How to Hand-Wash Dishes Like a Surgical Technologist

Prior to being a full-time mom (my bank labels my occupation as “homemaker,” which I loathe), I was a surgical technologist. I guess I technically still am, if we are being completely honest; I keep up on my continuing education and certifications, dreaming of the day when I can go back to “the real world.”

Surgical techs are an interesting bunch. We are frighteningly well-versed in things like germs and the difference between “disinfection” and “sterilization.” We toss around profane language in everyday conversation but the word “contaminated” makes us shudder.

Nothing makes me more insane than labeling those baby bottle sanitizing machines as “bottle sterilizers.” Really? You’re selling a miniature autoclave? Or when canning recipes call for “sterilized canning jars.” Please tell me more about how I am supposed to sterilize glass jars on the stove in my kitchen…. but I digress.

In tech school, we spent quite a bit of time learning the difference between cleaning chemicals and their corresponding levels of disinfection. I even had a project where I ordered some petri dishes and agar from Amazon (prior to tech school you could find me spending my days hanging out in the biology labs at Portland State University like the super-cool kid I was, so this is right up my alley), and took swabs from different medical instruments that had been cleaned with varying levels of disinfection.

No surprise, but the petri dishes grew all sorts of nasty, smelly gobs of yuck in them, but there was a significant correlation between the level of disinfection and the size of the germ colony. My high-level disinfection swab, where the instrument was soaked in household bleach, hardly grew a thing. If it did, it was microscopic after weeks in the petri dish.

I tell you this story to explain why I think the way I do about hand-washing dishes.

In an RV, I do not have the luxury of a dishwasher. A dishwasher is an excellent way of getting a higher level of sanitation than hand-washing, because of the high temperatures and long running time it can wash with. Unfortunately, as a scrub tech, I am painfully aware that hand-washing my dishes is not the optimal way to sanitize my dishes.

So I turned to chemistry (which was, coincidentally, my college minor).

In surgery, if we cannot use the usual vapor-heat sterilization (autoclave), the alternative is to look towards chemicals to get the job done.

Alright, here is where is is going to get controversial:

I use bleach.

Here’s why people hate bleach:

  • Although it is not technically toxic in and of itself (it can cause mild irritation to eyes, skin, lungs, etc.), it’s very reactive, and can release chlorine gas, which is super highly toxic.
  • The bleach manufacturing process is not great for the environment: one of the byproducts released into atmosphere is dioxin, which is bad for the ozone.

Here’s why bleach is awesome:

  • It destroys the cell membranes of nasty things like bacteria and fungus and kills them. There are certain nasties in this world, like clostridium difficile, where bleach is the one recommended substance to actually kill it. Affectionately called c.diff in the healthcare world, it’s one heck of a nasty stomach bug (well, technically colon bug, if you get my drift… *wink*wink*)

Quick chemistry lesson on bleach:

If you do not want a chemistry lesson, skip this part. But if you are someone who likes to know why we do the things we do, and make an educated decision for yourself on if this is a good method to try, read on.

Common household bleach contains sodium hypochlorite (NaClO). The “chlorite” part of that molecule means chlorine. Essentially salt (“sodium”), chlorine (“chlor”),and oxygen (“ite”).

It destroys bacterial and fungal cell membranes using a oxidation process.

Which is great. Kill all the bacteria, as far as I’m concerned.

This is where people get hung up:

If you mix chlorine bleach with any kind of acid, it causes the bleach to release its chlorine molecule as a gas, creating chlorine gas. Chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon in WWI. Yep, same shit. Mix bleach and vinegar and you are making your own personal chemical weapon. 

With that being said, I use bleach while doing the dishes.

There are ways around the whole chemical weapon scenario, if you have a basic understanding of chemistry.

Method 1: Non-chlorine bleach.

This is usually made with sodium percarbonate. See what they did there? They replaced the chlorine with carbon. Way less toxic. And, while it still uses oxidation to break molecules apart, it’s not as strong or effective as chlorine bleach, making it excellent for your colored laundry. It’s usually marketed as the “color-safe” bleach. Some non-chlorine bleaches use peroxide, like the OxyClean brand (I think). Same idea. Oxidizes, but not as violently as chlorine.

We usually buy non-chlorine bleach. Granted, we do have a stash of chlorine bleach, but it’s tucked away for special uses, and 90% of the time we just go with non-chlorine bleach to be on the safe side.

Yeah, it’s not as strong. But we use it for our light-duty jobs.

For doing the majority of my dishes, my method is as follows:

  • I fill one side of my sink with hot water and a splash of non-chlorine bleach.
  • On the other side of the sink, I hand-wash my dishes with soap, water, and a scrubby sponge as usual, then drop them in the bleach-water side rather than rinsing. (Remember: I’m using a non-chlorine bleach so I don’t care if dish soap gets in there. Dish soap is pretty much the best de-greaser on the planet.)
  • Because we use the safe-but-weak stuff, I let it soak for 20-30 mins, and I’m a little bit more generous on the amount I add to the water.

The bleach soak is replacing my (much-missed) dishwasher in the whole dish-sanitation process. In other words, my healthcare comrades, we can’t autoclave, so we are going to Cidex. Figuratively.

For practicality’s sake, I generally skip the whole bleach thing if I just use that pan to, say, make stove-top popcorn. Or if I’m making coffee, I feel zero need to bleach my Aeropress when a quick wipe down with soap and water is perfectly fine. It’s more for the nastier stuff, like if I make my toddler mac n’ cheese and let the pan sit out on the counter just a few hours longer than it probably should have (I’m not even going to pretend that doesn’t happen regularly). Or if I look up from the couch and see the cat gleefully licking the coffee creamer remnants off of the “I might make another cup of coffee so I won’t wash this yet” spoon.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I use chlorine bleach to bleach the heck out of that plastic cutting board that I just de-boned a raw chicken on. Or the really expensive travel coffee mug that we discovered in the back seat of the car and we can’t recall when the last time we saw it was, but clearly there was some mystery liquid left in it from however-long ago.

Method 2: Bust out the Big Guns for the Extra Nasties:

  • Fill half the sink with HOT water (hot water increases the bleach’s effectiveness) and a splash of chlorine bleach.
  • While the soaking side of the sink is filling, hand wash the item on the other side of the sink, if you can stand the smell of the nasties without making yourself gag. If not, just rinse quickly and immediately plunge into bleach bath. If you *can* wash it, be sure to use a cheap sponge you won’t mind parting with. I will toss the sponge out, because I don’t believe that you can ever really clean a sponge once it’s gross. I buy like 6 of them for $1, so there is no need to cross-contaminate.
  • Let soak. I don’t have soaking guidelines, I just let it soak until I’m comfortable that whatever nasties I’m trying to kill are good and dead. I’m sure there’s a formula, but my motto is that it’s can’t be TOO clean, so it’s usually in the 1-2 hour realm. Honestly it probably only takes a fraction of that time, but I don’t care. Salmonella is a thing that I want no part of.
  • Rinse the item in plain water well. I should recommend wearing gloves while handling bleach, but I don’t have sensitive skin at all, so I never do. But, you know, be an adult and make good choices for yourself.
  • Once the item (and the sink basin) has been rinsed completely with clear water, proceed to hand-wash as usual.

To keep things nice and safe in the small confines of an RV, we buy Seventh Generation natural dish soap, which has a pH of 7.9-8.1. This puts it just oh-so-slightly on the alkaline end of the pH spectrum, meaning it’s not acidic. So technically I could mix this with chlorine bleach and be fine. I still like to just rinse well with water. It take a few seconds but gives me peace of mind.

If you aren’t sure where your dish soap sits on the pH scale, just go online and look up the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for your particular brand. As long as the pH is higher than 7, you are fine. Seventh Generation’s dish soap pH sits somewhere in between stream water and sea water. Surprisingly, it does a fantastic job cutting grease. Like, comparable to Dawn. No joke. (And no, no one pays me to say that, either, but it would be awesome if they did…. ahem.)

Air drying dishes on a drying rack is more sanitary than wiping them with a towel. if you have time and space, air dry. We have a nifty collapsible rack that sits inside my sink so it doesn’t take up precious RV counter top real estate.

