Monday, April 29, 2013

Westward Expansion - Days 12 - 14

Our last night here in Yellowstone (not Yosemite, as I can't seem to get out of my head...but one day!), and I figured it was time to get caught up on posting.  So, if you are at all interested, this will be a little longer post filled with photos.

We arrived after a longer drive than expected, as we had to enter through the North Entrance of the park.  The East Entrance had not yet opened, so we had to add over 2 hours to our drive.  That was just fine, though we were tired of being in the van, because we got to see some beautiful scenery.  We were not really sure what to expect overall, because quite honestly, we live in one of the most beautiful areas in the country and it is hard to beat the Colorado mountains.  I don't say that to sound crass, but it is a lot different visiting someplace like Yellowstone when you live in Colorado, than when you live in...oh...say, downtown Los Angeles! Haha!  What mysteries Yellowstone have to share with us, what wonders would we see? We knew we would find some magical places, and we couldn't wait to discover them!

We have not been disappointed, who would be?

We had barely hit the outskirts when we pulled off the road because we saw this, and laughed:

Welcome to Montana...and watch for that wildlife!! HAHA!  Love the elk right next to the sign.

As we were taking photos, Joshua pointed something out to us.  It was a young deer caught up in a rodeo pen right behind us.  Somehow it had gotten caught inside and couldn't find its way out, as all the gates were closed.  It was running back and forth, obviously scared and uncertain.  We approached from the side of the gated area, and I unlatched two of the gates it needed to go through to get out, then stepped far away. The boys then all came up behind it to force it to run toward the opening.  It worked, and our first few minutes in Yellowstone felt like had at least done something nice as a "thank you" for hosting us :-)

Here they come to save the day!!!

It was just around the next curve when we found the large arch welcoming us:

Josh is below, contemplating how hard this was to build.

Then, less than a mile in, we found ourselves surrounded by wildlife!!

So, we have elk in Colorado, but we don't have them lying down right beside a public building in Montrose!!

We also would most definitely not see an entire herd of buffalo hanging out downtown.

We were dumbfounded at first, then, conversation turned to something like this:
"Look all around, there is SO MUCH POOP!! And it is BIG POOP!  How'd ya like to clean THAT up from your front yard?"  A very legitimate question.

Then, right across the street from the buffalo was this sight:

So about five minutes into the park, and already we were pretty blown away!

We came across a waterfall and everyone wanted to get out and see it...

Matthew taking pictures from on top, while Olesya took the safer route and took her photos from the side.

We saw lots of buffalo on the road, something we hadn't expected in the numbers we encountered:

We saw one buffalo charge a car as it unwisely passed by too quickly, and I squealed a little when one got a little too close as we passed.

This was much better, seeing them safely in their true habitat and not along the road.  We really enjoyed getting a sense of their immense size since we had read so much about them this year.  They are BIG, BIG animals, and far faster than one would ever expect!!

Yesterday we had the most lovely day ever, a much needed experience filled with awe and wonder.  Our first stop was Old Faithful, who didn't let us down.  We had just missed an eruption when we arrived, so we hung out and explored the area while waiting for the next eruption an hour later:

They have a new visitor's center only 2 years old, and it was neat to see the exhibits.

Snuck a picture of somewhat camera shy Olesya.

We wandered around outside for awhile as we waited for The Big Explosion:

Kenny has surprised us and himself during the trip as he discovered he loves reading maps, and is quite good at it!  So he has taken on the role of Tour Guide and getting us where we need to be.

The boys run to see something spewing something! HAHA!

For those who have never been here before, did you know how bad it smells?  Think of rotten eggs, and you'll be pretty darned close.

Our Dear Dominick...who is the hardest working guy I know...has had a very relaxing trip that was well deserved after a winter of very long days.  Though he has handled most of the driving for the trip, which I have greatly appreciated, he has played, he has laid around, he has hung out in the pool, and spent more down time than he has in a very long time.

Waiting before the crowd inside arrived.  We ended up with about 70 people or so around us.

Thar She Blows!!!

Quick!! Turn for a picture!!, turn back and take your own :-)

Then it was off to another area of the park.

Isn't this cool?

This looked like mirrors layered, it was beautiful but the photo doesn't capture it well.

Our windblown girls!  The weather has been extremes, from super cold and very windy, to sunshine and mild warmth, all changing by the hour.

