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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Last Leg

When we last left you we were in Idaho Falls, about 1,000 miles from home. Looking at the map we considered adding an extra night to our stop so the girls, in particular Jenna who has had a fascination with the place, could see Las Vegas. After looking at the cost of the trip so far and the cost of adding an extra night in Vegas we decided Thursday night would be our last of the trip. In addition both girls were becoming a bit more vocal that they wanted to get home.

Thursday started with the early risers, Jenna and me, heading down to the breakfast included with the room at the Shilo Inn around 8:00. Of the breakfast-includeds we have had during the trip the Shilo's was by far the best. When we returned to the room the sleeper-inners, Mom and Blaire, were ready for their turn at the buffet. We hit the road around 10:00 with the goal being Cedar City, Utah, a straight 465 miles south on I-15. For our trip so far a very light day spent with the girls singing camp songs and our playing several of our favorite car games (see below).

Once again Leslie put the in car technology to the test and searching hotels under $100 in Cedar City settled on an Okay-8, our second of the trip. Since we were in town around 5:30 we decided to drive around a bit and found Cedar City to be a neat little town. It is a university town with Southern Utah University located there, as well it is a gateway into Dixie National Forest, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. It also has a Shakespeare Festival which is evidently a big draw for the town.

Part of our drive around was a scouting mission for dinner. We located some possibles in town but upon returning to the hotel noticed an English Pub/restaurant attached to hotel across the parking lot and decided to eat there since they were billing different types of food that might satisfy everyone in the family. Back at the Okay-8 we inquired of our inn-keeper about the place and he said other guests had reported favorably.

There standards must be pretty low as it was by far the worst meal on our trip. Jenna had a pizza in which she just ate off the cheese and olives indicating the sauce and dough were not palatable. Leslie, Blaire and I opted for the buffet with a soup and salad bar, roast chicken, pork, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. Thank goodness for the salad bar is my favorable comment. Blaire wondered how the roast chicken, which was only legs and wings, could be so dry for dark meat and further wondered what was used for the potatoes for the garlic mash. Two good inquiries from my buddy Foodie.

Like our prior Okay-8 stay in Nebraska, the room was "non-smoking" but the corridor reeked of stale cigarette smoke. Oh for two on the Okay-8's we will consider the risk reward scenario of quality versus price very strongly before staying at one again.

Friday morning we were up and on the road by 8:30 local (Mountain) time. Heading east into the forests and mountains we quickly began an winding assent into the hills and the Dixie National Forest. Not a road for the faint of heart, we wound up sharp turns with no guard rails protecting from hundred foot drops. Surrounded by lush forest with streams and creeks the morning drive was as beautiful as any we have had on the trip. As we neared the peak the ground changed from grass and plants to what looked like plowed fields with very black dirt. It was not dirt however but rock that must have been lava rock from millenia ago. Very interesting change in the geology.

When we stopped climbing we were in large expanses of meadows and fields used for livestock grazing, high country ranching. I love this type of country and enjoyed the winding drive across the plateau and subsequent descent through the other side of Dixie.

Exiting Dixie we turned south and headed towards Zion National Park. The road was dotted with small towns, each with a posted 45 speed limit and a parked Sheriff guarding the entrance to town, a neat trick to slow everyone down. Seemingly out of nowhere the trees and forests gave was to plateaus, cliffs and yellow and red rocks soaring out of the ground.

As we entered the road into Zion the change in landscape was astounding, from lush, verdant terrain to desert scrub and soaring rocks. At the entrance the Park Ranger taking our fee inquired if we wanted an annual pass for $80 or pay the $25 for a visitor pass. We said we were just there to drive through and see the Park and he told us to save our receipts as they could be applied to an annual pass. Having paid $25 each for Rushmore and Yellowstone we were now $75 towards an annual pass should we visit another national park in the near future. Should you be visiting several parks in the next year keep this in mind.

Zion was just as awe inspiring, "Wow" provoking and incredible as anything we have seen so far on the trip. The massive cliffs that loom over the road, the incredible color that we could not replicate in any of our pictures, the sheer size. Each element of the place is fascinating, combined it was a perfect way to complete our list of sites we had on our list before we had left Long Beach ten days before.

There are many places to stay in just outside of Zion on the western side, as well it is not far from Southern California making it a great weekend trip for the family. Though looking at traffic going the other way my suggestion would be to take the kids out of school on Friday and leave early.

Having taken our leave of Zion we pointed the Odyssey to home. Before we got there however we had one more side trip we had to make. Approaching from the north we exited the I-15 at Las Vegas Blvd and drove down the Strip so Jenna could see the hotels and sites. All the way down she was asking if we could stay, how she wanted to go to Vegas, and knowing I had told her not until she was 21 when I would take her she pointed out several hotels she wanted us to stay at twelve years hence when that would occur. Of all the sites we had seen during the trip the most vocal response from Jenna of all was the drive down Las Vega Boulevard in 104 degree heat in the early afternoon. That is Jenna, bright lights and flashing billboards.

Having done the Vegas to Long Beach drive many times we knew we were four to five hours from home depending on traffic. Leaving Vegas we also encountered something I had not missed in the previous 4500 miles: Southern California drivers. Tailgating at 75 miles per hour when it is evident you cannot go faster due to car in front of you or move over due to cars in the lane next to you, going 60 in the fast lane when flow of traffic is closer to 80, suddenly slowing down for no reason, and increasingly crowded traffic lanes. Ahhhh, home is near!

With a stop at The Mad Greek in Baker for milkshakes we were all ready for the final, final leg of our return. The girls started counting down the time to my estimated 6:00 time of arrival.

Two hundred and forty hours and 4,875 miles after we had left, Lesie and I were back home with our girls. The trip from Camp Birchwood was 2725 miles traveling through Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. The girls were great throughout and gave some fuel to our idea for next summer: driving the girls to camp through Arizona (Grand Canyon), Oklahoma to see their ancestral roots, then up the Mississippi to its source a few miles from their camp.

