Dragging Kids above the Treeline

Where: Hoosier Pass

Who: The Whole Clan plus Pawpaw

When: July 10, 2014

In my Boy Scout days, hiking miles through the wilderness with 50 pounds on my back was no big deal. Fast-forward 25 years and put me at 12,000 feet above sea level, and it’s a different story.

We knew we’d have to give up our claim to be real travelers if we didn’t take in at least one hike during our stay in Breckenridge, so one morning we decided to hike Hoosier Pass on the Continental Divide, taking Pawpaw and all six kids.

The trail head for Hoosier Pass is about 10 miles south of Breckenridge and sits at an elevation of about 11,500 feet. We parked there and started up the trail, which rose gradually until we were at about 12,200 feet. I carried Son #5 and all our water on my back, and Vickie carried Son #6 in the baby carrier.

We were getting views like this all along the way.


About halfway up the trail, we crossed the treeline and got increasingly stunning views of several 14,000-foot peaks in the area. The one major obstacle we encountered was a huge snow drift that had never melted this spring and was crossing a big chunk of the path. We had to navigate our way across the drift very carefully. I ended up with a numb right hand from leaning into the drift so often to keep my balance. Of course, as soon as we got across the kids wanted to play in the snow.


The trail led us up to the top of a ridge covered with wildflowers, where Pawpaw did his best Julie Andrews impersonation. Unfortunately, our kids have never seen The Sound of Music–I know; we’re terrible parents–so they had no idea why he had seemed to take leave of his senses.


I also let Son #5 get out of the backpack and do his thing on the ridge top. Here he is looking at the wildflowers.


All in all, it took us about three hours to go three miles. Sons #3-4 got droopy before the halfway mark and needed some motivation along the rest of the way. It all worked out, but I will think twice before carrying Son #5 at that altitude again; I was exhausted afterward!

Relaxing at 9.600 Feet

Where: Breckenridge, CO

Who: The Whole Clan plus Mimi and PawPaw

When: July 7-12, 2014

I never thought I’d get chilly in July, but Summit County, Colorado, opened up new possibilities for me.

Thanks to the “bonus points” we got when we bought into Hilton’s timeshare network last year, we were able to spend five nights at Valdoro Mountain Lodge in Breckenridge. The town sits at around 9.600 feet above sea level, and it’s surrounded by numerous mountain peaks in the 14,000-foot range. It may be the most dramatically situated town I’ve ever seen.

View from the 2nd-floor balcony of Breckenridge's Visitor Center

View from the 2nd-floor balcony of Breckenridge’s Visitor Center

The temperatures were in the 70s and 80s during the day with very low humidity, and they dropped into the 40s two nights we were there. This was quite a different experience from summers in Montgomery, where July lows are usually in the 70s and humidity wraps around you like a blanket the instant you step outside.

Breckenridge was founded in the 1850s as a mining town, and that industry was its mainstay well into the 20th century. When the mining dried up, the town hung on (just barely) until snow skiing became popular around the 1950s. Breckenridge reinvented itself as a recreational center and has been going strong ever since.

We learned a lot of this history by exploring the free museum in the town’s visitor center. One highlight was a video explaining the challenges the railroads faced in getting their trains up the steep mountain pass to Breckenridge. Another was a kid area containing period clothes for trying on. Naturally our boys wanted to jump right into them.

Son #4 as a pioneer.

Son #4 as a pioneer.

Look for posts about our time in Breckenridge in the next few days. There’s lots to tell!

The Garden of the Gods

Where: Colorado Spring, CO

Who: The Whole Clan plus Mimi and Pawpaw

When: July 7, 2014

Pike’s Peak is pretty stunning, whether you’re first catching sight of it as you drive toward Colorado Springs from Limon, CO, or drinking it in from the balcony of the Garden of the Gods state park. We got to do both!

We spent one night in Colorado Springs with Jason’s brother-in-law and sister, who have lived there for several years. It was a nice time to catch up because they hadn’t made it to last year’s annual family Christmas gathering. This was their first time to meet Son #6, and Sons #1-5 had all grown significantly since their last meeting with their aunt and uncle. We managed to take some nice pictures in their front yard, like this one of Sons #1-5.


