Californication

Californication

It’s been about seven weeks since we left The Golden State, but I honestly started feeling the pangs of leaving immediately after crossing the state line.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not the traffic congestion, high gas prices, outrageous camping fees, the gangster neighborhood we did our laundry in or the constant thought of earthquakes that left my heart back there.  It could be the fact that in only a matter of hours I could find myself hiking through the forest, strolling along the beach, gallivanting around the city or exploring in the desert. Or maybe I simply felt spoiled by having affordable, local and organic produce at my disposal, a farmer’s market in every community, and a Trader Joe’s on virtually every corner.

We spent more time in California than we have in any other state in our 17 months on the road and are all in agreement that a return visit is absolutely necessary.  Factoring in winter weather conditions and our job at the tree lot (see Bri’s post), made for the unfortunate but necessary decision to bypass the mountains this time around.  We came in from the north in Humboldt county and basically hugged the coastline down to San Diego.  Here’s what we experienced in just two short months…

Redwood National Park

I love trees, all trees!  I remember spending many days as a kid in a tree fort,  My dream home is a log cabin (on wheels of course),  My very first crush was The Lorax!

Giant Redwoods
Giant Redwoods

The Redwoods are amongst the oldest and tallest living things in the world and to stand alongside these ancient giants one can’t help but feel the majesty of their beauty.  We spent an entire day in the Prairie Creek State Park area exploring the forest.  We stood inside the trunk of one of the gigantic elders, located the remnants of yet another giant which at one time housed an entire family, and hiked a foggy, misty trail which resembled something from one of the  “Jurassic Park” movies.

Where's Mom?
Where’s Mom?

A couple of days later we took a drive along the infamous “Avenue of the Giants”,  a 31 mile stretch of road nestled between these towering beauties.  Half expecting this to be a tourist trap, we planned on driving straight through….until we discovered the groves.  Founder’s Tree Grove was our favorite. A half mile nature trail, complete with an informational guide, provided for a very educational walk along the plush forest floor, abundant of uprooted and fallen trees.

Founder's Grove
Founder’s Tree Grove

I personally felt very much alive in the coastal redwood forest and found it difficult to leave….that is, until I discovered that we were also in Big Foot country.

He aint so Big!
He aint so Big!

Sacramento

We ended up spending a day here because we were graciously offered an awesome opportunity by Birkenstock for the kids to participate in the making of their own pair of Arizona sandals.  This experience, thanks to Anne, our contact at Birkenstock, and the owners of Birkenstock Midtown Sacramento, provided for a hands on lesson in what it takes to run a successful retail business with the added bonus of walking away with a custom-made quality product.  Even Daisy was given VIP treatment as California is truly a dog-friendly state. 

Arizona Birkenstocks
Arizona Birkenstocks
Birkenstock VIP
Birkenstock VIP

The second half of the day was spent in Old Sacramento, a historic landmark along the Sacramento River set within the time of The California Gold Rush and The Transcontinental Railroad.  We explored this quaint little district rather quickly along the docks, over the railroad tracks and through the alleys.

Old Sacramento
Old Sacramento

San Francisco

Having only one day to explore the city we took advantage of the public transportation system (minus the cable cars as the line was excruciatingly long) and covered many miles on foot.  Our first stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from being one of the most popular Facebook profile picture settings, the Bridge Pavilion houses various exhibits on its history and construction.  Mercy’s assignment for that day was to find out why this bright orange wonder is named The Golden Gate Bridge. It didn’t take her long to find her answer and I am betting that unless you are either a Californian or a geography buff, you wouldn’t know that it is named after the Golden Gate Strait which is the entrance from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.  We braved the gusty winds and the three busloads of tourists ahead of us and walked out onto the bridge to feel its grandeur.  It truly is a technical masterpiece!

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

Haight Ashbury.  I’ve been wanting to get back there for 20+ years.  Unfortunately, the kids weren’t as hippy happy as I was to hang out in thrift store, iconic rock star heaven for any length of time.  We hit a local market, a few hip shops and a record store and called it good.

Hanging in the Haight
Hanging in the Haight

Fisherman’s Wharf.  We donned our tourist caps for this colorful waterfront community and spent a few hours popping in and out of various shops alongside spectating interesting street performances.  We made our way to the infamous pier 39 where we all decided on a restaurant as we had been looking forward to a fresh seafood meal for a while. Looking back, I find it quite humorous that we all ordered New England clam chowder and Maine lobster bisque.

Being in San Fran during the Christmas season provided for some interesting holiday entertainment amongst a few of the homeless characters.  Here is Bri’s spot on impression of a jolly street panhandler we encountered and grew very fond of…

Suffice it to say, this performance is sure to become a part of the Dunn family Christmas tradition!