Matthew and Kenny goofing around with Joshie.  Those boys love their little brother so much!

Two Joe Cools...

Trying to take a photo while waiting for steam to blow away.

The whole gang sans mom!

We were so lucky to have such wonderful weather after the morning drizzle and snow...and snow today.  Interestingly, though we all enjoyed Old Faithful, it was the other sights we decided we liked much more.  Check out some of the other areas we saw:

Above the kids are looking at something bubbling as much as any soup pot I've ever had on the stove, but it never looked like this...ick!:

Off in the distance we saw another small geyser, so we went to get a closer look.

It was small, but somehow prettier.

Driving we spotted what looked to be a waterfall off to the side, so we pulled over to go check it out:

The girls at first just watched their Billy Goat brothers, then decided to go down a little lower.

Though not large, this was a very pretty area with a nice waterfall.

Angela hiked down.

The boys are actually fairly high above the river here.

They couldn't resist, so up they went!

We are having a wonderful, well paced exploration of the American West.  In many ways, the past 4 years have been a dream come true for me with our family.  I know it sounds silly, but I grew up never having been fortunate enough to have gone anywhere with my family.  My parents were hard working folks, hanging on as best they could and providing for all our needs, and several of our concrete wants, like a new clarinet when I started high school, or all the sports my brother ever wanted to play in, but we never had the opportunity to travel.  One thing I had always hoped for with my own family someday is that we would be able to, at the very least, take a trip every 3 or 4 years.  I never could have imagined being able to do some of the things we have done with the kids, especially considering my honeymoon was my first ever real vacation!  

Our decision to homeschool, and to home educate through a public alternative program, has not only opened up the world to us academically, but in so many other ways.  It has dramatically lessened a lot of foundational knowledge we needed to try and cram into our kids adopted at older ages. I see on a daily basis the differences in base knowledge between Josh and Matt, and Kenny, Angela and Olesya.  There is just no easy way to build that basic information base when so many years and exposure to materials is lost.  But these trips we have taken are jump starting their education.  Taking the girls, for example, three years ago at ages 11 and 12 they had never heard of or seen a photo of a buffalo, an elk, an antelope, a deer.  They didn't have a clue about geysers, earthquakes, volcanoes, or other basic concepts about the earth.  Of course, they knew not a single thing about American history, our Founding Fathers, our government or freedoms or what makes us different from some countries.  Today, they have seen Washington, DC and they can name many early historical figures as well as explain their importance in American History.  They know they live on planet earth, they understand tectonic plates and continental drift.  They can tell you how America grew to the size it grew to, what major events happened to allow that growth, and they can explain the lifestyle of the pioneers.  Why? How?  Because they have seen covered wagons and cabins, they have seen buffalo and elk, and understand how they fed the Corps of Discovery largely on buffalo meat. They have seen real bear traps, pelts, Thomas Jefferson's home and library, and have stood on the steps of our nation's capital where they know so many who took a risk to create America once stood.

They've seen it, it's real, they can remember it, and they can tie it to the next level of learning. Without these trips, we would be so, so much further behind.

And yet, as much as they know and have learned, there is still SO much more.  Today Angela asked "So there is a Best Western Hotel, does that mean that back east there is a Best Eastern Hotel?"  Hahaha!  So cute.  We've seen first hand and  talked how the forest reseeded itself after a wildfire, about the valley floor here and what a caldera is, and discussed how Old Faithful will eventually die out.  

More important is the time spent together.  Standing overlooking a waterfall and speaking in hushed tones about how perfect nature seems to be, or having Olesya look sideways at me with a grin as she wins her third time in a row at a game of "Scum".  Listening to Kenny explain to us how many miles are left to our destination and steer us in the right direction as he shares what is coming up on our right hand side gives him something to be good at with his family.  Matthew jumping at every chance to climb, practice card tricks, and show off his shuffling prowess as a way for his introverted self to engage with his family.

