Thursday, August 8, 2019

Vikings and Paririe Chickens

We drove through Minnesota and ended up in North Dakota.  We had planned a few more "World's Largest" stops along the road but the first time we actually stopped was the World's Largest Booming Prairie Chicken. Apparently, during mating season the males fluff out a bunch of feathers and also puff out these sacs under their necks that are bright orange. Here's a sample video, because it is too awesome not to spread the word about this phenomenon.

We looked into somewhere to eat nearby and 0.3 miles down the road was a barbecue place that only opened a few months ago. The smoked meats were absolutely delicious, the barbecue sauces didn't have as much heat as we would have preferred, although the kids were thrilled with the honey-sweetened option.

Back on the road to just-before Fargo. We planned to stop at the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center from the moment Atlas Obscura let us know of the replica Viking ship located there that actually sailed from the USA to Norway back in the 1980s. The story of the man who built this ship practically in his shed and the crew that sailed it from Duluth through the lakes and rivers of the USA til it reached New York and ocean is pretty spectacular.

We didn't think we cared until we got to the Center, but there is also a replica of a Norwegian stave church on the grounds. It was built by a local scientist who was also a woodcarver, apparently as a project to keep him busy in retirement. Apparently the Scandanavians were not so quick to adopt Christianity and some elements of the indigenous culture were incorporated into the designs of, for example, churches. The dragon heads that adorn the corners are a first clue. Our tour guide explained that even the pattern of the shingles on the roof was meant to evoke dragon scales.

The kids were thoroughly unimpressed with the church. This was partly because they were aching to get back to the main part of the Center, where a table held all kinds of Viking armament and armor with a strict sign not to actually hit people with it. They mostly complied.

Then we drove three minutes across a bridge and were in North Dakota!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Wizards and a boardwalk

From Illinois we drove forever through Wisconsin - it took most of the day. States are really starting to get bigger. The highlight of the day was our stop in the Wisconsin Dells, where we went on a Wizard Quest. Alex had been moaning and complaining before we went in - she wanted to do her own quest alone. We said no, we will stay together as a family. She sulked. Until we got the Kindle with our quest and started moving. There were slides, tunnels, secret doors, stairs to climb and run down, and a ball maze the kids got to dive down into twice (there is a secret tunnel at the bottom of the thing, so they really disappear).

We didn't quite finish within the hour that would have gotten us a big prize, but we had a ton of fun and have some wonderful working-together time. The Dells is like a boardwalk, with lots of tchotchkes, fried food, fudge and such. We asked the employees at Wizard Quest what they recommended for lunch and they mentioned a few places. In the end we got ourselves a true Midwestern tater-tot casserole and were perfectly delighted!

One more border crossing before bed, and we were in Minnesota.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Ohio to Illinois

In the morning we indulged the kids - and ourselves - and took half an hour on the beach along Lake Erie before hitting the road. Zoltan got his sneakers soaked so he got to ride barefoot.

From Ohio we went through Indiana where we stopped in Elkhart for the day's activity: RV/MH Museum and Hall of Fame. Yep, we toured a whole bunch of recreational vehicles and checked out a manufactured home (lots of folks do, as we initially did, get the MH wrong). There was one donated by a Scranton family who had been using it through the generations over 40 years. There were several from the earliest days, hitched up to Model T Fords. Alex has gotten it into her head to design a 12 foot trailer for a family of 5 that has to include both kitchen and bathroom, so she got lots of good ideas and a sense of how much space things actually take. The family highlight: the Eagles mobile. I'm pretty sure this is the exact vehicle referenced in a recent podcast we listened to... In fact I think Terry heard it only the day before.

We ended the day in Schaumburg (outside Chicago). There, Terry proved what an amazing father he is by acquiescing to Chicago deep dish pizza for dinner (kids and I had the pizza, he got a pasta dish. He can agree to the restaurant but he certainly won't stray from New York thin crust except under duress).

Monday, August 5, 2019

Epic cross-most-of-the-country road trip

We have one last epic road trip in us for this year. When we move to Calgary, we have to drive our car. We're also required to travel an average of 360 miles per day, which adds up to 7 days from Rockville to Calgary.

Our first day on the road took us into Ohio. On the way we stopped at Penn's Cave in PA for a boat tour through the cave, where the guide pointed out the fascinating and beautiful stalactite and stalagmite structures. We also managed to catch sight of a beaver who had come in for a brief visit.

We also took a bit of a detour to visit Terry's Alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. I'd never made the trek, much less the kids. Terry just kept saying "that wasn't here when I was in school" as though he wasn't nearly 20 years out!

