Road Trip to Acadia: Part Three

After taking a bit of a recovery day on our first full day in Acadia, we were ready to get out and explore on Day Two.  We had a fishing/sightseeing tour scheduled for 1:00, so we decided to drive up to Cadillac Mountain in the morning just to take in the views.


The day was beautiful, if a little on the warm side, and the views amazing. The nice thing about Cadillac is that it is bald rock, so you can see for miles. And because you are on an island with such distinctive features, it’s very easy to get your bearings. Bar Harbor, Otter Cove, Somes Sound, Bar Island, the Cranberry Isles…it all looks just like it does on the map.  Emma and Jack immediately left us, and Justin and Will and I ambled along without them.


There is a little gift shop with bathrooms and a water fountain tucked neatly away by the parking lot. We looked around and then decided to go ahead and make lunches in the parking lot so that we could make our way down to Bar Harbor with time to spare for the boat excursion.

We got down to the boat launch about 30 minutes ahead of departure which was nice.


We boarded the Islander, which had fishing rods lashed all around the perimeter of the boat.


The kids were excited in their hearts; they just didn’t show it.


Will especially.  Super excited.


It was such a nice day; here’s Bar Harbor from the water. We had just been looking down at it from Cadillac Mountain!


Another view of Bar Harbor. We also saw some lovely homes perched right above the cliffs on our way out to the fishing grounds. Since this was more of a sightseeing tour with a little fishing thrown in, we were not expecting to pull in any monster trophy fish. With three teenagers in tow, however, it’s nice to have an activity included instead of just looking around at water, shore, and the occasional seal for a few hours.

We got to the fishing grounds and they told us to drop a line. Each line had three hooks attached, so there was an opportunity to catch multiple little fish each time. You could not cast, which felt weird. You just released the line and it plunked into the water, hit bottom, and then you reeled it in just a few inches above the bottom and moved your rod up and down, hoping to attract some fishie’s  attention. Jack got a strike almost immediately.


It was a little cod! We had to throw him back in; cod’s apparently overfished so you couldn’t keep any cod. They said we could keep anything else we caught as long as it was a decent size.


A close up of Jack’s cod. He has a little whisker and was a lovely reddish color. We said goodbye and back he went.


Will with his fish. I think this is a pollock. We all caught a fish or two; Jack caught the most.


Emma caught a tiny crab. A fog descended after we had been fishing for a bit, so we couldn’t see the shore too well.


There is a picturesque lighthouse…way out in the distance.


I was glad to see some harbor seals. They could not care less that we were there.


Just chilling on the rocks.


The boys at work.


Emma spent a lot of time getting her hooks snagged on the rocky bottom. She got to be besties with the crew, who were very helpful.


On the way back, the fog was really pretty as it rolled over the islands.


One of my favorite pictures from this day. I’m a sucker for a channel marker/buoy in the foreground of a water picture.

I caught a mackerel, but it wriggled free before I could get it in a bucket. Oh well, I don’t think we could have all shared him for supper anyway.

Since we came back fishless, we decided to make this our lobster-eating night. We headed over to Thurston’s Lobster Pound on the other side of the island. Thurston’s is right on the water overlooking Bass Harbor and is a great casual place to eat. Right up our alley.


Thurston’s is on the left here. It’s a picturesque little spot, and even though the line was tremendous, we didn’t mind the wait. Plus we had to decide what to order. Since none of the kids had ever had lobster and I have a seafood allergy, we decided to let them split a lobster and order some other, more familiar food to play it safe.

While we waited, Emma and I took pictures of lobster trap buoys.





So pretty. I want one (or twenty) of my own!

Back inside Thurston’s, the lobsters were in big containers right at the counter where you ordered. lobster thurstons

You pick your lobster size and they steam him right on the spot!

I don’t have a picture of the meal, but the kids liked the lobster and ate it right up. I think next time they would get their own.

We drove back in the dark and got to our campsite still at a decent hour. It was a really nice day.




Road Trip to Acadia: Part Two

So like I said last post, we cruised on in to the campground a little after 10:00 p.m.  So glad to finally be there, but now we had to SET UP THE CAMPER. We are still newbies; I’ve only backed the camper twice and both times it was not pretty.  Now we have to back the camper into our campsite, in the dark, QUIETLY.  Well, no way that was going to happen.

Strikes against quietly setting up:

  • Our minivan’s brakes sound like a humpback whale having  a baby every time you touch them when backing up. For real, ask any of our neighbors. I cringe every time I back out of the drive.
  • I needed someone yelling at me from behind the camper to know which way to turn the wheel. Darkness = you can’t see where you’re going. Not sure if you knew that.
  • Car doors closing. Not quiet.
  • Beepy noise the back hatch makes every time you open it. Not quiet.
  • Flashlights, headlamps and lanterns all over the place. Not loud, but not particularly restful for our VERY CLOSE neighbors either.

After trying for a bit to back the camper in and basically wrecking the job, we decided it would be quieter to just unhitch the camper and let Justin and the boys muscle it into place.  PC (the owner of the camper) had told me, “Don’t be a hero. This camper is light enough to move with just one person.” In fact, he had pushed it out of his garage by himself.  With that in mind, we unhitched.

