August 27, 2015

7 Awesome Back-to-School Must Haves

Did you wait until the last minute to buy school supplies? Me too. Here's a list of handy things to grab for your little ones as they get ready for the first day of school.

1. Animal Pals Pencil Case
My daughter has dozens of pencils, markers, and crayons and loves to bring a few along in the car. Whether your children need one for school, or if they're on the go and want to color in the car or plane, have them bring their drawing and coloring tools along in one of these super cute pencil cases. I love the yellow zebra one, available on Amazon at Cool Pencil Case - Animal Pals Pencil Case- Zebra. It's currently only $4.49 with free shipping.

2. Elmer's Washable No-Run School Glue
Chances are gel glue is on the school supply list. Our school requested gel glue, but it's actually hard to find in my town. So, I order Elmer's Washable No-Run School Glue, 5 oz Bottle, Clear (E305) from Amazon.

The clear glue doesn't leave those white globs when dry and can be used for some interesting art projects. With my kindergarten class, I had the kids use the glue to draw the outline of a picture on dark paper and then they colored inside with oil pastels and cut out their pictures around the glue line. Get a few extra for home!

3. Crayola Ultra-Clean Washable Markers
When it's time to order back-to-school supplies, I always look for Crayola brand markers because in my experience as an art student, part-time teacher, and mom, the color is brighter, Crayola markers handle abuse better, and they last longer than other brands. Make your child's teacher happy with a pack of Crayola Ultraclean Broadline Classic Washable Markers (10 Count) from Amazon.

4. Yumbox Bento Lunch Box
You can't go wrong with the Yumbox Panino (Lavande Purple) Leakproof Bento Lunch Box Container for Kids and Adults. The dividers indicate which type of food can go in each section, which takes the guesswork out of portion size. I always struggle to know how much protein or grains to include with Penny's lunch, so this will keep me informed so she can enjoy a healthy lunch all year. It's also BPA-free and dishwasher safe.

Penny's excited for the little condiment section in the middle. I usually include a little sauce box but it's a pain to clean and sometimes doesn't come home in her lunch box. Now I can have one box for her entire lunch.

Modern Labels for the sophisticated kid

5. Mabel's Labels Ultimate Back-to-School Combo
You've bought new clothes, stocked up on supplies, and ordered a super cool lunch box. Your kids are sure to lose a few things this year. Label everything so you have a good chance of getting those lost items back. With the Mabel's Labels Ultimate Back-To-School Combo, you get 108 customized, waterproof labels and tags, perfect for coats, shoes, gloves, lunch boxes, backpacks, and school supplies, for just $42! And the best part, you get free shipping at Mabel's Labels.

I've used other labels for Penny's school gear, but what I love about Mabel's Labels is all the customization options. Penny picks the theme and font. I pick the label package based on how much we need.

6. Fiskars Blunt Tip Scissors
Kids learn to be more independent with scissors in kindergarten. Start your younger ones off right with blunt tip scissors until they are ready for longer, pointed ones. Though they are offered in several colors, I love the bright, cheerful pink ones: Fiskars Blunt Tip Kids Scissors, 5-Inch, Pink.

7. Kids Konserve Waste-Free Lunch Kit
We're asked to be as conservative with waste as possible when packing school lunch. Avoiding plastic and paper bags is easy with the  Kids Konserve Caterpillar Go Wild Waste-Free Lunch Kit. It comes with the cotton bag and cloth napkin, plus a drink bottle, and stainless steel food containers. There's even a sandwich wrap.

Some Amazon reviews commented that the sandwich wrap isn't sealed, so if you are concerned about the bag getting jostled around before lunch, it would be super easy to add a velcro strip to keep the end closed.

August 24, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Days 7 & 8

Days 7 & 8: Des Moines, IA to Minnesota

After a long week, Des Moines was low key. On a very hot day, we spent the afternoon at a municipal pool and visited the Saylorville Dam.

Saylorville Dam
Penny helped set the picnic table for dinner
Our second night camping at Saylorville was considerably louder. A neighboring family was quite apologetic about their baby's first time camping, though I never heard her cry. Others were much louder, including a party somewhere else in the campground that was loud enough to hear late in the evening. My husband was strongly considering packing up and driving home at 10pm, but P wanted to stay the night and so we did.

I'm so glad we stayed because not long after leaving on Saturday morning, we realized we were super close to Reiman Gardens at Iowa State in Ames. We'd been last summer when visiting SCAD friends in town from Savannah and decided it was worth another visit. But, first we munched on a delicious buffet breakfast at the IowaStater restaurant.