It seriously just occurred to me that I could never have a single-basin sink. I love big farmhouse sinks, but clearly I use both sides of a divided sink often enough that a beautiful, single-basin sink would be highly impractical… sad.

I think the only people in the world who can optimize the dish washing process better than a scrub tech is definitely a sterile processing tech. I bet their dish-washing routines are impeccable.

I don’t even want to hear from people who are going to email me to tell me that vinegar works just as well as bleach. It doesn’t. Sure, there is a place for vinegar in cleaning. Like washing windows. But don’t think that scrubbing your toilet with apple cider vinegar is going to make it germ-free. I don’t care what you read on the internet.

 

 

 

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Arches National Park, Utah

Sorry it has been so quiet. We are solidly in December, and since December is The Month Of Obligatory Gift-Giving, and we are on a super-tight, single-income budget, we have been seriously limiting ourselves in the “fun” department, and have been saving our money by sitting at home at lot more. It’s a lot harder to travel and sight-see when you are on a $10-a-week gas budget.

It’s making me so stir-crazy, I don’t even know where to begin.

So I tried to take up running as a hobby, promptly got a bad case of shin-splits after only 3 days (I hear crappy shoes are to blame, but again with the poor/broke part).

Then I decided to get into website building (WHY??? I have no idea. I am the least techie person I know, and we only have a bottom-of-the-line, elderly laptop that has an agenda to make my life miserable).

So the moral of the story is that I have nothing new and exciting to write about.  I literally wrote a 1,500 word essay on hand-washing dishes as an outlet to my pent-up writing energy. I thought it was funny, I made Kevin read it, he thought it was funny and wants me to publish it. I, on the other hand, would like to keep up the appearance of NOT being a psycho. So it sits.

I have decided that since I have nothing new or interesting to say, I will blog about our road trip that we took 2 months ago.

After we went to Mesa Verde, we headed North and decided on a whim to “just swing by” Arches National Park.

For the record, Arches is 130 miles away from Mesa Verde, which is roughly a 2.5 hour drive, making it a 5-hour round-trip “detour.”

The reason I haven’t written about Arches yet is because we got there at 4:30pm. The visitors center closes at 4. So we didn’t get a stamp in our Passport, which, to me, means we essentially didn’t even go.

In all seriousness, because I didn’t have the opportunity to research the park in the visitors center, I had zero idea what we were looking at as we drove around, besides gorgeous scenery.

I definitely need to go back. That place is beautiful.

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Seriously, Child. Can’t we just hold still for ONE nice photo???

We were there during sunset, making it even more beautiful as the sun caught the rock formations on fire:

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Right before this trip, Kevin was so sweet and upgraded my Fuji bridge to a Nikon DSLR, and apparently I decided that sunset at Arches was the absolute best place for me to challenge myself to shoot in full manual mode.

Which is a little tricky, since the lighting changes every freaking few minutes so there is a constant need to adjust settings.

However, I can think of no more spectacular place in the world to learn on:

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I actually don’t know why the rock on the right is glowing. The only thing I can come up with is that was the side where the sun had recently set? Oh well, still one of my all-time favorite photos. 

The one fun tidbit I learned from Google (since the visitors center was closed) is that the arch formations are actually formed under ground and then are slowly revealed as the soft desert sand is eroded away. They keep discovering more and more arch formations, and since this park is SO huge, they expect to continue discovering more. I imagine that now that drones are a thing, it might be easier to discover the hidden arches, but we will see.

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Kevin being a jackass silly when I told him to go “pose pretty” in front of the arch. 

Scorpion Hunting: Only 4 Months Later…

I had this post mostly written and saved, and life just kept moving on and I never really got a chance to finish it. Okay, that’s only partially true. I forgot about it. I just found it when I was busy adding photos to the Scotts Bluff post.

I will apologize in advance: I didn’t get photos of this. Well, I did, but nothing showed up. Cell phone cameras don’t do well in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. Pitch black darkness is not super conducive to excellent photography.

There was tons of stuff to do in and around Phoenix. It seemed like we were always busy. One of the surprising highlights was going scorpion hunting.

Well, we hunted them with blacklights. It was a kid-friendly program that was put on by the Parks and Rec department and it was a blast.

I highly recommend it. Especially if you’re from Oregon like us and the only time you’ve seen a real scorpion is when it’s encased in a paperweight in a gift shop. We actually took the hour-long free class before embarking on the hunt to learn about these little creatures.

Granted, it was 4 months ago that we did this, but here are the standout points that I still remember (because they are all terrifying and still give me nightmares):

  1. Scorpions are members of the arachnid family. Which means they are essentially spiders with body armor and poisonous weapons. As someone with a mild arachnophobia, this is terrifying. They are spiders on steroids.
  2. Their sting is not often fatal (unless you are elderly or an infant or otherwise immunocomprise, just the demographic who should not get the flu). Their poison is a neurotoxin that allegedly feels like 30 bee stings at once and then you have shooting pain until your nerves heal again. Like, in a month. No thank you. Hard pass on that.
  3. Apparently they live in colonies which live in the same geographical area forever and they don’t tend to migrate. Meaning that there are some parts of Phoenix that have never seen a scorpion, and others who find them all the time. Those that have them often get used to checking their shoes before putting them on or checking inside the dryer before reaching in. Nope nope nope.
  4. These things don’t die. They’re like cockroaches. They can survive for 3 days underwater. Months or years without food. One lady even claims that she froze one to see if it would die, then forgot about it, and a year later her freezer broke and lo and behold, when the ice melted the little Demon Spider was still alive.
  5. I will never live in Phoenix because scorpions are scarier than spiders. They didn’t teach me this in the class, I just came to this conclusion all by myself.

Fun side note: My toddler was successful in drawing the attention of all 80-ish people in this class when he got his head stuck in the folding chair he was supposed to be sitting in and mom had to rescue him.

On the cool side, they glow under black light. You do have to bring or buy your own black light flashlights. We bought 2 in the gift shop.

After the class was over we all hopped in our cars and drove to the trailhead and waited until it was good and dark outside before we hit the trail.

The trail itself was only a mile: 1/2 mile in, 1/2 mile out. Since it was dark and we were out there looking for poisonous armored demon spiders, we put the toddler in the backpack to keep him contained.

On our walk we counted 58 scorpions.

They did not come attack-flying at me like I figured they would. They usually just ran away. Scattered back into their little caves of horrors.

It was surprisingly fun and I loved hearing Kevin’s daughter squeal in delight every time she spotted one.

As far as free activities go, this tops the list. It was surprisingly one of the more fun things we did in Arizona.

Can someone explain to me why PetSmart has big-ass giant scorpions for sale as pets??? WHY??? The handling instructions for the pet scorpions pretty much said, “Don’t.” Unless you are buying them to release into the car of your worst enemy, why would anyone want one?

Day Trip From Fort Collins, CO: Scotts Bluff, NE

When we are unsure what to do on a day off, we ask Google what is near us. 99% of the time we ask it what National Parks are nearby, because we have the annual pass and are determined to get the best value out of it as possible (in other words, we are cheap broke frugal).

Who would have thought that Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska is only about 2 hours away from Fort Collin, Colorado? And you go through Wyoming to get there? Whaaaat?

Clearly U.S. geography has never been a strong area of mine.

Come to think of, geography in general is pretty hit-or-miss with me. I also get lost in shopping malls, so really, my judgement on where anything exists in relation to other things is apparently a concept that I just can’t wrap my brain around.

I do have to say that this was the first road trip where I repeatedly asked Kevin what state we were in. On a two hour road trip. When I was the one driving.

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First of all, can I just say that I did very minimal editing on this photo? Minimal. Like I cloned out some dust specks because my camera sensor is in dire need of a cleaning after dragging it all over the Southwest. The sky is actually that blue. I even had this one printed off at Walmart to check the color, and it’s still that vibrant blue. I’ve never seen sky as blue as in Nebraska.

As always, we recommend starting at the visitor center, and that is exactly where we decided to start. Plus you had to pay your admission (or flash your annual pass like some kind of touristy VIP) inside the visitor center, since the entrance booth wasn’t staffed that day. The visitor center/museum is in the process of being moved to a different building, so unfortunately the exhibits were a little sparse, but the lone ranger (teehee) running the whole place was very friendly and welcoming.