Pacific Coast Highway

One of the most scenic drives in the country,  the PCH actually extends from the southern tip of Baja California to the top of the Olympic peninsula….roughly 2500 miles.  We knowingly ventured along portions of this highway while in Washington and again in Oregon, not realizing that it was just a preview of what would take our breath away when we hit the infamous route 1 along the central coast from Monterey to LA.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

We were hesitant at first to take the 5th wheel along the hairy, twisty, turny, cliffy, misty, and at times foggy stretch of this highway. But, seeing as our max speed would only be around 25 mph, we figured we’d have enough time to jump ship if we got too close to the jagged edge.  So, we went for it.  And what a trip it was! Mountains to the left, ocean to the right, cyclists up ahead, idiotic, convertible sports car speeders passing you from behind.  All part of the experience I’m told!

The plan was to spend a couple of days exploring and hiking in the Big Sur region.  The only problem with that was that we didn’t plan.  We never really do plan. This time though, it was a holiday weekend (New Year’s) and that is when everyone else plans.  So, we were out of luck and couldn’t get into a campground.  I must confess that situations seem to work out for us as I feel we truly benefited from not being able to get into the campground. Instead, we pulled off on the side of the road just as the sun went down and set up camp for the night .  In the morning we awoke to this! 

PCH near Big Sur
PCH near Big Sur

You can’t get an unobstructed view like that  from a campground, even if you pay for it….which we didn’t!.

Heading further South that morning with our destination in mind and feeling totally sight satiated, we hadn’t planned on any more stops.  That is, until we noticed groups of people congregating along the pull-offs….and I’ll be damned if I’m missing anything!  So, I insisted Bri pull off at one and I believe everyone is thanking me that we did.  Otherwise, we never would have witnessed the unbelievably large colony of northern elephant seals covering the shoreline.  What an incredible sight and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  The female harems had just arrived and had given birth to the cutest shiny black pups!

Seal Pup
Seal Pup

Ventura

Said to be one of America’s most livable communities, Ventura has lots to offer.  Miles of surf-friendly beaches, neighboring mountains, and scenic bike paths combined with a mild year-round climate make for some healthy and happy residents.  The city also prides itself on supporting local businesses and promoting economic, social and environmental sustainability.  No wonder Bri and I both have placed Ventura at the top of our list for future,  part-time residency!

Trying to decide on the perfect place to hang out for a few days wasn’t easy.  One thing we discovered early on in this state was that we had to be prepared to pay higher camping fees.  Beach front with electric and water at an affordable rate was going to be a challenge…so we thought.  After making Bri drive up and down route 1 and pull in and out of tight areas we found Hobson Beach campground where we settled in amidst a mecca of care-free and friendly recreational surfers.  The price was attractive, the view spectacular, and the vibe sunny.  It was definitely one of the harder places to leave.  For me, exercising on the beach every morning and watching the sunset over the Pacific every evening is paradise.

Beachside living
Beachside living
Ventura Sunset
Ventura Sunset

Hollywood

Hollywood Baby!
Hollywood Baby!

Much fun was had by all four of us in the famous LA district which is nicely detailed in River’s post.   I will add that if it wasn’t for the hospitality of a dear friend who also played tour guide for the week, we would never have had the opportunity to experience as much as we did during the time we were there.  Aside from the studio tours, activities on Hollywood Blvd and our adult night out on The Sunset Strip (where Bri and I were hoping to bump into some rock stars…..instead we got Ron Jeremy),  I thoroughly enjoyed my morning hikes in Runyon canyon with Daisy where the view never got old. The drive through Laurel Canyon up to Mullholland Drive was also a highlight for me as I was envisioning a time when the bohemian neighborhood was alive with some of my favorite iconic rock legends, like Jim Morrison.

Runyon Canyon Lookout
Runyon Canyon Lookout
Sunset Blvd. fun
Sunset Blvd. fun

San Diego

We were all eager to get to San Diego for a few reasons.  First being, we had decided mid-way through working at the tree lot that this would be the place we would splurge, for the first time, and spend an entire week in a resort, complete with all the amenities.  In doing my research, I chose the one boasting of its central location, super sites, spa facilities and superior customer service.  Upon our arrival (after getting lost due to the lack of signage pointing us in the right direction), we soon discovered that the central location was nestled between the busy freeway and the active railroad tracks, the super site required our neighbor to move his vehicle in order for us to back our rig in, the spa facilities consisted of a two person hot tub in the pool area where we could barely carry on a conversation due to the noise level of the traffic, and the superior customer service was more than lacking.  I should have been clued in at the time I made the reservation when after I declared my budget wouldn’t allow for the weekly fee, the representative actually asked me what my budget would allow and gave me a pretty sweet discount.  Nonetheless, we decided to stay as we had a pretty busy agenda planned and we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of picking up and moving.

