The Way Back

After several days in Arizona, we were finally headed back to Las Vegas to fly home. The flight from Vegas was much cheaper than Phoenix, but it required a much longer drive. However, there was the up-side that we could stop by the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

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We didn’t have a ton of time, so we didn’t go into the museum because there was an entrance fee and we knew that it really wouldn’t be worth it for the amount of time we could spend there. However, if you have time, I’m sure the museum is quite lovely.

We did spend a little walking around and looking at what we could. Gabriel had lots of questions and my dad spent some time explaining a few things about the impressive structure in a way that my young son at least pretended to understand.

For those of you who don’t know about Hoover Dam, I’ll help explain some of the history to you.

The construction of the dam was of such a magnitude that nothing like it had ever been done. Over 100 people died during the construction, and it took only five years to complete it (two years ahead of schedule).

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Statue commemorating the lives of the builders – you can see the bypass behind it

The dam was originally called the Boulder Dam because it was proposed to build it in Boulder Canyon (it was then actually built in Black Canyon). There was talk about naming after President Hoover (the sitting President at the time); however, he was not a “favorite” President… what with the Great Depression and all that. Consequently for a while people called it both until the 1940s when it was approved to officially name it Hoover Dam despite the running joke that it might leave the country high and dry like its namesake.

The reason the dam was built was for hydroelectric power, as well as for irrigation to the surrounding area. Another interesting fact  is that until 2010 you could drive over it on your way out of Vegas until they built the bypass. The bypass led to a much more direct path across the Colorado River. Looking at it from the air, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

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Though we were a bit disappointed in not being able to go into the museum, we were very ready to start the final leg of our trip home to Indiana.

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Hoover Dam Bypass – officially called “Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge”– you know, because that’s easier to remember

Next week we’ll take a break from my adventures with my son and I’ll tell you about my road trip to the American West (at least west of Indiana).


If this is your first time to the blog – check out my other adventures as a single mom with my son!

St. Louis, Missouri
Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave
Scotland in Kentucky?
The Grand Canyon Adventure Begins
An Acrophobic’s Grand Canyon Experience
Driving around the Grand Canyon (Day 3)
There’s more than a canyon in Arizona!

There’s more than a canyon in Arizona!

The last few weeks of my blog have been highlighting a trip I took with my son and my mother to the Grand Canyon. The first few days of our adventure were taken-up with the joys that the canyon had to offer. Honestly, you could spend weeks there and still not see and do everything you want to. We focused our trip around the south rim of the Canyon because that is where most of the ranger stations and lodges are, but there is LOTS to see around the north rim as well. I hope to be able to go back some day and go up there instead.

But four days into our trip, we decided to see more of what Arizona had to offer! There are so many National Parks, Historic Sites, etc. all over the Southwest, but since my son was still relatively young,  we stayed “pretty close” to the Grand Canyon for our adventures.

In our research for the trip, I decided to let Gabriel pick some of the places that we would go see. The first place he wanted to visit was Montezuma Castle National Monument, so that’s where we headed first.

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On the road to Montezuma Castle

I think I said this in an earlier blog, but the thing that surprised me the most about rural Arizona is how beautiful the desert can be. I honestly did not expect to be blown away by the rugged beauty of Arizona. I’d been to Arizona before, but the city (Phoenix), not out in the middle of nowhere. The browns and reds and greens and the blue of the sky create this magnificent palette of colors that I’d never seen in my other travels.

“MontezumA Castle, Mom! Not MontezumaZ”

My son is a bit of a know-it-all when it comes to things he loves, and Gabriel was OBSESSED with the National Park Service at this point in his life. I kept accidentally calling the monument “Montezuma’s Castle” (because as an English teacher, that makes more sense to me), so he corrected me a few dozen times while we were out there.

For those of you who have never been, Montezuma Castle is a cliff dwelling perched high into a cliff face that had to be accessed through retractable ladders. Very cool!

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Close- of some of the rooms closer to the ground

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The “castle” isn’t really a castle… and despite the name, it has NOTHING to do with the Aztecs or Montezuma. Interestingly, it got its name from a faulty assumption that it had something to do with the Aztecs, when it was actually left vacant quite some time before Montezuma was even born. So it’s name is very inaccurate, but … hey, we do what we want here.

The castle is a five story complex of interconnected rooms and, according to the National Park Service information, it was constructed over about 300 years (different additions added on over time). Unlike some other cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, you cannot go up to Montezuma Castle. I thought Gabriel would be upset by this, but he couldn’t have cared less! He loved walking down the paved path and looking up at the impressive construction.

There are also a few replicas that you can interact with down on the ground that, for some reason, I didn’t get pictures of. It is definitely worth the trip from the Grand Canyon or Phoenix… or Indiana!

There is also a well near by that Gabriel didn’t care to go see, but a fellow blogger wrote about it recently – you should check out her post here —> (Gen-X Traveler).

More Cliff Dwellings Ahead… but first!

After leaving Montezuma castle, we drove through the beautiful Sedona, Arizona. It’s a lovely little town– very commercial, but still cute. It reminds me a lot of a desert version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee– a little kitschy, but still worth seeing. Honestly the area around the town is what you want to see. There are SO many hikes and so many rock outcroppings to lose yourself in (in a good way) that it makes the little town very worth it (just like the Great Smoky Mountains make Gatlinburg with it).

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I wanted to stay here for days and explore, but since this trip was more about Gabriel than about me, we moved on after eating lunch at a two-story Burger King with the most amazing view!

