Monday, August 24, 2015

Big Man On Campus

Well ... it's happened, we blinked and another summer has flown past us. And today our Wonder Boy kicks off his 8th grade year.

As you can see from this look back to his first day of kindergarten, he is no longer the shy little boy content to huddle on his mom's lap. Of course, having him on my lap these days is not quite the same experience it was all those years ago. He towers a good 6" over me now and those long legs of his have to fold quite a bit in order for him to fit.

But that shine in his eyes - that remains, as does his excitement over the start of a new school year.

This summer has been a pretty busy one for him. And while I know he might wish for a few more slow paced days, I also know that there is a big part of him that is ready to spend time with his "buds," learn a few new things, and to see what 8th grade has in store for him.

As for me, I am once again hoping to slow things down a bit. I want to savor as much of this year as possible... before I blink again and find that he's off to high school!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 6

For our last afternoon in CO Springs, one of the Cousins volunteered to show us around the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. She and Wonder Boy are only about 8 weeks apart in age, and though they haven't had much of a chance to just hang out together (since they do live a 14-hour drive apart), they got along marvelously. We all really appreciated her tagging along - it made a fun little excursion even more enjoyable to have her with us. And on the plus side, she inherited her mom's sense of humor and kept us grinning and laughing the whole afternoon.

Like so many places in the area, the CM Zoo is simply picturesque! Just imagine - a zoo on the side of a mountain! The drive up was so pretty and the zoo itself was quite a lovely setting all in itself.

It was such a nice way to wind down on our last afternoon in the area. The zoo closes earlier than I would have expected, but I guess the sun dips below those peaks a bit earlier than flat-landers like I are accustomed to experiencing. We missed a couple of exhibits since we had to duck out before the gates closed, so I am going to put the CM Zoo back on my list of things to do the next time we come back to CO Springs.

On our last morning, after checking out of the hotel, we made our way over to Manitou Springs to stroll along the main drag and check out the local shops. Shopping is not one of Wonder Boy's favorite activities, but it was a beautiful morning and I'll be honest, I was not quite ready to bid farewell to this little patch of Heaven on Earth, so we kept schlepping him from store to store until we had made it all the way up and down the street.

One thing I started contemplating while we were walking along is the ever-growing list of things I want to do on our next trip to the area. There were a few things we missed out on this time like the Broadmoor's Seven Falls and the Manitou Incline. If we find ourselves visiting again in summer, then next time I would like to find some place to go white water rafting or maybe we could bike Pikes Peak. There are quite a few places I would like to hike as well including Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne CaƱon, the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, or maybe the Cheyenne Mountain State Park.

And even though we've already been-there, done-that, I don't think I could return to the area with out revisiting the Garden of the Gods and probably even the Pikes Peak Cog Railway again. I would love to see the Garden of the Gods in winter. And I bet the Pikes Peak Cog Railway trip in fall is something not to be missed!

Our time here may have been short, but I feel like I left a part of my soul there. So I guess I'll just HAVE to go back some day to re-claim it.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 5

As our time in CO Springs started drawing to a close, our bodies were a bit worn out from all of the hiking we had done. So on our last full day in town, we decided to treat ourselves to a train ride up to the top of Pikes Peak aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

Part of the reason we thought this would be a good idea was that I sometimes have trouble driving on twisty, turn-y, narrow mountain roads. And in general, Wonder Dad concurs with my sentiment in this matter. So we thought taking the train would give us a break both physically and mentally.

And it did. Sort of.

But it also scared the pants off of me! Perhaps it was because of my seat assignment - I was sitting in such a manner that I could see DOWN the mountain as we rode along the track.

But whatever the cause, I found the trip up to the top to be quite a harrowing ordeal. Truth be told, I was doing all I could to avoid a full on panic attack. This really isn't normal for me. I may not like heights like our thrill-seeking Wonder Boy, but I can usually keep it under wraps for as long as need be to get me through whatever we are doing with little more than a pounding heart beat. Unfortunately, that was not the case on this trip.

ANYWAY ... because I couldn't bring myself to take my hands off of my seat long enough to point the camera at all the pretty places around us, all of the pics from the first half of the trip were taken by Wonder Boy. Thankfully, he is getting very comfortable with my camera and has a really nice eye when it comes to composition!

Once we reached the summit, my nerves finally settled down but by then the altitude REALLY started to hit me. It's a bit over 14000 feet above sea level at the summit of Pikes Peak and we started our ascent at a mere 6500 feet above sea level back in Manitou Springs. A jump that big had all 3 of us pretty light headed, as you can imagine.

I was actually surprised at how COLD it felt up there as well (especially for a group of Texans)! Temperatures were at a brisk 32F with a windchill of 22F - in AUGUST! I was so glad we were in jeans and jackets. We saw a number of folks that were dressed for life at the base of the mountain and were in shorts and tank tops!

