Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Cross Country Wrap-Up

I'm finally getting to the last day of our trip.  The day itself was fairly uneventful.  I came to realize that outside the mountains of Colorado, the rest is unsightly and more than just a little bit boring.  With the exception of the Yellowstone and Jackson areas, Wyoming is no better.  It was a good day to press on with no unnecessary stops.  There was the occasional point of interest outside the window, and a lot of construction leading back to Jackson, but nothing really to write about.

It seems like once we got home there was an onslaught of critical items to be dealt with.  First, there was unpacking, cleaning and vacuuming the car, then came laundry that didn't seem to have an end, and yard work, and kids to get ready to start school.  In addition to this there were the normal things like grocery shopping and meal planning.  To top it all off, we had two exchange students awaiting our arrival.  They needed some attention to get settled.  They needed cell phones, laptops, cameras, and school supplies.  Let's just say it's been a whirlwind.  That brings me to my favorite aspect of our trip.  I had my family all to myself with no distractions for a whole month.  The kids were amazingly adaptable, just happy to be doing whatever was on the agenda.  There was some work getting camp set up and navigating from place to place in unfamiliar settings, but no to-do lists and no social obligations to compete with, no lessons, sports, or meetings.  It really was a neat family time.  Everyone got along great.  I'm not saying there were no disagreements in the back end of the van, but for the most part they were short lived and sorted out without adult intervention.  We got through about three quarters of the book, "Little Women", which was delightful and also applicable to our family.  There was a personality among the little women which matched up with each of my little women, and I found myself learning some parenting and other skills that I think will come in handy in the future of our family.

I feel blessed that we had the means and the skills to plan and carry out this adventure, that no one got sick or injured (beyond the scope of what a bandaid could fix) while traveling, and that we escaped all inclement weather, which seemed to be present both before and after our trip in the places we visited.

We are already planning our next such escapade and several other shorter ones.  I am glad for James' job that allows him so much time off in the summer  and his patience with my lack of navigation skills.  We will continue the tradition of playing Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" at the start of each day, just to torture the children.  On the last day I told them if they didn't all sing along I would play it over again.  It was a success.  Each Helfrich voice could be heard loud and clear.  I think I might just play it at home occasionally for fun, and I will definitely keep it handy for our next trip.  Another tradition we will hold on to is our morning exercises.  We brought along a sleeping pad for each family member (which was roughly the size of a yoga mat) and made a deck of exercise cards, all of which could be done on the mat.  every morning we camped, we set out the mats and did about 20 minutes of mat exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, handstands, squats, jumping jacks, and a few other fancier things from Amber's gymnastics conditioning routine.  We always started out with the sun salutations, which all the kids know by heart now.  We got a few strange looks from neighbors, but it really was fun, and now even Nicole can to 10 "man" push-ups.

As the familiar outline of the Tetons came into view once again, I thought back to the first day of our trip, as the sun rose over the Tetons early in the morning and we all wondered what was in store.  In the same surroundings, the sun set as a beautiful end to our trip.  Let life resume...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Day Twenty-Seven

17 August
One of the things we will do differently the next time is we will spend two nights every time we camp.  My favorite part of our trips has been the national parks.  When we only had one night there, I always felt rushed and didn’t really get to check out the area in enough detail.  Hikes are the best way to see most (not necessary in Badlands, as I think most of it can be seen from the car) of the national parks, and you really need more than one night to get in a couple of good hikes.  Since we had already planned two nights in Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a good opportunity to test my theory it out.  It is now definitely our plan of record.  It was more relaxing and gave us a chance to really see the park.  The kids had plenty of time to explore and find bugs and sticks and other things kids do. It was so great and the pace was perfect.  It has a shuttle system so we didn’t have to get into our car at all while we were in the park.  The Junior Ranger Program was challenging and engaging.  It was like a field book which had the girls excited to roam around identifying and checking off everything they saw.  They brought their books everywhere with them and were always anxiously engaged.  We did two short hikes in different areas of the park, one after breakfast and one right before dinner.  They carried their books in their Camelbaks and were on the lookout for all of the plants and animals they could find.  The whole day was peaceful, relaxing, and utterly enjoyable.  Here are some pictures from the park.

Tip of the day:  Schedule in some down time.  If you have miles to drive and you are only camping one night, there is no time to really enjoy the relaxing camping experience.  Camp two nights!

Day Twenty-Six

16 August
Arrival at Rocky Mountain State Park.  We camped in Glacier Basin Campground and for those who care about such things, the bathrooms are fabulous.  They are clean, the toilets flush, there is NO odor, there is soap in them, and did I mention they are clean?  The sites are a bit close together for my taste, but after being in New York, it felt spacious.  We arrived early enough to get camp set up, cook dinner and get everything and everyone all cleaned up before it got dark.  Then we went to the ranger program at the amphitheater, where we all froze.  Did you know there are no grizzly bears or wolves here?  Both disappeared from the area around 1920.  They are hoping that some of the grey wolves from Yellowstone will find their way here.  Our campground is at 8500 feet, so we had our first taste of a real cold night since camping back in Idaho before our trip.  It was actually a bit refreshing.  
Their Junior Ranger books were never far from sight.

Dinner at our camp site.
Tip of the day:  If you are planning on hiking much here, give yourself a couple of days to get used to the altitude.  It is high!  We were fine, but our hikes were short and not too strenuous.