Before we left when Leslie and I told people we were headed off on the Great American Road Trip many people inquired why we would want to drive to Minnesota when we could fly, looked at us wondering why we would want to spend eight days driving across the country, told us we were nuts for thinking our screen-oriented kids would be able to handle such a long drive. Many others envied our wanderlust and told of how when they were kids they had many family vacations in back of the family station wagon headed somewhere.

To the skeptics we say, put your kids in the car and drive somewhere wonderful--which is most of the country outside the urban sprawl that covers Southern California. We have an incredibly beautiful country, not just the landscapes but the people who live in those "remote" areas. Leslie and I both grew up spending parts of our summers, winter and spring breaks in the back seat of a station wagon headed somewhere. Trips we remember still. Now we have a trip our children will remember and share with our grandchildren, hopefully when they are headed to Yellowstone, or Rushmore, or Zion, or Camp Birchwood in Minnesota.

Pictures below are again the poor Blackberry takes of Zion, Leslie finally home, and our welcoming committee wondering where we had gone. I am hoping to have loaded on YouTube ( some brief videos taken with the Flip, check in Sunday.

Thanks for following along on the Great American Road Trip and the positive feedback. It's good to be home, but it was just as good to be on the road with the family.

Car Games Here are some games we play in the car

License Plates: we keep a list of license plates we see from states we are not currently traveling in. On the way there Leslie and I saw 32 states. On the way back we saw 42 states, nailing Alaska on the final off ramp in Long Beach.

A to Z: Several variations of this game. 1) See how fast you can go from A to Z spotting letters using road signs, license plates, billboards, etc. 2) Rotating through the car name movies that start with the letter at your turn, to make it more difficult do not allow "The", i.e. "The Incredibles" does not count as "I". First person, "Avatar", next "Boyz In The Hood", next "Cars" and so on. 3) Same game but use television shows. Titles cannot be repeated, though after several rounds we gave options for person to skip Q, X and/or Z when it was their turn.

Last to First: Rotate through the car and using either famous people or places each person must name a person or place that begins with the last letter of the previous answer. I.e first person starts with Anaheim, next is Manhattan, next is Nebraska, and so on.

Guess How Far: Pick a point way in the distance and guess how many miles it is or how long it will take to get there

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The marvels of current technology assist the family road trip and the assistance provided. As mentioned in perhaps the first post I have a Verizon wireless modem and power adapter for the laptop, not to mention GPS on the Blackberry. These tools have enabled us to find accommodations for the evening while on the fly, calculate/guesstimate how far ahead of us to stop for the evening, and for me to keep in touch with clients in order to ensure I have some income upon our return from the trip.

Yesterday after leaving Yellowstone with Leslie on the helm I dozed off for several minutes, awakening to a "How beautiful" coming from my right. Waking myself from a dream of riding a roller coaster with two friends from high school and David Hasselhoff, I looked out my window to see Jackson Lake about fifteen feet from my window and the Grand Teton range towering over the other side of the lake. Wow.

Through the trip we have been amazed at how quickly many of the mountain ranges have risen from the plains, several miles of some foothills next to most. Not the Tetons. They just spring up, almost straight up, to their maximum elevations. Truly spectacular.

Having no set plan yet as to where to stay the night, just an intention to head below Jackson, Wyoming which we figured would be a nice place to stay but not as nice on the wallet. From Jackson into Utah there are a few routes, going almost due south puts a string of small towns in our path, cutting back east there are fewer towns but a bit bigger and they add distance to the trip. Looking at the map we determined to head south and start looking for hotels from Alpine south.

Firing up the laptop as we drove next to Jackson Lake I pulled up the AAA site and put in directions from Jackson to Salt Lake City and was greeted with yellow warning dots along the route from Jackson to Alpine. It seems a mud slide had closed the road. Uh-oh.

A suggested route was to go over the Teton Pass at 8431 feet and into Idaho. Checking the maps and the towns downstream we determined we could cross into Idaho and make Idaho Falls for a late dinner and a place to spend the evening.

We are glad we took the detour. The trip over the Tetons was pretty quick, only about twelve miles with steep ascent and descent and beautiful scenery. The view back down the mountain and across the valley was magnificent. As well we were in the tree line the entire trip, not sparsely vegetated as in the other mountain passes we have crossed on our journey.

When we dropped into Idaho the landscape was considerably different than the other side of the mountains. We were greeted with huge, vast fields of wheat. The largest continuous fields we have seen in our travels including Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming. Golden fields surrounded us as we moved towards the Snake River. When we reached the Snake we followed it winding through the valleys into Idaho Falls where we checked into the Shilo Inn for a very comfy nights rest before setting out on the final legs of our Great American Road Trip.

As we finished our day we commented that it was the first day on our trip that we did not experience any rain or thunderstorms. As we head into Utah, Nevada and finally California we anticipate rising temperatures from the high sixties low seventies and clear skies.

A shot of the Tetons from the Odyssey.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Divine At Work

Numerous stories, articles and books have been written about Yellowstone National Park since the 19th Century when it was initially discovered by Western explorers. My attempt to add to the prodigious volumes available will hardly alter history, but hopefully will engage the imaginations of a few so that they may venture to the Northwest corner of Wyoming to see this spectacular land for themselves.

Yesterday, Tuesday August 9th, we left Sheridan, Wyoming and backtracked south after a few locals told us crossing the Big Horn Mountains further south from Buffalo was a safer trip then the northern option into Cody, Wyoming from Sheridan due to rock slides. With Leslie at the helm we climbed to over 9,000 feet before dropping down the western slope following Ten Sleeps Creek into the town of Ten Sleeps. Crossing through the ever changing landscape we had an interesting stop.

