Sunday, 22 June 2008

Farewell America

This is my final blog post from the United States of America. Its 9am and I'm in bed in a cheap motel somewhere in San Francisco. Barney is still asleep, Dan has gone to get coffee and the big kids are getting dressed and brushing their teeth. Our taxi for the airport arrives at 10.30. We will be arriving home in Banbridge at 3am Monday morning American time - lunch time to the locals. I'm sure we will all be shattered and in need of a holiday by the time we get home!

Traveling as a family for 5 months has been a blast. We've loved every moment of it. We have driven 12,576 miles spent an absolute fortune on petrol and visited some of the most beautiful places on earth. At times it seems like we've been on the road for an eternity, and at other times it feels like time has stood still while we've been traveling.

We have proved we can stand to be in each others company 24 hours a day, confined to a 30ft space without killing each other. After 5 months with no toys the kids can now get 3 hours of complete enjoying from a small bouncy ball. The children each completed 22 junior ranger programs from the national parks we visited. The completed the work and repeated the junior ranger pledge so many times that Barney was so good and cute at it that the whole visitors centre would stop to listen to him saying the pledge by the end. It's been a bit of a national park tour. 22 national parks is more than most Americans have the pleasure of visiting.

My favourite state was Wyoming (followed a close second by Arizona), Jimmies was Nevada (well I think he just liked Vegas), Annabelles was Florida, Dans was either Arizona, Utah or Wyoming and if you asked Barney he will tell you 'the great outdoors' (which was in Florida). Grand Teton came out as the families top National Park, followed closely by Zion and Joshua Tree.

Highlights of the trip include; watching the shuttle launch, visiting death row, sleeping in the middle of cactus filled deserts, Las Vegas (says Jimmie), the people, drives and parks (says Dan), seeing the wild bison (says Annabelle), seeing all the wild animals that we dont get at home (bison, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, skunk, racoons, armadillo, alligators). One highlight for Barney was feeding racoons through a slot in the RV door, back in Florida. Seeing the Aligator along the roadside in Florida was awesome, but nothing beats watching the grizzly bear and her cubs in Yellowstone.

I dont have time to write much more, but needless to say it has been the absolute trip of a lifetime. It's been worth every penny and has definitely brought us closer together as a family. Now we are heading home to concentrate on the new member of our family which is currently only the size of a lemon, but will no doubt be a big character when he/she is born. Thanks to everyone who has shown and interest in this blog and left comments. Do remember that we keep a family blog which will be continued once we get home. Until then, see you all soon!

Friday, 20 June 2008

Welcome to San Francisco

We've made it to our final destination, and I have to say that San Francisco is one of the most gorgeous cities that I've ever seen, and certainly the nicest one we've visited in America. We enjoyed the excitement of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco this morning, and we were all singing "if you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair!" We took a drive around some of the city but didn't get any photos this time.

The insurance company are still being pretty unhelpful so we have decided to return home at our own cost and attempt to recoup it from them at a later stage. The stress of trying to deal with them was only elevating my blood pressure and upsetting me, so Dan is going to change our flights himself. They should refund us the cost of two of the flight changes, but we will have to pay for the other three. They should also pay for the ER visit (except for the first $500 which we have to pay ourselves).

Right now we are in a motel. No more RVing for us. Oh boy does it feel good to lay on a proper soft bed! And, big bonus... we have a bath tub here!! Little Barney is excited about having a bath tonight. The kids are happy as larry now that they have a big screen TV to watch. So the plan is to switch our flights to the day after tomorrow, that's Sunday. That gives us tonight to pack and clean the RV, and tomorrow to return it to Cruise America (they don't know about this yet) before catching our flights on Sunday morning, returning home to Dublin on Monday morning. At least once the RV is returned in the morning we will have the day to relax and laze about. The weather here is HOT. Very hot for us. Theres a pool outside so we can spend tomorrow lazing about it while the kids splash about. It should be a nice final day to the best trip of our lifetime.

