Thursday, February 19, 2015

Road + Schooling =

Something happens to the children when we are in the middle of a long-haul. They sit in their car seats for 6 hours, restrained, like lightning bolts trapped in a cloud. At first they sit and play with toys while mom sleeps and dad listens to NPR. Then, they start to fidget and get loud as their pent up energy reaches critical levels. Before you know it they're fighting, kicking seats, throwing toys, and pouring water on Hannah. We yell at them or try to offer them treats for good behavior but it's too late, the metamorphosis is complete, they have turned into monsters. 

When we arrive at our destination, we yell at them to go play and they keep coming back and kicking us while we are down. I issue them threats using a deep grunting voice that I deliver through my teeth. They respond by imitating me and laughing. This usually prompts them to cue up the ‘Best of Dad Grunts’ album where they growl hits like ‘Don't Pee on the Trail’ and “Get Over here". They're no kinder to their mother as they throw things around inside the RV while she tries to unpack and, in between attacks on the parents, they terrorize the dog. It is exhausting for everyone. 

Our current long-haul is a 2500 mile stretch of the United States that runs mostly along Interstate 10. We are about halfway through this 18 day trip that takes us from Central Arizona to Central Florida and we have seen some pretty cool stuff. We stay two nights in each place which equates to us driving every other day with a day in between to check out the area. It sometimes feels a little rushed but I think we do a pretty good job of enjoying the journey.
Replaced and upgraded the suspension on the truck. It's like driving a new car. 

Our first stop was outside of Tucson at Kartchner Caverns State Park. The big attraction there is an extremely well preserved cave system that features a massive column named Kubla Kahn. The only way to access the caves is if you go on a guided tour with a Ranger. The tours are intimate and spaced out so you gotta get there early to get tickets. The biggest take away from this place is an increased awareness of how fragile caves are. Their caves are pristine and they are serious about protecting them. For the boys, this experience ignited a curiosity in caves inside them that was fun to watch. On the tour, Noah was flexing his knowledge in front of the crowd. The rangers kept saying, “In a few more years, you’ll be back here guiding the tours.”
No cameras allowed in the caves but we spotted some wildlife in the park. 

Our next stop was White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. We checked into the KOA in Alamogordo. The people that run this park are top notch. They are beyond friendly and, because they are awesome, they have a bunch of sleds that they loan out to campers. So, we spent a day sledding at White Sands and it was a blast. This is one of the few national parks that allows pets on the trails and in the backcountry so Hannah got to come along. It was nice having her along. She brings a certain energy to our posse that reminds us all to step back and appreciate our surroundings.

After White Sands we spent a few hours in Roswell. It was about 30 miles out of the way from our next stop and I felt like I had to go see it. We sometimes talk about things that we regret not seeing (Glacier National Park and Crater Lake often come up) and I just didn’t want Roswell to be one of those things. Our visit to Roswell consisted of eating lunch aboard the RV inside of a dirt parking lot, buying a sticker and a post card from a gift shop and then eating frozen yogurt at a mall that reminded me of the movie Napoleon Dynamite. So, I can’t give it a fair assessment. I think what you’re supposed to do is spend the $5 to go see the UFO Museum and uncover a government conspiracy about aliens but I couldn’t get my kids within 100 feet of the entrance. What can I say? They are terrified of aliens, especially if you’re trying to convince them they are real.

We continued on to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We stayed at an RV park that basically offers you hookups and a parking spot so you can camp outside of the National Park. I spent the morning catching up on some work while Jessica and the boys brushed up on their cave knowledge. After lunch, we headed down to do some caving. Carlsbad Caverns offers a self guided hike that dives about a mile into the caves and puts you 700 feet underground. Then, there is a 1.5 mile loop that is outstanding. You spend the whole day walking along and seeing the most eerie and incredible things in this dimly lit, natural landscape. Then, you hop on an elevator that delivers you directly to the visitor center. The fluorescent lights and souvenirs appear in front of you and you wonder if it was all just a dream.
Hiking into a giant hole in the ground.
Enjoying the view

This column is over 60 feet high
What giant cave is complete without a snack bar?