We got our first looks of Lake Erie heading into Ohio, where we crashed after a long, long day in the car.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Last Epic German Road Trip Day 11: Rothenburg some more

We knew we wanted to walk the walls of Rothenburg as we hadn't had a chance to do that on our previous trip. It was absolutely fantastic. At one point in the wall there is an enormous random room that takes you to another room full of cannons. There were no other souls around that part of the wall when we were there, and it felt like a secret. We also had fun reading the blocks engraved with information about people who had donated to rebuilding the wall, including one family from Dallas, PA!

We then popped into a candy store where the proprietor had just begun a demonstration of how he made the candy, narrating what he was doing as he did it. He clearly spoke a few languages and when we walked in and he heard us talking he switched to English. It was a little funny because the one other group there spoke Russian, so one of the people in that group was translating between English and Russian for the rest of them. 

The store had opened pretty recently and they make hard candy and lollypops. There are a number of packages that are mixed with several flavors of hard candy, the Opa's (grandfather) Mix has rhubarb, apple and coffee. After showing how he colored and stretched the candy, and how he made lollypops, he let each of the children come up and make their own pop. That was a definite highlight.

After the candy store it was time for all the fun to come to an end. We did have to introduce our friends to the Rothenburg delicacy Shneeballs, but we got them to go and brought them back with us. Packed up and headed back to Frankfurt. Our friends left the next day, Terry left the day after that.

Our last epic German road trip, and the most epic one at that.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Last Epic German Road Trip Day 10: Weltenburg Abbey and Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The oldest monastic brewery in the world is essentially right between Garmisch and Rothenburg, so it was a perfect lunch stop. The location of the Abbey is beautiful, right on a small stream (the Danube) with woods and overlooks. We lamented not having enough time to try out the hiking paths identified in the brochure we got at the visitor's information center. Terry taught the kids to skip stones and they whiled away a chunk of time improving their performance. We could have spent half the day just on the banks.
The Abbey's web site is very confusing - pretty par for the course in Germany - so we had understood that there were no brewery tours although one could book a tour of the Abbey itself. Oh, how wrong we were. When we went into the visitor information center/museum to buy our tickets for the exhibit, the lady asked if we wanted to go on the tour. What, what?  Absolutely!

The fee for the museum is included in the fee for the tour, so she went through a process of refunding our money then charging the new rate. The tour guide did speak English and would summarize what he was saying every so often. He used pretty basic language and spoke clearly so I was able to add some of the color he'd included in the German but had left out of the summaries (like how women were the brewers for most of history, and some of the unusual ingredients that had been used in beer over the years in Germany before the Purity Laws were introduced).

A highlight of the tour was a tasting directly from the cellaring cask. When it was over, time for lunch!

Sated, we hit the road toward our last stop in the epic road trip - Rothenburg. We enjoyed our short time there during December break the kids insisted we add it to this road trip, and Terry and I were only delighted to agree. We arrived in town early enough to get settled in the guesthouse, wander the streets a bit, grab a quick dinner and make our way to the town square for the Night Watchman tour. The crowd was larger than I would have expected for a somewhat random night but - happily - significantly smaller than it had been during December. I don't know if he mixes up his material or if we hadn't caught or hadn't remembered much of the previous tour, because I would say I remembered about half of what he told us on this tour. It was, again, wonderful. We even decided to buy his DVD at the end.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Last Epic German Road Trip Days 8 and 9: Munich, Neuschwanstein and Garmisch

Day 8 was mostly the long, long, drive from Freiburg to Munich. When we got to Munich it was chilly and a little bit raining, so we took no pictures. We wandered around the food vendors and got some treats (pickled things!) and managed to catch the Glockenspeil. We hadn't remembered it from our trip to Munich 17 or so years ago (imagine that). Our attention spans have definitely shortened, especially in the rain, but we did catch the "surprise" ending.

The next day we journeyed to the night's final destination - mountains - via Neuschwanstein castle.  I am very glad that we made the stop, and very glad we didn't bother with the tour of the inside of the castle. To be honest, we took more photos of the view of the mountains than the castle itself. It was a warm day and a nice hike from the parking lot to the castle itself. 

Then back in the car and down to the Eibsee. It was cloudy but we still decided to head up to the Zugspitze. When we got up, we went outside to see just how bad the visibility was. We took a joke family photo that looked like we were standing in front of a white sheet, although I will swear on my honor there are mountains behind us. The cable car back was full of skiers heading down for the day (we were on the second-to-last run).