Side note: Apparently the apostrophe in “Scott’s Bluff” was dropped in the late 1940’s (by the United States Board on Geographical Names, which is apparently a thing that exists), so the correct spelling is technically Scotts Bluff, but every time I type it, it stresses me out because it just seems wrong.

We had the option of hiking 3 miles to the peak of the bluff and back, straight up the side with lots of switchbacks, or hopping in our car and just driving to the top.

We drove. I enjoy hiking, but not that much.

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The view from the parking lot on top of the bluff. See that trail there? Waaaaaaaay down there? Yeah, that is the trail to/from the visitor’s center. Kevin really wanted to hike through the tunnel, though.

There are a few easy trails around the top of the bluff. 360* panoramic views. These bluffs rise out of the middle of nothing but flat plains. You can see forever in any direction.

The bluffs were a key landmark along the Oregon Trail (and the Mormon trail, and the California Trail, and the Pony Express). The pass between the buffs, known as Mitchell Pass, was so heavily used, and the trail so worn into the ground, that later settlers describe the trail as having 6-foot embankments on each side.

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Mitchell Pass

Sadly, these bluffs will not be here forever. They are made of sandstone. It’s like dense sand. Dense sand that is slowly blowing away in the wind.

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I admit that I didn’t actually read this sign, but it is a good visual of how they are measuring erosion on Scotts Bluffs. It probably gave some kind of timeline for how long the Bluffs will be there, but I will just say “not forever.” I’m such a bad journalist.

 

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Just so you know, you could fall off the edge of the bluff. Don’t do that.

Because Kevin was still dying to walk through the tunnel, we made the illogical and irrational decision to hike DOWN the bluff to the tunnel, then hike back up at the end of our hike when we were good and tired. Because, you know, we enjoy a good challenge.

So down we went.

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Stunning views!

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You can see how this was once a bluff, but is eroding into a very cool sandstone formation.

It’s a lot further down than it looks, and since our trip to the bottom of Silver Creek Falls in Oregon taught us that for as far as we go down, we would have to go back up, we called it quits before we got to the tunnel.

With a little more pre-planning, we could have started from the bottom by the ranger station, and gone up then back down, we would have dressed appropriately for a hike (as in, not in jeans), and we would have gone at a time that wasn’t lunchtime when we were hangry, and packed snacks.

But planners we are not.

(Hmmm… I’m sensing a theme throughout this blog)

We finished out trip by refueling on snacks that we had in the car as we drove back down off the bluff, and walking along the Oregon Trail pathway. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the Mitchell Pass campsite, and they had some covered wagons on display. One looked authentic, one was clearly a reproduction, and I was on the fence about the 3rd one.

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Seriously, you guys. I cannot get over that blue sky. 

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My attempt at “real” photography.  Wagon wheel with Dome Rock in the distance.

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National Parks Service post marking the path of the Oregon/California/Mormon trail and the Pony Express route.

All in all, I was super excited to get to check off one of my bucket list items, which was “Walk along the Oregon Trail.”

I want to take this moment to challenge all of my readers (all 3 of you, LOL):

Pick one item on your Bucket List and start attacking it. Attack it with gusto. With a vengeance. Just do it. Stop putting it off. Life is too short and you never know when the moment will come when it is too late.

I’m always super curious what other people have on their bucket lists. Drop a note below with something you want to do, and why you haven’t yet. 🙂

Eating Well with No Space and a Tiny Budget

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Okay, I am going to step away from the travel blogging for just a second, and venture into another aspect of the travel life: space, budget, and food. Normally I wouldn’t even bring these things up, but one of my photography mentors has challenged us to step out of our usual style of photography and try a genre we haven’t tried, so I chose food. And a blog post idea was born.

(I honestly couldn’t care less about food photography, but I understand how being well-rounded will make me a better photographer in the long run.)

Since we downsized from two incomes (well, technically 5, since I was working 3 jobs and Kevin was working 2) to only one income, we have a pretty tight budget to be able to afford this amazing travel lifestyle. So we have to be very careful with our money, and where our pennies are allotted.

A bigger grocery budget means a smaller gas budget, which means we can afford less travel adventures. So I made our grocery budget into a game:

How low can we go and still eat well?

Another obstacle that we have to overcome is limited food storage space. I mean, have you ever seen an RV refrigerator? Take a tiny little apartment fridge and cut that in half.

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We are actually really really fortunate in that we have a relatively large kitchen for an RV that is this size. It was part of the reason why I chose the rear-kitchen floorplan: the kitchen is actually similar in size to that of my first apartment and our trailer is only 30 feet. There’s an actual pantry, albeit a small-ish one. Kitchen and food storage is simply something that you will have to compromise on if you are going to move into an RV. Unless you get one of those behemoth “residential” RVs that we can only dream about affording someday…

So due to a lack of space, by necessity we make frequent trips to buy groceries. We simply cannot hit up Costco and buy 10 lbs of coffee at a time, because we have nowhere to put it. When we lived in our house, I would go grocery shopping every other week, because I hate grocery shopping, but in the RV, we go a minimum of once a week, and often need to make a quick run mid-week for those 2 or 3 items that we just couldn’t make last all week long.

I budget $100 a week (in cash, so we aren’t tempted to “fudge” with the debit card).

Any extra cash we have at the end of the week that we have leftover goes into an old coffee can “Cruise Fund.” The last few weeks we have been consistently hitting between $60 and $80 a week on food. We only have about $100 to go to be able to book our cruise. (Yay!!!)

How can we afford for our family of 3 to eat (and eat well) on $60-$80 a week?

Two Rules:

Rule #1: Be smart about what you buy. 

  • I don’t buy a bunch of processed crap. We eat whole food. About 50% of our budget is spent in the produce section (50%!!). About 20% is then spent on dairy, because we love cheese and yogurt in our house. Maybe 20% on beans and grains (bread, pasta, rice, etc), and the remaining 10% on misc. staples like spices, granola bars, and peanut butter.
  •  I don’t coupon. I have learned that this causes me to seek out a certain brand, which inevitably costs more than a comparable store brand, even with the coupon. Couponing, at least for me, causes me to spend more money (example: Chobani greek yogurt is $1 normally, but with a coupon for 20% off makes it $.80. The Kroger brand of greek yogurt is like $.50. This coupon would only save me money if my family will only eat Chobani, but since no one cares, I will not spend the extra $.30 just for the allure of “saving” $.20 using a coupon). Plus, very rarely do coupons exist for whole foods; 99% of the time it is for processed garbage.
  • We eat mostly vegetarian. Meat is expensive and, honestly, unnecessary. I was a vegetarian for years until I got severely anemic while I was pregnant, and for some medical reason that I never bothered looking up, you shouldn’t take iron supplements while preggers, so I started eating more meat. But now that I’m not anemic (or pregnant!) anymore, the majority of our meals are sliding back into the vegetarian realm.

IF we have money left over after buying our produce, grains, and dairy, we might swing by the meat department and see if anything is on sale or a crazy good deal, and get ONE thing that we stretch for the entire week. Any kind of roast is popular, one week we got half a turkey on sale, sometimes we’ll get the $5 rotisserie chicken, etc and make that work on salads, in soups, or on sandwiches for the whole week. But really, no one needs a 32oz steak in one sitting. No one.

Healthy food being more expensive is one of the world’s biggest myths that makes me crazy. Yes, eating nothing but boneless, skinless chicken breasts and drinking kefir and buying organic pears in the middle of winter will probably get spendy. But a pound of dried beans is less than $1 and will feed my family for a solid week, and beans are good for you, too! Eggs are cheap, versatile, and packed full of protein.  Onion, carrots, spinach, cabbage, etc are all inexpensive and all good for you!

Just be smart about what you’re buying.

Rule #2: Learn how to *really* cook, and seriously question the “meal-plan” model of food prep.

The common wisdom of the internet these days says that if you write out a detailed meal plan, write out a detailed shopping list, and then only buy those things, you will waste less food and therefore save yourself money.

I have not found this to be true.

