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.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Museum Report: Pink Palace Museum

On our way through Memphis, we stopped at the Pink Palace Museum. This museum is kind of a blend of local history museum, art museum and traditional natural history museum. It wasn't our favorite museum; the kids were bored and asking to leave within 10 minutes. I don't have many glowing things to say, so I'll just quote Stellan, who perfectly synthesized every kid ever's perspective on museums: "I don't want to go a museum where you look at things; I want to go to a museum we you do things."

That said, they did really enjoy the 2 animatronic dinosaurs. They were mesmerized, in fact. Witness below.

Road Trip, Day 1

We made it to Missouri!

It took 17 hours, which isn't bad considering that Google thought it should take us 12 hours. We left super early, drove past Florida, through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and finally made it to Springfield.
On the way, about 6 hours in, we couldn't resist stopping at a sign that said to exit to see the "longest natural bridge east of the Rockies". It was beautiful - green, woodsy, cool caves, bridges over the creek. The kids enjoyed a chance to stretch their legs. We had a great time exploring and had a tasty picnic lunch to boot, the first of many, many PB&Js at a roadside table.

Our next stop was Memphis for barbecue at Central BBQ and a visit to the Pink Palace Museum. The food was good, the museum reports will each get their own post along the way. Of course, there were lots of potty breaks, gas stops and snacks between home and here. We drove nearly 900 miles today, and it feels good to be done with driving for a couple of days.

The kids are exhausted. This motel room looks like heaven. I hope the kids will let us sleep in, but I'm not too optimistic. If today was any indication, the rest of the trip is going to be pretty smooth sailing; the kids are troopers, love seeing new things, visiting new places, eating snacks in the car, and of course watching their favorite movies. Bring it on, road trip!

On The Road!

We're off! 6 weeks on the road, to California and back. The car is loaded (and a bit more than that), the kids are pumped, it's 4:30 AM and it's nothing but adventure ahead. Adventure, loads of family and friends, and stops at as many ASTC-reciprocal museums and science centers as we can along the way. No sleep until Springfield, MO, y'all!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kite Flying

We flew kites this evening on the beach. Not only were my kids adorable (as witnessed by the following photos), but Kevin was a hero. Twice. 
The first time, Stellan had buried his kite string handle in the sand, but it came loose. The handle then blew away until it hooked onto Rachelle's kite, and then startled Rachelle so much that she let go of her string. The two kites sailed away until the string on Rachelle's kite caught the cable that designates the dune restoration area boundary. Kevin hustled over and grabbed the kite that was holding the other kite, now impossibly high off the ground, and saved both kites without destroying the restoration project.
The second time, sweet RaRa just forgot she was supposed to keep holding on to the kite string and let go. Kevin chased it patiently until he got it back.
To keep herself busy because no one gave her a kite, Annie ate a lot of sand. And she toddled all over chasing us as cute as can be. I finally coerced all three kids into a single photo frame in an effort to get The Perfect Family Photo. That went about as successfully as you can imagine. I did at least get one photo of all three kids with their faces towards the camera. I'm going to call it a victory.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who Gave the Baby a Milkshake?

It might have been me. On the plus side, we know she's not ready for her own milkshake yet.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rachelle Is 3

How did it happen? When did my baby girl manage to circle the sun three times? My sweet RaRa is such a special, spunky, funny, charming, bright, creative, loving girl. She loves to dance anywhere, anytime; she sings, especially if it's a song from "Mulan"; she laughs non-stop all day. She plays make-believe with her Minnie Mouse and Daisy dolls, she jumps back and forth between Stellan and Annie depending on who offers her more interaction and entertainment, she is still my best cuddler.
She is also 3. That means that she knows what she wants, and if she doesn't get it, she will make her displeasure clear. She is strong-willed and independent. (I don't know where she gets that.) She is fearless and adventurous. She is so smart and quick to pick up on whatever you were trying to hide. She is hilarious, and wants to share her joys with the world. She is friendly and quick to make new friends.
Rachelle at age 3 is a constant wonder. I don't doubt she's going to give me a run for my money, but at the end of the day when we tell stories to each other cuddled in her bed together, it's all worth it. I love you, precious girl!

Kevin Rocks At Volleyball

This is apparently news to some people, so I will just make sure we're all clear on this. Kevin is a very good volleyball player. He is also a great volleyball coach. He misses his days on Team Condor back in Santa Barbara, but he now coaches the 53rd Wing EWS volleyball team. (Good luck coming up with a good cheer for that one.)
They recently played in the championship game of the intramural league on base at Eglin AFB. Sad to say that they did not win, at least they came in second.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Look Who's Forward Facing!

Annie is now too big for her infant seat and will be riding in a big girl booster seat for the next several years. She was so excited to see where she was going that she giggled in the car all day long.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Soccer Season Is Over

Stellan had a great soccer season. His team played well, only lost 1 game, and had a great time. Stellan turns out to be a pretty good defensive player and surprised me with some strong strategy as well as skill. But mostly he liked the trophy.