Day Twenty-Five

15 August
Liberty Jail.  We got a fairly early start, which made us happy because we had a lot of driving to do and this gave us the chance to get a bit ahead so we could spend more time in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Our goal was to get to Lincoln, NE and spent the night in a hotel.  We had a short stop planned in Liberty, MO to visit Liberty Jail.  It was a great stop and left me pondering a passage received by revelation there:  “For behold many are called but few are chosen, and why are they not chosen?  Because their hearts are set so much on the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men...” (this is paraphrased from memory).  It is a scripture I am very familiar with, but I never really considered the differences between being called and being chosen.  I wonder how many times I have been called to do something but not chosen because my heart was not in the right place.  
The drive went smoothly until the interstate had a big “road closed” sign.  There was no indication of how long (or where) the detour was, so we just followed the other cars.  After going east, not the direction we wanted to go, for about 15 miles we started getting worried.  It turns out the Missouri River had some significant flooding starting two months ago and large parts of I29 were under water.  We ended up going clear up to Omaha, where we were able to cross the river and get back on course.  We were still able to go more than 100 miles past Lincoln, then we called it a night.
Some silly names from today’s drive:  whispering winds cemetery (sorry, but that’s just creepy), Drury Inn (Sounds too much like dreary), Fatso’s Diner (Um, what exactly would draw someone there?), Grumpy Gringo (a Mexican Restaurant), Wahoo (the name of a town in Nebraska), I won’t even get into the adult superstore names, whose billboards littered the roadsides everywhere, but their names were also a bit ridiculous.
Inside Liberty Jail
Tip of the day:  Don't commit yourself to a tip of the day.

Day Twenty-Four

14 August
The tour of Andrew Jackson’s home near Nashville was quite interesting and educational.  The girls came to the conclusion that he is a bad man after learning about his position on slavery and the “trail of tears”.  It was a good example of how life was on a large southern plantation.  It was a self-contained property which raised its own produce and meat.  The household ate 300 pigs each year.  I realize they had a lot of visitors, so fed people other than their own family but that is nearly one whole pig each day, and they used all but the snout...just a bit of interesting trivia.  Once we finished our tour, we were back on the road toward Cuiver River State Park in Missouri.  We were determined to get camp set up before dark to avoid another near disaster.  
This time, we arrived with plenty of sunlight left, and the fire started immediately.  The park was nice, one we would like to return to if the occasion arises.  It has a nice swimming area and beach, which we didn’t get to use.  The campground was nice, with grass and trees around.  At night, we got some raccoon visitors.  They didn’t do any harm, but we were glad we had packed all of the food into the car like good little campers.  
Tip of the day:  Don’t stay at a Super 8 Motel.  It was awful.  There might be a clean one somewhere, but I will never know.

A common sight.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Day Twenty-Three

We got our first real look at the Great Smokey Mountains today.  We had breakfast and cleaned up camp then took a drive through the park.  I read somewhere that it is the most visited National Park in the US, but we were there on a Saturday, and I just don’t see how it could even come close to Yellowstone.  I think I need to look into that fact more carefully.  I don’t believe it.  It is beautiful for sure, and at the summit (the border between Tennessee and North Carolina), there are fabulous views on all sides.  As a bonus surprise to me, we got to drive through Dolleywood on the way out. Talk about tacky!  I thought I was going to need one of our barf bags just from looking around.  Of course, the kids thought it looked fun.  Luckily we had another destination in mind.  Fall Creek Falls State Park was recommended to us by a student who is from the area, so we were headed there for a picnic and a swim.  Sadly, the creeks were mostly dried up, but we found a swimming hole and everyone except me enjoyed a refreshing dip.  We were immersed in thick southern drawl conversation, so much that the girls had a hard time understanding it most of the time.  I read the statistics about the states with the highest percentage of obesity a while ago, and most of the highest were the southern states.  If Fall Creek Falls was a normal sampling, I have to say it’s true.  Also there were a lot of tattoos and mustaches.  After everyone was sufficiently cooled off, we got back on the road toward Nashville.
In Nashville, we wanted to have “southern food”.  We parked near a street with loud music and lots of people.  We found a lot of interesting things there, but not southern food.  So we asked a local and she told us to go to Monell’s.  We found it in an old house on the other side of town.  You eat family style, so we were seated at a table with two other families.  You don’t order your food, but rather a full dinner is prepared and you eat what is served.  Among our choices were, corn pudding, turnip green salad, meatloaf, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, peach compote, fried green tomatoes, coleslaw, pulled pork, breaded catfish, and strawberry shortcake for dessert.  It was the perfect southern dinner.  I’m trying to not think about what was in it.  If you’re ever in Nashville, it’s definitely the place to eat.
Interesting gas facts:  the highest price we have paid so far is $3.83 in New York State; the lowest we have paid is $3.29 in Tennessee.  Our average price is $3.64.
Tip of the day:  If you are looking to get a tattoo, Tennessee is the place for you.  There is a parlor on every corner.

Day Twenty-Two (our worst day yet)

We woke up refreshed, ate breakfast and cleaned up camp while some deer munched on the surrounding trees.  Next we did a short hike with some rock scrambling and breathtaking views.  The temperature was perfect and everyone enjoyed the outing.  We even crossed the Appalachian Trail.  Once back in the car, we drove the famous Skyline Drive for about 10 miles.  The road was quite twisty, so we distributed the barf bags that were swiped from airplanes by some thoughtful relatives.  Despite the frequent curves, the road was truly beautiful.  When we were perched on a high rock during our hike, Christine commented that it looked as if she could jump down and have a soft landing on the tops of the fluffy looking tree tops.
Our home in Shenandoah

Shenandoah, the view from the top of our hike

This ended the good part of our day.  After we exited the park, we realized our drive to the Smoky Mountains was two hours longer than we expected.  That would put us there after 8:00, with no stops.  So, we decided to rely on our snack supply and not stop for lunch.  We pressed on.  It became obvious we were in the Bible belt because of the religious-themed road signs and advertisements for churches everywhere.  One sign read, “Jesus is Lord, buy guns here.”  It was atop a camouflage painted building. 

