Road Trip Day 4: Mount Rushmore, Wax Museum, Sylvan Lake, & Needles Highway

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No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without an obligatory visit to Mount Rushmore, one of the most iconic American monuments in history. I’d visited twice before, once as a youngster and once again with Vivian on our one-year anniversary trip, but it’s always breathtaking to see the mountain-carved sculpture with my naked eyes. The kids seemed a little less impressed as we viewed the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln up close and personal, but we did get plenty of photos with them. We also stuck around for some ice cream, featuring vanilla allegedly made from Thomas Jefferson’s own recipe.

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Afterward, we continued our Presidential kick down at the Presidential Wax Museum, nestled in the heart of the giant Tourist Trap known as Keystone. We got to see the faces of all 45 Presidents, as well as other historic figures. We couldn’t interact with any of them as we had with Madame Tussaud’s back in 2011, but we did get to see several famous moments of Presidential history, including the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Grover Cleveland’s wedding, the moon landing, the JFK assassination, and the 9/11 aftermath.

My favorite part of the visit was the mock Presidential press conference podium, where all four of us got the chance to play POTUS to no one in particular. The kids’ favorite part, however, was the bin of colorful rocks we let them dig through before heading out. Hannah in particular seemed to enjoy collecting rocks on our trip, continuing to find more and more to take with her at every stop.

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We drove on down (through a tunnel) to Sylvan Lake along the Needles Highway to have a little lunch and then get our feet wet. This particular lake was featured in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Hannah and I got to climb on some of the same rocks traversed by Nicolas Cage and the cast of the film (from this scene, specifically). Aaron did some digging in the sand, but since none of us has brought swimming suits, we couldn’t get too wet before we left.

The lake itself was ridiculously crowded as well, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, as there were plenty of other lakes nearby in the Black Hills. None of them featured the same fantastic rocks, however, one of which became a diving board for some people who didn’t seem worried about failing to clear the rocks below when jumping off.

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We took the long road back to camp, winding our way around the scenic Needles Highway. We got to see plenty of the tall, pointed peaks that give the road its name, and we also had to squeeze through a narrow called the “Needle’s Eye,” a bit of a difficult feat as there was only room for one car at a time and nobody around to direct traffic. On our way back down the mountain, we got to see some spectacular views of the hills and valleys below, and it was hard not to stop at every one to snap photos as we headed back down to the main highway.

On the way back to camp, we passed by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which we could clearly see from Highway 385. Vivian and I had visited it back in 2009, and I could barely tell if anything had changed since then, so we didn’t bother paying $30 to drive inside for a slightly closer look.

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We made some foil-wrapped chicken and potatoes for dinner back at the campsite, which we baked right in the fire. Aaron created a kind of story with a collection of toys using our tent’s windows as “panels” of a comic strip. Then we had some more s’mores by the fire before calling it a night.

Road Trip Day 3: Toadstools and Black Hills

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On day three, we hit the road to see Toadstool Geological Park up in the very northwest corner of Nebraska. It was like being dropped from an endless, grassy prairie into the middle of a strange, desert landscape. We followed a series of numbered posts through the various rocky structure that looked a bit like another planet, and it was hard to keep the kids from using every sloped rock as a giant, sandy slide. In addition to the strange, mushroom-like rock formations, we also found some 30 million year old rhino tracks, which were embedded into the rock.

The weather was around ninety degrees, but so dry that it barely registered, and when we were done with our little hike, we got to take a bit of the sand hills with us on our way out. If you ever make the same trip, be sure to top off your tank in Chadron. We were driving on fumes all the way to Hot Springs without a gas station in sight.

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Before long, the landscape changed again into vast rolling hills covered with pine trees as we entered the Black Hills. We stocked up on some food before heading to our campsite at Roubaix Lake, a lovely little campground about 40 minutes north of Mount Rushmore. We grilled up some burgers for dinner before letting the kids walk down to the lake to wade a bit and look for frogs. There were a bunch of tiny purple daisies blooming along the paths as well, which Hannah picked for all of us (and her stuffed toys). The weather was mostly perfect, though a thunderstorm managed to roll by just as we were finishing up our s’mores for the evening. Fortunately, we were ready for bed anyway, and our tent proved to be dry and water-tight, which made falling asleep to the pitter-patter of raindrops even easier.