Our hotel had an indoor pool, so the kids were thrilled to burn off some energy that way before we headed into town for dinner. We ended up at a restaurant that was apparently very busy, because the grouchy proprietor told me so while yelling at us because when he asked a question about an order everyone talked to me rather than him (because I'm the only German speaker, I'd have to first interpret what he said, then the reply). None of that was too bothersome, however, because ... mountains. So beautiful. We just couldn't stop staring. Frankfurt is very, very flat.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Last Epic German Road Trip Day 7: Triberg Falls and Freiberg

We went to the Black Forest to eat Black Forest cake and Black Forest ham. We really had no idea what we were doing during this part of the epic road trip, and it showed. We realized we would need to stop for lunch, and our friends found a town that was supposed to be particularly charming. The amazing reach of Google helped me find a place for lunch within that town ... but with my lack of a sense of direction (I call it my "sense of misdirection") it turns out the restaurant was at the edge of the town borders and nowhere near the charming town center. But it was, in fact, a farm and at least some of the meats and cheeses were produced on-site. So there was that. We were able to indulge our interests in Black Forest everything, which was good because we never ended up seeing them again.
After we fed, we headed to the Triberg Waterfalls. We would stop for photos, then walk farther up or down and realize there were even prettier views. After getting our energy out, it was time to head the last little bit up our destination for the evening, Freiberg. Where we ended up deciding we needed a break from German food and got Italian. Hence, no more Black Forest cake.

Monday, June 3, 2019


Felsenmeer means in German "Sea of Rocks."  Oh, yes. About an hour south of Frankfurt is an amazing boulder field, apparently formed by a volcanic experience a very long time ago. You can wander up a path alongside the boulder field, or venture through the field itself. Someone on Trip Advisor mentioned that if you go fast you can get up the field in half an hour. I can't even imagine the person who could do that. It took us closer to 1.5 hours with several important rest stops along the way. My physical fitness is not what it once was.
 You can see how big the boulders are compared to the people on them. This bridge is about halfway up.

Alex reads anywhere

At the top there was a restaurant where we provisioned, then at a little kiosk on the way back down we fortified (with cake). Tip: bienenstrich is a honey cake with a layer of cream in the middle and now I need to eat a whole lot of it in the little time we have left before leaving Germany.

I had figured on a couple of hours of climbing, but we ended up being out most of the day. We bouldered up, but ended up wandering through the woods on the path down. A few times I was convinced we had gotten horribly lost but somehow we did make it to the parking lot. As it turns out we were very lucky in getting there so early (didn't feel early but it was before lunch) because it was a complete zoo by the time we left around 3:30pm.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Last Epic German Road Trip Day 6: Trier and Idar-Oberstein

Trier was a surprise hit on the epic road trip, and the ampitheater was a surprise hit in Trier. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was not this - the entire space is incredibly well preserved. To the point where it takes almost no imagination at all to recall where the citizens would enter and sit, where the gladiators, animals or slaves would be held while they awaited their turns. The kids had a blast in the center of the arena pretending to fight to the death, or pretending to be the emperor calling for the fight to begin, or sparing a life.

After the ampitheater we headed to the Roman Museum. It boasts the largest collection of gold Roman coins in ... not sure. Germany? Europe? the world? It also has a local mummified child, numerous artifacts from when Trier was an enormous, important Roman outpost. It was cool, but we kept being yelled at by museum security/docent folks for leaning on glass cases. Or touching them.

Our last stop on our way back to Frankfurt for the night was Idar-Oberstein. Our friend is a jeweler and had learned about the gem mines in Idar-Oberstein while studying for her degree. This was another sight we would never have thought to put on our list but was an enormous hit.

Amazingly, we arrived at the site with 10 minutes to spare before the next tour was departing. We got helmeted and our audio guides and headed down into the coolness. We learned about the gems that were mined there, how they were mined, and saw lots of examples of unmined gems peeking out of the more boring rock.  After the mine, just a bit down the road, is the mill where the gems were cut and polished. There was an interesting interaction when the tour started, as a woman sounded very angry when she told us there wasn't an interpreter (we never asked for one, or made any comment at all about the German capabilities of our group). Then the same woman rallied a volunteer (who seemed to have been the woman's granddaughter, or niece, or someone who was related but not her own child) to to an ad hoc interpretation. As the terminology relating to century old gem processing practices is relatively uncommon, she was often searching for words that the entire group participated in helping her find.  I decided in hindsight that the original woman wasn't angry at all, that was just how she spoke.