Moteling in California

“Roll up the windows and lock the doors,” my husband said as he and the kids went to check out our motel room just off the highway in northern California. I looked at him in surprise. The place looked nice enough, though there had been a police car in the driveway.

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A few minutes later they were back. “The police were pounding on someone’s door,” the kids said. “They said, “This is the police, open up!’” My husband reported, “The cop said it would be fine to stay here.”

And it was. But the next morning, while helping ourselves to the motel’s continental breakfast, we couldn’t help but overhear a heated discussion between a wiry, bearded man in his 60s with the woman working behind the desk. His hair was shaggy, his clothes were untucked, and he was irate. “I’ve been staying here every year for the past 10 years, and you’ve never charged me for my local calls before,” he said again and again in various word combinations until he saw my husband waiting for his bread to toast.

“You wouldn’t be safe if it weren’t for me!” the man said, his voice elevated. “If you’re not going to fight,” he stared at my husband. “You might as well move to Brazil!”

Choosing to ignore him, we ate our breakfast on the sunny curb outside the motel. A few moments later, the police arrived, but we headed for the car. We’d had enough excitement for that motel and drove away, heading for our next destination.

Trip taken 2010.

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How to Get Across the GW Bridge

The road was red on the tiny screen of my phone. The directions said “rerouting.” We followed blindly, exiting 95 to avoid a congested highway stretch just before the southern entrance to the George Washington Bridge.

traffic jamOff Route 95 and onto Route 46 then right on North Avenue, one small road led to another equally small road but not a through street. Other cars merged in front of us and suddenly our detour was as congested (well, almost) as the GW Bridge. And we realized that we weren’t the only cars being rerouted by Siri!

Detour

Getting off the well traveled route around New York City always makes me a little nervous. I think of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and the fateful wrong turn the main character, Sherman McCoy, makes.

Slowly we made our way to the traffic light and back onto 95 where all lanes crawled across the bridge, and our view was marred (or enhanced) by the fog.

Foggy bridge

Are we better off with Google Maps? Showing us traffic and detours, updating our routes with ETAs? Or we were better off in the old days with just maps and AAA TripTiks to show us the way?

When National Parks Become Monopoly Properties

Before our kids could read, they could play Monopoly. Recognizing the properties by their colors and learning to count the money, they loved to play, especially my oldest, quickly learning to bargain with other players and create his own monopolies.

We never played the Monopoly Junior version. Instead, we played National Parks Monopoly, where Yosemite replaces Park Place and Yellowstone takes over the Boardwalk.

With my canoe, bear, tent, or ranger hat token, I traveled around the board, from national park to trail to national monument, paying $75 to eat dinner at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Lodge or becoming park ranger of the year. Although equivalent to the least expensive dark purple properties, I couldn’t resist buying Mount Rushmore, but I always hoped to be the first to land on the magenta properties of Hawaii Volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier Bay.

Monopoly

Playing National Parks Monopoly is always an adventure. Once I stepped on a cactus at Saguaro National Park. Another time I got caught looting an archaeological dig and had to go to jail. But when I discovered fossils at Agate Fossil Beds, I got out of jail free.

So when our family was planning a drive from Colorado to South Dakota, we were excited to find Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, one of the red properties on our Monopoly game, located in the northwest corner of Nebraska. With only a slight detour, we spent a morning exploring the park.

Agate Fossil Beds

When we returned from our trip, we played the game with a renewed interest.

Playing  Monopoloy

Over the years, I’ve visited only 12 of the 27 properties on our Monopoly game board, but the places I haven’t been still intrigue me: the Everglades, Isle Royale, Mesa Verde, the Limberlost Trail. Which park, or which property, should I explore next?

Trip to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument taken in 2005.

How Many Miles to Wall Drug Store?

Somewhere along the highway, you might see a sign advertising Wall Drug Store. At first, you think nothing of it, until you see the next sign. And the next. And the next. Wall Drug Store signs appear every few miles along the 650-mile Interstate 90. If you’ve never been to Wall Drug Store, be sure to stop on your next road trip through South Dakota.

Not because they have free ice water or 5 cent coffee. Not because the food is good or the pharmacy is well stocked. Wall Drug Store is a rambling touristy western bit of roadside Americana. There are shops selling cowboy hats and boots, turquoise jewelry, and laminated placemats just like the ones I had when I was a kid. There are cutouts for picture taking, ice cream for licking, and buffalo burgers to fill your tummy.

What started as a small drug store in the town of Wall, South Dakota, has grown into a tourist mecca due to the ingenuity of its owners in the 1930s. When the drug store began advertising it’s free ice water, cars began detouring off the highway and making a stop. Now, over 80 years later, Wall Drug Store is no longer just a drug store. It’s a 12 shop mall with a 530 seat restaurant.

It’s a tourist attraction visited by 20,000 people a day. And if you haven’t seen a sign yet, don’t worry, you will. They’re located all over the world, in places like Seoul, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, London, and even Antartica. If you go, be sure to pick up your own free sign to bring back home.

Trip taken July 2013.

Photos taken by Kurt Magoon (in 2009) and Jasperdo (in 2010) and licensed by CC under 2.0.