Walnut Canyon: Where I nearly died of fear about 1000 times in the span of one hour

So… here’s the thing about me and being a mom… I wanted to do what my kid wanted to do, and I didn’t want to be the kind of mom who told her kid no because of my own fears. Having said that, Walnut Canyon is not for everyone (my mom stayed in the ranger station and I DO NOT blame her one bit!). The visitor center is very lovely and you can see some beautiful views from their floor to ceiling windows, but that’s not what Gabriel wanted to do…

Walnut Canyon has a couple of trails that you can take, one that is paved and relatively flat, and one that requires going down into the canyon via a group of 240-step winding stairs. Before getting to the stairs you read quite a few signs warning about strenuous return trip and the limited (and dangerous) accessibility ahead.

Once you get down into the canyon there is a gate… like a point of no return… because the trail is so narrow it is one-way only.  It is so narrow that in most places it was more narrow than my hips, no railing, and a gloriously awful looking “plummet to your death” kind of drop-off. My knees were literally shaking on the mile (or so) loop around the cliff dwellings.

The upside? Too many to count! You actually get see and GET IN the cliff dwellings and see how the people of long ago lived. It was fascinating. The view was so beautiful (as long as I pretended I couldn’t see down.

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Also, this face:

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Gabriel was SO excited! He walked bravely on the trails and was not phased one bit by the height or how close he was to scary-scary-bad-death. And through my gritted teeth and trembling knees and hands (and heart), I began to appreciate the trip around the cliff dwellings because of my son’s joy.

As a National Park Service Junior Ranger you learn about lots of things concerning the parks, one of which is that you do not take ANYTHING from the park other than what you bring in. So Gabriel asked me to take pictures of about twenty different rocks that he wished he could take home with him (how adorable is that?).

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I only included one rock picture 🙂

 

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Cliff dwellings to the left, scary-scary-death to the right

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One of the few places where the trail was almost wide enough for me to not be afraid, but keep in mind where that ceiling is… and I’m 5’2” on a good day.

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Gabriel telling me (and other families nearby) about the history of the people who lived in these types of cliff dwellings.

The trip back up, was a challenge, but we made it all without stopping because Gabriel wanted to “get back to Nanny so she wouldn’t be worried.” All in all it was well worth the fear and trembling. Not only was the view beautiful, but my son got to experience something he’d being researching for weeks even though his mom is a wimp.

When all was said and done, he had a few more badges to add to his backpack!

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If this is your first time to the blog, don’t miss out on our other adventures here: 

The Grand Canyon Adventure Begins

An Acrophobic’s Grand Canyon Experience

St. Louis, Missouri

Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave

Scotland in Kentucky?

An Acrophobic’s Grand Canyon Experience

Several weeks ago I began sharing with you the adventures that my son and I have taken together over the years. We started our travel adventures when he was in the first grade by going to St. Louis, then later that same year we went to Mammoth Cave and Lincoln’s Birthplace National Historic Site. Two weeks ago I continued with one of our bigger trips, all the way to the Grand Canyon.

Today’s blog recounts our first full day at the Canyon.

We woke up early that morning so we could get to the Grand Canyon’s supply store as soon as it opened so my father and his buddies could get the supplies they couldn’t keep in their luggage.  They wanted to get as early of a start as possible for their rim to rim to rim hike (south rim, down into and across the canyon, up the north rim, and then the return trip). We then took the group to the trail head and snapped a few pictures before they set off on their adventure.

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My dad with his gear

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The Crew

After wishing them luck, Gabriel, my mom, and I went off to the ranger station to get Gabriel’s workbook so that he could get his Junior Ranger badge and add it to his growing collection. Once we had the workbook, we were off to the rim to discover what the Grand Canyon was all about.

Several things … nearly everything, in fact… surprised me while we were at the Canyon. For one, I was not anticipating it to be so cold at the Grand Canyon. My midwestern mind knew we were in Arizona and Arizona is hot, right? I’d been to Phoenix several years before and it had gotten up to 124 degrees Fahrenheit one day. But at the rim of the Canyon (a much higher elevation than Phoenix) it was actually quite chilly, hovering closer to 30-40 degrees in the morning.

Another thing that surprised me is how much my fear of heights (acrophobia) would bother me while we were there. Now, I’m no dumby, I knew the Canyon was big and deep, I’d just assumed it would be more of a gentle sloping kind of height, or that there would be a guardrail at the least. Nope!

My fear kicked in pretty quickly as I tried to keep my fearless child from plummeting to his death every ten minutes! Of course I am exaggerating, but I had been completely clueless at how open the Grand Canyon would be for the more adventurous of humans (not me). And Gabriel was loving the views and was even transfixed with bugs (that we also have in Indiana), and keeping up with him and making sure he was in no way close to the edge was a full time job, it seemed.

I’d made a little formula for how close I could get to the edge and still feel safe (yes, that’s how crazy I can be when it comes to heights). I decided that I needed to be my height (a bit over 5 feet) and a few feet extra in order to be safe (just in case I rolled while I fell face first?). 

That didn’t last long with Gabriel, but luckily for me, we were also with my mom who seemed slightly more rational than I was about the proximity to the edge of the canyon. She would brave closer with Gabriel, while I turned away… because somehow that kept them safe (I don’t know, but it made sense in my mind).

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Mr. Adventure Man – always climbing on something. 

 

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One of our first views of the Grand Canyon

The other thing that surprised me about the Grand Canyon was the massiveness of it. Of course I knew the Grand Canyon was… well, grand! I just didn’t have any frame of reference for what that meant. I was continually frustrated that my camera could not capture how massive it was. Every picture I took was amazing, but the pictures are NOTHING in comparison to the reality of the Canyon. It was beyond anything I’d ever known before.

