Shortly after Jared and I moved from Oregon to Texas in 2014, I felt a strong impression that we needed to go visit Kelly and Steve and introduce my children to their long lost aunt and uncle. After all, one of our biggest roadblocks--half of the United States--was literally behind us.
Kelly and Steve have always been very generous to our children. Beginning long before they were even born, our kids have been spoiled and still are at every birthday and at Christmas by these phantom relatives. While my kids have certainly spoken to my sister on the phone to thank her for said spoilage, it just isn't the same. I wanted my kids to have a real connection with Kelly and Steve. There was also a sense of urgency behind the prompting I had to go visit my sister because when we moved to Texas, Jake was 14 1/2. If you look at your availability in terms of summers--there isn't much time before the teenagers leave home! Technically, Jake will be eligible to serve his mission beginning June 2018, right after he graduates. While his actual report date might not be until later that summer, we just can't count on him being home at all after school is over. The summer of 2015 had already been scheduled with other activities and the summer of 2017 (with a fishing trip to Canada with his cousins) was also filling up fast, so this summer had to be it--Jake's second to last summer at home. I was thrilled when the timing of our visit worked for Kelly and Steve, too. It would be almost 15 years since we saw each other last.
My sister is a rock star! She is a very successful administrator at her business, and she's even up for a promotion in a couple weeks. However, she is also a whiz at being a vacation planner. She did all the research and footwork to find activities we could do while we were in Georgia visiting. The only thing we had to do was get housing nearby and show up! (There was NO WAY I was going to have a loud, seven-member family descend upon her and Steve, and take over their home for a week!)
Our original plan was to leave on Wed. 7/13 and drive from College Station to Buford, GA--about 14 hours worth of driving...but add in the loss of an hour with the time change and an hour for lunch and it's more like a 16 hour day, minimum. We would get in late and crash at Kelly's before doing our first activity on Thursday. However, as Jared looked at the map and saw the route we'd be driving, he noticed we'd be traveling right through Vicksburg, MS. Vicksburg is a huge national military park rich with Civil War history--a topic that is of great interest to Jared. Furthermore, visiting this park would also fulfill a requirement for Cooper's Citizenship in the Nation merit badge toward his Eagle rank in scouts. Jared already had Tuesday, 7/12 off from work, so he proposed that we stop in Vicksburg for the night to help break up the drive and give us time to look around the park while we were there. He found a hotel suite for all seven of us with free wifi and breakfast for only $100, so we decided to go for it.
We packed our clothes and personal belongings in duffel bags. That is definitely the way to go because we would also be taking our cooler and two large rubber bins filled with non-perishable food. We planned to cook all of our meals (and have picnic lunches) to keep the trip budget-friendly (it's easily $50 per meal for our group just at a fast food joint), but most especially because of Karcyn's gluten allergy. We were not taking our car topper with us and were afraid we might not have enough room for everything, but those duffel bags made all the difference! We got everything in with room to spare!
The morning of Tuesday, 7/12, came awfully early for us. We were up at 4:15 and left around 5:35am, a little bit later than we had hoped. I had worked like a dog on Saturday and Monday, but there was still much to be done and some things that couldn't be done until the morning of, like getting the food in the cooler, etc. About ten minutes after we left our neighborhood, all the kids were out cold again--except for Karcyn. She was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, but she was quiet.
For the 90 minutes, we were STILL in our stake boundaries! That took us to Crockett, TX--a place I had never been to up to that point. At 8:00am, we finally hit more than two lanes of highway. One of the towns we needed to keep an eye out for was Carthage--which was ironic because Jake had just been to Carthage Jail in Carthage, IL for his high adventure with the youth in June. In fact, he had just shared his testimony about that experience two days before in church on Sunday. As we got closer, Jake saw a sign that said, "Carthage--Home of the Jail Museum." :o We thought that was kind of crazy!!
Once all the kids were awake, we listened to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book 1) that I reserved from the library because I am one of the few humans on planet Earth who has never read them or seen the movies. I thought it would be a fun book for our little boys to listen to also. Around 10am, we stopped at a gas station to go potty and stretch our legs. It had to be the NASTIEST public bathroom I have ever been to. So gross. We washed our hands (or tried to until the sink handle came off in our hands) and sanitized them at the car, as well! That's when Jake got behind the wheel. Jake really wants to take Cooper to Six Flags in Dallas (about 3 1/2 hours away). But Dallas is not my idea of a maiden voyage for a new driver of only six months. Dallas is crazy big! Jake had dreams of going this summer, but I put a big, fat kibosh on that idea. If they want to do it, Jake needs more driving experience on the interstate so that's what he was trying to get (though it still doesn't give him the big city experience).
