Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip Part 5: Phoenix

This is Part 5 in a series of stories (and tips) from our most recent road trip. Read Part 1, on the Calico Ghost Town, here, Part 2, on Las Vegas, here, Part 3, on Flagstaff, here, and Part 4, on the Grand Canyon, here.

We drove down from the mountains as the sun was setting, and made it to Phoenix before bedtime. Having been on the road for a few days, and with Phoenix being the midpoint of our trip (and a respite with family after much touristing), we took the opportunity to stock up on road trip/hotel supplies.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #13: Don’t overbuy. Unless you are going out into the desert for a week, there is probably going to be a Target somewhere on your route. Plan a mid-trip resupply instead of stuffing the car full of things you don’t need to be carting around with you. Also, a trip to the store in the middle of a road trip gives the kids a little anchor to the world. If your kids aren’t comfortable being away from home, then, as much as I hate to admit it, a place like Target is a little touch of familiar for them. It adds to the normal.

We dashed through a Target in Chandler (our “Phoenix” stop was really a “Chandler” stop, which probably means something to people in Arizona, but for convenience I’ve just been calling this part “Phoenix”. Sorry, Chandler.”)

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After crashing hard at our hotel (another corporate-y place with full breakfast; this one also had a little kitchen in the room, which we would make use of over the next few days), we awoke and went to do what the locals in Chandler do at 9am: We went to a make-your-own pizza party at Peter Piper’s Pizza.

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It was like a Chuck E. Cheese’s, with games and mouse warrens running along the walls. Our cousin, whom we were in town to visit, invited us along to her daughter’s daycare party. I don’t think kids are usually just allowed in the kitchen.

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And that’s how we found ourselves baking and eating pizza in the morning, in between air hockey games.

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In the afternoon we joined our cousin (Emily’s cousin) and her kids (Erin and Adrian’s second cousins, for those keeping score) back at their house. We wandered over to a playground in the development, which has a duck pond just off to the side. After getting bored with the playground, the kids explored the duck pond. We watched as Erin, ever the daredevil, got closer and closer to the edge of the grass. We told her if she got too close, she would fall in.

And then, because I’m like this, I kind of hoped she would fall in. She’s a good swimmer, and it was warm, and the water wasn’t deep or dangerous. So I felt like if anything was going to impart a little caution to her it would be to suffer the consequences of her own daring.

My wish was granted. I’m probably a bad father for enjoying it so much.

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Erin fell in the water, spun around, and clambered out again. She wasn’t upset, really. Shocked, yes. Very soaked. But she was very matter-of-fact about her escapade.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #14: Have a day bag handy with changes of clothes for the kids. You might think to yourself: “Of course they have a change of clothes! I brought a whole suitcase, didn’t I?” But those clothes don’t do any good back at the hotel, and you might be in unfamiliar territory when you need them.

We went back to our cousin’s house and Erin got cleaned up and changed. Adrian entertained himself by being a suburban scooter kid.

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We spent the next day at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. The first thing we did was sit around while Adrian made a little friend, and they bonded over said friend’s Octonaut toys.

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Then we explored the museum. Adrian did some painting with his cousin.

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And he did some crafting with his mom.

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And he rode a tricylce around and through a tunnel set up like a carwash.

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The kids ran through foam jungles and played in sized-down supermarkets and played with sand on light tables and slot cars and all manner else of children’s things.

And Erin tried to grow up. No motorcycles for you yet, kid.

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Later that night, not really knowing what else to do for dinner, we went back to Peter Piper’s Pizza. Not the same one. Apparently, it’s a chain.

We headed west on the 10 out of Phoenix the next morning, and almost immediately hit traffic. Was it all the hipsters driving to Coachella?

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No. About forty miles outside of Phoenix, a Fed Ex truck full of Zappos shoe boxes had been opened like a can of sardines by another truck. It was a sight. More impressive than the Grand Canyon, in some respects.

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We burned a lot of time sitting in that traffic, but we didn’t really have a place to be. We could take advantage of the little stops along the way. For instance, once we hit California after lunch, we stopped at Cabazon to see the dinosaurs.