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In the pictures the colors are not nearly vivid enough, the scope not nearly broad enough. But I tried to capture what I could in my mind as we went around to some of the places we needed to see for Gabriel to be able to get his Junior Ranger badge work completed.

We learned many fascinating things about the Canyon, the habitats, and the wildlife surrounding it. One of the interesting facts that I still remember is that the only place that you can see the Grand Canyon all at once is from outer space! Even in an airplane, you can’t take the entire Canyon in at once… it’s too big! You have to be out of Earth’s atmosphere to see all of it at the same time. DUDE.

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Always ready for a picture

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Canyon selfie (at a safe distance from the edge)

Once we’d filled out the workbook for the Junior Ranger badge and completed the necessary tasks (like picking up trash that others rudely left behind), we went to a ranger station so that Gabriel could get sworn in. The Canyon (unlike the other parks we’d been to) swears in several kids all at once just due to the volume of kids getting the badges, but it was still a very cool experience, and again, one that Gabriel almost felt he wasn’t “good enough” for.

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Gabriel feeling very intimidated by the “old” kids.

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Signing his name to his certificate

The Grand Canyon has several restaurants in the park ranging from relatively cheap cafeteria style to very fancy sit-down places that have incredibly expensive food. Since the Canyon isn’t near any large cities, the park has everything you could need for an extended stay. There’s even a Catholic church in case you need a little Jesus with your nature.

Our lodge was outside of the main village (with several hotels, stores, and restaurants), but was just a quick walk away from the rim and a few convenience-type stores. In the evening we went and got some coffee (not Gabriel) and watched the sun set over the Canyon. There were tons of places to sit around outside and Gabriel especially liked the carvings in the stones of several different local birds.

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Showing off his own wingspan 

Our Grand Canyon adventure will last a few more weeks. Next week, join us as we drive around the park and see a few very cool places on the south rim!

The Grand Canyon Adventure Begins

As I take these adventures down memory lane of the travels I’ve made with my son over the years, I can’t help but have some of the fondest memories of our time in the Grand Canyon. For one, this was never a trip that I thought I would be able to go on with my son. For one, just getting there was something I didn’t think I would be able to afford.

In Europe, I’ve found travel to be amazingly cheap. A girl that I met in the Dublin hostel  I stayed in in 2016 flew from Milan to Dublin for €30 (approx. $35). That’s almost 900 miles. But for me to fly to Chicago (less than 200 miles by air) is $150 (approx. €135). Travel within the US is for some reason MUCH more expensive. In fact, I went to Dublin in 2016 because it was less than half as expensive as it would have been to go to Key West, which had been my original plan.

So, understandably I didn’t think it would be possible for me as a single mother to fly my son and I to Arizona, rent a car, get a hotel, and feed ourselves for the multiple days it would take to do the Canyon justice. I estimated it would likely cost us well over $2000… which, as an educator, would take a long time to save.

In stepped my parents. From my childhood, my parents understood the importance of traveling. We went on several trips as I was growing up: England, Florida, New England, and several states out west, as well as multiple trips to the Smokey Mountains and Chicago. So, it shouldn’t have surprised me that my parents would suggest that instead of the traditional Christmas presents, they would like to take Gabriel and I on trips instead.

One thing that I feel I truly understand about parenting is this:

Experiences last much longer in the memory and create more true joy than any gift.

My father is an avid hiker – he has summited Mt. Rainer and Kilimanjaro, and in 2013 he wanted to do the Rim to Rim to Rim hike (starting at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, hiking to the northern rim, and then back again). And my mom thought it would be fun while he was off hiking, if we (she, Gabriel, and I) could explore the Grand Canyon and a few other national parks near(ish) there.

So, off we went in March of 2013!

It was much less expensive to fly to Las Vegas rather than Pheonix, so we did that. It is a much longer drive, but it seemed worth the money that would be saved. So we got our gear together and headed off to Vegas!

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Gabriel and my dad at the Indianapolis International Airport – two buddies!

The only real issue that we had at the airport is that the ticket counter workers wouldn’t let my dad’s friend bring the MREs they had packed for the hiking trip (I think) because of the heat tabs inside that they use for cooking. And that was their plan for food the entire hike. That was a big problem for them. We were going to arrive at the Canyon in the middle of the night and they were going to start their hike at first light (before stores would open).

But, there wasn’t anything that could be done. If I remember correctly, they kept the food and just relinquished the heat tabs. The plan was to stop at a camping supply store somewhere between Vegas and the Canyon and get what they needed.

The flight there was Gabriel’s first time in an airplane (he was 8 years old), and he didn’t seem to mind it. I think he was a little unnerved by the ear popping, but I armed him with chewing gum and showed him the joys of excessive yawning.

Walking off the plane in Vegas was hilarious for me. Literally– immediately after we got out of the passage from the plane to the airport we were greeted by this:

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slot machines at the airport????

I had never seen slot machines in real life before – just the movies – and it was fascinating! The music, the flashing lights… all very intriguing. I have nothing against gambling other than it seems like a big time and money suck, but I did find it a little disheartening to see so many people make a bee line for the slot machines straight out of the gate.  I can’t stop putting a puzzle together once I’ve started, so I figured that gambling would probably be a bad idea for me, so we kept on going to pick-up our luggage.