When the Badlands Aren’t So Bad

Thunder in BadlandsIf you were driving a stagecoach or on horseback and came across this expanse of arid rock, you might call it a “miserable gully,” but if you’re interested in geological features and you have plenty of water, this 244,000-acre national park in South Dakota is worth exploring.

Hiking

I’ve been to Badlands National Park several times in my life, but the most interesting and rewarding experiences have been the times I’ve stayed in the park. Last summer, we stayed in brand new cabins with AC.

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When the sun’s rays are not quite as intense, the light colored formations are not as blinding. I no longer have to squint.

And when the sun sets (as late as 8:30 p.m. in the summer), the spires take on their own personality. There is an evening program every night at 9 p.m. followed by night sky viewing through large telescopes. Every morning, just before it gets really hot, there is a ranger-led walk at 8:30.

Ranger

Be sure to check out the Ben Reifel Visitor Center where, besides learning about the rock formations and nearby floral and fauna, you can see real paleontologists working on fossils.

Badlands Visitor Center

The gift store at the Cedar Pass Lodge is one of the best in the area for finding unique and quality South Dakota items, everything from books to jewelry to herbal tea.

If you’re hungry, check out the Cedar Pass Restaurant. In addition to the Sioux Indian Fry Bread and Taco, the restaurant includes South Dakota steak and fish and many gluten-free items.

Trip taken July 2013.

10 Reasons to Visit South Dakota

Growing up in California, my friends could never understand why I wanted to go to South Dakota. As far as they were concerned, it was in the middle of the country where there was nothing to do. But I knew they were wrong. Besides the fact that my grandparents lived there, I loved it. South Dakota offered things my hometown and home state didn’t: prairies of undulating grasses, buffalo, real cowboys, Native Americans, and lots of space.

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Cowboys

In South Dakota, I could ride horseback on my uncle’s horses, pick choke cherries along the Missouri River, go swimming in the Oahe Dam, eat buffalo burgers, go to a rodeo, and visit a palace made of corn.

So, here’s a list of 10 places to go and things to do in South Dakota, listed from east to west across the state. Written by someone who’s got roots in South Dakota. Stay tuned for more details in future blog posts.

  • The Corn Palace: Over 275,000 ears of corn are used each year to create a mural on the exterior of the Corn Palace located in Mitchell. The palace is open year round and is free to visit.
  • Pierre and Fort Pierre: With its two lakes, the Missouri River, and over 2,200 miles of shoreline, the area offers plenty of swimming, boating, fishing. Learn about South Dakota’s history at the South Dakota Heritage Museum or the Casey Tibbs Museum and be sure to visit the Fort Pierre Rodeo on the 4th of July.Pierre
  • Wall Drug Store: Originally just a drug store, this rambling place now sells everything from laminated placemats to cowboy boots. If you’re hungry, you can get a buffalo burger or ice cream along with a free glass of water and a 5 cent cup of coffee.
  • Badlands National Park: Visit this expanse of mixed grass prairie and geologic deposits, where ancient animals once roamed. Here you can see buffalo and prairie dogs. You might even see archaelogists at work in one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial: One of the more famous sculptures in the world, Mount Rushmore includes the faces of four American presidents in its granite face.IMG_0110
  • Crazy Horse Memorial: In addition, to the actual sculpture of Crazy Horse, the memorial includes museums and collections of Native American art and artifacts.
  • Deadwood: In this national historic landmark, you can see a reenactment of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, visit the grave of Calamity Jane, gamble in its gaming halls, and visit Tatanka, Kevin Costner’s tribute to the buffalo.
  • Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument: If you like spelunking, South Dakota has two easily accessible caves worth a visit. Both offer a variety of ranger led tours, some more adventurous and more strenuous than others.Jewel Cave
  • Custer State Park: Located in the Black Hills near Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park has 1,300 buffalo on its 71,000 acres. You can camp or stay at a lodge, swim in Sylvan Lake, drive the twisty Needles Highway, or hike the state’s highest peak (Harney Peak).
  • The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD: The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site and includes the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. On your visit, you can see real paleontologists at work, dig for fossil replicas, learn proper excavation techniques, or learn an ancient paleo Native American hunting technique.

Enjoy your trip to South Dakota!

Multiple trips taken, most recently in 2013.

Renting a Home Away from Home

When planning a vacation away for more than a few days, consider renting an apartment or cottage instead of staying at a hotel. While the service may be lacking, you’ll gain freedom to cook your own meals and explore your destination more like a resident than a tourist.

We’ve rented a house in Bolinas, California; an apartment in Cape Town, South Africa; and a cottage on Plum Island near Newburyport, Massachusetts. In all three cases, we stayed near the ocean, in comfortable lodging, for a reasonable price. In all three cases, we used VRBO.com to rent a place directly from its owner. Cape Town Apartment

Bolinas: Although the tiny house was bursting with our party of four adults and four kids, the deck allowed us space for overflow. We stocked the kitchen with our own favorite foods and took over the kitchen and grill; we jogged along the cliff nearby and throughout the local neighborhood; we drove to the local market, walked the beach, and ate out at a nearby restaurant.

