Sledding the Great Sand Dunes

Sledding the Great Sand Dunes has been something that has been on my bucket list for quite awhile. I can’t remember where this idea originated, but I knew it was something that was going to happen on this trip.

We woke early and grabbed breakfast on the road. We drove to Alamosa and rented sleds that are set up for sledding on sand at Kristi Mountain Sports. The sales assistant was very helpful and pointed us to a 2 person sled. For $18 we got the sled and a puck of wax for the day.

We headed to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I was ecstatic to be marking this off my bucket list. There were not a lot of people so we didn’t have to worry about crowds. We stopped by the Visitor Center to get our bearings. I read that the we were at 8000 ft elevation (here we go with altitude again). The dunes can be up to 700 feet tall.

It was super windy but the Medona Creek was dry so we didn’t have to wade through it. I IMG_1913put on my small backpack with water and supplies and carried the sled up to the dunes. The wind blew against me leaving me to fight the sled and wind like I was a ship and the sled was the sail.

Climbing the dunes was intense. For every step forward, the sand sunk under my feet and I felt like I went one step back. Fighting sand, wind, and altitude I had to slow my pace. My kiddo scrambled up the dune like it was just another rock. When I finally reached him patiently waiting for me at the time I had to ask him to wait. I couldn’t catch my breath and then promptly threw up. Talk about a full body workout!

Once I caught  my breath we excitedly hopped on the sled. He sat on the front and I sat on the back as I pushed us over the edge. We flew down the sand dune so fast I could barely hold on. It was exhilarating and all I could do was laugh. When we hit the bottom, the sled stuck in the sand and we both flipped. Fortunately I flipped right over the top of him. We landed in sand so it wasn’t a bad landing. We both had faces full of sand despite the sunglasses. We decided to do it again.

IMG_1914Again we hiked to the top. I paced myself a little more this time trying to keep from getting sick again. Once at the top we jumped on and flew back down. This time Parker face planted into the sand and I again flew over him. I was laughing so hard, but he was not so happy. With our feet out to the side trying to steer as we flew down the side of the sand dune, the sand shot up like water and hit him in the face. His eyes were full of sand.

In an effort to help, I dug through my backpack where I keep saline solution. I attempted to block the blowing sand by putting my jacket around him. After flushing his eyes several times we gave up. He could not do another ride. We had sand in every possible crevice and I could feel it crunch in my teeth.

We headed back to the car to get out of the wind and attempt to flush his eyes again. If I had to do it all over again, I would make sure to bring goggles.

His eyes were irritated and red. He was desperately unhappy and I didn’t know what to do. We watched as the wind blasted our car with sand and the view was blocked by a brown cloud of sand. I pulled over again and flushed his eyes. I begged him not to rub them and explained that he had probably scratched them. I tried to distract him with navigating for me. He promptly found Zapata Falls on the map and asked if we could go there. I said definitely and followed his guidance.

Turning off of the highway I had to guide my car slowly through the massive potholes that covered the road. I secretly wondered if I was making a huge mistake and if I was going to get my station wagon stuck. I continued on.

We got to a parking lot and grabbed our small packs. We headed up a trail. As we IMG_1920climbed we stepped over snow and ice. Soon we were walking on the ice all together. We had came upon a woman and two men. My son, not knowing a stranger, engaged them in conversation. We trekked the rest of the way over the frozen stream through the canyons. Just as my son was telling me we needed walking sticks I fell. I fell hard. I got back up and pursued forward.

When we turned around a canyon wall, there stood a giant frozen waterfall. You could hear water flowing behind it. In the ice that we stood on, a hole had formed revealing the IMG_1919freezing water below. One of the men we met decided to take off his shoes and get in. I could only imagine how painful that kind of cold would be on the bare skin.

After playing awhile at the waterfall I decided to head to Durango, Colorado. About a decade before I had stayed at the Strater Hotel. It was by complete serendipity that I found this hotel a decade earlier. Once in the antique decorated rooms in the century old hotel, I read the journal left in each room. Most pages mentioned a hot tub room. When I asked the front desk, they told me it could be reserved in hour increments. Only you had access to it. Remembering this place, I booked a room in hopes that the hot tub would soothe our sore bodies and help wash out the hiding sand that we couldn’t possibly reach.

