Thursday, June 12, 2008

6/12/08 Dazzled by Electrical Storms and Museums in Kansas City

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A break from rain and listening to our favorite detective Spenser solve crimes made the drive from Omaha, Nebraska to Oak Grove, Missouri go quickly. KOA campgrounds aren’t our first choice (they are too sterile and surprisingly expensive), but it was a relief to spend three days in cookie-cutter comfort compared to our last campground with no services, mosquitoes and flooded campsites.

I was feeling better, but it was Sarah’s turn to be feeling punk. Fortunately, there was a book trade library with a Janet Evanovich book that made her laugh, a bottle of “sexy” orange juice (she’s been captivated by the marketing campaign for Tropicana juices – she’d love to become a commercial photographer) and soft ultra Kleenexes. Unfortunately, she felt awful longer than that one book, so she started into the Twilight series, one of Dave’s favorites. Topic of book? Vampires, of course!

Dave started his Coastline Community College course online! Taking this 4-unit College Algebra course is quite a milestone for him – We’re so proud! It was sweet to read his bio posted for his teacher and classmates “a mushroom amongst the daisies” describing his life on the road in the RV. Wouldn’t be my personal choice of images for him, but it certainly got him lots of comments from his fellow “daisies” adult students, mostly female teachers, from all over California. As is typical while living in close quarters of the RV, Dave became sick, needed his own Kleenex box and suffered stoically. The CPAP breathing machine he uses nightly for his sleep apnea helped greatly, so he spent a lot of time sleeping.

We packed our pockets with tissues and headed out to enjoy Independence, Missouri, the home of President Harry S. Truman and a terrific German restaurant. I talked the kids into trying Spatzle, a type of egg pasta that Mel and I love. I looked longingly at the German beer choices and decided on ice tea instead. It’s sad when you don’t feel well enough to drink!

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum was delightful. It was markedly different than the Clinton Library we saw in May, which took your breath away with its design, lighting and presentation – you got the feeling that it was the very best money could buy. In contrast, the Truman Library felt like coming home. It was beautiful in its simplicity and quiet elegance; it had recently been remodeled.

Harry S. Truman was president under remarkable circumstances. He had been the vice president for 82 days when President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. During his presidency he oversaw the ending of the war with Germany and approved the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan. History has been rewritten since that time and the museum had a terrific exhibit exploring both sides of the issue. Many historians now believe that Japan was ready to surrender, that the bombing was not necessary, and others believe that the 80,000 people who died was a small number compared to the numbers that would have died had the conflict continued another year. Dave has been troubled by the bombing since he toured the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. He was glad to read both sides of the issue, especially the warnings that the US gave Japan before the bombings. The next room featured the Marshall Plan, the $12 billion European recovery program, put in place after the war to alleviate poverty and starvation – creating an interest juxtaposition of America’s actions. President Truman also signed the papers founding the United Nations and NATO (creating a military barrier to protect Europe against Soviet expansion), defended South Korea from communist invasion in the Korean War (a fascinating exhibit about General Patton and President Truman) and recognized Israel as a new country. He desegregated the armed forces and forbade racial discrimination in Federal employment. We got to see the love letters between the President and Mrs. Bess Truman, the famous newspaper “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the desk plaque “The Buck Stops Here.” After his presidency he returned to Independence for twenty years as “Mr. Citizen.” The excellent films about the President left one feeling that his was a remarkable life and that we were lucky to have him as a president during those difficult years.

Our Kleenex supply was running low, so we breezed through the traveling Lincoln exhibit about the Civil War. There will be plenty of Civil War studies during our East Coast trip of 2009. On the way back to the RV, we dropped Dave off at a Barnes & Noble, conveniently with a nearby BBQ restaurant.

Sarah and I got back to the RV and I began following the tragic news about the tornado that tore through Little Sioux, Iowa (where we had been scheduled until bad weather rerouted us) killing the four boy scouts. Fox began putting up weather maps saying that the Midwest was due for even more storms and tornadoes, especially Kansas City (25 miles away) which was expecting a significant storm with tornado warnings in an hour. Yikes! I jumped in the car, got Dave on his cell phone, told him to hurry and purchase a book, and picked him up just as the storm began to hit.