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Outside at the airport

 

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Lake Mead as we were leaving Las Vegas

Once we got our rental van, all six of us (my parents, my dad’s two friends, and Gabriel and I) packed in and headed toward the Grand Canyon. Since we were going to the south rim of the Canyon, that was a five-hour drive. That is until you figure in stopping at every. single. store. in between the two locations that might have camping gear. And that is exactly what we had to do. Apparently there had been a run on camping gear or something, because EVERY place we stopped was out.

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Gabriel keeping himself occupied during the drive

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The only stops we made were in towns, but I tried as best as I could to capture some of the rugged beauty of Arizona as we drove.

When we finally made it to the lodge where we were staying near the rim of the Canyon, it was late. Late, late. Like way past the middle of the night late, and our bodies (especially that of an eight-year-old) were still on Eastern Time. But we made it!

And as frustrating and long as the trip was, when we stepped out of the van, the night sky made me gasp. Out in the deserts of Arizona, there isn’t much light pollution at all– for HUNDREDS of miles. I’d been camping before out in the “wilds” of Indiana and Illinois and seen the “unpolluted skies” before… or so I’d thought.

Looking up from the parking lot, I saw more stars than sky! It was absolutely unreal, and I wish that my camera had done it justice so that I could share it with you. Alas, you will just have to find a way to experience it for yourself.

Every night for the entire trip I would go outside after dark and marvel at the sky.

The world has so many wonders for us. And just when I think I’ve seen the most beautiful thing that I could ever see, the world surprises me and gives me something new. And the beauty is so diverse! The desert is a completely different beauty from the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, which is a totally different from the beauty of the rugged cliffs of Meteora, Greece, which is completely different from the magnificence of the Colosseum in Rome… and I could go on and on.

I honestly can’t pick which is the “most” beautiful… because each of their beauty is incomparable!

And that night, the sky above the lodge in the Grand Canyon expressed perfectly that phenomenal beauty that the world can give us.

Next week I’ll talk about our first day at the Canyon and the wonderful sights we saw!


If you are new to the blog – start here, at the beginning of the blog series about my travels with my son:

St. Louis, Missouri

Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave

Scotland in Kentucky?

Scotland in Kentucky?

My son and I love to go on adventures! In my current blog series I am exploring some of our trips from the past. Last week, I highlighted our first day at Mammoth Cave National Park. This week we are going to look at the places we stayed near the park, and a wonderful side adventure that we hadn’t planned on.

Where to stay when visiting Mammoth Cave

I’m sure there are several lovely places that you can stay near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. However, I am very partial to our choice — Glasgow, Kentucky.

I will be honest with you. I chose Glasgow because of the name. I’d wanted to go to Scotland for several years, but just couldn’t justify leaving my young son to go on my own, and I wasn’t about to take him with me and spend hundreds of dollars on a trip that he wouldn’t remember in ten years. So, Glasgow, Kentucky was my compromise! Glasgow does have their own Highland Games, but we were not there for that.

32 Best Glasgow KY images | Glasgow ky, Glasgow, Kentucky

Glasgow is a lovely little town to visit! Along with the wonderful history of the town, it is a beautiful place. The town square is typical small town USA, but what is not to love about that?

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We were there in excellent weather – it was a little cool, but pleasantly so. We were able to walk from our bed and breakfast to the town center in about two minutes, and there was quite a lot to look at, from statues, to lovely scenery, gazebos, and of course the old architecture.

Our bed and breakfast was the lovely Main Street Bed and Breakfast, which is still in operation. It is owned by a different person now– we went in 2012, and it went under new ownership in 2018. From the look of the website, it seems like it was placed in very good hands, and their dog alone makes me want to go back!

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The house was full of period decorations, exposed brick, cast iron fixtures- the works! It was simply gorgeous! Gabriel and I stayed in one of their smaller rooms with a private bath, and it was beautiful and spacious!

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The Greer Room

I was so pleased with the room! But that wasn’t even the best part! There was a lovely sitting room that was cozy and quiet.

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The breakfast was also lovely, but I won’t dwell too much on that since it is under new ownership, and I don’t have first hand experience with their cooking.

The kitchen was also an experience with decorative pieces everywhere, and a very inviting atmosphere.

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One very cool thing about the bed and breakfast was their private “cabin” of sorts. We didn’t stay there, obviously, but the owner showed it to us because it was vacant at the time we arrived. It offers a bit more privacy, and it has its own little porch. However, it is only a few steps away from the main house, so the walk to breakfast is possibly even shorter than coming downstairs from the Greer Room where we stayed.

I highly recommend both Glasgow AND Main Street B & B!

Unforeseen Surprise

Our second day at Mammoth Cave was filled with another tour of the main cavern as well as a walk through the museum, which was both informative and interactive – perfect for a young one (and his mom).

However, the coolest part of the day was talk with the rangers, of course! I have the utmost respect for these intelligent and caring individuals who ALWAYS made our trips more exciting.

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Gabriel got sworn in as a junior ranger of Mammoth Cave National Park, and then he had his second badge.

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Yet another wonderful thing about the rangers is that they love talking to the children who get the badges.  When the ranger found out we were returning home that day, she asked if we were going to the Lincoln’s Birthplace National Historic Site, which was on the way back to Indianapolis. She even gave me a tip on a scenic route that was faster than the interstate… and prettier. And boy was she right! Unfortunately since I was driving and Gabriel was only six, I don’t have any pictures of the drive, but if you’re headed north from Mammoth Cave, definitely take the 357 to Hodgenville, Kentucky! Green fields dotted with white sheep and stunningly red tobacco barns followed us all the way there. For the first time in my life I understood why people voluntarily lived in Kentucky. 🙂

Lincoln’s Birthplace National Historic Site is very beautiful! A hidden gem, it is lusciously green with wonderful hiking trails. We didn’t get to do much of that because we’d already had a full day before we got there, however, I would love to go back and look at their sunken gardens. Had I known about it before-hand, we would have stayed an extra day so that we could spend more time in Hodgenville.

