#WisleysAcrossAmerica

I’m going to attempt to blog regularly, and I’m arbitrarily defining that as bi-weekly. It starts today! The topics will vary, but I imagine I’ll do some journal-type writing to encapsulate trips, book critiques, restaurant reviews, educational leadership/edtech commentaries, and the like. The idea will simply be to write.

Here we go! #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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This past summer, my family and I embarked on a 21-day cross-country adventure. I’m writing this post in part to share with you, and in part to serve as my own travelogue. I’m the type that forgets details (I can’t remember anything from a movie I’ve seen even hours ago!), so putting things in writing is going to help me remember the trip. This also means that I reserve the right to go back and edit this post until I think I’ve got things right (I’m sure Shanah will read this and encourage me to add things I totally leave out!).

The primary cause of our trip was the failing health of Shanah’s grandma, Jenny. While we were there, her health actually seemed great, but we just don’t know how often we’ll be able to head all the way out to Ohio, so we went for it this summer since we had the time and (kind of) the money. Anyhow, we decided to spend a week in Ohio/Kentucky, and take a week getting out there and a week getting back. Hence 3 weeks, or 21 days.

Day One – Fresno to St. George: We set off on our journey bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We made a pit stop in Tehachapi, drove through the land of futuristic windmills, and made our way to lunch at a kitschy diner: Peggy Sue’s Diner and Dinosaur Park

Stop #2: an underwhelming Diner-Saur park. #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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The food was good, but the Dinosaur Park (actually, Dinersaur Park) was underwhelming, to say the least. The red rock landscape in Utah was gorgeous. I’d like to spend more time there someday (I’ve never done Zion National Park). The cheap motel we stayed at that night housed a bunch of teenaged boys in town for a basketball tournament; we were worried at first, but they stopped yelling soon enough. The pool was bath water warm, but the girls and I swam anyway. We ordered pizza that night, and it haunts me to this day that I didn’t order the hot-dog-stuffed crust.

Day Two – St. George to Golden: This drive seemed to take forever, but we saw some deer on the side of the road (little did we know how pedestrian this would seem by the end of our trip). We I made one wrong turn that cost us half-an-hour (the downhill after Aspen). Oh…there’s a little town called Green River. Weird. Ghost-towny. Weird. Anyhow, that night, we relied on the graciousness of (essentially) strangers. One of our Fresno friends (Abby Barrantes) has a cousin (Danielle France) that lives in Golden, Colorado (home of Coors Brewing, but also a super-cute little town). A few weeks before the trip, I put out a call for potential hosts in a couple spots across the country, and Abby offered up her cousin’s house to us! They ended up being super kind, and we were so lucky to get to stay (for free) in their home.

Day Three – Golden to Baldwin City: We started the day off with some Voodoo Doughnuts from Denver. People. These are worthy of all the hype. Classic maple bacon = perfection. Stopped in Kansas at the World’s Largest Easel (get excited, folks!) and spent an excruciating hour at The World’s Worst Dairy Queen. My first job was at a DQ. I have such love in my heart for them, but this was painful. Ask me about it at your peril.

Welcome to the Sunflower State. Home of THE WORLD'S LARGEST easel. #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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But we ended up at my alma mater, Baker University. I took my girls (and my wife) to Case Hall, where I spent so many of my waking hours. I was saddened by the condition of Joliffe Hall, which currently stands vacant. We bought a few souvenirs at the bookstore, and I showed my family the chapel that had been moved stone-by-stone from England. The place where I made a misguided pact with God on a piece of notebook paper that I snuck under the weather vane when I got to place it on top. Thankfully, I’m learning (slowly) that oaths and pacts maybe aren’t the way I need to relate to Him. The girls saw fireflies for the first time, and it was as magical as you might imagine. A total movie playing right in front of me in real life. And we stayed with my aunt Connie, and a houseful of basketball players, and made fast friends with the very pregnant wife of the son of my mom’s cousin (Marie Deel). Can we just call her a cousin? I missed Baldwin terribly, and seeing the crazy growth (especially north of the highway) was jarring. But I met God twenty years ago on a brick road in Baldwin…it was good to share this special place with my family.

Day Four – Baldwin City to Lake of the Ozarks: On this day, I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions in life: which BBQ place? During my college days, I fell in love with Gates. Still love their spicy sauce. But I had never tried Arthur Bryant’s. Until this day. June 26th, 2015. It was so good. I tried to order “off menu” and was shut down. That’s okay. I plan to return to Kansas City just to be able to say I tried them all. Oklahoma Joe’s, you’re next.

First time here. SO GOOD, but (shh…) I prefer Gates' sauce. #bbq #burntends #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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Days Five and Six – Lake of the Ozarks: People. “Lake Life”. Try to live it at some point. It’s amazing.