A visit to The San Diego Zoo and a whale watch excursion were two more reasons for our stay in the area.  The zoo had been on our list since the planning stages of the trip and it surely did live up to all of our expectations.  Our day spent there is nicely detailed in Mercy’s post.    As for the whale watch, we got lucky on two levels. Groupon happened to have a half-off deal for the 3 hour cruise and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was migration season for the gray whales and they were passing through from Alaska on their way south to Baja which made for many sightings on our tour.  Such beautiful creatures they are.

Big Whale
Big Whale

Bri and I had our own motives for hanging in San Diego and that would be to re-live some memories from our first trip where we spent a large chunk of time living in and around the parks and beaches.  Surprisingly, we didn’t really notice any major changes.  It seems it is still a very popular hangout for those living out of their vehicles.  We actually found ourselves trying to locate a couple of characters we befriended there back in 1992 and then realized that one guy would be well into his 90s by now.  Hey you never know….once you’ve gotten a taste for the nomadic lifestyle, it’s hard to leave it! 

We hit the farmer’s market in Ocean Beach, took a drive through Mission Beach and enjoyed a local brew in Pacific Beach.  My favorite….Dog Beach!

Pacific Beach Alehouse
Pacific Beach Alehouse
Dog Beach
Dog Beach

Joshua Tree National Park

The trees, the trees, the Joshua Trees, I’ve never before seen trees like these!

The only thing any of us knew about this National Park was that it was home to these very unique looking trees that U2 had titled one of their albums….and that it was in the California desert.  The rest remained sort of a mystery to us and I refrained from researching anything but the campgrounds before our arrival so as to make it somewhat of a surprise.

The name Joshua Tree was reportedly given by a group of Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century as the trees’ form reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky.  I guess this was before Dr. Seuss’ time.

Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees

Two deserts come together in this park, each with its own ecosystem. The Colorado, being at the lower elevation and occupying the eastern end of the park, is generally ten to fifteen degrees warmer and also where we chose to camp at Cottonwood Springs.  Unbeknownst to us, this was not where we were going to find the trees.  Their special habitat is located in the  Mojave, which is higher up in the western part of the park and about fifty-five miles from Cottonwood Springs.  So, being that it was nearing sunset, we decided to wait until the next day to drive to the west end and explore.  We hung out in the campground listening to the desert sounds and witnessed a fearless and apparently very hungry coyote rummage through everyone’s camp-fire pit.

Not so coy coyote
Not so coy coyote

The drive was spectacular.  To see and feel the crossover of the ecosystems and the changes in scenery was very interesting.  In the same day, we went from an arid land abundant of beautiful Ocotilla and Cholla cactus to a cooler, moister climate plentifully bestrewed with the park’s namesake trees. 

I could never tire of looking at the trees.  Each one, individually unique in size and structure, tells a story of survival and resilience.  Of course  Bri tried to locate the famous one on the cover of U2s album “The Joshua Tree”,  but to no avail.  We did have a lot of fun re-creating that cover in total “Dunn” style…..which so proudly graces the front pages of this blog.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree

Of other interest throughout the park is the amazing geologic landscape.  Huge eroded boulders lying on top of one another and naturally formed dikes within the granite made for some fun climbs.

Joshua Rock?
Joshua Rock?

We managed to fit in two fairly strenuous hikes during our stay, one in each of the deserts.  Ryan Mountain in the Mojave, took us up over 5,000 feet to the summit where the views of mountains and valleys in the background were complimented by the Joshua Trees in the foreground.  It was cold and windy up top.

Ryan Mountain summit
Ryan Mountain summit

In The Colorado, we hiked Mastodon Peak.  3,000 feet up this hike required some basic rock climbing skills.  The views from here included mountains, jagged rock formations and The Salton Sea.  It was warm and sunny on top.

 Mastodon Peak hike
Mastodon Peak hike

Slab City

Where to start?  Known by its inhabitants as “The last free place”, it’s no city at all.  Formerly a military training base during World War II, the only remains are the slabs of the deconstructed buildings.  There is no electricity, no water, no sewer, or no trash removal.  It is simply off-grid living in the middle of the desert where, during the winter months, you will find the likes of many nomads including RVers, squatters, hobos, and train hoppers hanging their hats (or bandanas).  However, there are a handful of permanent residents who weather the 120-130 degree summer temps. and therefore retain the authority to impose the ethics and courtesies that all visitors are expected to follow.

Welcome to Slab City
Welcome to Slab City

Slab City is also home to a fairly well-known attraction and most likely how we discovered it…  Salvation Mountain.  Created solely by one man,  this 50 foot tall and 150 foot wide painted adobe clay structure has a recurring theme of “God is Love” and is Leonard Knight’s tribute to God and his gift to the world.  It is listed as an official “Folk Art of America”, draws hundreds of visitors daily and has been featured in the movie “Into The Wild”. 

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Speaking for my family, I can say that none of us was deeply moved by the message.  That is not to say that Leonard’s passion and dedication is not worthy of admiration and appreciation and his Seuss-like art style thoroughly fun and enjoyable.