After an initial shower which covered our shower and bathroom in sand, we went to the hot tub. I found sand in my ears and various other unmentionable places for at least a week afterwards.

We ended the evening at the restaurant connected to the hotel. A country singer with a guitar sang Merle Haggard songs while we ate. Parker was so tired he nearly fell asleep at the table. I paid the bill and we turned in for the night fully exhausted.

Exploring Colorado Springs

We woke early and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at the hotel. We set off for Garden of the Gods. I had heard a lot about it but had never been. My son started out less than impressed. When we entered the park, it seemed like a giant tease to him. We IMG_1905walked along the rocks and read all the signs that said no climbing. Just before we gave up, the rocks got bigger and there was no rules regarding climbing.

True to his boyhood nature he climbed every rock in the park. He scrambled up crevices, climbed through holes created by thousands of years of erosion, and throughly enjoyed himself. We had a picnic and then decided to head to Pikes Peak.

I bought tickets for the Cog Train to the top of Pikes Peak. We waited patiently among the crowds of people for our train. We sat facing another couple as we headed up the mountain. The views were impressive and at some points snow was high over the window. I found out that the train had just opened that day due to the massive amount of snow. As we ascended the 14,000 feet I felt myself getting light headed. This was a new sensation for me so I didn’t realize I was experience altitude sickness.

IMG_1908.JPGOnce we reached the top I stepped out into the cold mountain air and felt incredibly dizzy. Everything spun and I felt like I might pass out. We went into the gift shop and decided quickly that it was way too crowded. We walked around the top of Pikes Peak taking in the massive view and watching our breaths in the cold air. It was cold enough that when I mentioned returning to the train to wait for our departure my son was in total agreement. I was so dizzy I could barely walk.

On our way back down the mountain I started to feel a little better, but was still a bit off. My son began complaining of feeling sick to his stomach. He laid in my lap for the ride down. When we reached the bottom we both felt ill. Being from Kansas, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to experience altitude like that.

 

IMG_1907It didn’t take long for us to start feeling better. I decided to go out for dinner at a
IMG_1906restaurant that was inside an old Boeing KC-97 tanker, called the Airplane Restaurant.  I knew my son would love it. As anticipated, he was ecstatic.The food was nothing to write home about, but the experience was definitely worth it. Booths were set up where the passenger seating would normally be. I lost him for most of dinner because the cockpit was open for children. There was a bazillion buttons and switches, and definitely sparked his imagination.

With full tummies and tired bodies, I drove to Monte Vista, Colorado while he slept. I checked in after dark and the older man behind the desk talked me like I was a friend. Each room has a theme and we stayed in the Wild Mustang room. I had to laugh when I carried my sleeping son in and laid him on the bed. The decor made it very clear why this room was the Wild Mustang room.

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The next morning when we woke my son sat up, looked around and said, “Well, this is interesting”.

Driving Across Kansas

I find that my son does a lot better if I try to mentally prepare him with what lies ahead. I explained to him that the first day drive across Kansas was going to be pretty boring. I promised him after the first day we would have a lot of fun. Mentally prepared, we loaded up in the car and headed west. Leaving Kansas City, he navigated me on I-70.

I grew up in Kansas and spent a lot of my 20’s exploring it. I dated someone that loved spontaneous adventures as much as I did so we spent days cruising country roads and finding sites. With my goal on Colorado Springs, I decided our first stop would be IMG_1886near Manhattan, KS. One of my favorite places there is called Pillsbury Crossing. It’s a waterfall that many people don’t know about. It’s a few miles southeast of Manhattan on gravel roads and takes a little getting to if you don’t know your way. My favorite part is being able to walk through the water to the falls. We even crawled down and snuck behind the falls.