After saying good-bye to the locals, we took a quick detour to the Garden of the Gods state park on the edge of Colorado Springs. Because we had a full itinerary in front of us that day, we did not actually do the driving tour to see the interesting rock formations close up. We had to settle for views from the visitor center, which weren’t too shabby.



After a short stop there, we pushed on to Denver so Mimi and Pawpaw could spend a little time with a great-nephew who is living at a boys’ ranch there. Then it was into the Rockies!

Road-Trip Surprise: Fort Hays

Where: Fort Hays (Hays, KS)

Who: The Whole Clan plus Mimi and Pawpaw

When: July 6, 2014

Unless you are a boring person who’s not interested in much of anything, there’s almost always something worthwhile to see no matter where you happen to stop during your travels. Our stumbling upon an historic sight in Hays, KS, is a good illustration.

DSC_0887We found ourselves in Hays because it was a convenient place for us to attend church services during a Sunday on the road. Since leaving Branson, MO, on July 3, we had made stops in Searcy, AR, to pick up Sons #1-5 from Jason’s parents, and Texarkana, TX, to pick up Vickie’s parents, before starting a long haul to Colorado Springs on July 5-6. We stayed overnight in Wichita, KS, the night of July 5 and drive about three hours to Hays the next morning. We rolled up to the Hays Church of Christ just a few minutes before the service began. The members there were very welcoming, and once they learned Jason teaches history, they recommended we make a stop at Fort Hays on our way out of town.

So a few minutes later we pulled into a park across the street from the fort and enjoyed our picnic lunch. A nice surprise was seeing some buffalo penned up there. We couldn’t get close because of multiple fences meant to discourage both the buffalo and gawkers, but we managed to take a couple of decent pictures, including one of a calf.

After eating, we crossed the street to the remains of Fort Hays, which was built in the 1860s to protect frontier settlements and enforce treaties with the plains Indian nations (think Dances with Wolves, I suppose). At one point over 500 soldiers were stationed there.

DSC_0895Nothing remains of the fortifications today, but you can still see some of the foundations. Several important points are noted by markers, and some of the fort’s buildings are still standing. For example, some of the officers’ quarters pictured here are in pretty good condition. For most of the site, you had to read the markers and use your imagination. Unfortunately, the visitors center was closed on Sundays, so we were unable to avail ourselves of whatever information it contained.

Still, it was a good opportunity to talk to the kids about what the soldier’s life probably entailed. We asked them to imagine lining up on the parade grounds in full uniform on a blazing hot day (it was 100 degrees while we were on the site), and they were suitably discomposed by the thought.

Grab opportunities to see interesting sites you suddenly learn about along your route, even if you only spend a few minutes getting the lay of the land. Our experience at Fort Hays helped break up the monotony of two days of driving and gave us some new insights into American history.

Son #2 Goes to Camp (Part 1)

Where: WEBELOS camp at Camp Hobbs

Who: Son #2

When: June 12-15, 2014



This is an aerial map of Camp Hobbs.

Today I am going to talk about my Webelos camp. I came to Camp Hobbs on 6/12/2014, around 6:00, and then I had to take a swimming test. I got the color white, which means “learner,” which is the lowest rank in swimming. After that, I helped set up a tent that somebody else was going to sleep in. Then, some people raised the flags of the U.S., Alabama, and Australia. Everybody separated into 8 different patrols, and all the patrols were named for Australian animals. I was in the Bandicoot patrol, and my group made a flag with a picture of a bandicoot on it that said, “Go Bandicoots.” Everybody tied their flags to their flagpoles, which looked like big, long, wooden walking sticks.

I shared a tent with a boy named Ryan. We had lights out at 10:00, but it took me a long time to go to sleep. In the morning I woke up at about 6:30, and at 7:00 we had a flag ceremony. The leader gave us our chores for the day, and then she picked two patrols to say Grace. The two patrols who led Grace got to eat first. That day my patrol ate second to last, and the line was enormous. The line was also very slow. When we were served, the food was almost gone. We had sausage, eggs, and grits. Nobody got seconds, and everybody got milk.