Adobe Art
Adobe Art

There were many interesting sights in Slab City and certainly no lack of interesting characters.  We kept busy during our stay and by the time we left we were somewhat familiar with the “neighborhoods” and “communities” and all the happenings.  There was a one-man radio station, and a Saturday night talent show.  There were Canadian clubs and singles clubs. There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy.   There was trash and there was trashy.  There was clean and there was dirty.  There was young and there was old.  

Slab City Art
Slab City Art
Slab City Junk Art
Slab City Junk Art

If we took anything away from this out of the ordinary boondocking experience, I would say that it’s the realization that everything is not as it appears on the surface.  Our trepidation upon our arrival was totally overcome by the time we pulled out four days later and we now know that desert life is crawling with creativity and irregularity….in the good sense.

Slab City living
Slab City living

I would say that California was the state that exposed us to a multitude of diverse experiences in such a short time.  My hopes are, that if the four of us don’t get back there together, the kids will make it a point to at least get out to Yosemite National Park someday.  As for Bri and I, we’re already California Dreaming about getting back there.  And this time you can bet that Wine Country won’t just be a drive through!

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A Tale Of Trees

A Tale Of Trees

I can remember Christmas Tree shopping as a kid when my father would drag us to at least six lots before finally settling on the perfect tree. I remember the feeling of excitement as we drove from the lot across from Quick Check to another lot in Westfield, then maybe over to Bowcraft (was there a tree lot there?) and up to a couple in New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Bounding around in the red M&M delivery van (once or twice with our Fanwood cousins) we would spend the entire evening combing the area for what would be the centerpiece of our Christmas holidays.

With those memories in mind, I enthusiastically agreed when Tan asked me if we wanted to manage a Christmas tree lot in California. I pictured us eagerly assisting joyous customers as they picked out their trees on our small lot. I envisioned myself happily pulling out the various trees for people as their small children stood staring in wonderment, the family picturing each one I displayed for them covered with their own ornaments.

These thoughts were a hazy, faint memory as I lugged the 114th 7’ Noble Fir off the delivery truck in the pouring rain. With only 164 more of various sizes left to unload, and the knowledge that we would be getting another delivery of roughly the same amount in a few days, I had to ask myself what in the name of Saint Nicholas was I thinking?  Sloshing through the mud and dumping the load from my rain soaked shoulders onto the growing pile of trees, I couldn’t help but think about last years’ Christmas in Florida and how the spirit of the season remained so elusive until Christmas Eve itself… but oh how good that sun and warmth would feel right now! Let me back up a little...    

We probably should have known this operation was going to be a bit bigger than anticipated when a steady stream of teenage boys starting showing up at the RV to fill out job applications. Tan and I figured we’d do the majority of the work ourselves so as to maximize our overall profit. How many guys would we really need? After all, how hard could it be? Show a few trees, carry one out to a car, tie it on if need be. No big deal. The kids could certainly help if needed, right? Right! But oh so wrong.

Parked near the lot next to us was a storage trailer. Once work began getting the lot ready it finally dawned on me that this was much more than we thought. Fortunately the area was already set up with fencing, posts and railing, etc. We just needed to set up the tents, decorate, put out the water bowls(?), set up the flocking machine (Flocking? What‘s that?), run power to the flocking machine, run power to the pre-drilling machine(?), make sure the chain saws were running, make sure the cash register worked, make sure we had flame retardant to spray on a tree if necessary(?), learn how to change the nets on the netter(?), set up the stereo… On and on it went as we looked at each other, our eyes glazing over with the knowledge that we had no idea what we were doing and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  However, salvation came in the form of Dale. A relative of the lot’s owner, he was assigned the initial task of getting us organized and help us get the lot ready for business. Without his help I don’t know how we would have gotten our act together in time to open for the crushing throngs of people that wanted to purchase their trees on Black Friday.

Twas The Night Before The Trees
Twas The Night Before The Trees

Then the trees arrived… and arrived. And arrived some more. Not only did we carry the usual assortment of 6 – 8 foot trees, we had 9, 10, 11, and a few 12 foot trees. By this point we wisely had a full staff of high school and college age kids to help unload. My knees grew weak at the prospect of having to load (or even deliver) one of these monsters onto someone’s car or truck. My only hope was that when we sold any of these gargantuans that I would have enough staff to give me a hand. Of course the small trees were not a problem and even Mercy was able to earn some keep by unloading the 3 – 5 footers.