OK, two problems with pushing it ourselves:

  1. It was pretty empty before, but now we had added a substantial amount of weight with suitcases, additional camping gear, food and water.
  2. Before we had pushed it on asphalt; now we were pushing it on soft forest ground which apparently had received rain that day. And where it wasn’t soft ground, there were rocks.

Poor Justin. I’m scouting out the site like a HGTV host, trying to figure out where to place the front elevation of the camper in order to maximize our forest views, and he just wants to be done.  He and the boys push it with Emma and I guiding. They stop and we confer. I ask him to swing the front of the camper 90 degrees so that when we walk out of the door, we’re not facing the road. He is doing his best to honor my ridiculous request (made even more ridiculous in light of day in the morning when we realize that this campsite affords no privacy or wooded views, even if he could spin that camper like a top)  while pointing out that the camper does not simply PIVOT. I press my case, but he (and the camper) won’t budge.  So we lower the feet, carefully leveling front and side and begin to set up. Emma points out that the sides of the camper will not be able to extend fully because we’re too close to a tree on the back.  Rookie mistake. Back up go the feet, back on goes the hitch wheel, and we shove the camper the necessary few feet for clearance.  By now we are all sweating profusely, completely OVER IT and I’m sure all of Loop A is either quietly cursing us or laughing hysterically in their tents.

Free of pesky trees, we begin again to lower the feet of the camper, again levelling. I am so, so thankful at this point that our kids are all basically adults as far as being able to help with the set up and they are behaving admirably, given the circumstances.  We raise the roof (insert hand emojis here), pull out the sides, get the door dropped and in place, and we cannot get the little shepherd hook poles inserted that keep the frames of the two end beds in place.  It takes us longer than I care to admit to realized that we had switched the poles, and one was shorter than the other. Finally it’s all done,  beds are made, and we can sleep. I had really wanted to try sleeping in my hammock, so I set it up in the dark. I thought it would be cooler and less cramped than sleeping in the camper. I stepped up on a boulder and sat back into the hammock. I’m still not sure what happened, but the next thing I knew, the hammock had flipped and I was face down in the dirt, thankfully not cracking my head on the huge rock next to me. What a way to end the day! I completely ripped the mosquito netting while trying to extricate myself from the tangled web of hammock, zippers and branches, which probably made me sadder than tumbling onto the ground. Done and over everything related to trying to live life adventurously, I crawled over my husband already snug in the bed in the camper and tried to sleep. It was a little after midnight.

Interesting fact: the sun comes up incredibly early in this part of the country. Sunrise was around 5:15 a.m. while we were visiting, but the sky begins to lighten oh, around 4:30 a.m. or so.  It is incredibly disorienting (and more than a bit disheartening if you’d gone to bed at 12 am) to wake at daylight, walk to the bathroom, check your watch and it’s not yet 5 a.m. If I ever visit again, I will be sure to bring a sleep mask. And stay at a hotel. JK camping, I still love you, but we nearly broke up that first night.


The next day we eventually rolled out, made the trek to the bathroom, and gradually became high-functioning human beings again.


The kids loved having their hammocks.



Justin loved his hammock also, but did more snoring than swinging in it.


Will went for a run, and then we decided to go explore. There was a short walk from our campground to an ocean overlook.


The morning light through the forest was particularly beautiful. The forests of Acadia are very mossy and green and without all of the messy underbrush of our South Carolina woods. Really lovely.


We found the overlook, and the kids immediately went about trying to scare me half to death by crawling over rocks and looking for places to fall and break their little bodies in two. I breathed a prayer and tried to focus on the beauty of the sea.


And it was very pretty.

I drove into Bar Harbor (about 20 minutes away) to buy groceries and ice. Later that day, we decided to go on a longer hike, and plotted a course to get down to the Ocean Path via the Quarry Path and the Otter Cove Trail.


Otter Cove was really lovely and peaceful. The hike was easy; just enough to stretch our legs and get out for a bit.


Acadia National Park does a GREAT job of maintaining their trails. I loved the little plank walkways.


Emma spotted a cute little snake.


When we got down to the Ocean Path, it was remarkable to see how quickly the landscape changes along the shore. Our family had a great time with the stones at the beach in this section. People had stacked the stones to make these cairns. I know cairns are a bit controversial on public lands, but I think they added some man-made sculptural beauty.

IMG_7318Sorry, natural purists.


Jack could have stayed here indefinitely; it was like a huge granite stone Lego table.


Emma and Will both took some great pictures.


And Justin took pictures of them taking pictures.


The water was cold, cold! We went back up to Ocean Path and walked up to Otter Cliff.


It looks like Emma is getting ready to shove off and into the water below!


Cute Jackyloo. He loves it when I call him that.

From Otter Cliff, we backtracked to Thunder Hole (a rock formation where the waves will boom like thunder when they hit the rocks just right, but that day it was just a gurgle). And finally made it to Sand Beach. Sand Beach is popular because it’s sandy, but where we come from, all of our beaches are sandy, so I’m afraid we didn’t appreciate it as much as other folks there.


