Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Welcome To Branson

A couple months ago, I had the privilege of attending a conference in Branson, Missouri. I don’t get to travel out of state very often. Twice in 16 years to be exact. So I jumped at the chance. Especially since I’ve never been remotely close to the area and it’s always fun experiencing new things.

It’s difficult to fly into Branson, they do have a commercial airport now, but flights are only offered on certain days. This turned out to be a good thing because I was able to fly into Springfield, and then get a rental car for the hour drive into Branson. Usually, when I travel for work, I’m locked into sites around the hotel vicinity and wherever the free shuttle service will take me. Having a car to explore gave me a certain amount of freedom I wasn’t used to.

I took off very early on a Sunday morning last September. The flight was uneventful and I arrived in Denver for a couple hours layover. No offense to Denver, but I’m less impressed with that airport each time I go. United has so many flights in and out of there, it is packed to the gills with people. I don’t like crowds on a good day, so this really taxed my patience. The airport was so clogged with travelers, it was almost impossible to walk anywhere. I’m a fast walker and get stressed out when traffic prevents me from going at my usual brisk pace. I bought a large Americano from Starbucks so that helped my nerves a bit. The side terminal where my departure gate was standing room only, (just barely) so I went to the main terminal area where I found a spot to spread out a bit to check email and wait out my layover. Thank goodness for wireless Internet access. I passed some humorous moments teasing my co-workers hard at work while I was on my adventure.

The flight to Springfield was a repeat of the trip to Denver, not much to write home about. You get into a flying tube and get out in another part of the country. I loved the Springfield airport, very quiet and not at all crowded. Evidently, it’s not the busy season for Branson tourism so that was a benefit to me. I went to check out my rental car, and spent too long arguing with the guy that I didn’t need any insurance since I was covered by the State of ND. I had my cards to prove it but he still had to take issue with it.

I was given a KIA Optima. He asked if I wanted to upgrade to a Camaro, but I’m sure I would have had a hard time getting reimbursed for that.My car was black and not quite as flashy as the one above, but basically the same. It was a small car for my tastes, but I’m sure it gets fantastic mileage. Everything was just weird. The shift, blinkers, wipers, cruise, and headlights were not even remotely close to what I’m used to. I kept turning on the wipers, when I wanted to signal. Later that evening, when I went to get some groceries, I needed to turn on the headlights and kept spraying washer fluid. When I got back to the hotel, I finally broke down and actually read the manual. I didn’t have any more car trouble after that. I’m a huge instruction book reader, so it surprised me I didn’t read it before I started. I got a chuckle when I saw the license plates. I’m from North Dakota, on a trip to Missouri, and my rental car had Indiana plates.

Getting out of Springfield was a challenge. Traffic was hectic after leaving the airport. They had road construction going on just like in North Dakota. However, where some of our highways go from two-lane to one-lane when under construction, Springfield just re-painted the lines and made the two lanes smaller. It was a little unnerving driving so close to other vehicles at highway speeds. The directions I got off the hotel website were very good, and once I was out of town on a different highway, the construction stopped and it became like the highway driving I’m used to.

Before looking at the hotel directions, I was looking at some other road maps and it looked like the most straightforward route to the hotel was by going through Branson. So I was curious when the hotel directions routed me around the NW corner of the town. It seemed out of the way, but trusted to the judgment of the hotel. I was instructed to turn off the main interstate highway 65 and go west on state highway 465 otherwise known as the Ozark Mountain Highroad. This is a winding road as you would expect through the Ozark “mountains.” I use the term loosely because like our Turtle mountains in North Dakota, rolling hills is a more accurate name. But the drive was quite breathtaking nonetheless. The scenery was fantastic and I would recommend this route to anyone. Plus, you don’t drive through Branson at all, which I was to find out, gets very clogged up with traffic. So I drove through the Ozarks around Branson, and drove right up the hotel in short order.

The conference was at the Chateau on the lake Resort an extremely nice place. I haven’t stayed anywhere this nice since a conference in Portland, Oregon that I attended about 8 years ago. I got checked in and took a glass elevator up to my room. The elevator looks out on the atrium which has a gorgeous waterfall in the middle of it. It was about supper time and I hadn’t had anything all day except some pop and coffee and a small bag of pretzels. So I got my city of Branson map and hit the road again.

My first stop was a grocery store. I always like to have a few munchies in my room but I don’t like the exorbitant fees on the hotel vending machines. This time I did go through the main drag part of town with all the tourist attractions. Would you believe I drove through the whole town without seeing a single grocery store? Evidently they want people to just focus on the attractions rather than worry about buying groceries. As I eventually turned North and was about to drive out of town, I turned off on a side street. I had only driven a couple blocks when I realized Branson has two parts of town. There’s the part they want tourists to see, and another part that is for the people that actually live there. I could see right away I had finally entered the part of town frequented by “locals”. It stopped looking like Branson, and started looking like any other residential area. I saw a Wal-Mart, and then a little ways further, found a Country Mart grocery store. This was a delightful place, with very reasonable prices. I got a 6-pack of pop, some chips and cookies, and called it good.

Now I was very hungry after browsing the deli and other food items at the grocery store. My primary rule when traveling, is to try very hard to avoid any eatery that is also available in my home town. The whole point is to experience new things and that means eating somewhere I’ve never been to before. I saw a Sonic drive-in on the way into town and didn’t feel like driving down “tourist boulevard” again so that fit the bill. I’ve never been to a Sonic before.

They had a jalapeno, bacon, cheeseburger that was a special, limited time thing. So I went with that along with tater tots, because I’ve never had tater tots at a burger joint before, and a coke. It was ok, it had been a long day so it didn’t dawn on me that this was truly a drive-in, meaning no inside seating. So I ordered my food and slid my card in the convenient slot provided. A few minutes later, a guy came out with my order and I had to eat in the car. The burger was very good, but not really any different than any other fast-food place, I’ll probably never get tater tots with a hamburger again, I should have went with the french fries. Sorry Sonic, I probably won’t be back for a return visit.

Now it was dark, so I had to turn my lights on before driving back to the hotel. This was hilarious because I kept turning on the washer fluid and wipers. What kind of maniac puts the headlight switch on the same stick as the windshield wipers? I may be dim-witted, but I don’t see how that makes any sense. KIA aficionados probably think this is great, but it was utter lunacy in my opinion.

Somehow, I got the lights on and the wipers off, and made it back to the hotel. Then I got the manual out and read up on everything I had trouble with. Then I practiced with the lights and wipers and where the cruise control was. Finally, convinced I had mastered the controls, went back to my room, called my family, and went to bed.

Breakfast was included with the registration, so I went down and enjoyed some delicious scrambled eggs, broasted potatoes, fruit, bacon and sausage. Then I had some grape juice and my beloved coffee. I got a few curious stares as I filled my own personal thermal coffee mug. The cups they provide at meetings and conferences are just too small and the coffee gets cold too quickly. So I’ve gotten into the habit of dragging my coffee mug with me when I travel. It's the perfect size to get me through until the next break.

The conference started with the general session involving everyone. After some words of welcome from our host, the deputy director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the mayor of Branson, Raeanne Presley gave the keynote address. In addition to being the mayor, she married into the Presley family which was one of the first entertainment groups that set up their show in the Branson area. She mentioned that tourism is Branson’s only industry. I could see this very clearly because every local I had come in contact with, the people at the hotel, the grocery store, and the Sonic drive-in, were so completely friendly and accommodating. It seemed as though everyone made it their personal mission to ensure I was enjoying myself and if not, they needed to know why so they could correct it immediately. Absolutely everyone I met was extremely polite. Except maybe one person at a place I visited which I will tell you about later. The mayor continued with some interesting historical facts about Branson and wished us to enjoy our stay.

The next speaker was Bob Priddy, radio journalist, humorist, and historian. This guy was absolutely, gut-busting funny. You could tell he made a living out of talking to people. He took us on a very thorough history of the state of Missouri and Branson, and had us laughing all the way. I really enjoyed listening to him.