After breakfast, we had a few free minutes, and then we got instructions for our activities. The Bandicoots usually went with the Platypus patrol. We went to Outdoorsman, Archery, and Forestry. At Outdoorsman we learned about how to build safe fires, that places have been burnt down by electrical stoves and griddles, safety rules, and how to make a fire that will burn for at least 3 minutes. Then, we went to Archery. First, the person told us the rules, and picked 4 people to start. I was one of those 4. We took turns shooting bows and aluminum arrows at hay-filled bags that looked like targets. I actually hit the target 2 or 3 times that day, but they all bounced off the target. The other boys’ arrows actually stuck into the target. At Forestry, we learned how to tell the difference between red oak trees and white oak trees. Then, we took a hike and identified poison ivy, red oak trees, white oak trees, stinging nettle, and poison nettle. The difference between red oak and white oak trees is that red oak trees have pointed leaves, and white oak trees have half-round leaves and no points on their leaves.

After all our activities, everyone came to the flag ceremony. Then we ate lunch. We drank chocolate milk this time, and I can’t remember what we ate. My patrol’s afternoon activities were Engineer and Aquanaut. We went to Engineer first, and lifted a pound of lima beans using an easy to make pulley and a big brick using a pulley. We also drew floor plans of our houses. Then, we went to Aquanaut. I had to go to the Learner area, because I failed the swim test. I swam for about 2 hours. I swam and swam and swam and swam! Then it was time to get out. We went and had a flag ceremony, ate supper, and went to bed.  See you later for the second half!!!

WARNING: Standup Comics Scare Babies

Where: King’s Castle Theater; Wyndham Branson at the Meadows

Who: Jason, Vickie, Son #6

When: July 2, 2014

DSC_0876July 2 was a busy day for us. In the morning we went to a show called “Dublin’s Irish Tenors and Celtic Ladies” at the King’s Castle Theater on Highway 76 in Branson. Compared to the other two shows we’d seen earlier in the week, this one was a low-key (and less expensive) production consisting of performances of traditional and popular songs from several genres. We were expecting mostly renditions of Irish and Scottish songs, but those comprised maybe one-third of the show. The two ensembles sang with backup instrumental tracks. They alternated throughout the show, occasionally sharing the stage for a big number.

One surprise was the performance of several operatic numbers. The female ensemble had a classically trained soprano who sang “Nessun Dorma” and a couple other familiar arias. Both ensembles sang “Funiculi Funicula” together. Probably the highlight of the show for me was the closing scene of the first half. It was staged as a pub singalong and was quite energetic. Photography during the show was prohibited, but I took a picture of the receiving line afterwards.

Our other big event of the day was a “Dinner with the Stars” at one of the Wyndham properties. For $15 each we got a buffet dinner in the resort’s activity center, followed by about an hour of standup comedy from a guy named Joey ILO. His show was billed as family-friendly and totally clean, so we decided to give it a shot. We must have been some of the first people to purchase tickets for the event because we were placed on the center of the front row of tables, about five feet away from the act.

DSC_0880The comic’s very first joke involved the various noises alarms in your house make. He started off making beeping noises for the smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector. The beeps got Son #6 interested, and he started leaning over to see around Jason, trying to get a look at the source of the sounds. Then the comic imitated a dryer alarm at the top of his lungs and (inadvertently) scared Son #6 to death. He started crying at the top of his lungs, and the comic had to stop the show momentarily so Vickie could take him out and calm him down.

After that inauspicious beginning, the act settled down and was quite funny. Afterwards we got a picture with him, and he apologized profusely for scaring Son #6. You can tell Son #6 still doesn’t know quite what to think of him at this point.