I think we'll just summer here from now on. #youokaywiththatKaren? #WisleysAcrossAmerica #lakelife

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Now…it helps that I have family who own a “cabin” right on the water on the Lake of the Ozarks. With two boats. And two jet skis. (Jet skis are the coolest thing on the entire planet. I could ride for hours.) They call it a cabin, but they’re not fooling anyone. We were blessed to spend time there, and to get to hand with cousins Mark and Craig (who caught some MONSTER catfish, and didn’t even have the decency to wake me to help them). My parents were on a cross-country trek of their own, and we got to spend a couple days with them here, too. Karen and Cliff are so generous; we’re grateful for the time we got to spend at the lake, and we look forward to visiting any time they’re able to accomodate us. (If Sherry has her way, we’ll be out there again soon!)

Day 5: Left the minivan parked! A fun day living the #lakelife #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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Day Seven – Lake of the Ozarks to Burlington: Well, we did this one wrong. Made a quick stop at the Gateway Arch. Turns out that’s not the way to do it. We’ll have to come back to St. Louis; next time we’ll do a full stop at the arch, and spend time at the Children’s Museum, too. Vacations can’t be perfect, and this day certainly wasn’t. But…when there’s a great food discovery, it softens the blow. Ladies and gentlemen: Lion’s Choice Roast Beef.

Days Eight to Thirteen – Burlington: Burlington, Kentucky is just south of Cincinnati, Ohio. For a week, we were graciously hosted by Shanah’s Uncle Rick Laudermilk & his wife, Diane. Their house is amazing. It’s the type of house that makes a California man dream about moving to Kentucky so he can afford such a place. A great pool on a greater deck. A quintessential man cave. A sitting (screened in) porch. Hot tub. Frog Pond. No, really.

Highlights of our week in the greater Cincinnati area included the required comparison tastings at Skyline Chili, GoldStar Chili, and Camp Washington Chili. For the uninitiated, Cincinnati chili is a bean-less chili with an array of spices (cinnamon pokes through) that is served over spaghetti, then topped with beans, onions, and a heaping mound of finely shredded cheddar cheese. This is accompanied by oyster crackers. 3-way = noodles, chili, and cheese. 5-way = everything. I’m not about the beans and onions. But really, I’m not about the spaghetti, either. So I go with the coney dogs. Tiny little (half-sized) hot dogs with the chili and tons of cheese. Add mustard. Good to go! They even serve them in a bowl cut up without the bun on request. That’s my jam. What I discovered in my research for this trip is that Cincinnati chili has Greek origins. As such, these places serve a great Greek salad. Not as good as Troy’s in San Diego (man…that dressing!), but solid. By the way, my favorite of the 3 chains: Camp Washington. Cool location, the chili is more savory, and they serve Over The Rhine beer! Over the Rhine is a neighborhood in Cincinnati, but it’s also my favorite band. “Soft music to be played loudly.”

Another highlight in Cincinnati is United Dairy Farmers (UDF) ice cream. I love exploring (driving around) in the cities we visit. Often, we discover places that our hosts don’t ever frequent, but should. Such is the case with Eden Park, a beautiful green space similar to Balboa Park set on the bluffs above the Ohio River.

Gorgeous. Grandma Jenny told us some stories about the things she used to do there. You’ll have to ask her about that…I’m not repeating it here. One afternoon, we took the girls to the art museum; there was a fabulous kids’ space there: fabric weaving, exploring the science of the color of light, Warhol prints of Pete Rose to color…very cool. Grandma Jenny (who loves for me to speak Spanish to her…it turns her on) watched the girls for us overnight. We took advantage and went to see Jurassic World. The girls ate way too much and stayed up way too late…exactly as it should have been! I hope they remember this visit when they’re grown, and can remember why their mom treasures her grandma so. We got one afternoon with Cousins Sherri and Missy and all their kids at a LaserTag facility. Random, but great fun for the kids! Very grateful that they drove 4 hours out of their way just to get some time with us. Sherri…we have to make the lake happen so we can spend more time with you (and maybe even Chris!). Red Robin was nice, but multiple days would be better! We also got together with the larger extended family on Shanah’s mom’s side at a Cracker Barrel. First: what a travesty that the state of California cannot host a Cracker Barrel! They’d make a killing, right??? Anyhow, from that day forward on out trip, Cracker Barrel became the default pit stop location: clean restrooms, cold weird-brand diet sodas…if you’re planning a road trip, it might be smart to map out the Cracker Barrels and travel accordingly! Back in Florence (“Florence, Y’all”), we did the 4th of July fireworks show at the local park, complete with fair food and carnival rides. Eden rode the Tilt-a-Whirl and looked far less sick than I did. I lost faith in the process when it rained all afternoon, but the skies cleared and it ended up being a great night.