Then the training and development coordinator from the Missouri Department of Conservation gave a presentation about dealing with workplace stress. Also something I got some value out of and extremely humorous as well. I firmly believe, if you ever have to give a speech or presentation, even a serious one, it is almost always beneficial to interject humor into your talk.

It was time for lunch, which was also provided. It was a delicious soup, salad, and sandwich buffet. They had a raspberry vinaigrette that was pretty tasty on the greens. Iced tea seems to be a staple down there and was offered all day with the water and coffee. I enjoy unsweetened iced tea very much so I actually took a coffee break, I mean a break from my coffee and went for some tea.

After lunch we went into the breakout sections. Small groups according to your job description. As a computer guy, I was in the Information Technology group. I’ll spare you the details. The content of these meetings is extremely boring to most of the known world. The one thing I will say is how enjoyable it is to talk to my peers from other states. As a technology person in the fish and wildlife industry, I have a fairly unique set of job duties. It’s difficult for me to talk about my job with people who don’t work in the field because it’s boring, or they just don’t understand what it is I do. It is very nice to speak with people who deal with the same kind of day-to-day problems I deal with and understand what it’s like. It is quite therapeutic. As a general rule, I don't care for meetings, but the breakout sessions were quite enjoyable.

After the meetings were over, it was time to head out to the conference banquet, a fish fry at the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. On the menu was catfish, hush puppies (fried dough balls), french fries, cole slaw, and assorted fruit cobblers. No offense to the fine state of Missouri, the catfish was good, but I was born and raised on walleye and there really isn’t any comparison. I’ll take walleye any day of the week. Fruity desserts are my favorite, especially the wild berry variety. There happened to be a wild berry cobbler that I thoroughly enjoyed. Peach is a close second so I couldn’t resist a small sliver of peach cobbler also.

Then they started giving out door prizes. When your name was called, you got your choice of an item from the prize table. I selected a very nice pair of insulated, water-proof gloves which I’ve gotten great use out of the last couple days. The gloves are toasty warm and strangely light enough so you can still manipulate most objects with your fingers. It was a pretty good score.

Very full, I caught the first shuttle back to the hotel so I could open a video chat with my family and help my daughter with her geometry. The next day I found out they were giving tours of the hatchery which would have been very interesting, but evidently, it was a last minute thing they decided to do to occupy the people who were waiting for the next shuttle. Oh well, North Dakota has 2 hatcheries and I expect I’ll get a tour of the one in Riverdale at some point.

When I was back in my room, I got some ice and poured myself a strawberry crème soda before calling my family. In a few minutes my pretty daughter was on my computer screen and we commenced some geometry ciphering. It actually didn’t take that long. Geometry has gone very well this semester. My daughter either is finally starting to get math or her brain just has an easier time understanding the geometry concepts. Getting her through algebra the last two years was nothing short of torture for both of us.

I had another great night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed and breakfasted the next morning on fresh fruit and biscuits and gravy. They were good, but not as good as my dad’s. But there was plenty of hot gravy to drench the biscuits in. After breakfast there was more tech talk with the breakout groups and the main part of the conference was over. We had the afternoon free.

Lunch was on our own so I hopped into my KIA, much more familiar with the controls, and headed out on the main drag. I was in the mood for pizza so I found a Pizza World that had a lunch buffet. It was ok, but nothing to write home about, our local Pizza Hut and Pizza Ranch do a much better job in my opinion.

After lunch, I was very excited to take in the one tourist attraction I really was not going to miss, the Titanic Museum. Cameras were not allowed so all I was able to get were a couple pictures of the outside. The museum building is on dry land but is shaped like the front part of the ship.

The front of the museum has a fake iceberg with a water fountain spraying for added effect.

This was absolutely the part of the trip I enjoyed the most. There are a few of these museums around the country and I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity. Even if you’re not that interested in the Titanic, it is almost impossible to see this museum without being affected. You are given a boarding pass when you enter, that has a passenger or crewmember’s name from the fateful voyage, along with a brief history of who that person was. At the end of the tour, you find out if the person on your boarding pass survived.

I was delighted to be assigned the captain of ship. Edward John Smith. A 62-year-old highly respected captain. From what I read, he was very good at what he did and was well thought of by both passengers and crew. You’ll have to keep reading if you want to find out what happened to him.

The museum is self-guided with stewards stationed at various points to answer questions. They also rented audio devices for $5. Throughout the museum, there were symbols with a number printed on them. When you punched in the number, you got to listen to a recording with additional information about what you were looking at. I had to get the full experience so I handed over $5 and collected my device.

The first part talked about the ships construction and had a full scale replica of one of the massive screws which propelled it through the water. It’s hard to describe the size of that thing. The ship really was enormous. The next section went into launching the ship. 22 tons of tallow and soap were used to grease the rails so the ship could slide in the water.

There were descriptions of the boarding preparations, all the food and supplies that were required, everyone was subjected to a brief medical exam to make sure they were healthy. Then they had a window where you could see the museum mascots, Molly and Carter.

Aren’t they adorable? They are 2-year-old King Charles spaniels and pay tribute to the 12 dogs that were brought on board. My memory is fuzzy, but I believe only 3 dogs survived. Molly and Carter were sleeping when I went by the first time, but they woke up shortly after and were brought out. They were extremely well-mannered and seemed to love all the attention they were getting.

There was a replica of a 3rd class cabin. Just barely room enough for 2 bunk beds on each side and a wash basin on the back wall. You could stand in the middle and almost touch all three sides without moving. But according to most passenger ships back then, they were luxury accommodations. The Titanic was also one of the few vessels that provided food, usually 3rd class passengers had to bring their own. There was only 2 toilet facilities per floor, one for men, one for women and had to be shared by over a hundred people.

Then you got to see what the 1st class passengers enjoyed. Quite a difference from 3rd class, two bedrooms, private bathroom, walk-in closets, and a sitting room complete with fireplace. They didn’t have a replica of 2nd class but said that there wasn’t that much difference between 2nd and 1st class.

They had some actual menu cards recovered from survivors. 3rd class was served excellent food but wasn’t anything like the 11-course meals 1st class enjoyed.

Parts of the museum were interactive. There was a room you went into that was made to look like you were walking the deck outside. The temperature was even the same as it would have been that night, very cold. The whole room was black and used ultraviolet lighting on the walls to make it appear like you were looking at the night sky. You couldn’t stay in this room very long before the cold started affecting you and you had to go back where it was warm.

There was a replica of the ships wheel that you could spin, and then the displays started getting into the accident itself. The iceberg didn’t actually puncture the hull. It scraped off hundreds of rivets that allowed water to start pouring in. The hull was designed in sections that could be sealed off to prevent the ship from sinking, but they didn’t work. Water began to flow into the various sections anyway.

They had sections of deck that were built at angles representing different stages of the sinking that you could walk on. There was also full-scale replica of a life boat you could sit in. There was a pool of water kept at the same temperature the ocean was. You could stick your hand in and see how long you could keep it in there before taking it out. I lasted just over 15 seconds and it was several minutes before I started regaining the feeling in my fingers.

You could test out a Morse code device. The distress signal at that time was “CQD”. The “CQ” was the standard call for assistance but the letters don’t actually stand for anything, contrary to several web sites saying it means, “come quickly”. The “D” at the end was used to indicate a distress situation. The familiar “SOS” was just starting to be adopted and was also sent out from the Titanic. I had fun punching in and listening to the signals, and spelled out my name.

There were various displays of artifacts recovered. There were 8 crewmembers in the orchestra and there was a listing of different songs they played, all the musicians died because they wanted to keep playing as long as possible to try to comfort the people trying to escape. They initially were playing jazzy, swing songs from the day, but switched to hymns once people realized the ship was going down. A popular one they played over and over was “Nearer my God to Thee.”

The last stage of the journey detailed various recovery efforts and location of the wreckage. There are plans to raise the Titanic going on. Time is of the essence because it is very quickly turning into a pile of rust.