The big “claim to fame” of the historic site is the monument with a replica of the cabin where Lincoln was born. It isn’t much to speak of on the inside, but the outside is very beautiful. There are 56 steps leading up into the monument that represent each of the years Lincoln was alive, and there are several references to the number 16 since Lincoln was the sixteenth President.

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In the end, Gabriel got a new badge, and we had a lovely stop partway on our trip home!

Come back next week we we jump forward in time to our trip to the Grand Canyon!


If you’re new to the blog, check out the other blogs in this series: 

St. Louis, Missouri 

Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave

Or check out some of my other blogs about my other travels! Here are a few of my favorites:

The Healing Balm of Ireland

I found my soul’s home in Glendalough

“You stayed WHERE?” And Other Things People Say to Solo Travelers.

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Mini-Vaca in the USA

Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave

After a successful trip with the boy (to St. Louis, Missouri), I felt very empowered to take my young son on more adventures. The park ranger at The Gateway Arch National Park was monumentally important in determining the trajectory for all of our trips from that point out.

Gabriel wanted more junior ranger badges!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Junior Ranger program and you have small kids, I highly suggest doing this with your children. When visiting National Parks, Historic Sites, National Shorelines, etc, visit the ranger station and your child will get an activity book to fill out while exploring the area. The workbooks are age adjusted, so the activities for preschoolers are much less intense than the ones for older elementary children. It’s a great way to learn about the park, and the park rangers get totally stoked to swear-in the kids. Every park we’ve been to, the rangers stop whatever they are doing to help kids– even at one park they “fought” over who got to swear Gabriel in that day.  They are wonderful, wonderful people!

Mammoth

Being a teacher has many positives and negatives, but one of the positives is that I have breaks from work when my son has breaks from school… for the most part. And, in central Indiana we have a modified schedule where we have multiple two-week breaks: two weeks in October, two weeks in December, two weeks in March/April. My school does something slightly different now, but at the time of this trip, we had two weeks in October- and so we looked for National Parks that we could drive to pretty easily.

Gabriel decided that his next adventure should be Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, just 3 1/2 hours from where we live. We decided to go over our fall break since the tree colors would be pretty on the drive and in the park.

On the first day of our trip, we started off early and went straight to the park. We got there in time to go on a tour of the main cave. There is a small fee to go on the guided tours, but it is well worth it for the vast knowledge of the park rangers.

There are a plethora of tour options from the very tame, where you walk on well-lit paths that are basically paved and accessible to everyone, to the extremely intense, where you are crawling on your belly and need head-lamps. I believe they even have zip-lining now!  We took the basic tour of the main cavern since my son was still quite young, just six years old.

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Entrance to the main cavern – note the park ranger on the far bottom right for scale

At that age, Gabriel soaked up every. single. word. the ranger uttered. He instructed me what I should write down in the activity book, and he made sure that I kept track of the different uses for the caves over the years.

Some of the great facts we learned:

  • It is the longest system of underground caves in the entire world
  • Originally it was thought to be several different systems that were eventually connected through further exploration
  • Portions of the cave are still unexplored and underwater
  • Evidence of Native American habitation has been found in multiple portions of the cave
  • For a time it was used as a tuberculosis hospital
  • Discoveries are still being made
  • Some animals discovered in the cave (insects) have completely translucent skin because of the complete lack of light (Gabriel’s favorite fact)

Park rules prohibit flash photography in the cave, and this was 2012, so I probably had an iPhone 3 that I was using as a camera. 🙂  Here are a few pictures that are less awful than the rest.

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The slope down into the cave

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It’s difficult to describe how massive the cave is– the shadow on the left is about four times bigger than the actual person that gives some kind of scope.

One of the coolest part of the tour we went on was that once we had walked around for a while and looked at the various sites, the ranger warned us and then turned out all of the lights in the cave. I have never known complete darkness like that. I had my hand right in front of my eyes, and couldn’t see anything – not even the movement of my hand. If it makes sense, it was even darker than when I close my eyes! The lights were only out for a few brief moments, but it was nothing like I’d ever experienced before.

After our tour, we hiked on several trails around the main cave and the visitor center. It was a beautiful cool day, but not so cold that you needed a coat.

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Trees on the trails

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This is the face of a very excited young man. He loved the hiking we got to do!

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“Take a picture of me walking by myself, Mom”

Fall was the right time to visit Kentucky. The leaves on the trees were turning, and it was positively beautiful.

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One of several “sink-hole” cave entrances

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This is his pensive stance

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Like many National Parks, Mammoth Cave has a lodge where you can stay in the park, and they also have several campgrounds for both tents and campers. We chose to stay in nearby Glasgow, Kentucky – but I’ll talk more about that in the next post when I talk about day two of our wonderful time at Mammoth Cave National Park!

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New to the blog?

Check out the first mom/son adventure that my son and I went on: 

Or, check out my adventures in Ireland in 1997 by starting here: 

How about my trip to Italy and Greece with some of my students? Start here:

St. Louis, Missouri

Welcome to a new series on the blog!

Since last September, my blogs looked at my travels either by myself or with students. However, this Mother’s Day (in the US Mother’s Day was this last Sunday), I am starting a blog about the trips that my son and I have gone on — mostly by ourselves, but there will be a few travels that we also took with my parents.

