Sunday, July 7, 2013


Being here in "the Mormon Motherland" means that we get to see lots of friends. Today we visited with Janae, my MTC companion and dear friend for more than a decade now. She is also here visiting family, so it is pretty great that our trips coincided.

We spent the morning visiting with the kids played. Her kids are funny, cute and brilliant. I wonder where they get that... Anyway, I had so much fun having an actual conversation in person, and I loved every second of it. We need to stop living thousands of miles away from so many people we love.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Down Day

If you were wondering how the kids are holding up on the trip so far, I'll tell you. The kids are tired. Tired to the bones. They've been on the road for a week and a half, they've stayed up hours past their bedtime pretty much every night, and we've even switched a time zone just to compound their suffering. It must be so hard on them; they don't have their food, their beds, their toys, their routine, their house, or anything else that is familiar. Annie is taking it the worst, and will now only allow people in our immediate family to touch her. Rachelle is a trooper, but you can tell it's wearing on her. Stellan is grouchy and irritable, which is completely understandable.

So we've decided to take it easy today. We planned no major excursions, just a couple of fun short trips the kids would enjoy. We spent the morning at the park, which even Stellan liked, despite his best efforts. We did lots of building with toys at Grandma and Grandpa. Then we went out for ice cream with the cousins at Leatherby's. It's been nice. I hope the kids start settling down soon. I'm beginning to feel pretty guilty about dragging them along on this grand adventure.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Happy Anniversary To Us!

When we lived in California (for the first 7 anniversaries), we spent most of those on the road. We would complain every year that it was some family event in another state or some other obligation that would keep us from having our dream anniversary night together. Then we had kids, and also moved away from California, our families, and the obligation to go to every little family event or friend's invitation. We didn't know how good we had it!

Now that we're far away from all those people and events, we miss them. Also, we miss having relatives who will watch our kids (for free!) on our anniversary. We took so many things for granted, we were so young and so foolish! This year, we're back in the West and we're enjoying an anniversary especially because we're on the road.

Matt and Adrianne decided to spend the night at Kevin's parents' house with us after the pool party yesterday, and we have spent the whole day with them. After a brief stutter in our perfect day caused by a locked door with a missing key and a short visit from the locksmith, we headed out for pupusas and a movie. (We saw one of 20 movies Tom Cruise in which Tom Cruise plays someone with the name Jack.) The kids were at their cousins' house, and they ended up having a sleepover. So then we headed back to Kevin's parents' house for a game night. Don't underestimate the rarity of a true game night if you don't have kids. We spent a beautiful Utah evening on the deck with my beloved brother and his wife, Kevin's parents, lots of grown up fun and gaming, and even a bottle of Squirt (my favorite soda which is not available in the East).

Yep, it was pretty much a perfect day. Happy anniversary, Kev! Here's to many more. And to our kids: we love you lots, but thanks for giving us a day off. (That goes for the team of relatives who made that happen, too!)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

4th of July Pool Party

Kevin's uncle and aunt, Dan and Marge, hold a legendary annual 4th of July pool party every year. Somehow in 11 years of marriage, we've never managed to attend the pool party. Until this year. Was it worth traveling across the country just for this one event? You better believe it!

Kevin has a bunch of super awesome cousins (not to mention siblings) who were in attendance. We also convinced my brother Matt and his wife Adrianne to join us for the day. It was pretty much perfect; the kids got to play with their cousins, we grown ups sat around cool in the pool, we all ate some really tasty food (including homemade ice cream and also homemade root beer), and I even got to witness the traditional cannonball competition. Sadly, Kevin didn't even come close to winning this one, mass wasn't on his side.

We ended the night in the driveway watching a heap of fireworks with cute kids spilling all over everyone's laps, enjoying being together and celebrating the day and the event. Needless to say, we'll all sleep pretty well tonight!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dinosaur National Monument

Our latest adventure has been one of my favorites of any trip ever. We met Kevin's sister Renae, along with her husband Norm and their three adorable kidlets, in Vernal, UT to spend a couple of days at Dinosaur National Monument.

I've known dinosaur nuts my whole life, but have never considered myself a nut. An enthusiast, certainly, but I never really understood what drives someone to obsess over creatures that died out millions of years ago. Now I get it.

One of the visitor areas at the monument includes a quarry full of fossils. The park built a two-story gallery around the wall so that people can see, and in some cases touch, the bones up close and very personal. I was almost brought to tears as I thought of the history of the planet literally laid wide before me.

We also went on a short hike with the kids back to the main visitors center, giving my kids the chance to experience the Utah mountains firsthand. They chased lizards and found fossils; they climbed rocks and found shady nooks. Today has been one of the most amazing days of my life, and I loved being able to share it with my family.