Sadly, my captain was not among the survivors. He did indeed go down with the ship. There are conflicting reports of the actual circumstances, none of which can be confirmed. Some survivors said he fell into the water, others said he locked himself on the bridge after giving the command to abandon ship. Yet another interesting story, probably more legend than truth, was that after he fell in the water, he surfaced and grabbed hold of one of the life boats. He apologized to the people sitting in the boat for what they had to endure, and then let go and went down.

The steward that was collecting the audio devices at the end said to me that it looked like I enjoyed my visit. I was so moved I couldn’t say anything. I swallowed a few times and was able to choke out a response, “It was amazing,” was all I could say. She nodded in an understanding way. They recommended to reserve 90 minutes to walk through the museum. I was there a little over 2 1/2 hours.

My next stop was the world’s largest toy museum. Cameras were not only allowed, but encouraged, so I’ve got lots of pictures of this. I’m a child at heart, so toys are still something I enjoy.

A few assorted metal trucks.

I’m an aviation fan so the metal airplanes got my attention.

This Rolls Royce actually came Washington D.C. It was kept there specifically for the Queen of England when she came to visit. It was her personal vehicle while she was here.

I also like old coke machines.

I had a fairly large Hot Wheel car collection in my youth, complete with the orange track you see at the bottom. Everyone who has ever owned these seems to have a story of sword fighting with the track sections. My brother and I were no different, they really stung when you got swatted with a piece of that track. My son has a bunch of cars too. He’s no long interested in Hot Wheels, but I still plan on keeping them.

Very old, large metal trucks and earth moving equipment. Built to withstand rugged play outside.

Another memory from my childhood. I actually had this TCR set (Total Control Racing) the cars had working headlights, some pieces glowed in the dark, and the cars could switch lanes.

Ah yes, who can remember PEZ dispensers? These were the rage when I was in high school. I was into the Warner Brothers Characters, so I had Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Sylvester. I also had a little truck with wheels that I remember shooting across the floor in band. I played the trumpet and my buddy was in the trombone section so it had to go across the room for him to get his PEZ fix.

Several years ago, I came across a PEZ display and couldn’t resist buying another one. I don’t have any of the dispensers from my childhood, but I still have this one.

There were bible verses placed throughout the museum. Branson is very much a faith-based community. The entertainment and shows are all family friendly and have to pass strict guidelines before performances are allowed.

I’ve always wanted a train set, but have never had the room to spare to build anything worthwhile, you almost need an entire basement or a good sized room to build a decent railway. Train sets today are nice, but I still like the old “larger than life” Lionel train sets from the 60’s.

Old blue bike.

Old red bike.

There was a huge display of various guns. This is the Steve McQueen collection.

Some handguns.

Some authentic guns that belonged to Harold Wright, author of “the Shepherd of the Hills,” a book that made Branson famous.

Beanie babies stuffed animals. These were the bane of my existence. My beautiful wife went through a “collecting” phase. We had several plastic totes filled with these creatures, stacked from floor to ceiling. Thank goodness for eBay. I was able to sell almost all of them when we decided we didn’t need them anymore.

More childhood memories. Both my brother and I had ViewMasters. Those little round picture discs brought back lots of memories.

As did this shelf underneath the ViewMasters. I had an Etch-A-Sketch and I was also in cub scouts and sported one of those blue cub scout baseball caps. I had that exact same barrel of Tinkertoys also. They were amazing. I always enjoyed building things. There are also Lego’s represented. My best friend had one of those Merlin, the electronic wizard games (red game, bottom shelf, next to the tic-tac-toe board).

This museum was wonderful. They claim anyone of any age should be able to find toys they played with in their youth. There was an old man, barely able to walk, who came up to me and said he needed to show me something. He was very determined, so I allowed him to take me to an ancient train set. He beamed with pride as he went into a very detailed story from his childhood, when he owned a set just like that. It appeared he was enjoying his visit also.

My next stop was a go-kart and mini-golf park. Here’s a shot of the KIA I was driving. In the background was the reason I was there. A 3-story wooden go-kart track called, “The Lumberjack.” Branson has a chain of attractions called the Track Family Fun Parks. They have a few different tracks but I was interested in the two huge wooden ones. They have another one called “the Wild Woody”, but that track wasn’t open.

Here’s another shot of the track. Note the 3-story corkskrew. It was a blast. The track was made of wooden boards so it made a cool bumpbumpbumpbumpbump sound as you were driving over it. The cars were a little slow for my taste, especially going up-hill. But spinning around as you were coming down was fun. The car picked up speed and you had to let off the gas just a little bit or you would lose control.

After my ride, I had time for a quick 18 holes of mini-golf. It was set to a wild west, gold mining theme. I saw my name on a fake grave marker, so I had to snap a picture of it. The golf course wasn’t very exciting, but it was challenging. I finished 19 over par, but I blame it on the fact I was trying to hurry, so I’d make it back in time to catch the shuttle for our evening showboat dinner cruise. There was a pirate’s cove golf course, but I would have had to drive in extremely busy traffic to get there, and I just didn’t have time. The attendant at the fun park was the first person I met who didn’t have the “customer service” mind set. He was rude and didn’t seem to care that he was keeping a line of people waiting to buy tickets.

After turning in my putter, I had to high-tail it back to the hotel so I could make the shuttle to our evening dinner cruise on the Branson Belle. Traffic was horrible now, everyone was trying to make it to any one of a huge number of shows that were getting ready to start. The average speed was around 5 mph.

I did make the shuttle and got in line for my boat ticket. The boat was enormous, a huge stern-wheeler with four decks. I got my seat and they started to serve the meal. This is a shot of the band that played music while we ate. It sounded great. I play trumpet in a big band that plays a lot of the same music, so I recognized every tune they played. I got a chance to talk to the trumpet player later as they were taking a break. A fine, personable fellow that exemplified the Branson hospitality I was getting used to.

The meal was great, especially after the lackluster pizza I had for lunch. A salad with the ships signature sweet onion dressing, roast beef and gravy, a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and lemon raspberry torte for dessert. Complemented by fresh sourdough bread (my favorite) and large quantities of iced tea.

The only downer about the "cruise" was that we didn’t actually leave the dock. Some kid had stuffed a shirt down one of the toilets during their afternoon trip, and it got jammed down into the main plumbing line and took out every toilet on the boat. They are not allowed to leave port without functioning rest rooms, so we had our dinner cruise tied up to the dock with spiffy biffs outside if you needed to relieve yourself.

After dinner, there was a break before the show. I didn’t want to drag the camera around so you’ll have to make do with lousy cell-phone pictures. It was very dark, so most of the pictures I took didn’t turn out. This first one is a picture of one of the paddle wheels.

Here’s a shot from the Texas deck outside.

When I’m left to my own devices exploring, I have a tendency to wander where most people wouldn’t go. I found this interesting motor boat tied down an empty passageway. I try to obey most signs, so I kept clear as I wasn’t a member of the crew.

Another creepy corridor ending in this sign. Once again, I was rebuffed, so I turned around.

Sorry for the blurry image. I’m sure I was walking as I took the picture, which is kind of a dumb thing to do when you think about it. But I’ve told you before, pictures just aren’t my thing. This looked like some crazy, all in one, music contraption. There were drums, horns, and a keyboard with pipes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t playing. I sure would have liked to hear it.

Then they called us back to the main hall for the show. It was kind of like the Medora musical we have in ND. There were singers that performed a bunch of songs. The theme this year is Broadway showstoppers so they sang songs from various musicals like Phantom of the opera, Oklahoma, Mame, and Little Orphan Annie.

Then we were entertained by Todd Oliver and his talking dogs. No, the dogs don’t actually talk. Todd Oliver is a ventriloquist. This show was so funny, my stomach was sore the rest of the night from laughing so hard. This is his last year with the showboat and will be opening up his own show in Branson next year. He is extremely funny if you ever have a chance to see his show.

Back to the hotel, more geometry with my daughter, courtesy of the Internet and video chat, and bed. There was a light breakfast the next morning with fresh fruit and assorted breads, pastries, and muffins. We had our closing meetings and it was time to catch my flight home.

