Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The End of Our Road Trip

It took two days to drive home from Colorado Springs, spending one night in Kansas City.

For our last vacation dinner, I had made reservations at the famous Kansas City barbecue restaurant, Jack Stack Barbecue. I ordered the Jack's Best combo platter for everyone. It consisted of their Crown Prime Beef Rib, baby back ribs, and beef burnt ends.

My wife liked the prime beef rib the best, Kai liked the baby back ribs and I thought the burnt ends were really tasty. Kai didn't much like the "burnt" (or charred) flavor and said he preferred the St. Louis barbecue we had way back nearly a month ago on the first night of our trip. My wife and I preferred the Kansas City barbecue over St. Louis, but we all agreed that the brisket we had in Austin Texas was still tops for barbecue.

The two-day drive home through Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and finally, our home state of Illinois, was flat and boring, especially coming after all of the scenic places we had been to in the past couple weeks.

It's always a mix of emotions coming home from a vacation. It's nice to get back to the comforts of home and to sleep in your own bed, but it's also a bit sad to think that the vacation has ended.

In the swimming pool of our last hotel in KC, after my wife had left the pool to go shower, Kai told me "Dad I really enjoyed the vacation. It was nice to get away from everything that had been stressing me out at home."

Wow, that was great to hear. Before the trip he had complained about the length of time we would be gone and how he wanted to come straight back from LA instead of the more extended road trip I had planned. That he acknowledged that he enjoyed it was huge for me.

He didn't enjoy every second of it - there were a few instances of anger, mostly related to the weather (heat in Utah, rain in Colorado), but that was to be expected and it was actually less severe and less often than I had feared might be the case.

Kai endured the bumpy 4x4 ride and enjoyed white water rafting. He took many photos at every place we went, not just of plushes in the stores but of actually scenery.

When I think back to the road trips of my youth, I know that I didn't enjoy all of it at the time, but grew to appreciate the experiences more as I grew older. I think Kai gained a lot from the experiences we had on this trip, and hopefully will have fond memories when he looks back on it all.

Across 12 states, driving over 5,000 miles, going from beaches at sea level to the tops of 14,000 foot mountains, from LA freeways to mountain backroads... it was the road trip of a lifetime.

I'm glad we did it.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Pike's Peak and Garden of the Gods

On our last full day in Colorado, we went to the top of its most famous mountain, Pike's Peak.

The drive up the winding mountain road is thrilling and very picturesque.

The area at the top is under construction as they are building a new visitor center, so we parked a few miles down and rode a shuttle to the top. The shuttle system worked well, as they always had a van ready to go. We didn't have to wait either way.

The view at the top is quite spectacular.

It is hard to pick which direction had the best view.

The donuts sold at the top are famous so we had to have some. They were tasty, and made tastier by the fact we were able to eat while enjoying the view.

The drive down was as challenging as the drive up. Definitely need to use low gear. There were a number of adventurous bicyclists on the road.

After we came down from the mountain, we went to Garden of the Gods, a free public park in Colorado Springs that has towering sandstone formations.

This one is called Balanced Rock.

From parts of the park, you can see Pike's Peak in the distance.

The rock formations were beautiful, but after seeing so many spectacular places in the past two weeks, this place didn't stand out.

It was also very crowded and not enough parking spaces.

Afterward, we skipped lunch and went for ice cream instead. We went to the historic part of town, Old Colorado City, to an ice cream shop that Kai found the night before. This place, The Ice Cream Lab, specializes in rolled ice cream.

The wait was long but that was because they make everything to order. Here's how they make the rolled ice cream.

First, they grind ingredients, strawberry in this case, and then add cream.

Then they spread everything into a thin layer on a cooled platform.

They add in syrups like strawberry and chocolate. Then they roll the thin ice cream.

The end product looks like this.

Kai said it was the best ice cream he's ever had.

And so we had a pretty good last day of vacation, on a vacation that was mostly good. But I think everyone is ready to go home as well.

All that's left now is the two-day drive home.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Day of Adventure - White Water Rafting and Royal Gorge

This was to be our most adventurous day of our vacation. And it some ways, it turned out to be more adventurous than planned.

In the morning, we went white water rafting on the Arkansas River through Big Horn Sheep Canyon near Canon City, Colorado. We took the half-day trip through Echo Canyon River Expeditions, the largest rafting outfitters of the many in the area.

We gathered at the meeting point at 8:45 AM and got our equipment. Shortly after 9:30, we boarded the bus that would take us to the departure point.