Really, these experiments are my most expensive shopping trips by far. My family doesn’t eat 7 dinners a week. My family eats 3, tops, and then 4 nights of rotating or re-purposed leftovers, or improvising because we don’t feel like eating what we are supposed to. Plus, 7 meals’ worth of ingredients will never fit in our kitchen at one time.

Making 7 distinctly different meals in a week is so wasteful for us. Especially if you go and find 7 different recipes off the internet that don’t even have interchangeable ingredients. And I am not that highly motivated to try to come up with 7 really cohesive but different recipes on the internet. I do not have that attention span.

We did, however, have a really successful week of “Mexican” food. We just made a big batch of beans and ground beef with taco seasoning at the beginning, had plenty of tortillas, lettuce, cheese, salsa, cilantro, and sour cream on hand, and kept re-purposing those same ingredients. Tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, nachos, and enchiladas all require near-identical ingredients just rearranged in different ways. So we only had to buy one head of lettuce, one bunch of cilantro, one container of sour cream, and nothing went bad. We used it all up that week, but those were literally all we bought that week.

Instead of spending my stay-at-home-mom days searching Pinterest for the perfect recipe that incorporates everything in my fridge that’s about to go bad, that my child will also love, and that has the proper amount of nutrients and macros, and blah blah blah, I taught myself how to cook.

Like, how to really cook. Not just follow a recipe. But to cook like a contestant on Chopped. 

Let’s see, I have half an onion, greek yogurt, whole wheat spaghetti, and cheerios, but dang it, I *really* want to put my last $20 into the Cruise Fund instead of buying food for my family, so I will just have to make this work. 

So instead of “pinning” 32 recipes for chicken noodle soup, I learned about mirepoix. Instead of searching for fajita recipes, I learned about Mexican and Southwestern flavors. Instead of giving up and ordering takeout, I learned how to stir-fry. I am figuring out what flavors compliment each other, and which flavors don’t work at all.

Why is this important? Because when I am wondering what to do with the Butternut squash sitting on my counter taking up space (but that we got for $1.10), I can remember that I really liked butternut squash in a curry dish I once had, and since I now have an understanding of curry flavors, we concocted an amazing curried butternut squash stir-fry with wheat noodles, bell pepper, onion, and served it over rice.

No recipe (or Cheerios) required.

I’ve got an upgraded grilled-cheese sandwich idea swirling around in my head that involves bleu cheese and pears… maybe some dijon mustard and would it be weird to have walnuts on a grilled cheese sandwich? I love that flavor profile but I also really love sandwiches.

How does this save us money?

I am learning that with the same handful of ingredients, we can create thousands of different combinations to keep our meals interesting and balanced. I don’t need to buy certain (larger) quantities because I can adjust the cooking to suit (I just have 2 potatoes? Sweet, I only need to buy 1 leek for soup).

And honestly, it saves me a ton of time because I can whip something up without having to read recipes, constantly washing my hands to wake my phone up every time I need to check quantities and cooking times, dig around for my dry measuring cups, and so on. I seriously wont cook anything more complicated than 5 or more ingredients, or if it involves an oven in any way (with the rare exception of baking sweet treats, like cinnamon rolls… yum…)

I know, I know; I’m a stay-at-home-mom and so I have “all the time in the world to cook.” But I still hate cooking. Just because I’m learning how, and it’s easier, doesn’t mean that I enjoy being in the kitchen. It means I figured out how to make it easier on myself. Cooking has never been my forte. Before I met Kevin I subsisted on cereal and Lean Cuisines. I would happily return to that if I didn’t have a family whose health I actually care about.

So I prefer to cook things that require minimal time in the kitchen. And I can throw something together really quickly, because I know how. 

I also still do some form of food prep early in the week. I turn our scratch, raw ingredients into “convenience” ingredients. Like, I will cook dry beans so they’re soft and ready to go in recipes. I will cook beets (I love beets) once, chop them all, throw them in a tupperware container in the fridge, and they’re super easy to toss on top of salads or even to toss in a snack cup for my kiddo, or to toss with some feta and fresh parlsey for a really pretty and super yummy salad.

This is easy to do with our Instant Pot.

Seriously, if you could have ONE kitchen gadget (like if you were to, say, move into an RV with limited storage), the Instant Pot should be it. It’s WONDERFUL. We use ours probably 3-4 times a week.

These really pretty beets that I prepped? Perfectly steamed to the proper texture in 15 minutes. Set it and walk away. I totally forgot about them for like an hour. No big deal, the Instant Pot took care of it, and they are still just as perfect.

I can make chili from scratch, with dried beans, and frozen hamburger in like 90 minutes (when you start with frozen items, it takes a while to get the Instant Pot to pressure, so I always add an extra 15 minutes).

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Butternut squash in 15 minutes.

I can make my mirepoix in the bottom of the Instant Pot set on the saute function, build my soup on top of it, then just set the cooking time for the longest-cooking ingredient and done.

It’s a pressure cooker so it forces flavors to “meld,” making anything taste like its been simmering all day. I honestly can’t tell the difference between spaghetti sauce lovingly simmered on the stove for 8 hours or tossed haphazardly in the Instant Pot for 10 minutes.

I might get hate mail for that statement from the Spaghetti Sauce Purists, but I am not a sauce snob, nor is my 2-year-old, so easy and fast wins every time.

So to recap:

  1. Make smart shopping choices. Buy store brands where possible, don’t buy watermelon in December, and remember that filet mignon is a rare treat, not a nightly staple.
  2. Learn how to actually cook without recipes. Recipes can and should guide you, but you should be able to make swaps or omit or add ingredients with confidence so that random rutabaga in your fridge doesn’t go to waste.

 

If you all have made it this far, I challenge you to see how low you can get your own grocery budgets. Start with $100 a week and go from there. Let me know how it goes!

 

Four Corners Monument

 

The Four Corners Monument is a monument that is owned and run by the Navajo Nation in a spot where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. It’s the only point in the United States where the corners of four states intersect.

Because I generally love life, and I love travel, and I get excited about the smallest of things, and I’m the nerdy friend who shamelessly adores tourist-traps, I don’t often have anything negative to say about, well, anywhere we visit. So I will say this:

If you really really really reeeeaaaally covet one of those photos with your shoes and your bae’s (seriously, how did that even become a word?) shoes in 2 different states each, or you want to let Insta or Snapchat know that you were in “in 4 states at one time!!” while you hold a pose that looks like you’re playing State Twister (left foot: Utah! Right hand, Arizona!), then, fine, go. Pay the $5 per person for the photo. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go.

I’m saying that you should be prepared to be disappointed.

Seriously, it is, in my opinion, over-hyped and under-whelming.

And in 2009 there was (is still?) a heated debate on whether or not the monument is even geographically accurate…

Which pretty much kills it for me. Inaccuracies of any kind make my neurotic eye twitch.

We made the mistake of stopping by without doing our homework first, because I am impulsive by nature. And by “stopping by,” I mean “drive an hour away from our nice, cozy KOA, and into the desert to a perfectly nondescript, unremarkable tourist trap.”

Live and learn.

Seriously, guys, I didn’t even get a photo of the little bronze medallion because after paying $10 (kids under 6 get in free) to the completely apathetic lady at the gate, trying to park in a pothole-filled half gravel/half mud “parking lot” that hasn’t seen maintenance in years, and seeing how small, and, frankly, un-ineresting this “monument” was, my heart just wasn’t into it.

And I tried. I tried to pretend like waiting in line to snap a photo with complete strangers photobombing in the background was fun. Because that’s what we are supposed to do, right?

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Zero effort put into this snapshot. And also, why is that lady smiling at the camera? The line was behind us… this was the exact angle everyone was shooting photos from… She couldn’t have chosen any of the other 50 unoccupied benches to sit at? So weird…

 

I even tried to get into the spirit by walking the perimeter, which is lined with nothing but souvenir booths, and maybe even buying an obligatory nick-nack to commemorate the trip. Because I could think of nothing else to do…

At least 70% of the souvenir booths were unoccupied, leaving only a handful of booths selling your average, run-of-the-mill dreamcatchers, turquoise jewelry, beads, and the token bone knives that you can buy at literally any powwow in the entire country or every single gift shop in the Southwest. To add insult to injury, as I tried in vain to find anything unique enough for me to willingly give them my money, not a single vendor acknowledged my presence as I shopped their booths. Most of them were on their cell phones and wouldn’t even so much as glance up. Who knows, maybe I would have parted with some cash for a beaded hair clip (that most likely would collect dust in my drawer) had a seller actually been friendly and engaging. I wanted so badly to make this trip not feel like an epic waste of my time.