But perhaps the very, very best moment of the entire trip happened yesterday for me.  We were traveling slowly gazing out the window to see if we could somehow spot a bear while singing "Life is a Highway", and talking about being stared at and pointed at while waiting for Old Faithful by this Asian woman sitting two feet from us who then nudged her partner and pointed directly at us and started speaking in a language we didn't understand.  Angela started laughing as we recalled it, and said that was about the worst we've ever experienced.  The conversation drifted to how everyone around us thinks we are total goofballs all the time.  Joshua piped up from the back seat and said, "I don't really care what other people think.  Our family has the best times together even if we just go to Walmart, and we don't fight.  Maybe they are looking at us because people aren't happy anymore.  I'm just glad I am not them.  I may have had a hard first year when I was born, but my other 9 years have been AMAZING."

A child literally left for dead, a child who at first rejected touch...rejected love...and since having a family he describes his life as "amazing".

That's what adoption does for a child.  What a humbling thing to be part of, along with all who have helped our family in so many countless ways.

So I guess I'd have to echo Joshie and say that our trip has been "Amazing".

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Westward Expansion - Days 10 and 11

The past couple of days has been possibly the best days of our trip thus far, for a variety of reasons.  We are currently here in Cody, Wyoming, the heart of the Wild West and a small little town of about 8,000 people.  The wide open spaces are just as described, a bit barren and a lot windswept.  We all agree that Cody is a wonderful, homey little community with very friendly folks and a place we could imagine living in...if it weren't so darned far from everything else and if it was a bit greener.

Traveling off season has been a bit peculiar for us.  For example, we are staying in a large lodge that during peak season has two floors full of rooms along with outbuildings with additional accommodations.  Tonight we are here with 2 other couples in the whole hotel, and they lock up the lobby at 8:00 PM and go staff on site.  However, traveling off season has its perks as you don't wait in line for anything, you have unobstructed views of places like Mount Rushmore, and the rates are far, far lower.  The downside is that this is a summer extravaganza town, and many of the attractions are closed until Memorial Day.  The trade off is worth it for us, as this is the month Dominick is normally quite slow in auto detailing, so we lose less income being gone this time of year, the same as with late fall.  Homeschooling allows us to go on a trip when it hurts our family the least, financially speaking.

We have laughed each day as God appears to have smiled on us, weatherwise. When we left Sioux Falls for Cody, we had a huge snowstorm we were driving through.  We were all a little disappointed as we were hoping to catch sight of Devils Tower, but the snow flurries were so bad we saw a sign along the road which indicated which way to look and we couldn't see a thing.  Hoping we might still learn something from the Visitor's Center, and not realizing they were closed, we kept driving and entered the National Park where the conditions only got worse.  Dominick was considering turning around and giving up when we came to the parking lot.  As we got out of Jorge, we were stunned to look behind us and see the sun peaking momentarily through the clouds, allowing us an uninhibited view of Devils Tower for about 10 minutes.  It was so unusual, as we looked off in the distance and in all directions the snow was flying, but right where we were, it had abated and sunlight cast down upon us.  Knowing we had just minutes to take photos, we all rushed out with cameras and walked in all directions capturing what we could.

Five minutes before we got out of the car, this is what it looked like...

Quick!  Take a pic!


Still a little hazy because it is technically still snowing a little.

Kenny and Matthew rushing to see it.

 I was so glad we had the chance to catch a glimpse of it.  Matthew decided he'd like to come back and try to climb it one day...I told him I'd sit at the bottom and cheer him on :-)

Then we were off...

Part of what has made the past couple of days so enjoyable was the two places we visited which surprised us with their terrific exhibits.  Yesterday, after pulling into town, we visited the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where we spent about four hours looking at all the exhibits.  This place was FANTASTIC!!!!  It houses the largest American gun collection with over 4600 firearms, dating back to the 1600's.  It has a wonderful Western Art Gallery, a Plains Native American Exhibit, a wildlife exhibit, and the most interesting of all, the exhibit hall dedicated the Buffallo Bill's life.  We didn't expect to enjoy it as much as we did, but the exhibits were so well done and creative, and the Center has obviously done a good job of keeping current as their displays were filled with modern technology such as Q Codes for smart phones to look up more information while standing right there, etc.  We learned so much about Buffallo Bill, aka William Cody,who was a character in history that neither Dominick nor I knew much about.  His life was so varied, and Joshua said he appreciated that they didn't try to present him as perfect, but talked about his troubled family life, his mistakes, and did justice to the whole man.  What an entrepreneur he was, who died virtually penniless but had lived a life few ever would.  The exhibits in all areas of the Center appealed to all ages, and though we all found the firearms exhibit the least interesting, one could see how a historical gun buff could get lost in there for hours.