One other note: the Black Hills are definitely “Trump country.” Everywhere we went we found little pop-up “Trump shops,” which may have opened just for the President’s visit to Mount Rushmore last month, but were still sticking around with Trump memorabilia for sale.

Road Trip Day 2: Scottsbluff & Carhenge

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The next day took us down Highway 26 and along some scenic rocks and vistas, including Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, as well as iconic Chimney Rock. We also came across a historical marker for Mormon pioneer and martyr Narcissa Whitman, whose journey west started in Bellevue of all places. We made a quick stop in Oshkosh for some Krispy Krunchy Chicken (and a bathroom break) and nabbed pictures of an abandoned but colorful old motel along the way.

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Before long, we made it to the Scotts Bluff National Monument, a giant (and gradually deteriorating) bluffs in the panhandle that Vivian and I had visited once before but didn’t know we could go to the top of. It was quick drive through a few tunnels around the side to get to the summit, and then we had a few paths to walk around to see spectacular views overlooking miles and miles of the world below (far enough to see Chimney Rock from over 26 miles away).

The steep drop-offs and signs warning about falling made it a little nerve-wracking walking with the kids, but they stuck close along the path, venturing only far enough to snap photos of the views and some wild cacti growing along the path. We also got to see a plaque for the “Scott” the whole area is named after, among other things before our trip back down.

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We made a trip next to Scottsbluff (the town), where we got some Mexican food for lunch at a place called San Pedro and let the kids play a bit at Pioneer Park around the corner. This park had a few interesting features along with the playground. One was a stone structure that was apparently built rock-by-rock by a Mexican farm worker who carried the rocks himself during his daily 20-mile walk to work, hoping to use it as a kind of proof-of-concept piece / resume to get into stone masonry. There was also replica of the Statue of Liberty, erected by a troop of Boy Scouts back in 1950.

During our brief picnic, I got to meet up with fellow web comic artist and historian Mat Rhys, who told us about these and other stories, including folks from Alliance literally stealing a building from Hemingford they hoped to use to win them role of County Seat of Box Butte County, and settlers from Gering moving their entire houses to Scottsbluff when they got tired of waiting for the railroad line to make it to their town.

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We made a stop at Carhenge on our trip north of Chadron, spending an hour with the kids at one of the panhandle’s best-known, albeit bizarre attractions. The kids got a good, close-up look at the various cars strewn about in the form of Britain’s famous rock structure, and there was even one car off to the side that we were allowed to “auto-graph” before we left. A few of the cars seemed to be memorials as well, one for WWII veterans and another for the domestic auto industry.

We headed on through the Nebraska national forest, giving us a brief change of scenery and a glimpse of what was in store in the black hills as wide-open prairie gave way to a few rolling hills of trees on our way to Chadron. Then we had a quiet evening of pizza and TV shows (via tablet) before one more night of sleeping in beds (and jumping on them) before a few days of camping.

Road Trip Day 1: Lake McConaughy

The Johnson Family just got back from an intense, week-long road trip vacation, which took us all the way to the Black Hills and back. It was a vacation with many “good views” and photo-worthy sights, but mostly it was a chance to unplug from the world — partly because we had next to zero cell phone coverage during the entire trip.

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We kicked things off with a five-hour drive along I-80 heading west. This would be the longest our kids have ever spent cooped in the car, but they were great little passengers, spending time drawing in their notebooks and playing with each other along the way. We stopped for lunch at Windmill State Park, giving us all some much-needed leg-stretching time before having lunch and hitting the road again.

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We spent the evening in Ogallala and swimming down at Martin Bay in Lake McConaughy. Vivian and I had glimpsed the lake just once back on our one-year anniversary trip, but this was our first time swimming there. It was nice, albeit cold, and most of the folks down there seemed more interested in boating than swimming. Hannah also got to try out her sculpting skills on the sand.

We crossed a time zone and gained an extra hour to have a Runza down by the shore before calling it a night (and getting chocolate ice cream). This stop turned out to be one of Hannah’s favorites, specifically because we all got to have breakfast together at the Super 8 the next morning.

