Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Making it work for the kids

When you look at our itinerary, it may seem far too educational, or full of too many activities. In fact, each day is planned around kid-friendly stops which do, in fact, include a fair number of interpretive centers and museums of varying descriptions. I'm easily entertained, so kid destinations work for me as well. More importantly, however, is the peace these stops bring to the journey. When the kids know that the next stop will hold something of particular interest to them, they're more willing to help pack the travel vehicle and climb back in for the ride. The stop also works to keep the peace along the way; argue in the back seat or otherwise cause problems for your fellow travelers and we may just skip that destination. And there's nothing that says we must stop at each of these destinations; they're reminders for the driver as we toodle along toward our next camping and fishing spot.

Part of the purpose of posting to public blog is to provide a place to post answers to questions I'm asked repeatedly. A popular question involves how we organize our car to maximize every traveler's sanity. Do we have a DVD player? What about snacks, toys and other items?

First, all of our camping gear fits behind the middle row of seats. We remove the back bench before we leave home, and pack very lightly. The ice chest is near the back door for easy access at lunchtime or immediately upon arriving at camp. The coats and pillows are on top for easy access. One suitcase carries clothes for three people at this point. (Easier to do when they're little people.) All of this is held to the floor by a cargo net in case of emergency stops or worse.

Still, it's not like we don't have plenty in the car to fly around those stops. Between the girls' seats we keep one blanket for each of them and one backpack each which they fill with the travel items of their choices (favored toys, activities or books). There's also a travel toy chest (a soft-sided box) that resides permanently in the car for carrying everyday items like the travel desk, play center toy, and a small selection of other larger toys. Each girls' seat includes a side pocket filled with pencils, colored pencils and crayons. The pocket in the seatback in front of them (both of which I can reach easily from the driver's seat) holds empty sketchpads, activity books and coloring books.

Don't undervalue pure staring time. Our Little Passengers, now 5 and 8, often are happy to stare out the window for miles, sometimes pointing out things along the way, other times humming or enjoying their own deep thoughts. Still, it helps to be prepared for when the "staries" wear off.

Since DH doesn't always travel with us on these longer trips, I often have a vacant passenger's seat. That's handy in a small minivan carrying two small children. I call it my staging area. Here I place books, toys and activities for the girls which I hand back when they get antsy AND NOT BEFORE! Before long trips, I sock away some of their favorite car-friendly toys (anything that doesn't spill and stain, basically) a couple of months before our trips, then reintroduce them on the ride. In past trips, I've also included new surprises in the pile which I release late in the trip when the other items have done their work. Introducing the newest last works fantastically because, while the other toys entertain for a little while, a new item holds their attention longer EVEN when they've about had it with the car.

And of course we have a snack back between the driver's seat and passenger's seat for easy access at any point in our travels. The bag is full of healthy snacks including nuts, dried fruits, healthy snack bars, fruit leather. Sometimes it also has cookies and crackers. Each passenger has her own pocket for a water bottle, which we refresh throughout the trip.

The passenger floor is my area, for things like maps, guides, my camera and, when we take it, our geocaching backpack. There's a slot in the driver's door that provides me a spot for a journal, pens, secret snack, current map, and whathaveyou. The passenger's door pocket holds essentials like sunscreen, bug repellent, and a ziplock bag where I collect the extra plastic spoons, sports, forks and napkins along the way. (I can't begin to tell you how many times THAT bag has paid off when we forget utensils or spill after the last napkin provided is gone.)

We do have a roof rack on which I have carried wood countless miles. We can carry our bikes and skis there, too. But otherwise, I try to keep it spare up there in favor of better gas mileage and property security.

OH! And you have to bring your tunes! If you have an iPod (the girls acquired a Shuffle at a fundraising event last year) load it up not only with the driver's favorite hits, but plenty of music for the kids. Books and other stories can also be downloaded from the net for your listening pleasure along the way. (Our car was INCREDIBLY peaceful for hours on our last trip as the entire family, DH included, enjoyed the reading of Robinson Crusoe.) I've noticed that sometimes, while they enjoy my music, the girls get a bit fidgety after awhile. At that point, if I switch to their music, they settle right down again.

You may have noticed no mention of the DVD player. In fact, we don't have one, nor have we considered it. The girls, who average about an hour of tube time every two weeks or so, are used to finding other sources of entertainment, many of which travel well such as knitting, sewing, drawing and, lately, writing poetry and stories. The DVD player idea has crossed my mind, but if they can be otherwise self entertained while enjoy the world as it passes by, we'll stick with real life.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

I am not in the habit of quoting televangelists, but a friend's blog closed with this question that is often attributed to Pastor Robert Fuller. It's a great question, and certainly one worth asking yourself at any age. It's also a fitting title for this blog entry, an answer to blog reader Paula who asked for more details about how we manage to travel.