As mentioned in a previous post every highway we have been on seems to having work done, on the 16 West somewhere between Ten Sleeps and Cody the road was down to one lane so we had to stop and wait for the escort car to bring cars from the other direction and then lead us about eight miles down the road. While we were waiting the flag lady, Linda, came to our car and gave us and the kids a history lesson on Wyoming. We learned about dinosaurs and betonite, the local mineral that is only in Wyoming and is a major revenue source for the state along with the oil and natural gas from the dinosaurs.

Typical for our travels through Wyoming we encountered several storms off and on and beautiful scenery from mountains to plains to moon-scapes.

Around 3:30 we reached our destination West of Cody, the Green Creek Inn & RV Park in Wapiti (WAH-peh-tee). Inquiring from the owner about the possibility of jumping into Yellowstone to see some of the sites to shorten our day on Wednesday. He was pushing us driving back to Cody, about forty minutes, to go to an all you can eat Cowboy Dinner then the Rodeo for about $200 for the family. We said, thanks for the advice, we drove west for about forty minutes to Yellowstone. For a one week pass for the car it was $25, an annual pass is only $50. The ranger told us it got dark about 9:00 and it was about one and a half hours to drive the approximately 60 miles to Old Faithful. It was 4:30 local time and we decided to head to Old Faithful.

Here is where I will avoid detailed description and merely say that Yellowstone is proof of Divine Creation. It is so spectacular, so beautiful, so ever changing from the forests that have new growth following the fires of several years ago, to the steam coming from the ground, to the rivers, creeks and lakes, that only a Master Plan could conceive of such terrain, geology and geography.

We made it to Old Faithful about 6:45 and learned that the legendary geyser had gone off about an hour before. Since Old Faithful is due to spew every ninety minutes or so we were on time to see it around 7:15. Thankfully there was a cafeteria right there since it was beginning to rain, the wind picked up and the temperature had dropped to the mid-fifties….we were in shorts and light jackets.
After a dinner the kids devoured we stood on the porch and waited for the show. After a few false alarms Old Faithful blew for over three minutes around 7:30. Looking at the dark skies, and the approaching nightfall, we hustled back to the car for the drive back to the East Entrance to the park and then to our beds for the night.

Driving through Yellowstone is somewhat challenging for several reasons. One is the slower pace. Two is the vigilance on the road while trying not to be distracted by the scenario to make sure you don’t hit a bear or an Elk. Three are the other drivers, many of whom are determined to stop with no notice because they saw a chipmunk and need to take videos and pictures. Add rain and dropping sunlight and the drive is not the easiest we have undertaken.

We hit the gate around 9:00, our room around 9:45 and beds by 10:00. A long day, a wonderful day.

This morning we were up early to catch the incredible Continental Breakfast array at the Green Creek Inn (bread, packaged muffins, a toaster, stale coffee that was somehow just brewed) at 7:30 and headed back to Yellowstone. We left the Inn at 8:00 and drove all day through Yellowstone, going up to the Northern edge then back down the Western side of the park. We stopped several times to walk to see falls, hot springs, or other sites. The weather was spectacular, exceeded however by the vistas from each turn.

Yellowstone is not easy to get to, you can’t just fly in. If it were easy to get to it would be too crowded, as it is there are plenty of visitors. While it is not easy to get to, get to it you must. We spent about eleven hours in the park yesterday and today and we barely scratched the surface. As Leslie said, “We are doing a Taster.” Our next trip to Yellowstone will be for several days. We will try to get reservations at one of the many lodges in the park, otherwise find lodging outside the Western or Northern Entrances.

We learned that every area of the huge park is different, and we look forward to our return to explore each of them more thoroughly.

As for what we saw, Jenna’s favorite was a bear cub, Blaire’s was the bison, Leslie’s was the bison and a sulfur springs area where a very large mound the shape of a baked potato had been formed from the spring under it. As for me, my favorite sights were first from Tuesday evening on the drive back from Old Faithful when the twilight was almost gone, storm clouds were gathered on the mountain ringing Yellowstone Lake and an almost full moon was glisten on the calm water. Tied for favorite site was seeing a bald eagle soaring down the canyon of the Yellowstone River below us as we stood on the rim.

As for you, make your plans to get to Northwestern Wyoming and visit this incredible national treasure endowed to us by our Creator along with certain inalienable rights.

Our pictures today are Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful taken by Jenna, Bison roadside, and the Upperfalls of the Yellowstone River where I saw the eagle.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Roar No More

Day seven of the Great American Road Trip is complete with the family firmly entrenched in complete after dinner relaxation in the Best Western in central Sheridan, Wyoming. It was in this town where Buffalo Bill Cody would audition local cowboys for his Wild West Show.

We started our day sleeping in at the Holy Smokes cabin where we stayed the night. After a very long Saturday and a very short Saturday night everyone needed some extra rest. After getting the girls to consolidate from two bags each they used for camp to only one bag each to lug into a hotel each night we went a few miles into nearby Keystone, South Dakota. Hearing a constant roar and rumble from the nearby highway all morning we followed the constant stream of Harleys into Keystone in search of some grub.

Driving through Keystone the intrepid Odyssey vibrated from the hundreds of Harleys on the street, a street lined by hundreds more of parked bikes. Coming down from Mount Rushmore last night we saw a diner we suspected may be perfect for breakfast in the morning. When we parked in a lot, there was zero parking spaces for a mini-van on the street, the man taking our parking fee suggested the same diner, Peggy's Place. A five star recommendation from the Smith's if you are near Rushmore for any meal, hit up Peggy's.

We strolled from Peggy's down one side and up the other of Keystone. Sidewalks were packed with black leather, bandannas and boots, streets were lined with Harleys parked side-by-side-by-side. Having been tipped off by Rapid City native Rachel Bredemus at Birchwood about fudge and taffy in Keystone we made the stop at Turtle Town for some fudge and the taffy-something store for some goodies. Goodies is a vast understatement.