I guess if most of your shoreline looks like this, you’re pretty excited to see some sand.


At Sand Beach, we waited for the Island Explorer to pick us up and take us back to our campground. The Island Explorer is a shuttle that runs all around the island, and it’s a great free service funded by L.L. Bean (one more reason to love that company). We hopped on and were back at the campground soon, just in time for s’mores and a campfire before headed to bed.


A good first day in Maine!


Road Trip to Acadia: Part One

Day One: Spartanburg to Annapolis, MD

It seems like the hardest part of taking a vacation is actually getting on the road. When we hitched the van to the camper to finally leave town, it was very inconsistent starting.  We swung by a car parts store and hoped it was just the battery, which turned out to be the case. Good news! Though we left hours later than when we had originally intended, at least the minivan was well enough to take the trip.

Our first leg was from Spartanburg to Annapolis, where we would be staying with family.  We drove for about 10 hours, getting in around midnight. It is a little sad to stay with family and not have much time to catch up, but that was the way it worked out. We needed to get back on the road by 8:00 a.m. to give us time to get to Boston before the Red Sox game.

Day Two: Annapolis, MD to Boston, MA


We sat in a fair amount of traffic; that interstate corridor from Baltimore on up the Atlantic coast is just jampacked. It felt like we stopped every 15 minutes to pay a toll, which were all more expensive than for just a passenger car since we were pulling a trailer. We got to see the hazy edge of New York City, which was fun for the kids.  Then we got to see part of NYC up close when I missed the exit for the interstate loop off of the George Washington Bridge (hard to zip through lanes when you’re pulling a camper) and Google Maps seemed just as flummoxed as we were.  Next time we take a big road trip, I will renew my AAA membership and get some dadgum paper maps.  It seems foolhardy in retrospect that we were just blindly following whatever instructions our phone gave us to get all the way up to Maine. Lesson learned.

When Google Maps finally extricated us from the bowels of NYC, we were on this lovely little four-lane headed up through Connecticut. Everything was great until a van pulled up beside us and motioned for Justin to roll down the window. “Watch out for cops! You’re not supposed to pull a trailer on this highway!” he said, and off he went.  Justin started researching online, and sure enough, no trailers allowed.  I had never seen any signs to notify us, so my inclination was to keep going, hope we didn’t have any trouble, and point to our out of state tags if we got pulled over. My more conscientious husband, however, wanted to get us off of the highway ASAP. This was easier said than done with no paper map. I sat down with the phone and did a lot of zooming in and out and with pen and paper, cobbled together a route to get us to I-91 and return us to our morally upright state of travel (though one could argue that my seven miles over the posted speed limit rule of thumb kept us in a perpetual state of condemnation, regardless of the road).

We chugged along and made it to Boston on the front edge of afternoon traffic. We went right by Fenway Park, but our hotel was close to the airport way on the other side of town. I could not find something close to Fenway that ticked all of our boxes in a place to stay. We finally made it to the most expensive Hampton Inn I have ever had the pleasure of patronizing, checked in and were told the shuttle to the subway left in 15 minutes. We literally put our bags in our room, used the bathroom, and came right back downstairs to wait for the shuttle. On the shuttle, bought our tickets, and began an extremely intimate experience with the good citizens of Boston. Every stop we were smushed together tighter and tighter. I am not sure how long it took us, but it felt like eternity. My claustrophobia and Jack’s aversion to loud and unfamiliar noises and places were well into play.  Eventually we made it to our stop and got off and up into the daylight. I love that Fenway Park is very much in the city. I love the anticipation of going into a ball field; it’s such a fun vibe. I asked Justin to buy a souvenir program and the next guy down the street hawking them saw he had one and yelled, “Oh yeah, this guy’s wicked smart, he’s already got one!” I was absurdly pleased with the “wicked smart”. I loved that people actually had a Boston accent and it wasn’t something they just made up for tv. Our country today is full of chain restaurants and stores, which is nice because it is familiar and you pretty much know what to expect, but the trade off is a subversion of regionally unique experiences.  But Boston still has a lot of distinctiveness left, and I was grateful.


The game was a ton of fun. Every time David Ortiz came up to bat, the crowd got crazy. The Red Sox ended up losing to the Detroit Tigers, but since we’re Braves fans, we’re pretty used to losing. (JK BRAVES! You know we love you.)  As we left the stadium, we could not find the subway station, and every one I asked was from out of town too, so nobody knew. You would think it would be hard to miss, but we somehow managed, and I’m pretty sure we were not the only ones. My favorite overheard post-game banter was when one happy Detroit fan was yelling about how great his Tigers were, and a Boston guy turned around and said, “YOU’RE FROM DETROIT!” as if that was offense enough.Glad to know we Alabama natives are not the only ones with heart-felt rivalries.

