Road trip

Traveling to the South, Part II

The first destination on Tuesday’s itinerary was Mt. Bonnell. We weren’t sure what to expect from “the highest point in Austin,” we really just wanted something to climb and a nice view from the top.

We got up early and drove to Covert Park in the relative cool-ish of the morning.We found a strip of parking spots and a stone staircase leading up a hillside.

There are about 100 steps, and when you’ve reached the top of the stairs, you’ve reached the top of Mt Bonnell.

There are shaded seating areas at the peak. This is a very domesticated “mountain.”

It wasn’t quite the climb we were expecting, but the views are great.

Luke said, “I think I can see Toad Hall from here.”

We found a trail at the top that runs along the crest and down the sides, curving around at both ends to emerge on either side of the parking lot. Once we had walked the full length of that, we felt like we had seen everything that Mt. Bonnel had to offer. We decided to just drive around for a while and see what there was to find.

We hadn’t driven far when we saw the entrance to Mayfield Park. A friend had mentioned that there are peacocks wandering around that park, so we pulled in. Can confirm: there are peacocks, and they wail in the trees like cats in heat.

We walked a nice little loop trail through the park and then continued our exploration.

Next we found the Contemporary Austin Sculpture Park. That was interesting.

After that we came to the Zilker Park Botanical Gardens.

I was honestly surprised by how little effort seemed to be put into this.

It’s like they had a few spare acres they didn’t know what to do with, so they decided to put in some stone terracing and a few pools and some koi and call it the Botanical Gardens.

The Botanical Gardens in Fort Worth and Dallas and hell, even Grapevine are nicer than the ones in Zilker Park, which was a genuine surprise to me. I don’t mean to sound complainy, it was still pretty and we enjoyed it. It just didn’t seem that different from any other park in Austin.

I have no idea why we’re standing so awkwardly far apart in this pic. I think it’s because I set the camera timer and ran over to join the kids and they just stayed where they were instead of scooching in.

I did like the dinosaur.

And there was a fun temporary exhibit of fairy houses made by local families and organizations. That was probably my favorite part.

It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the Botanical Gardens to Zilker Metropolitan Park, so that was our next stop. We wanted to see Barton Springs Pool and decide whether we wanted to go swimming there. On our way to the pool, we found a little miniature railroad that gives 25-minute rides around the park. We bought tickets. While we waited for the train, we checked out the pool and the adjacent creek swimming area and then had some snacks from a food truck. We were hungry enough for a full meal, but we had a 1pm lunch date with an old friend and didn’t want to spoil our appetites.

The train ride was fun and pretty.

We passed a kayak rental place and decided to come back and rent some kayaks after lunch. We passed Lou Neff Point and recognized the stone overlook as the place where we had decided to turn back on our hike the night before. In the distance we saw a big random heap of rocks in the middle of a field of grass, and of course we knew immediately that they must be climbed.

When the train ride ended, we made a beeline for the rocks. I have no idea why we love climbing stuff so much, but it’s a call that must be answered.

At 12:30 we headed off in search of a Whataburger. Now, I realize that visiting Austin and eating at Whataburger is like visiting NYC and eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square. But here’s the story for those who don’t know it: years ago, when play-by-email rpgs were my drug of choice, I played in a game called Austin After Dark. A key scene in that game was set in a Whataburger off of S Lamar. When I was planning the Austin trip, I messaged a fellow AAD player who lives in the area, told her that I would be in the city and asked her if she’d like to meet up at a certain Whataburger off of S Lamar to raise an iced-tea toast to our old characters and their adventures. She said that she would love to meet up, but that that particular Whataburger had closed down. However, there is another Whataburger off of S Lamar that would do just as well. So we met up there and had a really nice visit. I had only met her in person once before, on the 2007 road trip that launched this blog, but we have a gaming history that dates back to a Star Trek pbem I joined in 2002. (As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Luke commented, “I have no memory of that person, but that was a nice conversation.”)

After lunch, we headed back to Zilker park and rented three kayaks.

 

Elizabeth wanted to paddle all the way to the Congress Ave Bridge to see the bats underneath. I told her that the kayaks were rented out by the hour and that there was no way we could get to Congress Ave and back in an hour. She was very determined to try. So I told her we could make the attempt, as long as she agreed to pay for the second hour. She agreed to that, and we headed down the river.

Turns out you can’t actually see the bats in the daytime. You can hear them squeaking, but I guess parts of the bridge are hollow and they live inside. We chilled for a while and listened to their shrill little bat-voices.

Elizabeth got this shot with her phone camera. Swans!