Insurance companies, grrrrrrrrrrr

Well excuse my language. But after a full morning of talks with the insurance company we are still no closer to getting home. Firstly they are saying that I have to see an OBY/GYN consultant as the doctor who signed my letter saying I had to get home was only an ER consultant. Despite the fact that she had consulted the whole way through with the Obstetrician, it seems its not valid because he wasn't the one to sign the letter. If I do go today and see a new obstetrician and get a letter from him that says the same thing, then they will pay to send me and one other person home. NOT the entire family. So what am I supposed to do? Leave the kids behind?? I'm not allowed to travel on my own, I'm supposed to be avoiding stress and the stupid insurance company wont pay for my kids to travel home. Are they going to be held responsible if my baby dies while they are faffing around with trying to avoid paying out??

A bit of the unexpected...

I've just this second posted a blog post about the Californian Redwoods (just below this one) so be sure not to miss it if you haven't noticed it.

Last night saw a slight change in plans for our wee traveling family. After a month of coughing, over a week of serious shoulder and neck pain, and various other symptoms Dan decided it was time to take me to the hospital for a check up. This was not a decision made lightly as we have to pay the first $500 of any medical bill, and that's assuming the insurance company pay out on the rest.

I have been checking my blood pressure in Walmart Pharmacies along the road and its been getting higher and higher. I am a person who suffers from low blood pressure, not high, so this was unusual for me. I recently spoke to one of the Walmart pharmacists about my blood pressure (it was 154/100 at the time) and he told me that a high BP like that could cause my unborn baby to die. So, it was time to get checked out.

I arrived at the Fort Bragg emergency department feeling like somewhat of a hypochondriac. I explained that I had no doctor and had been traveling for five months. The triage nurse took my BP and exclaimed that it was extremely high for someone of my age, and so I was allowed into the ER department for further investigation. To cut a long story short, after various blood and urine tests, and an x-ray I was diagnosed with a serious bladder infection, bronchitis, pregnancy migraines and sever hypertension. I was prescribed a cocktail of drugs to take including pain killers, anti sickness medication, antibiotics, cough syrup and an asthma inhaler. They gave me a nebuliser in the ER and that seemed to help my breathing. The ER doctor consulted the hospital Obstetrician about my blood pressure and he sent down a message with a ton of advise. He told me that the baby's growth and well being could be in jeopardy because of my blood pressure and that it was vital I got home as soon as possible so that the baby could be regularly checked for growth and vitality. He told me to avoid salt at all costs, that I should be on regular bed rest during the day (not easy whilst traveling) and that getting home was my priority.

So after a long night at the hospital, with no camp site booked to sleep in, I came out with my inhaler and bag of drugs, and a note for the insurance company asking them to get me home asap. First thing this morning Dan spent an hour trying to get through to the travel insurance company. Eventually he made it through to the right department and explained our situation. They have a ton of paperwork and red tape to get through before they can send us home, and I'm wondering if it will just be quicker to wait for our original flights on the 3rd July. Anyway, we have to phone them back in the morning to see how things are progressing. And so we drove much closer to San Francisco today, and started packing our suitcases, in case we are sent home pronto.

It's been a fabulous trip and we've all had the time of our lives. All five of us are ready to return home now anyway, and it's only 2 weeks earlier than planned. The kids don't seem at all disappointed and are looking forward to seeing their rooms again. To be honest, if the insurance company pays out like its supposed to it will turn out well as we will be refunded two weeks of RV hire fees, wont have to pay for the hotel fees at the end, and will spend a lot less on gas over the next few weeks! However, if they dont pay out we are in for some huge medical bills.

The Redwoods of California.

The Redwood forests of California were the last place on our travels that I'd been dreaming of visiting for the past year. I remember looking at photos of the Californian forests this time last year, before we'd even booked our flights, and showing the photos to Steve, in an attempt to tempt him to take the trip. So I was really excited to finally be walking around the Redwood Forests.

We headed to California sooner than expected, as Oregon (beautiful as it was) was just too cold and windy for an outdoor life. So we got into the RV and headed south, and before we knew it we were in the redwoods, about a week ahead of schedule. The Redwood forests span many miles along the Californian coast. We drove through the national park, as well as countless state parks along the way. The drive was just magical. Winding roads lined with the tallest, biggest trees on the earth. The forest smelled so fresh and pure. Everything was huge there. Not only the trees, but the ferns, and the clover, were all giant sized. The Redwoods only grow in this region because of the amount of water on offer from the rain, river, sea and fog. The forests runs right down to the seashore. Driving through the park when the fog starts to set through the tree tops is a spooky experience!