Bonus story: speaking of nuts, we met a few on the trip. But they weren't dinosaur nuts; in fact, they'd probably best be termed anti-dinonuts. We were outside the quarry while we put on sunscreen and filled up water bottles before our hike and we overhead a man talking with this family. It was clearly not a family talking together, there was a definite patriarchal vibe. He was telling the others about how obvious it now was that dinosaurs aren't real, but that they are a colossal hoax perpetrated by the government. The point of the hoax is to generate revenue and to trick the godless, according to this expert. Wow. He turned it over to the kids for questions, who jumped in with their own versions of possible conspiracies. Interestingly, he vehemently asserted that the moon landings were factual; I'm not sure he's the kind of person I want on "my side" of the moon landing "debate". Again, wow. Just wow.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Day Trip To Vail

While we were with Lara, she took us to Vail for the day. Kevin and I were blown away with how gorgeous this part of the world is. Everything is green and bright and the temperature is perfect and I can't say enough nice things about it.

My kids were fascinated and consterned by the water in the river. The idea that this water was recently melted snow was so foreign to them that they didn't believe it until they felt it. Then they believed.

We enjoyed walking down the village road, playing at the pirate ship playground, splashing in the fountain, and a picnic lunch at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (the world's highest botanic garden). Did I mention it was completely beautiful? I wish we had more time there, we didn't even make it to the nature center at the Gardens. We'll be back, and we'll spend more time there. How could we not? It's hard to say no to perfection, even if it is halfway across the country.

Cousin Lara and Family

We got to spend a couple of days with my beautiful and amazing cousin Lara and her husband and sons. They live about an hour outside of Denver in the mountains near Vail, and we had such a great time with them!

My kids were so relieved to be in a "kid" house - they've been on the road and with mostly grown-ups or in "grown-up" places like motels for almost a week now. They could finally make lots of noise, play with toys, not get too worried if they spilled their kid snacks, use a stool to go to the bathroom, throw tantrums, and have the time of their lives with their cousins.

Trevor and Christopher were very good sports about sharing their toys and their space and their snacks. Lara was the perfect hostess, and we had a great time catching up and comparing our lives in very different places. Again I ask myself, why oh why do we live so far from Colorado?

Trevor gets bonus points for being a super trooper. He broke his leg a few weeks ago, and is in a very heavy duty cast. He scoots on his butt all over the house, up stairs and down, keeping up with the other kids with very little exception.

Thanks, Lara, for having us! We really enjoyed you and your family, your home and your hospitality. We hope to see you again soon!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Colorado Is Beautiful

Once we headed out of Denver proper and towards my cousin's house in Edwards, we saw something new - mountains! Big rocky cliffs, layers of sediment, mountains!

After literally thousands of miles of flat, plains, flat and more flat, and after 5 years of living in Florida, mountains are not something we take for granted.

In addition to the topography, the landscape is incredible! We are driving past rivers, lakes and streams, with bright green hillsides and wildlife everywhere. Kevin and I can't stop talking about how beautiful it is here. Why don't we spend more time in Colorado?

Museum Report: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

For me, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is a great combination of a newer hands-on kid-friendly volunteer-enriched science center and the classic diorama-taxidermy natural history museum.

Expedition Health was particularly interesting. At the beginning of the hall, you fill out your personal information on a touch screen, and then a card prints out with a bar code and your info. As you go from display to display, you can check your pace, your heart rate, and any number of quantifiable physiological characteristics. At the end of the exhibit, your card is printed with all the data gathered throughout the exhibit. But mostly my kids liked the side room for young children with manipulatives and a slide.

The kids also loved the Discovery Zone, geared at young children. There were activities for all the kids, although 6-year-old Stellan burned out pretty quickly. And it was pretty busy; we had to wait in a line to get in.

The gem and mineral hall was breathtaking. It's set up to look like a mine (this is Colorado, after all). Not only is the collection vast and varying, but the specimens are spectacular. Even the kids had to grudgingly admit that is was pretty cool.

Obviously we went to the Space Odyssey. Although the exhibits are fun and of course feature the best and most exciting topics you could possibly cover (is my bias showing?), the most impressive thing was the sheer number of volunteers. The DMNS seems to have a vibrant and very active volunteer force. Their volunteers are engaging and informative, and do a variety of demonstrations and interpreting of exhibits all over. We did not visit the planetarium, since there weren't any appropriate shows for the kids during our visit. I have been to the Gates Planetarium in the past for a conference though, and it's very cool.