Cape Town: Located between the ocean and the local markets, our two-bedroom apartment in Sea Point was full of books, DVDs, local artwork, and maps of the area. We caught the bus at the end of the road and walked into town for groceries. Cape Town  Artwork   Sea Point

Plum Island: Just outside our front door, a sandy path led to the beach. We ate mussels at the local restaurant before riding our bikes back to the cottage to cook our own fresh pasta. Although we spent little time inside, the cottage was comfortable and well equipped with movies and music to enjoy in case of bad weather. Plum Island Cottage

While we’ve had good luck and much success with our rentals, things can go wrong. In Cape Town, we arrived after a long trip to discover a bathroom without toilet paper. After knocking on our neighbors’ door, we borrowed a roll before venturing to the nearest local market to stock up. Each time we rent, we learn a little more to consider before we rent the next time. Things like:

  • What is the minimum stay?
  • Does the price include a cleaning fee?
  • What type of deposit is required and is it refundable?
  • Are pets allowed?
  • Are other guests allowed?
  • Do you need to bring linens?
  • How will you get the key?

The next time you’re looking for a place to stay with a little more character and a lot more flexibility than the Days Inn or the nearby Hilton, consider checking out VRBO, its parent company Homeaway.com, or one of their competitors. After your experience, you’ll feel almost like a local!

Trips taken 2007, 2009, 2011.

A Souvenir Allowance

Traveling with children can be a challenge. The “I want this, I want that,” may abound. It’s exhausting to say no all the time, but the alternative will most likely result in a spoiled child. Just remember Veruca Salt from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and her constant phrase, “Daddy, I want it now!”

Before our trip to Disney World, when our kids were 8 and 10 years old, a friend gave me some good advice. Let each child choose their own souvenirs but give them a price limit. So, before our trip, we decided on a dollar value. Each child would get a souvenir allowance of $25, and they could spend it how they wished.

I remember walking through the BoardWalk and seeing signs for hair wraps.

My daughter elbowed me, “I want that.” But when she found out how much it was ($22), she changed her mind. The quest for a souvenir continued for the next few days. Would it be a neon stick for $12, a necklace or book? A stuffed animal or hat?

The questions didn’t stop, “Can I have … ?” was constant, but I never had to say, “No.” Both kids were empowered, and I was no longer the “bad guy.” What will your kids buy if they’re in charge?

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When Traveling, Remember the Moscow Rule

While traveling in Paris many years ago, my American friends introduced me to the Moscow Rule. Not to be confused with the Moscow Rules, this rule has to do with shopping and souvenirs and is fairly simple. If you see something, buy it, because you may never see it again.

My friends told me that this rule originates from people standing in line in Moscow. If you lived in Moscow under Communist rule and saw people standing in line, you joined them, because whatever they were waiting for you most likely needed or would need and you may not have the opportunity to buy it another time.

Although I try to remember this rule when I travel, the times I forget are the times I regret. Like the time I didn’t buy the metal toy truck in Cape Town because I knew we’d see several more during our trip (we didn’t).

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Or when I didn’t buy a drum and then had to resort to the airport gift shop. Or when I passed up a pretty necklace at a price I saw quadrupled in future stores.

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Sometimes it’s easy to remember, like buying Lindt chocolates in Zurich, wool scarves with the family clan in Edinburgh, or maple syrup in Vermont. I find it more difficult to remember when I see something different. Is it something I truly want? Is the price a good one? Will I see it again?

Maple Syrup

To prevent those post traveling blues, remember the Moscow Rule: if you see something unique, something you’re unlikely to find online or anywhere else, snatch it up, because you may never see it again. Most likely, you won’t regret the purchase, and the memories it holds will bring smiles for a lifetime.

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A Gluten-Free Pit Stop in New Jersey

With luck and the help of an app, we discovered a town just off I-95 in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, with a plethora of gluten-free options.

It was late, some time after 11 p.m., and we’d been driving for hours, leaving the Chapel Hill area after 2. The need to refuel got us off the highway and into a Howard Johnson’s for the night. But when the next morning’s continental breakfast only consisted of powdered sugar donuts and cereal with whole milk, we did a little research. Using the Find Me Gluten Free app on her phone, my daughter discovered a gluten-free bakery just 3 miles away. Eagerly anticipating the gluten-free crepes listed on its menu, we took the detour, parked, and walked to Wildflour Bakery/Cafe.

Wildflour Bakery/Cafe

Closed. It was Monday. Now what? We were all hungry, and the town’s main street was quiet. Half a block away, we noticed a bagel shop, and as we grew closer, we noticed a sign posted in the window. Gluten-free bagels!

Maidenhead Bagel Co.

Inside, the Maidenhead Bagel Company, the gluten diners were happy, ordering sesame, plain, and pumpkin (!) bagels all made with wheat flour. And the gluten-free diner was happy. She ordered a bagel egg sandwich (the first one she’d ever had!) made on an Udi’s bagel.

GF  Bagel Egg Sandwich

On our next trip south, we’ll plan on passing through the town of Lawrenceville to check out the cafe we missed. And next time, we’ll make sure it’s not a Monday!