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The dog days of summer are here as things begin winding down before school starts (in early August, which seems ridiculous) and every week seems to be hot and humid without a drop of rain.

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That didn’t keep us from a hot and steamy picnic on Saturday evening, though. A handful of our friends came by Swanson Park’s pavilion to have some food and unpack our collection of yearbooks, which have been sitting in a box in the midst of the pandemic waiting to be distributed. We’d also brought pens expecting some of the kids to sign each others’ books, but they mostly just had a grand time playing on the playground. Aaron and his little friends also decided to run off and explore the nearby wooded trails, chasing a rabbit and then walking along a fallen tree. We also found a giant dead tree that may have been here long before people settled in the area — who now have houses with ornate backyards facing the creek that runs through the park.

It was a nice little break, but the heat kept many of us huddled in the shade of the pavilion before retreating to our cars to get ice cream at McDonald’s before heading home.

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The next day, I brought the kids down to grandma and grandpa’s house to help trim a tree. The ash in the front yard had some low-hanging branches that needed clipping, so I clipped while the kids gathered them up for the bin in exchange for some chocolate coins from Uncle Jonny (in-between taking pictures). We stayed a little while longer so Hannah and Aaron could play with some of our old Power Ranger toys, which we got in Happy Meals a quarter century ago. Grandma also decided to play dress-up and pretend to be Pop-Pop before we headed for home.

A Dozen Years

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Over the weekend, Vivian and I celebrated twelve years of marriage in the lowest-key anniversary — mostly by staying at home. Aaron and I have been sharing some sniffles for a while, which made both babysitting and going out to celebrate seem impractical for the time being. Instead, Vivian made up some tasty rib-eye steaks and lobster for dinner at home, with clam chowder and scalloped potatoes on the side. It was our kids’ first experience with lobster, but we had corn dogs for them to eat instead (though we did offer them both a bite). Afterward, we went by Dairy Twist again to get some ice cream for dessert, just like we did last week. Then we took a trip back to the scenic St. Columban Retreat Center just to get a close-up look at some deer again before heading home.

Of course, no anniversary would be complete without an Anniversary Comic, so I presented Vivian and the kids with my twelfth one, highlight all the fun we’ve had in the past year since our last anniversary. We also had some gifts for our “silk anniversary.” I had a new silk nightgown for Vivian, and she had some silk ties for me (along with a car charger, chocolate-covered blueberries, and a giant “no” button).

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We got to indulge in a few simple pleasures over the next day or two. On Monday, Vivian made some homemade pizza for dinner, the weather was cool enough to warrant a trip out to the deck to eat for the first time this year (but still warm enough for ice cream cookies).

Then on Tuesday, both Aaron and I had medical appointments (for a physical and a Covid test, respectively), and afterward we had burgers and shakes Hickory Hill Park over lunch. The shade was lovely for a lunch-time rendezvous, and I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted being able to watch the kids play on a regular workday.

Backing the Blue

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It’s been another fun, busy week making our way through the dog days of summer. On Tuesday, I rode my bike to work again, and I met up with Mr. Nate at New Golden Mountain to have dim sum in thanks for helping us with our siding project. Then after work, I stopped by the All Play Sprayground, where Vivian brought the kids to cool off at the end of the day before heading home to turn leftover brisket into BBQ sandwiches.

Then on Friday, Aaron had a bit of a cold, so I took Hannah down to the SumTur for a Daddy/Daughter date night. We’ve been going to the SumTur for their outdoor movie nights every year since Hannah was born, and I’m glad it’s one tradition that wasn’t cancelled due to Covid 19. We did have to use red dots on the lawn to keep our distance from other patrons, but the weather was lovely and we even got to share some popcorn and Skittles when the sun went down. The movie of the evening was Toy Story 4, but it was upstaged halfway through by a giant frog that decided to hop in front of us and steal the show.

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On Saturday morning, my dad and I went down to Memorial Park for a “Back the Blue” rally, a patriotic counter-protest to the guys who were smashing windows and spraying graffiti downtown a few weeks earlier. Around two thousand people were in attendance (including some elected officials) carrying American flags (of varying stripes) and arriving on motorcycle or even a decorated station wagon. The festivities included speakers from the Omaha Police Department (and former Omaha North principal Gene Haynes) and a few singers, such as the Sarpy Serenders and local musician Steve Spurgeon, who sang in all his star-spangled attire (and guitar).