My life’s philosophy in a nutshell:

Our expedition to the bridge and back took about an hour and twenty minutes. But the rental place only charged us for an hour, so Elizabeth was off the hook for her share.

Barton Springs Pool is fenced in and it costs money to swim there.

We decided that it would be more fun to swim in the adjacent creek area.

That would have been a good call if we had thought to bring pool shoes. The bottom of the creek is very rocky and slippery. And the spring-fed creek is COLD! We swam for less than an hour. Brr!

Our original plan had been to spend two days in Austin, but halfway through Day 2 we knew we wanted to stay for a third day. We didn’t want to stay at the same motel, though. We had only picked it because it was cheap and all we wanted was a place to sleep. But when we checked in they had added a bunch of bullshit extra fees (per-person charges in addition to the cost of the room? Really? AND you’re charging me per device for wifi?) that made it not-so-cheap. For the second night we stayed at a hotel next to the motel where we’d spent the first night. It was nicer and didn’t cost any more than the “cheap” motel had, since wifi was free and no weird fees were tacked onto the room cost.

Luke wanted to wait until dark and then walk around downtown to see the city lights close-up. I did not have the energy for another hike. We compromised: I napped at the hotel until dark and then we drove around downtown. That was pretty magical, and everything Luke hoped it would be.

Then we returned to the hotel and I slept like the dead for so long that we barely made it out of the room by the 11am checkout time.

Next: Day 3!

Read Part I here

Read Part III here

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Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Austin After Dark, environment, Family, food, Friends, Gaming, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Role-Playing Games, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Travelling to the South, Part I

In March a fortune cookie told me it was time for another road trip:

So this week I cashed in some vacation time and we headed down to Austin. The trip was part recreation, part research. Once Luke turns 18 we’ll be free to relocate to wherever we please, so we’re checking out our options. There’s a lot to like about DFW, but we had never planned to grow old and die here.

We headed out bright and early on a Monday morning…and a warning light appeared on my dash display as soon as we pulled out of our parking lot.

My gallant Saturn, may she rest in peace, died a sudden and unjust death last fall when another car ran her out of her freeway lane and into the concrete divider. My new car has more bells and whistles than I’m used to, so I didn’t recognize the ominous-looking caliper-and-exclamation-point icon. Not going to lie, I was imagining the worst. But I stopped to get ice for the cooler as planned while Elizabeth googled warning light symbols for my car. Turned out it was just a low-tire-pressure warning. Whew!

The next stop was our favorite local donut shop, The Donut Wheel in Hurst. We have become indoctrinated in the Texas way of the kolache and needed a dozen sausage for the road. I recently read that the sausage ones aren’t really kolaches at all, they are klobasniki, but I’ve never actually heard anyone call them that.

Once properly provisioned, we headed to a nearby Firestone to put air in the tires. The warning light went out, and as an added bonus I’ve noticed a big improvement in gas mileage.

Of course we stopped in West, the kolache capital of Texas, to resupply. We went to a different bakery this time, because I’d heard good things about their cinnamon rolls.

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Check out the nice scuff on my shiny new bumper. Just a few months after I replaced the Saturn, I got rear-ended by an uninsured driver. Their front end was all crumpled in, though, so I guess my little scuff could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, the cinnamon rolls turned out to be intimidatingly enormous, so we got a dozen fruit and cheese kolaches instead. They were yummy.

I was expecting traffic to start being awful somewhere around Temple and stay awful the whole time we were in Austin. Surprisingly, traffic wasn’t an issue at all, even within Austin proper, until our return drive.

When I first started planning the trip, it was all about the outdoor activities. But then the forecast showed temps above 100º both days, so we started thinking of ways to stay cool and still have fun. I asked Luke if he’d like to tour the State Capitol Building, and he gave me an enthusiastic yes. That was our first stop as soon as we rolled into the city.

It is gorgeous, every inch of it.

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I found a self-tour booklet for Luke and let him lead the way, since he’s the political/history wonk in the family.

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I loved all the little architectural details.

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Even the door hinges are lovely!

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In the early 1990s, an expansion was added beneath (or sunk into, I guess) the north plaza of the original building.

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I wanted to explore the whole grounds, but once we were outside the heat made Luke cranky. I took a quick tour while he waited on a shady bench. I mostly saw tributes to Confederate soldiers and Texas’ role in the Civil War…

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…but my favorite sculpture was a large scene honoring the pioneers that settled Texas.

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It really was too sweltering to spend much time outside. We found a nearby motel and the kids napped through the hottest hours of the afternoon. I woke them up when it was almost time for the bats to emerge from the Congress Ave Bridge.