Ready to go we hit the road at noon local and drove around the backside of Rushmore to Custer. A gorgeous drive through the woods and fields and rocks of the Black Hills we had a micro-storm that had many Harley drivers off the road standing under trees as pea sized hail pummelled us for several minutes. Driving from Custer we headed up to Spearfish and then across the border into Wyoming.

Winding our way around a loop we passed several establishments with large banners "Welcome Bikers" and beer gardens set up with hundreds of bikes parked. We passed through Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back of the head while playing poker. His hand, two eights and two aces all black, has become known as the "dead man's hand."

With terrain changing from forested mountains to hilly fields back to forests our drive was beautiful. Our goal was Devil's Tower. You may remember Devil's Tower as the object of Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." We first saw Devil's Tower poking over the landscape during a break in the hills and trees from about fifteen miles away. As we got closer we would see it grow with brief glimpses. Then after passing through Belle Fourche, which was packed with bikers, we emerged from the town and there looming over us was the Devil's Tower. It is incredible to see in person the way it just springs out of the countryside with no foothills or mountains nearby.

From Devil's Tower we began heading west and then north across great, vast plains of Wyoming with the mountain range in Big Horn National Forest growing ever bigger as we drove west. As with our prior visit to Wyoming last Wednesday the horizon was filled with large storm systems and visible rain. After a torrential downpour we arrived safely in Sheridan for a night's rest before heading off tomorrow towards Yellowstone. We are uncertain whether we will enter the park tomorrow or stay somewhere very near the park entrance tomorrow and enter early Wednesday morning to drive through and head towards Jackson.

We did not cover a lot of mileage today, but covered more beautiful country with plains, fields, forests, hills, lakes, streams, mountains and small towns. As we left Buffalo, Wyoming and headed north to Sheridan we finally have left the ring of bikers that emanates from Sturgis. The economic impact of the rally must be tremendous given the thousands of bikers we have seen without actually getting closer than 20-30 miles to Sturgis. Towns, rest stops, roadways, the roads themselves, were packed with the roar and rumble of the huge machines. We saw no ill behavior, poor or dangerous riding or rudeness from anyone wearing the famous Harley-Davidson emblem. I am sure the hundred mile radius around Sturgis appreciates the annual event and the commerce it brings to their stores, towns and communities.

Leslie said she wants start a Mini-Van Rally. I suggested she stage it in Irvine or perhaps a suburb of Chicago, St Louis or Kansas City. Rock on Honda Odyssey! Rock On!

Pictured below is the main drag of Keystone, South Dakota at noon and Devil's Tower from about ten miles away.

Good-Bye to Start Part II

Saturday was the final full day for campers at Birchwood. The girls needed to pack and have normal activity schedules, which were challenged due to heavy rains most of the day. Leslie and I spent a very leisurely day reading by the lake, then when the rains got too heavy for the trees to protect us we retired to our cabin and spent a relaxing (read lazy) afternoon just resting and reading.

The final evening at camp is pretty emotional as the girls who have been at Camp Birchwood either two or four weeks begin to say good-bye to each other, their counselors and to camp. The final campfire is filled with songs, awards, songs, and some very touching commentary from the girls themselves as several tell their friends what camp and their friendships mean to them.

On Saturday I posted about Camp Birchwood and why Leslie and I send our girls for camp. On Saturday night listening to the girls describe why they like going to camp, and why they do not want to leave, we received full validation. The word "home" was used by almost all of them, "be myself," "learning," and "love" were not said to appease anyone but to tell their fellow campers how they felt about them and themselves.

Birchwood is a very hard place to leave.

Sunday we had to leave along with about 160 girls travelling out of Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The logistical organization of getting the bags loaded on a rented truck, girls loaded on buses and then everything to the airport so each bag and each camper is loaded on the right plane at the right time is amazing. And it always works.

We woke early Sunday, 5:30 local (3:30 for those on the West Coast) and walked over to camp for a cup of coffee and to collect our girls; I'm not sure which was more important but at our first stop Leslie went immediately to the gas station coffee pot and poured a tall cup.

The vibe in the car was very different with two more passengers than we had on the first 2,150 miles.

At 7:00 we were on the road with our destination being the Holy Smokes Resort in the Black Hills next to Mount Rushmore. As we wound our way through the Minnesota woods towards Fargo our girls slept in their seats, their new home for the next 2,000 plus miles. Hitting Fargo on an interstate and then making our left hand turn south into South Dakota we were again in the Great Plains.

Looking at a map of South Dakota we had to go from the Northeast corner to the Southwest corner. And South Dakota has no diagonal roads or highways. About thirty to forty miles into South Dakota we left the interstate and began our jiggity-jog across South Dakota mostly on two lane highways. Mostly on two lane highways that had no bends or turns for ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty miles. The roads cut through the farm lands of South Dakota that were flat and thinly populated. We could go quite a while with seeing no other cars, towns, people, just us and the corn or wheat or alfalfa growing on each side of the road. The desolation made for good driving times however.

When we hit the state capitol of Pierre I was exhausted and Leslie took over. Once we crossed the Missouri River in Pierre the landscape changed immediately to rolling hills covered in green. The sky began to change as well as we forged west becoming grayer and we could see a large storm to our south with lightning strikes. As we pushed closer to our destination the road began to fill with more and more bikers from across the country heading for the major rally at Sturgis (thanks to my brother for pointing our the misspelling in prior post). Not only did we see hundreds and hundreds of bikes on the road, but a significant amount of trailers being hauled that contained bikes headed to the rally. Looking at road stops along the highway (by now we were on an interstate) the parking lots were filled with Harleys lined up.

