real desk is still being used.  It is made from the wood of a sunken British ship and was a gift to the U.S. from the Queen of England.

Our tour guide was rather uninspiring, but there was a lot to see and learn about.  My Dad wanted to see if the notorious Blue Dress was on display--it wasn't, but there were several displays that mentioned the impeachment attempt as well as the transgression.  I enjoyed refreshing myself on the history that I lived through--Clinton certainly dealt with a lot of disparate issues during his Presidency.

The Clinton Library also had a Dale Chihuly exhibit going on both inside and outside.  Fortunately, we had already seen an extensive collection of Chihuly's work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but it was nice to see several of the pieces again.

After we left Little Rock, we headed into the Ozark Mountains to camp at Lake Ouachita State Park.  Lake Ouchita is a beautiful, clean, clear 44,000 acre lake.

This was the view from our campsite.  Not too shabby!!!

The water felt great!

We all enjoyed this campground.  I squeezed in a great trail run and the kids went hiking by themselves.

Next up was Oklahoma...and an epic camping adventure.  We didn't have any reservations or plans, but saw a sign for Foss Reservoir State Park and decided to spend the night there.  I'm sure everyone is familiar with the song "Ohhh-klahoma, where the WIND comes sweeping down the plain.  Well, we set up camp on the "plains" and as we climbed into our tents, the wind, lightning and rain all kicked into high gear.

For the next 3 hours, we had lightning striking 360 degrees all around our tents.  But the wind, oh my, was insane.  We had sustained winds of 40-50 mph for hours.  The tents tilted and flapped all night long.  How they weren't shredded to pieces is an absolute miracle.  At 6:00 a.m., I got out of the tent to go the bathroom and took this blurry photo of the tent my Dad and Connor were sleeping in.  My Dad was "sleeping" on the far right hand side of the tent and the wind literally lifted he and his air mattress off the ground--and this is a man that weighs 230 pounds!  Right after I snapped this photo, the tent I was sleeping in with Mikaela totally blew over without my weight holding it down.

I then turned around and this is what the sky looked like.  It was a gorgeous sunrise, despite the wind and rain.

Needless to say, we had a very early start.  We basically threw everything into the back of the van and we were on the road by 6:30 a.m.!

Next up was Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We stopped for some great Mexican food at Sadies and then visited Petroglyph National Monument.  This National Monument has thousands of Petroglyphs, which are 400-700 year old rock drawings made mostly by native americans (except for the one drawn by some guy named Bernie in 1987).  My Dad took the picture below.  We're not actually meditating--it's just really bright in the New Mexican desert!

The kids and I hiked along a few of the shorter trails and saw dozens of petroglyphs (unfortunately due to arthritis in his feet and ankles, my Dad can no longer hike).

We thought this one looked like a mouse with a sucker.

From there, we drove west a few more hours and followed a sign for Red Rocks State Park near Gallup, NM.  When we drove in, the park didn't look terribly inspiring, but it really turned out to be quite a gem.  The park had several gorgeous hiking trails which we took complete advantage of!


The campsite had electricity, so I was able to plug in my rice cooker.  This is the first time I've ever brought my rice cooker on a camping trip, and I've got to say, it rocks!  So far, we've made Mexican rice and beans, mac and cheese, oatmeal and we even heated up some turkey sausage one night.  (There's not a lot of firewood in OK, NM, or AZ, so it's been really useful for preparing warm meals, when we can't get a fire going.)

The following morning I awoke early, around 5:30 and this is what I saw about 150 yards from our tent.  What a gorgeous sight to wake up to!

I walked up and spoke to the balloon pilot.  He let me take a picture of the inside of the balloon,

as well as what it looks like when it's about to launch.

The rock formation in the background is Churchrock.  The kids and I decided to hike to it and have our own miniature church service there since it was Sunday morning.  To me, there is nothing more spiritual than being in the great outdoors communing with God's creations!