Our second stop was Rock City in Minneapolis, KS. Again, this is an off the beaten FullSizeRender (5)path kind of site. It’s a random park off of a gravel road 3 1/2 miles south of Minneapolis, KS. As you drive up you see giant boulders in a field. It has the largest collection of sandstone concretions in the world. These giant boulders were rolled when Kansas was covered with an inland sea and left here. To a boy, they are a climbing dream come true. We crawled all over them stretching our legs and playing. He decided this was his favorite stop of the day.

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Our last stop before our final stop was near Quinter, KS south of I-70. The area is known IMG_1897as the Kansas Badlands. It’s a culmination of chalk, limestone, and shale formations. Castle Rock is literally a giant rock in a field. The Badlands  stand near by and are such a different landscape for Kansas you can’t help but like it. It’s not developed as a tourist site, and I have never experienced anyone else there when I’ve visited.

I decided that this would be the only time I broke my own rule and we would not stop again until we hit Colorado Springs. The pre-downloaded movies and books came in handy.

Around dark my son grabbed a pillow and blanket from the back and promptly fell asleep. I decided that any long driving I had to do from here on out would be done while he was sleeping.

Once we reached Colorado Springs I decided it would be a hotel night. One app I use when on the road is Hotels.com. You can search for hotels in the area and search for the cheapest price along the route. Once you stay 10 nights, you get a night free. Fortunately, I had saved up several free nights for this trip. I pulled into our hotel late and checked in. I had to make 2 trips to the car, first carrying his sleeping body and the second for our luggage.

Killing the Boredom on a Road Trip

Driving across Kansas has to be one of the most brutally boring trips for a child. I made a vow early on that we would not spend more than 2 hours in the car at a time. This would take some serious creativity on my part. I did a little research and decided that 2 apps would be essential in assisting me in keeping my child from ruining our trip out of boredom.

I downloaded the Roadside America app to my phone so we could find odd things along the way to break up the trip. It’s full of great roadside attractions that you wouldn’t necessarily know about.

I also made sure my Geocaching app was up to date on my phone. Geocaching is the equivalent of treasure hunting. It’s a big win with my son. When boredom starts to rear its ugly head I turn the app on and we look for the nearest geocache. We have found them roadside on bridges, fence posts, and trees. It’s a great way to stretch your legs and take a break from the car. It’s also always a little exciting when you find one.

An atlas. Within the first hour of driving I showed my son how to read the atlas. It laid FullSizeRender (7)out huge on his little lap and I explained how it worked. I pointed at our destination and told him he was the navigator. This kept him engaged and let him feel like he had some say in what was going on (not to mention teaching him how to read a map).

Books. At 7 my son was just starting to get good at reading. I found books at the library that were about Native American Indians, the Southwest US, and some just for fun. I would ask him to read to me.

Music. Without intention, we ended up with two theme songs for our trip. They became our favorites and he loved working the ipod and playing DJ. It made for great sing alongs, and he brought his drum sticks so he could tap out the beat.

Ipad. I downloaded kid appropriate movies ahead of time for the hours that were destined for inactivity. (After Kansas he never picked up).

I absolutely love my son, but he has taught me a valuable lesson: when boredom strikes and he’s unhappy, everyone is unhappy. Most of the time he is perfectly happy engaging me in conversation or reading to me. My goal for the trip was not to turn the car around in a few days and call it quits. I knew it was a real possibility if he hated the extensive car ride ahead of us. I personally have little tolerance for whining so this trip could go very good or very bad.

Packing for a Road Trip with a Kid

Knowing my intent, I began to prepare for our trip. I could easily live out of a backpack (and have) so for the first time I had to plan a 2 week trip with a child in tow. I figured I would forget some things, but I needed some essentials. I am a bit of a minimalist, so I pack just what I think we will need. road-trip-sign.jpg