During our visit, we explored several student-led installation exhibits. P loved a giant beehive she could climb inside.

We saw beautiful flying insects in the impressive butterfly space, learned more about pollinator gardens and registering our Monarch waystation. Overall, a wonderful way to spend a few hours at the end of a long trip.

Although I was ready to go home, I also wanted to see more. I'm already thinking about the next road trip. Where will our Suburu take us next?

August 9, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Days 5 & 6

Great Platte River Road Archway

Day 5: Cheyenne, WY to Kearney, NE

The trip to Fort Kearney was uneventful. It's a long drive and scenery changes little. There are more trees and the Platte River runs along I-80 for more than half the distance between these cities. As it was early summer and quite stormy lately, the river was already above flood level and a flood warning loomed over our heads.

We arrived at Fort Kearny State Historical Park (no "e" for the fort) close to dinnertime, found our site surrounded by trees among a large acreage of camping spots. Few people were camping, mostly in RVs.

There's not much to say about Day 5. We explored downtown Kearney and found little to do. Shops were long out-of-business and we couldn't find a place to eat. There wasn't a soul in sight at dinnertime midweek, so we drove away from downtown and found an Old Chicago.

Exploring Kearney, NE
Fort Kearny was ridiculously overrun with mosquitos. It was so bad, I had no intention of spending any time outside the tent. Miss P and I sprayed ourselves with Deep Woods Off and had bug candles and sprayed around the tent, but even just a moment outside ensured several new bites. I trekked to the bathroom for evening washing up bundled up with only my eyes showing. It was that bad.

Though buggy and uncomfortable outside, we slept well until just before the sun came up.

Day 6: Kearney, NE, Omaha, NE, & Des Moines, IA

Just before the sun rose, my husband woke me, urgently guiding me to pack the heck up and move out. A major storm was approaching with the potential to hit at any moment. We silently, yet swiftly, loaded the car without disturbing P until the last moment. She snuggled up in the car and dozed off. Not a minute after we left park grounds, the storm slammed Fort Kearney. We'd have been in bad shape trying to stick through it in a tent that close to the river, so I'm grateful to have made it out in time.

The sun had long since risen, you just can't see it.
The storm was rough for driving. It was huge, but also fast moving, following us along the highway. It was like we were bringing the rain, wind, and hail along for the ride. I tried to keep it to myself, but I was pretty nervous until we finally broke free just before Omaha.

Since we left so early, there was time for an extended stop in Omaha. I messaged a friend who grew up in Nebraska and asked where we should go if we could only be there for a couple hours. He suggested the Joslyn Art Museum, which we loved.

First though, was breakfast. Lisa's Radial Cafe is in this Pittsburgh-like neighborhood, kind of trendy and collegey. The place was packed, but worth a wait. We stuffed ourselves with delicious food and caffeine (for the grownups).

Next, art museum time. I'd intended to stay an hour, but we spent much longer enjoying the Joslyn. It was rather impressive, with famous works of art from around the world, a wonderful section featuring Native American art, beautiful gift shop items including works by Omaha-based artists, and an inspiring gigantic window piece by Dale Chihuly. Mayo Clinic has a Chihuly in the Gonda building, so when I saw all the colorful blown glass, I knew it had to be the same artist.

Miss P is a huge fan of umbrellas printed with famous paintings. Her favorite is Starry Night.

The children's area of the Joslyn is one of the more impressive play-learn spaces I've encountered. Tasteful and modern, the museum combined physical doing with virtual doing, so children can bounce between technology and tech-free experiences. P enjoyed the virtual canvas.

It was hard to leave Omaha after only a few hours, but we needed to get moving to Des Moines in time to set up camp and have dinner. The drive to Des Moines is short and pleasant. It's a pretty part of Iowa (Omaha is next to Council Bluffs, IA) that had me thinking a lot about moving.

Pretty tree at Saylorville
While very modern and not remotely secluded, Saylorville was a good spot to camp our first night in Des Moines. Loaded with pretty trees and not far from a man-made lake, we pitched our tent, explored the Saylorville area, went for gourmet pizza, and relaxed by the fire until late.

Falling asleep after washing up for bed

July 2, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Days 3 & 4

Windy, cloudy, cool Cheyenne

Day 3: Custer, SD to Cheyenne, WY

After an hour-long drive around the animal observation path at Custer State Park, a filling breakfast, some tourist shopping at the lodge gift shop, and packing up camp, we departed Custer for a two-night stay in Cheyenne.