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It’s the weirdest sort of road side attraction, and exactly what you need on a road trip: Dinosaurs, for no reason.

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TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #15: Be cheesy. If you are bored and annoyed at little delights, your kids will be also. If you are enthusiastic about them, your kids will be also. Kids can have as much fun sitting in front of a fake dinosaur in the middle of nowhere as they do riding roller coasters. Kids enjoy everything, as long as you let them.

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We were finally back in California, but our trip was not over. Next up, the icing on the cake: Disneyland.

Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip, Part 4: The Grand Canyon

This is Part 4 in a series of stories (and tips) from our most recent road trip. Read Part 1, on the Calico Ghost Town, here, Part 2, on Las Vegas, here, and Part 3, on Flagstaff, here.

Before we left on our road trip, we brought the car in for a service. We didn’t want any leaky tubes or gaskets or flat tires or anything to crop up while we were driving across three states. One thing we had our mechanic look at was a wonky (technical term) thermostat knob in the dashboard. Sometimes it would work, and the heater would come on, and other times I’d have to crank it back and forth, fiddling, looking for that one perfect spot before things would start to heat up.

I apologize for that sentence.

Anyway, the mechanic looked at it, and said it was going to be many hundreds of dollars to replace the part, although what he really wanted to do was just solder a loose wire. The part replacement is what the manufacturer recommended, but our mechanic is a tinkerer. He probably could have fixed it with a simple solder, but I didn’t have time for him to get it wrong, then have to order the part for what would then be a non-functioning (as opposed to a sometimes-functioning) unit. And honestly, we weren’t too worried about it. We were going to Arizona in the spring, not Canada in the winter. We had checked the weather before the trip, and it was supposed to be lovely the entire way, though maybe a little hot in Phoenix.

On the morning of our Grand Canyon day, it started hailing in Flagstaff.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #10: Always have layers available. No matter how cold you think it can’t get, that’s how cold it will get where you’re going.

It hailed all the way out of Flagstaff, when the hail stopped and it turned into blowing snow. I messed with the heater. I cranked it back and forth, fiddling, looking for that one perfect spot. No joy. We were heaterless. When the mechanic had re-tightened things after looking them over, he did something that made the heater not work at all instead of work sometimes.

Worse, we could see cars driving down the mountains from the Grand Canyon, and they were covered in snow. This was not the weather that was promised us. And we witnessed microclimate after microclimate on the way up the hills: blowing snow in some places, sunshine over meadows, fog banks on the ground where the mountains were kissing the sky. We really had no good idea what we’d encounter when we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon.

What we found was snow. Snow, and biting, bitterly cold air.

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At first, the cold weather and snow on the ground was a novelty for the kids.

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But as we left the visitor’s center parking lot and set out to find the rim, the cold started to get to Adrian.

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He was not a happy hiker. The rest of us weren’t much happier. But it was the Grand Canyon! The sights! Look, there’s a sight.

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There’s another sight.

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We got the freezing kids out to the rim, and onto a promontory rock, where they posed, briefly, for this picture.

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TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #11: Don’t forget, in your optimistic packing, that kids hate having cold hands. Bring gloves. Even if you never ever ever ever ever need gloves where you live, you just never know. Tiny hands get cold very easily, and heads are impossible to convince that everything is going to be okay. All they can detect is coldness.

Somehow, we distracted Adrian from his troubles long enough for him to enjoy himself, standing up above the earth.

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He bestrode the world like a colossus. An adorable colossus.

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We returned to the visitor’s center to warm up for a while. The kids saw some videos about the majestic vista they had just fled. Then they went across the plaza to the bookstore for some browsing.

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Adrian, the adorable ranger, picked out some binoculars to bring home with him. Or, as he calls them: bee-knockulars.

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I was kind of disappointed that we had spent so little time at the canyon rim, getting only a view pictures. None of them had that Grand Canyon majesty that I was really looking for. So while Emily and the kids browsed the bookstore, I took the camera back out to the rim to try to get some more pictures.