Even the fry bread sign was attached to a deserted food truck that looked like it had been inoperable since the 1990’s. [Cue sad music.]

We spent maybe 20 minutes there, trying to like it. Even our photo wasn’t worth the $10 (it kind of kills the excitement for me to learn that the only reason it’s even considered geographically correct was because in 1925 Congress said, “Yeah fine, whatever. Do what you want.”)

But if the photo is what you want for your Facebook Profile, and you are happy to pay for it, and you are already in the area and have nothing better to do, then go. It’s kind of interesting to say, “yeah, we’ve been there.” But do not go with great expectations.

Maybe “Four Corners” is Navajo for “Disappointing Tourist Trap.”

Mesa Verde National Park

During the 7th Century, while Mohammed was busy starting the Islamic religion,  the [would-be] Koreans were perfecting Tae-Kwon-Do, Europe was heading into the Dark Ages, China was hard at work making the world’s 1st books, and quill pens were the iPhones of the times, there were actually some things happening in America, too.

Who knew, right? Not me. Either I slept through every history class I’ve ever taken, or Oregon public schools simply didn’t find it very important for me to know much of what was happening to the ancient people of what would be the United States. Granted, I didn’t learn about the beginnings of Tae-Kwon-Do, either, but I couldn’t resist adding that fun fact.

In the American Southwest, in an area that is referred to as the Four Corners Region (meaning where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet), an ancient civilization was also taking off. This civilization is often referred to as the Anasazi.

The term “Anasazi” is actually no longer considered correct. Archaeologists originally used the term because it is the Navajo word for “ancient foreigners.” However, the Anasazi are believed to be descendants of several Puebloan tribes currently in the Southwest, and the Puebloan people wonder why the word for their ancestors actually means “enemy” in their language.

So they prefer for their ancestors to be referred to as “Ancestral Puebloan People.” Seems fair.

And when they left in the 1200’s, they left ruins of their civilization behind for us to find almost 700 years later (the ruins were discovered by a couple of cowboys in the late 1880’s). Mesa Verde National Park is in Southwestern Colorado just outside of Cortez.

Since I was determined to be way more prepared for this visit to Mesa Verde National Park than I was for our spontaneous stop at Petrified Forest National Park, I had read up on their website to see what all we needed to see. I saw that there were ranger-guided tours that allowed you inside the ancient cliff dwellings at the park. Um, hellooo. Yes, please! There are a few different options regarding the guided tours: you can visit the Long House, the Spruce Tree House, the Balcony House, or the Cliff Palace. Or all of them if you have the time and desire!

Because we were visiting so late in the season (October), the Cliff Palace was already closed for the winter. I researched the other tours and decided that the Long House tour would be the best fit for our little family.

I also read that the tours fill up quickly so be sure to get there early in the morning.

They were not kidding.

We arrived at the visitor center parking lot at 8:05 a.m. Five minutes after the park opened. We walked in, Kevin went straight to the line for tour tickets while I chased the toddler around the visitor center (toddlers hate standing in line), and the people ahead of us got the last tickets for the Long House tour.

Getting there at 8:05 is five minutes too late.

We asked about the other tours. The Spruce Tree House tour wasn’t available due to unstable conditions (yikes). The Cliff Palace was closed for the season. That left us with the Balcony House.

The Balcony House is listed as the most physically challenging site to get to. It involves a climb up a 36-foot primitive ladder, another 9-foot ladder, scary-steep “steps” carved into the face of the cliff, and a tunnel that you have to crawl through that is 9-feet long but only 24-inches square in some spots. Bigger people have to literally wriggle through it. There is a “practice tunnel” in the visitor center if you are worried about claustrophobia or if you simply wont fit. The Balcony House tour is not recommended for people with heart conditions, respiratory problems, joint problems, etc.

Kevin was all, “Sounds awesome, sign us all up. Can I bring my toddler?”

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Cliff Palace

We got into the very last tour of the day, scheduled for noon, so we had a few hours to kill. The ranger gave us a map and suggested that we go on a self-guided tour through the park and visit some of the other ruins until it was time for our tour.

First piece of advice for anyone wanting to visit: Make sure you top-off the fuel in your vehicle before driving through the park. Fill up in Cortez. It takes almost an entire hour of drive time from the visitor center to the “hub” of where most of the archaeological sites are. The only fuel in the park is at the campgrounds, which are near the visitor center, so not particularly helpful. Luckily, we were fine with 3/4 of a tank, but definitely don’t show up on 1/8 of a tank and expect to get there.

Mesa Verde means “green table” for those of you who chose to take French in High School instead of Spanish (like, ahem, moi). The mesa top is where the Ancestral Puebloan people farmed. Early people (like in the 550’s and 600’s) also lived on the mesa tops. Carbon dating shows that by the A.D. 1000’s, they had started to move their villages under the overhanging cliffs to take advantage of nature. So the oldest sites aren’t even cliff dwellings. They are scattered across the mesa tops and are easily accessible to visit by car.

As you are driving along, keep a lookout for a little brown sign announcing the presence of a site. There is space on the side of the road to pull over. When you see one, pull over. I cannot express enough how much you do not want to miss these.

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The National Park Service built these huge buildings over the archaeological sites to protect them from further damage from the elements. Even with the buildings, and being literally 20 yards from the main road, these are impossible to spot without the assistance of the signs.

We were very fortunate that we were there early enough, and during an “off-season” time, that we usually had these sites to ourselves to explore.

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One of the many pit houses. This one dates to 600 AD, although archaeologists and carbon-dating indicate that the pits have been remodeled and the stones re-purposed up until the 1200’s. There is a short walking loop that brings you to two others on this same path.

The Ancestral Puebloan people dug these pits in the grounds, called kivas (kee-VAH).  Like many other things in archaeology, their purpose is debated between archaeologists and generally considered to be speculation. On one hand, they could have lived in these, which would protect the people from the elements and camouflage them from the outside enemies (the original kivas had roofs and blended into the environment). On the other hand, many archaeologists believe that the kivas were used for religious ceremonies or for political meetings.

(I’m over here wondering why they couldn’t have been multi-purpose, since they had to be a royal pain to build, but I am also not an archaeologist.)

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One of the more primitive kivas, this one features the usual fire pit and sipapu.

The kivas are very traditionally laid out. The doorway tunnel faces the South. The fire pit is in the center, and towards the North is a small hole called a sipapu (see-PAH-poo).

The modern-day Hopi tell sacred stories of the sipapu as a place where humans emerged from the earth, from the 3rd World into the 4rd World. Different tribes believe their sipapus, or places of emergence into this world, are in different places, such as from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. As such, archaeologists believe it is why the sipapu was traditionally dug into the kiva floors, as a religious symbol to never forget their origins.

The ranger read us the Hopi sacred story about the significance of the sipapu. I thought it was very charming, not unlike the story of Adam and Eve, and there is no way I can do it justice by paraphrasing, so that is something you will just have to Google.

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A larger, more-modern pit house. Also, the ruins above-ground indicate that there may have been towers built. This is part of an entire village. The different rings of the kivas intersect, also indicating a lot of remodeling happened to the kivas as the village grew.

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A more advanced kiva. The fire pit as the main feature, and now there is a stone in front of the ventilation tunnel to deflect the wind. This caused the wind to circulate around the kiva and push the smoke out of the side vents and the top without disturbing the fire itself. Next to the fire pit is where they ground their corn, and, of course, in straight alignment with the door and fire pit is the sipapu hole. Also noteworthy is the introduction of benches along the outside all for people to sit.

Not all ruins were under ground, either. The Sun Temple is a large structure across the canyon from the Cliff Palace. Again, archaeologists aren’t sure what the purpose of the Sun temple was, but they do know that it was built to last. The masonry was very advanced for the time period and it has withstood the last 700 years very well.