There was a town about two miles from our campsite and we were planning to stop for firewood and dinner supplies.  Then, when we arrived at our spot, James was going to quickly put up the tent and I would make the fire before it got dark.  That was the simple plan, but that is not how it went.  Everyone was hungry and therefore grumpy.  The town didn’t have a grocery store, but rather a quick stop (my worst food nightmare), which closed 3 minutes before we arrived.  We had to drive a few miles farther down the road for another gross quick stop that was opened.  Meanwhile, the sun was sinking fast and people getting grumpier.  The store had hot dogs with five thousand nasty ingredients, and that was the best thing there.  We bought them and some firewood then got out quickly.  The tent went up just before it got too dark, but the fire would not start.  The kids were moaning and groaning in hunger (hunger which, apparently renders them helpless).  They were suggesting that we just go to the next campsite over and ask if we could borrow their fire just long enough to cook our disgusting hot dogs.  This plan was vetoed as we continued to attempt to light the fire.  The wood was wet, it was dark, and I was convinced that we might lose at least one family member to hunger if we didn’t do something fast.  We got out the propane burner and cooked our dogs over that flame.  Is that OK??  It turns out we all lived through it and we managed to clean up dinner in the dark then went soundly to sleep.
Tip of the day:  Expect some hard days, then go to sleep and wake up happy for the new day.  Try not to do or say anything on the hard day that you might regret in the morning.

Day Twenty-One

We decided to skip Williamsburg and go straight to Shenandoah so the kids could have some more time with the Morris boys.  So they went swimming while the Moms went to Trader Joe’s to stock up on snacks and food for the next couple of days.  Then we finished laundry and packed the car, which took much longer than expected.  It was only supposed to be a two hour drive, so we weren’t too worried.  However, traffic was really heavy and really slow so it ended up taking closer to four hours!  It was a slow drive.  Finally, we arrived at our campsite.  Shenandoah is beautiful!  For the first time in weeks, we had a taste of cool weather.  It was refreshing, and we even had to pull out our long sleeves.  Everyone slept well in the cool air.
Everyone is doing really well and not showing any signs of weariness from being away from the comforts of home for so long.  The kids do not seem to be at all unsettled, but periodically talk about what they are looking forward to about being back home.
Tip of the day:  Take along some ziplock bags.  Most carrots, snap peas, nuts, and other  bagged foods don’t come in resealable bags.  Also, it comes in handy for dividing up snacks for hikes, so each kid can carry their own.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Day Twenty

Washington DC in one day...eek, not enough time.  We were all up late catching up with the Morris family, so we got a bit of a late start.  We had tickets to tour the capitol building, but we had a long walk from our parking spot to the capitol and there was no way Wendy’s legs could make it on time, so we decided to take a cab.  As we were getting into it, I looked at our ticket reservation and noticed we were supposed to be there at least 45 minutes early to go through security.  So, we got out of the cab, paid the driver a nominal amount for his time, settled for a look at the building, and walked to the National Gallery.  The kids had a surprisingly long attention span for art.  It was an impressive collection.  Just after the kids were sick of it, we walked on to the Air and Space Museum.  Also impressive and educational.  We went to Georgetown for dinner at a Thai restaurant, walked around Georgetown a bit, then went back to meet the Morris family for a night tour of the monuments.  The power was off at the Lincoln Monument, but we saw it anyway.  Next we made our way to the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, then to the Jefferson Memorial.  It was a big walking day, and it was late, so everyone was done by this point.  So, we went back and went straight to bed.
Do you think we stayed too long?  I can't quite tell.

Tip of the day:  Don’t accidentally park in a handicapped parking spot in DC.

Day Nineteen

Everyone was sad as we pulled away from Karen’s house, and Wendy cried the first 30 minutes of our drive.  They were excited for our next stop, which was the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Especially since their funds were somewhat replenished due to their labors of nuts and laundry as well as a gift from Karen. There was also a surprise envelope from Jack and Linda, not to be opened until we got to DC.  This turned out to be some spending money for the kids as well, so they were starting to feel rich again.  

The drive became a bit treacherous due to a long-lasting downpour of rain.  There was standing water and lanes closed as well as branches down and several accidents.  In Baltimore, however, the sky was clear and it was fairly hot.  The aquarium was excellent.  It was worth the stop for sure, but I personally think the Vancouver, BC aquarium is better.  By request from Wendy and Nicole, we had sushi for dinner then continued our drive to the home of our friends, the Morris family, in Maryland.  They have four boys, roughly the age of our girls, and lived near us in Seattle.  It was a happy reunion, and the kids were fast friends, after not having seen each other for five years.
Tip of the day:  Keep in touch with good friends.  You never know when life might bring you back together again.  

Days Sixteen Through Eighteen

We had a real pleasant visit with our Allentown family.  We went to the zoo, which was the perfect size for the attention span of the young kids.  We were able to see all of the animals without killing off the kids one by one as happens in some of the larger zoos.  Not far from the zoo, we stopped for a picnic lunch and playing in a creek.  Luckily cousin Sue and her family were there with us and she was prepared with nets and buckets.  All of the kids spent a good long time catching all kinds of critters, all of which they wanted to keep as pets.  I had to laugh at the prospect of a tadpole in nothing more than a plastic pail joining us on our return trip across the country.  Somehow, it seemed perfectly logical to a seven year old.  
For the rest of the afternoon, we just hung out with Karen and played games and did laundry.  The kids enjoyed having a back yard again, and I think Abby got her fill of going for walks and playing fetch.  By this time, all of the kids were low on money, so Karen told them she would pay them one penny for every nut they picked up off the grass and threw over the fence.  I think there were approximately 1,000 nuts picked up.    Dan joined us for dinner and Peggy and Buddy popped in a little later for one more game of Apples to Apples.  It was by all accounts a perfect day.