It started a bit wet, but ended up being a fantastic night! #USA #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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We were hosted at Uncle Scott’s house and treated to a meat-sweats-inducing feast, and to the sight of all the kid cousins dancing to the Whip/Nae Nae song. Fun times. Oh, and selfies with Grandma. Altogether, it was a great week. I’m so glad we went to visit Grandma Jenny, and Rick and Diane really helped us feel at home (oh yeah…we totally did all our laundry right before we left!).

Day Fourteen – Burlington to Chicago: Another dud, and it’s all my fault. I didn’t really think of Chicago as a place we were going to explore, so I didn’t do my research. I don’t recommend using our plan. So we decide to do Millennium Park. $24 to park for 4 hours. We’re hungry, but haven’t planned…so we go for deep dish at Malnati’s. We wait an hour. The pizza was good, thank God. While we’re seated on the patio, a CRAZY storm rolls in. We’re talking biblical flood type rain and wind. Luckily, our waitress scoots us inside, and we enjoyed the pizza (along with all the hippie DeadHeads left over from the concert the night before).

A whirlwind afternoon in $hicago. We need to come back for a longer visit someday! #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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We visit The Bean. We illegally enter a museum to use the restroom. We walk forever, and end up at a magical new park: Maggie Daley Park. This is a children’s park on steroids, complete with dangerously fast slides, a fairy wonderland, and sweet net swings. A really neat civic space. Then we drove a mile down the road and paid $26 to park at Navy Pier. If you’re a fan of Navy Pier, maybe you can explain it to me. I thought it was lame. Then we drove by Wrigley Field. I simply HAVE to come back to experience it correctly. Even on this rainy day when I was ticked about having paid so much for parking (seriously…$50!!!), I could just feel the energy of the neighborhood around the ball field. Must return. If you know me at all, you know I had to have a Chicago Style Dog. Well…I wanted the authentic experience even though I know I hate tomato and onion. I should have passed. Yuck. Give me a Vienna Beef dog all day long, and I’ll even keep the neon relish, the sport peppers, and the pickle. I don’t know what I was thinking. Well, actually, I knew it wasn’t going to be great, so I ordered a chili dog, too. BEANS. IN. THE. CHILI. Why?!? Strong opinion: chili dog chili should not have beans in it. If you disagree, we can’t be true friends. The lighting show on the drive to the hotel (in nearby Hoffman Estates) was unreal. We just don’t have storms like that here. All in all, this disappointment of a day was just a clear indicator that we have to come back with more time, more money, and more plans.

Day Fifteen – Chicago to Sioux Falls: What a recovery of a day! We stopped at The Mouse House in Wisconsin for fresh cheese curds. Yes, they squeak. Yes, they’re amazing. Yes, I wish I had some fries and gravy with me to make the best poutine ever. Later that same day, we discovered Culver’s. If you know it, you know how blessed you are. The best fast food burger I’ve ever had. Fried cheese curds. Diet root beer on tap. Did you skip past the fact that I put the burger over In-N-Out? That’s how good, people.

(I’m backtracking a little in my head right now, but I’ll stand by it. Culver’s was special.) Then, we got to our random hotel in Sioux Falls, and see a slide poking out the side of the buiding. The hotel’s indoor pool had its own water slide, which exited the building, had a cool natural light show, then entered the building again. Emma had to be convinced (after much hesitation) to give it a shot, but then we all rode it 10+ times. It was really neat.

Day Sixteen – Sioux Falls to Rapid City: I’m going to offend some people, but two attractions on this day sucked. The Corn Palace is not worth exiting the highway. Lame. Wall Drug was probably cool in its heyday, but it’s a tourist trap now. And not a cool one. Lame. Had-to-do-it lame, but definitely lame. If I could go back in time, I would have skipped both of those and made the side trip to the Badlands. We skipped it, but I wish we hadn’t. Next time. But this day was redeemed! First, we had Culver’s again. Then we drove out to the Crazy Horse memorial. We didn’t pay to go in; we just pulled over on the highway and looked from a distance. I doubt the experience would have been improved by a paid visit. Finally, we went to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony. I just knew it was going to be great. But I had no idea. The rangers at Mt. Rushmore have made the night lighting a celebration of the service of our country’s veterans. All veterans in attendance are asked to come on stage for the lowering of the American flag. Then, each one in turn is given the microphone and asked to state their name, their branch of service, and their home state. The appreciation of the crowd was palpable, and I was moved nearly to tears (and definitely to multiple goosebump moments). I cannot recommend this experience highly enough. Go.