Approaching Rapid City and the turn off to our destination at Holy Smokes the road became about five to one bikers to automobiles.

We reached Holy Smokes at 6:00 and we were bushwacked, at least I was. We quickly learned that we had gained an hour as we were back in the Mountain Time Zone. A good dinner of ribs, chicken, baked potatoes and a beer for Mom and Dad revived our energy and we decided to head to Mount Rushmore for a look and see if we could make the evening lighting show.

Best decision of our trip, and one of the best of my lifetime, was the decision to visit Rushmore in the evening and make the lighting ceremony. Mount Rushmore is a national park, it costs $11.00 per car load and you are given a pass that lasts to the end of the year for as many return visits as you like. Upon leaving the parking structure you look up and there they are, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. I've seen the pictures my entire life but was not ready for the awe that came over me upon seeing the carvings in person.

We walked the Presidential Trail that had some great views of the monument and faces from different angles and plaques along the way telling of each President and why he was chosen. We went to the gift store and looked at books and the story of the making of Mount Rushmore. And then we sat in the outdoor amphitheater and waited for the ceremony to begin.

A female park ranger took the stage and began to tell the story of Mount Rushmore. Her story is filled with patriotism and history. A video made by the Discovery Channel is shown that tells of each president, the site and the monument. Then when I thought the show was over the ranger takes the stage again.

She tells of the importance of liberty and freedom. She tells the story that has made its way around the internet and YouTube of Red Skelton's break down of the Pledge of Allegiance and recites to us what each word in the Pledge means. At which point I was thrilled Blaire and Jenna were with us. She then asked that we rise, and below the four Presidents, recite the pledge.

The flag to which our attention was directed was at half mast, as were all the flags in South Dakota in honor of police officer James Ryan McCandless of nearby Rapid City who was shot and killed on duty last Tuesday day.

After the pledge the video played a beautiful rendition of "America" sung by I do not know who. As the song and video are playing the faces of the Presidents high above us are lit. We are then asked to stand and sing the national anthem. I will admit to difficulty getting some of the words out.

After the anthem the park ranger asked that any Veterans and active duty military personnel join her on stage. As veterans began to walk down to the stage we stood and applauded for several minutes until everyone was gathered, about fifty to sixty in all. Shouts of "Thank You!" and "God Bless You" rang out from the audience to the collection of men and women, many in their biker gear for Sturgis, collected on stage and reached out to each other shaking hands and making introductions.

The range asked three of the men to join her at the flag pole to retire the flag for the evening. One man raised the flag to full height from its half-mast position and then lowered the flag to the waiting hands of two other vets. As they folded the flag into its three corner position the ranger read a piece thanking all veterans through our wars and battles from the Revolution through Vietnam and those serving today.

She then said, "as you leave the stage I would like each of you to come and touch this flag as so many veterans have before you and so that I can personally thank each of you for service."

As the men exited the stage the audience, still standing, again began to applaud until every man and woman had touched the flag and left the stage.

As we were exiting the amphitheater a grizzly looking guy dressed head to bandanna wrapped around his head in biker gear said, "Man I have never been so humbled in my life."

That statement perfectly captured what I was feeling.

God Bless America, our Veterans and our every day men, women and families who continue each and every day to make this the greatest nation in the history of mankind.

Day seven of the Great American Road Trip continues tomorrow, after some sleeping in.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Camp Birchwood

Many people the past few years have said to Leslie and I, "Why are you sending your girls to Minnesota to go to camp?" once they have gotten past that we are sending our girls away for two weeks at all.

The reason we are sending our girls away to Minnesota is because that is where Camp Birchwood is located. Why Camp Birchwood? Two reasons.

Reason one is because of our family connection to the camp. My Dad was a camper in the 1940's and 1950's at Camp Lincoln (still in existence) in Minnesota and he had as a counselor one Jim Bredemus. Dad and Jim became great friends, Dad was in Jim's wedding when he married Nancy, Camp Lincoln's owners' daughter. In the 1960's Jim and Nancy acquired some land on Steamboat Lake and started Camp Birchwood for girls. My Dad and Mom were part of getting the camp opened and spent some summers helping run the camp as counselors.

In the late 1960's my sister became a counselor at Birchwood and Jim and Nancy's daughter Sandy was one of her counselors, we now had two generations of campers and counselors between the Smith and the Bredemus families. In 1970 my brother and I went to the new boys camp, Camp Gunflint, that Jim and Nancy opened at the end of the Gunflint Trail, on the very edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and a short paddle from the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. We had as a counselor Terry Bredemus, Jim and Nancy's son.

A few years ago my nephew Jack went to Gunflint and his counselor was Danny Bredemus, son of Terry and grandson of Jim. The Smiths now had their third generation of campers being taught by a Bredemus. Last year our daughters, Blaire and Jenna, became first time campers at Camp Birchwood where Terry and his wife Rachael run the camp.

So reason one for why we send our daughters to camp in Minnesota is legacy. Our daughters are part of our family legacy with the Bredemus family, and I look forward to the day when my first grandchild goes to Camp Birchwood for girls or boys.

Reason two for sending our girls to Camp Birchwood is life. The life they lead at camp is so much different than the one they lead at home. No hectic schedule of ballet, karate, music lessons, running here and there. No screens. No television, no video games, no computers, no Nintendos. No parents. That is the big one, no parents.

Our girls are being led by some fantastic young women who are carefully interviewed and selected by Terry and Rachel before they are brought onto the Birchwood staff. They hale from all parts of the country and abroad. The staff go through weeks of training and constant support to help them help their campers, from eight years old to high school. Our girls are encouraged to challenge themselves, to step outside of their comfort zones, to be part of the community and engage with the other campers. They rotate chores of cleaning the cabin, hopping food and dishes at meal time.