Mr. B is a great husband who's there for us whenever we need him. He's a willing participant when asked to take part in myriad activities and adventures, but after working away from home all week, sometimes all a person wants to do is relax at home. For some people, the idea of packing up in the kids in a minivan and heading cross country would be a kick. For most, I believe, this idea represents pure insanity. Decide for yourself which half I represent. In this instance, he's on the other half. So when I get a hair-brained idea like this one, he condones it, supports it, but doesn't necessarily want to take part.

The options that I see, then, are either stay at home and skip the adventure or live life to the fullest and enjoy the expedition with his best wishes and hopes for our safety. The girls and I miss him when we're gone and often think he'd enjoy the places we end up, the activities in which we take part, the adventures we find. He says, however, that he enjoys his time at home, and typically gets some projects completed while we're away.

Most of our adventures are weekend treks or local exploration, but in 2005, '06 and '07 the girls and I packed up the minivan with camping gear and headed out. In 2005, it was a >3,000-mile trip that looped through Washington to visit friends and family. We saw 500 bagpipers at a homestead near Canada, rode horseback with friends in Sedro-Woolley, took a dip with other friends in the Puget Sound at Dockton on Vashon Island, visited an incredible doll museum north of Seattle, saw the Coulee Dam and toured the inside of Chief Joseph Dam. There was a hike to a glacier, washing newly acquired teddy bears in the Ohanapecosh River, and countless other outdoor adventures. In 2006 it was a journey to Utah with the express purpose of visiting Native American sites, a dinosaur dig and visiting family and friends who live too far away for our taste. On that trip, we experience four seasons in as many days, discovered dinosaur bones where they had been resting for millions of years, stood within inches of petroglyphs and enjoyed geographically intriguing campgrounds to which we returned with Mr. B when he joined us on our 2007 adventure to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons and points between here and there.

We typically travel by means of minivan, a Toyota, and sleep in a tent, which isn't always ideal. But the van is versatile, easy to park, and we get far better gas mileage than our trailer-towing peers do. At least those are some of the arguments I use with myself when the RV neighbors pull in and have dinner on the table before we've even finished popping up our relatively quick campsite. By removing the back seats from the furthest reaches of the vehicle we're able to stow all our camping gear for the trip including: tent, pads, sleeping bags, one giant plastic tub for the kitchen, another giant plastic tub for other camping supplies including day-hike backpacks, extra flashlights for the kids, tarp and rope (our canopy), coats, one or two suitcases depending upon the length of the trip, an ice chest and a cook stove. I typically pack the smaller loose items in the bins. Soft, unwieldly items like bedding go on top of the pile with pillows in reach of the girls in the backseat. We also keep coats handy. If I take along fire wood, I wrap it in a sheet (to protect the tarp), then a tarp (to keep the wood dry) and secure it on the roof rack so any spiders left in the woodpile MIGHT not end up freakin' us out while we're on the road. We keep the ice chest accessible, and the girls pack their own goodies around them for easy access and self entertainment.

We stay with friends and family along the way where possible, and otherwise camp. On the Washington trip, I found myself pushing on to keep up with campground reservations I'd made rather than remaining in any particularly great spots as long as we might have wanted to. Reservations are great for a sense of security, but they really did a job on the leisure aspect of the trip. They kept us pushing forward when, really, it would have been just fine to stay in, for example, Mt. Rainier National Park and cut out the other planned stops. (It didn't help that I'd already paid for the others, either.) When we headed to Utah the following year, I opted to make reservations only for those campgrounds that I knew could be heavily impacted (Arches National Park and Goblin Valley State Park), but at which I was bound and determined to camp. In other areas, we had no reservations, and in every case, we were fortunate to find great camping spots along the way without hassles.

The Best Big Adventure '08 is fairly scheduled at this point, but I'm trying to leave a bit of room to accommodate extra nights' stays at particularly spectacular camping spots, to move ahead or hang back as we all see fit. It takes a lot more work, however, and I'm still in the process of identifying potential boon docking spots clear along the route to provide as many options as possible.

Paula and others have asked what we do to keep safe. Well, as I get older and wiser I find myself more nervous, but I don't want to forgo the adventure of travel for fear of any of a number of tragedies that could befall us. So, I plan ahead, then hope for the best. We don't camp near cities, for example, and when we find a good campsite in the boonies, we don't stay if there are signs that it's a popular party spot, shooting spot or otherwise leaves us feeling uncomfortable about our safety. The girls help with all the camp chores, so that keeps them nearby, and we all trek to the bathroom together, whether it be brick-and-mortar or bush-and-shovel. I don't advertise that we're traveling without a male, and most people just seem to assume he's in the restroom, out for a hike, or napping in the tent when they see the three of us in camp. (When we get to know friendly neighbors, they're often shocked to find out we're on our own.) Oh, and getting to know the neighbors can sometimes offer a sense of security, too. Another traveling mom said that, after feeling out the neighbors, she lets some know she's traveling alone with her kids and asks them to help keep an eye out for the family.