There was even a bit of snow and ice on the ground, but we opted to head inside the visitor's center to enjoy some donuts and check out the view sheltered from the driving wind.

I am glad to say that the trip DOWN the mountain was a completely different story for me. I'm not sure why - the train didn't turn around, so I was still facing DOWN the moutain the whole way, but this time I was OK. And I really enjoyed soaking in the many sights I had not fully processed on the way up to the top.

We talked about it and, if we ever get to go back, we all agree that we definitely want to ride again! But maybe the next time we'll take the option to get off at the half way point and hike down the mountain. It looked like a SUPER cool hike! And maybe I won't have as much trouble with the heights if I am firmly on my own two feet.

Despite the strain on my blood pressure on the ride up the mountain, this little expedition is one of the true highlights of our trip. Even Wonder Boy, in all his teenage apathy, couldn't contain his enthusiasm. I would even dare to guess that this adrenaline rush of a ride might be the most memorable moment of our vacation. And you can't get much higher praise than that!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 4

It's hard to top a full morning of hiking through the Garden of the Gods, but our afternoon adventure proved to be pretty fun for the whole family as well. Temperatures were a bit higher than on the previous day, so we were looking for something a bit more .... sheltered ... to fill our afternoon and the Cave of the Winds seemed like a good place to put that plan into action.

As a family, cave tours are something we all enjoy! We have sampled most of the big cave attractions in Texas, including the Cave Without a Name, the Caves of Sonora, Natural Bridge Caverns, Longhorn Caverns, and Inner Space Caverns. Though there are still a few more we hope to see in the future.

So you can understand why the Cave of the Winds was high on our list of Colorado Springs area "things to do" when planning our trip.

And while we all enjoyed the tour of the cave, I think Wonder Boy might have enjoyed the chance to indulge his thrill seeking tendencies a bit more. He got to ride the "Bat-a-Pult" which is a kind of zip-line ride that sling shots the rider over Williams Canyon at speeds of about 40 mph. The thought really didn't appeal to either Wonder Dad or myself, so we were glad there was another kid in line that needed a partner for this particular attraction. Wonder Boy always acts like it's no big deal to endure these heart thumping joy rides, but I can promise you that, even from the side lines, my heart beat more than fast enough for us both!

Wonder Boy also got to spend a fair amount of time on the Wind Walker Challenge Course, which is a three-story ropes course balanced on the rim of a 600-foot drop into Williams Canyon. And this is where I think Wonder Boy really enjoyed himself! It wasn't long before he was comfortable enough on the ropes and secure enough in his harness that he let go with his hands and practiced life as a tight rope walker. This lack of fear of heights is something for which I truly envy the Boy. Wonder Dad and I both have a .... healthy respect ... for heights. And while we will both swallow that fear when needed, we see a freedom in the Boy in facing things like this that neither of us experience first hand. It's cool!

Upon finishing up our time at the Cave of the Winds, we decided to try our luck at the Broadmoor's Seven Falls and see what the fuss was all about there. Unfortunately, the falls were closed for renovations. I guess we'll have to put that back on the list of things to do the next time we visit.

After the disappointment at Seven Falls, we just started driving around. While tooling around, we saw signs for Green Mountain Falls so we thought we'd follow the signs and see where it led us. And where it led us was to a tiny little mountain town with a pretty little park. We were a little disappointed that there was no public hiking obviously available, but it was still a nice stop.

And that's kind of the thing with Colorado - around every corner (or mountain pass), there is some pretty little place just waiting to be discovered!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 3

Our next day in Colorado started out much like the day before it - except there was no sleeping in this time - our bodies were still on Texas time anyway (which is an hour earlier) so it still FELT like we were sleeping late. We hit the breakfast buffet early with the hopes of some early exploring before the sun got too high in the sky. And after that first taste of Garden of the Gods, we decided more time was needed to FULLY explore the park. With backpacks laden with lots of water and walking sticks in hand, we set off for the park. The early hours were most certainly in our favor - both in terms of the cool breezes and the blissfully empty parking lots!

On this visit, we enjoyed several hours of ambling along the many trails. We covered paths we had missed the day before and got to see some familiar sights from a whole new angle. We took one trail that wound its way through a truly beautiful field of sun flowers. I loved meandering along with the red rock formations making for a stunning backdrop against the bright yellow flowers. Wonder Boy, however, was not as enamored with this part of the trek. Those sun flowers are a pretty big attraction for local insects - especially the honey bees - and while they were not interested in us in any way, he made sure we made our way through that section of the trail as quickly as possible.