While on the bus, the lead guide went over the safety instructions. Among the key points he made were to never stand in the river because the flow of the water is much too fast. He said that should we fall into the river, we should first try to swim toward our own raft, and alternatively to any other nearby raft. If someone has fallen in, you should yank them back onto the raft by grabbing the shoulder harness of their floatation device and not try to grab their hands or arms.

He also said that the flow of water was good for this time of year, around 1200 cfs (cubic feet per second).

At the launch point, all of the guides unloaded the seven rafts that would be traveling together. We found out that we would be riding with two pairs of others, so there would be seven on our raft plus our guide, Caroline.

Caroline checked all of our PFDs (personal floatation devices) to make sure we had them on securely and then went through instructions on how to paddle and the commands she would be giving. And then we were off.

In the above photo, you can see me on the left wearing white. My wife is the third from the right. Kai was sitting in the back with the guide and is not visible in this photo. (All action photos were shot by Echo Canyon's shore photographers who are situated in a couple exciting spots).

Caroline explained that we would be going through three class 3 rapids and the rest would be classes 1 and 2. I chose this trip as it was intermediate level. Classes 4 and 5 rapids would be for more experienced rafters.

Kai had been a little nervous about going rafting, but I showed him videos from similar rafting trips and he seemed okay that it wouldn't be too scary.

As we got our initial taste of rapids, he seemed to enjoy it. The people sitting in the front of the raft got the most wet, but we in back also got splashed at times. The following is a photo from the on-board GoPro camera. Kai is in back. Hmmm, he's not paddling when the rest of us are. :)

When we successfully made it through our first class 3 rapids, it was very exciting. I think Kai enjoyed it, too. As we headed into the second class 3 rapids, you can see him smiling in the following picture.

And then, suddenly, in the same rapids, I was tossed from the raft.

The photographer was in the perfect spot to capture the sequence of events.

In the following photo, you can see that I was mostly submerged. Not sure if that is a hand or the paddle sticking up.

In the next shot, you can see that my wife moved to the right side of the raft to try to grab me.

But wait, do I see both her and Kai laughing in the above photo?

The raft was moving too fast though, and my wife couldn't grab me. In the following photo you see a man in red at the front of the raft move into position to prepare to grab me. You can also see that I was again mostly submerged.

The guide kept her cool but you can see how challenging it would be trying to safely navigate the raft through the rapids while also trying to get close to me.

When I fell in, I didn't panic and felt confident that I would be rescued. I trusted that my PFD would keep me afloat until I could be pulled back aboard. But as this went on, I realized that the speed of the rapids was making that very difficult. And I felt myself being pulled under water quite often. At one point I even lost the water shoes I was wearing. I still kept calm, but it sure wasn't a good feeling.

The worst part came when the raft went right on top of me. I was trapped under water! I tried to use my hands to push out from underneath the raft. I don't know if my own efforts made any difference but soon I was free.

Before long, I was swept downstream, somewhat far away from the raft.

In the onboard GoPro video that we bought, you can hear our guide calmly direct the rafters to paddle toward me.

After what seemed like a long time, but was really just over a minute, the raft pulled up to me and the man in red grabbed me by the shoulder harness just as instructed during the safety lesson on the bus. It turned out that he was a military police officer for the Air Force. So thankful to have him on the raft, as well as Caroline, our guide who had stayed calm and steered the raft safely to me.

Once pulled on board, I could not speak. I was exhausted. I could feel my heart racing. Caroline kept asking me if I was okay. I nodded my head but she kept asking. Finally she asked me to give her a thumbs up if I was okay, which I did.

It took a while, but I was able to breathe normally again and resumed my paddling. I enjoyed the rest of the journey.

Kai took extra precautions after that. Anytime we came to more severe rapids, he ducked down into the safety of the raft.

Afterward I asked Kai if he enjoyed it, and he said "yes, sort of." Well, I'll take that.

He later told me, "Dad, you were really brave." Thanks, Kai!

After we were back, we had lunch and then headed over to the Royal Gorge where they have the highest suspension bridge in the US. The following photo is taken from the bridge.

Kai and my wife are scared of heights and Kai was especially nervous about walking over the bridge. The bridge is really wide and doesn't sway at all, so my wife was fine crossing it but Kai wanted to hold our hands.

The following photo shows the depth of the gorge as seen from the bridge.

My plan was to do the zipline back from the other side. Kai was nervous but I had shown him videos of it and he said he was willing to try. But when we got there the people who had been waiting in line for a long time told us that the wait for us would likely be around three hours. So, we scrapped the plans for the zipline and took the gondola back over the gorge instead. Kai was very happy about that!

