Sunday, October 07, 2012

Fall Vacation 2012

Carolyn & Arnold's Reallllllly Lonnnng Vacation
September 2012

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really that long but a 3 week vacation is longer than we’ve taken in several years.  And it was long enough to temporarily overwhelm us when we got home about all the things that had piled up during our absence – you know, the 1,452 email messages, the 10 pounds of mail, the strange growth in the cottage cheese container we had managed to overlook in the pre-vacation fridge cleanout.  We were also overwhelmed by the kindness of our daughter-in-law for shampooing all our carpets during our absence and for Ed’s promptness in picking us up at the airport.

We have been explaining to people that this vacation was based on trying to keep at least some of those “we’ll drop in and see you when we’re next in your part of the country” promises.  There must be at couple dozen such promises we’ve made knowing that we’d probably never be in “that part of the country”.  But we decided that we’d at least start making an effort.  We selected four families from Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Florida and sent a note to each asking if we’d be welcomed if we visited and when a visit would be possible.  To our delight, all four answered positively.  While we were waiting for their answers, Carolyn obtained a week’s reservation in a Branson, Missouri time-share that we could use to break-up our visits.

Amtrak Rules

Normally, the travelling part of a vacation is supposed to be so routine that it doesn’t merit its own section and hopefully nothing happens to make it noteworthy.  However, the first leg of our journey was certainly NOT normal. 

We elected to travel to Denver, Colorado by ay of the train, Amtrak’s historic California Zephyr.  Departing from the Downtown Sacramento train depot in the middle of the day on Saturday, we arrived at the Downtown Denver train depot some 30 hours later.  I would estimate there were less than 10 stops but I wasn’t counting.  The ride was slow and steady, more like a cruise than a flight or drive.  According to Google Maps the distance traveled, if done by car, would have been  886 miles, so we averaged just under 30 miles per hour.  The train conductor had informed us that through much of the erras, the speed limit for the train is 35 or 40 miles per hour.  This isn’t a bullet train.
Consistent with the train’s speed was its leisurely ambiance.  There are no TVs or background music, no Wi-Fi, or sports bars.  There were just a coach, a couple of sleeper cars, an observation car, a dinner car, and a lounge car.  The whole experience appeared to be designed for relaxation and leisure.  If your party had more or less than 4 members, you would be paired up with other passengers with different groupings at each meal which encourage the passengers to get acquainted with one another.  We found that a definite plus.  As there were no seat belts, you were encouraged to move about the train.  While a good thing, it didn’t necessarily make my experience more interesting because of my balance and walking problems. 

Family in Littleton and a surprise (visit to Eric)

Carolyn’s brother Ray and his wife Jeannie were at the depot to meet us.  They even made sure they brought along a large enough pickup to carry all our luggage as well as my scooter and upright walker.  Although they have a GPS, they preferred my using my iPhone GPS to navigate us out of town and toward their house in Littleton.  When one of your vacation objectives is to see the countryside, using a GPS all the time can be counterproductive anyway.

Besides driving us around the beautiful and interesting neighborhoods of Denver and Littleton, Ray and Jeannie introduced us to their local church congregation at a Labor Day picnic in the park and drove us about 5 miles from their house to where my nephew Eric has recently bought a house.  It was a bonus visit since Eric had just recently moved his family from the Washington, D.C. area and we hadn’t setup a visiting plan with Eric and Allison and their three darling children.                                                          

We had wanted to see the U.S. Mint in Denver but couldn’t get tour reservations that fit our available time.  Instead we spent several hours at the beautiful botanical gardens.  It is one of those “must see” spots that is so frustrating because you need several visits to really appreciate it.  Just spending more time won’t suffice as your head gets too full of facts and photographs.

But probably the capstone of our visit in Littleton for me was an evening of music.  Jeannie, who is a much better piano player than I, deigned to play several duets with me, something I really enjoy.  Then she pulled out a selection of Broadway and Movie Musical songs that were all in a good singing key.  She played through that music allowing me to sing solos as if I really knew what I was doing.  I’ve never been able to do that for a solid evening.