DMNS also features one of the best gift shops we've seen, and both kids made purchases here after long deliberations and sampling.

We loved the museum, and Kevin and I wish we could have seen more of it. Consider taking the kids for half a day, then ditching them and seeing the rest on your own! 2 thumbs up from the Cooks.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Museum Report: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Question: When is a chemical weapons research facility not a chemical weapons research research facility?
Answer: When it's the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge!

Just outside Denver is a wildlife refuge that was once a chemical weapons manufacturing site in WWII and through the Cold War, and was later transitioned into a wildlife refuge in the post-Cold War haste to decommission weapons and also to clean up the environment. Now it's 15,000 acre wildlife preservation area with a visitor's center and interpretive trails, fishing, a photo blind, and lots of cool animals and plants everywhere. Swords into plowshares indeed.

We loved this place! The visitor's center was small but so great. They had some exhibits chronicling the history of the facility, complete with hazmat suits and homesteading costumes for kids to try on, dioramas, a gift shop and exploration backpacks visitors can check out (I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff).

There was also a fully stocked classroom which was open to the public when not in use for actual school groups, etc. This was a pleasant surprise, as generally rooms like this are locked or carefully supervised by volunteer staff. They had a reading area, some games and blocks, tables set up with activities and coloring, an impressive library and education guides for teachers. My kids loved it and would have stayed for hours if I had let them.

But we couldn't stay inside on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the middle of a nature preserve. So we hit the trail and went for a walk by the lake. We saw tons of cool wildlife: deer (including a mother with two fawns), prairie dogs (which really do pop up and say "yip" when you startle them), birds birds and more birds, and bison. Yep, bison. This trip is so cool and we're only 3 days in. We many never come home.

Everyone in our family gives this two thumbs (and maybe even an extra toe for good measure) up. Highly recommended!







I prefer to be positive, but sometimes even if you sugar coat something, all you have is a thin layer of sucrose. We left Kansas City, MO in the late afternoon, and drove late into the night until we arrived in Hays, KS. The next morning we left early and didn't stop until Denver, which is a few hours into Colorado, but those hours in eastern Colorado were still pretty much Kansas. We tried to come up with some fun roadside attractions, destinations or landmarks, but even the Internet couldn't save this day. Most sites with travel tips had a big donut for roadside detours, and many even advocated just getting through Kansas as quickly as possible.

To make matters worse, we were driving due west into the sunset. So we let the kids watch a movie and then turned off all electronics so they could go to sleep. However, they pointed out that the sun was still up, so it wasn't bedtime. We promised them the sun would go down soon. But you know what? It didn't. It took about two hours for that sun to set. Curse you, counterspinning Earth! We did get to see some wind turbines, though. Lots of wind turbines.

Thank goodness for the Adventure Bag! I had packed a duffle bag with toys and games to entertain the kids at rest stops and the like. We had kites, soccer balls, cones for building obstacle courses, special treats, all kinds of random stuff. And I never did let the kids look inside it to see the full contents. They loved the surprise of having us pull something fun out of the Adventure Bag. It's amazing how recharged everyone feels after a 20-minute game of tag or a quick water gun fight. I recommend this one for all families on long road trips, it saved our bacon in Kansas. And I'd also echo the advise of many other travelers - get through it as quickly as possible!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Museum Report: Union Station Kansas City

First, to be clear, we went to Science City at Union Station without knowing it would be complete madness. We didn't realize that the day of our visit was the day of the Union Station Maker Faire, a huge event with hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of visitors. It was crazy, wall-to-wall people and machines, buzzing, whirring, humming everywhere. It did not help that our children were finally as tired as they had every right to be after being on the road all day more than once, motel room nights and a week's allotment of PB&J crammed into 2 days. They were completely overwhelmed, and I couldn't blame them.

We were very impressed at the start of our adventure here when, before we'd even walked through the doors, we heard the two guys from up on the grand stand and got really excited. So we stopped to watch their demonstration (they're the Diet Coke and Mentos guys, if you didn't know) because our kids love Diet Coke and Mentos experiments. Unfortunately, we waited in the hot asphalt parking lot as they talked and talked for at least 5 minutes and there was still no demonstration happening. I looked at the program and realized they'd been scheduled for a 45 minute presentation, which we were only 15 minutes into. So Kevin and I made the call to head inside instead of wait. I wish we could have seen their whole show, but some things just aren't doable with young kids who have been trapped in a car for several hours.