Cooper crocheting to pass the time.
Why my kids like Cheez-its is a mystery to me and Jared. Ew.
We got through chapter 5 of Harry Potter before JJ lost interest and started to get restless in his car seat. So we watched "Tangled" instead. We crossed the Mississippi River around noon and 40 minutes later, we entered Vicksburg and found the closest gas station. We had made it there on one tank of gas! Then we headed to the Vicksburg National Military Park.
Thanks to Karcyn, our recent fourth grader, we got into the park for free because of the "Every Kid in a Park" program.
By this time I wasn't feeling very well--most likely due to the lack of sleep and low blood sugar (I didn't have time to eat breakfast before we left). So we needed to find a place to stop and eat our picnic lunch--and pronto! The park ranger at the entrance told us there were two designated spots for picnics, but both of them were past the halfway mark on the road tour. So into the park we went. It was hard not to stop and see everything as we passed, but my head and overall ickiness was running the show and kept us moving ahead.
The Illinois museum on the hill.
Another picture of the museum with a deer in the valley.
It's pretty incredible to imagine the warfare that took place in these valleys and hills and in this heat!
The original cannons (but not the carriages) are still with the boat. We learned that each cannon could fire a solid 32-pound cannon ball about a mile and required a crew of ten men plus a 15-year-old boy to load, maneuver and fire.
The USS Cairo had 13 BIG guns!
We enjoyed a short presentation about the gunboat and then we went through the museum nestled in the side of the hill.
As is usually the case, it took us a while to herd our cats. On our way to the car, I noticed Calvin was pouting. This is about an hourly occurrence with him, but I happened to miss the cause of it. Apparently Jared told Calvin he couldn't buy one of the cannons for sale in the gift shop. Halfway to the car (it was a bit of a distance) I remembered we had set aside $25 in spending money for each kid to have on the trip. So I asked Calvin if he wanted to go back and he said he did. We hiked back to the museum and Calvin proceeded to show me the $25 cannon he wanted. Fortunately, I talked him out of spending all of his money at the first of six places we'd be going to. So he settled on a $9 one instead.
Late afternoon was settling in and we were all wiped out. We spent so much time at the USS Cairo and had gotten some good pictures before lunch on the first half of the tour road, that we decided to drive around to one specific spot yet to come and would call it a day. There was a place Jared's dad, Doc, wanted pictures of for the novel he's writing about the Civil War. We located Black Fort (that ridge below the monument) and Jared got out to take some shots of the surrounding area.
This wall was in the parking lot next to the hotel and if we didn't know any better we would have thought the sign was there just for Jake--our "I-can't-resist-climbing-and-jumping" Parkour loving boy.
After getting the keys to our suite and lugging our bags upstairs, we collapsed and rested for a few minutes. I left to go get some ice and noticed no one was in the pool. We quickly changed our clothes and went to swim around 4pm. Now I know why no one was in the pool--it was indoor and it was FREEZING! I cringed and squealed a couple times because the water took your breath away. We are clearly spoiled with our pool that is heated by the sun. Regardless, we all swam, stretched our muscles and played for about an hour before heading back up to our room and ordering Chick-Fil-A for dinner. Jake, who works at Chick-Fil-A, told us to use the CFA iPhone app to place our order and all we'd have to do is pick it up. Except that the app didn't work. Twice. So I had to write out the order for Jared and Jake to take with them. Five minutes later, I was checking Facebook when I saw several posts from friends dressed as cows for Chick-Fil-A's "Cow Appreciation Day." Meaning: if we had dressed up as cows that night and gone to Chick-Fil-A, we would have gotten free food! Dang!! That would have been awesome.
JJ was all over the place, but not in a bad way. He was following in his big brother's footsteps and tried climbing the small divider between the sitting and sleeping areas. He's really half-monkey. After all, it was because of his climbing that landed him that long scar on his chin.
JJ found the secret closet space and started dragging stuff in there. When he was finished he declared, "Boom! A bed!"
But then he made a bed under the coffee table. Ultimately, he ended up on the sofa bed like we had planned :)
We all chillaxed that night after dinner by watching "Chopped" on the Food Network and it didn't take long before we were alllll fast asleep.