So back onto our crowded subway train, back to wait for the hotel shuttle – we were one of the last ones to make it back from the game, and there was a pretty disgruntled group of Hampton Innites waiting. They said everytime they called about the shuttle, they got a different reply. “Oh yes, seven minutes!”  “Oh yes, it will be just two more minutes!”  By the time we got there, we didn’t have to wait very long.  We crammed about 30 people onto the shuttle.  The driver cheerfully said, “I have never had this many people on my shuttle at one time!” Back to the hotel, where we asked for blankets since Emma had to sleep on the floor.  The night desk manager said he had no blankets; he ran (literally) to check, and motioned for us to come with him, so Emma and I were jogging through the hotel halls, hot on his trail.  He gave us what he had (nine million bed sheets), which we made into a makeshift pallet for her.

Day Three: Boston, MA to Mount Desert Isle, ME

After two days of driving hard, we let the kiddos sleep in. I could not sleep because the floor pallet lady (aka Emma) had gotten cold and stolen our comforter in the wee hours. I woke up cold and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I lugged my plethora of travel books down to the breakfast area and ate and planned.

Originally I had intended for us to get up bright and early and take the train into Boston and hit some of the highlights of the Freedom Trail. However, sleep took precedence over sight-seeing, so the Freedom Trail had to be jettisoned.  I had just recently read Six Frigates, a book about the founding of the U.S. Navy, and I was bound and determined that we would see the USS Constitution (built in 1797 and one of the original six frigates) before we got back on the road.

After we had given the kids as much time as we could spare to sleep, we woke them, sent them downstairs to eat, and left again. It was lovely to have the convenience of the shuttle and the subway system. None of us wanted to lug the car and camper all around Boston, looking for a place to park.

The Constitution tours began at 2:30 p.m. on that particular day; this was different info from what was on the website, so I was a little disappointed. It was a hot day, and we had originally gotten off at the TD Garden stop so the boys could step inside and visit the gift shop. We did not do the tour there, which costs money and takes an hour. I wish there was just a little window or viewing platform where they could just see the court without going through all of that, but of course it’s a hockey rink as often as it’s a basketball court since the Bruins and the Celtics play there, so who knows what the arena would have looked like on that day.

The walk from the Garden to the Constitution was a hot one, and the museum, while lovely, was quite crowded and we were a little over done by then.  The Constitution is held in dry dock; I’m not sure why this surprised me, I just pictured it with all of its sails on and sitting majestically in the harbor. The dry dock did elicit some lovely Les Mis singing, but the masts looked forlorn and bereft without any sails, and while the ship is indeed historic, it looked a little plaintive, to tell the truth. I loved that it was in a Naval Yard; there were cannon and masts stacked about, and it looked like at any point another vessel could sail in and get all provisioned up for a cruise out to sea.  And we also got to sign a piece of copper with this funky engraving pen that would ultimately be used to re-copper the bottom of the Constitution, which allowed my inner history geek heart to sing just a bit.


Copper signed, museum toured, lunch eaten, it was definitely time to get back on the road. We still had 5 hours of driving left. We detoured to a different subway stop in order to walk through the Bunker Hill area and see the obelisk there, if only from a distance.  The neighborhood was delightfully old and historic, and I loved looking across the water to the skyscrapers of Boston proper while ambling through these vintage rowhouses.


Back on the subway, back to the hotel, back in the car…we had outstayed our time in Boston and got to sit in a little outbound traffic as a result.  Justin had wanted to stop in Freeport when we got to Maine, but we weren’t sure if we had time.  We decided to stop, but were worried that we would be getting into our campsite super late, so the visit to the LL Bean store in Freeport was a little rushed and not the fun side trip that it could have been. We just tried to cram too much in one day.

I loved that as soon as we got into Maine, we saw signs that said to watch out for moose on the roadway. I REALLY wanted to see a moose, but alas, they were not cooperative.


We got into Acadia right around 10 p.m.  We had a little thrill of panic when the phone announced, “You have arrived at your destination!” and we were nowhere near the campground, indeed had not seen much signage to indicate we were even in Acadia Nat’l Park.  However, we plugged the campground info in and Google Maps led us to the proper place.

The park rangers had all left for the day, but there was a little sign indicating which campsite was ours at the check-in station. A65, here we come!



Tomorrow We Drive

The camper is in the driveway, the luggage has been pulled out of storage… we are leaving tomorrow for our camping trip in Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Isle in Maine.  The trip takes almost 19 hours from our home in South Carolina, so we will break it up by staying tomorrow night in Annapolis with family. Monday, we’ll drive to Boston from Annapolis and go to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park (can’t wait!). Tuesday, a quick tour of Boston, lunch, and drive the last leg from Boston to Maine, maybe stopping in Freeport to visit the LL Bean store if there’s time. Then we camp for five nights and take two days to come back home, stopping somewhere to be determined in Pennsylvania. We are not drive-through-the-night people; we tried it once when our kids were little and decided we’d rather sleep at night and take longer to come home. I distinctly remember someone needing to use the bathroom at 3 a.m. and we finally just had to pull off and let them go al fresco. We love the outdoors, but generally love clean and well-lit bathrooms also; those can be harder to find in the dead of night.

We borrowed the pop up camper from my brother; we normally tent-camp, so this will be a step up. He showed me how to hitch the camper to the van, unhitch it, set it up and take it down while Emma videoed. From the video, I created a checklist for us to use which should help us not forget any important steps.  Emma, Will and I set it up yesterday in the carport to practice and so we can pack it.