I gassed up the rental, turned it back in, and got in line to enter the airport terminal. I waited about 15 minutes to go through security and finally realized I hadn’t got my boarding pass or checked my luggage. So then I had to go find the United Airlines window and get rid of my luggage. Another wait.

I got through security and only had to remove my shoes, coat, and belt. Fortunately, I wasn’t subjected to any body scans or pat-downs. I got dressed, grabbed my carry-ons and got to my gate just in time for initial boarding.

The flight home was uneventful. Denver was just as clogged with people. I had lunch at Que Bueno Mexican Grille. A beef and bean burrito combo with chips and salsa and a ginormous pop. The burrito was good, but not quite up to Taco Del Mar (Bismarck restaurant) standards. The chips and salsa were very good, except I didn't have nearly enough sauce.

I caught my flight home and arrived just as my family was finishing up the Wednesday evening church activities so they were able to pick me up fairly soon.

That’s about it, a good time was had in Branson, but it was very nice to be back home with my family and comfortable bed.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guys Weekend

The female members of our family set off on a Labor Day youth retreat, which left my son, Brian, and I alone for a couple days. My son gets bored very easily and during the Summer months, the condition worsens. Brian’s older sister, Brianna, is content jamming with her iPod and texting all day long, so we have to pry her off the rocking chair to get her to do something on her feet. With Brian, we can’t get him to relax and sit still.

He’s been begging me to take him camping all Summer, which I very much intended to do. But alas, good intentions alone, do not a camping trip make. Sorry, I tend to sound like Yoda from Star Wars every so often. With Brianna’s Summer swimming, trips to band camp at the Peace Gardens, Marching band practice, not to mention Brian’s Summer track and tennis clubs he was involved in. About all we managed was to go golfing once and before we knew it, Summer was gone and school was back in session.

But, as any parent worth their salt knows, you really need to keep promises made to your children. Labor Day weekend provided a good opportunity for me to make good on the camping promise. So last Saturday we said goodbye to the females and started preparing our excursion.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you know I try to do things on the cheap. I also grew up tent camping and in my mind that is what camping is. These big RV’s with the fancy, posh accommodations aren’t really camping in my opinion. I can see myself maybe getting interested in these after I retire and want to see the world. But for a weekend jaunt, a tent is the only way to go.

My dad set us up with a lot of supplies when I got married and I’m happy to say, for the most part, everything is still in working condition. I’ve got a 6-person dome tent, portable propane cook stove, a cook set with pots, cups, and dishes that all fit inside each other, and various other odds and ends to make the camping experience complete.

My first thought was Ft. Abraham Lincoln State Park. I always enjoyed wandering around the block houses and reconstructions of the military post as well as crawling inside the earth lodges at the On-A-Slant Indian Village. I also realized since it was Labor Day weekend, it would probably be full up with campers. So I called before leaving.

Sure enough, they were totally booked with not a single camping spot vacant. So my backup site was Cross Ranch State Park. A delightful place even if it is lacking in military history. When I called they boasted several open spots. So we loaded up the car and headed North.

The location could not have been more perfect. I really like how they have separate areas for the “RV” crowd vs. the primitive “Tent” crowd. The RV section was totally clogged with campers. But the tent spots had all sorts of room. We were able to find a nice secluded area all to ourselves and very close to the outdoor toilet. There was a nice parking spot off the road for our car, and the picnic table, fire pit, and tent spot were arranged very well so nothing interfered with each other.

The first order of business was to set up the tent. It is always an exercise in comedy. I have gotten more efficient over the years, but it’s still hilarious to watch. There are these three very long, hollow, poles which collapse into several sections held together by an elastic string running along the inside, so you have to unfold this thing and insert it into the sleeves provided in the tent. a 6 foot tall person can stand upright in the center, so you can imagine, when the tent is flat on the ground, there is a lot of pole that needs to get hoisted up and over the roof of the tent.

This part goes easier with two people. I found this out the hard way. You get one pole hooked into the sides and the tent starts to fall over before you can get the next pole hooked in. Like I said, this is hilarious watching me put this up. But, with two people you can have one person get inside and hold up the roof in the middle, while the other person runs around hooking the poles.

So I sent Brian in the tent to hold it up. It was working fairly well until a stiff breeze came up. My son hardly weighs anything, the lucky dog, so he started getting excited when the wind started carrying the tent away with him in it. So I had to quickly hook the poles one handed, while hanging on to the tent to keep it from blowing away.

Once that job was done, I had Brian come out and hang on to the tent while I pounded anchor spikes in the ground. He was barely able to hold on to the thing. Thank goodness he gives 150% effort into everything he does.

Sadly, I have no photos of our tent. Pictures just aren’t my thing. I always think about taking them long after the photo opportunity has passed. I asked Brian if he wanted to go fishing or eat. Brian looks at me like I lost my marbles. He thinks about food all day long. 30 minutes after one meal is done, he’s thinking about what’s on the menu for the next one. Given a choice between eating and anything else, it’s most always going to be eating.

First, a campfire must be lit. This is hands down my favorite aspect of camping. We really want to get one of those portable fire pits some day so we can have faux-campfires in our driveway. I kind of have this down to a science. Brian walked around the campsite gathering little twigs. I crumpled up some newspaper, laid the twigs on top of that, along with some fire starter sticks I got at Target. Then I made a tee-pee like construction with 3 of the bigger logs. One match was all it took. The paper ignited one of those little fire sticks and boy howdy did that light up. Combined with the respectable pile of twigs, the fire stayed lit long enough to ignite the larger logs.

While the fire was popping and crackling merrily, I fired up my propane cook stove for some beans. My personal favorite is Bush’s Homestyle baked beans. But they’ve had a variety called Grillin’ Beans that I’ve been meaning to try. They have several flavors so I opted for the one called “Smokehouse Tradition”. I opened up a can of these and set them on the stove to warm.

We brought out the lawn chairs, skewered some hot dogs, and settled down next to the fire while things started to cook. I tried to put on my best, “expert camper who knows what their doing,” expression.

Brian’s always got a load of questions. “How long does it cook?”

“Till it’s done.”

“How do you know when it’s done?”

“That depends on how you like it.”

“Do I have to let it get all black?”

“Not if you don’t want to, but a few black charred marks makes it taste better.”

“How close do I hold it to the fire?”

“As close as you can get without actually touching the flames.”

“The flames keep moving.”

“Yes, they do that, it’s part of the fun.”

Brian’s ready to eat after just a few seconds. “Do you think it’s done yet?”

“Nope, not yet, you have to be patient.”

“I’m hungry.”

“I know.” I prop my stick against the fire pit and go stir the beans. My goodness do they smell good, I take an experimental taste. Cold to luke-warm but WOW are they tasty. I highly recommend this brand. I sit back down.

Brian asks, “are the beans done?”

“Not yet.”

His hot dog is starting to get black, but not exactly sizzling. I like my hot dogs hot, with nice black marks, and sizzling as I remove it from the poker. So I wasn’t ready just yet. But Brian was really starting to fidget so I told him he could try it and I put his on a bun for him. He had the whole thing gone by the time I turned around after stirring the beans again.

“How was it?” I asked.

“That was the best hot dog ever.”

“Things seem to always taste better outside.” I said. “Was it hot enough.”

“Not really, but I like them just a little warm.”

Finally, I started getting some sizzle so I made mine. It was good, but the middle still wasn’t hot enough. The beans were done so we scooped up some of them. WOW again, these are really, really good. I put two hot dogs on my stick this time for more efficiency. My second and third dogs were going to cook longer.

Brian had the technique down and was ready to take it off the fire. Way too early, in my opinion. “Isn’t it still cold in the middle?” I asked him.

“A little, but I like it that way.”


Brian got some more beans and I let my dog continue to bake. He was full and couldn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t eating my other two hot dogs. “I like them done, really done, hot and sizzling.”

“Aren’t they done yet?”


He grabs a stick and starts poking the logs, walks around the camp site. I continue to patiently cook my dogs.