We wanted to explore the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake, so I parked down by the softball park near Longhorn Dam and we walked up the boardwalk side of the bank toward Congress Ave as dusk gathered.

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The unbearable crowds we’d been warned about never really materialized either. We saw people out and about, jogging or walking their dogs or just enjoying the parks and trails along the river, but we never felt crowded at all.

Luke and Elizabeth were mildly taken aback by Austin’s very casual dress code. In the Metroplex, at least in the areas we frequent, you would never see guys walking around in nothing but shorts and sneakers, or women wearing just sports bras and spandex shorts, the way you do in Austin. As Elizabeth put it, “DFW is King’s Landing and Austin is Highgarden.”

Another thing we noticed was an inexplicable absence of mosquitoes. Walking along a woodsy river at twilight in July, we should have been eaten alive. I don’t think I got a single mosquito bite the entire time we were in Austin.

I was expecting big crowds around the bat-bridge at least, but there was plenty of room for everyone. We decided to watch the show from up on the bridge itself. We got to the top just as the bats began to emerge.

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I had imagined a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event that lasts less than a minute, but it’s nothing like that. The bats just keep on coming. Suddenly the lack of mosquitoes made sense.

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When the bat-exodus finally ended, we continued up the trail with the intention of hiking the entire loop around the lake.

We saw Stevie Ray Vaughn…

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And got some sweet views of the Austin skyline lighting up.

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Eventually we realized that we would not have time to complete the loop before the trail closed at 10pm. Since a series of bridges crosses the river/lake, we decided to cross the next bridge we came to and head back toward the car.

But somehow, even after we had crossed the next bridge and headed “back,” the city lights were still getting farther and farther away.

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Finally we decided to just stop, turn around and backtrack to the car.

If it had been daytime, we would have easily seen the problem. But it was completely dark out by then and we were unfamiliar with the area. We were about halfway back to the car before I realized that the bridge we had crossed must have been the one spanning the Barton Creek tributary rather than the river itself. That’s not a mistake we could have made in the daylight.

We didn’t make it back to the car until around 10:30, but no one bothered us. The illuminated buildings provided some nice scenery along the way.

The most noticeable change after the 10pm curfew was that the joggers and dog-walkers were replaced by homeless people settling into the corners for the night.

I had been in so much of a hurry to see the bats that I completely missed the belts the first time across the boardwalk, but I looked for them on the way back. They are all along the railings: little sculpted metal belts with bits of song lyrics engraved onto them. You can barely see the letters in the glare of my camera flash, but this one says, “In dreams I walk with you.”

Our car was right where we left it, and we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

Thus ended our first day in Austin. Much more to follow!

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, environment, Family, food, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

In the Hall of the Mountain King (Road Trip, Part II)

We woke to heavy rain the next morning. Elizabeth was worried that we would not be able to do the Zip Lines or the Canopy Explorer at Natural Bridge like we’d planned. But by the time we pulled into the park, the rain had all but stopped.

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We went straight to the outdoor attractions, in case the weather turned wet again later. It’s hard to describe the Canopy, but it’s a lot of fun and looks like this:

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You’re buckled into a harness the whole time, so you can’t fall while you practice your balance beam and tightrope skills.

I actually balked when we did the zip line thing and I saw the view from the top platform. I thought I had outgrown my fear of heights, but apparently not. Once I was off the edge and sailing through the sky, though, it was all good.

Here’s the Natural Bridge that inspired the park’s name:

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We did two separate cavern tours, the Hidden Passages Tour and the Discovery Tour. The first, Hidden Passages, is smallish but has some striking formations.

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AND I GOT PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF OF LUKE HAVING FUN!

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The second tour, Discovery, was my favorite cave tour of the trip. This runs through a string of amazing caverns with names like “Castle of the White Giants,” “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Sherwood Forest.”

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It was raining hard again when the Discovery Tour ended, and this time it didn’t let up. Alas, Austin remains unexplored. Our next stop was in Bedford, to grab some cake for Luke, and then home.

The plan has always been to travel after the kids are grown. Little “test runs” like this are a good way to experiment with what kinds of things we enjoy and want to do more of, and which things we can leave off the list without losing anything of value. They’re also useful for stepping away from the everyday routine and getting a better sense of perspective on the small struggles that we get bogged down in. Sometimes the solutions look obvious from a distance.

I’d like to say it’s good to be home, but if I’m honest, really all I want to do right now is go climb a mountain or explore the black depths of an untended cave, or maybe camp on a clifftop with giant redwoods on one side and the wild sea on the other. There’s a whole world out there, and the harness of civilization seems even less appealing now than it did when I took it off four days ago. I guess it’s time to start saving up for the next trip.