Every time we visit Colorado, I want to pack our bags and bid a final farewell to Texas. And if ever a place evokes that desire in me, it is most certainly the Garden of the Gods! This place feels like a serious slice of Heaven on Earth. I would love to live close enough to make spending time there part of daily life. If nothing else, I certainly want to make sure we come back here some day - and not too far in the future. In fact, I would love to see the park in winter, with a fresh coating of snow transforming and recreating this amazing landscape.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 2

Our first full day in Colorado was a FULL day, in deed.

We started our day by sleeping in a bit to recover from the 2 days of driving that it took to arrive in this little patch of paradise. But not long after breakfast, we met up with the Cousins and headed for one of the most breathtaking places in the area, an amazing park called Garden of the Gods. Admission to the park and its accompanying visitor's center is FREE to the public, but I advise that you arrive early because parking goes FAST, especially on weekends.

We enjoyed a lovely couple of hours touring the park. The trails are well laid out and easy enough for just about anyone to amble along. There are also plenty of places for the young, or the young-at-heart, to climb and explore. And the advanced mountaineer can even get permission for rock climbing and off-trail hiking. But there are just as many amazing sights for those who want to stick to the main trails. I hardly knew where to point my camera, there were so many beautiful sights.

After the sun started to take its toll on us, we left the park in search of lunch. We enjoyed a satisfying serving of BBQ and then left the Cousins to do a little exploring on our own.

This time our wanderings led us to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings.

There are a lot of really cool things to see at the Cliff Dwellings - once you survive the twisting, turning, dizzying drive up to the museum and grounds. Here you are allowed to walk through and TOUCH everything you see. We climbed through the different chambers and got a most magnificent view of Manitou Springs down below.

Touring the cliffs and enjoying the cool of the museum was a really nice way to wrap up our evening. And it set the stage for another GREAT day to follow.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Operation Exodus: Part 1

It's been a wild summer - both in personal and professional arenas. And to be honest, I was really starting to think that a family vacation might not be in the cards again this year. But somehow, some way ... the stars came into alignment and the guys and I managed to pull off a full week away from work!

You may recall that my goal for this year was to break away from my desk and my comfort zone to embark on more adventures. And, nearly 2/3 of the way through the calendar, I can look back and say that, as a family, we certainly made a good effort to that end. But I was still hoping and dreaming of MORE. So MORE is exactly what we set out to do!

Wonder Dad and I talked it through and decided we wanted to really push the Boy out of HIS comfort zone as well. So we thought taking him on his first trip out of the great state of Texas was a good way to expose him to something truly novel.

A few years before Wonder Boy came along, Wonder Dad and I took an amazingly memorable trip to New Mexico and Colorado. And that sounded like a good place to start in planning this next adventure for our family. On that last trip, we concentrated on the southwest corner of Colorado and northwest corner of New Mexico. This time we decided to explore the eastern portion of Colorado, with Colorado Springs being our home-away-from-home-base. And lucky for us, we have cousins living in the area who offered to show us around a bit!

As is always the case, clearing Texas is the toughest leg of the trip. So on our first day on the road, we didn't even attempt to approach the Texas border. Instead, we found a landing spot in the panhandle and hoped it would make for an easy drive to Colorado Springs the following day. The weather wasn't exactly in our favor and we had to endure a serious storm between Ft. Worth and Amarillo, but we made it safely to our hotel and prayed the skies would clear by morning.

The skies hadn't exactly cleared by morning, but it was only a light rain and the radar map promised a more pleasing horizon by midday. So we packed back up and bid farewell to Texas. We found ourselves crossing the state line long before lunch and we laughed and joked as the Boy took his first breath of New Mexico air. He seemed a bit underwhelmed by his time in NM, but we only skirted the northeast corner on our way to Colorful Colorado, so I wasn't worried about that at all. In fact, I think we were in NM for only an hour or two before we crossed into CO and found ourselves in the 3rd state of the day! For a kid who spent 100% of his life to that point in only 1 state, I would think that stepping in 3 different states in one day is quite the accomplishment.

The drive up I-25 is a pretty easy one. We stopped for lunch in Pueblo and then pushed hard on to CO Springs to find our hotel and unpack. The closer we got to CO Springs, the more excited I became to get out of the car and start exploring! But after 2 days in the car, my body was crying for rest more than adventure. So I was quite relieved when the Cousins invited us for a quiet afternoon and evening at their place. And their place is just this side of Heaven! Their whole neighborhood looks like something out of a picture book. House on the side of a mountain, butting right up to a national park. I mean REALLY, what more do you need out of life? Well ... this amazing view came with a cool mountain breeze and great company as well. Talk about icing on the cake!

I really enjoyed hanging out and catching up a bit while the teenagers enjoyed some quality "playstation" time. Then we piled in the car for a tour of the incredible neighborhood. And we followed that with dinner at a local diner with AWESOME burgers before the sidewalks were rolled up for the evening (seriously, everything closes early in these small mountain towns)! It really was about as good of an end as we could have scripted to a great day beginning our visit to the CO Springs area!