Tree Unload
“And just how many more 10 footers are in that truck?”
Tree Unload
“Really Riv, I can take this one by myself”
Our Crew
Our rockin’ crew

From that day on, our lives were filled with nothing but the constant stream of Christmas music, the ever present aroma of the trees, and the intermittent sound of the chain saws. And flocking…

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

I had never heard of flocking before but was soon getting my first lesson on how to flock a tree. Flocking is the practice (it’s actually an art…) of spraying fake snow on a tree. I don’t mean the spray cans you buy at your local craft store, this is an operation that I soon discovered Californians take very seriously. The dry flock is drawn through a hose into the flocking gun where it meets another intake of water and the combination is then sprayed on the tree in such a manner as to give it the most realistic snowed-upon look as possible. The flock being a chemical, I had to don a mask, goggles, and coverall (actually a black plastic trash bag with head and arm holes cut out) so as not to breathe or get the wet flock on me. At one point I actually had an EPA guy tell me to make sure I had my mask on while spraying this stuff!

Flocking Tree Dance
Flocking Tree Dance

Soon enough we were ready. The next few weeks were spent running the lot from 9 – 9 every day. Tan would open while I hung back at the RV working my regular job. With the mornings not an especially busy time for tree shopping, I could work peacefully while getting the occasional interruption if she needed help with a larger tree or if things got a little too busy. The kids would do some school work then head down in the afternoon. River was able to make quite a bit of money being the only helper on the lot before any of the staff showed up. The Bay Area weather being mild, it was pleasant to get outside a bit and then spend my entire afternoons and evenings in this merry holiday atmosphere. As holiday music constantly played, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the good feelings that the holidays bring. Perhaps I was making up for last year!

Mercy Fir
“Don’t I look great in green”

The town of Walnut Creek was a most pleasant place to spend the season. With a little shopping area within walking distance, we could get groceries and other necessities quickly and conveniently. Although the lot was located a few miles from the actual town center, when time allowed (not often and after 9pm!) we enjoyed running down to do a little Christmas shopping and perhaps grab a beer.
Finally as the season wore down and after selling a multitude of trees, it was time to bring things to a close. Late Christmas Eve, after our final day of selling trees, I was taking Daisy for her usual nighttime walk. I had circled the block as I usually did and upon returning to the lot saw a car parked there. A man emerged dressed all in black. Black cap, black coat, black pants. The only way to describe him was that he had the look of a cartoon burglar from the 1950’s. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he were wearing a mask!
Ducking into the shadows so as not to be seen, I watched as he quietly made his way over to the small pile of remaining trees (that we had been selling that day for the bargain price of $25). With no more fencing to keep people out, the trees were left in the open for anyone’s taking. I silently followed a little behind and when he reached down to grab a tree, I asked if I could help him. He looked up with a pained expression on his face, realizing that he had been caught. He kindly asked if I minded him helping himself and I decided that since it was Christmas Eve and we wouldn’t be selling any more trees anyway, he was welcome to it. He was very thankful, explaining that his daughter was hoping to wake up to a Christmas Tree and that he wasn’t capable of buying one earlier.
As he started to drag the tree back to his car, feeling an overpowering wave of Christmas spirit, I reached down and picked up the other end. Being touched by his story and not being able to bear seeing the tree so mistreated, I couldn’t help myself. Suddenly and ironically it dawned on me that I was doing exactly what I had asked him… I was indeed helping him. Helping him to steal one of our trees!
Going to bed that night with the comforting feeling of knowing that for the first time in a month we had no responsibilities the next day, I thought of what an exhausting, yet exhilarating experience it was. The kids learned a lot about working a small business. With Mercy helping with the register she got a hands on lesson in customer service and continued her math lessons by making change without the aid of a machine. Riv also got his fair share of customer service by helping people with their trees and loading them into cars. Once he realized the tips he could make, it was sometimes hard to keep him off the lot!

Tree Tying
” I get the tip, right Dad?”

Tan and I got to work together all day, every day and I enjoyed the evenings when it was just the two of us for the last hour, listening to the Christmas music, and trying to keep warm in the little shed, occasionally stepping out to help the few customers that came tree shopping at night. The physical work and time spent outdoors contributed to my overall feelings of healthiness and self satisfaction and I can’t remember a more joyous holiday season in years. The only thing that could have improved it was the presence of friends and family who were hopefully enjoying their own feelings of goodwill back home.

Together at the Tree Lot
Pete’s Trees- Walnut Creek CA
Daisy, our festive greeter
Daisy, our festive greeter
My AFFs (Animal Friends Forever) at the San Diego Zoo!

My AFFs (Animal Friends Forever) at the San Diego Zoo!

When we first pulled into the parking lot of the San Diego Zoo, I could hardly wait to step out of the door of the truck. I have been waiting to come here since before we even left Maine.

After we went in and got our tickets, we headed to the zoo tour bus. We decided to go on the bus first because it covered 75% of the zoo and we would know where everything is. It was a double decker bus and we got to sit on top!

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When we got off the bus we made our way over to the “big cats.” On the way there, we passed an exhibit with TONS of monkeys in it.  My favorite ones are the Capuchins. They are the cutest monkeys you could ever imagine, and they were definitely the most entertaining! They would pick the bugs out of each others fur and eat it, and the way they eat is so human-like!