From there, we drove a little over an hour to Colorado Springs. We went into the historic Old Colorado City part of town and had dinner at a Greek restaurant. Of course, we had to have a saganaki appetizer.

It rained again as we were having dinner. Kai was concerned but didn't get as upset as he did before.

We're down to our last full day in Colorado before beginning the long drive home.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Great Sand Dunes, and Paying Tribute to My Mom and Dad

After being recharged by the hot springs at Pagosa Springs, we continued our journey back east.

We went to Great Sand Dunes National Park to see the tallest dunes in North America. In addition to the sheer size of the dunes, the other thing that makes them stand out are that they set against the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Medano Creek runs through the base of the dunes. It is often dry this time of year but was still flowing this year.

We were pressed for time so we did not walk right up to the dunes. It is a bit hard to tell the size from these photos, but if you look carefully you may see some people climbing the dunes - they look like ants on an anthill.

We had climbed dunes at White Sands National Monument a few years ago, so we felt that since we had already experienced the sheer exhaustion of walking up a huge sandhill, we did not need to do that again here. :)

Upon leaving the dunes, we had a long drive ahead in very remote areas so we had to get lunch where we could. We found Lu's Main Street Cafe in the small town of Blanca.

We had very low expectations but the food turned out to be quite tasty and much better than expected. My reuben sandwich was delicious as was my wife's club sandwich. Kai even voluntarily spoke up to say that his hamburger was really good, something he doesn't do very often.

After lunch, we went on a mission to go to a remote spot in the Sangre de Cristo mountains that my parents loved, and where we had camped as a family during my youth. I had very fond memories of the time there many years ago, and wanted to share this place with my own family, as well as the scatter the ashes of my mom and dad.

We drove about two hours off the main highway, mainly on gravel back roads. I think my wife was very nervous about our minivan holding up over the rough roads, but she didn't vocalize her concerns.

Near the top of the mountains, I found the spot. We parked on the side of the road and climbed up the knoll where I had camped years ago. It was quite a hike up, but Kai didn't mind at all this time. He was actually quite excited about seeing the ashes and being able to film the ceremony. It shows that it isn't so much the physical challenge with him as when he has a positive attitude, he can do the physical activity.

When we found the right spot, we snapped this photo.

After that I scattered the remains of my mom and dad.

Kai later told me, "I wanted to tell you Dad, that I'm sorry for your loss."

And that capped a pretty good day.

Friday, August 9, 2019

What Was Supposed to Be the Easy Day

I had planned what I thought would be an easy, relaxing day for our travel from Telluride. But things with Kai don't always go according to plan.

We started the day by driving from Telluride to Ouray where we would then drive the Million Dollar Highway, the 25 mile scenic byway from Ouray to Silverton.

The highway has many curves and some great scenery, most of which we couldn't get pictures of.

We reached the historic old mining town of Silverton around noon. We weren't hungry so rather than have lunch, we went to the Old Hundred Gold Mine where we would take a tour of an actual gold mine that ran for about a hundred years until the late 1970s.

We had to take a bumpy gravel road to get there and when we arrived, we found out that we would have to wait about 50 minutes for the next tour. I asked my wife and Kai if they wanted to wait for the tour and they both said yes. So, I bought the tickets.

While we waited, we could pan for gold, or at least some minerals. But then it started to rain.

Kai got extremely mad and loudly used swear words to express his displeasure of the entire state of Colorado, its weather, and how bad this vacation was. When we expressed our displeasure for his language and his anger, he really spiraled downward. He talked about hating his life, hating us, how we hate him, and many other very negative things. Many of this was said loudly enough for the other people to hear. It was one of the worst public meltdowns we have had in quite a while.

My wife and I tried to keep calm but it was hard with Kai using his most extreme language. We tried to tell him that we didn't hate him but we didn't approve of how he talked. But it is incredibly hard to know what to say or do in this kind of situation.

We decided to wait it out. Maybe if we took the tour, Kai would calm down and not be so upset. He loves minerals and the whole reason we came to this mine tour was because we thought he would enjoy it.

So we took the tour and went deep inside the old gold mine.

The tour was interesting, but none of us were all that interested or happy. Kai looked away from the guide the entire time.

After the tour, we talked more. Kai had calmed down so it was a bit easier to talk and have him listen. We explained again that we loved him, but that we don't approve of the nasty and negative things he says sometimes. Still, the earlier events had taken its toll.