Finding the right drawbar for our hitch receiver was a chore; I went to five different stores before I found the right one. Big learning curve!

I thought by now, I would have every single day planned out by the hour, but I don’t. I should have time in the car to plan the rest of the trip, since mostly we’ll be hiking and just generally relaxing and enjoying nature.



Finding a hotel in Boston that did not cost an arm and a leg, had room for five people, was marginally close to the city center, and had a place to park the camper ended up taking a really long time.  I am such a bargain hunter (tightwad? cheapskate?) that I booked a room in a hotel that had terrible reviews and was #82 on TripAdvisor’s “82 hotels in Boston” list.  At the time I thought, “How bad can it be?”, but apparently the answer to that is “pretty bad”! I kept reading reviews (the jury is still out on whether that is a good or a bad idea), and finally talked to Justin about it and decided to cancel and book somewhere else.  This took so much time again; I really wanted to stay at an apartment in Cambridge I found on the airbnb site, but we were concerned about 1) where we would park the camper (Street parking only? Parking garage? Visions of us fighting and jack knifing the camper trying to back it into a parking spot danced through my head as I searched) and 2) where it would be least likely to get stolen. So we passed on the airbnb and are staying in a hotel farther away from Fenway and Boston proper than is ideal, but at least we will have free parking in a parking lot, breakfast and a shuttle to the subway if we end up using it.

So, there you have it; now I’m off to pack and try to smush everything in. Wish me luck.



Day Two: Keystone, SD to Billings, MT

Good morning, South Dakota! We woke up, packed up, and went on the hunt for a substantial breakfast in Keystone.  TripAdvisor suggested the Powder House, and it did not disappoint! Some of us had the regular fare of pancakes and bacon, and some of us had trout and bison for breakfast.  It was all delicious and a very pleasant way to start the day. We headed up the hill to Mount Rushmore to see it with the rest of the family in daylight. And we took a better picture of our family (actually, someone else did).

IMG_6531Woo hoo, day two with the Prezzies!

We stopped in at the visitor’s center to pick up a map and plan our visit. We knew that we had 400 miles to go to get to Billings, so we didn’t want to stay all day. This worked out nicely, because really, there is only so much gazing up at presidential heads that one can do, so we felt like everyone would be ready to go when it was time.  The entrance has all of the state flags, and we looked for ours:

IMG_6534Then we gathered the whole motley crew for the obligatory group pic:

IMG_6538What a bunch of good-looking peeps, huh?

We hit the Presidential trail, a little over half a mile long, nice and easy, to get up close and personal with the Presidents.  I’m surprised there’s not a cable car to George’s forehead. I think you can take a helicopter tour. Whaaat! That’s some serious love for granite sculptures. We did not look into it.

On the trail, we got some closer views of the presidents. Here’s Abe and George:

IMG_6543And here’s Sam and I acting like juveniles, trying to stick Sam’s finger up Abe’s nose. Darn auto-focus!

IMG_6544Oh well. The kids loved climbing on the big boulders and generally expending some pent-up energy.  We told them to all look serious in this picture (Maddie didn’t hear or opted out):

IMG_6551I’m not sure what Emma and Jack are looking at, but it looks like something out of the Hunger Games.

After doing a brief tour of the Sculptor’s Studio and watching the obligatory video on the creation of Mt. Rushmore at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, we were getting hungry. Thankfully, Mount Rushmore serves very good ice cream. Who needs lunch?

IMG_6553Jack got a souvenir stamped penny.

IMG_6557And Ford got a mountain goat, which he was super proud of:

IMG_6559Sam and Trevor gave their kiddos a spending budget for souvenir purchases during the trip. I thought this was genius, because the kids thought a little harder about how they wanted to spend their money instead of clamoring for every toy and stuffed animal in sight, and they knew that once they had used their money, that was it! We didn’t do the same for our kids, but they are old enough to not be so souvenir-crazy, so it wasn’t an issue.

After ice cream and souvenir purchases, it was time to load up the vehicles and start the trek to Montana. We drove forever, but like yesterday, it was still beautiful:

IMG_6570Another smart thing my brother-in-law did was to bring along some walkie-talkie radios.  Let me tell you, the cell phone service in that area of the country is sparse! You definitely can’t get on the internet (or stream music, which was a sad discovery for me), and often you can’t make or receive calls. So the walkie-talkies were great for communication between the two vehicles!

IMG_6574We stopped to eat in Broadus, Montanta. There was no fast food, so we went to the grocery store and loaded up on picnic-type fare. We had seen a cute little park just a couple of minutes back, so we headed back there with our food. It was so nice to be out of the car for a while and watch the cousins play together. This was what the trip was all about, just enjoying spending time with each other in the great outdoors!

Reluctantly, we all piled back in to the vehicle for the final push. I had wanted to stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield (where General Custer staged his famous Last Stand), but we got there right after it closed. Probably just as well, since we needed to keep pushing on to get to our hotel in Billings at a decent hour.