“Dad, when are you going to eat them.”

“When they’re done.”

Finally, Brian made me so nervous with his walking around I made my last two hot dogs. They still could have cooked a little longer, but they were nice and hot. We scraped the last remnants of beans and ate them straight out of the pan. Time for dishes.

I had filled the largest kettle with some water from the pump provided at the park, and had that on a burner to warm up. I squirted some dish soap and started doing dishes. Brian dried.

“That was so good.” He said.

A satisfied smile stole across my face. “It sure was.” I replied. Dishes got done in short order and we loaded up our fishing gear.

We were within spitting distance of the river but there was a good 10 foot drop down a very steep bank. I warned Brian about the dangers of running around, particularly after it got dark, and he was not to visit the toilet without me. We walked along the river for awhile looking for a better way to get down to the water. We came across another father-son duo already fishing. The kid was extremely chatty.

“Catch anything?” he asked.

“Haven’t started,” I replied.

“There’s all kinds of places to come down, you can take any one of them, you just have to keep walking until you find a spot, be careful though, ‘cause it’s really steep, I’d hate to see you fall in.” He said all this really fast.

“Thanks,” My son and I don’t like to waste words.

We kept walking. I had it in mind to put as much distance between us and the talkative lad as I could. After awhile we found a secluded spot and made our way down to the water. Then I realized we forgot the worms. Bummer. “Brian, I’ve got a mission for you.” Hey, he’s the track star, not me!

We both climbed back up the bank and headed back to camp for the worms, Brian hustled on ahead, while I maintained a more leisurely pace. Brian was there and back before I covered half the distance so we made our way back to the fishing spot. A few minutes later we had lines in the water.

I will tell you right now, I’m no pro-angler. And fishing from a riverbank is substantially more difficult than in a boat with an electronic fish finder that allows you go where the fish are. We fish because my son really enjoys it, even if he doesn’t catch anything, and it’s quality family time. I also like to use the excuse that I spend so much time baiting hooks and tying lures that I have very little time for actual fishing myself. I think it’s a pretty good excuse. Brian had rigged a bottom bouncer with a night crawler, while I was using a diving crank bait. I prefer the crank baits because you can cast, reel it in, pull weeds off, cast, reel in, repeat as needed. The bottom bouncer you throw out there and wait. It’s just not enough action if the fish aren’t biting.

Evidently, Brian thought the same, so after a few minutes, I had to tie a crank bait on his line as well. The night crawlers lay forgotten, poor guys. We still had a grand time. It was an idyllic setting. Peaceful, great scenery, and all kinds of nature sounds in the air. We kept at it until dark and I got to try out another new purchase. Head lights!

A co-worker had told me sometimes fish will start biting right after dusk. I asked her what she does when it gets dark. She had bought some LED clip-on headlights that fit really nice over the bill on a baseball cap. Thus, lighting your way and leaving your hands free. These are the bomb! Those little lights really pump out some brightness and its so easy to direct the beam exactly where you need it simply by turning your head. I had bought a pair when I was shopping for supplies, they were easily the most useful new item we had with us. We used them after we got back to the campsite also.

When you get outside the range of city street lights, darkness can be really quite dark. We kept at it until the sun was well below the horizon. We both got lost in our thoughts and the night was extremely quiet.

“CATCH ANYTHING?” I nearly fell in the water. It was that talkative kid from the camp next door.

“Nope,” I responded after assuring myself I was securely standing on dry land. I didn’t hear anything else so the kid must have left. He had officially, certifiably, gotten on my nerves.

S’mores and another campfire were beckoning to Brian, so we reeled in the lines one last time and made our way back to camp, headlights lighting the way. The chatty boy must have been off bothering someone else as their campsite was quiet as we walked past.

Brian asked to start the fire. He’s got to learn sometime so I said ok. We built another setup with paper and kindling. Brian was a little nervous. He was too quick to drop the match so it landed in the fire pit too far from the paper to do any good. On the third attempt, he got really close, I kept hoping the paper would catch but as the match slowly burned up, this seemed unlikely, so I grabbed the unburned piece and threw the match on the paper. After the initial flare-up it started to die down so we quickly added more kindling and the bigger logs finally caught. Another spectacular sight.

I broke out grahams, chocolate, and marshmallows. Special dark for me, milk chocolate for the boy. I’m partial to bittersweet dark chocolate, which incidentally goes fabulously with coffee, so I started up the cook stove and put the coffee pot filled with water on to boil. No coffee makers out in the wilderness.

Toasting marshmallows is always fun, part luck, park skill. You want the thing toasted, but not ignited and black. Watching my son with his marshmallows had me laughing as it brought back all these memories of campfires in my youth and my marshmallow experiences. We’d get everything nicely toasted, just about ready to pull off the fire, and POOF, the thing would light up, then you’d have to quickly blow it out to try and salvage as much gooey goodness as possible.

Brian had the disadvantage that he wouldn’t eat it if there was any black on it at all. I asked him, “Why not?” he claimed he didn’t like it. “How do you know you don’t like it, if you’ve never eaten one?” I’d much rather have mine toasted brown, but that doesn’t stop me eating the black ones.

We finally had some decent s’mores made, and the water started boiling. I took the water off the heat and added the grounds. Its camp coffee so there is no filtration. The grounds got dumped right in the water. A common mistake is for people to put the coffee back on the burner and boil it to a bitter mess. Coffee needs to be steeped, so you stir it in, put a cover on it, and let it sit off the flame. After about 7 minutes, you have got some decent coffee and because the grounds haven’t been churning in the boiling water, they will have all settled to the bottom resulting in a cup without any soggy grounds in it. If the coffee starts to cool, it may be placed back on the heat but NOT brought to a boil.

Brian likes coffee too. The only 12-year-old as far as I know that likes black coffee. So we snacked on gooey s’mores, sipped our coffee and reflected on a most delightful day. Brian had more fun poking the fire with a stick and playing with his headlight. I was simply having fun basking in the knowledge I’ve made my son happy. If my kids are happy, I’m usually happy.

Finally, the last log in our bundle burned out and it was close to midnight. We washed the remaining dishes, put out the fire and went in the tent. We played games for a while, visited the toilet and went to bed.

Brian was sleeping instantly and didn’t wake up until I roused him a few hours later that morning. We had to get home, showered, and to church by 9:30. I didn’t sleep hardly at all. The ground, I discovered, was very cold and hard. I’m old and enjoy a comfortable mattress. In the early morning hours the wind really started to howl. That pretty much ended any hope of my sleeping. I’m an extremely light sleeper. It has to be dark, quiet, and I have to be comfortable. If any one of those needs are not met. I’m not going to sleep.

But it was kind of futile anyway, as we didn’t get to bed until very late and we had to get up so early. My little travel alarm went off way too soon. I loaded up as much gear as I could and rolled up my sleeping bag so Brian could stay sleeping as long as possible. All that was left was to wake him up, pack up his sleeping bag, and roll up the tent. Thankfully, tents come down a lot faster than they go up so we were on the road in about 10 minutes.

We got home, showered, and were able to make it to the church on time. It was a fabulous time, however, if we do it again, there will definitely be air mattresses involved, and will probably be arranged so we can sleep in the next day if necessary.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Office Pranks

In my 40-something years of existence, I’ve been both giver and receiver of various practical jokes and pranks. You would think, at some point, a person would grow out of this childish behavior. That has not been my experience.

I work with a group of people addicted to the television show, “The Office.” Although unfamiliar with this show myself, I’ve listened in on enough conversations to get the gist of what the show is about. Apparently, in one episode, one unfortunate employee came to work to find everything on his desk encased in gelatin molds. Imagine my chagrin, at coming to work several weeks ago, to find this waiting for me on my desk.