Former Mayor Hal Daub played emcee, introducing the speakers and musical guests. The event was apolitical, though a few people brought Trump flags and a handful of protestors also made their way through the crowd. There were no ugly confrontations or outbursts, however. I was amused when one protestor tried to get people riled up by screaming, “black lives matter” only to be shouted down with “all lives matter” by the crowd. I also managed to bump into KFAB’s Chris Baker, who was live-streaming the event, which you can watch in its entirety here. I enjoyed hearing from all the speakers, though Sgt. Connor absolutely brought down the house at the very end of the event, giving a passionate, fiery speech (which you can watch here) lambasting the media for its role in making all cops look like villains.

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Things were quiet for the rest of the weekend. On Sunday, we set up a new wading pool on the driveway for the kids to splash in. We were lucky enough to nab one for for $25 at Aldi while they were in stock — similar models were being scalped online for $100. I even joined the kids as they splashed about a bit, finding the ice cold water from our garden hose massively refreshing.

Then after dinner, we went down to Dairy Twist to have some ice cream for dessert, taking a short detour on our way home through the St. Columban Mission, where we saw a handful of deer out to graze in their sanctuary.

Brisket, Pancakes, and Fireworks

Happy Independence Day! I hope you all had a wonderfully fun and patriotic weekend celebrating America and blowing up a small part of it. We had loads of fun over the weekend with our friends and family, eating, setting off fireworks, and even doing a little more home improvement.

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On Thursday evening, I went by my dad’s house to help prepare a giant piece of brisket for the smoker, which involved cutting off some of the excess fat and then preparing his large smoker with charcoals, hickory wood, and water. We left it smoking overnight, which left it tender and juicy the next morning. I probably could have trimmed off more fat, since it didn’t seem to absorb as much of the hickory flavor as I’d hoped, but it was all still good. We ran over there with the kids on Friday night for a nice Independence Eve dinner to kick off the weekend.

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The next morning, we went on down to Elmwood Park for the annual DCRP pancake breakfast. Congressman Don Bacon and Mayor Jean Stothert served us up some pancakes and sausage, and we got to see a few familiar faces among the crowd before we ate. We walked by the games outside and the car show to take the kids to playground afterward, where we discovered a kind of electronic tennis game that they got to play before we headed on out.

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On our way home, we drove through a kind of “reverse parade” in the Field Club neighborhood, where because of Covid 19 the residents dressed up their homes in various patriotic (and miscellaneous) regalia for people to observe as they drove or walked by. They even had a drill team performing along Walnut Street.

I got out to take some photos, but quickly noticed that the street was lined with tables for Democrat politicians, and as I was wearing a T-shirt for Ben Sasse, it wasn’t long before I was spotted and told to leave. (Hooray for diversity and inclusion.)

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Then that evening, we gathered at our house to have some ice cream and set off an hour or two worth of fireworks in our driveway. We had the usual assortment of parachutes, fountains, sparklers, and flaming dog poop. The most impressive show, however, seemed to come from our own backyard, as our neighbors up the street set off a massive amount of fireworks of their own that lit up the sky. It seems like every year I think about forgoing our own fireworks and just watching the neighbors, but it’s still more fun to watch the kids play with their own.

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It’s also been a weekend full of home improvement projects, believe it or not. Our garbage disposal sprung a massive leak underneath our sink, so we had to get that replaced on Friday. Then we found the faucet itself had its own leak (which had gone unnoticed), so we replaced the faucet as well on Saturday.

Then on Sunday, Nate and Jake came by to help finish up the lats bit of our siding work, patching up a few feet of wood siding with some new PVC trim before caulking, priming, and then painting the whole side of our house. We’d managed to save a giant five-gallon bucket of paint from the time we first painted the house a decade ago. It took us most of the evening, but we just finished the last of the paint as the sun went down, and it looked great. Thanks, Nate!