We made it to Billings probably around 9:30 or 10 p.m., ready to crash. The next day would include a lot of driving again, but we would end the day at the vacation home in Paradise Valley that Mom had rented for the week, and we were all looking forward to getting there!

IMG_6562I tried to buy this for Justin as an early birthday present, but he said he would pass. Sadness!

Out West Trip Day One

Several months ago, Mom told us that she’d like to take our family and my sister’s family out west to visit Montana and Wyoming.  It was a trip that she and Dad had taken with us a few times when we were kids, and it would be a fitting way to honor Dad’s memory.  Dad loved this area of the country, and we could relive old memories while making new ones with our kids. We had been trying to figure out a way financially to make this trip anyway, so we were excited and definitely wanted to go.

We set our dates and made some plans and then waited for July to come.

Fast forward to:

3:15 a.m., July 9

That’s what time we woke up in order to get to the airport on time.  It’s so hard to sleep when you know that if you don’t wake up on time, you will miss your airplane. We got all of the kiddos up and loaded the car and we were off.  10 minutes down the road, Will realized he didn’t bring his iPod.  He had his headphones, but no iPod.  There was no time to go back, and his disappointment was unmistakable. Bless it. Every teenagers needs music.  We had to set his problems aside, though, because getting five adults and six children through airport security and onto the plane on time was our main priority.

So thankful that Southwest Airlines lets you check two bags free; we had so much stuff. What a circus!

We were some of the last people on the plane, but we made it. We connected in Chicago and landed in Denver. We were in the Denver airport for about two and a half hours, gathering all of our stuff and then schlepping it all to the rental car place.  People were lined up out the door at the rental car place.  We had been up for hours, snacked on granola bars for breakfast, and were seriously sleep- and food-deprived.  We finally got our two cars and were on the road.  Chick-fil-A was clearly the first stop on our great big trip out west.

After eating, we settled in for the long haul. We were traveling from Denver, Colorado, to Keystone, South Dakota, close to Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore was a favorite memory for me.

The drive took about seven hours. It was beautiful!

chugwater wyoming driveWyoming was wide open. Public restrooms were scare. We drove forever.

Keystone was not beautiful, but it would do.  Our hotel rooms were small, but we did not care! It was about 8 p.m. mountain time (10 p.m. eastern), and we had been up for almost 19 hours.  However, I really wanted to go see the Evening Lighting Ceremony at Mount Rushmore. We were all going to visit the monument the next day, but my guidebook said this ceremony was a good one to see.  I was afraid I would be the only one up for it, but our whole family went, leaving Mom and Sam’s family at the hotel.


selfie fail mount rushmore

There was just enough daylight left to see the monument, take a selfie which only showed parts of Emma and Will and none of the presidents, and find a place to sit.

IMG_6515We sat and ate our sandwiches and just enjoyed being outside after a day of sitting in one mode of transportation or another.  The weather was lovely; a welcome change from our South Carolina heat.  We met the people who sat in front of us, a family of six. Both parents taught school and they were spending the summer traveling from Pennsylvania to Washington state and camping along the way.

The lighting ceremony was informative and patriotic; a ranger led the talk and we sang the the Star-Spangled Banner. They lit up the presidents one by one and talked about each one and why they were up there. At the end, they lit up all four.

IMG_6526The program ended at 10:00 p.m. We had been up for 21 hours. It was time to go to bed. More adventures tomorrow!



Let's Go Racing, Boys

Is this a good idea?

A few months back, my brother called to see if we would be interested in going to the NASCAR race with him at Daytona international Speedway in July; his company was the hood sponsor for the car, so he could snag us some hot passes and we’d be treated like NASCAR VIPs for the day.

For the uninitiated, some clarification:

Hood sponsor = the main sponsor of the car for that race; their logo goes on the hood of the car, the biggest and most visible piece of marketing real estate. 

Hot passes = all access, watch from wherever you want to, see the guys working on the cars in the garage, be on pit row during the race, help out during the pit stops (just kidding), etc. Pretty sweet deal.

Who could resist?

OK, I am not actually a huge NASCAR fan, but there is a certain boy in my house who watches the race every weekend and talks NASCAR with his grandmother (a woman of many talents and interests), the only relative he has who can converse with him intelligently on such matters. I knew how much an experience like this would mean to him.  

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

In July.

In Florida.

Four days before our big trip out West.

Boogity, boogity, boogity.

Of course, the easy thing to say is that we already had a pretty full July ahead and I didn’t see how we could make it work, but those kind of excuses are for sissy moms.  So the same week that we went to the Braves game in Atlanta and then made a quick trip to the coast to visit Mom for the 4th of July, Will, Jack, and I headed to Florida. The race was on July 5th, so we spent the night of the 4th in Jacksonville with my brother PC and his sweet family.

The day of the race, PC, two of his daughters, my boys and I headed to Daytona from Jacksonville, planning to be there about five or six hours before the race start time.  When you are a one-time NASCAR VIP, you need to soak it all up.

Let the Madness Begin!

Once we got to Daytona, the first stop was at the credentials truck to get our passes.  Then we met up with the rest of the sponsor group who would be sharing the experience for the day and drove to the racetrack.  It’s hard to convey how huge the Daytona International Speedway is in person.  The track itself is 2.5 miles long, second only to Talladega Superspeedway in length.  There’s a lake in the infield, for Pete’s sake.