If you look closely, you should see a stapler in the middle of a very dark blob of, yes, green gelatin. I told them they really should have used a lighter color. This was, of course, very amusing to all concerned. I had a very good idea who the ringleader of this little scheme was, so I promptly picked up the mold, took it to his desk and swapped it with his “non-gelatin-mold-encased” stapler. After the laughing subsided, I was told that it wasn’t my stapler at all and was the private property of the ringleader. No destruction of actual company property had taken place, and he was merely hiding my stapler in his desk. He had a nicer stapler so it was still awhile before I consented to getting my own stapler back.

I realized it has been a long time since I’ve written anything, so I got the idea of saying something about pranks. As I said earlier, I’ve been on both sides of the practical joke coin over the years. One of the more memorable pranks I can remember was when I came back from a few days vacation to find every single drawer in my office, as well as the entire surface of my desk and floor covered with Styrofoam packing peanuts. Even after cleaning it out, I was still running into those little goobers for weeks afterwards. Taking a vacation is a risky business where I work. I guess it’s nice to know you are missed.

The most memorable, however, was several years ago, not long after I started. Someone had come across a program that made your computer emit sounds like flatulence at random intervals every few minutes. I have to say, it was a very creative program. It didn’t just have the same sound, there were all different varieties that issued forth. I didn’t have this put on my computer, but I did have to go around and try to figure out how to get the program off the infected machines. It was quite an ordeal and wasn’t nearly as funny after I’d been at it awhile. The program was very hard to remove. It tended to come back every time I thought it was deleted. Then you would have to wait several minutes because the rude noises weren’t all that frequent. You never knew after so many minutes of silence, if the thing would start up again. Finally, I did manage to find a way to get the program removed permanently.

Any other pranking stories out there?

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Ride Home

I woke up far too early than should be allowed. Having a long, but fun-filled day previously, not to mention a very comfortable water bed, I slept like a log. I’m sure I would have been out until noon, but the pesky alarm clock brought me out of slumberland.

I showered and brushed my teeth and packed up to leave. I went to say goodbye to my gracious hosts. I was very surprised to find both of them up. Judy, evidently couldn’t sleep. She immediately offered me all manner of things for breakfast. All of which were very tempting, but I really had to get going. I would be in serious trouble if I missed playing the trumpet for the rehearsal that evening.

I hugged these extremely nice people goodbye, thanked them for everything and got into my shiny red pick-up. I was still very hesitant backing out of their garage, but managed to get it out without hitting anything. Another wave goodbye and I was off.

I stopped at the first convenience store I could find for the biggest coffee they had. I also looked for some antiperspirant but all they had was deodorant. I really needed something to control my sweating so I hoped another store would present itself up the road.

I started loading CD’s into the 6-disc changer. I started to grin and by the time I got to CD’s 5 & 6 it was from ear to ear. I love audio books, especially on a long road trip and I was tickled to be able to load one and half entire books in one shot. I’ve only ever had a 1 CD player on our vehicles and the Oldsmobile doesn’t even have that so I have a portable I listen to sitting in the passenger seat. It would be a treat knowing I would be more than halfway home before I had to reload another CD.

I picked up Interstate 25 headed North. The truck handles like a dream. It drives very nice on the highway. It compares quite favorably to my Oldsmobile which is a fairly decent road car. Our van can’t even come close. If there is any kind of wind, driving our van can be physically exhausting trying to stay on the road. The truck handles with ease. It has been a long time since I could say I had a vehicle that is actually fun to drive.

It started to rain almost immediately and didn’t stop until I was just about through Wyoming. I felt a little bad the truck was getting rained on, but I figured I’d rather have rain than bugs. It was never a hard rain just gentle showers pretty much the whole way through Wyoming. At Douglas, I picked up state highway 59 to Gillette. I was making occasional stops for coffee and a rest room. I was still enjoying the truck immensely and listening to some good books so drowsiness wasn’t a problem. I did have to stop and get some deodorant. I never did find what I wanted so I made do with some Old Spice High Endurance. That would have to do until I got home.

In Gillette, I picked up Interstate 90 to Spearfish. I passed a huge coal plant. The last time we drove through Gillette, it was around midnight and pitch black so I don’t ever remember seeing it. My buddy and fellow blogger SteveAtRandom could probably tell me all about it since he works for the Lignite Energy Council. It was impressive, I was so busy staring at it I had to remind myself to stay on the road.

The rain stopped by this time and things got extremely windy. The wind didn’t stop until I got home. The truck still handled pretty well, even in the wind, never the less, I was still happy to be done driving by the time I got to my house.

I made it to Spearfish, SD and picked up Interstate 85 through Belle Fourche. A few miles outside of Belle Fourche, I saw orange road construction signs. I had really lucked out with these and had hardly seen any construction the whole way. My 4-lane highway turned into a 2-lane, and much to my dismay, extended through the entire town. It was made even worse by the fact most of the road had been torn up and I had to drive on gravel much of the way. This truck has an immaculate paint job with not one single rock chip that I could see. As I driving through Belle Fourche, I believe I actually started to cry. I slowed to about 8 miles an hour which was about as fast as traffic was going anyway. It broke my heart to drive through that town.

I stopped at a Taco Johns and drowned my sorrows in a super burrito combo. Somehow I made it out of the construction zone and got back on a paved highway. By this time I was really starting to get anxious to get home.

Just north of Belle Fourche, somebody turned on the bug machine. By the time I got into North Dakota, the windshield was plastered with bug guts. I stopped in Bowman to clean things up as best I could. I made it to Belfield, ND and turned east on Interstate 94, this is the road that would finally get me home. I had to stop for gas, some ice tea and clean off some more bug innards.

I finally made it home with an hour to spare before band practice. I had timed it just about right. It’s about 12 hours between Mandan and Denver if you obey the speed limit. Do you think my beautiful wife would say something like, “welcome home, honey, I missed you?” No, I walked into the house, and she was standing there with her hand out wanting me to give her the key. The only thing she said was “that sure is pretty red truck you brought home for me.”

Ah well, at least we have a vehicle both of us are happy with. If we have occasional words over who gets to drive it, that’s OK. I made it home safe and sound, and am the proud owner of a fantastic truck. It’s been put to good use. Already, it’s been used to haul several garbage cans of grass clippings, three loads of tree branches, and a garden tiller to the shop for some engine repair.

I cannot thank enough those who made this happen. Bob and Judy, the fine people who sold me the truck and provided a place for me to stay, Rick and Lois, for picking me up and driving me all over and showing me a great time while I was there, and, of course, Jim, my dad who was instrumental in making sure everything went off without a hitch. Friends and family are truly the most valuable treasures we can have.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I’ve Got To Pick Up a Pick-up

“So when are you going to pick up your pick-up?” my children kept asking. I’m not sure, but they said this so many times, I think they just liked to hear how it sounded.

It is an amazing thing, that when you are eagerly anticipating an event, time seems to crawl. But when you are not looking forward to something, time has the disobliging habit of proceeding quickly. When I finally made the decision to purchase the truck, it would be about 4-5 weeks before I would actually get to Denver to buy it. I can’t remember time ever passing so slowly, even waiting for Christmas as a child. It didn’t help that my children, as well as everyone at work, kept asking me when the big day would arrive. I imagine this is how expectant mothers feel when they tire of hearing, “So, when is the baby due?”

Finally, the day did in fact arrive. I got an amazing deal through on a plane ticket to Denver. I would have a 40 minute layover in Salt Lake City, but that would be just about perfect since they usually board 30 minutes before take-off. Plus, I had never been to the Great Salt Lake, which you fly over as you come in for a landing. I also got to see the Olympic stadium from somewhere between 15-20 thousand feet. I always think about taking pictures days after the opportunity occurs, so no photos, sorry. It was really something though. I was not the least disappointed in my layover.

I will tell you right now, I am a card-carrying cheap-skate. Everything I do, every day of my life, is in as inexpensive a manner as possible. Sometimes this causes me more expense and trouble in the long run, but as a general rule, I save money whenever and wherever I can. My original plan was to fly out of Bismarck, ND, as early as possible, make the deal on the truck, and drive back that night. Ambitious, I know, but I’ve succeeded at more ambitious endeavors than that and thought I could manage.

