Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dessert First!

I hope it was as much fun for my kids as it was for me to take off on vacation the very week that public schools in our town went back in session. Sort of like having dessert first. We spent the first week with my parents and 9 year old brother (the kids call each other cousins, and we haven't broken it to them yet that he's quite technically their uncle!) They all had a blast staying up much later and watching way more television than any of them is ever allowed, cleaning out the treehouse, and riding go-karts and bumper boats in honor of the Scientist's birthday. (That's me on the bumper boats...)

After all the family frivolity, we headed home, spent a night under our own roof, and then went west for a week to Manitou Springs, Colorado. The best kept secret in Colorado, as far as we're concerned, is the Red Wing Motel's hot tub suite. There is no tuxedoed wait staff or marble floors; this is an older, family owned, fifties motel, nothing fancy, but they take care of you in all the ways that matter, right down to knowing how many people would be in our suite and leaving an appropriate number of mints and towels, and even a bed pad for the Cookie Monster (although she doesn't need one). There are novels and books to borrow in the lobby, and a notebook containing menus from all the nearby restaurants. The owners live on site and do everything related to the motel themselves, right down to cleaning the rooms (with environmentally friendly cleaners), and they greet you and ask if there's anything you need as they go about their business. Having a microwave, coffee maker, and refrigerator in the room allowed us to subsist on sandwiches and keep our eating out within reason. There is a children's playground and skate park right across the street, and a great Chinese restaurant a block away. The heated pool and the in-room jacuzzi were vacation enough, and if we had done nothing but swim and soak, drink our daily bottle of water from the mineral springs, and stuff ourselves with Happy Family and Sweet and Sour Chicken, everyone would have been completely satisfied.

But we couldn't just lounge around like we were on vacation or something. Homeschool is in session here, people. First stop -- Garden of the Gods, a paradise of hiking trails amid huge sandstone rock formations:

Not only does Garden of the Gods have free admission, they also offer a Junior Ranger Program. Most state and national parks offer this program, in which children 6 and up can complete learning activities relating to the park and earn a patch and certificate recognizing their work. The Scientist and the Swordmaster both had a lot of fun learning about geology, native cultures, and wildlife as they earned their patches.

Next stop, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings:

These cliff dwellings are partially reconstructed and a bit touristy, but visitors are allowed to touch and explore inside the dwellings, which made it lots of fun. Plaques all around the site explain what how the different rooms were used. The details of the architecture were fascinating; for example, in the photo, that's a door behind the kids, not a window. And some doors were T-shaped, to allow the elderly a hand grip when climbing through. It took a good bit of parental direction to get the children to slow down, read the plaques, and find out what they were seeing, since the whole place just seemed to invite them to climb and run from one room to the next:

In the museum (once we found it amidst the maze of gift shops) we learned about cradle boards and skulls, how manure is used in the making of the traditional black pottery, how to build an adobe pit house, and the numerous uses for the yucca plant (who knew?)

Pike's Peak
was next; I survived the drive, and we all enjoyed donuts, coffee and hot chocolate at the top. The kids were introduced to the aspen, the ponderosa pine, and we discussed what was the Gold Rush, why trees don't grow above 12,000 feet, why it is colder on a mountaintop, what happens to an empty plastic bottle when you carry it up Pike's Peak and down again, and what happens when brakes get too hot.

On our way to Pike's Peak, we saw a sign for the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, and set aside an afternoon for it. Florissant is the site of an ancient lake, and is one of the richest fossil beds in North America. Our hike was hurried because of an approaching thunderstorm, but we were all still amazed by the fossilized stumps of ancient giant redwood trees.

On the last day, we visited the Van Briggle pottery, and the Ghost Town Museum. The museum was hokey, but we did get to pan for real gold. I suspect the kids -- at least the older two -- were a little disappointed at how labor intensive and unproductive the process really was, but we did come out with four small specks of gold. This we compared in the gift shop to pyrite, or fool's gold. After taking the children back by the Garden of the Gods nature center to pick up their Junior Ranger badges in the afternoon, I detoured into the Rock Ledge Historic Ranch. With a buy one get one free coupon from the nature center, it cost us a mere $8 admission, and was far and away the best of the west. (Sorry, no pictures -- I didn't have the camera that day!) Rock Ledge is a living history ranch, with interpretive sites ranging from American Indians of the 1600-1700s on through the turn of the century. It is authentic, authentic, authentic, with knowledgeable re-enactors who answered the myriad questions the children threw at them, and the original and meticulously refurnished homes of the various owners and inhabitants of the ranch over the course of three centuries. The carriage house offers an exhibit about Thomas MacLaren, a Scottish architect who came to Colorado Springs -- like Van Briggle of the Van Briggle Pottery -- because of tuberculosis. So, on top of it all, we discussed tuberculosis, sanatoriums, and the open air cure.

All in all there was ample fodder for nature notebooks/discovery journals, plus postcards written to faraway friends (a lesson from First Language Lessons we saved especially for the trip), reading of road maps, and calculating the cost of the journey... a full week of non-stop learning punctuated by moments of utter relaxation. And I didn't have to cook anything more complicated than a sandwich -- now that's a vacation!