  • Although I’m not a proponent of electronic babysitters, the first 8 hours of our trip was going to be driving across Kansas. I decided that I would need some entertainment for my son. I downloaded some movies to my Ipad and packed several children’s books about Indians and the places we were going. I would ask him to read to me along the way.
  • In order to save money on food, I packed a small cooler and a bag full of snacks.
  • I packed pillow and blankets. I’m only 5’1″ and with my son being 7 we can sleep comfortably in my station wagon with the seats folded down. No need for a tent.
  • I brought us each a small backpack that had a water bag in it. I also stuffed things like snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, etc. in these.
  • I was sure to pack the atlas.
  • Hiking boots
  • Clothes to layer. I wanted to plan for any situation, so we had lightweight hiking clothes along with jackets to throw on in case we got chilly.
  • A roadside emergency kit and a small hiking emergency kit
  • Backup phone charger (you don’t want to lose service on a trail)
  • A trash bag (for wet or dirty clothes), we would be living in the car for 2 weeks after all.
  • A towel for about a hundred different uses.

 

National Park Road Trip – Intent

I believe in teaching with experiences whenever the opportunity arises. Last year my son had studied Native American Indians in school and it was all he talked about for weeks. I decided over Spring Break vacation I would take him to the Southwest of the US and he would become more familiar with different aspects of the culture and history.

It ended up being THE best trip I have ever taken. Maybe it was the 3300 miles of freedom, maybe it was watching the world through my sons eyes, or maybe it was the bonding experience. Regardless, it was what made me realize my son is ready for road trips and makes a great travel companion.

I bought him a National Park Passportlarge-2-9000c and decided that by the time he graduates high school we will make it our goal to hit all 59 national parks the U.S.

When planning anything I try to choose an intent. My intent for this trip was to hit the open road with my son on an epic journey through the Southwest. I wanted to see how he did on the road. I also had a few other goals in mind. I wanted him to learn to read a map. I have met too many 20-somethings that would be completely lost without the GPS on their phones. I think map reading is an essential part of travel.

I also wanted it to be an educational trip. I wanted him to understand how beautiful nature is. I also wanted him to get hands on experiences with learning about Native American Indians.

I started with an atlas and chose a direction. I don’t really believe in schedules, so I knew that in 12 days we would drive across the the US taking in the sites, and our ultimate destination would be the Grand Canyon.  I had been saving up for a road trip, so I decided our budget would be $100/ day.

The intent was set. Now comes the preparation.

24 Hours of Chaos

Shortly after my back seat ride in the police cruiser, our shuttle arrived to take us to the airport. I felt naked without my phone, drivers license, and credit cards. I felt fortunate that I had my Ipad and passport at the hotel and could quickly cancel all cards.

I felt a sense of relief to be leaving. It was an amazing trip full of new experiences. Unfortunately, the last hours put a bit of a shadow over it. I was tired and grouchy and ready to go home.

As we sent our bags on the security conveyor belt, a security guard told us to grab them because we could not go through security. He had just received notice that our flight was cancelled and we would have to go back to the ticket desk. I instantly felt irritated because I couldn’t call American Airlines or receive any of the cancellation notices. We collected our bags and headed back to the security line.

By the time we reached the line, we were at least 30 people back. After 20 minutes of 17309768_10210377460725988_3139745676711094113_nstanding we finally sat down on the floor. It was nearly 10:30 p.m. so I laid out a blanket and my son fell asleep on the floor. About an hour later an announcement was made that if we had children we should stand in another line. Through the rough translation I could make out that the plane was not leaving that night and that they would assign the first hotels to people with children. I pulled my kiddo across the floor as he slept soundly on the blanket.

As the hours ticked the crowd became more impatient. People began cutting the line and fights started breaking out. Soon it became unsafe to let my son stay on the floor. I found myself become incredibly defensive and my inner mama bear was starting to show. Reluctantly I woke my son up. Yelling and screaming continued and there was no security in sight. I was at a complete loss. Without any explanation the tension grew in the entire crowd.

After a few hours we finally approached the counter to be told that we had to go to the back of the line because my son wasn’t a baby. I was furious.

Sometime around 2 in the morning we were finally given vouchers for a bus and a hotel for the night and told we would have to go stand in another line. The patriarchy of this society was ragingly apparent. Despite the fact that I was the one doing all of the talking and translating and dealing with all of the documentation, the woman behind the counter would only speak to my male companion. She handed him the documents and ignored him as he pushed them across the desk to me. I was at an all time frustration.