The cousins in the suite. See how sunny it is behind them?

We went up to our suite on the backstretch, ate and received some cool sponsor swag; then we loaded up on our VIP golf carts and zoomed off to the garage area.  It took ten or fifteen minutes just to get over there, and I hung on for dear life as we sped through the tunnel under the racetrack and came up in the infield, hitting each speed bump with relish. From lavishly-appointed RVs to converted-school-bus campers and bottom-rung tents, these were the die-hard fans who spent the whole weekend here and made it into a huge tailgating party.  Many of them were lounging in inflatable baby pools to combat the heat while they watched their satellite TVs.

The distant thunderstorm we had noticed approaching while we were up high in the suite was getting closer, and we hoped nothing would come of it (spoiler alert: it did).

Jack is one happy camper.

Jack is one happy camper.

Kinda Soggy Pre-Race Festivities

We walked around the garage, but most of the cars were already going through inspection, so there was not much to see. It was cool just to be there.  I don’t know very much about racing, but a few years ago we took Jack (our resident NASCAR fan) to a race in Charlotte for his birthday, and I bought pit road passes along with our tickets so that Jack could see the cars up close before the race began.

Parker and Whitten

The girls pose for pictures in the garage.

I remember looking through the fence while we were on pit road and seeing all of the people milling about the garage and the inspection area, but our passes did not allow us access.  Now here we were, on the other side of the fence, with people looking in on us. It felt pretty special. And it was fun to listen to Jack rattle on about everything that was going on.  I may have been clueless, but he certainly wasn’t.

Bringing the car to inspection.

Bringing the car to inspection.

We also had a few guys who were in charge of the race day experience for us leading the group, and they were great to answer any questions we had.

After looking around a bit, watching inspection and getting out of the way as teams pushed their cars around, we went to the hauler (big 18-wheeler that carries the racecar and all of the mechanical equipment) to meet our driver.

Jack watches as Denny Hamlin's car gets inspected.

Jack watches as Denny Hamlin’s car gets inspected.

He was this cute little boy about 22 years old, and this was his first time ever to come to Daytona, let alone race there.  So young! He was a tiny little angel baby; hard to believe he was about to go mess with these experienced drivers on the racetrack in just a few hours.

Jack meets our driver and gets an autograph.

Jack meets our driver and gets an autograph.

At Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida on July 5, 2015. CIA Stock Photo

At Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida on July 5, 2015. CIA Stock Photo

The Drivers’ Meeting

After meeting our driver, tiny baby Brett Moffitt, it was time to think about the drivers’ meeting.  All of the drivers for tonight’s race would be there and maybe we could get some autographs as they headed into the building where the meeting was held.

Leading up to the race, Jack had talked a lot about trying to get Jeff Gordon’s autograph.  Jeff is Jack’s favorite driver, and he is about to retire, so this is his last year to race.  We have tried to get enough autographs at various sporting events over the years for me to know that a) there is no way to know exactly where to stand to give yourself the best opportunity, so you just make an educated guess and hope for the best, and b) when your star comes by, they are usually going fast and you have to be politely bold in asking them to stop what they’re doing and sign or pose for a picture.  Most people are pretty nice about it, but they sign all the time, and I’m sure it gets old.

jack and dan

Jack and Dan talk autograph-getting-location strategy. Intense planning is occurring here.

So we huddle up and Jack has to decide: does he want to go in to the meeting room and get a front row viewing spot of all of the drivers coming in (you are literally feet away from the drivers; it’s pretty cool), or would he rather stay outside and try to get some autographs, potentially missing the drivers’ meeting and not seeing Jeff Gordon at all.  There were several different entrances to the building, so waiting at one of them was a gamble. But Jack knew exactly what he wanted to do: wait outside and hope to get Jeff’s autograph.  As a parent, I was torn; I wanted to honor his decision, but I was afraid that we would stand outside, not see anybody, and miss the meeting, which is one of the highlights of having a hot pass.  So my brother and I both talked to Jack, making sure that he was clear on what he might be giving up by staying out.

Jack stood firm; he was a 12-year-old who knew his mind.

So PC took his girls and Will and headed into the meeting room, and Jack and I stayed out with Dan, one of the group leaders.  We stood in one place for a while, and then Dan decided to change strategies and we moved a little closer to the building. He tried to get us a spot inside the building in a hall, but the security guy wouldn’t let us stay there, so we headed back out.

This is what we were next to: the NBC guy interviewing drivers (this is Austin Dillon). Surprisingly, no one asked me for an interview.

This is what we were next to: the NBC guy interviewing drivers (this is Austin Dillon). Surprisingly, no one asked me for an interview.

Then we started to see drivers approach.  We were in this little alley with maybe 20 or 30 other people and a handful of reporters.

drivers interview

Drivers interviewed as they enter the drivers’ meeting. Don’t ask me who they were, but I’m pretty sure one of them was Brad Keselowski.

There was only two or three other people there who were looking for autographs. We were either in the sweetest spot ever or we had completely struck out.

