Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Going home, for a time. The vacation story.

In 1999, I accepted a job with USWest (soon to be bought out by Qwest, unbeknownst to me.) The job was in Denver, so we packed up our lives and moved away from friends and family that we had known all our lives and set out on a new adventure. Since that time, except for a couple of funerals, we had not been back to the Midwest for a nice long visit.

We had been planning for some time to take a trip back home, to visit our friends and family who still live in the Midwest; but for one reason or another we just hadn't been able to pull it off. Before we knew it, 10 years had passed. When we heard that my sister-in-law was getting married, we squeezed every penny, scrimped and saved and struggled to be able to be there. And we made it happen. We thought it would be awesome, the memory making trip of a lifetime.

What the heck were we thinking?

On Monday, August 2nd, we loaded the van, stuffed in all 7 of our children (the eldest was home for a visit and we were also taking her back to her home, but another had stayed with Grandma in Nebraska for the summer) into the van with all their stuff and hit the open road. There was no way we could afford to fly, so we thought a nice long road trip would be the ultimate family bonding experience.

On the way there, we would took the "scenic" route, having planned on stopping and seeing the sights and having some fun. However, after the first day of driving and not even making it a third of the way, we had to change plans and just drive so we would get there in time for the wedding. Which made for a completely different, and less fun, start to our vacation.

But I digress, let me start from the beginning. Instead of going directly east, we went south, seeking a lower (and less taxing on our new transmission) pass through the mountains. We live on a mountain plateau, but there are many taller mountains that we have to get through to go pretty much anywhere. The lowest pass within driving distance is the south valley in Albuquerque. So we started our trip by driving two hours south before heading east and north.

It was the middle of the afternoon by the time we started driving, so we figured we could do about 6 hours the first day and finish the trip the next. At first the kids did pretty good. They entertained themselves by coloring, watching movies, napping. But after about 10 minutes they got bored and the fighting and yelling began.We tried music, audio books, bribery, threats, and food, but nothing seemed to help. Everyone was hating the trip so far and it had only just begun.

It was about sunset when we stopped for the night. Our GPS was telling us we had only made it about a sixth of the way. (The original trip was supposed to be 18 hours, according to the GPS. It obviously lied.) We were all hot and tired and pretty well stressed out. Super 8, in beautiful Santa Rosa, NM,  to the rescue. We planted ourselves for the night and crashed. I don't honestly remember much about the hotel, just that I was happy to get out of the van and lay down.

Things always look better in the morning. Everyone had a good night's sleep in the comfortable, if somewhat crowded hotel room. Cooled, cleaned, and rested, we steeled ourselves for the long day of driving ahead. We piled our stuff, and ourselves, back into the van, said a prayer that our patience remained intact, and hit the road again.

Since we were behind schedule, we decided to skip seeing the sights and try to make up some time. Maybe, if we caught up some, we could have some fun later in the day. It was a nice thought, I guess.

From just a driving point of view, I guess we made pretty good progress. Counting our home state, we were in 4 states that day. However, we still didn't make it as far as we hoped. Sight-seeing would have to be taken off the itinerary.

We made it as far as Salina, Kansas. We did find a really nice Super 8 to stay in again. Did I mention we had a dog with us? When our eldest moved out, she left her dog behind and now that we were taking her back home, she was taking all her stuff including her dog.

The dog did pretty well, for the most part. It did pee on the floor in the room this time. But other than that, it was a relatively nice stay, again. Still crowded, but air-conditioned with plenty of warm water for showers. What else could you ask for?

Morning. Continental breakfast and loading up the van again. We were in the final stretch. Next stop, Nebraska, then our daughter's house in Iowa, then my in-law's for the night. Everyone was in good spirits as we crossed the border into Nebraska, knowing that this was home. Well, home in the sense that this is where much of our family lived and the rest were right next door in Iowa.

Again, no time to see the sights. We pushed on through Lincoln, then Omaha and on to Harlan, IA where our daughter lived. We dropped her and her dog at home, along with all her stuff. I guess we were maybe a little rude to her fiancĂ© and his family, but everyone, especially the little guys, were ready to be out of the van and we still had a little ways to go. So we used their bathroom and hit the road for the final bit of the drive. It was dark by the time we got settled at my wife's parents house. A late night dinner of take-out pizza and we were done. The traveling was over and the vacation was about to begin. Well, sort of.

We all slept in late the next day. In fact pretty much the whole day. It was Thursday and the wedding was Saturday. There was still a lot to be done, and we were still fried and exhausted when we did get up and moving. But we did help where we could and stayed out of the way where we couldn't. Not much of a fun start to our vacation, but we did manage to take a driving tour of the town, where we had lived for many years.