That’s when it started hailing on me.

Not only did it hail on me: fog rolled in again, covering the canyon floor and most of the rim walls. I got a picture of me. You can kind of make out the Grand Canyon behind me.

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And here’s another picture of Adrian. I just like this picture.

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Erin insisted on her own bee-knockulars, and after they had them unboxed they couldn’t wait to run outside and stare at each other with them.

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They stared up close.

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They stared at the ground.

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They stared from a distance.

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They stared at Emily’s butt.

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Somehow, once the kids had their bee-knockulars, they forgot all about the cold.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #12: If you are inclined to purchase toys or things for the kids to have in the car, make them quiet ones. You will be in the car a long time, and you don’t need to hear every chirp, squeak, crackle, crunch, beep, or yell. You know what makes a great, quiet, distraction for a drive: bee-knockulars.

Our Grand Canyon day was stressful. The drive was stressful, the kids’ distress at the cold was stressful, the weather sabotaging our photo opportunities was stressful. But it was still a fun day, and we will remember it forever. We’ll probably remember it better than we would have if the weather had been perfect and we’d just seen some boring rocks at the bottom of a ravine.

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We didn’t stay at the Grand Canyon all day. We arrived in early afternoon, and left in late afternoon, trying to get ahead of a weather system that was moving in, and which discouraged a drive along the rim, like we had intended. Instead, we backtracked, had some dinner just outside of the park, and drove back through Flagstaff.

We had to make Phoenix before bedtime.

Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip (Part 3): Flagstaff

This is Part 2 in a series of stories (and tips) from our most recent road trip. Read Part 1, on the Calico Ghost Town, here, and Part 2, on Las Vegas, here.

We left the Las Vegas Strip just after lunch, and started making our way out of town. Before we had hit the city limit, though, Erin asked us to stop for an emergency bathroom break. We took an exit, drove into a gas station next to an In n’ Out, and I ran into the convenience store with Erin in tow only to be faced with an “Out of Order” sign on the bathroom.

“Khaaaaaaaaaan!!!!!”

We ran out of the store, and high-tailed it across the parking lot to the In n’ Out. And there, just to highlight the difference between California and Nevada for me, a man stood at the counter, ordering his Double-Double, with his pistol worn openly on his belt. That’s just a thing that’s going to happen, apparently.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #7: When you are on an interstate road trip, you will have lots of opportunities to not only talk about the things the kids see, but what makes the state you’re in different from, or similar to, your own state. When you are brushing up on the places you want to see on your trip, don’t forget to learn something about the more general history, geography, or culture of the state so you have something to share even when you aren’t looking straight at a landmark.

We finished our business at the In n’ Out, and returned to the gas station where Emily and Adrian had remained behind with the car. We saddled up, and took off on the 93 out of Nevada.

Our route took us past Hoover Dam, but for some reason we didn’t take a look as we were driving by. We kept on going, out of Boulder City, and into the Lake Mead Recreation Area on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. Suddenly, we were in a desert.

As we drove on and on, toward Kingman, we noticed something: we were low on gas. We were very low on gas. Somehow we had forgotten to fill up in Vegas before leaving the city, and we hadn’t even checked on the whole drive out of the state. Maybe it was the emergency stop at the gas station/In n’ Out that made us feel like we had filled up. Whatever the reason, we had no gas. The gas light was on.

I looked on my phone for nearby gas stations, and saw that there was one up ahead, about 40 miles. It was probably too far. I started having very panicked daydreams about running out of gas on the side of the road in the desert, and walking for miles to get to a station. Would I leave Emily and the kids with the car, where there would be shade, or bring them with me? How far could I walk on the water I had with me? Should I go onward, even deeper into Arizona, or turn back to Boulder City?

Thankfully, my daydreaming was interrupted by the appearance of a highway sign, promising gas at the next exit, one of the Lake Mead Recreation Area exits, Willow Beach Road. We took the exit and started driving along, looking for the gas station. We drove, and drove, and drove, deeper and deeper into the canyon the Colorado River cuts into the ground. I was holding out hope that there was a gas station at a ranger station nearby, but as we drove on I was despaired. The gas light wasn’t getting any less on, and the longer we drove down into the canyon, the more gas we wasted, and the more likely it seemed to us that we were going to get stuck. But now, instead of being stuck on the side of a major highway in the desert, we were going to be stuck on the side of a road to nowhere.