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Looking through a window of the Sun Temple.

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Sun Temple gutter system for water runoff.

After visiting the Sun Temple, we decided to head over to the Balcony House for our tour. We were a bit early, but seeing as how I was much more prepared this time around, I had packed us lunch, so we decided to eat before we went on our tour.

Sadly, there is no view of the Balcony House unless you are in it. I would have liked to see what it looked like from the other side of the canyon (Soda Canyon), but currently there is no access to the other side.

Our tour guide was awesome. Her name was Jan, and she had been an archaeologist for 20 years before semi-retiring to work for the National Parks system, so she was a wealth of information.

She started off the tour giving us all of the warnings: no heart problems, no joint problems, probably shouldn’t go if you are scared of heights or claustrophobic. If you get to the first ladder (which is 36 feet high) and decide that you can’t do it, that is your time to turn back, because once you go up the ladder, there is no going back down. You have to finish the tour. Altitude sickness and dehydration are also very real possibilities at an altitude of 7000 feet.

We tossed the toddler in the hiking backpack and said, “let’s do it.”

We were not the only ones on the tour with little kids, though. Someone even had an infant in one of those Kangaroo packs, so I felt better.

And now, a bombardment of photos:

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Our tour descending to the trail that will take us to the Balcony House

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Kevin and the kiddo in “the baby packer.” Caleb, fortunately, loves being in the baby packer. probably because he is up high and can see everything.

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The ladder we had to go up to get to the Balcony House. It wasn’t terrible, but I did discover that when people say, “just don’t look down,” there is a reason they say that. It’s oh so very true.

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Before we got up the ladder, we had to stop to learn about a natural phenomenon known as a Sandstone Spring. The rainwater landed on top of the mesa, watering the crops, and then seeped into the ground, was filtered by the many many layers of sandstone, and came out of little “springs” under the cliff edge. This was the Ancestral Puebloan People’s main source of fresh drinking water.

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Watch your children: there is no railing. There is floor and cliff. Even the kivas are unprotected, and 30-feet deep with a stone floor. Don’t fall in. That might hurt. Plus, I’m not sure, but I think bleeding in a federally-protected archaeological site is highly frowned-upon.

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Original timbers that used to support a balcony. Hence the name “Balcony House.”

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According to modern-day Puebloan people, they still use balconies to make important announcements or to perform special ceremonies.

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Grinding stones.

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One of the two Balcony House kivas. They estimate that about 30 people, or 2 extended families, lived in the Balcony House.

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Random people on our tour… I never got tourist-free photos of some of the features. That’s what happens when your tour group has 30 people in it.

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See where the sandstone has turned black on the walls? That is apparently what happens when the oils from human hands constantly touch the sandstone. it turns black over time. That is why the rangers ask that you not touch anything; to preserve the architectural integrity of the ruins.

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How to get out, Part 1 (Okay, the ranger asked us to hold onto that corner so we didn’t fall).

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How to get out, Part 2: You have to crawl through a tiny tunnel under that wall, and if you look closely through the “window,” you can see yet another ladder on the other side.

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Tight squeeze, but we made it out! We had to take the kiddo out of the baby packer and send him through the tunnel after Mom. He was all over it.

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How to get out, part 3: Once out of the tunnel, you scale another ladder, then scramble up the face of the cliff with these scary-ass steps that were carved into the cliff face. The National Park service had to carve them bigger than they were originally due to modern-day people’s much larger feet… No fancy camera angles, this is literally how steep it was. Hang onto the chains.

The verdict?

This was absolutely worth the trip. I would have happily paid 5x as much as they actually charge for the tour. It was amazing.

Now we can’t wait to go back and take the other tours (see? The Bucket List rabbit-hole).

Of course, if you visit, you can’t miss stopping at the Far View Terrace for their Navajo Tacos. Soooo yummy. Fry bread as big as your head, chili, stewed seasoned chicken or pork (we both preferred the pork), and whatever toppings you want. A word of advice: one taco will easily feed two people. We each got one and couldn’t finish them. The fry bread/chili combo definitely makes the taco. Sadly, we didn’t get a photo because we were too busy stuffing our faces.

But definitely, definitely visit.

Of Camels and Buckets; The True Story of Our Failed Visit to Soapstone Prairie

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A true story, and a potentially uninteresting story. But I did get some very moody photos. I don’t know why they are moody. I didn’t mean for them to be. It just happens when the sun is playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds, I guess. Random dark and light areas.

Soapstone Prairie is a natural area in extreme Northern Colorado. Like, it’s pretty much Wyoming. It looks like Wyoming. I mean, it’s a prairie, after all.

I know, I know, I promised a couple more Arizona posts. They’re on the back burner still. But [insert whiny voice] I’m tired of writing about Arizona. We get it, your state is awesome. But now I get to see autumn, and go to the mountains to play in the snow, and drink my coffee hot, and it’s still 100-degrees there (and last I checked, the saguaro cacti don’t turn pretty shades of orange in the fall), so neener neener.

So the plan was to go to one of the 500 natural areas in Fort Collins (okay, I have no idea how many natural areas there are, but there are a lot) so I randomly picked one on a map that we had picked up. I chose Soapstone Prairie. Then, since it is on the Wyoming border, and we needed to make a Wal-Mart run, I suggested hitting up the Wal-Mart in Cheyenne rather than backtrack and go back south to the one in Fort Collins.

Mission in mind, we loaded up the kiddo and the dog (Tucker loooooves visiting the natural areas) and headed up County Road 15, the last 7 miles of which were not paved. The child cried nearly the entire drive there because we are the meanest parents in the world for not letting him drive. Mind you, he’s two years old, but pointing that out to him was pretty futile.

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Naturally, as we pulled to the entrance of the natural area, two highly inconvenient things happened. First of all, the kiddo passed out in the back seat. Because arriving at our destination was clearly the best time for him to finally fall asleep for a much-needed nap. I am NOT waking it up.

Then, we noticed the signs. No dogs allowed. Anywhere. Not even on a leash. Not even in your car. 

WHY???? Who came up with that rule??? I have a hard time liking any place that doesn’t allow dogs.

Since there was no one staffed at the entrance booth, we did what any normal dog owners would do; we told Tucker to lay down in the back and drove on in anyway.

Kevin picked up a brochure on the way in, and we learned that, in addition to a strict rule against dogs, there is also a rule against flying kites, and allowing your falcon to harass the wildlife.

Well, there goes all of our plans for the day.

I mean, I was with you for the no kite-flying rule, and mildly irritated about the no-dogs-even-in-your-personal-vehicle rule, but not allowing me to harass wildlife with a falcon??? Now you’re just being unreasonable.

We agreed that since the kiddo was sleeping and since we had contraband in the back, in the form of a dog who just could not remember to lay down and keep a low profile, we would just turn around at the parking lot and head back out.

With a few stops for me to hop out and take some photos, of course. Usually those involved me screeching at Kevin to “stop!!” and “back up!!!” and honestly, I’m amazed the kiddo slept through all of the slamming of brakes.

The prairie was super- pretty, and I would have loved to have gone on a family hike, but it just wasn’t in the stars for today.

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Plus, I’m not allowed to harass the wildlife with a falcon, so there’s that…

We hopped back on I-25 and crossed over into Wyoming. I love Wyoming. I was eagerly staring out the window looking for bison (I have an unnatural obsession with buffalo), and, of course, checking out the horses. I have never outgrown the urge to yell out “pony!” when I see a horse. Even though I own one and have been riding since I was, like, 6.

Kevin and I were in the middle of a heated debate on whether or not we needed to stop at a fireworks stand (which are apparently open year-round in Wyoming) when I spotted camels.

Camels.

Camels. 

Every single one of my mental “browser windows” (My next argument against fireworks, my shopping list for when we get to Wal-Mart, my calculations of how long the child had been asleep for, every little thing that women can keep in their minds at any given time) came to a screeching halt. My brain seriously short-circuited and I hyper-focused on the camels.

Why are there camels in Wyoming?

Does someone raise them?

It looked like they were in a pasture in front of a church. Does the church raise them?

What is the purpose of keeping camels?

Do people ride them?