We found our way into another line. I felt like a zombie on my feet. I stood in disbelief as I watched 2 girls behind the counter take our vouchers and began to handwrite the information on a yellow notebook. I asked them why they were writing it down. They told me that management wanted all of the information written by hand (even though it was just printed out of a computer). I idiocracy of the nights events were weighing heavy. We finally made our way out to wait for the bus at about 3 in the morning.

When the first bus arrived all of the people waiting began fighting to get on the bus. Pushing and yelling ensued. I didn’t even try. I pulled my son to a side and told him we would wait for the next bus. The next bus arrived about 15 minutes later. There was not room for everyone, but they crowded us onto it anyway. We sat on top of our luggage for the 45 minutes ride back into Quito.

We slept a few hours before we had to return back to the airport. After a shower and some sleep I felt a little more human. When we arrived to the airport, again we were halted at security because they had no record of the flight that we were all scheduled on. At this point nothing surprised me. We waited until they finally got notice that the entire crowd was indeed waiting on a flight.

Once on the plane I finally began to relax. I was looking forward to order and logic. I have never experienced something as chaotic and frustrating as my last 24 hours in Ecuador. I loved the culture and the countryside. I could go without ever having to be in Quito again.

 

 

 

Pickpockets and scams

After spending the last day in Ecuador touring Quito, we had time to kill before our 10 p.m. flight. Fortunately, the hotel let us set up in a room off the lobby and play on our computers, talk, etc. As lunch came and went, I decided to go in search of a deli someone mentioned was a few blocks away and get us all sandwiches. I took my phone so that I could call once I got there to see what everyone wanted. I set out with a woman I had become friends with throughout the week.

We walked through the busy streets and side stepped vendors trying to sell us wares. Our conversation came to an abrupt stop when 3 men approached us trying to sell posters. They had a small child in tow. We said no and tried to side step them. They continued to get louder and follow us. Suddenly one was running backwards in front of me and one on my side. My hands were in my pockets with my hand on my phone and wallet.

In that moment, all I could think about was how aggressive they were being. I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t taking no for an answer. I was pushed by the 3 into a store corner. My hands instinctively came out of my pockets to push back. My friend had been pushed away from me and the three men surrounded me pushing. She suddenly broke through and grabbed my arm. We made a run for it and up some stairs into a small shopping center. It took a few moments to gain our composure. It was a very startling experience.

Once we regrouped we headed back out on the street to find the deli. I put my hands back into my pockets and instantly became aware that my phone and my wallet were gone. I felt like I got hit in the stomach. I have traveled all over by myself and never once had an issue. I can usually identify scams and avoid them. They had come at me so fast and so aggressively all I could do was wonder why.

I found a security guard on the corner and tried to explain in my broken Spanish that I had just been robbed. The three men were nowhere to be found. The guard called the police and asked me to wait. I sent my friend back to the hotel to have Karl cancel my credit cards and turn on my Find My Iphone app. I still had a glimmer of hope I might be able to find them.

I stood on the corner trying not to let my anger well up in tears. I decided at one point that waiting for the police was going to be pointless and prepared to leave. The security guard asked me to stay just a little longer. Within 10 minutes of standing on the corner a cop car pulled up with 2 officers. Neither of them spoke English so I tried to explain the situation again in my broken Spanish.

The police officer motioned for me to follow him and we walked back across the street looking into store fronts for the three men. A vendor on the road stopped the police officer and told him he saw the entire thing. He pointed in a direction of a park and said after the men stole my items they ran that way. We cut across the park and walked several blocks. I realized after about 15 minutes it was getting dark and I no longer had any idea where I was. I didn’t have a phone to get directions or call for help. I had no money to get a cab back to the hotel.

The police officer told me I needed to go make a report. At this point I tried not to let my fears overtake me and followed him. We walked through an entryway among motorbikes. I followed him up 3 flights of stairs. There was no lights on the stairs and for a brief second I let my mind go to worst case scenarios. I reasoned that I had nothing left to steal….and that I had no identification on me.