Categories: Birthdays, Celebrations, Family, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Leave a comment

Deep in the Heart of Texas (Road Trip, Part I)

I like my job, but retail is a harsh mistress. When my supervisor mentioned that I should use my accrued personal time soon, before things started picking up for the holidays, I did not argue. Luke had a birthday coming up on the 16th, and school doesn’t start here until the 22nd. Clearly it was time for a large-scale outing.

At the planning stage, we were in the middle of a brutal heatwave that had been dragging mercilessly on for weeks. Where, I pondered, can one escape both heat and the galling harness of civilization? In a cave, naturally. The cool, sprawling caverns of south Texas. Luke was immediately on board with this.

The original plan was pretty simple. Drive down to Natural Bridge Caverns, check out the famed San Antonio Riverwalk while we were down there, maybe poke around in Austin on our way through. Nearly everyone I mentioned this plan to told me about something they particularly enjoyed in that neck of the woods, and said I should check it out. In the spirit of exploration and adventure, I wrote down all of these suggestions and added them to our itinerary. Some of them ended up being highlights of the trip.

We rolled out of DFW via Fort Worth a little after 8 am on Monday morning, with a light rain adding to the sense of adventure and some heavy commuter traffic whetting our appetite for freedom on the open road. Around 10 am we pulled into the small town of West and made our first stop of the day.

So, kolaches. I’d never even heard of them before we moved out here, but Texans freaking love them. The fruit version is basically what Californians call “Danish pastry” or just “Danish.” Texans like them with sausage instead of fruit. My impression of West, TX, is that it was originally settled by Czechs who took their native love of kolaches to a new level and created a whole local industry around them. We were barely on the outskirts when the billboards started advertising about kolaches at this or that bakery. I’d say we drove past at least four Czech-style bakeries with the word KOLACHES emblazoned on their exteriors just in the half-mile between our exit and the particular bakery that had been suggested to us.

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To be fair, kolaches are pretty tasty. We bought an assorted dozen of link sausage, ground sausage, fruit and even mocha-espresso-and-cream-cheese kolaches, and the nice lady even added three chocolate chip cookies for free and wished us happy and safe travels. Texans are a lovely people.

Another friend had said that the Inner Space caverns in Georgetown are a must-see, so that was our next stop. By then the sprinkles had become a downpour, and we were feeling grateful that our travel plans hadn’t relied on sunny weather.

Luke is going through a phase where he does not smile in photographs. Apparently he agrees with Mark Twain’s philosophy that “a photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” He enjoyed the road trip as much as Elizabeth and I did, but you would never know it to look at the photos. All of his “foolish smiles” vanished as soon as the camera came out.

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The Inner Space caverns were pretty spectacular. This formation looks to me like an ancient throne room where everyone was turned to stone by some evil curse:

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As beautiful as the caverns are, the guided-tour format felt a bit too much like civilization. The faux cave-paintings at the bottom are a good example of this. I enjoyed them, but they added to the impression that we were at some sort of “Prehistoric Land” theme park instead of exploring a cave. And the pathways were all very Structured and Safe.

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We decided that someday soon, maybe over spring break, we will seek out some untamed caves in the wild. They won’t be as fancy as the “show caverns,” but I think we’ll have more fun exploring them.

The rain was coming down in sheets by the time we got to Austin, so our plans to check out the trails around Lady Bird Lake were rescheduled for the return trip. The San Antonio Riverwalk wasn’t looking too promising at that point either. Around 4:30 pm we checked into a hotel in San Marcos to wait out the worst of the rain and see if the weather would clear.

The kids fell asleep pretty much the instant we got into the hotel room. I walked to a nearby McDonalds to score some free wifi and check the weather reports. (I had originally planned to pay for motel wifi, but I was so astonished by the fact that they wanted to charge me per device that I just told them never mind.) Anyway, according to San Antonio’s weather forecast, the downpour was expected to lighten to scattered showers that evening, and then more thunderstorms would roll in the next day. I let the kids nap for about two hours, and then we got back on the road.

By the time we got to New Braunfels, I was realizing the folly of getting a hotel in San Marcos instead of closer to San Antonio. We did a lot of unnecessary backtracking over the next 18 hours. What can I say, the distances looked a lot shorter on the map.

The rain petered out to on-and-off sprinkles just as we found a place to park near the Riverwalk. Sweet!

The San Antonio Riverwalk was easily my favorite part of the whole trip. It looks like what would happen if Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride were relocated to Riverside’s Mission District. But even cooler than that. It’s actually built a full story below street level; here’s the view from where we parked just above it.

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Sorry about the weird filter, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. Anyway, you access the Riverwalk via staircases at every street crossing. Once you’re down there, everything is magical.