Sunday, we went to church with Karen, Kathryn, Jack and Linda.  It was an 8:30 AM service, but somehow we all made it on time.  After church we had a nice lunch with Kathryn.  She made a vegetable soup that Wendy had three servings of after announcing boldly that she didn’t like vegetable soup.  It was also the kids’ first run-in with jello and carrots together.  They thought it was strange, but they also all liked it.  After lunch, we went to the nursing home for a visit to aunt Ruth.  I was touched by the love of two sisters, as Kathryn, Ruth’s sister pulled a comb out of her bag moments after we arrived to comb her sister’s hair.  We also got to hear the story of how Ruth met her husband and a number of stories about James’ dad as a youth.  All in all, a very memorable visit and a shining example of family bonds.  That afternoon, we were treated with a family picnic, where I was able to test my memory of all of the names.  I think I have them all straight now.  It was really great to have so many of the family members together at one time.  The food was excellent too.  Thank you again Karen for all of the time and effort you put into planning for our visit.  
Our last full day there, we took a tour of the Martin Guitar factory with Jack and Linda.  It totally converted me and I can’t think of a single reason($) that we shouldn’t buy one just because they are so cool.  After the tour, we all had lunch together.  Later that afternoon, Karen, the kids, and I went to swim with Linda while Jack and James went for a bike ride.  It was really refreshing after a hot day, and Linda dug up some carrots and picked some tomatoes for the kids.  
Tip of the day:  Pack more underwear and socks for the kids than you think they will need.  They are always taking their socks off and leaving them places.  We have about half of the socks we left with.  As for the panties, you never know when diarrhea toots might strike and it’s just easier to throw them away.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Day Fifteen

Our last day in New York we had to check out of our hotel by noon, so we just went to breakfast and took one last walk through the park.  In the park, we found the checkers and chess house and sat down for a couple of games.  Then we walked back to our hotel to retrieve the car and load up our luggage.  I braced myself for the exciting drive out of the city, but it was not nearly as bad as the drive in.  I don’t know if I was just used to it by then or if it really was less treacherous, but either way, I was spared a heart attack.  We missed a turn after we were out of the city that took us 20 miles south of where we wanted to be.  And it wasn’t even a pretty detour.  That put us an hour later than planned, so we started getting hungry for lunch.  We found this Italian restaurant that is worth mentioning called, “Paisanos” in Stewartsville, NJ.  It was delicious.  They serve homemade breads and pasta sauces that were really great.  There was olive oil for dipping your bread, and I liked it so much that I asked the lady for advice on how to pick a good dipping oil.  She said for dipping she always uses virgin instead of extra virgin olive oil because of the milder flavor.  We really enjoyed that meal and I strongly recommend it if you happen to be in Stewartsville!
Our next stop was Allentown, PA, where we have family.  It was a welcome change of pace from NYC.  We stayed with Karen, Dan, and Abby the dog, who provided endless entertainment for the kids.  I’m certain they will all need a serious recovery day after we leave.  We ate dinner then attended a birthday party for little Sarah, who was turning one.  I met all kinds of family members, whose names I hope to master before we leave.
Tip of the day:  If you drive a minivan or other vehicle with a deep trunk area, organize some of your smaller items into clear plastic containers.  No matter how carefully you pack, you will frequently end up digging in the back for the thing you are looking for.  We made a stop at Target after digging for items one too many times.  We put all of our snack food into one (it was previously in several reusable grocery bags.), laundry detergent, stain stick, and dish soap into another, and the camelbaks into a larger one.  It is much easier to remove a few bins than a whole bunch of loose items.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day Fourteen

The view of the city
Checking out the view from the Empire State Building 
Waiting for the subway

Somehow it is not nearly as stressful to take a cab as it is to be riding in your own car.  We started off the day with a cab ride to the Empire State Building.  A man tried to get us to upgrade our tickets to express, for an additional $150, to avoid all of the lines (5 to be exact).  We kindly refused and found the lines weren’t bad at all.  There were five, but not all of them could be avoided if you had the express pass.  Once we got to the observation deck, it was packed.  We had to hover until an opening appeared and jump in right away.  I found myself wondering how long I could live in this city before all of the people started to drive me crazy.  I really do love New York, but I have never spent more than four days here at a time.  I just wonder if I would get used to the crowds or sick of them first.  I think one of the things that bugs me more than all of the people is the filth on the streets.  When it was raining, there were puddles everywhere and I was wearing flip flops.  I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of germs and other gross stuff (I can’t imagine what exactly it would be) were in that water that my feet kept getting bathed in.  I also pondered how many hands have touched each door handle and how many rears have touched the toilet seats (let’s just say mine was not one of them), gross!
After the Empire State Building, we made a yummy stop at Jamba Juice to fuel up for our next adventure.  We took the subway downtown, got off at Wall Street and walked to the Staten Island Ferry, which is free.  It was a welcome rest for our feet as the ferry ride is about 20 minutes each way, and there is a great view of the bridges, the city, and the Statue of Liberty.  
After the ferry, we took another cab ride past ground zero and into Chinatown, where we got dinner and a good dose of strange sights, sounds, and smells.  From Chinatown, we found a park where the kids ran wild then found a pastry shop in Little Italy where we enjoyed dessert.  We tried to take the subway back, but the machine wouldn’t accept our credit card and we used all of our cash on dinner.  So, we had to take another taxi.  Actually, we had to take two because we couldn’t find one who would take six of us.  It turns out that their insurance only covers 5 people if one is a child.  Some will still take you, but others will not, and still others will only if you “make it worth their while”.  In this case, they wouldn’t so we had to take two cabs. Then we settled into our room for the night.  All of our feet were happy to rest.
Tip of the day:  I just want to emphasize again that Camelbaks rock the city as well as the hiking and biking trails.  We never once had to buy water or stop for a drink in a scummy drinking fountain.  In addition, each kid can carry their own snacks for those times when hunger strikes at an inconvenient time.