Bird Boxes

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I’m still recovering for a busy weekend doing some more home improvements around the house. There’s some rotting siding on the east side of our home that our friend Nate offered to help me replace — and by replace I mean do almost everything as I mostly held ladders and fetched things. In addition to the siding itself, there were two “bird boxes” that were severely deteriorating — one of which had an actual nest of baby starlings living in it. We called the Bird Rescue hotline to try to figure out what to do with them, and they suggested placing the next in a basket as close to the original location as possible. The birds will still flopping about and peeping when I put it up next to our gutter, so at the moment we’re praying Mama Bird finds them well.

Nate and I spent all Saturday and half of Sunday on the siding, which included a trip to the Menards in Fremont, which was the closest place that had siding to match (and an automated floor scrubber). Even now there’s still more to finish up, but the hardest parts are all over. Just a few more inches of siding to patch up and caulk and then a fresh coat of paint on everything. We thanked Nate with some sushi from Jade Palace but will have to do something more special once everything is done.

In other news, we’ve had Mama Ginny over to spend some extra time with her son while the Mills took a trip to South Dakota.

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It’s been consistently hot and muggy week after week in the meantime, but that hasn’t kept me from firing up the grill to make brats or riding my bike to work every (though random road destruction on the Keystone Trail has made the latter more difficult). There’s nothing more refreshing after a hot bike ride than chasing a couple kids through a shower of ice-cold water. Vivian was also nice enough to bring along a picnic dinner for us to eat together before heading home.

Next stop: Fourth of July!

Father’s Day

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We had a very nice week running up to Father’s Day this weekend. On Tuesday, I had some breakfast with my folks down at Village Inn to celebrate our massive plumbing project finally wrapping up (with a new working toilet). I was hoping to go to the 11 Worth Cafe instead, but some racial agitators shut it down because they didn’t like the name of a breakfast menu item, which was disappointing to say the least.

The next day, Donna brought over an early birthday present for me — a new, functioning grill for the deck! I was very happy with it, but now I’ll have to make some time to do some grilling while the weather’s nice enough for it (and to buy a grill cover).

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On Saturday, we got a bit of a cold front that pushed temperatures down to the 70s from the 90s, so we decided to enjoy the afternoon down at Memorial Park. We had a McDonald’s picnic for lunch and then walked a bit through the rose garden, which was now in full bloom. The kids skipped down the hill and then found some mulberries on the way back up. Then we finished the afternoon over at the recently-reopened playground, where the kids played for a while before making a project of dumping sand onto the twisty slide for no particular reason.

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Then that evening I joined some of the Young Republicans at the DCRP headquarters to watch Trump’s rally down in Tulsa. Having been on the floor of such an event before, the President seemed very much the reality show entertainer and comedian / plain-talking (and occasionally foul-mouthed) POTUS we’ve come to expect. I personally think Trump’s improvised comedy and self-depreciation are some of his biggest assets, and despite the crowd’s apparent lackluster size (which some are blaming on either Covid 19 or disruptions outside), it was fun to watch.

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Then on Father’s Day, I woke up to a lovely (and giant) breakfast burrito courtesy of Vivian, which some nice little cards handmade by the Hannah and Aaron (and Elmo/Luke). After our online church service, I headed over to mom and dad’s house, where I had a handful of soon-to-be “collectors items” I’d accumulated over the week, starring Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the Cream of Wheat chef. My dad went through a trunk full of old family photos in the basement with us, and then we got some Taco John’s for lunch (namely six pack and a pound times three). We watched some of my dad’s old reel-to-reel films after that and got some milkshakes from Culver’s mid-afternoon before digging into another family photo album from our time in Grand Rapids before heading home.

Then that evening, Vivian had a few more gifts for me at home and a dinner of sushi from the Jade Palace to finish off the day.

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The day after Father’s Day, we took the family down to Jack and Donna’s house to celebrate Father’s Day with Vivian’s dad. Vivian and her mom made up a dinner of steak with scalloped potatoes, vegetables, and their usual hors d’oeuvres. — all of which we ate under their porch in the midst of a brief rain shower.

In the meantime, the kids got the chance to play in Grammy’s yard for the first time this year. They also got to see some of Grammy’s decorative rocks and blooming flowers before we had our dessert together. Jack also got to open a few presents, including some of Vivian’s parmesan chicken wings, before we called it a night.