We had a very late lunch in town, then drove on.

While driving, I wondered if these trips were worth all the trouble.

We passed through the town of Durango, and told Kai that his biological father went to college there. Kai found it interesting to find out that his biological father had spent so much time in this state that Kai disliked. Kai said that he must overcome this state just as his biological father had.

In late afternoon, we reached our destination of Pagosa Springs. I chose this as our stop for the night as it has hot springs which I knew my wife and Kai would enjoy.

The resort we stayed in had more than a dozen different pools from the waters of the hot springs.

Kai loved going into each different one. We all found this to be the relaxation we needed after an unexpectedly tough day.

Each pool had a name and the temperature of the water shown. We liked the hottest pools the best, like the following one.

It was a beautiful setting right next to the San Juan River, which we were able to enter to cool off after each hot pool.

Kai told me that this was his favorite hotel on our trip. "Now this is a fun place, Dad."

I'm glad you enjoyed it Kai.

Let's see if this can continue.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Telluride and the Bumpy 4x4 Ride to Imogene Pass

We left Utah and drove to Colorado. We arrived at the mountain town of Telluride shortly before noon and walked a bit of the charming, historic downtown area.

One thing we noticed right away is that Telluride is a very dog-friendly town, which my wife, especially liked. There were dogs all over the place, even in stores, and many off-leash.

Our scheduled activity for the afternoon was to take an off-road 4x4 tour to the summit of Imogene Pass, high in the Rocky Mountains.

The weather forecast called for a rainy afternoon, and after Kai's anxiety over the thunderstorms in Utah, I wondered if he would be constantly stressing over this all afternoon. I also knew that the ride would be bumpy, and was concerned that it would bother Kai.

When we were picked up at our hotel, the rain was coming down pretty hard. The vehicle we would be in was a revamped 4-wheel drive pickup truck with padded seating for about 10 people in the back. There was covering over the top though it was open air on the sides.

We shared the ride with a couple and a family of five that included three kids (ages 4, 6 and 9). As we got off the paved road and onto the rocky road that would take us to the top of the mountain, it was clear that this would be a really bumpy ride. Kai was not happy.

I was sitting to the rear of him and as we headed uphill, he naturally leaned into me. But while most people would make an effort to try to minimize contact, he deliberately leaned into me harder.

I asked him to try not to press against me, but he said, "I don't care" and then jabbed his elbow into me harder.

I resisted saying anything more as I knew it would just escalate things. But it was a very uncomfortable ride.

I found solace in the beautiful scenery all the way up.

At one point, the rain stopped so the driver/guide asked if we all wanted to take the top off. Everyone except Kai said yes. I told the driver it was okay to take off the covering and Kai jammed his elbow into me again.

But without the top it was much easier to see everything and feel like you were out in nature.

We saw waterfalls near and far.

At one place we went through a tunnel.

We saw the remnants of an old silver mining town that had existed from the 1800s until the 1970s.

About two thirds of the way up, the driver stopped the vehicle. He pointed out some foreboding clouds and said that it looked like a nasty storm was headed our way. He asked if we wanted to continue all the way up to the top or call it a day here. Everyone except Kai wanted to go on, and the driver agreed to keep going.

Above the treeline, we saw quite a bit of remaining snow.

But we made it to the top before the storm hit.

The view was breathtaking and even Kai agreed.

We tried to quickly take pictures before the clouds would roll in and completely obscure the view.

But as we were there, the clouds actually started to go away and the view cleared.

At the summit of Imogene Pass, the elevation is 13,114 feet.

The temperature at the top was 46 degrees, about 30 degrees cooler than down in Telluride, and about 56 degrees cooler than what we experienced the day before at Arches.

We ended up being lucky as the storm did not hit and we had a nice, rain-free drive down back to town.

Kai was much happier on the return trip. Though when we finally got back to our hotel he said, "Dad, I hope you don't have any more mountain drives planned on this trip."

And so this ride was bumpy in more than one way. Sometimes I wonder what the best approach is with Kai. He doesn't like to be pushed out of his comfort zones, but I do think there's benefit to him getting to experience things and places like this. Still, is it worth it? For him? For the rest of us?

After resting up at the hotel, we walked around town. My wife was happy to find a t-shirt that celebrated the town's dog friendliness.

We had dinner at Brown Dog Pizza, which had great Detroit-style rectangular pizza.

And so the Colorado portion of our trip has started. There will be more adventures to come, for better and/or worse.

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