Tomorrow...maintaining EVERYone's sanity as we move on down the road.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Open House/Poly Royal (same/same)

This weekend we took the girls to their first Cal Poly Open House. The event used to be called Poly Royal, but after some mishaps a decade or so ago, the college had to let it go for awhile. They reintroduced the event under a new name, but many of the old events still continue: rodeo, tractor pull, kids' carnival, club booths, demonstrations by every college, robotics competition and, our main attraction, the Chemistry Department Magic Show!

When I was in grade school, buses would carry us to campus where we'd take part in the memorable display of chemical reactions, then we'd meander through campus and ultimately take part in a fantastic carnival, then complete with Ferris wheel among other attractions. We ate ice cream made by students from the university's own dairy unit. We generally enjoyed an educational ditch day.

A lot has changed, but when we entered the lecture hall for the Magic Show, the smells brought it all back! We sat in the front row and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation. There were demonstrations we just couldn't do at home (explosions involving hydrogen come to mind), but the girls were equally please to see experiments they'd already performed at home (the acid/base test, for example).

It's funny, too, how events coincide. This week, our science experiments at home centered on polymers. The girls extracted the gel powder from some diapers, then put the minuscule, dust-like particles in a cup, added water and mixed until, VOILA, it gelled! They learned about molecular chains, built their own, learned about bonds, and created those, too. So, when we left the Magic Show, we were somewhat surprised to see that the lab next door was providing, of all things, a hands-on polymer experiment: making the same slime we'd made Tuesday in our kitchen. (Recipe: mix 1/4 c. white glue with 2 T. water; in separate container mix 1T. Borax with 1/2 cup water. Add solution to slime...less solution equals more liquidy slime; more solution equals stiffer slime. Add food coloring if you please.)

We also enjoyed the math department where a variety of games were provided in several rooms. The girls (and I) really got involved in the various puzzles, and the large GeoBoard. (By the way, we found this neat online manipulatives site while looking for the GeoBoard image.) V's our puzzle girl, so we really had to tear her away if we were to see any more of Poly's special events! Anyone up for a math game day? Puzzle day?

We ended the day with a hike up Poly Canyon to the Design Village where students from throughout the state took part in the Design Village Competition. The goal: build a portable structure that can be set up on any terrain, using no A/C power tools. Many of the structures were quite flimsy, some of the entries were quite remarkable, well-constructed, creative and well-planned, but they all paled in comparison with the original structures in the Design Village. We took Mr. B on a tour of the Shell House, the girls' and my favorite structure, and imagined what it would've been like before vandals got to it. So much attention to detail. The weekend's events really illustrated the difference between student project (aka effort) of yesteryear with students' of today. (sigh)

This week: birthday planning and prep, more science, more geography, everyday stuff and the beginning of our Next Big Project (art history).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mission Days

Funny how things in our own backyards so often elude us. The girls, particularly the older one, are keenly interested in the pioneer era, but particularly the trails. The oldest reads anything she can get her hands on regarding the Oregon Trail. They've walked the last mile of Lewis & Clark's journey with the bicentennial reenactment. But it took me awhile to point them in the direction of the pioneers and pilgrims and early explorers and settlers of our own area.

We'd visited missions before, but this year we made it a point to visit more of them whenever possible. When the girls' dad had a work-related training to attend in the San Diego area, we joined him and spent our days doing all sorts of things, not the least of which included visiting a couple of missions. We've taken part in special events and visited when the missions are lonely. It's been fun.

Last weekend I took the girls to Mission San Antonio with their grandpa and his fiance'. We had a great weekend that began at the mission and ultimately included an overnight of tent camping on the banks of a cool stream, a drive over the Coast Range to fantastic Highway 1 and the Big Sur/San Simeon coast, a visit to the elephant seals, a walk on San Simeon Pier and dinner in Morro Bay before we made it home Sunday night.

Of the 21 California missions, Mission San Antonio this one is particularly spectacular in that no city was ever developed around it. So as visitors approach, they can get a pretty good feel for what travelers would have seen 200 years ago. It is particularly enjoyable in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming, but best when it's quiet on random days.

Saturday, however, was not a random day. It was the mission's largest docent event of the year: Mission Days. We enjoyed demonstrations of blacksmithing, tortilla making (the girls learned to pat their own), corn and hominy grinding, oak acorn processing, wool spinning and adobe brick making among other activities. The girls chose to wear their new dresses and were complimented right and left on their selection of attire.