Day Thirteen

New York City.  Once we crossed the Lincoln tunnel into the city, I thought I was going to have a heart attack due to the stress of city driving (even though James was driving).  These people are truly crazy and fearless.  We could not park the car soon enough!  Even if you have been to NYC before, it is still shocking.  The traffic rules are different here.  I’m pretty sure no one follows the two second rule (It’s more like the 2 inch rule), and there are people everywhere.  The buildings are so tall, Central Park is so big!  Everything is exceedingly crowded, yet no one really talks to each other.  It was a relief to get to our hotel and send the car away with the parking attendants, not to be seen again until we leave the city.  
After getting settled into our hotel room, we headed off (on foot, thankfully) to Central Park.  It truly is an amazing park.  The kids played for a long while then we left for Fifth Avenue, just as it started to rain.  We made it to FAO Schwarz without getting too wet.  We spent the next hour or so wandering through.  When we were ready to leave, it was still raining.  Have you ever made a purchase you were unsure of, but then it really paid off?  Before our trip, I bought some rain jackets for all of the kids.  Because it doesn’t rain much in Rexburg, I was unsure whether the purchase would be worthwhile.  Now I can safely say that even if we don’t use them again on this trip, it was worth it.  Everyone stayed dry, which allowed us to continue our adventures.  We continued on to Times Square as it got dark and had dinner at an Italian restaurant.  We wandered around the shops for a while, bought a few I love NY shirts then called it a night.  
Amber flipping in Central Park

Wendy and Nicole climbing the rocks in Central Park
Tip of the day:  Don’t drive in NYC!!  If you do have to, remember to periodically take 10 cleansing breaths to avoid dying.

Days Eight Through Twelve

We had a fun, relaxing, and eventful stay with our friends Chris and Kelly and their kids in the Philadelphia area.  We toured the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where James and Chris were students (and roommates for a year).  We walked through the mint, and saw the Liberty Bell.  Of course we also ate a cheese steak or two.  All of the kids got along great and they didn’t want to leave.  They caught frogs, swam in the neighbor’s pool, partook of the chocolate fountain, and really we all just enjoyed their home, company, and home cooking. It was exactly what we needed.  Thank you Chris and Kelly. 

The Rothey and Helfrich kids on Penn Campus

Hunting for frogs

They became pets for the next several days.  This one got a boat.

Tuesday we took a day trip to Ocean City, NJ.  The weather was perfect for the beach and we enjoyed a day filled with sand and sun.  We escaped without sunburn, but not without incident.  The lifeguard periodically had to move the crowds of people in the water back over to the safe area.  On one of these occasions, I lost sight of the kids in the shuffle of people.  Gradually, I located everyone except Wendy.  After scanning the water and beach for some time, I went to find James, who was out in the deep water with Christine and Amber.  I told him I had lost Wendy and we started searching for her.  I told the lifeguard, who notified the other lifeguards.  We continued our search for about 30 minutes.  It was horrible.  I felt like I was going to throw up, and imagined every possible scenario, even though I was pretty sure she was OK.  Searching a beach of about 5 million people, looking for a little five year-old in a pink swimming suit is no easy feat.  After searching for a very long 30 minutes, I checked in  with the lifeguards again and a radio call came in.  They said they were holding Wendy at station 13, which was about half a mile away.  I ran down there and she was hanging out with another nice lifeguard.  She told me she got lost when all of the people were moving down the beach.  She couldn’t find our umbrella so she just kept walking.  She said she wasn’t scared but she said two prayers and started crying.  She said that a nice lady with a child asked her what was wrong and she told her she was lost then gave the child a handful of shells from her bucket and the nice lady took her to the lifeguard.  What a relief that was!  In spite of that incident, we had a great time and found two excellent restaurants for lunch and dinner.  One was the Hula Restaurant and Sauce Company.  We ordered the crab cakes and teriyaki salmon and teriyaki chicken.  They came with salads topped with an incredible dressing.  Everything was fresh and delicious.  The second was a greek joint where the dad was the cook and daughters were waitresses.  The hummus and babaganoosh (I’m not sure how you spell it, but it is an eggplant dip) were to die for, as were the sausages and greek salad.  It was a pleasant surprise to find delicious, high quality food in a place I assumed would be packed with fast food, greasy grossness (which I was prepared to eat).
Wendy, just before she got lost

Tip of the day(s):  If you go to a beach with about 5 million other people, take a moment to point out the lifeguard stands to your children and tell them to go directly there if they get lost.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day Seven

We fell a bit behind and had to cut something, so we decided not to take the detour to Palmyra.  We were pleasantly surprised to find the Hill Cumorah Visitor’s Center only four miles off our route.  So, we stopped and took the short walk from the visitor’s center to the top of the hill.  It was really neat to be in that spot.  We enjoyed the peaceful feeling there for a few moments then climbed down and got back on the road again.  Our next stop was Watkins Glenn State Park in the New York Finger Lakes area.  There we picked up some picnic supplies and ate lunch just inside the park.  It was this amazing hike through a narrow slot canyon.  The humidity was extremely high, but lucky for us it was overcast and not too hot.  I realized that we had been really lucky with the weather so far.  Whenever the weather really mattered, it was just right.  Anyway, the hike was really great.  Another spot I highly recommend.  I do wish we could have camped there the night before so we could have enjoyed it longer.

Tip of the day:  Include a slush fund in your budget for unexpected expenses.  We did not plan an extra hotel stay, but were really happy we had the option when it was 10:00 PM and we were still 2 hours from setting up camp.

