Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Epic Road Trip - Days 1-4: Lions and Bison and Babies, Oh my!

Last spring when James’ brother announced he would be getting married in London the wheels started spinning as to how we’d all get out there, and how to do so within our meager budget and in a way where the kids could enjoy the trip as well as the adults (or vice versa, as the kids not being whiny greatly increases the adult enjoyment of a trip to a certain degree.)

Booking the tickets to London was easy because we knew we wanted to at least stop in DC and pick up reinforcements in the form of grandparents! However, getting to DC is never really cheap so we started to price out the cost of driving. Well, really what we did was convince ourselves that driving would not send us to the crazy house. My father and brother have run the economics of the cross country drive many times and as long as you are not driving solo and do it in 2 days with minimal stops, you at least break even from the costs of 2 plane tickets. Since we needed to buy 4 plane tickets we discovered we could drive and have quite a bit of wiggle room in the budget for attractions and meals and still save quite a bit of money. At that point our fate was sealed and a cross-country extravaganza was in the works! Look at these fresh faces getting ready to hit the road as our neighbors came over to send us off! Mostly I think we were all impressed we had packed for a month’s journey with 2 kids and a baby and could still see out the back window:

We decided to leave right after James got off of work Friday instead of wait until Saturday morning. Mostly this was a confidence-boosting decision, and as much as it pained me to pay a whole $55 to book a stay in a dive while we were still technically in Montana (though to be fair, it’s a big ol’ state), we set off to make about 5 hours worth of progress the first night just to make sure we could do it and had the added incentive of not procrastinating the start of the trip. Plus, motels near the MT/ND border are heavily used by the oil/gas industry and of varying quality, so at least I felt confident I had “researched” the dive we were headed to!

Potty breaks tended to dictate our gas station stops, hoping to avoid having to stop for gas (or really anything!) with sleeping kiddos. There are very few places at roadside stops for babies to crawl, so John spent a bit of time hanging out up front to stretch his legs and enjoy a change of scenery!

I had researched a few tips about road trips before we left and this was one of our most used. To (mostly) keep the kids from asking lots of “when” questions, I would write the next planned stop/activity/special priviledge on a sticky note and place it under the clock so they didn’t have to ask.

This worked really well at reducing the questions and I’m sure helped with some number recognition for Catherine and definitely gave Matthew some math practice. Now instead of asking “when will we be there” or “when can we watch a movie” we got a minute-by-minute update of “Mom! In 59 minutes we get to watch a movie . . . mom, in 58 minutes we get to watch a movie.” The jury is still out on whether this was more or less annoying! :-)

There were some classic car enthusiasts parked next to us at our first dive, though the kids were less than enthusiastic after we had to wake them up:

Our first stop at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park! We just managed to do a short hike near one of the visitors centers and badland overlooks but it was a gorgeous place to stretch our legs:

Matthew has been difficult about cooperating during photos but doesn’t mind getting behind the camera. Unfortunately we didn’t realize he still was uncertain how to frame a shot!

Matthew did much better with this one!

We relied heavily on the Roadtrippers App to help plan our stops and find places for picnic lunches or unique dinners. For general efficiency, health and to keep costs down we had packed our picnic box and coolers for snacks, breakfasts and lunches but were open to eating out if we found something unique. Our first lunch picnic was at the feet of the world’s largest buffalo! Before we get to that, there were two white buffalo on the preserve around the area, though they were too engrossed in the grass to let me get a good picture!

Someone was happy to be out of his carseat!

The world’s largest buffalo!

Baby for scale:

We borrowed this super handy clamp on high chair for the trip. John seemed to approve and it we will hopefully be keeping it for the long term as it is much more secure than our current system. The silicone mat receives a less than stellar review as it doesn’t really stick well to the table after the first use and quickly becomes a food launcher, so we ended up back to just serving directly from the table because, ummm, I have full faith in the hygiene hypothesis apparently!

The first day I had found this small “chain” of space alien themed restaurants in ND and MN so we made that our dinner plan. It was like a Chuck E. Cheese with better bar food and space aliens all over.

This day of driving we had scheduled to be our longest push. Partly as a confidence boost for later in the trip that we could do it and mostly so we could meet up with a friend later the next day for dinner and then hit the zoo! Even though it was well after midnight when we pulled in, John was super eager to log some miles crawling around and pulling up.