At first glance, the desert seems sort of colorless and devoid of life, but once you really start looking, you discover that it's breath-takingly gorgeous in its own way.

Shortly after we left Red Rocks State Park, we crossed into AZ and saw a sign for Petrified Forest National Park.  We decided to visit this beautiful National Monument which is located in the heart of the Painted Desert.

The road through the park is 28 miles long and is desolate and outer-worldly, but full of amazing sights to see.  There are multi-layered rock formations that tell the geological history of the area.  I learned that the red sandstone is red because the iron in it oxidizes.

There are also hundreds of thousands of pieces of petrified wood scattered throughout the park.  Some of the pieces are huge, while others are much smaller.  We were tempted to collect some samples, but alas, it's not allowed.

After we left Petrified Forest, we headed into Las Vegas.  We've now been here for 24 hours--and are staying in a very nice hotel (thanks Dad, aka: Sugar Daddy!).  It's been nice to sleep in a real bed, do our laundry, swim in the pool and catch up on e-mails and blogging.  My Dad flies out in a few hours and my friend Kristi and her daughter are flying in from Richmond later in the morning.  Together, the five of us will be heading to Utah for 8 days of exploring Cedar Breaks National Monument as well as Bryce and Zion National Parks.  We can hardly wait!

So far, the Road Trip is everything I hoped and dreamed it would be!

Old McMaureen Had a Farm...

It's been a long time not only since I've blogged, but since I've talked about my little hobby farm--otherwise known as Peace of Paradise Farm.  Ten years ago when we moved to Virginia (God, it's hard to believe it's already been that long!), I wanted to have enough land to have a small farm.  I envisioned myself growing a huge organic garden, raising honeybees, and having a flock of egg laying chickens.  Most of all, I envisioned myself surrounded with a menagerie of quirky but lovable animals--and fortunately, that's exactly what I have.

Over the course of the past year and a half, we have had some new additions on the farm.  A while back, Bob came into the house and said he just witnessed the most bizarre thing--our little male alpaca was mating with our big, female llama.  Bob said he felt like a voyeur, but he couldn't help but watch.  Reportedly, their long necks were going every which way and they were making the strangest noises.  I immediately googled alpaca and llama mating and much to my chagrin, found out that they can cross breed, although according to the website, "their offspring are less than desirable." 

Naturally, less than a year later, both of our llamas gave birth!  Dolly Llama, who we had absolutely no idea was pregnant, gave birth to a male cria whom we named Duke. 

Several weeks later, Connor, Mikaela and a couple of their friends ran into the house exclaiming that Molly Llama "had legs sticking out of her butt."  By the time I got outside, Molly had already given birth to Daisy.

Now Molly is a pretty sweet llama, but she wasn't exactly Mother-of-the-Year material.  In fact, she wouldn't let Daisy nurse and so I became a Llama Mama.  I can't tell you how much I absolutely loved bottle feeding Daisy.  She was supposed to wean at about a month, but I wound up feeding her for an additional 8 months. 

As a result, she's totally imprinted on me and absolutely loves people.  Truth be told, I'm absolutely smitten with her as well!

Shortly after Molly gave birth, I went out to the pasture and saw both of the alpacas trying to more or less rape her!  To compound the matter, Fannie Mae my little miniature Sicilian donkey was horny and VERY confused, because she was trying to mount the alpacas who were trying to mount Molly!  It was a veritable barnyard orgy.

Pepper Jack
Needless to say, I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures, and so I immediately called the Vet.  The next day, she was there to do some "cutting" and fortunately, I was able to help with the surgeries.  I had Connor and Mikaela come out to lend a hand and observe, but after a few minutes, Connor was absolutely mortified and couldn't watch it any longer.

I'm not sure why Connor found this so disturbing?!  :-)

A few hours later, Jasper and Pepper Jack were as good as new.  Fannie Mae resumed her ongoing love affair with Durango and life was much more peaceful in the barnyard. 

Stay tuned for more barnyard shenanigans!