South Dakota
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect driving through Wyoming. I pictured it as a flat landscape dotted with ranches and sprinkled with cattle. During our drive, we saw little evidence of people. Aside from an occasional windbreak or abandoned farmhouse, the landscape was mostly flat, with few trees - but not much in the way of ranches or animals for many miles in the distance. We learned at a museum in Cheyenne that just because we can't see anything obvious doesn't mean there's nothing there and in fact, there are many lively species making their home in the vast plains. Pretty cool.

I was grateful we filled up the gas tank before leaving Custer because we didn't come across so much as a tiny town with a gas pump for quite a long way. When we did, we were sure to fill back up and stop for food because I wasn't sure when the next opportunity might be. Looking on the map, it's like there are towns with food nearby, but from the distant view along the highway, I found few places to stop. The view on the drive is somewhat repetitive, but at the same time, it's really unique in the way that it's so untouched and non-commercialized. I like that.

Arriving in Cheyenne, we stopped at the Bread Basket Bakery for delicious, freshly made take-out sandwiches and checked in at the roadside KOA just outside town. This stop was our break from sleeping on the ground, so we enjoyed real beds in a tiny cabin with a cute front porch.

Not long after checking in, our friends from Colorado arrived to spend a couple nights with us in Cheyenne. The kids had a blast playing at the KOA playground and reading stories to each other in the cabin.

The Cheyenne KOA is very much a stopover for truck drivers and ranchers, generally one-night stays. It's not really a good spot for tent camping, with just a few tent sites on gravel with a small fenced wind break and no privacy. The cabins are your best bet unless you're traveling with an RV. The bathrooms and showers were very clean. The pool area was well managed and the staff and owners were incredibly welcoming. Even though it wasn't the feel of real camping, it was a nice stay and I could see why that location has a high occupancy rate with an excellent location for people passing through.

Day 4: Cheyenne, WY

The weather warmed up and the sky filled with sun on Day 4, so we planned a day exploring downtown Cheyenne. Our morning began at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, which is filled with train and railroad exhibits, including an unreal second floor model train display larger than I've ever seen. I can't imagine the hours and dedication it took to recreate historic railways with such accuracy. Now I lament that I didn't take pictures of the second floor.

I did get a shot (sorry for the glare) of a handmade, wooden train. It's beautiful craftsmanship.

Outside the museum, we found The Iron Horse by Lyle Nichols:

And, back inside, there was this funky thing and the only reason I took a picture is because I lived next door to Swissvale, in Regent Square (Pittsburgh) for a couple years. It brings back great memories!

In the evening, we'd hoped to have a campfire and make s'mores but the weather didn't cooperate. It didn't rain until late in the evening, but it was cold, dark, and ominous. Nearby were a handful of strong storms. We just got rain that night, but it was too windy to even try to light a fire.

We had a blast visiting with our friends and exploring the city. There are several museums, including the Wyoming State Museum, with interesting exhibits, shops, and restaurants. Lunch was at a pizza/burger place called 2 Doors Down, also called Pizzeria Venti, depending on what you're ordering. Also weird is their Facebook page calls it Piccolo Venti, which makes it kind of difficult to figure out what it's really called. The overly friendly (overbearing) hostess urged us in from the street, before we decided what and where we wanted to go. She ushered us to a table to think about what we wanted to order even when we were ready to go up and pay and kept coming over and trying to hug a few of us. It was creepy. Food not so good either. I suspect there are a lot of gems in Cheyenne, but that lunch wasn't one of them. Our friend had a long hair in her food, which looked stale and microwaved.

2 Doors Down/Pizzeria Venti
For a small community, it's thriving and growing thanks to local military, airport, ranching, and technology companies.

I'll leave you with a bunny photo. Our campsite was home to dozens of adorable bunnies who live under each cabin. Here's just one of our tiny, furry friends:

June 30, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Day 2

Day 2: Sioux Falls, SD to Custer, SD

We woke with the sun and enjoyed a quick cereal breakfast before packing up our campsite and heading out. Traveling across the entire state with hopes of stopping along the way, we left not too long after breakfast. This was the view during the first half of our drive:

Driving through South Dakota
Along the way, we stopped at 1880 Town, about two hours east of Mount Rushmore. It's a ghost town, with some original buildings and some reenactments, a memorabilia shop, and a diner inside an old train. We enjoyed a simple and leisurely lunch in a dining car, a nice break from driving.