It was kind of surreal to see Missouri Valley after all this time. We had some fond memories, but many not so fond as well. We felt at home and alienated at the same time, or at least I did. We drove by the house we used to live in. It was pretty run down when we moved in, and us living there didn't help it at all, but now it was looking better, as if to say, "hey, you were dragging me down, and now I'm getting better without you".  We drove past the schools, through the nature preserve, and many of the places we used to work. Best of all we stopped to have a treat at the Dairy Den: chocolate/vanilla twist cones - mmmmmm, boy!

So we rested, recovered from our long drive, and helped with wedding plans as much as possible. Finally, it was Saturday and the centerpiece of our trip: the wedding.

The wedding was great. My wife's sister looked amazing and I had never seen her so happy - and she's a generally happy person! The wedding was in the same church that we were married in, had attended for many years, and my eldest and I were baptized in. It's a beautiful old building that has been very well taken care of through the years. It made me feel more homesick than anything else on the trip so far. But the wedding was not about me and my feelings, it was all about my sister-in-law and her groom. It was a very nice, short, ceremony. At the last minute I was asked to video tape it, but that was great because I love my camera. I didn't get the best angle, though, but it was literally at the very last minute. I hope it's good enough for the bride and groom as a keepsake.

The reception was even better. This was what we had come for, to celebrate sis-in-law's big day with all the extended family, or at least as much as could come. The kids danced, Miss D rejoined the clan after spending the summer away, the food was good, and I ate cake. It was great. My dear wife made the rounds, visiting family we hadn't seen in many years. I continued video-taping to give the couple some great memories for the future.

There were a couple of scary moments, but I hope they didn't ruin the day for anyone. First, one of the flower girls, the groom's daughter, disappeared. It turned out she had gone out to the car for something. Fortunately, someone found her relatively quickly as it was a very hot day and no one should be in a closed up car! Later, my youngest son disappeared. Turned out he was "helping" the DJ check the speaker by putting his ear right up against it. I hope the poor kid isn't deaf now.

We stayed late and helped clean up. Hot, tired, and exhausted, we crawled back to the in-law's house for the night. But it was a great day and probably our fondest memories of the whole trip.

The next day, we spent some time with my wife's grandmothers. We didn't stay long with either as the kids are just too much energy for anyone to handle for very long. We were both glad and saddened by the visits. Glad that we could have time with them, but saddened that so many years had gone by and neither is the same lady we knew before we left.

Later, we went back to our eldest daughter's house to hang out with her and her future in-laws. The are great people that we have known for many years, from way back when the kids were young, so it was great getting re-acquainted with them.

My daughter and her fiancĂ© live right across the street from his folks. They live in this nice, peaceful little trailer park in Harlan, IA. It seems like a pretty nice set up for everyone. We spent a long time getting caught up, the kids tried to get everyone to play our favorite card game, "bullsh**", and we had great food and just a great time. We stayed the night at our daughter's house so we didn't have to drive the hour back to Missouri Valley.

The next day, we went to one of my favorite places in the whole world, the zoo in Omaha. We probably could have picked a better day, as it was really REALLY freaking hot. But our plan was to visit the outdoor exhibits in the morning while it was still relatively cool, then visit the indoor exhibits, which were all air-conditioned, in the afternoon.

Overall, though, almost everyone had a miserable time. While it was fun to see how much the zoo had changed in the last 10 years, to see all the animals and the aquarium, it was really, honestly just a miserably hot day. I did get some great pictures, though. And the little guys loved the train (a really real steam train!)

We took our daughter and her groom back to their house and said our good-byes. We headed back to the grandparents house and crashed, having wished we were back in New Mexico where the temperature was a reasonable 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

School was scheduled to start the next week, so we needed to be thinking about heading home. So on Tuesday we all recovered from our heat stroke from the zoo. Seriously, we were all just drained and dehydrated so we literally did nothing the whole day. Maybe, in hind sight, this will be the best day as it was a really real break from our hectic lives.

On Wednesday we washed all our laundry and worked on repacking all our stuff. All our food that we had brought with us had gone bad, which was disappointing, but it was just some lunch meat and carrots, so not a huge loss. It took most of the day to clean up everything and repack it for the trip home. We spent the evening with a great old friend and her kids. Again, great food and lots of laughter. The kids had so much fun, they didn't want to leave.