My other shortcoming is that I hate to impose on people. I didn’t want to ask Bob and Judy, the people I would be purchasing the vehicle from, to provide me with a bed. My brother Jeremy also lives in the Denver area, but too far away to be feasible. Lois and Rick, my aunt and uncle, are closer geographically, but like I said, I hate to impose. Deanna talked to me at length about how long a day I would have and to drive 12 hours back from Denver was probably not a good idea. So I made reservations at the Motel 6 in Belle Fourche, SD. This is the cleanest and cheapest lodgings I’ve found, at a good halfway point between ND and CO.

In the meantime, my dear father is extremely concerned this deal goes down smoothly, since he was basically the one who got the party started. Unbeknownst to me, he was making calls on my behalf. When I finally got wind of this, the revised plan was for me to cancel my Motel reservation immediately. When I got to the Denver airport, I was to take an $8 skyRide bus to the Wagon Road Park ‘n Ride bus stop. Bob would pick me up there, we would sign the deal on the truck and enjoy a fantastic dinner at the Rib House in Longmont, CO. Rick and Lois, who are good friends with Bob and Judy would be joining us for the festivities.

My dad sent me an email, and at the same time, Bob actually called me and told me that fathers do know best and, if I knew what was good for me, I should do what he says. I’m still in shock as my mouth is slowly falling open and saliva is starting to drip out because I’m thinking of ribs. I kept thinking at some point I will get pinched and wake up from this fantasy.

Then Bob said I had a decision to make. After dinner, I would have the privilege of driving the truck to Rick and Lois’s house, spending the night and leaving the next morning from there, or I was extremely welcome to spend the night at Bob and Judy’s and leave from their house instead. I did pinch myself at this point just to make sure this was not a dream.

It wasn’t. Follow-up emails and phone calls confirmed this was going to happen. So I canceled the Motel reservation and looked up the procedure for using the airport bus service. It was a very tough decision as to where to spend the night. I would have liked to spend some more time visiting with my aunt and uncle, however, I had already committed to playing the trumpet in a brass group that was performing for a celebration Mass to dedicate a new sanctuary at one of our local Catholic churches. I was supposed to play the night I was driving back from Denver. It was important that I left as early as possible the following morning. As much as I appreciated Rick and Lois’s hospitality, I thought it would be quickest to stay at Bob and Judy’s.

The plans were made and all I had to do was await the departure date. After a few days, the first change in plans occurred, but it was a great change. I would not have to take the bus, because my saintly Aunt Lois would be picking me up at the airport instead. We would then go to visit my cousin Paul, Rick & Lois’s son, at his place of employment, the National Center For Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. We would take a tour of their facility and have lunch with Paul. He has a computer related job like myself, so I was very interested in seeing the NCAR super computers. Plus, not only would I get to visit Rick and Lois, but I would get to see Paul as well.

The big day finally arrived. I cannot describe the excitement I was feeling when Deanna was driving me to the airport. I really enjoy flying, I would get to see relatives I don’t see nearly enough, tour some new sights, and drive a new vehicle home. I got on the plane almost without a hitch. Since I was only staying one night I really didn’t need to check any luggage so I fit all my overnight stuff in a backpack. Evidently my spray can of antiperspirant was too large to be allowed. I had no choice but to dispose of it and hope I could buy something driving out the next morning.

The flights went as scheduled and actually took off a few minutes early. I don’t believe I’ve ever had that happen to me. I was on Delta Airlines going into Salt Lake City and then would pick up the connecting flight to Denver. I’d never been to Salt Lake City so I was kind of excited about that. I chose orange juice and some cookies for my complimentary refreshment.

The Great Salt lake is pretty impressive. As I was looking at the lake the Olympic stadium passed by my window. I always request a window seat if I can. I didn’t expect to see that, so that was pretty neat. The SLC airport was about like other airports. I grabbed a venti (large) Latte at a Starbucks and followed the signs to my gate.

The 40 minute layover was just about perfect. I found a seat, and called Lois to tell her everything was on schedule and when I should be arriving. Then I checked in with Deanna to let her know I didn’t crash, yet. “Ha ha, that’s not funny,” she would say. I drink coffee like water so I did manage to finish my drink just when they were calling for boarding. I got on and we were off to Denver. The crunchy cookies were kind of tasty on the previous flight so I chose those again with a Ginger Ale for my refreshment.

After getting off the plane things started to get more exciting. The Denver airport makes you take a subway-like train to the baggage/passenger pick up area. As I got to the bottom of an escalator, a woman was frantically reaching her arm in the gap between the up and down sections. She had accidentally dropped her dad’s wedding ring and it was lying in the gap. I tried, but my arms just weren’t quite long enough. Not to mention the escalators were moving so when you reached in, they wanted to rip your arm off. Needless to say, she was borderline hysterical at this point.

I couldn’t think of any way to help her. I did look at the emergency shut-off button for the escalator. I considered pushing that and probably would have, had I been sure I would have been able to push the button to get it started again. I also had no idea how quickly the emergency shut-off stopped the stairs moving and I had visions of people falling down. I just wasn’t ready to shut-off an escalator at a busy airport. I breathed a sigh of relief when two airport personnel showed up. I wished her good luck and awaited the next train.

Just as I got on the train, my cell phone went off. These trains are super fast and this one decided to take off just as I was reaching into my pocket for the phone. I wasn’t holding on to anything and just about fell on my face. I just barely managed to wrap my arm around a pole. I wrenched it in the process, but stayed on my feet. The backpack hit the floor but thankfully didn’t go flying across the car. Slightly out of breath, I answered the call. It was the director of the brass group making sure I would be at the church on time for Mass the following day. I assured her I would do my best to make it.

I managed to pick my backpack up, put the cell phone away, and calm down just as the train slid to a stop. The trains stop just as fast as they take off. When you see signs demanding you hold on to something. It is in your best interest to do what they say. I walked off and headed towards the baggage claim carousels. I wasn’t picking up any baggage but that was where the exits were. I called Lois to let her know I had arrived in one piece, barely, after that train ride.

Denver has two terminals, East and West, depending on which airline you are flying. It is important to know which terminal you are at when arranging for someone to pick you up. I had done my homework on this and knew I was at the East terminal because I was flying Delta Airlines. What I didn’t know was that public transportation is on a different level than private transportation. Public transportation is conveniently located on the 4th level where the baggage claim is.

There are all kinds of signs directing you to the baggage pick-up area as well as where the bus and taxi services are. There are very few, if any signs, directing you to go down to the 3rd level for private transportation. Evidently, they feel if you’ve got private transportation, either the flyer or the driver knows what’s going on and there’s no need for signs. In my case, my wise aunt Lois knew all about this and asked what terminal and what level I was on.

I said the East terminal but had no idea the level. To the uninformed, such as myself, it’s just like you are walking outside. Again, wise Lois directed me to look at the numbers on the doors. They all said things like, 402, 403, 404, etc… She said I needed to go down one level to the 3rd floor. Thank goodness for cell phones, that could have been messy if I didn’t have any way to communicate with someone. I made my way down and walked out, on the 3rd level this time, right underneath the Delta Airline sign and awaited Lois to come and get me.

The pick up went off without a hitch. Lois drove up and I got in. The first words she said were, “there’s been a change of plans. The first thing you need to know about spending time with us is the schedule is always subject to change.” I couldn’t help but laugh. This sounds exactly like my schedule at home. Besides, I knew this was going to be a grand adventure and it was shaping up to not disappoint me.

Instead of meeting my cousin Paul at work, we would be going to the eye doctor where my uncle Rick had an appointment. My other cousin, Kara, works there. So after the eye appointment was done, the four of us would go to lunch and then get Paul at his house. Their nanny was ill and he was at home taking care of the kids. Paul’s wife, Jaime (hopefully I spelled that right), would be done with her work by the time we got there, so Paul could come with us to the NCAR building and we’d still get our tour. I thought this was fantastic, as now I’d get to see my cousin Kara as well as Paul. I don’t see either of them very often.