Though I planned to keep this stop fairly quick, we decided to explore the site, spending more than an hour walking around the grounds and taking pictures like good tourists. There were a few pieces of old Wells Fargo stuff, including this old wagon and some signage in town buildings. 

Some buildings are totally open to walk through and others are preserved. My guess is it's based on what is real from the late 19th century and what is staged for fun.

We considered stopping at Wall Drug since there are so many signs screaming at us, "stop at Wall Drug!" but figuring it's probably a lot like South of the Border, we focused on getting to Mount Rushmore before dinnertime. If we'd had a little more time, I might have driven through the Badlands loop, but we were able to get a sense of the Badlands from Highway 80. We'll plan a drive through next time we visit western South Dakota.

Driving into Custer State Park was beautiful. Observing the elevation climb, the beautiful trees, the green, the craggy hills, and the sounds of birds and crickets, and the fresh air is worth the drive. Our campsite was somewhat isolated off the main road by a large, "raging" stream, surrounded by tall trees and gorgeous views. We pitched by the water, set up our space and immediately drove back up to Mount Rushmore, a 30 minute drive along winding mountain roads.

Campsite at Custer State Park
Penny was most excited for Mount Rushmore out of all our trip plans. She took many photos and ran up and down the amphitheater stairs. For dinner, we ate at the Mount Rushmore visitor cafe, which for a cafeteria, offered plenty of variety and decent quality.

Taking pictures at Mount Rushmore
As rain set in around 8pm, we took a longer drive home, encountering hundreds of bison along our path. We spent quite a bit of time stopped to let them pass, such majestic creatures.

Bison grazing near our car
Bison roaming through Custer State Park
Late into the night, a storm blew in and raged with thunder and lightening and pouring rain. Miss P slept through everything but I was pretty darn scared of either being washed away or struck by lightening. Thunder shook the ground, but we made it through without even a leak. 

Breakfast was a simple buffet at a nearby lodge at the park, where we learned there had been some pretty bad hail overnight. I was grateful for those giant trees! 

We lingered in the morning, looping around a driving path for viewing animals, though we saw none that morning. Close to 11am, we packed up and headed on our way to Wyoming, planning our halfway point as lunch. I didn't want to leave. Of all the stops on our trip, Custer was our favorite and we're even exploring the idea of buying some land to build a small vacation cottage in the future.

June 29, 2015

Road Trip 2015: Day 1

Big Sioux Rec Area campground
As part of my goal to bring my daughter to each state by the time she's 18 (in a somewhat meaningful way, no airport layovers), we packed up and enjoyed an 8-day road trip through five states, camping in tents all but two nights.

It was an awesome trip, filled with adventure, storms, mosquitoes, friends, historic sites, and quiet moments without cell reception. My next few posts will capture the spirit of each day of our trip. Feel free to ask questions about where we stayed and what we did. There aren't a lot of tent-camping review sites to reference when planning this type of vacation, so I'm happy to offer feedback based on our own experiences.

Day 1: Southeastern Minnesota to Sioux Falls, SD

We made a last minute decision not to visit the Laura Ingalls site in Walnut Grove on our way to Sioux Falls. There are times of year when there's more going on, so we're saving that for another time. That meant we could take a longer morning to load the car and get ready without rushing out early.

Lunch was in Albert Lea, MN, a stop perfectly timed as there was an old car show going on. We enjoyed checking out some of the cars, reminding me of times as a little girl with my dad visiting Cape Cod.

Aside from a quick stop for snacks and drinks, we went straight from Albert Lea and checked in at Big Sioux Recreation Area in Sioux Falls, SD for the night. Big Sioux is tucked behind a newer subdivision with giant power lines running through it. They cater more to RVs than tents, but the few tent sites were conveniently placed around the playground - perfect for kids! I'd feared a lot of late night or early morning noise, but everyone was respectful and we got a good night of sleep.

Sioux Falls itself has a small town feel with trendy elements. The thriving downtown offers delicious independent restaurants, cute shops, and interesting art sculpture. The area is beautiful, peaceful, and seems to be an active community. I may not choose Sioux Falls for a vacation destination, but I'd definitely consider living there.

The first day was pretty uneventful. Aside from clean bathrooms, a nice playground, and a flat partially shaded campsite, Big Sioux was pretty nondescript. We didn't get a chance to explore what else the rec area has to offer, so we'll save that for next time we travel west!