Does that church use them in a living Nativity scene at Christmas?

Is that cost-effective?

How well do camels do in a Wyoming winter? Aren’t they desert animals?

Where does one even get camels from, anyway?

Just… so many questions that I couldn’t move past until we got to Cheyenne. I have only been to Cheyenne once before, but I was pleased that I could kind-of tell where we were, and my pride in my marginal navigational ability helped dispel some of the lingering camel questions.

Then, just when you thought this story would never end, the wind blew a bucket into the road and Kevin couldn’t avoid it. So we hit it, it got wedged under the car, and we had to pull into to the closest parking lot to pry it out from under the car.

We got the bucket un-stuck from the undercarriage, but it had been wedged under the exhaust. I don’t know a ton about car anatomy, but I believe that it was where the exhaust pipe meets the manifold. Since that crap gets HOT, the plastic bucket melted onto the exhaust.

It melted! There was molten plastic adhered to my car’s exhaust system. My biggest question was: how critical is it to get the melted plastic off the exhaust? Because I’ve already set one car on fire, I don’t need to repeat that whole episode. Plus, I’m pretty sure that at this point the insurance company would get suspicious.

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Charred remnants of my Mercedes after it spontaneously combusted while driving to the Oregon Coast 2 years ago.

Fortunately, I think Kevin’s dad might be the only person on Earth who would know the answer to; “Will melted bucket plastic on my exhaust system catch my car on fire if we drive home to Colorado from Wyoming?”

Kevin called his dad, and, just like I had anticipated, he did, in fact, know the answer. He had run into a similar situation involving a quad several years ago. He asked a few basic questions like, “What color was the bucket?” (white) and “where exactly on the exhaust is it?” (the manifold/exhaust pipe junction) and told us that we could either try to heat it up and scrape it off with a stick, or just drive it and eventually it will disintegrate (but we would have to deal with the annoying and possibly highly toxic smell of burning plastic while we drove).

We chose to just drive it off. Because “potentially carcinogenic” is less scary (short-term) than “molten plastic that can burn the flesh off your bones.” We’ll roll the dice that if/when we develop lung cancer, hopefully modern medicine will have treatment dialed in by then. But I’d like to keep both of my hands, and Kevin’s too, thankyouveryuch.

Really, we just should have stayed home today.

Here are some pretty pictures that I took from the car:

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We made it back to Colorado. It didn’t stink too terribly bad. We have a road trip planned for this weekend so whatever hasn’t burned off yet likely will. Hopefully our upcoming trip works out better than our day today.

 

Why the Petrified Forest National Park Needs to be on Your Bucket List.

 

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When we were traveling from Phoenix, AZ to Loveland, CO for our next assignment, we decided that the least mountainous way to go would be to go east through New Mexico and then north to Colorado. We left Phoenix at 3 a.m. to avoid pulling the 5th wheel in 117-degree heat. Also, it allowed the kiddos to continue sleeping in the car for a good portion of our trip. Kevin drove the rig; I followed in my car with the two kids.

When we got to the Northeast corner of Arizona, it was still mid-morning (but felt like we had been driving FOREVER). I saw signs informing us that Petrified Forest National Park was coming up, and to tune into some AM radio station. I did, because I had nothing better going on in my life at that moment, and I listened to someone extolling all that The Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP from now on) had to offer. A 2-minute sound byte on repeat.

Honestly… I had never heard about it. I had no idea what was there. It sounded mildly interesting on the radio. I was tired of driving and we did have our National Park Pass that we purchased at the Grand Canyon and hadn’t used since. But I wasn’t interested enough to call Kevin to ask him if we could detour, since he had the much more stressful job of towing a 30-foot 5th wheel. I was just there for moral support, not to get in the way.

When Kevin turned on his blinker to take the exit, though, I was stoked. I love adventures! It was like he read my mind! Or he just knows me really well.

Thankfully, PFNP had a well-designed parking lot that had RV parking in the back that we easily pulled into. It was almost empty, but it was also 9:30am on a Thursday. We moved the dog from the back of my car into the trailer, gave him breakfast, water, and cracked a few windows and headed into the ranger station to see what there was to see.

The answer, in short, is a lot.

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Who knew? Not me. I mean, I didn’t learn about this place in school. It’s just not super-well known to anyone outside of the Southwest, or outside of the Paleontology world.

There is so much history here- so much significant history- that I can’t possibly go over it all. There is a 30-minute video at the visitor center that we watched, and I couldn’t even retain it all to tell you. Here are a few highlights of what I remember:

This park is historically, archaeologically, geologically, and palentologically significant:

  • Historically significant sites include The Painted Desert Inn (where we stopped and spent a good hour and a half) and the Route 66 Alignment (where I also insisted on stopping).
  • Archaeologically significant sites inside the park include: the Agate House, which was built by Ancestral Puebloan people, made entirely of petrified wood; Newspaper Rock, which is a giant rock with more than 650 petroglyphs carved into it; and Puerco Pueblo, which are partially excavated ancient ruins.
  • Geologically significant sites in the park include Blue Mesa; the Painted Desert; and Rainbow, Jasper, and Crystal Forests. We only had time to see the Painted Desert and Blue Mesa.
  • Palentologically, the park has a collection of over 300,000 specimens of fossils and prehistoric tools and pottery. It’s one of the biggest sections of Triassic-aged rock anywhere. They joke that the park should have been named “Triassic Park.” This is one of the only National Parks that is open to continued research from palentology departments of colleges and universities from across the country. Fossils are still actively being uncovered year-round in the park.
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A giant fossil- a piece of petrified wood. There used to be thousands and thousands of these throughout the park, but sadly, tourists over the last century have been taking them home as souvenirs, leaving only a handful scattered around the park. Because of this, the National Park System has started the Vanishing Treasures Initiative, making it illegal to remove items (like petrified wood) from National Parks. And they’re serious, too. We had our car checked by a ranger on out way out of the park. 

The ranger gave us a map (a very large map), and pointed out the highlights. There were like 15 “Not To Be Missed” highlights, out of 20+ Points of Interest. Because of time restraints, we had to settle on 3 or 4. Sad face.

Seriously, guys, make sure you have PLENTY of time here.

We hopped in the car and drove to the first viewpoint, Tiponi Point.

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Painted Desert from Tiponi Point.

I couldn’t help myself; I immediately started comparing PFNP to Grand Canyon National Park. Obviously, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. You can’t compare anything to the Grand Canyon because there is nothing else like it.

But, there is also nothing else like the Painted Desert.

And in terms of breathtaking views and a feeling of wonder at this vast, diverse, and beautiful country we live in?

Same.

The same feeling. The same thoughts.

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Next stop on the docket: Painted Desert Inn. In the 1920’s, it was a tourist destination. The entire inn was made of petrified wood. In the 1930’s the CCC renovated it using adobe. It is a museum now, but it is definitely worth it to stop by.

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(I really really like to photograph architecture. And for some reason WordPress wont let me caption a collage. Hence the parenthesis.)

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Handmade stained glass skylight from the 1920’s by Hopi artists. Beautiful. 

Once we had explored the Inn, we hopped back into the car and continued on to our next point, the Route 66 Alignment. This was a must-see for me, because I have a huge fascination with Route 66. I have Route 66 memorabilia and artwork that I had displayed in my house before we downsized to a 5th wheel. To me, the Mother Road is just so representative of classic Americana.

While historic Route 66 is still drive-able in some areas, there are other spots, like in PFNP, where it is nothing but clues of what used to exist:

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Evidence that there was once a road there…

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And this rusted-out shell of a Studebaker. Watch out for rattlesnakes. 😉

At this point we were running short on time and starting to get anxious to get back on the road. The goal was to make it to Albuquerque that day, so we still had a few more hours of driving ahead of us. Had I known how awesome this place was, I would have definitely made this it’s own destination for at least a full day, but probably 2 or 3.

We looked at the map and the remaining 20 points of interest we had to choose from, and we settled on Blue Mesa.

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I took this photo out of the car window as we were heading into Blue Mesa. Our first sighting of the iconic blue rock. 