Little Barney was the first one to set trail into the forest. Dan and I accompanied him on a hike whilst Jimmie and Annabelle chose to stay in the RV. (It's taken 5 months of no TV and no toys, but Jimmie has finally taken up reading as a hobbie! I never thought I'd see the day!) Barney was totally inspired by the forest. The trees seemed huge to us as adults, so I'm sure they seemed even bigger to him. He ran through the trees, leading the way, and stopping every 10 metres or so to point out another huge specimen. Some of the trees had millions of newly hatched caterpillars crawling about them, which Barney found amusing. Every now and then he'd call out "don't tread on that caterpillar" as he ran on ahead.

We took another hike to see 'The Big Tree' (which is the one in the top most photo on this post). This tree is at least a thousand of years old and really is quite some size, as you can see in the photo. We took our junior ranger programs on this hike with us and learnt why it is important not to climb on the fallen logs in the forest. The fallen trees act as nursery logs to new seedlings, and a home to many animals. We studied one of the nursery logs for the kids ranger badge and made sketches of it. This was to be the childrens last junior ranger program of the trip, so we made the most of it. On this walk we discovered a tree that had a little entrance way into it, like a cave. The tree was still growing, but Dan and the kids were able to crawl right inside it and sit within its trunk as if they were in a little hut! The forests really did feel like some sort of jurassic jungle. The kids half expected dinosaurs to come running out at them!

We stayed in a campsite very close to the redwoods so that we could continue exploring the next day. When we finally decided it was time to move on we eventually found ourselves driving along the famous 'Avenue of the Giants', which is basically a scenic road that runs along side the motorway, driving through more Redwood forests. Along this road we found a campsite to stay in. The campsite had only just opened and since we were one of the first customers they gave us a free redwoods mug. That campsite is where the photo was taken, of Annabelle and Barney sitting inside a hollowed out redwood log.

After our few days in the forest we decided it was time to give the children some beach time. We'd been promising them a warm beach for hundreds of miles. So we stayed in a sea side town called Fort Bragg where we found a beautiful secluded beach to lay on for a day. The best thing about the beach was that it had a large pool of warm water that hadn't washed out to sea. It was perfect for the kids to play safely in and they had a great day getting sand into every possible part of their bodies.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The coast of Oregon

It's been a while since I last posted a blog. We've been on a mammoth, exhausting drive across Idaho and Oregon, to get to the Oregon coastline. At last we have arrived. The weather in Oregon has been rainy and cold, so we just headed across as quick as we could. The scenery was second to none, but the weather made it impossible to enjoy. We arrived at the coast three days ago and are slowly driving south towards California.

The Oregon coastline is famed as one of the most beautiful drives in America. And that's not untrue. The shoreline is beautiful. Most of the beaches are protected as state parks, and so they are clean and perfectly unspoilt. Oregon has a lot of trees, and these grow right up to the beach edges. It makes for some stunning scenery.

chips. I've so desperately missed chips since leaving home. They just We arrived firstly in Newport, Oregon. The locals told us that the best scenery was either heading north or south, but we were tired so we stayed for two days in Newport. Our RV park was next to the big bridge there, by the docks, and at night we could hear seals singing! The first day we arrived at dinner time and so we just eat and relaxed for the night. But on our second day we ventured out. Dan had discovered a 'fish n chip' shop that claimed to sell real English fish and chips. I've been missing proper chips so badly since we left. Chips just don't exist here. Chips means crisps here, and if you order burger and chips, you get burger and a packet of crisps. So disappointing. And everything else comes with fries, which just aren't the same. So we headed to this fish and chip shop for lunch. The place was packed! People were queueing for their chips. It was a good sign. But sadly, despite the queue, the chips were nothing more than crinkle cut oven chips, all soggy and very disappointing. If someone opened a real chip shop here, they could make a fortune!