I was relieved when we got to the third floor and there was 10 uniformed police officers posing for a picture. I was motioned to the only desk in the room. Yet again, I had to try to tell my story in Spanish. At one point I went for my phone to look up a word in my translator app. Another time I went for my ID when they asked for my passport or Drivers License (fortunately my passport was still in the hotel with my luggage).

As I was signing the police report, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to find my friend and another man from our tour group. They had tracked down the security guard and he told them where I was. I was so relieved to see them there I jumped up and hugged them. They quietly reiterated my own fears of the dark stairs. I was glad to not be alone any longer.

Once everything was done, the police offered us a ride back in the police car. At this point I could do nothing more than laugh as I crawled into the back seat.

*2 months later I still get notices of where my gets turned on in Ecuador. It seems it is still on a grand adventure.

Back to Quito

We arrived back in Quito late. We decided to meet up with friends we had met along the 17264850_10210179870666798_6261762905422355019_nway for dinner. At the advice of a tour guide, we went to his favorite bar and pizza place.

It was a crazy cab ride to get there through small streets and insane drivers. We were dropped off in front of our restaurant. I instantly liked the place. It had a bar feel with tables scattered throughout for diners. We made our way to a back room and sat at a long table and benches. We ordered beer and pizza and enjoyed the rest of the night chatting and saying goodbye to all of our new acquired friends.

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We tried not to make it a late night because we wanted to see tour a little more of Quito the next morning before we caught our plane back to the U.S.

We found several others from our tour at breakfast and we all agreed to tour together. Most of us wanted to go to the same places. We decided to first go ride the gondola lift up the Pichincha Volcano. We piled into a cab and set out. We paid $8.50 each for a ticket to ride the Quito Teleferi17361636_10154151629046920_1389858891764917752_n.jpgco.
We had been warned that it was too cloudy to see anything, but we decided to try for it anyway. It is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 10,226 ft to 12,943 ft in 20 minutes. I was happy that we had a clear view of the city all the way up.

Once we disembarked, there was a large indoor shopping area. I instantly ordered a coffee. We were told that caffeine would help with the altitude sickness. Just a few minutes of walking around made me instantly aware of the altitude. My lungs felt like they were being squeezed and I felt dizzy.

17352169_10210372570363732_8474380398732351279_nWe decided to endulge in one of the tourist 17308794_10210390942223017_421669170831413609_n.jpgpictures and made a fun picture for a memory. Continuing the climb up the mountain was not even a consideration. The clouds moved in and I was having trouble catching my breath.

We headed back down the mountain on the gondola. We were happy to find that our taxi driver had patiently waited and we asked him to take us to what the locals refer to as “cupcake hill”.

El Panecillo is a 656 foot hill above the city. Again, the views are spectacular. On top of the hill sets a statue of the Madonna. We went inside and up to the observation deck.

There was a small brick road that lead up the hill to the statue. On the side of the road were local vendors selling souveniers. I negotiated for a alpaca scarf and a few trinkets to take home as gifts.

(I have no pictures of El Panecillo or the spectacular view because my phone was stolen. More about that in my next post).

 

400 year old hacienda

Our bus bumped along a small avenue lined with giant century-old eucalyptus trees. Driving
around the fountain in the middle of the driveway, we arrived in front of Hacienda La Cienega. This hacienda is one of the most historical in Ecuador at over 400 years old. It sits at the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano. Today, it serves as a boutique hotel and restaurant, though its history has been preserved. 


Lunch was a variety of native food. The best part of lunch was when a local band came through and we were serenaded. There was even one Spanish song that I was familiar with and was able to sing along to. 

17342948_10210179874986906_7229302235458948416_nOnce our lunch and singing was over, the band displayed some small musical instruments and CD’s for sale. My son gravitates towards anything musical (or possibly to anything that makes noise) and picked out a flute. A member from the band came and gave him a quick lesson on howFullSizeRender (16) to blow into it in order to make sound.

After lunch we wandered the grounds, viewing the original church and gardens. I had a coffee and enjoyed the shade of the ancient trees.