Day Six and Wisdom from the Backseat

We stayed at a hotel in Dearborn, Michigan.  It is a suburb of Detroit and home to the Henry Ford Museum.  It's definitely worth a visit.  It has everything from cars, trains, and airplanes, to furniture and farm equipment.  It even has the very bus Rosa Parks sat on and refused to give up her seat to a white man.  There was a whole museum village outside that we didn’t even get to.  You pay for the museum and village separately, so I recommend one or the other unless you have a whole day and don’t have a five year old.  We left the museum and headed toward Canada and Niagara Falls.  The town reminded me a lot of the Las Vegas strip because of all of the lights, music playing on the streets and crowds of people.  We kind of had to race through because it was getting dark already and we had a couple of hours left to drive.  The falls were amazing and we left just as they lit them up in rainbow colors for the night.

As we were driving I overheard a conversation in the back seats that caught my interest.  It turns out that two of our kids used to think there were three genders.  One thought the genders were boy, girl, and half boy, half girl (which she thought she was because she looked like a girl but sometimes liked to play with boy toys).  The other thought the genders were boy, girl, and clown.  I decided it would be best to not delve into the psychology behind that one, but instead just be happy they are now all in agreement that there are only two genders.
We made a decision to stop short of our next scheduled camping sight at Watkins Glenn State Park because it was late already.  So, we stayed at a hotel along the road and fell asleep immediately.  So far, I think our pace has been a little too aggressive. 
 In front of an old race car at the Henry Ford Museum
Niagara Falls

Tip of the day:  Have a bucket, bag, or bin with a cheap vinyl tablecloth, some wet wipes, and picnic supplies easily accessible for a quick roadside lunch or snack.  We brought our 3 gallon water cooler so we always have a fresh supply of water on hand for drinking or washing fresh produce.  When you see a nice spot, take it.  There might not be another nice spot anytime soon.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day Five

Chicago.  It is always fun to be in the city again.  We only encountered one problem-our minivan with the roof rack on top was too tall to fit into most parking garages.  We actually thought we could fit into one, but after getting pretty far into it realized we were too tall.  It’s a good thing James has some refined backing skills because he had to back all the way down while I ran interference and stopped traffic in the front.  Street parking it is!  Chicago was exciting, especially since we found an “American Girl” store.  The girls were in heaven.  We had Chicago style deep dish pizza for lunch and walked around until we got a good taste of the city.  I’m pretty sure the people walking behind us knew we were from out of town because the kids kept stopping to stare up at the tall buildings.  Then it was time for the Shedd Aquarium.  We have been to some excellent aquariums in the past, and this doesn’t rank among them, but it was just about right for the amount of time we had to spend.  We got hotdogs and ice cream at a roadside stand (don’t worry, I had some fresh fruits and vegetables in the car for later), and then we left Chicago.  Next stop, Detroit.
States we have driven through so far:  Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
Tip of the day:  We had each kid carry their Camelbak packs with a small snack in them.    This allowed them to drink on the go, and keep cool while walking around the city.    

Day Four

The morning after our first hotel room.  Ahh, that felt good.  The bed and the shower and the lack of set-up were all a nice change.  We drove through most of Minnesota in the dark, so I didn’t get to see much of it.  We stopped at LaCrosse, Wisconsin to take a dip in the Mississippi River and have lunch.  The kids played and swam in the river for about an hour then we continued our drive.  Wisconsin is beautiful.  Our route took us pretty far off the beaten path so we got a taste of the countryside.  Beautiful, lush green rolling hills with a combination of farmland (mostly corn), and forest.  The landscape was probably the stereotypical farm scene you would picture with the farmer’s house alongside his fields and matching barns and out buildings, red with white trim.  there was no evidence of irrigation anywhere.  Rest stops were called waysides, and there were lots of cheese stands along the road.  
We camped at Harrington State Park, near Lake Michigan, but we didn’t swim due to the e coli and dead fish strewn about the beach.  We also had our first encounter with lightening bugs.  The girls thought they were pretty cool, and they caught several who called one of our tupperware bins home for the night.
Tip of the day:  If you play at a beach (even for a short time) with e coli and dead fish, make sure you all wash your hands before eating finger food for dinner.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

Day Three

24th July

Badlands, Minuteman Missile Site (another Jr. Ranger Program), and driving.  Badlands National Park was interesting, but it was very hot outside and we felt like you could see most of it just as well from the car, so we only made two stops.  One bloody nose and stomach ache later, we reached the Minuteman Missile information center.  It was very informative and worth the short stop.

Things we saw after we left the badlands: farmland, grassland, the Missouri River, hills, corn fields, wind farms.

Things we didn’t see after we left the badlands: mountains, tall trees, turns in the road.

We planned on eating dinner at Sioux Falls and Christine insisted we eat Italian.  Nelda (our GPS) took us to one restaurant that had closed.  The second was about to close but they let us in for a final order.  We ordered three plates of pasta and two pizzas.  When the food arrived (it was 9:00pm and we hadn't eaten a real lunch that day), everyone was very quiet and no one complained about the food.  At the end of the meal, Rachel said "you know, I think that was good."  We ate so quickly no one took the time to taste the food (and I think our dishes could have been passed off as clean and put directly on the shelf).

Tip of the day:  For everyone, make it a point to purchase and consume fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible.  It will help keep things running smoothly despite the camping food and eating out.  No one wants to be all stopped up.

Day Two

 23rd July

We ended up spending the night at Devil’s Tower, which was filled with cottonwood trees that were dripping sap.  Everything was sticky.  As we walked around, our shoes would become inches higher due to layers of leaves sticking on them.  We were glad to get out of there and clean off everything.  Once we were back in the car, there was a beautiful, winding road to get out of the canyon.  Wendy had some things set up in her spot which kept getting knocked over from the turns so she asked James if he would stop turning...  We found a nice park in Rapid City to have lunch.  From there we went to Mt. Rushmore.  This was my first time seeing it and I thought it was impressive.  I highly recommend the Junior Ranger Program for the kids.  It keeps them occupied, gives them things to look for and teaches interesting facts.  At the end, they get a cool badge. 