After our soggy pretend chips we just headed off for a drive, and stumbled accidentally upon Yaquina Head area of natural beauty. We were allowed into it free of charge with our America the Beautiful Pass, so we headed in to see what was there. We were so lucky to stumble across this place! The main attraction here was the old lighthouse, which we toured. But down by the black pebble beach was seal island. Despite the cold and the wind we headed down to this beach where the kids were delighted to find rock pools full of sea life. Starfish of all sorts of colours, sea urchins, sea anemones, hermit crabs, huge mussels and clams, were but some of the creatures living here. I was as excited as them to explore the rock pools. The beach was a hive of wildlife activity. In the sea were some huge rocks, almost islands. One of them was topped with literally thousands of sea birds. One seemed to be home to a large family of Pelicans. And the other few were inhabited by seals, and their new pups. Most of the seals were sunbathing on the rocks, calling to each other occasionally. But four of the seals were playing in the ocean, near the shore, where we could just sit and watch. They were waiting for the pelicans to catch fish. As the pelicans pulled a fish out of the sea, the seals would swim over and steal it. We had so much fun sitting there for an hour just watching the seals and pelicans playing in the ocean. It was magical.

The following day we started heading south towards California, where our trip will finish in just over 2 weeks time. The coastal drive has been beautiful. Beaches full of driftwood. We stopped last night in an RV park near some sand dunes, and this morning we will take a walk along the dunes before driving south some more. We are chasing the sunshine it seems. Hopefully we will see some more sun before we leave!

Friday, 13 June 2008

Craters of the Moon N.P, by Dan

written by Dan

After an all you can eat pancake breakfast (Dan 6) (Barney 1) (Abigail 2)
(Jimmy 8) (Bree - did not get up in time!), we headed on across Idaho. We stopped at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Poor Bree was not feeling the best and lay down on the sofa in the RV, occasionally popping her head up for a quick look, that’s why I am writing this short blog.

Craters of the Moon is a barren area of lava flows, cinder cones (mini volcanoes), and volcanic tubes. This is an arid region, and the meager rainfall is quickly siphoned away through the loose volcanic soil. Historically uninhabited, and unused except for hunting, and trapping. It was called "Craters of the Moon" because, it was imagined that this is what the moon must look like. (Yes I stole that bit from a web page).

As it was a very small place to visit, the kids finished their junior ranger programs and we headed west towards our next town which was Stanley. We had already done a lot miles so we stopped when we noticed a little ranch in the middle of the mountains, so we stayed there the night. It was beautiful and there were still signs that they had a lot snow there, including the hundreds of snowmobiles that were available for hire during the snow season.

The next morning we made our way to Stanley which was a lovely little town that was recommended to us by lots of people. The drives continue to be an amazing part of our trip. Everywhere seems to has such stunning views, and what’s more, they seem to be different. Many days we travel a lot and it makes such a big difference to stay off the big interstates and pick the longer scenic drives.

We are now in Nampa after filling our boots in an all you can eat restaurant and will be heading into Oregon in the morning.

OK not too good at this blogging! Forgot to post it. We have now been in Oregon for a few days and have made our way over to the coast (Newport). From here its straight down the coast Rd to San Francisco . Our first night in Oregon we stayed in the middle of a national forest. When we got there we were the only ones in the whole area, we thought more would turn up but nobody did. It was kinda scary sleeping in the middle of the forest all by ourselves. After a lovely fire we headed off to bed and it was not until the middle of night that we worked out why we were alone. It was COLD. Summer has not turned up in Oregon yet, instead we woke up to snow.
From what I have seen of Newport is a lovely place and we will be checking it out today.

The rest of the Idaho photos are here.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park is almost joined onto the Grand Teton Park, so it was only a short drive north before we were there. We were shocked at how much snow was still around. The drive into the park was past snow which was often 6 ft deep! We both started getting a little worried at how we would manage to camp in the cold, but thankfully the campsite was at a different elevation and the snow had all melted there. (Although it was still incredibly cold at night.) Most of the roads leading into Yellowstone are closed for a lot of the year due to thick snow coverage. The drive into the park was magical though. To go from deserts to a winter wonderland is quite surreal. We drove past frozen lakes, miles and miles of snow and huge pine tree forests.