We are kicking off the series with our very first mother/son trip.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a single mom of a fabulous 13-year-old young man. At the ripe ol’ age of 28 I found myself suddenly single with a 2-year-old– that’s a different story that I’d rather not get into in this light-hearted blog, but it gives you a little background.

Growing up, my family went on some truly wonderful vacations, and as my son got older, I felt like he was getting cheated out of those kinds of experiences because of my fear of traveling alone with a young child. So I decided that I was done “waiting around” for our life situation to change, and we began to go on trips, just the two of us.

So one day while driving home from Dairy Queen (an ice cream store for you non-Americans), I asked my son where he would like to go on vacation. He was five years old at the time, and I anticipated hearing something along the lines of Disney World or some other place that children have heard of. Instead he says boldly that he wants very much to go to St. Louis.

St. Louis? Where on Earth does a five-year-old year about St. Louis? And then it came to me… Veggie Tales… “Meet me in St. Louie, Louie. Meet me at the fair.” So I laughed, and figured when I asked him a few weeks later he might change his mind (as five-year-olds often do). However, Gabriel was consistent, and so a few weeks later I booked us a stay at a (cheap) centrally located hotel in the lovely city of St. Louis.

Though I grew up only a few hours away from St. Louis, I had NEVER been! I’d heard many lovely things about the place, but I mainly new about the arch and that was it. So I did some research, and a few months later, we were on our way- braving the road on our own!

Honestly, St. Louis was a wonderful place for us to start our adventures. For one, it’s only a four-hour drive from Indianapolis, which isn’t too terrible for a five-year-old to handle in one go. We did stop for lunch, where he lost his second tooth, and we found out that the Tooth Fairy does find you no matter where you are staying. AND she gives bigger gifts in new places because Mom didn’t have any change. 🙂

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Our first stop was, of course, the Mississippi River. We crossed the bridge from Illinois into Missouri, and pulled over almost immediately into the riverfront parking. We walked along the shore for a while enjoying the cool breeze off the water – the temperatures for the days we were there were in the mid-90s, so the breeze was welcomed!

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The first thing Gabriel noticed was a river boat, and we simply HAD to take the day cruise right that minute! So that’s what we did — it was the perfect way to see the city for the first time. The guide came over the speakers and pointed out famous landmarks and gave us historical insights into the city and the expansion of Anglo-invaders to the western portions of the United States.

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We chose the boat Tom Sawyer for obvious reasons– I’m an English teacher!

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The English teacher in me found the name of this boat particularly hilarious

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After our trip on the boat, we headed straight for the arch! Gabriel was blown away by the sheer size of the arch. We went under the arch where there is a museum run by the National Park Service and it is free (donations are accepted).  The museum gives much of the history of Westward Expansion, life on the prairie, and how people lived before the west was “settled.” It was truly fascinating for us both, and we came back the next day as well because Gabriel wanted to see it again.

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A statue of Thomas Jefferson – the president who pushed Westward Expansion

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partial replica of a sod house

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At this museum we had a defining experience. It seems strange to say that, but it is true. The park ranger who explained the museum to us gave us a worksheet for Gabriel to complete while we looked around, and he told us to come back when we were finished.

We walked around the exhibits and answered the questions and returned, as instructed, to the park ranger station. The ranger then told us about the Junior Ranger program, and explained to Gabriel (not me) the importance of keeping our National Parks and historic sights clean, safe, and protected. He told Gabriel that as a Junior Ranger, it was his responsibility to make sure he did whatever he could to keep the parks clean and safe. Then, he swore Gabriel in as a Junior Ranger and gave him his first (of many) Junior Ranger badges. Later Gabriel expressed to me that he thought the responsibility was too big for him and insisted that we go back and return the badge. It took quite some time before I was able to convince him that he was up to the challenge (so cute)!

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After leaving the museum, we went back above ground and walked around the arch.  We laid on the grass under the arch and looked up and traced it with our fingers and talked about how, from where we were, it looked like it got paper-thin at the top. He was fascinated and horrified (thankfully) that you could travel all the way to the top and look out at the world from the top.

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Here is a life lesson for you new parents out there: I should have stopped there. We had experienced quite a bit in our short time in St. Louis so far, and I should have steered us to the hotel and have been done with it. However, wanting to squeeze as much as we could into the day, I insisted that we keep going.

Five-year-olds do not have the same attention spans as their parents, and though I enjoyed the Old Courthouse quite a bit with its beautiful architecture…

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… Gabriel did not!

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This was after I told him we could get ice cream if he just stoped frowning. 

That night at the hotel we ordered a pizza and relaxed. Gabriel’s good mood returned when he learned that there was an entire channel on the TV dedicated to just golf! We watched golf for nearly an hour before I couldn’t take it anymore, and I finally got us both to sleep!

Day 2

We started out our day back at the arch, back at the museum, and of course the gift shop! We also took another cruise because our hotel gave us a free ticket… so we HAD to go! Then we visited the Dred Scott museum, and Gabriel was much more into that than he had been at the courthouse.

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Peek-a-boo!

We also encountered a lovely public park in the middle of the city with statues, fountains, and interactive art. I highly recommend going – it is just west of the Old Courthouse.

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Another note: You cannot do St. Louis the justice it deserves in two days! There were SO many things we didn’t do on that trip because we simply didn’t have the time. I’d learned my lesson the first day, and I let Gabriel guide the trip – and though I wanted him to see even more, I decided he would have the most fun if he got to choose the itinerary. So that’s what we did. We didn’t see the zoo, or the sportsball stadiums, the City Museum or Grant’s Farm. However, my son has the time of his life, and I enjoyed watching him enjoy the city!