We got back to the RV just as the skies opened up around 8:00 pm and were dazzled by the most amazing electrical storm we’d ever seen; it lasted through midnight. We kept all the blinds open and the lights off to experience the dazzling brightness. It rained fiercely all night and the tornadoes touched down 20 miles from us, but we were safe and dry. We took a day off to rest, study, read and write.

On our last day, we set off early because we had so much we wanted to do. All three of our destinations were close to one another and we didn’t think they’d individually take much time. We were surprised at how much fun we had at each. We took a self-guided tour of the Hallmark Visitors Center whose slogan “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best” applies to their excellent exhibits, especially the company’s time line and products intertwined with world events giving you a unique feeling of the mood of America seen through greeting cards. Sarah especially enjoyed the films about the creative process and various techniques used by the Hallmark artists. I was fascinated by the different Presidential Christmas cards. There were presses using dies to make three-dimensional designs and embossing, and a machine that makes bows from spooled ribbon.

By far the highlight of the day for Sarah was watching clips from Hallmark commercials shown around the world. To her delight, the commercials touched me deeply, and my eyes would well up and I would cry at the sentiment expressed. We’d watch a commercial with her watching to see if I would start crying -- she thinks I have a future at Hallmark testing commercials. “You’re not crying, are you?” has become her favorite way to tease me. After lunch we headed over to the Steamboat Arabia. Sarah wasn’t feeling that well, so Dave and I left her in the café while we took the tour. The Steamboat Arabia was 171 feet long with 28-foot tall paddlewheels and was carrying 200 tons of cargo bound for frontier merchants when she sunk in 1856. All of the passengers got off safely, but the cargo was lost. Over the years, the Missouri River changed course and eventually the Steamboat was discovered 45’ below the surface of a Kansas cornfield in 1988 by four local treasure hunters who have discovered ten other ships.

The treasure hunters were astounded by their find, and since the ship was still in water due to a low water table, the items were remarkably well preserved. Of course, all of the paper and cotton clothing had long since melted away, but the rest of the goods were able to be restored. It was a fascinating look at what was needed by families settling the frontier from tools, nails and hinges to build houses, dishware and pots and pans, shoes and boots, (all shoes were “uni-shoes,” neither right or left in those days), sewing supplies and buttons, preserves for pies, and ladies toiletries, including perfumes. They had sent the perfumes to a lab to determine what it was originally made from, and had recreated the scents. One smelled like baby powder and the other was a lovely floral scent that I gladly wore the rest of the day. We enjoyed their behind-the-scenes look at the on-going restoration of the remaining items that they have preserved frozen in giant ice cubes. The museum estimates that it will take 20 more years to restore all of the items. Next we headed to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. In part because Sarah loves art museums, and in part because Mel’s sister Susan worked there for a number of years and we knew it had to be a very special collection to woo her away from the Getty. Dave always pretends to be dragged along to art museums, but he enjoys himself and the yummy treats that art museums always have in their restaurants. We hadn’t been there for 30 minutes, when Sarah said “maybe we should stay an extra day so we could see everything!”

The Museum buildings themselves were magnificent. The new addition called the Bloch Building glows with natural light and intriguing spaces that make you want to wander. In 2007 it was named one of the ten best recent architectural marvels by Time Magazine. Too bad we didn’t get to see it at night – people say it is magical.

We enjoyed the terrific collections of European paintings by Caravaggio, El Greco, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Degas, Monet and van Gogh; Asian art – Japanese, Chinese; Korean and Indian; and we were confounded in the Modern Art section. Sarah has a wicked sense of humor – as we toured the exhibit, she kept up a quiet, whispered-in-my-ear dialog on the bewildering choices of art in the gallery that made me laugh out loud. You should hear her rift on the “cantaloupe on the newspaper,” the all-black canvases and the grey rectangles -- we were lucky we didn’t get kicked out!

We skipped the American paintings since we’d seen so many excellent examples in Oklahoma and ran out of time before we got to the Photography exhibit, which had been donated by Hallmark Card’s Hall family. Instead, we enjoyed the outdoor sculpture park with my favorites – the badminton shuttlecocks that I’d previously seen in picture books. What a treat to see them in person! The gift shop was magnificent, we were lucky to escape without a cow shaped radio, a cow backpack, and cow magnets – are you picking up on the theme? Sarah loves cows. Her new myspace name is “eddielovescows.” She is currently going by Mel’s mother’s name Edith, Ed or Eddie, having grown weary of her boring and common name “Sarah.”