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When the sun set, we headed over to get a look at the Alamo, which is within easy walking distance of the Riverwalk. Just based on what people had told us, we were pretty much expecting to see a crumbling ruin huddled in between a 7-11 and a Denny’s. Our expectations were wildly exceeded. The whole downtown area is completely gorgeous.

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We had one more stop to make before we left San Antonio. I had lamented in the past that I miss California-style Mexican food, and that Tex Mex is much too spicy-hot for the kids and I to endure, much less enjoy. So a friend told me to check out Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia, which she thought we would like.

My method of navigation in unfamiliar places is to drive toward the nearest freeway (never far away in Texas cities), pull into the first McDonald’s or Starbucks I see (also never far away), and use their wifi to chart a course on my iPad. When I did this to search for Mi Tierra, I realized that we could have walked from downtown to the restaurant, if it weren’t after dark in a strange city. We could have walked there from the McDonald’s, for that matter, but the rain was starting to pick up again.

We cruised around the restaurant looking for a parking spot, and found a line of parking meters near this pretty mural:

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I was just about to drop some money when I noticed that the operating hours ended at 6pm. Just to be on the safe side, I walked over to a police car parked nearby and asked one of the officers if I needed to feed the meter.

“It’s free,” she said cheerfully.”Catch all the Pokemon you can!”

Mi Tierra is located within a “Little Mexico” type mercado, a festive marketplace. Disappointingly, the shops were closed by the time we got there. But the restaurant itself is open 24/7, and it is wonderful.

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My friend was right about the food. It tasted like home.

I don’t have words for how much I loved the visit to San Antonio. It made my artist’s soul happy in a way that nothing else has since my last Christmas in California. I am thinking about moving down there after Luke graduates. Not even joking. I want to be a part of that city.

We drove back to the hotel in a happy haze, and passed out as soon as we got to our beds.

Day 2 in the next post!

Categories: Birthdays, Celebrations, Family, food, Friends, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | 1 Comment

Texas State Fair

The kids and I visited the Texas State Fair back in 2007 on our road trip from California to Georgia and back, when Luke was seven and Elizabeth was nine. We went on an uncrowded Thursday afternoon, had a ton of fun and made some great memories.

Yesterday I had a rare Saturday off, so back to the Fair we went.

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It was a different experience this time. It was a lot more crowded, for one thing, and Luke and Elizabeth are a lot older and more worldly now, so most of the wide-eyed wonder was gone. Also, either the Fair has gotten a lot more expensive in the past eight years or it just seemed that way on our current budget.

Still, fun was had. The view from the Biggest Ferris Wheel In The Western Hemisphere is as wonderful as ever.

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Obligatory ferris wheel selfie:

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We were intrigued by the white things that look like giant swans on the lake in the distance, and a gray thing in the same area that looked like an elephant, so we walked over for a closer look. The giant swans turned out to be swan-shaped paddle boats, which for some reason I didn’t get any pics of other than this one…

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…and the elephant turned out to be a sculpture of a mammoth just outside of the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

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A nice shot of the ferris wheel from the white bridge on the swan-boat lake:

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Of course the rides were the main focus of our day.

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Interestingly, Luke and I had different limits when it came to which rides were too intense. For example, Luke would not go on the Viking Boat swing…

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…while I wanted nothing to do with the Starship 3000.

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Nothing is too intense for Elizabeth. She was the only one of us who was brave/crazy enough to go on this monstrosity. That’s her, second from the top in this pic:

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She actually waved in mid-ride when she saw the camera.

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We saw some really bizarre funhouses, but one of them had a mannequin in a rabbit suit that was just straight up creepy. It was riding a unicycle and…I can’t really explain it, it just gave me the wiggins.

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Shudder.

I was hoping to see some freakishly large animals, but to my disappointment I only found some adorably small ones.

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I did enjoy the pumpkin carvings.

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And I LOVED the miniature train setup.

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The display was labeled “Grapevine” at one end and “Fort Worth” at the other, a tribute to the real-life Grapevine Vintage Railroad.

Then there was this guy:

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You can’t really see his face in the pics, but he was basically a dude dressed as a tree, on stilts. Very cool.

On the way home we stopped at Cheddar’s for dinner. I know I haven’t really talked about my recent work adventures here on the blog, but Cheddar’s is where I worked for four months between working in Softlines and my current job. They have some yummy food.

When we got home, the kids showered and got all gussied up for their school dance.

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I don’t know where they get their energy. Me, I barely managed to stay awake until it was time to pick them up and bring them home.

All in all, a day (and a small fortune) well spent.

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