Ready to go learn about Buffallo Bill!

This was so intriguing to everyone, a hologram of sorts displayed on a mist you could put your hand through or walk through.

There were three or four different saddles displayed for you to sit on and feel the differences between various styles.

Kenny's pullover for the day matched the carriage!

The exhibits really appealed to all ages, something that doesn't always happen at museums. Information was shared in story form, and the kids all spent more time reading the signs than they ever had before at any other museum.

Olesya and Kenny look as interested in the prairie dog tunnels as Lewis and Clark were when they spent all day trying to capture one to send to Thomas Jefferson!

Again, great exhibits for younger and older students.

We lucked out and were there on a day when they also had live Birds of Prey out for us to see and learn about.  This was awesome, and the volunteers taught us a lot about predators that we have in our own area:

Seeing a Golden Eagle up close is very impressive.

A turkey vulture is...well...ugly and bald.  It was interesting to seethe girls' reaction when we explained what "carion" was :-)

At the end of our visit, the kids hit the very large gift shop.  So far, they have all spent very little other than purchasing sunglasses for themselves, and Olesya bought a wolf statue.  Joshie has saved over $600 from his winter working with Dominick the past two years, and does not yet want to make any big purchases.  He brought along $50 to spend, but hasn't seen much he liked...until now.  He was trying to decide between two stuffed animals, and spent 20 minutes or so looking at them, holding them, and trying to pick one.  Finally, I looked at him and said, "Josh, if you like them both so much, why don't you get both of them?  You have enough money, and it wouldn't be wasting it if you really want them."  His face burst into a huge grin as he said, "That's a great idea...I think I'll do it!", and off he went:

It's so funny to see him at 10 years old still loving on stuffies and unashamed of it.  Josh is a complete contradiction, as he is a little old man stuck in a young boys body, and yet there is this part of him that is so sweet and tender, still younger in some ways than others his age.  Definitely not immature, and maybe just confident enough to be who he really is.  Pictures like this are what every mom dreams of who has a kid with Reactive Attachment Disorder.  Josh is going to make a very, very loving husband and father someday.

Today, after sleeping in, we went for a leisurely drive to the next town over, where we visited the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which explained the lives of the Japanese Americans who were held at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp during WWII.  This is a new facility, and though relatively small it is marvelous, and like the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the weaving of story with exhibits had us moving much more slowly through the museum than we otherwise would have.  

Wow, did we learn a lot!  Every single one of us talked later about how it brought it all to life in a new way, how they felt the injustice of it all, and how they had no idea the scale of what had been done to our Japanese American citizens.  We spoke in the van at length afterward about what it would feel like if we had been in their shoes, and how very real that all feels today when one considers our recent history and the plight of Muslim Americans who were immediately under suspicion after the events of 9/11.  With the Boston Bombing last week, we wondered aloud if something like Heart Mountain could ever happen again in America, and sadly, we all recognized that fear causes people to act in ways they otherwise might not, it brings out the very worst in people...and yes, we actually could see it happening again.  

We talked about the contradiction between "America the Great", and indeed how great a country it is, and "America who has failed from time to time" and not lived up to what we are called to be by our Founding Fathers.  Angela was deeply moved by the statement at the end of the museum which reminded us that the Constitution is just a piece of paper and is worthless if not backed up by those who wish to uphold it.  It is sobering to think how quickly the Constitution was set aside by Americans as they rounded up innocent people and imprisoned them for over 3 years.  Josh's indignance was evident when he said, "So how was that different than Hitler and the Jews other than we didn't torture or kill them?  We were no better."  I am glad they are all learning to evaluate things independently, as we talked about understanding things from the "middle" allowing one to actually take in and process both the positives and negatives from either side, rather than having a knee jerk reaction based upon party line, patriotism, etc.  In asking them all what true patriotism really means, we had some very deep thoughts expressed by each of the kids as we talked about Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pearl Harbor and more.  Are those who protest wars unpatriotic?  Are those who call our government out when an injustice is done patriots?  Are soldiers patriots who fight in wars that may have fuzzy logic applied to our engagement?  These are tough, tough questions to ask at any age, and field trips to places like Heart Mountain help stir those conversations at deeper levels.