The highlight of the day was Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.  The lake itself was beautiful.  It had a nice trail, which I jogged around while the kids played in the lake and climbed the rocks that were everywhere.  The whole area really was fabulous.  I wish we had a full day or more to spend there.  The road to and from the lake was also worth the drive.  When we left, we had the kids check themselves for ticks and Wendy said, “I wish there were doctor ticks so that when they stick their head into your body they could look around and see if you have an infection.”

Crazy Horse was a bit of a letdown.  When we saw it from the road, we decided that was close enough and turned around. 

Tip of the day:  For kids, pack a large ziplock storage bag with paper bags, construction paper, scissors, glue, and markers.  My kids spent hours (literally) creating and making shows out of their puppets.

On the Road Again

We’re off!  We left the house at 5:10 am and headed toward Jackson as the sun rose.  When we got to Jackson, we ate breakfast at the Bunnery.  The food was good and we enjoyed a sophisticated conversation about owning your own restaurant and putting a whoopee cushion under people just before you sat them down.  No one could decide whether that would increase or decrease business (I have a pretty good idea).  That topic brought up what would happen if the Queen of England passed gas.  They determined that it would have to be publicized, and they would embed the toot in the newspaper in scratch and sniff form.

From Jackson, after we crossed the mountains and left them behind us, the “real” Wyoming came into view.  What a harsh place.  The temperature was in the upper 90’s, but there were snow fences all over, indicating a lot of winter snow.  The wind was howling and we passed places with names such as “rattlesnake hills”, “poison spider road”, and “hell’s half acre”.  We drove through with the minimal amount of stops, but we did need to eat lunch.  We ended up in Casper at a park that was promptly nicknamed “poo park” due to its proximity to a wastewater treatment facility upwind of us.

We made it to Devil’s Tower just before sunset.  It was worth it.  It was bigger and more impressive than I expected, and by that time it had cooled off enough to walk the trail around the bottom.  There was a huge boulder field around the base which made it possible for the girls to take the path of most resistance.  Instead of staying on the paved trail, they climbed every rock along the way.  No one complained about the distance because they were distracted by the rock climbing.  It was great after being cooped up in the car all day.  Next stop, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

Tip of the day:  For women, pack a sports bra or bikini top to make it easier to wash up (mostly) modestly at the water spicket without getting your clothes wet.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

School Updates

About a month ago, James graduated.  It's true.  He's now a doctor (not a real one though.  Refer to every joke poked at Ross in "Friends").  He said his first amputation would be on the house, which I thought was particularly generous considering that the person would most likely die as a result.  Anyway, I'm really proud of him as he was the first of his group to actually finish.  Good job, James.  A couple of weeks after that, he received the "Exemplary Faculty" award from the university.  This was an honor.  I remember our first year here going to the faculty banquet and seeing people receive this award.  It's been less than four years since then, and all I can say is I think James has found his calling in life:  to be a teacher.  He excels at it and loves it.   We feel so blessed to have a job that is so fitting and satisfying and provides for our needs at the same time. 

On a different level, the last day of school for my oldest three kids was a bit sad for me because Wendy will start school next year and that makes me feel like I am moving into a different stage of life.  On the last day, I told Wendy it was the last school day that I would have a little girl at home.  She had a very concerned look on her face and said, "Mommy, I think you should call some of the neighbors to come over and play with you while I'm at school so you won't be lonely."  I think that's a great idea.  Does anyone want to come over and play?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

9 Mile Musings

What do you think about when you go running?  Yesterday I ran 9 miles alone.  My only friend was my ipod, which is great for the first few miles.  Then, I had to call in the big guns, namely, deep thoughts.  I started thinking about the class I am taking right now, an entire semester of learning based on this document:  I have always had an understanding of the importance of the job of Mother, but if it is possible, this document has given me more clarity and affirmation of the importance. 

Thinking about my class led me to think about the "mothers" I have been blessed to have as examples and influences in my life.  Starting with my own Mom, who would commonly be seen as the only mom out playing softball in the yard with us.  She had a very laid back attitude that always put me at ease.  She wasn't always a stay at home mom, and I remember getting off the bus from school, hoping she would be there when I got home.  Things were just more fun when she was there.  The fact that the house was not always meticulously maintained was compensated for by a Grandma who vacuumed and dusted her whole house every day, and probably washed all of the walls and windows on a weekly basis as well.  I have distinct memories of her picking up small pieces of lint, dirt, etc. off of the floor, not more than 5 seconds after it appeared there.   She loved to be involved with our lives in a deep way.  She wanted to see and reward us for good report cards.  She came to school and dance events, and invited us over for dinner regularly.  We could stop by and walk right in without any notice.  This is in contrast to my other Grandma, who had so many grand kids (40+) that she had to try really hard to remember our birthdays.  Still, I have pleasant memories of tea parties at her house with my other girl cousins.  We each had a favorite fancy tea cup, which she kept prominently displayed in the dining room.  She even had sugar cubes and these shiny silver tongs we had to use to pick them up.  She taught me how to iron using pillow cases that I'm convinced had already been ironed.  She was a very proper and formal lady who once fed me a cow tongue sandwich that she told me was ham. 

Later on in life, after I had moved away from my family, I met the girl, who wasn't a mom yet, who tricked me into becoming a runner.  After coming in last at every high school track meet, I had labeled myself as a "non runner".  At the gym where I had recently started working, a girl named Jill became my friend.  One day, she convinced me to go running with her.  "Just a short run," she said.  Now, at that time, a short run for me was one mile or less.  Not so for her.  We started out and she told me we could run as slow as I wanted, but we would not walk.  Four miles later, we arrived back at the gym, and I felt fine.  After that, she convinced me that I could go farther and that was the beginning of my running hobby, and the reason I was running 9 miles in preparation for my 5th half marathon.  It's amazing what a little bit of encouragement can do. 