Sunday, June 8, 2008

6/8/08 Butterflies and the Ocean in Omaha

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Arriving in Omaha we called my good friend Steve Murow’s brother Allan. We had hoped to meet up, but our schedule and his didn’t match up. Allan had plenty of good suggestions for things to do in town, so we decided to take it easy and enjoy Omaha for a few days. We were anxious to stay put for the upcoming storms.

Our new campground had been inundated by the storms and their gravel roads were badly damaged. It was easy to choose a site -- most were in standing water, so we tried to choose one that wouldn’t be good for growing rice.

The first night we went downtown and enjoyed a “Taste of Omaha.” It was a lovely warm summer evening in the Heartland of America Park on the Missouri River with food booths featuring local restaurants, a live band doing a tribute to U2 and fireworks.

The next day Sarah, Mayim and I sat outside enjoying some rare sunshine, played with a frog found next to RV, and read each other the book "The Perfect Present" a going-away gift from our South Dakota friends Celia and Jack. It wasn't till later that we realized that we had been a lovely snack for the mosquitoes and Sarah and I were covered in bites.

Later the girls went on a quest for internet access, ran errands, discovered a Tollhouse Cookie store, and bought groceries while Dave hung out at the local Borders book store. We got back just as a major storm was starting that continued for the next 36 hours so we enjoyed our full pantry and movie selections as we watched the rain pour down. Our final day in Omaha we enjoyed the magnificent Henry Doorly Zoo, considered to be one of the best in America. Sarah and I got sidetracked in the walk-through Kingdom of the Seas Aquarium and spent several hours enjoying the penguins and puffins, giant Pacific octopus, moon jellyfish lit with black lights, floor-to-ceiling cylinder tank with schooling fish, and coral displays. We were in awe in the Shark Tunnel area – an oval-shaped, 70 foot long, acrylic tunnel through a 500,000 gallon salt-water tank with sharks, sea turtles, rays and other marine life swimming by on two sides and overhead.

We then went to the brand new Butterfly and Insect Pavilion. The exquisite butterflies and moths fly freely in a conservatory filled with large trees, plants rocks, waterfalls and ponds to mimic natural habitat. When you leave the exhibit, you enter a mirrored room to check that no butterflies are trying to hitch a ride out. Fascinated by the chrysalis room, we tried to match the cocoons in the hatching chambers up with the beauties we’d just seen. After admiring the bee hive and insects like centipedes and walking sticks, Sarah squealed with joy at seeing the different spider habitats including her favorite -- tarantulas. (She continues to lobby for a pet tarantula making her case that they would be the perfect pet for an RV. Eek!)

Knowing that our time was growing short, we hopped a tram to see the rest of the zoo. Luckily for us, our tram driver was an adorable teenage boy who used every opportunity to flirt with Sarah and was rewarding by her teasing him back. He stopped the tram for us to get pictures of the baby sea lion that had been born that morning. The mother sea lion guarded her darling little one zealously almost wounding another sea lion in the enclosure who swam up to see the new arrival. You’d be amazed how quickly she can move!

Sarah tried to wrangle another ride around the zoo, but I dragged her off to met up with Dave for a “Wild Ocean – Where Africa meets the Sea” IMAX in 3D. At the end of the day, we ran into Dave at the primate exhibit. He had seen the entire zoo on foot and was more than willing to leave the for a steak dinner at a Texas Roadhouse.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

6/5/08 Storms, Tornado Warnings, Extreme Weather Advisories

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Leaving South Dakota was hard – Exceptionally hard -- Extremely hard.

We grew to love Western South Dakota. The five star park we stayed at was luxurious, there were amenities to spoil all of us – great WIFI, free movies, café with fantastic fries and buffalo burgers, water aerobics, and spectacular dog parks and play areas. It was hard to say goodbye to our new friends Jack and Celia. The nightly thunder and lightning storms each night made the prairies a brilliant green.