Camp Birchwood is not just a place to dump your kids for a few weeks and then their time is filled with time filling activities. At Birchwood each activity has a series of badges and awards the girls are encouraged to work towards giving them goals and markers for their achievements. At meal times when awards are given the entire camp cheers them on and shows their appreciation for what they have accomplished as they have once done it as well.

Since we showed up late Thursday evening Leslie and I have seen a horse show, an art show and a very good scaled down presentation of "The Wizard of Oz." Each of these exhibiting the skills of the campers involved.

Each day girls chose their activities for the following day choosing from dance, drama, arts and crafts, riflery, archery, horse back riding, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing, kayaking, photography, rock wall climbing, or perhaps they are off on a wilderness trip to the boys camps several hundred miles away to canoe and pack through the wilderness. Or an over night bike trip that my girls took.

Each activity is not just about getting through the activity but involves training, learning and getting better.

That is why we send our daughters to camp in Minnesota. If you want to change the life of your daughter, or son, or grandchild, or niece, nephew, send them to Camp Birchwood.

One more day of fun for Leslie and I before we start Part II: The Return of the Great American Roadtrip. Yesterday we went sailing and Leslie skippered a sailboat for the first time, so learning new skills is not just for young girls at Birchwood! In the late afternoon the weather turned from sunny to dark, cool and big gusts of wind. Satellite imagery showed a huge thunderstorm cell headed our way. Camp was quickly buckled down and everyone collected in the dining hall as the storm with 60 mile and hour gusts, lightening and hail the size of quarters just missing us.

Today the girls have normal activities while packing to leave tomorrow. The logistics of getting over two hundred kids to Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for their various flights is something to behold. But they do it every session, every year and do it well.

Tomorrow is an early start for us as we hit the road for about seven hundred miles to Mount Rushmore. I'm off to the dining hall for some breakfast.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rest Stop

While the most people were caught up in the plunge of the stock markets yesterday Leslie and I were in financial-chaos-oblivion as we headed to our Part I destination on Day Three of our Great American Road Trip. While I was getting text messages from a service I subscribe to informing me that mortgage rates were doing well (blatant advertising, for more mortgage news check in frequently at If you wish to help subsidize this trip and live in California call me to assist you with the purchase of your next home or to refinance your current mortgage---end advertising), it wasn't until a reporter for the Orange County Register emailed me to get my reaction to the Dow Jones crashing over 500 points that I was aware of the sell off. Being transported through our nation's Corn Belt with a beautiful driving companion, multiple CDs and satellite radio enables the cocoon effect from the outside news that we, or I, usually spend so much of my day following and comment upon.

Back to the trip. Before going to sleep Wednesday night we plotted our course for Camp Birchwood, destination for Part I of the trip. Deciding that going to Omaha would add too many miles we cut northeast about 90 miles east of our starting point of Gothenberg and then north towards Fargo, North Dakota. Once in Fargo we would cross into Minnesota and begin to work our way into the deep woods and farmland of the state. This route would take us off major interstates for much of the journey and on two lane state routes through small towns and farmland. Pretty much what I like to see on a trip.

Ever since we left California all the roads, especially the interstates, have been in great shape. Most of the roads are in much better shape than almost any of highways and byways of the Golden State and considering the states we have gone through, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and that each has baking sun, freezing rain, snow, sleet, hail, to contend with one needs ponder why it is these states have such better road maintenance than California, well one does if one is a resident and tax payer of California like I am. Not to dwell or ponder this for long but consider where our state budget goes and who it supports next time you realign your Honda Pilot on your way to work.

Our progress on this road trip has been delayed somewhat by construction projects on every highway we have been on since leaving Nevada. One aspect of the freezing rain and snow is that the window for road maintenance is rather small, pretty much April to October.

Back to the trip. Driving through the rolling hills of Nebraska--yes hills and plenty of them--we were surrounded by miles and miles of corn interspersed with rotated crops of alfalfa. Stands of trees, silos, barns and homesteads dotted the landscape surrounded by the lush green with yellow tops of corn. The small towns we passed through were spotlessly clean, and many laying claim to their local heros or legends. For Nebraska we passed through Johnny Carson's hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska, other towns would have signs stating Home of .... and I would recognize the name of a University of Nebraska Cornhusker. I gave a little spit and a curse when we were told we were on the Tom Osborne Highway (for those who do not know Osborne was coach of the Huskers for many years and made a good habit of beating the much beloved, very respected and thoruoughly supported Sooners of the University of Oklahoma).

Reaching South Dakota we made a stop in Yankton (home of Tom Brokaw) and saw some guys getting their Harleys ready. I asked them if they were headed west and they assured me they were. West being Sturgess, gathering point for thousands and thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts (let's face it many are not "bikers" but business men and women with a hobby) for a week. A week that starts on Friday August 5th one of our Yankton bikers thought (they looked like bikers not insurance salesmen).

"Leslie we might want to check on our stop at Mount Rushmore, the Sturgess Rally is going on."

"Where is Sturgess?"

"Somewhere west of here."

Sturgess is in western South Dakota, above Rapid City, which is just above Mount Rushmore. If outdoor retailers could sell out hotels in Salt Lake City I was thinking thousands of bikers could sell our Rapid City, South Dakota. Leslie fired up my laptop and started working the phone and the AAA website before securing a non-refundable room for Sunday night in Mount Rushmore. Kids better be ready for a seven hundred mile day.

Back to the road. South Dakota was filled with more corn but the hills flattened out and the road got a lot straighter. Nothing against South Dakota in the eastern part of the state but Nebraska has you beat from a view stand point. Though this is not to say the vistas were not beautiful with the miles of fields, woods peppering the landscape and rivers and streams winding through them all.