It was a really relaxing, wonderful outing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The dress makes the girl

Our oldest daughter has had a variety of dress-up clothes, most of them hand-me-downs from one of my aunts who made lots of neat costumes for her own children years ago. We've greatly enjoyed those, but the girls are growing out of them. And there's only ever been one pioneer dress to wear, so our youngest daughter usually missed out.

For Christmas, I had hoped to make a pioneer dress tailored just for the youngest, but since I'm not exactly a seamstress, I figured it would take me WEEKS. I put it off for MONTHS, until last week when we had a quiet Sunday at home. I decided to go for it.

Turns out the dress isn't that difficult to make. Oh, sure, I had to learn a few new things like how to make darts (easy, but even EASIER once a friend saw the results of my first effort and explained it to me) and "ease" sleeves. But about five sewing hours later, the long dress, complete with long sleeves, ruffles and high collar was nearly complete. Our daughter was THRILLED! She's already worn it 4 of the 9 days since it was made, and I'm proud to say it's held up to one camp trip, and several runs through the washer.

We headed down to the fabric store together to let the youngest pick out her own buttons for the front. After explaining that plastic kitty buttons weren't exactly all the rage when the pioneers were out and about, she did an amazing job of finding matching buttons. She went with some bronze-like buttons that are rose shaped to match the roses in her calico print. They look fabulous! Meanwhile, the older daughter selected the fabric, ribbon and lace for her own new dress. Quote of the week: "I don't mind if you stay up late as long as you finish my dress." In print, it sounds terrible. But she's not a slave driver. She just REALLY wanted that dress for the next day. And she had it.

The dresses were VERY well received during our trip this weekend to Mission San Antonio where docents were dressed in period garb. In fact, I don't believe I've heard as many compliments for anything I've ever made in my life! The compliments were directed to the girls, who were ever so proud of their new things. It must be how pioneer girls felt when they finally got to don that one new dress of the year.

I hope they hold up for an upcoming colonial ball birthday party, and our Big Trek. They should go well in Laura Ingalls Wilder territory!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Trip planning = great for geography!

Though our trip is MONTHS away, the girls are already getting INTO it. Last week, we put together a fairly large, blank map of the continental U.S. and began filling it in a bit at a time. The first day it was lakes and waterways, and since then we've begun adding capitals, the missions (Cal.), maps, symbols representing the states (the beaver in Oregon is pretty darn cute), and other items of interest to us all. We've also been talking about what we plan to see along the way.

Today, on our walk to ballet, the girls and I talked about how much work this trip is going to be, particularly with moves almost every day. The girls agreed that they would think of how the pioneers moved without the luxury of a road, let alone cars. When I introduced the idea of my need for their assistance throughout the trip, they began volunteering immediately for their favorite duties. (They're both PARTICULARLY interested in the responsibility for collecting kindling and laying the fires; should I be worried? ;) )

We'll also use the trip in a variety of other academic areas including: language arts (journals, and lots of reading opportunities), visual arts (journals and personal botany books), history (clearly), math (helping to figure mileage, ETA, gas costs and related costs plus managing their own trip allowances), p.e. (hiking galore), geography (they'll not just READ about the varied terrain, but play, eat and sleep in it).

Let the good times roll!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Research will never be the same

Once again, I sing the praises of the Internet as a wealth of information and communications hub. Sure, there's always the library for general research, but the Internet offers such a vast array of information, including access to people with expertise in just about any area that, well, it's just tough to top.

In recent weeks, I've been on a steep learning curve regarding vehicle towing, weight ratios, and the hardware needed to upgrade our existing setup to accommodate the trailer loan offered us. I sought input from just about anyone I saw with a popup in their driveway. (Now there's a good way to meet residents of your extended neighborhood!) And then I found the Popup Explorer group online. These folks are SUPER helpful, and avid proponents of tent/pop-up trailer camping.

Essentially, everyone who answered my query about the proposed trailer for our trip agreed the trailer was MUCH to heavy for our van. What it boils down to is a weight issue. It turns out that the combined weight of the van and trailer alone (completely unladen) would leave only 500 pounds for ANY additional weight, including passengers, luggage, ice chest, camping gear, etc. If we reached that max, let alone exceed it, the van would not function well, and may have some particular issues with stopping.

So, as much as I was tending toward the relative comfort of the loaner trailer, I'm relaxing now in the security that a tent brings. I don't have to worry about flats or trailer hitches or brakes or gas leaks with a tent. There are no bearings to burn up, no batteries to charge. I'm fairly decent at getting camp set up and torn down quickly, and I learned on our last trip how to set up a tarp for camp shelter in any of a number of configurations. (Now I have poles, which should make that task MUCH easier this go 'round.)

So, we'll go with what we know...and I'm fine with that. Pretty much...but I found a very cute HunterII trailer...weighs half as much (and sleeps half as many).

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