We got to the eye doctors' office. This particular establishment provides eye-care services to the Colorado Avalanche hockey team so there were jerseys displayed on most of the walls. I thought that was pretty cool. I have and have had quite a bit of family living in the Denver area so I’ve become somewhat of an Avalanche, Rockies, and Broncos fan. I’ve never really been into pro basketball so I can take or leave the Denver Nuggets. Rick was sitting in the waiting area. He hadn’t had his appointment yet.

It’s a good thing he was at the eye doctor as I must have stood in front of him for 10 minutes before Lois gently reminded him I was here. Then the lights went on and he crushed me in one of his trademark bear hugs. We had an enjoyable time chatting and catching up on family news. Kara came out and said hello.

After the appointment, Rick, Lois, Kara, and I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. One thing Bismarck/Mandan is lacking is a good Mexican restaurant. We have some, and the food is good, but it just doesn’t taste like authentic Mexican cuisine. As you get further south, this changes. I was really spoiled when I went to visit my dad in Tucson, AZ. We went to Las Cazuelitas De Tucson. Their burritos are absolutely amazing, plus they had a live mariachi band when we were there. As a trumpet player, I was sorely tempted to join in.

I can’t remember what the Denver restaurant was called, but I was not disappointed. The burrito I had was very good. I’m partial to the green vs. the red chile sauce, so I really like it when I’m given the choice. I also like it when the salsa doesn’t come from a jar and tastes like the vegetables were just chopped up that day. It was a fabulous lunch and was great visiting with Rick, Lois, and Kara.

After we finished eating, Kara went back to work, Rick went home, and Lois and I went to get Paul. One thing about driving in Denver is that it takes 1-2 hours to get just about anywhere. I’m sure I dozed off on the drive to Paul’s house. I really appreciated Lois providing transportation all over. She put in a fair share of driving that day.

We got Paul, said hello to his adorable children who were focused in on the FernGully movie, having been chased indoors by a recent rain shower, and drove to the NCARS building. The architecture of this place is amazing, set into the foothills of Boulder, CO, it makes for a very scenic place to work. There are scads of things to see here. It is designed to accommodate groups of school children on field trips. There are all kinds of little stations relating to weather and space exploration. I’m extremely interested in these subjects so I was fascinated. I wanted to read everything, but we would have been there several hours longer and we needed to meet Bob and Judy.

I especially liked a tornado simulator that is constructed with jets, a vacuum, and mist. You have a real live miniature tornado on display and the signs encourage you to stick your hand in and observe how that changes the shape and direction of the funnel. If you really get your hand in there, you can temporarily dissipate the mist only to have it re-form when you take your hand away. I had to laugh when a small group of kids came up to the display. I very cautiously put my fingertips into the funnel and then my hand for just a little bit. These kids went for the full body experience and dove into it like junior versions of Superman. Paul said kids will do that all the time. The funnel scattered and reformed as soon as the kids got off. I experienced a brief flashback of my own childhood. There was a time I would have dived in just like those kids.

But there are also advantages to being an adult and cousin to someone that works there. We got access into the computer room where the super computers are housed. To most people, this probably wouldn’t be very interesting. On the outside they just look like a lot of cabinets with blinking lights on them. But when you think of the sheer processing power, storage, and cooling systems of these computers, for a computer geek like myself it was awe inspiring. I worked at the computer center when I was in college but that was one mainframe which just isn’t in the same class as a super computer. The college mainframe was cooled with liquid nitrogen which was kind of neat to see at the time.

The most fun part was looking at the automated tape library. There was a two-story library filled with tape cartridges and tape drives. There were several little robots on rails that were responsible for retrieving tapes, inserting them in the drives, and putting them back when they were no longer needed. The whole thing was enclosed and you had to watch through windows, but I was still startled and jumped back when a little robot came zooming out of nowhere, flying right at me, and stopped just short of the window. It’s little arm grabbed a tape, zoomed over to the drives, and put it in. Absolutely fascinating how that works. We sat and watched the robots work for awhile.

After the tour, we took Paul home and went to pick up Kara’s son Tyler from school. He plays baseball, and usually hangs out with his grandparents or walks to a friends house before the game starts. Lois is a quilter and has several masterpieces hanging up in their beautiful house. Another uncle, Dave, living in MN, is a brick layer and had done their fireplace. Rick also took me on their deck where you can see their bird feeders and a water feature complete with fish. We relaxed and chatted a bit more until it was time to go to Bob and Judy’s house.

I started getting butterflies in my stomach as I was about to come face to face with the pick-up I’d only seen in pictures until then. Bob and Judy also have a beautiful house and greeted me as if they’d known me their whole life. We’d never met, but they are very good friends with my dad and stepmom, and doubtless had heard countless stories about my brother and me. After our greetings, I was introduced to the pick-up I was going to buy.

Their garage was spotless and the pickup did not have a speck of dust or dirt on it. You would thought it had just come off a show room floor. Everything was so clean I was afraid to touch it, but Bob encouraged me to open the doors and climb in. The inside was just as immaculate as the outside. It was almost surreal, I really felt like I was dreaming. I’d never in my life had a vehicle like this. Bob gave me a brief walk around and then it was time for dinner. I started it up. It even sounded beautiful. The truck has twin Magnaflo pipes in the back and rumbles. Loud vehicles do tend to annoy me, but this was different. It wasn’t loud enough to be obnoxious, just a soft deep-throated sound that makes you want to growl back in return.

I drove the pick-up to the restaurant to get a feel for it. I can’t remember being so nervous driving something. I backed inch by inch out of the garage. Almost in a daze, I drove Bob to the Rib House. The restaurant was every bit as good as it was claimed to be. The ribs fell off the bone and melted when they hit your mouth. My only regret was my choice of sauce. I’m kind of weird and choose spicy things just to see how hot they really are. I went for Jessica’s Fire sauce which is supposed to be sweet and spicy.

This is generally my favorite, but this variety had more emphasis on the spicy and not enough on the sweet. It was good, I just needed something to put out the flames afterwards. I’d probably try the mild or medium sauces if I ever get there again. I highly recommend this joint if you like ribs and ever find yourself in the Denver area.

After a very enjoyable dinner, I hugged Rick and Lois goodbye. It’s really tough when family members get sprawled across the country. I believe everyone that reads this blog can relate to that. You never get to visit as often as you’d like. Bob and I drove back to his house and I got a more detailed tour of the truck. We opened the hood, went over some of features, and talked about maintenance and the products Bob uses. Then we had to have a moment of silence just to stand there and look at it. Bob was probably saying goodbye to the truck and I was still trying to figure out if it was dream and at some point I would wake up. After awhile we went inside to sign the papers.

We looked over everything very carefully. The last thing I wanted was to drive all the way back to ND only to have the Department of Transportation tell me I didn’t have this form or the other and I couldn’t get the title transferred. As we were reading, writing, and signing, my dad called.

As I said, my dad was very concerned that things went smoothly. Living in Tucson, he couldn’t be on site at the time of sale. He was also probably a little nervous I wouldn’t like something or any other number of things our minds tend to dream up that would throw a wrench into our carefully made plans. He needn’t have worried, everything was going great. I was having a wonderful time, I loved the truck, and got it for a very reasonable price. I visited with dad for awhile and then called Deanna to let her know how everything was going. Then Bob showed me my choice of suites. They had two guest bedrooms. One of them had a waterbed and I’ve only slept on a waterbed twice in my life and found it to be a very comfortable experience, so I went with that.

And so ends an absolutely fantastic, fun-filled day. Thanks hugely to the efforts of Rick and Lois, and my now very good friends, Bob and Judy. If you look in your bible to Matthew 5:13, you will read Jesus talking about us being the “salt of the earth”. If you had a picture bible, you would probably see photos of these 4 wonderful people as perfect examples of what Jesus means. I am truly blessed to have Lois and Rick for an aunt and uncle, as well as Godparents. Bob and Judy are also two of the nicest people you could ever have occasion to meet. My gratitude to their generosity and hospitality simply cannot be put into words. I thank them from the depths of my heart.

Stay tuned for the ride home…