Turned out to be pretty sweet.

The drivers weren’t in their fire suits yet, just street clothes, so I had no idea who any of them were. In fact, one time I thought I heard someone say that this guy passing by was Marcus Ambrose and so I gave Jack a little prod and said, “There’s Marcus, go ask him for his autograph,” and Jack said, “No, that’s not! That’s not even a driver.” Who knew? Well, Jack, for one.  And probably everyone else there except me.

jack and dale

Dale Jr made a point to actually stop & talk to Jack as he signed. Nice guy.

Then, there was a big uproar beyond the gate and I looked and it was Jeff Gordon. I started jumping up and down (cool Mom points galore) and yelled/whispered, “Jack! Jack! There’s Jeff!”  And in a minute, there he was in person, signing a hero card for Jack.  Jack didn’t say a word, which is uncharacteristic. I don’t think any of us could actually believe it! We didn’t have much time to celebrate as Brad Keslowski showed up, then Dale Earnhardt, Jr, then someone else and someone else…I’m not going to lie, I totally teared up.  I knew how much it meant to Jack, and I was so thankful that he had gotten all of these awesome autographs.  I mean, what were the odds? It was crazy.  My phone kept buzzing so I looked down and it was PC saying that Jeff was already in the meeting, I called him back and said, “He got him! I even got a picture!” PC was afraid that we had missed him, so he was excited for us. I looked at Dan as Jack kept getting signatures and he said, “You don’t normally get this many. I think this is a personal best.” Dan was excited for Jack too.

jeff gordon

Yippee! Jeff signs Jack’s hero card.

After another minute or two, the deluge was over, and we figured we had gotten all of the autographs we could get. We didn’t want to miss the meeting, so we headed in.  We were so far back in the back, we couldn’t really see anybody, but that was ok. All Jack did the whole time was look down at his Jeff Gordon hero card.

After the meeting, the rain began to fall in earnest.  We put on our ponchos, went to the driver introductions, walked out on the track and signed the start/finish line (fun tradition).

Standing on the track at the Start/Finish Line (notice the angle), looking good in our ponchos.

Standing on the track at the Start/Finish Line (notice the angle), looking good in our ponchos.

Signing the Start/Finish Line.

Signing the Start/Finish Line.

Then we went back to the suite to wait out the rain.

As the sun sets on Daytona, we wonder if there will be any racing that night.

As the sun sets on Daytona, we wonder if there will be any racing that night.

It was a long wait.

The race was supposed to start at 7:30.  At 9:30, it was still raining and Jack was asking if we would come back on Monday if they postponed the race.  Originally, I was planning on driving home to South Carolina on Monday, and really did not want to come back to Daytona to watch the race.  We kept waiting.  We dozed. The kids ate all of the complimentary pita chips available.  Around 10:30, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle and the jet dryer trucks started to do their work, slowly drying the track.

Around 10:45 or 11:00, they said they were going to try to start the race at 11:45.  We were so tired, but the news gave us a little shot of energy.

crazy at daytona

They’re going to race. Hooray!

We loaded up in the golf arts again and went back over to the pits to see the flurry of activity before the race.

Pretty exciting golf cart ride, especially the tunnel!

Pretty exciting golf cart ride, especially the tunnel!

It was surreal to be walking around on pit road as the drivers are in the cars and the crews are making last minute preparations.

Getting ready to race!

Getting ready to race!

Finally they made us leave pit road and we headed to our car’s pit area.  Dan handed out earphones so we could listen to the chatter between the drivers and their spotters and these cool little Fanvision devices with screens for watching the race.  I mean, we were right there.  It was so cool. Everyone should experience at least one NASCAR race in their life.  The sound of all those engines: you feel it in your chest, louder than any concert you’ve ever been to.  I took a seven-second video – put on headphones and turn your volume all the way up; even then, you cannot duplicate the sound and the energy.  And the cars go around the track so fast (I’m not sure why this was a surprise), they are a blur. I kep trying to take cool action shots of them, and it was a complete fail. I’d have to take a lesson in race photography, I think, in order to get a decent shot.

Pace car on pit road = green flag ahead!

Pace car on pit road = green flag ahead! The cars are in focus now because they are not up to full speed.

The boys watching on their FanVision. If you are in the pits, you only see a snippet of the race. Even the pit crew watched the race on TV until it was time for a pit stop.

The boys watching on their FanVision. If you are in the pits, you only see a snippet of the race. Even the pit crew watched the race on TV until it was time for a pit stop.


The pit crew waits for their car. I feel like I should be helping.

How Jack watched the end of the race.

How Jack watched the end of the race.

Eventually we went back to the suite to watch the end of the race.  It ended in pretty scary fashion, with a terrible wreck that sent debris into the spectator area. Thankfully no one was hurt. We got back to PC’s house in Jacksonville around 4:00 am, completely worn out.

At Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida on July 5, 2015. CIA Stock Photo

Me and the boys (one of them is a NASCAR driver, but young enough to be my son, so we’ll include him) at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida on July 5, 2015. CIA Stock Photo

Jack said it was the best day ever.