The Blue Mesa badlands, as they are called, are between 220-225 million years old, and the rocks are a mix of blue, purple, gray and green mudstone. There is a paved trail that takes you down into the badlands so you can be immersed in the rock formations. This was the most visually stunning hike I have ever been on, and I tried so hard to capture it in photos, but there are some things (okay, most things) that are just better experienced in person.

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We made the mistake of not bringing the hiking backpack for Caleb. Since there were some steep cliffs, he rode most of the way on Dad’s shoulders. We didn’t anticipate hiking that day, but it was not something we were willing to miss. 

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Jaid checking out the views.

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Stunning backdrop. I don’t even know how to convey what it was like to be inside the Blue Mesa. 

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Looking down into the badlands, you can see some hikers ahead of us on the trail. 

It was like being on another planet. Definitely an “otherworldly” experience. I so badly want to go again. I want to spend a few full days exploring the entire park.

While I am a believer that the best way to experience a location is on foot, this park is very accessible by vehicle. You can drive to every single viewpoint and attraction. I would strongly recommend packing a lunch, drinks, and snacks. There were plenty of places to picnic but no restaurants that we saw.

Even though we have technically already visited this park, Kevin and I have added a repeat visit to our Bucket List, just to see the park in it’s entirety. Visiting the Petrified Forest National Park really ought to be on everyone’s Bucket List. It’s just so freaking diverse that one area is nothing at all like another area.

Of course, Jaidyn got her Junior Ranger Badge at this park, too.

 

The Grand Canyon: What I’ll Do Differently The Next Time I Go.

What is there to say about The Grand Canyon? It’s… well, it’s humbling. That’s the best word I can come up with.

It reminds you how small and insignificant you actually are in the world.

Coming from Oregon, in the midst of the gently-rolling Willamette Valley, I actually had no understanding of how far the eyes could actually see. Yes, we went to the beach very often, but it’s just a horizon of blue, and you have nothing for perspective. The Grand Canyon is miles wide, and you can see the other side, and it looks fake.  Almost cartoonish. It’s almost like it is a struggle for your brain to comprehend what it is seeing.

It’s just something you have to experience.

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Either the date was crooked, or the horizon line. I opted for the date. I swiped this off of Kevin’s 7-year-old’s camera. 🙂 I will probably crop it out entirely some day, but I am lazy and today is not that day. 

I wanted to visit the North Rim. That is where the hardcore adventurers go. More importantly, that’s where the masses don’t go. I also wanted to hike below the rim. Did you know that something like 95% of visitors don’t even go below the rim?

What did we do? Well, we did neither of those things. We went to the overpopulated South Rim, and we didn’t step foot below the rim. Why? The answer is: kids. We have kids, and they make doing anything too wild and crazy nearly impossible.

But that’s okay, because it is more important to us that Kevin’s daughter got to go back to school in Oregon in the fall  and say, “I went to the Grand Canyon this summer” than it was for me to “go off the beaten path.” The Grand Canyon will always be there, and we will be back.

Hopefully with more pre-planning. More on that later.

The other reason why I have been putting off writing about the Grand Canyon is the sad, sad fact that, while I brought my camera, when I was checking it in the car, I discovered that it didn’t have a memory card in it. I left my memory card in the computer at home (noooooooooo). So I have been collecting and piecing together halfway decent photos from my cell phone, Kevin’s cell phone, and the kiddo’s point-and-shoot that she got for Christmas, even though we got into an argument about why she shouldn’t be shooting landscapes in “portrait mode.” (She doesn’t care, she does what she wants, and now I have a bunch of fuzzy, overexposed pictures I’m trying to salvage.)

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My pouty face when I realized that I didn’t have a functional camera at THE GRAND CANYON. D’oh!!

If you and your family are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon ever, here is my absolute best advice:

Plan ahead. Like, way ahead. If you are going in summer, you really need to figure out your lodging months in advance. We tried to find somewhere to stay a few weeks from when we wanted to go, and everything was booked.

If you want to do something really cool, like ride the mules to the floor and stay at Phantom Ranch, our tour bus driver told us it is about $600 per person and there is a 1-year waiting list. That is something I would love to do, but I would never bring young children on that excursion. I think it would be fun to do when they are teenagers.

Does that mean you can’t make an impromptu trip to the Grand Canyon if you happen to be nearby? Well, that’s pretty much what we did, and we had a great time.

We did leave Phoenix super-early to get there in the morning. It gets busy. We also went on a weekday instead of a weekend, and it was still busy by the time we left.

We arrived at the park around 8am and got a fabulous parking spot right near the visitor’s center (Parking Lot 1, which is also there the RV parking lot is, in case a motorhome is your only mode of transportation. Worry not, however; there are at least 10 parking lots, so if the first one you get to is full, just keep driving to the next one. Parking is dispersed throughout the whole park, and there are shuttle pickups spots near all of them.)

When we got out of the car, we were pressed with the decision to hit up the Visitor Center, or follow the signs to the rim.

Ummm, if you are at a crossroads to go experience one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World (50 yards away), or to go to the visitor center to learn about it, which direction do you chose?

Answer: You go see the Grand Canyon.

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First, you stare in silent reverence and awe.

You notice how creepy-quiet it is.

You take it all in.

Then, you take turns posing for family pictures.

Got it all? Great.

Now you may go to the Visitor Center.

There was a line in the Visitor Center that rivaled anything in Disneyland. We were a little mystified but stood in it anyway, because that’s what all the cool kids seemed to be doing.

I highly recommend this.

The rangers at the Visitor Center ask you what you want to do during your visit, and how much time you are planning on staying. Then they hand you a map, circle their recommendations, tell you which buses to take, and answer any questions you may have. Naturally, we also picked up a Junior Ranger workbook for the Kidlette, and the rangers recommended which talks and presentations to go listen to to earn her badge.

They had lectures all day long on everything from which animal species lived in the canyon, to the geology, to the history of the National Park, to local Native American History. We chose to listen to the one about the canyon animals for Kidlette’s Junior Ranger badge.

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Swearing in ceremony to become a Grand Canyon National Park Junior Ranger. Clearly, since Jaid is in the picture, I was probably the one taking the photo, so the crooked horizon/date is all on me. My bad. LOL. 

The next time I go…

And hopefully the first time you go, since I know you, dear reader, are more of the planner-type than I am and actually read blogs prior to visiting….

Here’s what I will do differently:

  • I would make sure the dang memory card is in the camera. I’m still mourning the loss of all the great photo opportunities.
  • If I win the lottery between now and then (or miraculously develop any kind of ability to save money), we will be staying in the El Tovar Hotel. That place is spectacular, and so full of history. Plus it’s right on the rim. Great views.
  • Otherwise, you will find us camping at Mather Campground. It’s the only campground inside the park (there are a lot of others nearby though). It’s open for camping year-round. Bonus: a shuttle bus stops right at the campground.
  • Since I plan on returning when my kiddos are teenagers, I would rather rent bicycles and use that as our mode of transportation. The shuttles are okay, but even on a weekday morning, they were jam-packed full of people. I don’t care for people enough to enjoy being squished in with them. There are tons of beautiful and scenic bike trails all over the park, and you can go places that most visitors don’t get to. Bike rentals are located near the visitor’s center.
  • I would visit the more out-of-the-way attractions, like the the Desert View Watchtower, or the Tusayan Museum and Ruins. We simply didn’t have time to go out that far, seeing as how we just went as a day trip from Phoenix, and we were on a schedule to hit the correct lectures to get the Kidlette’s Junior Ranger Badge. If we were camping for a few days, though, we would likely have plenty of time to see and do everything there is to offer.
  • I will make a point of hiking at least one of the hikes that goes below the rim. Because I just want to. I want to go IN the Grand Canyon, not just to the edge.
  • If it were just Kevin and me, or if I had adventurous adult children, I would definitely look into the mule ride, or even a kayak camping trip down the Colorado River. That would be epic. Add it to the Bucket List, I guess.

Isn’t it funny how items on your Bucket List sometimes beget more items? I call these “Rabbit Hole Items.” Where they keep going. Like, one of my Bucket List items was to see the Grand Canyon. Now that I’ve crossed it off, I added “Kayak Camping Trip on the Grand Canyon Floor.” See? It went further. Way further. Rabbit Hole.

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