The exterior of the Center.

Kenny looking at racist cartoon art from none other than Dr. Seuss.

Olesya and all the kids were floored to learn how many young men still served in the war, despite what their country had done to them and their family.  The military division which was comprised of the Japanese Americans ended up being the most decorated in military history.

When viewing a mock up of a typical barracks home for 7-8 people we all agreed that though it wouldn't be desirable, our family would be able to handle it well.

Man, was this one overlooked by an entire country, or what?

Oh's still happening in Guantanamo...

We never learn, do we?  As Angela reminded us all, history always repeats itself.  In this case, the skin color is different, but the action is the same.  Out of sight, out of mind, as long as it doesn't affect us we simply don't care, even though we fail to recognize that at any time, it COULD be us.

As many wonderful things as we have seen, the best times have been nothing splashy.  Playing cards in the hotel lobby and "closing it down", doing laundry at the laundromat as we all folded clothes.  How I love that as everyone else sat there around a table, yet again playing cards, the moment they saw me up to move laundry or take it out to fold I had no less than two kids offer to help immediately...boys and girls alike.  What a gift something as simple as "teamwork" is in a family!  

We have a real system down now for loading and unloading the van at each stop, and are quite speedy about it now. I go in and get the registration taken care of,  Dominick finds the luggage cart while the boys open the back and start grabbing luggage.  Olesya cleans out the day's garbage out of the van while Angela organizes everyone once Dominick gets back and they pack it all on the luggage cart.  We have one cooler, one large plastic tub on a rack at the back of the van which holds snacks,  dirty laundry, extra drinks, you name it.  We also have  four large suitcases, 6 backpacks, a "game bag" with cards, Quirkle and Rummikub, and that's about it.  A lot to move in and out, but we do it in less than 10 minutes.  So far, Kenny has only lost the boys' room toothpaste, but he has almost left his camera two or three times in various places, his jacket, rechargeable batteries...hmm...oh yea, and we have had to pull him back out of the street twice when his lack of awareness would have gotten him hit by a car.  Not bad for 2 weeks out!  Thank goodness we have many sets of eyes on him :-)  I'll tell you though, you can't find a more helpful soul.  I am also treated to all three of the boys almost never failing to open the van door for me, which I find to be quite sweet.  The girls and I are still enjoying our much cleaner room, and wondering just how bad it will be at our next stop, when we actually have a family suite to share.  We have vowed that we will not let them get away with keeping their room so shoddy when we are stuck with them!

Tonight, as we were sitting in the lobby and Dominick and the kids were trying to teach me how to play "Scum", a card game, the receptionist was puttering around picking things up for the evening when she came over and tapped me on the shoulder.  I looked up and she said, "That's a nice collection of kids you have there!".  We all laughed at how she worded it, not because we were offended but because it was sort of cute and we knew she meant it kindly.  At a restaurant tonight our young waitress obviously couldn't tell we were a family and asked if we were all from the same place.  Angela and I seem to be the ones who find this the most interesting, and we have noticed that on this trip, for some reason, people are having  a harder time figuring us out. Is it the kids' ages?  Is it that we are out during a time of year when kids are usually in school?  Is it that we don't match and are in Caucasian Territory with little color around us? I have no idea, but something has definitely made it even harder for people to figure us out...even when everyone is saying "Mom and Dad".  

It's been a lovely, educational time so far.  We have learned a LOT, and have a list of things to read more about once we get home including Buffalo Bill, Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederic Remington (Matthew really liked his work), and we want to learn more about the period of Japanese Internment.  One thing we have learned though, is just how much we enjoy each other even though everyone is gradually growing older.  I am grateful, grateful, grateful to be so enjoying this stage of life with our kids, as many I know really suffer during these ages. I know we still could, but for now I'll take what we have and squeeze it for all its worth.  

Tomorrow, on to Yellowstone, geysers, a bear or two we hope as they are Angela's favorite and we'd love to see one in the wild, and who knows what all else!!  It's supposed to be stormy, so we'll just have to see what happens. The past two weeks weren't quite as removed from "real life" as we had expected, but this week should be  more so and it will be nice to just tune out, and tune in to simply being together, playing together, and loving one another as we explore a beautiful landscape...even if it is snow covered!!