Flight to Oklahoma

Ray was generous enough to get excused from his morning assignments the next day and drive  us the 30 miles or so out to Aurora where the Denver airport is actually located.  From a distance it looks more like a settlement on Tatooine than an airport.  But we found it modern, functional and staffed with fully friendly, accommodating staff.  We had, of course let them know that we needed special accommodations for my equipment. They didn’t even blink.  Except for one carry-on bag, our luggage including my walker was checked through to Tulsa, Oklahoma, our next visit. I kept the scooter to use around the airport and checked it only as I reached the Jetway and entered our plane.  And it was waiting for me when we got off the plane in Tulsa.

To Barb & Ron’s

While a porter and I picked up all our luggage including the checked walker, Carolyn picked up the previously reserved mini-van.  We had hoped for a Dodge Caravan, we got a Chrysler Town &; Country; - fully loaded.  What a dream to drive.  The only hitch in our travel this time was that the airlines had busted out the decorative rear blinkers in the walker.   We could have stayed and filled out complaint forms but decided for the Local fish food in Tulsa

Acting on recommendations from the car rental agency, we dropped in at White River Fish Market for what was good, if not outstanding fish.  We were both hungry enough to enjoy it.  Barbara had asked us to call when we left the airport en route to their house.  That allowed her to park just outside the gates to their gated residential area and let us in without waiting.

Barbara and I had carpooled together an average of 4 days a week, 1.5 hours a day, for 12 to 13 years  then not seen or talked with each other for over 10 years.  But it didn’t take long to catch up.  Although we’ve both changed, the chemistry still works.  Of course she got along even better with Carolyn.  Getting to meet Barb’s sister who had been a silent member of our carpool conversations was another special treat for me.

Barbara drove us all around Collinsville taking different roads each time so we’d be thoroughly lost and never be able to find their home again.  She introduced us to Woolaroc, a private preserve that was developed by Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum.  Besides having areas for youth camping and mountain men youth competitions, Woolaroc has an impressive Native American museum.  A museum honoring the cowboy humorist Will Rogers is also in the area and one of our destinations.
Barbara is a crafter so a tour of the area with her wouldn’t have been complete without visiting 2 or 3 craft stores including one where she displays some of her own craftwork.  Ron & I spent some of our own craft energy putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle displaying a Periodic Table of the Elements.

The area around Collinsville is known for tornados so we watched the weather carefully.  Our next stop was a timeshare resort in Branson, Missouri which meant we didn’t HAVE to get their the first day we had rented.  If he weather had been worse or much better we likely would have stayed with Ron & Barbara another day.  But the rain was threatening and we wanted to get on our way before it threatened any more.  The road was great and the Town & Country van ran beautiful.  But the further we went, the heavier the rain came down.  By the time we hit Missouri and headed down toward Branson the “heavy weather” sirens were blaring, warning us to take cover.  What cover does one take hundreds of mile from one home or another.

We did make good use of a short break in the rain to stop for lunch at Lamberts where they literally throw the food at you. We had just been seated when I noticed a wait person sitting by a customer.  I thought it unusual enough to make eye contact with the waiter whereupon a large soft bread roll was soon heading my way.  Another feature of the restaurant was that while you were eating, your entre and sides, additional wait staff would circulate among the tables adding ‘giveaways’  to your plate.  No excuse to come away hungry from there.

A Week in Branson

I must to being a bit of a  sourpuss about Branson.   I  just couldn’t imagine a place with all the g-rated shows not being goody two-shoes.   But somehow they pull it off.  There are dozens of theaters and they use thousands of lights to advertise but it isn’t Vegas or Reno.  It’s more like beefed up Sacramento.
Carolyn counted 66 shows during the week we were in Branson.   We saw 9 and that was more than enough.  I won’t try to recreate the week; just tell enough about several of the shows to give you a taste:
1.      Marriott’s “Celebration” – We paid for a $10 meal and sampled acts from 10 to 12 shows currently running (see 9)
2.      Joseph – Biblical story of Joseph as a stage extravaganza with live animals and huge sets
3.      SIX – six brothers whose voices provide all the back up instrumentals they need
4.      The Duttons – First show we saw because everyone recommended it. It’s just one family but they do everything.
5.      Chinese Acrobats – Chinese teens & 20’s working their way through school.  Definitely a second team as they actually make mistakes.
6.      Dolly’s Dixie Stampede – a knock off of mediaeval times, Camelot – fake competition and eating with your hands.  I found digging up the Civil War offensive.
7.      Shoji Tabuchi – Great violinist but a little long in the tooth.  His show is a sampler of every other show in town.
Showboat Branson Belle – Vaudeville type show on a steam boat which chugs peacefully and uneventfully around the local wide river.  Much better meal than I expected.
9.      Delena Ditto Country Variety Show – I lucked out sitting in the front row of “Celebration” and again at Delena’s own show earning two chances to sing with the lady herself.  It’s a show, of course, but she is kind and oh so polite.