These Women remain an example to me today, but I found my thoughts drawn to all of the other amazing mothers who have been placed in my life now.  My sister who completely understands my sense of humor and puts up with more rants than she should have to.  She is one stage ahead of me in her family and is alerting me to what lies ahead with teenagers.  My cousin, Wendy, who has been my best friend since about 6th grade, who I got into trouble with as a teenager, who knew me better than I knew myself, and who now I don't stay in touch with enough.  She has been a working mom most of  her married life and has been an example of someone who just does what has to be done, and somehow finds a way to keep life fun and exciting for her family.  I also have a sister-in-law who fairly late in life made a significant change in her religion and is now raising her family faithfully in the Catholic church.  Another sister-in-law who every time I talk to her says, "let me know if there's anything I can do for you," and I know she means it.  All are great examples of courage, understanding, and diligence in doing their best as moms.

By the end of my run, I felt abundantly blessed at the people who have shaped who I am and those who continue to be sources of strength and inspiration to me today.  I am convinced that being a Mom is the best and most important job on earth, and I am a little intimidated at the prospect of raising 4 daughters who will someday, hopefully be moms themselves.  I just hope that wonderful women are placed in their lives to compensate for my weaknesses.

The nine miles flew by, and I arrived at home in great spirits, ready for a day of yard work.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Helfrich Happenings

Since the last post was so long ago, I want to do a brief update. Christine sold about a zillion Girl Scout cookies and got signed up for her first ever summer camp.  She chose a Girl Scout camp in a beautiful Idaho town called McCall.  This particular camp is a water camp that includes swimming, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and anything else water, which suits her perfectly!  Amber broke her arm and it got better just in time for her to qualify for state gymnastics and get 6th place.  Great job Amber!  Nicole is preparing for her theatrical debut in the first grade musical called, "Go Fish".  We are anxiously awaiting the performance.  Wendy had Kindergarten registration yesterday.  I explained to her that they were going to ask her some questions and she should either answer the question or tell them she didn't know.  When she responded with a very puzzled expression, I asked her if she had a question and this is how the rest of the conversation went:
"Well Mom, I understand everything, but I'm just not sure which face I'm supposed to use."
"What do you mean which face?"
"I mean, am I supposed to use my happy face, or my grumpy face, or my surprised face, or my mad face?  There are a lot to choose from."
"I suppose you can choose which ever face you want.  That is really up to you."
After we finished and we were back in the car, I asked her which face she decided to use.  She demonstrated it and it looked exactly the same as she looked all through the test...her serious face.  The girls are doing great.  They are awesome, each one of them.  I'll have to save the happenings of the adults for a later post, as bed time is nearing and I have to go round up everyone from the various corners of the  neighborhood.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Thing I Didn't Know About The Cold

Last week, before I sent all of my kids out the door to wait for the bus, I decided to check the weather forecast.  There was a windchill warning in effect that day and it said, "temperatures this cold can freeze flesh in 30 minutes".  Yikes!!  How have I lived here for a good chunk of my life and never know this?  Perhaps I shouldn't be sending kids out to wait for the bus?!  True, I wasn't sending them out in their bathing suits, but still, their faces are exposed.  And, while they don't wait 30 minutes for the bus, their has to be a progression, right?

A bit later that day, I was parking the car in the university parking lot to walk to my class when I noticed the temperature was -12.  Let me tell you what it felt like (my walk from the parking lot to the class room is 12 minutes).  The mental image that came to mind was that my face was so frozen it felt like it was going to fall off and shatter on the sidewalk.  I was glad I didn't see anyone I knew, because my face was so numb I could only form words in slow motion.  Was my flesh close to freezing?  I really can't wait until spring.  Please come soon before some one's flesh freezes.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

If You Give a Midget an Apron...

Yesterday, Wendy was putting on her impossibly small apron to "help" me cook.  After she got it on, she said to me, "If I ever meet a Midget who doesn't have an apron, I will give her mine."  Now isn't that thoughtful?  Where did she hear about Midgets, and what made her think about them at that moment?  I would love to take a peek inside her head, as I'm sure some of her comments aren't as random as I think, but rather fully thought out and logical.  Right?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cancun Adventures

Now for the report of our trip: The flight there went great. The kids were completely prepared with backpacks full of things to entertain themselves (They each carried their own!). We left home in heavy coats and boots, and arrived to about 85 degrees.

Our hotel was everything I hoped. It was just fancy enough, had ocean view balconies, and it was impeccably clean. The staff were friendly and plentiful. My favorite was the griddle chef, who made me delicious, original egg breakfasts every morning, with a wide, friendly smile. I wish I remembered his name.

The beaches were amazing! The most beautiful I have seen yet. Every morning our big decision was: "Which first, the pool or the beach?" It was always a hard decision.

There was lounging to do,
Seashells to collect,

Waves to watch and jump over,

Sand pyramids to build,
And a lot of pondering to do.

But it wasn't all play. There were also handstands to execute perfectly,

and pyramids to climb. Everyone except Nicole mad it up the 130 foot Nohoc Mul pyramid. She made it half way up then turned around to look down and got freaked out. She lamented the rest of the trip that she "wished she would never have looked down."

Did I mention the company was great too. The first night after the girls were asleep, I went into their room and opened their balcony so they could hear the sound of the waves. The next morning, I asked everyone how they slept, and Wendy replied, "I didn't sleep well because someone left the ocean on all night!" You have to love kids.

This was such a great trip! It had the right mix of adventure and relaxation with the benefit of kids who are old enough to be easy and add to the fun, and a husband who is always a fun and supportive person to hang out with. There is never a dull moment. All in all, I would not change a single thing.