Jonah through Baby Eyes

Where: Sight & Sound Theater, Branson, MO

Who: Jason, Vickie, Son #6

When: July 1, 2014

JonahBransonHi everyone! My name is Stephen Jewell and this is my very first blog post! I am 9 months old and I like drooling, eating and sleeping. I learned to crawl – just last week in fact! So now I am mobile. Woohoo! My parents brought me on this trip with them, and left all my big brothers at Oma’s house. It’s kind of nice to have Mommy and Daddy all to myself for a change, but I have to admit, my brothers are much more fun. Since we have been here in the hills of Missouri, we have eaten some interesting food, heard lots of loud music, and we even saw a big production called Jonah. There were lots and lots of people at the theater and the stage was enormous! The coolest part of the show was when Jonah flew into the water in slow motion and ended up at the bottom of the sea. There were all kinds of glow-in-the-dark sea creatures that wandered out into the audience. Then the gigantic whale came out and circled us. That was pretty neat. The stage wrapped around the sides of the theater, and the set was quite a sight! I especially liked the great big boat that Jonah got on to flee as far from God as he thought he could. The boat rocked and turned and heaved and, finally, opened up to see Jonah asleep inside. I have to admit that I fell asleep a few times, despite the boisterous music, but by the time the bad people heard Jonah’s preaching and repented, I was fully engrossed in the story. I really liked the song about being free. But I was glad when the lights came on and we got up to leave. Sitting in a theater for over 2 hours is kinda tough for me. There were lots of noisy kids in the theater, but I really think only my 2 oldest brothers would have been able to sit through the whole show.

Aboard the Branson Belle

Where: Showboat Branson Belle, Branson, MO

Who: Dad, Mom, Son #6

When: June 30, 2014

Branson is part of the first leg of our 2014 family mega-trip. We left home on June 28 and drove to Searcy, AR, where we dropped off Sons #1-5 with Jason’s parents for a stint at a Christian day camp. (Actually, Sons #4-5 are too young for camp, but they get to play with a cousin for a few days at Oma and Opa’s house, something that is almost as fun.) We then brought Son #6 (9 mo.) up to Branson for a few days to relax.

Having bought into the Wyndham network back in March, we have some timeshare points to burn, so we reserved four nights in a studio in a development called the Falls. It’s a tiny place, but it feels spacious enough without Sons #1-5.

If you’ve never been to Branson (we haven’t come here in more than 10 years), be aware that you’re not allowed to leave without going to some shows. We are taking the opportunity while dragging only one kid to see some entertainment.

Our first excursion was a dinner cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle.

DSC_0850According to the video presentation we viewed on board, the Branson Belle was built in the early 1990s. The owners are the same family who run Silver Dollar City and several other area attractions. Fun facts about the riverboat: the tiller is solid teak (over 600 pounds), and when the boat was first launched from the dry dock, they used about a bazillion banana peels to grease the slide into the lake. It sails for dinner cruises up to three times per day and can hold 700 passengers, not counting the crew.

During the break between dinner and the show, we took the opportunity to go up to the top deck of the ship and enjoy the view of Table Rock Lake, formed by the damming of the White River in the 1960s.

Our waitress was very helpful in getting Son #6 situated with a high chair and kiddy food. We grown-ups got pot roast and chicken along with snap peas, mashed potatoes, and a sweet roll. Dessert was some kind of raspberry torte.

During the meal, a magician/comedian kept everyone entertained. The illusions were nothing special (I think I saw the sleight of hand once or twice), but he was quite funny. The competent 5-man house band (sax, piano, guitar, bass, drums) also played several instrumental numbers, mostly from the Dixieland and Big Band eras. Unfortunately, we had to endure the most over-played song in the entire genre (“In the Mood”), but the rest of it was great.

The show proper was titled “Made in the USA.” It consisted of musical numbers from two different acts interspersed with a couple more magic tricks. Most of the songs were either patriotic numbers or named for American cities, e.g. “Kansas City.” The two acts (both of which got backup from the house band) were a 5-man vocal ensemble and a female violinist/pianist/singer named Janice Martin. The vocal ensemble was surprisingly good, although they did use some extra reverb to cover up their mistakes. (I told Vickie afterwards that if I were up there dancing around the way those guys were, I’d be off pitch a lot more than they were. Seriously, the choreography in their Motown medley left me exhausted, and I was sitting still the whole time.)DSC_0865

For sheer novelty, though, Janice Martin stole the show. The emcee introduced her as the world’s only “aerial violinist,” and near the end of the set she did an act on silks reminiscent of Cirque de Soleil, except that she punctuated her acrobatic moves with riffs on her violin, which was strapped to her. At one point she played Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo from “Jump” while hanging upside down. It was definitely the sort of thing you don’t see every day. (Ms. Martin has recently published a children’s book about overcoming her childhood fear of heights. The title is How I Learned to Fly.)