We hit Fargo at rush hour. Rush hour for Fargo being akin to about two in the afternoon on our local freeway with the lanes about seventy-five percent full. Clearing Fargo without even knowing it we entered Minnesota, Land of 10,000 lakes. Meandering through the woods with sudden breaks in the trees revealing a large, or small, lake, or perhaps fields with horses or cattle, we were on county roads and after cruising at a good clip--let's say a bit above the posted limits--for 2000 miles the last 100 was at a relative crawl. All the more so because we were so close to our destination.

At 7:30 we finally came to the end of the quarter mile gravel drive and arrived at Camp Birchwood. Our girls home for the past eleven days and ours for the next three.

Part I complete, time for some rest, fun at camp sailing, swimming, and other activities before we depart very early Sunday morning to make our non-refundable reservation at Mount Rushmore.

(Sorry for the crummy picture quality, something up with the Blackberry camera that makes stuff blurry than it needs to be).

Here is the path Leslie and I take from our cabin next door to camp to get to camp for our meals, activities and haning out. At the top is my view this morning after a sail as I do some work before lunch. Nice office!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Over The Hump

Day two of the Great American Road Trip started pretty well, FedEx had my wallet in hand before 10:00 so Leslie and I hit the road south of Salt Lake City and started moving up the Wasatch Mountains. For those who have never been to Salt Lake City, the city is in a valley that is fairly flat for being in the mountains, just east of the city the mountains spring seemingly straight up. We headed into the mountains and began climbing, about twenty miles later we were driving along a high valley where Park City is located.

Turn after turn we were given beautiful vistas, and changing topography and flora. From pine forests to dessert landscape, we wound up and down, north and south as we headed east towards Wyoming on I-80.

The I-80 crosses Wyoming along the southern border, and it is an amazing drive. Huge vistas that looked like the plains states, but at high elevation, we were definitely in cowboy country. It was easy to look at the rolling fields with grazing cattle and horses, the mountain peaks hundreds of miles to the north and the south, and imagine what it was like one hundred fifty years ago with men on horseback working their herds.

A highlight of the day was our lunch stop, not just for the great barbecue pork and brisket sandwiches we found at a local spot we decided on instead of a Subway turkey sandwich, but the actual location. We pulled off the road in Rock Springs. Which happens to be the birthplace of my daughters' grandmother, Leslie's mother. Like many of the towns that were spread out along the I-80, Rock Springs is a tidy town spread out along a river valley and has a main drag with a 35 mile per hour speed limit. If you ever are in Rock Springs go to Dickey's Barbecue Pit, they have a small sandwich for $3, a medium for $5 or a large for $7 which has two kinds of meat and cheese. I got a small pork and a small brisket and Leslie went for the medium pulled pork. Delicious, Leslie also recommends the fried okra.

Throughout the day we saw major storm clouds to the south. As the day wore on and the Honda Odyssey forged ever Eastward, dark clouds--beautiful, full storm clouds--collected ahead of us. As we closed in on Laramie the sky became very dark. Then from Laramie to Cheyenne we were alternately dumped on with so much rain that it was almost a white out, then it would immediately back off to scattered showers, then again with the torrential downpour. It made for interesting driving and nice scenery with the clouds and storms across the horizons.

Dropping out of Cheyenne the weather cleared almost on top of the Nebraska border about forty miles east of Cheyenne. As we approached the border we saw a huge, perhaps thirty feet tall, white stone Jesus facing Wyoming on the north side of the highway. Jesus welcomed us to Nebraska, I told Leslie if you are leaving Nebraska, Jesus turns his back on you.

We have made it over the hump of the mountains that separate the West from the Midwest and officially entered the Great Plains.

The drive across Nebraska, or about two hundred or so miles of it, were just as pretty as the drive through the mountains in a different way. Rolling green hills, copses of trees along river banks, farms and silos. I told Leslie that Nebraska's horizons are dotted with silos the way Utah's is with steeples.

As we passed North Platte and headed to our evening's destination we saw herds of deer coming out of the woods and eating in alfalfa fields or walking through streams.

Oh, and yes there are plenty of corn fields.

I was tempted to pull over in Sidney and go to the headquarters and major store for Cabella's, perhaps the number one purveyor of outdoor wear and gear for hunters, fisherman and campers. Had I gone in I might have cost us several hours and money we cannot afford to spend on jackets and boots I may never wear but look and fit great.

We are spending the night at the Super 8 (I'll call it the Okay-8) in wonderful Gothenberg, Nebraska. We pulled in about 9:00 local time and went to hunt for dinner. Someone rolled up the town about dinner time evidently but we lucked out on a local diner still open and willing to make some ham and eggs and a club sandwich.

We drove through the town looking for a place so we could avoid McDonald's and I can tell you that Gothenberg is not a one-light town. It does not have one light. Not one. Lots of stop signs however.

Not sure if we can make Camp Birchwood tomorrow since we missed our goal of Omaha by about 240 miles due to the late start waiting for my wallet. We covered 700 miles each of the first two days, we'll see what tomorrow brings as we continue our trip across this incredibly beautiful country of ours.

Here is the mobile phone shot from out the window in the middle of Nebraska:

Sleepy Lagoon

This is not the first trip I had taken up the I-15 through Vegas and into Utah, I first took the trip starting Labor Day weekend 1991. A lot has not changed in twenty years, a lot has. Obviously Las Vegas skyline has changed dramatically in its hotel room count, so too had that of Beaver, Utah.

One of my closest friends from college, Chuck Smith, had been accepted to the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University in Chicago. I had known Chuck since our first day on campus when we met at an orientation meeting, had lunch then went to check where our mailboxes were. Chuck's mailbox was 823 and I was 824. Upon learning this I looked at Chuck and said, "You know what this means? We'll be sitting next to each other at graduation." And indeed we were, in about 100 degree heat in May 1984.

By the time August 1991 came seven years later Chuck had married Michelle and they have twin one year old boys, Chad and Tim. All of whom needed to move to Chicago so Chuck could begin his studies at Northwestern.