We spent about 4 days in Yellowstone, which had almost as much wildlife as Teton did. We had been told Yellowstone was a very touristy park, and so we expected it to be as busy as the Grand Canyon. I think it probably is in the summer, but thankfully while we were there it wasn't too busy really. There are no shuttle buses like there are at the Grand Canyon and Zion, so we were able to drive around freely and stop for as long as we liked at the various lookouts. Yellowstone is a vast park. We could have spent weeks there and still not seen everything. But we got a good feel for the place in our few days. It is full of forest land, and more wild bison than I've seen anywhere else. Dan was hopeful of seeing some bears and so we spent the entire time on the lookout for either black bears or grizzlies. We had heard that Yellowstone was the place to see them, although they remained illusive to us for quite some time.

Obviously, one of the main features of Yellowstone is that its a park inside an active volcano. The volcanic activity there was obvious to see. Naturally we stopped to watch Old Faithful, the geyser, erupt - which to be honest, we all found a bit of an anti-climax. Especially young Barney who said "is that it?" loud enough for most of the gathering crowd to hear. We drove around the park and stopped at many of the volcanic areas. Our first stop was at a set of bubbling volcanic pools, with water so clear, pure and inviting, that we all felt an urge to jump into them. However, doing so would have meant certain death, so we refrained. Jimmie noticed a boiled lizard floating around one of the pools! These pools had no smell to them, they just bubbled, steamed and popped. It looked like the surface of another planet. Later on we found more of these pools that were sulphur based, and they absolutely wreaked of rotten eggs! Disgusting! One of the pools was bright yellow from the sulphur. We also saw some mud volcanoes, which were basically big pools of bubbling, squirting runny mud. The kids enjoyed this part of the park, and learnt about volcanoes on their way around. The Yellowstone Junior Ranger program was the most challenging so far and really required their best effort.

The waterfalls and canyons in the park were beautiful places. As usual the photos really don't do them justice. After three days Dan still wanted to see a bear, and he was beginning to wind me up groaning about bear hunting all the time. We had already seen a lot of wildlife including this coyote, and this strange looking bird.
But Dan wouldn't be satisfied until he saw a real live wild bear. We even saw bald eagles in their nests with their newly hatched babies.

But eventually Dan got his wish and we noticed a crowd of people had pulled over to look down into a meadow. We stopped the RV and discovered three big black bears wandering around below. It was an exciting moment. We both wished we had a camera with a proper zoom lens to get some good photos at this point. We did get a few photos which you can see here, but we just enjoyed watching them for half an hour. Its so much more exciting to see animals in the wild than it is in a zoo.

Dan was happy that he'd seen a bear, and I was happy that he was happy. But on our last night at Yellowstone on the way back to our camp site we were lucky enough to see a mother Grizzly Bear with her cub, quite near our RV. She was huge and impressive, and the cub was playful and gorgeous. They looked so harmless, even though they could rip us apart in seconds! The grizzly was trying to get down to the road with her cub to cross over into the grasslands. She had to wait until night time as a bit of a crowd had gathered, but we saw the next day that she had made it across safely. I can't tell you the excitement we all felt at seeing the grizzly bears in their natural habitat so closely. We also saw a mother black bear with two cubs playing in the trees. So we've truly seen the bears now. We left the park feeling satisfied and now we are on the final leg of our trip. The home run. Across Idaho and Oregon into California.

The rest of the photos from Yellowstone can be seen here. Don't forget to read the post below about Grand Teton, if you have missed it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Grand Teton, Wyoming

What an amazing state Wyoming has turned out to be. I think it may possibly be my favourite state so far, despite the cold weather and snow. I didn’t really know anything about Wyoming, other than that we’d be visiting Yellowstone there.

But our first stop was at the Grand Teton national park. The Grand Teton’s have been voted the best national park so far by every member of our family. The scenery is second to none, and we have seen more wildlife here than anywhere else. You just can’t miss it. We could have stayed there for weeks!