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I really liked the gorillas too. The troop leader is always a male and called a silverback. The silverback of the troop we saw was sleeping the whole time with his foot pressed against the glass. I felt kind of bad for all of the gorillas, because how would you like it if millions of people came to see you all day, everyday?

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My favorite animal there was the cheetah. It would just pace along the fence watching your every move. Did you know that every cheetah at the San Diego Zoo has a dog as a companion? Well, when we were there the cheetah we saw was paired with a husky mix. River explained to me that they do this so the cheetah is more calm around people. Sadly we didn’t see the dog, but the cheetah was absolutely amazing! The tiger was also one of my favorites, but it didn’t do much except sit on top of a rock and look down on everyone. I was half expecting it to lick it’s lips thinking we would all make a great meal, but it didn’t.

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There were also two different kinds of leopards, the black leopard and snow leopard. We saw the snow leopard, but not the black one because it was inside it’s little “house” the whole time. The snow leopard was not white it was grey, and had a tail that looked almost as dangerous as the claws. It was really long and very fat at the end.

After a while we finally got to the pandas. There was a mom and a cub. The baby was a lot more active than the mom. He would roll around, climb on stuff, and run around the pen. All the mom did was sit there, eat bamboo and watch her son.

photo 1

When you think of polar bears do you think of big, white bears? Well that’s basically true except the “big” part. They are not just big, they are HUGE! Did you know that full grown polar bears can get up to 10 feet?! I don’t know how big the one we saw was but it looked pretty close to 10 feet! The way they get their food is very interesting. They’ll wait outside of a seals breathing hole for hours until a seal comes up, then they will grab it. They must be so patient! If I tried to do that I’d be getting up within 5 minutes trying to find food elsewhere.

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On the way over to the elephants we passed more monkeys. This time there was an otter in the same exhibit as the monkeys. It was funny to see an otter and a monkey living together. Just like the Capuchins he was very entertaining, and happened to be my Dad’s favorite animal there. He was super cute especially when he would float on his back down the river, and catch the food the monkeys threw him.

Then we got to the elephants. There were about 3 of them and we were watching one of them eat hay. It’s really interesting how they use their trunks to take the food then put it in their mouth. The San Diego Zoo has 2 different types of elephants, the African and Asian. Two ways to tell them apart are the shape of their ears and their tusks. African elephants have bigger ears that are the shape of the continent of Africa and both males and females have tusks. Whereas Asian elephants have much smaller ears and only the males have tusks.

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After, we went over to the giraffes. There were a few adults and a few babies. They were all so cute and a lot bigger than I thought they would be. A giraffes neck can be 6 feet long and weigh 600 pounds! Imagine having a neck that tall weighing that much!

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I thought the oddest looking animal there were the rhinoceroses. They have a protective layer of skin on the outside which looked like a huge layer of fat, it was very weird. Well I can’t say the rhino is the oddest looking animal there was, because the camels came pretty close. One of them was very old and had a lopsided hump. Through my research I found out that his hump is like that because he is old and his activity level is low, therefore he uses all his stored energy (which is in his hump) causing it to droop. He also had spit coming out of his mouth. I mean literally hanging out of his mouth, it looked like toothpaste. YUCK! The reason camels do spit is to surprise, distract, or bother whatever the camel thinks is threatening it.

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I had such a good time at the San Diego Zoo and it is definitely on my list of places to come back to.

Experience Music Project

Experience Music Project

EMP museum

Being in the Northwest, we  decided to visit Seattle, Washington. One of the main reasons being that Mercy wanted to go to the Space Needle. While we were there we went to the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum. Most of the exhibits were based on musicians from Seattle, but some were not. We managed to get a home school discount which saved us about fifty dollars. The museum has exhibits mostly on music and film. The first exhibit we went to was about Nirvana. It featured in-depth explanations of how Nirvana basically revolutionized punk rock. There were copies of fan letters, some of the band members’ personal belongings and even the remnants of a guitar smashed by Kurt Cobain.

Nirvana

I do have to say, my favorite music exhibit was the one about AC/DC. It has photos, posters, instruments, and even some of Angus Young’s costumes like his school uniform and ‘Super Ang’ costume. We also went into the Sound Lab. It is an area filled with instruments in sound proof rooms that allow people to take a virtual lesson on that particular instrument, or just jam with other people. There was also a guitar gallery which displayed all kinds of guitars from the late 1700’s to the present. I was amazed by what some of them looked like. There was also an exhibit about Jimi Hendrix, but I didn’t go in because I’m don’t really know enough about him to really be interested.