Sensing adventure, the ability to help and some wanderlust I volunteered to help Chuck and Michelle drive cross-country, with one provision, "I won't change any diapers."

So it was set, Chuck, Michelle and the twins would ride in their Ford Aerostar, I would drive the small Mazda four door whose model I can no longer recall. Before cell phones and any internet I was somewhat advanced in the communication department with pager that had voice mail. It proved helpful the afternoon before our trip when I was at my brother's apartment in Los Angeles where I was to be picked up the next morning so we could start our trip (Chuck and Michelle living in Van Nuys and me in Long Beach it made the most sense).

The message was along the lines of, "Denny we have a bit of a problem. Michelle is at the hospital with her had badly cut up. Call me later." And he left the number of a friend's house. Evidently Michelle was doing last minute clean up of their home they were going to rent while in Chicago and using a borrowed ShopVac. The top had been broken so the high speed fan that generates the suction was partly exposed. Michelle reached behind her to move the vacuum and her hand....well let's say when I saw her the next morning she had loads of stitches and her hand was bandaged in such a way as it appeared she was flipping you the bird constantly.

It was evident that Chuck would be changing every diaper from two one year old boys for our journey. An ominous beginning. But begin we did.

It was Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I was cruising along behind the Ford van listening to college football games until we lost radio signals somewhere near Mesquite, Nevada. We stopped for gas, diaper change, and a snack late that afternoon somewhere in or near St. George, Utah and it was decided would push on and find a room for the night a bit further up the I-15.

Around 7-7:30 Chuck pulled off the highway in a small town. As we met up at the gas station right off the exit he said the kids were spent, everyone was hungry and we would drive through the town and find a place for the night. Right in back of the station was a good sized Comfort Inn or Best Western, keeping an eye on the budget we decided to drive through the town and see if there was anything. We drove past probably four or five small motels and hotels and everyone had "No Vacancy" signs lit up in the twilight. We pulled up next to each other in a parking lot and decided costs be damned let's go to the big hotel at the other side of town.

When we pulled in we all went in the lobby, Chuck looking like he had been on the road for several hundred miles with twin babies, Michelle leaning her elbow on her hip with her hugely bandaged hand flipping everyone off, and me eyeing the lobby for a spot to get a beer.

As we waited for the hotel desk clerk to help the couple in front of us we heard, "Sorry but we are booked up, the entire town is." As the couple left we looked at each other with "Uh-oh..." expressions. Yes, we were told the largest hotel in town was booked as was every other room as it was Labor Day weekend in Beaver, Utah. "What is so big in Beaver, Utah on Labor Day weekend?"

"It is an annual Alcoholic's Anonymous convention." In Beaver Utah. On Labor Day Weekend.

Despite our pleas, showing the twins, showing Michelle flipping him off with her bandaged hand, the clerk said he was totally booked.

We regrouped in the parking lot and decided to make a pass through town, if we did not see anything we would get on the highway and press on to the next town and keep pressing until we found a room.

Driving around a bend as I followed the Ford Van we passed the first motel on our left. In the growing darkness a sudden bright red light caught my eye, whipping my head around I saw big, beautiful letters shine "VACANCY!" I flashed my brights, honked and whipped a u-turn without carrying if Chuck saw me turn. My turn was just in time as the car I cut off followed me into the parking lot of the "Sleepy Lagoon" motel looking for a room.

They had one room, two queen beds. We got it. The last room in Beaver, Utah.

Yesterday Leslie and I made a pit stop in Beaver and as we were leaving the Shell station I asked her to drive into Beaver so I could see the old motel that saved us that warm summer night twenty years ago. (Remember that she was driving as my license and wallet were en route to Utah from Long Beach where I had left it.)

Alas the Sleepy Lagoon no longer takes conventioneers for the annual AA convention, if they still have it. Instead it appears it lodgers are dope fiends and kids looking for a place to party. The place is abandoned and he sleepy lagoon is an algae covered pond that must produce a prodigious amount of mosquitoes.

Au revoir Sleepy Lagoon Motel, au revoir.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Road Trip!!!

Roooooad Tripppppp! (Picture John Belushi in Animal House)

Day one of our Smith Family Road Trip 2011.

The destination is Camp Birchwood on the shores of Steamboat Lake, Minnesota. Blaire and Jenna departed for Camp last Monday, flying without parents for the first time ever.

Leslie and I embarked this morning at 8:00 a.m. from Long Beach with intention of arriving at Camp Birchwood Thursday night. We will then depart Sunday and wind our way back to Long Beach through Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone, Zion and possibly show the girls the lights of Vegas.

Incredibly we cleared the LA basin this morning with no traffic and made Las Vegas at noon. Finding a small Italian deli north of the strip it was with some angst, some anger and some bemusement that when we were ordering our sandwiches that my wallet had failed to make the trip!

Leslie began to text our house sitter about the situation to ensure the wallet was in fact at the house. I then fired up the laptop, connected to the internet via Verizon’s groovy wireless gizmo, and using the AAA travel site began to call hotels in Salt Lake City to get an address; not only for us to lay our heads down this evening but to be able to get FedEx delivery tomorrow. Evidently there is a rather large outdoor products convention in Salt Lake so rooms are scarce, thankfully we secured one!

Leslie, already sensing my desire now that we are on the road to push far and fast, giggled and said, “thank goodness the FedEx is before 10:00 delivery and not 8:00 so I can sleep in a bit tomorrow—we are on vacation!”

We have cleared St. George, Utah and are about 260 miles south of Salt Lake as I type this. Gorgeous country through the canyons and hills. Temperature has gone from 103 south of St. George to 80 degrees wherever we are now and where the picture above was taken. Big thunder clouds around us all day, a few flashes in the distance but perfect driving for us under high clouds and filtered sun light.

Looking forward to getting my wallet tomorrow!