With New Mexico in our rear view, we crossed into Texas on a back road that was lined with oil fields and packed with tanker trucks. This was the first driving day where the wind was not a serious issue. On most of the other days we have been crossing flat, barren landscapes on the edge of low pressure systems. I perfected the art of steering into an 18 wheeler when it passes so you don’t get blown off the road. It’s counter-intuitive but if you do it just right, you will experience little to no sway as you get passed.

We landed just outside of San Antonio at Medina Lake. What’s interesting about Medina Lake is there is no longer a lake there. And this thing just recently dried up. 5 years ago this was a deep lake where people brought their boats and had vacation homes around. Now, all of the marine related businesses have closed their doors and there is a big valley where the lake used to be. Everything is for sale and the campground was basically empty. Fortunately, we didn’t come to see the lake, we just needed a place to camp that was within striking distance of San Antonio.
Funky Cold Medina

Wow, San Antonio! Our favorite downtown so far. I had no idea this city was so awesome. Everything you need to see is neatly laid out in a clean and walkable city-center. We started at the Alamo which didn’t immediately grab the boys like the caves did but after a few minutes, they were asking questions and expressing a genuine interest. We walked around and started reading things and then watched a video about the battle. It made me realize that I didn’t know JACK about the Alamo so I was learning alongside the boys. Afterwards we headed to the River Walk which I had no idea existed until my friend, Andreanna. told me about it the night before. I am glad she did because this was a pleasant surprise. We took a boat tour, ate dinner and had ice cream in this spectacular setting and then drove back at night with sleeping children in the backseat.
Sorry, Pee Wee, no bike here. 
The ducks enjoyed all of the tortilla chips that Sammy dropped. 

Today, we left San Antonio and I drove in some of those crazy winds I mentioned earlier. As I drove I thought about when I first learned about caves. I remember a worksheet that showed poor illustrations of stalagmites and stalactites. Below the drawings were some clever ways to help me remember which was which. The beauty of a living, limestone cave cannot even be captured on a photograph, let alone a grade school ditto. Naturally, when I had learned about them all those years ago, I can’t say I was particularly interested. Noah and Sam will remember it as two full days of caving where they learned a stalagmite grows from the ground because it ‘mite’ grow up.

I thought about the Alamo too. Not the battle itself, but our trip there. I knew nothing about it because it got skimmed over in history class while I slept with my head on my desk. For my kids, it was a day where they got to see Davy Crockett’s rifle and walk inside of a room where most of those 200 men took their final breaths.

Roadschooling happens so naturally that it's easy to miss. It’s that moment when everyone is getting involved in the same thing and being kind to one another.  Everything is cool and calm. These are easier to come across when we are hiking a trail inside of a cave or talking a tour of a historic battleground. I realized this while I was driving today and just as I realized it, the boys began to stir in their car seats. This was my chance. I could tell they were trying to get our attention so I tuned down NPR and addressed them directly. I started asking them what they were gonna do when we arrived and what they missed most about Michigan. They were telling me about a ninja school that they founded where they learn to fight bad guys. I asked probing questions about their imaginary school that prompted them to be creative. Before long, we were laughing about the absurd things that came out of their brains and we were having a good time. I let them take turns picking what radio station we listened to and kept the conversation going.

When we arrived at the campground, outside of Houston, I assigned Sammy to team dad and Noah to team mom. We involved them in our routine of setting up camp and they responded well. When I offered Sam the drill to lower the stabilizing jacks, his eyes lit up. I smiled as I thought about the stress free car ride and the family bonding we were doing. I looked over at the RV across from us that had vinyl lettering all over it directing me to the website and I thought, it must be a sign.

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