 Angus

My favorite part of the whole museum was the exhibit about the movie Avatar. If you have seen the movie you should know what everything I’m talking about is. I was amazed by the 3D models of structures and even a 13 foot tall model of an AMP Suit used by the soldiers in the movie. They also had examples of the clothing size worn by Jake Sully’s Avatar. There was a station where you could learn phrases from the Na’vi language, and an area where you could act out a scene from the movie using motion capture. You would stand in a small area and follow the prompts that showed up on the floor as the computer tracked your movements.

Avatar

Aside from Avatar, there was a whole other area filled with science fiction movie exhibits. They had the hilt of Darth Vader’s lightsaber from The Empire strikes back, a few of the guns used in Men In Black, and even the costume worn by Christopher Reeve in one of the Superman movies. They also had an area with exhibits on horror movies, which I didn’t spend that much time in. This museum was what I enjoyed most about Seattle and I would recommend it to anyone who is spending time there.

Vader's Lightsaber Superman

The Black Hills…”Native” vs.” American” History

The Black Hills…”Native” vs.” American” History

MOUNT RUSHMORE

Mt. Rushmore

VS.

Crazy Horse

CRAZY HORSE

                  OR

White Man vs. Red Man?

Power vs. Honor?

The Beach Boys vs. Steven Tyler?

The Black Hills of South Dakota behold many miles of impressive scenery and a wealth of wild west history.  It is also home to two majestic stone mountain carvings drawing millions of tourists annually to marvel at the beauty and perhaps embrace the history that so inspired these masterpieces. And although we don’t like to put ourselves in that “tourist” category (yes, we have totally become travel snobs), I will say that our initial reason for visiting the area was to do just that.

We decided to start at Mt. Rushmore, the monument that epitomizes what most Americans consider the ultimate memorial to the birth, growth, development and preservation of our country. Admission to the memorial is free, however they do get you with an $11 parking fee which was not covered by our National park pass. Apparently, federal funds weren’t used in the construction of the lot which is a concession operating under a contract between the National Park Service and The Mt. Rushmore society.  What???   That aside, the sight of the 60 foot heads of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln from The Grand View Terrace is well worth paying the parking fee.

We began our tour the same way we do at every National Park we visit.  We spent about 45 minutes in the visitor center, first checking out the exhibits followed by a viewing of the park movie detailing its history, culture, science and nature. Then we headed out to walk the 1/2 mile Presidential Trail loop, admiring the different viewpoints, waiting patiently for our turn at the prime photo spots and shooting a few takes for the  “On the Road with Mercy ” series.

This  is what we learned while we were there…

Gutzon Borglum was an incredibly talented sculptor.  It took 400 workers 14 years to complete. The conditions were at times very harsh but there were no deaths. They blasted with Dynamite.

This is what we did not learn while we were there…

The land on which Mt. Rushmore sits was wrongfully taken by our government from the Lakota Indian tribe .

Gutzon Borglum was at one time an active member of the KKK.

17 miles away sits Crazy Horse,  the memorial honoring the culture, tradition and living heritage of  North American Indians.  When finished (which most likely will not be in my lifetime) it will be the largest outdoor sculpture in the world.

Being the colossal size that it is, you can actually get a fairly decent view  from the road.  That being said, we had already planned on going in for a closer look  as for some reason or another Bri and I bypassed this one 20 years ago. Paying the $27  wasn’t  all that difficult to swallow once we were informed that every bit of the fee goes to the non-profit foundation which funds construction of the monument as well as various educational programs and scholarships. The fact that we were able to leave with a chunk of the granite blasted from the mountain was an added bonus.

Once you’re on what they refer to as their campus, you have access to the entire visitor complex which consists of  The Visitor Center, The Indian Museum of North America, The Native American Education and Cultural Center and Korczak’s Studio/Home. Again,we began by viewing the 20 minute orientation movie, “Dynamite and Dreams” which left us all just sitting in our seats trying to absorb the magnificent feat set out upon by one determined man whose motto was “Never Forget Your Dreams”.  We spent the next couple of hours on campus.

This is what we learned while we were there….

Korczak Ziolkowski was a gifted sculptor who worked briefly on Mt. Rushmore.  He was invited by  Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to carve a memorial celebrating the spirit of their Sioux Warrior Crazy Horse.

Ziolkowski accepted the invitation and singlehandedly took on the project first by constructing roads to the base, stairs to the 600 ft. summit and a cabin to live in. He declined two offers of  10 million dollars in federal funding. He married and had ten children. He worked on Crazy Horse until his death and left detailed plans to carry on his work. His wife Ruth, now in her 80s and 7 of their children are dedicated to continuing his dream. When completed, all four presidential heads will be able to fit inside Crazy Horse’s head.

Crazy Horse was an inspiration to Native American tribes. A legendary leader who wanted for his people to remain on their lands and live freely without having to seek out permission of the white man.  He was stabbed and killed by an American soldier while under a flag of truce.

This is what we didn’t learn while we were there…..

Hmmmmm…..nothing comes to mind.