Finally, we saw the Willow Beach recreation area.

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We saw the lonely, lone, gas pump off to the side of the road, and pulled around to it, relieved, disaster averted.

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That was about the most adventure I can handle on a vacation. We drove back out of the canyon, up to the 93, and continued on to Kingman.

Things got a little boring. So here’s a picture of Emily eating a cracker.

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And here’s one of Erin passed out in the back seat, holding on to her giant stuffed pig.

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TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #8: Always keep some blankets within easy reach from the front seat. Even if it’s not cold, blankets are still useful for keeping the sun off the kids if you don’t have tinting, or a sunshade. Just remember to drape the kid, not the window. You don’t want to impair visibility while you’re driving.

Kingman, Arizona is where the 93 joins I-40, but it’s also where you switch over to Route 66 if you want to relive a bit of history. Route 66 loops north, through small towns like Peach Springs (one of the inspirations for Radiator Springs in Cars, and the main town on the Hualapai reservation), and eventually rejoins I-40 in Seligman. We weren’t sure how much extra time the loop would take (despite Sally’s lament that Radiator Springs was bypassed to save ten minutes of driving), so we stayed on I-40. But we did stop in Seligman to go to the Historic Route 66 General Store.

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This place was pretty interesting. Apart from all the souvenirs, it also had more general merchandise (hence “general store”), and in the back corner, it had this thing.

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When you got close to the sheriff there, he would launch into some audio-animatronic performance. It was very old-timey. It was also a little racist. During one of his speeches, he mentioned his “friend” in the other corner of the store, who doesn’t say much.

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The sheriff warned us, jovially, to watch out for our scalps. Hilarity.

We bought some souvenirs, and the kids wanted deer jerky so we bought them some deer jerky, then we sat on the wagon wheel benches out front to take some pictures.

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The remainder of our drive into Flagstaff was fairly uneventful. We saw lots of hills, then lots of trees, then a sign saying we were something like 7000 ft above sea level (we hadn’t even noticed the climb), then some signs for a place called “Bearizona”, which I appreciated because puns are always welcome.

When we got to Flagstaff, we checked in to our hotel room, then went looking for some place to eat. We went downtown, then walked around for a while looking at stores and restaurants, pondering our options. Finally, Emily had an epiphany and we went into the Grand Canyon tours office, which was still open, and asked the woman at the desk for a restaurant recommendation. She said that a place called Bigfoot Bar-B-Q was good, and great for kids because you could throw peanut shells on the floor.

It actually took some searching to find Bigfoot Bar-B-Q. It’s in a store, in the basement of a shopping gallery, and there’s no signage that we could see on the outside of the building that would suggest it was there at all. When I say it’s in a store, I mean it. On one side of a fence enclosure are some picnic tables, on the other side are women’s shirts on clothing racks.

They definitely had peanuts, and the kids totally loved throwing peanut shells on the floor.

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They also had giant slabs of ribs. (Not pictured: my salad. I swear to you, I ate a salad.)

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The best part, though, or at least the part the will stick out in our minds forevermore, was the baby cage.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #9: Take advantage of any unstructured time your kids can have without you driving them, moving them, telling them to eat, telling them to smile for the camera, telling them it’s time to go, telling them it’s time to go to sleep, telling them it’s time to wake up and get on the road again. Even a couple of minutes to yourself on a long road trip will recharge your batteries a little, and give you some extra patience for later.

Yes. The baby cage. It was just a play-pen area, with a TV tuned to Disney Jr. and some toys scattered about on a play mat. It was ten minutes of eating alone with Emily.

Thanks, Bigfoot Bar-B-Q.

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We returned to the hotel and passed out, eventually. We had to get to sleep, because the next day we set out for the Grand Canyon.