The morning of our departure, I woke up feeling like I’d been run over by a tractor. It’s never fun leaving a great location like Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills, but it was a real push to work out for the last time with my friends in the pool. The kids were great at getting the RV ready to roll and we hit the open road with a stormy looking sky ahead. We decided to take a short stop at Wall Drug, a frontier town themed group of stores founded in 1931, to experience some of their famous donuts and home-made ice cream. Even donuts didn’t make me feel better. My throat was raw and I was feeling quaky. When we started to see signs for a KOA near the 1880’s town of Murdo, 150 miles from where we started, I decided we were done traveling.

Wall Drug and Murdo SD Slideshow
Right after we got set up for the night, the skies opened up and we experienced an incredible storm that lasted most of the night. I felt horrible, but was glad to be off the road safely and dry. There was crappy cell reception so I had to stand outside getting eaten by bugs in the rain to talk to Mel. The next morning the campground was flooded and I wore water shoes to take the dog for her morning walk. There was a fun doggy play area with agility toys and she had a great time splashing in the water – good thing Portuguese Water Dogs have webbed feet!

We went to the 1880’s town for breakfast in the train depot and enjoyed a quick visit through the 30 authentic buildings that had been gathered from around South Dakota. It was wonderful to see school houses, jails, telegraph offices, saloons, and boarding houses with cowboy spur marks on the stairs. They had a nice collection of memorabilia from the movie “Dances with Wolves” and a scruffy cat that fell in love with Dave.

1880's Town Slideshow
Off again in the RV, heading toward menacing dark skies with our destination of Little Sioux City, it was a difficult drive fighting the wind and rain. We pulled off to get gas around 2:00 in the afternoon near Spencer, SD (170 miles from where we started) and I was greeted by a number of truck drivers that wanted to know where I was headed. When I said I was headed East on I90, the truckers were concerned and insisted that I not travel further into the 100 mph wind gusts ahead. The owner of the truck stop said that the alarm I kept hearing go off in the back was a weather warning and suggested I stay the night in their lot. (I didn’t know till later that in 1998 with similar weather patterns, the town of Spencer had been destroyed (close to 190 buildings), 6 people died, and hundreds were injured. No wonder everyone was so caring.)

When I called Mel on his cell phone to tell him I had chosen to stop for the night far from my destination, I could hear him sigh. To be fair to Mel, he has spend the last two months listening to me whine about unbelievable weather conditions and wind advisories, skinning my knees when I got knocked down by 65 mph winds in Wichita, sleet and snow outside Denver in late April when it was 80 degrees the previous day, a blizzard in Nebraska closing down all the roads in May, and daily thunder, lightning and flooding reports from South Dakota. He’d call me when he got back to the office where he could track the weather on the satellite maps for us since we didn’t have internet.

I had been listening to the local weather reports and I was aware that the weather conditions were worsening. But when Mel called back with a stressed voice telling me what I’d be expecting in the next hour, I knew it was serious. I had shut all the blinds in the west side of the RV facing the gas station for privacy. I almost fainted when Mel told me to open them to tell him what I saw. I had thought the pounding storm with the wind gusts couldn’t get any worse – but this black line of storm clouds was advancing at a pace that took my breath away and terrorized Dave and Sarah.

We were reasonably sure that the tornadoes were twenty miles south of us, and if the tornado siren went off that we could sit in the gas station’s cooler with the staff.

But for a severe thunder storm, we decided to ride out the advancing storm in the 27,000 pound RV instead of the flimsy metal-sided gas station situated in the middle of acres of corn fields. Mel instructed us to instantly bring in the slides to give the RV more stability and we left the tow car hooked to the RV. Dave and Sarah packed emergency bags in case we needed to leave the RV. Mel stayed on the line reporting the weather updates as the wave after wave of storms raged over our location. The gas station flooded as inches of rain poured from the skies. In an hour the worst of it had passed leaving a steady rain that lasted the night.

The next morning it was lightly raining and we were glad to be safe and sound. The only storm damage was to a small window in the back. Driving down the freeway we were stunned to see the impromptu waterways and lakes that had been farmland the day before. We laughed at a pair of ducks taking advantage of a new pond.

We were relieve to leave South Dakota and the worst weather we've seen. We were headed to Omaha, Nebraska 250 miles away and planned to be set up in a campsite before the next storm hit.