In addition to the commercialized tourist spots we also sought out nature spots and less commerce related areas like the following:
  1. Table Rock Dam Visitor Center – dam was built by Army Corps of Engineers and is a buttoned down, well displayed operation
  2. Table Rock Lake Nature Trail – jointly operated by Dam VC and local Parks & Rec
  3. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park.  In addition to wildlife stock in the upper meadows, the lower areas are stocked with fully grown and hu
 It is being maintained spotlessly.  We recommend the $20 tram tour.  It’s well worth it.

4.      Hard Work U (College of the Ozarks)  This private university is an excellent example of having students learn value of work while meeting the needs of College.  Has an excellent museum.  Easy to overlook the upper floors.

As you can tell we didn’t come anywhere close to “doing Branson” but it was enough for our first week there and we were ready to move on.

Lawrence isn’t your typical Kansas city

The  road to Kansas City was pretty if a little boring.  It looked like it might rain on us at any time but it   didn’t.  We stopped in Harrisonville, MO, and ate at Rooster’s Steak House, a local coffee house.  It looked like it would be an interesting place but talk about  plain!  I got a soup and sandwich where the soup was Hormel Chili from a can and the sandwich was a slice of Velveeta on Wonder Bread.  Since the place was packed we didn’t expect great service and that’s what we got. 
Lawrence, Kansas is a university town with  a liberal bent as one would expect.  Our friends Shannah , a Unity Minister, and Kathy, an elementary school specialist feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven.  While we were there, they drove us all around the area, letting us see just how wonderful it was. They introduced us to Shannah’s congregation with a picnic following Sunday services, as well as the countryside where we saw some good heartland Americans.  Unfortunately, I picked up a head cold so I stayed home with their dog Sebastian while the girls drove to the big town of Kansas City.

I guess driving around so much reminded us of our geocaching days in Sacramento.  There happened to be a geocache close by the park area where Shannah’s church was picnicking.  Carolyn and I first found and verified it then introduced Kathy to the game.  I’m only sorry we didn’t think about it in Colorado and Oklahoma. Like Jeannie, Kathy played some duets with me.  Unfortunately my head cold had gotten so bad that I couldn’t keep things together.


Flying to Panama City

By now we were getting pretty familiar with the airport routine, at least with Southwest. 
  As long as we were there plenty early so we didn’t put undue pressure on them, and as long as we were courteous and reasonable in our requests, we were pleasantly accommodated.  In Panama City, Florida we got another Town & Country van.   We arrived in Florida according to schedule but unfortunately our luggage had gone missing.  The Southwest personnel did everything they could to assure us we’d get it the next morning.  They also promised to reimburse us for personal items we might need to buy until then.  Carolyn had thought ahead and packed a carry-on for just such a contingency.  By the time we picked up our minivan (another Town & Country) we and the security guard were the last ones in the parking lot.  He willingly helped load the scooter in the van. 

My cousin Marilyn and her husband Allyn had moved much of their household furniture around to accommodate our staying with them but the logistics of staying at a local motel was so much easier.  Allyn helped us as much as Google Maps.  And Marilyn surprised us by arranging for our cousin Jeannette (Bessie’s youngest) to join us at the Golden Corral for supper. 

It was difficult to get out to see the area.  Between the inertia of disability and familiarity with the area, it was difficult to get out and really see things.  It was hard to say which of the couples was the more reluctant to get out of comfortable seats.   We did manage to stop and see their almost brand new city library where I found an unusual geocache that I’d like to duplicate in Carmichael.

Flying home

Well, actually we flew first to Long Beach so it was like flying home in stages.  Not sure why we did it except that it’s always nice to see the grandkids.  The real flight home to Sacramento two days later was just as sweet, especially to be met and picked  up by Edward and to find that in our absence Tiffany had deep-cleaned our carpet and the two of them together with the three boys had kept a watch on our precious memories.

With many thanks to all of you who made our loooonnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggggggg vacation so memorable and enjoyable..                                                                                       

Carolyn & Arnold Loveridge

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