The next day was probably our worst travel day as we had to skirt around Chicago, complete with tolls, constructions, traffic and more. We also had some miss-timed potty needs and some rookie parenting mistakes that meant we ended up at more of these rest areas than I’d care to remember. James noted that these are in no way an oasis by any stretch of the definition.

Our biggest rookie mistake was with poor John. All things considered, he travels like a champ. However, what would happen is he would get fussy and we would start investigating stops. When we stopped we fueled and everyone went potty to hopefully prevent future stops. John’s fussiness would also disappear as he was so excited to get out of the car seat and then so overwhelmed taking in the new sights and sounds. We’d change diaper and pack him into the car only to get 5 miles down the road and realize we (well, I) had forgotten to feed him and thus we’d have to stop again!

To add insult to injury there was some major road construction in Indiana and when we went to take an alternate route, the alternate route was flooded! Then, as we took the detour around the flood for the alternate route, the detour was flooded too. At some point we rearranged so I could sit in the back, hopefully reducing some of the stressful conditions. Without any “fun” stops and tough traffic the kids were feeling it.

All smiles and no sleep for this guy for a while!

The kids’ art kits paid off again on this trip in terms of entertainment, and I raised the bar slightly with trip folders I had made the kids, containing maps, a calendar and some bingo games printed off the internet. Most of the folder was a journal the kids completed every few days with pictures and words about their favorite parts of the trip.

We eventually made it back and made it just in time for dinner with a former college roommate! We opted for Buffalo Wild Wings as it has enough TVs, tablets and kid friendly foods that the kids were fairly self-contained while James and I attempted adult conversation to catch up! With a little prompting, Matthew even included our heads in the pic!

That night we prebought our zoo tickets to save a bit of money. Matthew has wanted to see a giraffe for a long time and we haven’t been to any zoos with giraffes ever, though Matthew asks about them each time we go so I had researched zoos along the way and not only would the timing work to hit Cinncinati’s zoo, they also have recently redone their giraffe enclosure. We had purchased some plus-type ticket that allowed us early entry into the zoo before the general public, as well as a variety of other amenities we probably wouldn’t have done on our own. However, it was really the access to the zoo we really wanted so we weren’t on the road super late.

The downside of pre-buying our tickets was that we woke up to a torrential downpour. Not ones to let good money go to waste, we packed up and hit up the zoo in the rain. We got to watch them feed the elephants:

And give them a pedicure:



Lion cubs on the lookout for birds passing through their enclosure:

The big lion was named John, and the lion cubs were about baby John’s age which was kinda neat!

Even more flamingos:

Meerkats are always fun:

Poor old sea lion:

Sweet birds (whose name I’ve already forgotten):


And because I forgot to adjust some times between camera’s today, feeding the giraffe out of order:

Catherine was a little nervous to feed the giraffe but did want her picture with this statue:

On the lookout for meerkats:

During one particularly intense shower we stepped in for the kids’ first 4D movie about ice. Matthew was both confused and excited, Catherine was just overwhelmed!

The plus side of going to the zoo in the rain was that it was cool and very lightly attended. I greatly dislike crowds and crowds make things less fun with kids so it probably worked out for the best. It was apparently some sort of promo day for the Reds and they were eager to find people to attend. We stopped for a photo with the mascot but were okay skipping the meet and greet with the players.

Shark ride!

John’s first carousel ride!

Catherine’s first time on a moving animal. We were very proud of her for overcoming her fear:

We had a quick car picnic before we headed out and then we were Amma and Papa bound. We made a quick stop at Tamarack in West Virginia to browse and grab dinner then about 30 miles before we got to their house John was losing it so we stopped at Humpback Bridge to stretch legs and see if we could console John. It worked, at least temporarily, but only because John was D-O-N-E with the car! We managed to survive the last 30 miles by letting him chew on random items and then as a last ditch effort by letting him watch video clips of himself. He finds himself hilarious!

If and when we do it again there are tons of things I’d like to check out in the Minnesota/Wisconsin portions but the timing of our drive wasn’t conducive to those stops this time around.

Next up: Amma and Papa’s house and a small town 4th of July!

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