In all we spent 4 days at the Teton’s. We drove all over the park and stopped at many places. The first two days were spent driving around and stopping at the various points of interest. We discovered Leigh Lake, a small lake next to the larger Jenny Lake, with the most amazingly clear water, surrounded by mountains. It was just like finding paradise. I lay on the bench there for an hour and just watched the kids playing, whilst Dan took a walk around the lake. Jimmie tried to paddle in the water but it was ice cold, whilst little Barney played with a mound of snow with his bucket and spade.

The highlight for us, apart from the spectacular scenery was the amount of wildlife wandering about the place. On our first night dry camping at one of the campgrounds, Dan and Barney went for a walk, just in the woods behind our RV. Much to their surprise, as they were walking through, they almost trod on a moose! The moose was napping in the woodland, and Dan didn’t see it laying there. The moose saw Dan just in time and sprung up onto his feet and headed into the woods. Dan ran in to get me so that Barney could try to show me the moose. And right enough, there it was grazing in the woodlands, just behind our RV. We were all so excited to discover the moose so accidentally.

We saw moose a few times after that, although they seemed to like hiding in the woodlands. Dan also saw a grizzly bear and her cubs running off into the wetlands, but they were too far away to get a good photo. On our drives through the park we regularly saw deer and antelope grazing in herds. We were fortunate enough to be driving along one road just as a herd of wild bison (or buffalo) were making their way across the road. They wandered across the road, totally oblivious to the cars, taking their time as if they owned land, which they probably do. The kids and I watched them through the RV window whilst Dan was more adventurous and went outside to take some photos. He was very careful as we’d read all the park warnings about how dangerous bison can be, and how fast they can run at a man. But it was amazing to see how many incredibly stupid tourists got so close to them in order to get the perfect photo. There were about 5 or 6 buffalo in this herd, and they looked at us through the RV window as they wandered past. Later we saw more herds grazing in other fields too.

One of the highlights for wee Barney was his discovery of a mother fox and her cubs. We were sitting in the RV sorting out some laundry, whilst Barney was intently staring out of the window for about 10 minutes. Suddenly he yelled “there’s a coyote!” so we all ran over to the window. His discovery wasn’t a coyote, but in fact a fox. She had come out of her burrow and was checking out the area for predators, I think. She ran to various corners of the field, looking out for wild animals (although she didn’t seem to be at all bothered by us humans). As we got outside for a closer look we discovered she had three babies in her burrow. Once she was sure the area was safe, she let the babies out for a play. Barney was just overjoyed at his discovery. The three cubs were a joy to watch. They were so playful, bounding over each other, clawing at each other, just enjoying the fresh air and chance for exercise. Eventually the mother put the cubs back inside while she went off to hunt. By this time quite a crowd of people had formed to see the foxes. Typically some people just can’t respect the space animals need, and tried to climb down the bank for better photos of the cubs. I get so cross when humans invade animal territory like that, all for the best photo. One man was obviously cross as well and called out “there’s always someone who has to take it too far!” Good for him. But our Barney was pleased that he had discovered the foxes, and no one else would have had the joy of seeing them if it wasn’t for him. It made his day.

Another spectacular moment for us was the discovery of an Elk in the woodlands. We were driving along when I spotted what looked just like one of Santa’s reindeer in the hedges. We parked up and Dan went to venture off for a peek at the animal. The Elk was as interested in us as we were in him. He raised his head and antlers as if he was king of the forest and posed for a few photos. He looked so majestic with his new fury antlers. Later in the year the Elk sharpen their antlers against trees, and they become less reindeer looking. But this Elk had huge big furry antlers, and with the sun behind him they shone like an antler halo! What an awesome sight.

The Teton area is truly one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We were there just as the snow was melting. The roads were snow free, but the mountains were still snow capped, and there were mounds of snow about the place. Our campsite still had a lot of snow in it, and the kids had a great time sledging down it on the body board they had bought in Florida. All three of them came in with soaked shoes and feet. It was strange to be able to play in snow, but to be in the sunshine at the star of summer. The area wasn’t at all cold, unless you buried your feet in the snow like my kids. The area had a lot of woodlands, wetlands, lakes, mountains and meadows. Every type of scenery one could wish for really. I think if we ever had to move to America, we would chose Wyoming for a home.

The rest of the Grand Teton photos are here.