We ended up extending our stay in The Black Hills region where we camped in an area held sacred to many Native American tribes. We experienced the land, the legends, the history and the culture of these indigenous people and I personally left with a spiritual connection.

However, there is one thing that does not sit well with me and perhaps the reason for me writing this post. From a moral standpoint, how was the US government able to   continuously violate treaties allowing the Indian tribes to keep their own land every time an opportunity for personal gain was revealed?  How ironic is it that the very culture of the indigenous people revolved around respecting and protecting  the land and today these reservations are some of the most run-down and impoverished  areas of our country.  I have seen this personally. This, my friends is American history and it is unfortunate that for centuries this feeling of entitlement may be the only thing that has “trickled down”.

As for the music reference, these “rock” stars  have their own style and perhaps each a different following…..  And, although there are no documented photos of Crazy Horse, I’m guessing he would be the one with the more eccentric wardrobe,  the flashier peace pipe and the more indiscriminate fan base.

Crazy Horse

Desert Wildlife

Desert Wildlife

For the past few weeks we have been staying at a ranch in the desert in Arizona. It was fun at first, but now I’m tired of it because it’s hot, dry and windy, we’re 40 miles from the nearest town, and there is no one around except for the animals.

The past few days it’s been around 90-100 degrees outside. Sometimes it’s so windy that we have to stay inside the R.V. until it dies down. I mean I don’t mind wind but let me tell you, here it’s bad! The other thing about the wind is that it’s really dusty here, so whenever the wind blows the dust moves with it.

We have been doing some things here in Arizona rather than sitting around on the ranch all day doing nothing. Tucson is only 2 hours away so about a week ago we spent the day at the Sonora Desert Museum in the Saguaro National Park. A saguaro is a type of cactus that you can only find in the Sonoran Desert.

The desert museum is basically just a long hike with all different kinds of wild animals on the way. The part that is really cool is that they are in their own habitat with just a fence around them! There was a ton of all different kinds of animals from prairie dogs to javelinas.  A javelina is a pig like animal although it is not a pig at all. It is an ancient ancestor of the hippopotamus. We also saw mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, beavers, rabbits, bighorn sheep, and lots of birds! If I had to choose a favorite it would be the mountain lion. He was just sleeping up on a rock, and we were right next to him with only a thin layer of glass between us! At first I wondered how it got up on the rock it was on, then I read something that said mountain lions can jump 20 feet in the air if they are standing on their hind legs!

I also liked the reptile exhibit, which was a room with a bunch of display cases that had snakes, spiders, frogs, toads, and scorpions in them. There was more than a dozen different kinds of snake, and more than half of them were rattlers. There was one case that was really dark with white scorpions in it, and when you press a button a black light turns on and the scorpions glow bright green.

This desert museum is in the book called 500 places to take take your kids before they grow up, and they were right! I am sure glad I got to go there before I grow up! And I hope to go back there again. Oh, and speaking of desert wildlife, yesterday while I was feeding the goats and sheep, in the feeding trough I spotted a tiny newborn jackrabbit! It was SO soft and cute! First I asked my mom if we could keep it as a pet, and she looked at me like I had 2 heads! Then I researched what to do and it said to put the rabbit back where you found it because the mother put it there herself. She scatters them in different places so predators (like my dog) will only get one instead of the whole litter. She avoids the babies at all times until it is time for her to feed them. She does this so she won’t attract predators herself. 

 
Treasures in Tennessee

Treasures in Tennessee

A week ago we went to Tennessee. It was so much fun! We stayed with some friends who live just outside of Nashville. They live on a hill so we had to back the R.V. up the hill. While my dad was driving and my mom and River were directing him, I got to sit inside watching.

We wound up sleeping inside their house (for four nights) because it was freezing outside in the R.V. The majority of the things we did in Tennessee was at their house. First we went panning for gold in the creek they have in the back woods, and found a lot!

Then we went metal detecting with our friend who goes a lot. We got someone’s permission to go on their property but only my mom and I went. We found lots of Civil War relics! We found two bullets one was fired and one was not (I was the first person to touch them in 150 years!!), a square bolt from a wagon wheel or a cannon wheel, a lead poker chip which is just a melted and flattened bullet, a nail, a wire hook (it was used to hold the wire on a fence in place on the so the livestock wouldn’t escape), a clip to hold a soldiers sleeping bag in place, and a piece of a camp tool. We also saw rocks that were arranged in a circle and we were told that they used to be camp fires. They were all from the Civil War!!

The next day we went in the back woods to explore. We saw three caves and I went in two of them. One of them was a coyote den! We knew because there was coyote scat everywhere! In that one there was also stalactites in it! I was a little bit scared to go in it and I kept saying can we get out now? Our friend told us that the caves were used for the early settlers to hide from the Indians. 

I liked Tennessee a lot. It sort of reminded me of Maine in the Fall.