We tried to wander through a couple of galleries, but it was so busy that we couldn't stay long in each one. We tried the areas for younger children, but the noise of so many people followed us everywhere. It might have been a complete bust. Lucky for us, the day was saved by some pyrotechnics and a captivating staff demonstration. This guy was great - he lit dollar bills on fire, he launched two liter soda bottles 30 feet in the air, he had a crowd of over a hundred in the palm of his hand. Once he was through, the kids were ready to enjoy themselves for the last hour or so of our visit.

Also of note here was an important addition to our family. We had told Stellan and Rachelle they each had $25 to spend on whatever they wanted (excluding candy) at museum gift shops for the duration of the trip. So when Rachelle came running over with a sparkly pink and green stuffed sea turtle, I crossed my fingers that the price tag would read under $25. Luckily, it was only $18 (Stellan was very into the math of this whole spending money thing and could itemize every purchase made by both kids in full detail), so we let her blow the bulk of her cash only 3 days into the trip. Rachelle instantly named her turtle Annie and will now never parted from her sweet turtle.

In the end, I'd give Science City one and half thumbs up. That might have been different on a different less crowded day, so perhaps we'll have to come back and try again sometime.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cindy and Tasha!

One of my major goals for this trip is to see every relative (sibling, parent, grandparent, cousin, aunt and uncle) I have, so that has basically determined our route.

The reason we came to Springfield was to see my cousin Tasha and my aunt Cindy. We have always lived pretty far from each other, and we don't get to see them very often. It had been 5 years since their last trip to California, and since we aren't even in California to see them on their next visit, we decided to take matters into our own hands to see our nearest family.

We met them at Tasha's house for an evening of delicious barbecue, catching up and a rousing game of Apples to Apples. It was so great to hear what they are doing, how they've been, and just enjoy our time together. I will say that the time went by too quickly, so I was relieved when we decided to meet the next morning for breakfast at Aunt Martha's Pancake House before we headed out. Caramel pecan pancakes with the gang before we have to say goodbye? Yep, it was even better than it sounds.

Tasha, Cindy, thanks for having us! We love you, we miss you, we hope to see you someday soon. Thanks for making us feel so welcome, thanks for living somewhere so beautiful and fun, thanks for the memories.

Museum Report: Discovery Center of Springfield

We loved the Discovery Center of Springfield! It was the kind of museum my kids could visit twice a week and never get bored. Four floors of exhibits and we barely even saw two and a half. The kids built towers, bridges, airplanes, waterways, ramps, and parachutes. The girls loved the preschool area, and Stellan quickly became obsessed with a spinning exhibit. Let me explain it: there was a big flat metal disk that spins like a record player; visitors can then balance small wheel-like discs on their edge to make them rotate perpendicular to the "ground plate". If you do it right, once you let go of the standing wheel, it will continue not only to spin on its edge, but revolve around the plate. Once you've got a few of those wheels revolving, you can try rolling a billiard ball across the plate. It was Stellan's favorite exhibit of the entire trip.

The entire Cook family rates this one two very satisfied thumbs up. I only wish we lived closer!

Bonus story to reward you for making it to the end of this post: We were all on the first floor in the preschool room when Stellan mentioned he needed to go to the bathroom. Since Kevin had just taken Rachelle, it was my turn. Stellan and I headed to the second floor, and got sidetracked by the aforementioned exhibit. As we were enjoying it, I was chatting with a museum employee named Matthew. He and I were discussing this and that when we heard the intercom: "Attention parents: are you missing a little girl? She is blonde and three years old." Matthew and I looked at each other and laughed, as we talked about the crazy things one hears over the intercom at a museum. Half an hour later, Kev and the girls made their way up to find us. Imagine my surprise when he told me the missing girl was our very own RaRa. She had sneaked out the heavy glass door trying to follow Stellan and me, unbeknownst to Kevin, Stellan or me. She lost sight of us quickly and got herself lost, then found by a staff member. Oops. It was a good lesson to learn early on in the trip, and one we didn't repeat for the remaining 6 weeks.

Museum Report: Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Although it's not an ASTC facility, I couldn't resist a stop by the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. My instincts were spot-on, this place is fantastic! The exhibits inside are perfect for all ages, but my kids particularly enjoyed the puppets in the hollow trees and all the drawers with hidden fun things inside. The docents were very friendly and helpful.
Then we stepped outside into a beautiful sunny morning in the Ozarks for a hike along the trail to Lake Springfield. It was breathtaking; we saw deer in the woods, watched cute little frogs, saw plants we'd never seen, heard more different birdcalls than I could count, and watched the turtles and fish swim in the lake.
This is a really great spot for anyone with an interest in local flora and fauna, and the price is definitely right (free!). 2 enthusiastic thumbs up from the whole Cook family.