If you enjoy food, shows, riverboats, or any combination thereof, we’d recommend the dinner cruise on the Branson Belle. With the discounts available from the concierge at our resort, we paid around $45-50 per adult ticket, so it wasn’t cheap, but any show in Branson will set you back at least $30-35, and this one came with dinner and scenery.

Two Weeks in Virginia without Breaking the Bank?

It’s that time of year: Spring Break, when students and families all over the country head for the beach or for Disney.

Piles Of Money by Talia Felix

Piles Of Money by Talia Felix

Even though I’m a university professor and our kids are home schooled, most years we haven’t done any traveling around spring break. The major reason is that I have usually taught at least one spring class that didn’t conform to the regular university calendar. As a result, I’ve had to stick around the campus to teach disgruntled students who were upset that they didn’t get the same week-long break their peers in the traditional calendar were getting.

This year, though, we’re making up for lost time.

This month we’re planning a seventeen-day trip to Virginia that will coincide with my university’s (one-week) spring break. I’ll still be teaching the whole two weeks, but my classes are nearly all online this semester. This trip will be an experiment to learn whether we can handle my workload and the kids’ schooling on the road. I expect to learn a lot!

Of course, we need a budget for this trip. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Lodging:             $650 (really!)

Transportation:   $450 (2,000 miles @ 15 miles/gallon)

Food:                  $300 (amount above what we’d normally spend at home)

Attractions:         $500 (resort fees, entry to historic sites)

Kids’ Money:       $100 (part of 2013 Christmas was giving the kids spending money for this trip)

Projected Total: $2,000

No doubt I am forgetting some things that will push this total higher, and I may be underestimating some of the listed items, too. But if our family of eight can pull off a 17-day trip for just over $100 per day, we’ll be well on our way to becoming proficient budget travelers.

What am I missing here?

Commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen

Where: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site (Tuskegee, AL)

Who: The Whole Clan

When: February 15, 2014

We struck out in our effort to visit the George Washington Carver Museum during our recent trip to Tuskegee, but an unexpected ceremony at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site helped to make up for it.

It turned out that our visit to Moton Airfield, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained, coincided with the grand reopening of Hangar Two after eight years (!) of renovations.

The new exhibits in the hangar include life-sized planes, several displays describing the Airmen’s achievements (such as flying more than 1,500 combat missions), and recorded interviews with surviving members of the unit.

New exhibits in Hangar Two

New exhibits in Hangar Two

We had no idea that the reopening would be the day we visited. The area was very crowded, and Hangar Two was closed to the general public when we first arrived because there was a special function taking place inside for the unit’s members and their families. We weren’t disappointed, though, because there was plenty to do over in Hangar One. We saw several full-sized planes there as well as well as recreations of the rooms where pilots were taught and where they waited for their planes to be cleared for action before training runs.

I found the manuals showing profiles of enemy airplanes and ships particularly interesting. A pilot had to be able to distinguish friend from foe in a fraction of a second in order to know whether to engage or not.

Because of the special event that day, volunteers were giving away model planes to the kids and even helping to put them together. Sons #1-4 each got a plane and worked diligently with help from friendly strangers to put it together.

Son #4 admires his completed model airplane in Hangar One

Son #4 admires his completed model airplane in Hangar One

I suppose that now I need to get around to seeing the recent Hollywood film about the Tuskegee Airmen. I also located an online article about the event we stumbled on if you would like some more details about it.

One more thing: this site, just like The Oaks, is absolutely free to visit. Our only expenses for this day trip to Tuskegee that let us take in two great historic sites were a morning of our time and some gas money.