Day Seventeen – Rapid City to Big Sky: Here’s a good spot to mention the waffles. We don’t travel a lot, so we had not come across these until this trip. Every hotel has them now: make-your-own waffle stations. My only complaint is that they’re Belgian-style (I know I’m in the minority on this one), but what a great thing for most people, and especially for the kids! They loved filling their cup with waffle batter, pouring it onto the iron, then flipping it over to wait for the beep. Cool. As for me, I was just stoked any time the hotel had sausages. Or hard boiled eggs. Anyway, I threw this in right here because the drive this day was long and super boring, with almost nothing to report. The only thing of note is the town of Bozeman, which looked like it would be a neat place to explore. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time on this day. The day finished with the amazing mountains of Big Sky country, and a surprisingly great dinner at Lone Peak Brewery.

NBD. Just a bison and some geysers. #WisleysAcrossAmerica photo credit: @shanahrenea

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Day Eighteen – Big Sky to DuBois: Yellowstone. Is. Amazing. Visual spectacles and amazing animals. We saw a bald eagle (or two). We saw bison. Then we saw bison up close. Then we saw a bear. Then we saw a bear up close. Go back and click on the bear link. It’s a cool video with fantastic audio! We saw Old Faithful. The girls earned Junior Ranger Badges (they’re up to 4 parks now!) We had ice cream (I tried a huckleberry ice cream sandwich…meh). Then we drove WAY OUT THE WAY to get to our hotel. We planned this whole trip too last-minute to have any chance at lodging in the park. We had entertained the idea of camping there (and even took our tent on a 21-day trip for nothing), but were spooked by reports of close wildlife encounters and the possibility of rain. In truth, I’m glad we didn’t camp this time. But DuBois, it turns out, is not a suitable right-outside-the-park option. We drove forever in the dark (and it was July…so this was really late) to the middle of nowhere. Live and learn. But the sky…the sky was so dark. The stars were so beautiful. It’s been a while since I saw the Milky Way. Literally awesome. And when we got to our mom-and-pop-run hotel in this tiny town, our key was taped to the office door in an envelope with our name one it. I felt skittish about that, but the fact remained…it had worked!

Day Nineteen – DuBois to Boise: [I have to admit, I’m running out of steam here. I’m on hour 7 of writing this post, so I’m going to end with a whimper. Maybe I’ll come back and edit someday…] The Grand Tetons are majestic, but there are some neat ranges just to the east that nobody ever sees (because they’re a left turn out of Yellowstone, whereas Jackson Hole is a right turn. But the Tetons really do deserve their reputation. I have to admit…I was sorely disappointed that we didn’t see a moose.

Had to clean one up. Phone camera on a cloudy day didn't do the Tetons justice.

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But Jackson Hole seemed to be a total tourist trap. If you know otherwise, give me some hints for next time…but we just drove through quickly (well…the traffic meant is wasn’t that quickly). Food highlights for the rest of the day: Scotty’s Drive-In in Idaho Falls is just the kind of burger joint I love. Plus tots. Idahoans know how to do tots. And fry sauce. Then, in Boise, we went to Pie Hole for the potato bacon pizza that we had fallen in love with many years before. We make a pretty good replica at home, but Pie Hole is legit.

Day Twenty – Boise to South Lake Tahoe: Never stop at the McDonald’s in Winnemucca. Never. We fell in love with Lake Tahoe. I knew I would love it, but we really need to come back. I’d love to try camping there! This was our worst food day of the whole trip. I already mentioned MickeyD’s, but then we went lazy (with a coupon) and had Chevy’s for dinner. As a man who owns a smoker and makes killer smoked ribs, I don’t know why I even entertained the idea of chain restaurant lame ribs. South Lake Tahoe culinary scene…I owe you an apology. My girls tried to make up for it by opening an imaginary restaurant on the sand bar in the lake. They took tiny clam shells and filled them with seaweed and other assorted beach finds and created tacos for Shanah and I to dine on…super creative, and they spent way more time playing that game than I would have thought possible! The water is so shallow on the south beach of Lake Tahoe that you can walk out a quarter mile and still only have water up to your mid-calf area. It made for some interesting visuals.

First time to Tahoe. We may have discovered our new getaway. #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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Day Twenty-One – South Lake Tahoe to Fresno: Spent a frustratingly-short few hours driving around the lake, then renting paddle boats. I’m telling you, Tahoe is gorgeous, and we have to come back and spend a whole week there. Someday… Got In-N-Out as we re-entered civilization, totally bailed on the idea of one more stop in Sacramento (I’ve never been!), and drove like maniacs to get home. Home sweet home. In Fresno. I never thought I’d say that about The No, but it’s growing on me.

Taste the rainbow. #WisleysAcrossAmerica

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In summary, I’m so glad we made this trip. It was so good. Our girls travelled so well. We saw family, saw many great sights, made great memories…good stuff. If you read this whole thing, I hope it was at least a bit entertaining. I’m really trying to write for me; any tangential enjoyment is a bonus. As I finish this writing, the clock has struck midnight, and I’m a year older (I’m sure you feel a year older, too!) In the immortal words of Mike Gundy, “I’m a man! I’m 40!”

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