On Thursday, we started out, saying our good-byes to the grand parents, but we had one more destination before we left the Midwest. We pointed the van for Lincoln.

We stopped for lunch at a very nice little place in Lincoln, NE and got to visit with my Grandfather and Uncle John. I hadn't seen either in more than 10 years and it was great to get caught up. Both are doing really well, considering the former is in his 80s and the latter tore himself up really bad in a motorcycle accident! We ate and visited for a long time before leaving for the afternoon.

We spent the evening with my folks. Lots of people stopped by to see us while we were there. Burgers on the grill and lots of laughs. One of my nephews and his mom were there. He bonded with one of my kids, even inventing a secret handshake for them.

My folks' house is awesome, big and old and full of antiques. Kinda stressful with all my kids and all that neat stuff to break, but everyone and everything survived, I think. We stayed the night in that awesome house, one more night of rest before the drive home.

The next day, it was time to go, but we did take a few minutes to visit mom's church which is literally about 20 feet away from her front door. Surprisingly large for the tiny community it serves, it looks like a great place to be! Or to have a wedding at (hint to a person who shall remain nameless).

Finally, we were on the road. Having learned our lesson the first time, we plotted out a shorter route on the way home. Or so we thought. It was still going to be a long drive, but we were hoping to make it in two long days of driving rather than three shorter days (though on the way up it was three longer days). Again, we would for-go the sights in favor of just getting there.

Nebraska is not the kind of place where to go you to enjoy a scenic drive. It's flat. Really flat. If you want to build a bowling ally, this is the place to do it. And this time of year there is nothing to look at except corn and soybeans. But I-80 is the fastest route to get where we needed to go, so that's the route we took.

When we made it to the Colorado border, we thought we were making good time, but suddenly, the van started to shake. Then shake harder. Then to the point where we couldn't drive it. It was a tire. It seems the rough Iowa country roads took a nice chunk out of one of the back tires and it was just getting worse as we drove along. We pulled into the next little town that came along.

Well, to make a long story short, we had to back track about 25 miles, stay the night in a truck stop motel, where they made us get two room for all of us, and didn't get back on the road until. after lunch the next day. But we did have new tires on the front and the still relatively new tires that were on the front were on the back. The rest of the trip was smooth, but we did lose a whole day dealing with the tires! Our return trip home was going to be just as long as our trip up.

Finally, though, we were on the way. We hoped to make some good time before stopping for the night. We avoided the cities and the Colorado interstates and took the highways, including one very long stretch that goes through an unincorporated town called "Last Chance" that isn't really a chance at all as there is no gas or anything there. But it was a nice drive through the state. Colorado is much more scenic than Nebraska, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the drive this time. Or maybe it was just the thought of being home.

We joined the Interstate again south of Colorado springs and pushed on to the border before stopping for the night in Trinidad. When we tried to check in to our favorite place, Super 8, they were full! But the nice lady called several motels in town to find us a room that was big enough for all of us. That was awesome because it saved us a ton of time as well as some money. The hotel was decent, but very clean and had three big beds for us in one room. One of the movie channels was playing Transformers 2 and it had free WiFi, so we were happy.

Anxious to get home, we tried to get an early start to our day, but didn't manage to get moving until about 9 am. But that was OK, we were only about 6 hours from home. Or so we thought. As we crossed the New Mexico border, we didn't know what was ahead.

We took a route suggested by my step-father. He wanted to see what the drive was like and we were the guinea pigs. We left the Interstate in Raton and took Highway 64 all the way into Bloomfield. Looking at a map, you'd think it was a great, direct path to get there. However, unless you are looking a topographical map, you won't know that it's a twisty, turny rollercoaster of a drive through many narrow mountain passes.

I don't have any pictures of the drive through the mountains because I was too busy holding on for dear life. If we had a smaller car, like our 4WD Subaru, it would have been awesome. But, driving the big, high profile van, it was a nightmare. There were a couple of hair-pin turns where I was sure we were going to go over the edge. But we survived the mountain passes and finally we were on the high plateau, close to home.

I don't know what time Sunday we finally pulled into our driveway, but everyone just came in the house and collapsed. A quick trip to pick up the dogs from the sitter and KFC for dinner and the trip was officially over. We had a day of rest on Monday and school started on Tuesday.

Overall, I don't know if it was the memory-making trip of a lifetime that we hoped it would be, but it was a nice break from our daily grind and very excellent to get caught up with friends and family. In fact, we didn't realize how much we missed home and have been talking about maybe moving back there in a year or so. I don't know if that will happen, but either way, the Midwest is truly our home in our hearts and minds.