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.

Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip (Part 2): Las Vegas

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 3, on the road to Flagstaff, here.

We left Calico in the late afternoon, and settled in for the long stretch of I-15 ahead of us into Las Vegas. Although Emily and I are familiar with that part of the drive, it was the first time we had kids along with us, and we couldn’t think of anything we needed to stop to see. One possible exception was the World’s Tallest Thermometer in Baker, but as we drove past it didn’t seem to be lit up, so we didn’t make the stop. (As it turns out, the sign is in bad shape, the gift shop is closed, and the Bob’s Big Boy next door, owned by the same man, is also shuttered. I’m glad we didn’t take ten minutes to drive up close to see what was going on.)

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #4: Plan your meal stops ahead of time, at places where you would want to stop and look around anyway. If you wait to stop until you are all hungry, your choices will be limited to whatever truck stop restaurant happens to be open at the next exit, because when the kids get hungry, they stay hungry. And loud. And if that restaurant is terrible, or even worse, closed, you will all be miserable.

We rolled into Vegas just before dinner time, and checked into our hotel (another free night at an Embassy Suites because of points). We had decided to stay off the Strip, mostly so we could get another two-room suite instead of trying to crowd into a casino hotel room. We chose a hotel near the convention center, and it happened to be just a few blocks from a monorail station that connected the convention center to all the hotels on the Strip anyway, so we didn’t have to worry about driving around in Vegas for the night. We ate some dinner, then headed down to the hotel pool.

The pool experience was a little underwhelming. It was advertised as heated, but it was cold, and Adrian had to get out after a few minutes. (Erin, though, my little fish, jumped in and out of the pool for half an hour, leading a band of new best friends in her pool shenanigans.) I went outside to the hot tub, where I soaked as setting sun reflected off the casino towers in the distance. I hoped to bring Adrian in with me to warm up, but just as the pool was too cold for him, the hot tub was too hot. We left a little too soon for my soaking body’s liking.

Since we had the kids with us, we weren’t going to be doing much gambling, or drinking, or clubbing (so, none of the things people tend to go to Vegas to do), but we had all night, and all of the next morning to find things that would be fun for them, and for us.

Vegas for Kids

The first thing we decided to do was get a nice view of the Strip. So we took the monorail from the convention center down to the Paris Hotel.

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We walked through the casino (as smoky as I remember casinos being), and then went up to the top of the replica of the Eiffel Tower that is built into the side of the hotel. The view from up there was pretty great. I’ve been up to the top of the Stratosphere at the end of the Strip, but I don’t remember if its view is much better.

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The kids found a telescope someone had put some quarters into, and they spent some time looking down at the buildings, and trying to get a peak at “the castle” down the street. After that, they thought all the telescopes were free, so they went round and round at the top of the tower, checking all of them. Eventually I distracted Adrian with some picture taking.

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Although the view is nice, the line to go up to the top of the tower is long and slow-moving. It’s also not a free trip, and there isn’t much to do once you’re up there except look around at Vegas. When we came back down we decided to change tactics.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #5: No matter how cool you think something is, your kids will disagree, so don’t blow your budget on experiences that you think they SHOULD have when you can get by with the experiences they CAN have. Maybe you’ll have money left for the experiences you both WANT to have.

The first thing we did when we came down from the tower was to get some ice cream. The kids had been up late the night before, and we were okay with them being up late this night, our only Vegas night, too, so the sugar rush wasn’t a concern. Also, punctuating an experience with ice cream is nice, and it was an indulgence in a city full of indulgences that we were otherwise avoiding.

Next, we walked across the street to the Bellagio hotel. This took longer than that sentence would indicate. The press of people outside on the Strip on a warm Spring evening was impressive, and we had to walk down the block a bit, with all of those people, to get to a crosswalk. Oddly, it was outside the casinos, rather than inside, that we were most challenged to shield the kids from the seedier side of the city. Up and down the sidewalk were the club-and-services hawkers, handing out small cards or flyers depicting Vegas’ promises. Sensibly, whenever a hawker would see a kid coming close, he would pause in his hustle, and we were never offered a card or flyer. But they were all over the ground, and Erin at least was curious when she caught one out of the corner of her eye. Emily quickly ushered her onward.

Stationed right at the crosswalk, two young women in their best showgirl regalia posed for pictures with tourists walking by. I thought about getting the kids to take pictures with them, but the thought of a very complicated conversation about what they were doing and why they were dressed that way deterred me. It probably would have been a great scrapbook picture, though.

When we made it across the street to the Bellagio, we settled in with our ice cream for the world famous Bellagio fountain water show.

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The show only lasted for a couple of minutes, but the kids loved it, and it was free, so I have no complaints.

We slowly made our way back to the monorail station, and eventually back to the hotel where the kids promptly fell asleep. Considering they had awoken in Bakersfield that morning, and all the things they’d done in one day, I didn’t blame them.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel instead of buying it at a restaurant, then we packed up the car and checked out. We had to get to Flagstaff, Arizona, but we weren’t in any hurry to leave Las Vegas. So we drove down the Strip to the Mandalay Bay Hotel, parked the car, and went inside.

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As we were planning the Vegas stop on our road trip, we had considered a couple of things the kids might like to see. One was the zoo at the Mirage, where Siegfried and Roy kept their white tigers. The other was the aquarium at the Mandalay Bay. Since Adrian was weeks deep into an obsession with the Octonauts, we decided to take them to the aquarium, Shark Reef.

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The aquarium isn’t large, especially if you’ve spent any time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but it is a bit larger than San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay (though it only has one tunnel to walk through beneath the aquarium). The kids saw giant lizards, crocodiles, sharks, Amazon River fish, and an octopus. It was perfect for the amount of time they were willing to spend at an aquarium that morning, and for the amount of time we we willing to stay in Vegas before getting back on the road.

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The last thing we did before leaving the hotel to get on the road was grab some lunch. We ate from the deli case of a casino restaurant, sitting around a table in a lounge just off the casino floor that, from the look of it, would be filled with music, and drinking, and dancing later that night. For the time being it was just filled with us. Then, onward to Flagstaff!

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #6: If you are getting on the road in the middle of the day, right after lunch, make sure to grab something for lunch that will keep, is portable, and won’t contribute to the mess in the car. For instance, a sandwich container makes a great bowl for fruit or crackers in the car later, while hummus and pita chips will make you want to get the car detailed after the kids smear it all over their chairs. It also smells up the joint. Think about your noses.