All in all this was a wonderful first vacation for the two of us! We had an amazing time, despite the record heat they had that summer, and we made life long memories!

Come back next week to read about our next adventure – Mammoth Cave!

The End of Ireland… for now

The end of our trip was very sad for me – and probably a little for my parents as well. My biggest fear as an 18 year old was that I would never go back. Though we had traveled a good loop through Ireland (Dublin to Glendalough to Waterford to Cork to Blarney to Kenmare to Kilarney to the Cliffs of Moher to Sligo to Donegal to Carrick on Shannon and back to Dublin), I knew there was so much more to see– and so much more to see in the places we hadn’t stayed long… like Glendalough and St. John’s Point.

But our trip wasn’t over yet.

Leaving Carrick on Shannon we finally cut inland for the first time and headed back to Bellcamp Hutchinson. Though our trip around the coast of Ireland had held unimaginable joys for us, returning to Bellcamp was in many ways like returning home — to people we knew, beds we knew, and a few days of rest before the inevitable trip back to the airport.

We spent some time in Dublin again, but I have very little memory of those last few days. My mother reminded me that we went to a bookstore- a rather large one… two stories, I think. She wanted to find a book that was IRISH! So she asked a bookseller what she should get – if they had anything by an Irish author that would be good to get while in Ireland.

Coincidentally enough, they had just had an author signing there the week before and still had several copies of this man’s book, the first book he’d published. We’d never heard of the book or the author, but my mom bought it off the bookseller’s recommendation while I bought a book of Irish mythology.

On the flight home, my mom started to read the book, but she didn’t like the way it started and put it down. We didn’t think of it for months (or maybe even a year) until I heard the author’s name and title of the book again. I gasped and called my mom to see if she still had that signed copy of the book, and she did. And now on my bookshelf at school sits a signed copy of Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes with a unique cover that we didn’t get here in the States.

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Unfortunately I will have to use this picture as a place holder until I can go back to school again and get a picture of the actual book with Frank McCourt’s signature in it.

At this point, I feel that I have to admit an error in my memory from of the earlier posts — I mentioned going to Malahide Castle on one of our first days in Dublin, but my parents corrected me tonight (they’re good about doing that). We went to Malahide on our return trip to the Dublin area and enjoyed the grounds. The weather took a rainy turn, and we found a pub close by to get something to eat. None of us could remember what time of day it was, but we were nearly the only people in the pub, so perhaps it was a bit early for the lunch or dinner hour, but it was cold and rainy and they served us the most amazing potato leek soup that I have ever had in my entire life! Years later when I had a home of my own, I tried to duplicate this soup but fell miserably short.  Though my (then) husband said it tasted divine and asked me to make it again, it just wasn’t right. Maybe you need the Irish air, or Irish produce, or maybe it is just my mind romanticizing the memory, but I long to someday have soup that magnificent again!

My father also reminded me of something that I hadn’t put together. On our last day we went to a “small little village north of Dublin to see a regatta.” When my father mentioned this to me today in our weekly talk about Ireland, my heart jumped a little bit. I asked him if he would recognize the name of the town if I said it, and he said he probably would.

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“Howth?”

“Yeah! That’s it.”

On my My Take-Back Year (and a half) I traveled to Ireland on my own.  It was my first time back since I’d been in 1997. On the advice of a student, I traveled to the town that I thought I’d never heard of before.  Howth was the name of that town.  I spent the my birthday doing the cliff walk to the lighthouse and exploring the town. I loved Howth, and when (in my weaker moments) I start planning another trip, Howth is always on the list!

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Me on the cliff walk in 2016

The next day, we left for the United States, but I knew that I was leaving a part of me in Ireland that I didn’t quite understand. Ireland fed my soul. It spoke to parts of me that I didn’t know existed. I’d felt something tangible while in Ireland, a pull to go back, to find more.

I talked to my parents about their big take-aways from the trip, and my father talked about the magic of that night out on St. John’s Point. It was a place we just “happened upon” and had some of the most unique experiences there, like seeing the whales go out to sea. My mother talked about how much she enjoyed seeing the adventure through my eyes. It had been my graduation gift to go anywhere in the world, and she said it was fun to watch me experience Ireland. As an 18 year old, I wouldn’t have understood that, but now as a mom, I get it.

In fact, that has inspired me for my next blog series! I am going to talk about the trips that my son and I have gone on over the years and the joy of seeing things through his eyes. So, next week, we will start with our first big adventure as mom and son — St. Louis, Missouri! Stay tuned!

And if you missed any of the other posts from my 1997 journey around Ireland, you can click the links below.


The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

Dublin: love at first sight

Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

Glendalough: My First Love

Waterford: More than Crystal

Blarney: Everything but Kissing the Stone

Kenmare and the Ring of Beara

From the Disappointing to the Magnificent

In Shadows and Sunshine

Surprised by Kylemore Abbey

Happy Little Accidents – St. John’s Point

From the Highest Cliffs to the Famous River

Happy Little Accidents – St. John’s Point

On this very epic journey of Ireland, the first of many for me, my parents had planned the itinerary months in advance, booking bed and breakfasts along the route we planned to take around the coast of Ireland and finally crossing through the middle, back to Dublin. One night’s stay was left unplanned, though. According to the itinerary my mother typed up, our next evening was supposed to be in Letterkenny, Ireland (no affiliation to the Canadian sitcom that makes no sense to me at all).

When preparing for this blog series I looked at the itinerary and did a double take – a hostel? We most definitely did NOT stay in a hostel. In fact, as I was drafting the different posts for the series, I wrote on this page (it has since been deleted):

A hostel? There is no way we stayed in a hostel– I have zero memory of this. Must ask the parents.

I love my parents dearly, but they are not really the hostel staying kind of people.  And after consulting my journal, I found no reference to Letterkenny or a hostel.

So, as usual the Sunday before a blog post, I talked with my parents about the next leg of our journey in July of 1997. Nope. No hostel. They couldn’t remember why we didn’t go to Letterkenny, but when I read in my journal just before writing this, I remembered why we left. In the summer of 1997 (and July specifically) tensions were growing in Northern Ireland. Protests and riots were in the news, and Letterkenny was very near the border with Northern Ireland, so we decided not to go. Instead, we just decided to drive along the coast and see what we could find.

After leaving Ballina in County Mayo, we continued north up the western coast of Ireland – what I now know as the Wild Atantic Way – we encountered amazing little towns – like Sligo (for more information on the beauty of Sligo, read this blog!).

The most serendipitous part of our trip was happening upon Saint John’s Point in County Donegal. I’m not sure how we happened upon it, but I think we just saw a sign and were like Hey, let’s see what this is. And wow…

We stayed at a beautiful little bed and breakfast called Harbour Lights (no longer a bed and breakfast) – and from the front lawn you could see the water to the north and the south– that’s how narrow the peninsula was at that point. I wrote in my journal that night sitting on the stone fence looking out over the water.

The evening was magical. We decided to just get some groceries at a local store in Dunkineely and have a picnic out on the tip of the peninsula where there was a beautiful view of the ocean and lighthouse.

The evening at the lighthouse was phenomenal. We sat on our jackets and ate our sandwiches and talking. The weather was perfect. To top it off, as we were walking we saw whales jumping and playing just off the coast – probably a quarter of a mile from where were were standing. At first we couldn’t believe what we were seeing – but it was obvious, they were much too big to be fish or even dolphins — it was a pod of whales going out to sea. There were other people out on the point and we kind of looked at each other to see if we were seeing the same thing.

The coastline was breathtaking – watching the waves crash against the rock with the green of the grass and stark white of the walls around the lighthouse and the lighthouse itself.  We walked around for quite some time, and stayed around to watch the resplendent sunset well after 10pm. The colors were breathtaking.

As Bob Ross would have said, this adventure was a happy accident. And much like several of the other places we visited on this trip, I truly never wanted to leave that spot.


Other posts in this series:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

Dublin: love at first sight

Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

Glendalough: My First Love

Waterford: More than Crystal

Blarney: Everything but Kissing the Stone

Kenmare and the Ring of Beara

From the Disappointing to the Magnificent

In Shadows and Sunshine

Surprised by Kylemore Abbey

 

Surprised by Kylemore Abbey

Leaving County Clare was not easy. Seeing the beauty of the Cliffs of Moher and the phenomenal wildlife coupled with the raw beauty of the coast made it difficult to believe that Ireland could continue to amaze me in more intense ways than it already had.

Oh, how little did I understand Ireland.

As we drove north toward Ballina (County Mayo), we passed through some beautiful landscapes.

We stopped for lunch in Gallway, which I wasn’t very impressed with at the time. I described it in my journal as being “like most cities” with “chain restaurants with their own parking lots.” I’m sorry, Galway! My more recent trip hit me very differently and I enjoyed the scenery very much. However, as an 18 year old in 1997, I found Galway to be very tedious.

Excerpt from my journal about Galway

Our weather this day was beautiful – sunny and warm. The sun does just as much for the beauty of Ireland as the rain. The greens in contrasts with the deep blues of lakes in the valleys of hills and mountains dotted with white sheep seems to shine even brighter beneath the clear skies. We drove most of the day, but I didn’t mind because of the beauty of the scenery.

While we were driving we caught sight of something that made us literally stop in our tracks – Kylemore Abbey. We decided to investigate, knowing nothing about this beautiful castle in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a lake. We were surprised to find out that Kylemore Abbey is one of the more famous places in Ireland.

Originally the home of a wealthy family, the castle eventually became the home of nuns who were displaced during World War 1, and they’ve been there ever since. Indiana connection: The have a partnership with the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) for their study abroad program!

About a mile up the mountain behind the abbey is a giant statue of Christ with his arms outstretched, as if inviting people to the abbey. Unfortunately we couldn’t go up there because we needed to get to Ballina before dark, so we left fascinated by what we had happened upon.

In Ballina we stayed at Ashley House bed and breakfast which appears to still be operational, though it does not have it’s own website. TripAdvisor has a listing, though with very little information.

The host told us that Ballina was having a festival and that evening was “international night”, so we went into town. The center was blocked off to traffic and different sections were set off as different “countries.” The US section had classic cars from the 50s and a miniature Statue of Liberty. I don’t remember this, but my mother told me that they even had “hotdogs”– but they didn’t taste ANYTHING like actual hotdogs (which is probably a good thing in my opinion). France had an Eiffel Tower and can-can dancers. Germany had an oompah band and copious amounts of lederhosen. It was quite a night!

I checked online and Ballina still has the Salmon Festival– and as of April, it is still planned for the second week of July. Dear Ballina, I hope that you get to have your festival this year because I enjoyed my one night of it!


Other posts in this series:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

Dublin: love at first sight

Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

Glendalough: My First Love

Waterford: More than Crystal

Blarney: Everything but Kissing the Stone

Kenmare and the Ring of Beara

From the Disappointing to the Magnificent

In Shadows and Sunshine