Thanksgiving Road Trip 2015

For Thanksgiving this year we drove down to Texas to visit with Jess’ family.  Christopher & Jenny and their kids were going to be down from Colorado and Cameron was home from school.  Chance & Rachel and their kids live in the general area as well as Colton; so it was a pseudo-family-reunion kind of thing.

2015 - Texas - Travel Map

We had originally intended to leave Livermore the morning of November 19, but Heather’s preschool had their Thanksgiving Feast that day around noon.  So we stayed for that and left immediately after.

Heather made the front-page of our local paper when the kids were singing the songs they’ve been learning:



Once the feast was over we loaded up in the van and drove to Needles, CA for the night.  On Friday we loaded up and drove into Oatman, AZ to see the burros.  Heather was a little apprehensive, but it was still a good way to get out of the car and stretch for a bit.

Petting the Burros in Oatman, AZ
Petting the Burros in Oatman, AZ
Grabbing some ice-cream at the Oatman Hotel
Grabbing some ice-cream at the Oatman Hotel

Lowell Observatory

From Oatman it was on to Flagstaff, AZ.  We grabbed dinner (at Chick-Fil-A) and then headed up to the Lowell Observatory.  They have public viewing and talks each evening.  We got to see the moon up close through their largest telescope and we saw Uranus as well (even with a building-mounted telescope it still only looks like a fuzzy blue dot).

Moonlight hitting Heather's eye through the Clark Telescope at Lowell Observatory
Moonlight hitting Heather’s eye through the Clark Telescope at Lowell Observatory
Heather with the Clark Telescope behind her.
Heather with the Clark Telescope behind her.

We also listened to a talk about Pluto.  The Lowell Observatory is where Pluto was discovered.  In July of this year the New Horizons Probe completed it’s 9.5 year journey to flyby Pluto and take the best pictures of it the world has ever seen.  Heather was actually somewhat interested in the talk, but she really wanted to interrupt every few minutes to ask unrelated questions or make statements.  They were always still space related though.  I had to threaten to leave if she didn’t wait to ask her questions at the end.  She reluctantly agreed to do so.  Then she asked the presenter what hit Uranus to tip it sideways.

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki

The next day we drove North to see Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments.  Sunset Crater is one out of a string of dormant cinder cone volcanoes in Northern Arizona.  North of the volcano a ways is an old pueblo from the 1100’s.

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Heather playing in the dirt in the sports arena at Wupatki
Heather playing in the dirt in the sports arena at Wupatki

By the time we finished at the National Monuments and headed back out the East side of Flagstaff the sun was already setting.  We drove to Albuquerque, NM and stayed the night there and then drove straight on to Frisco, TX.  I had more stops planned, but by Albuquerque we were already almost a full day behind schedule, so we skipped the remaining stops.

Thanksgiving in Frisco

We spent November 22 through November 29 in Frisco.  We went to the Zoo with Christopher & Jenny and kids on Wednesday, but mostly just hung out.

Dr. Christopher reads "Human Body Theater" to kiddos
Dr. Christopher reads “Human Body Theater” to kiddos
At the Dallas Zoo
At the Dallas Zoo
Cameron and Christina made adobo for dinner one night.  Here it looks like there's a problem.
Cameron and Christina made adobo for dinner one night. Here it looks like there’s a problem.
The kids' table for Thanksgiving Dinner
The kids’ table for Thanksgiving Dinner
Christopher apparently said something humorous
Christopher apparently said something humorous
Jess is happy
Jess is happy

We did get Johnson Family pictures taken while we were there and one of just our little family as well:

Johnson Family - Nov 2015-0116bs

Capulin Volcano

When our week in Frisco was up we began our long trip back home.  Weather looked clear so we opted for the Northern route up through Colorado and across Utah and Nevada.  We stayed the first night in Amarillo, TX and then angled up across the corner of New Mexico.  We passed by Capulin Volcano National Monument on the way.  We had to drive down a snow-covered road to get to it, but the park entrance had been plowed by the personnel running the monument.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t plowed the road that runs up to and around the rim of the (dormant) volcano so we couldn’t go up and have a look around.


Colorado Springs

Our destination that evening was Christopher & Jenny’s house in Colorado Springs, CO.  We stayed a couple of nights there and gave Heather the chance to play in snow.

Our mini snowman
Our mini snowman
Sliding chunks of ice down the slide
Sliding chunks of ice down the slide

Arches National Park

We drove out the West side of Colorado and spent the night in Moab, UT.  The next morning we drove through the first third or so of Arches National Park before continuing on our way to Lehi, UT.

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We bought a kangaroo rat stuffed animal for Corinne at the gift shop
We bought a kangaroo rat stuffed animal for Corinne at the gift shop
Getting in and out constantly was annoying, so I started making use of the moon roof
Getting in and out constantly was annoying, so I started making use of the moon roof
La Sal Mountains looking South from Arches
La Sal Mountains looking South from Arches


Heading up to Double Arch
Heading up to Double Arch


From Arches we drove up to Lehi, UT to spend a night at the house of some friends from college.  Then it was on to Winnemucca, NV and home the day after that.

It was a lot of driving which was made bearable by having the Raspberry Pi running Kodi and hooked in to the van’s entertainment system.  We had movies and TV shows to watch to keep Heather occupied as we drove across hundreds of miles of nothingness.  I caught up on all my podcasts which could be played through the front speakers using Bluetooth while Heather watched stuff in the back with headphones.  I’m not sure how my family growing up survived driving across the country from Connecticut to Utah and back without such conveniences.



One of the features in the Honda Odyssey that I’ve been looking forward to making use of is the auxiliary audio/video inputs located in the third row on the driver’s side.  There’s also a standard AC power outlet back there next to them.  This combination allows me to wire up a Raspberry Pi as an in-car entertainment system which is infinitely more useful than trying to swap DVDs up at the front console. This is especially true if one parent is sitting in the back with the kids because they won’t be able to reach the DVD slot to switch discs and having the driver do so is not a great plan.

Also, it allows us to avoid the awfulness of DVDs: menus, previews, ads, FBI warnings–blurgh what a terrible experience.  Boot this up, select a show, and you’re watching it instantly.

We’ve got some road trips coming up so I wanted to get this set up beforehand.  First I imaged an SD card with OSMC, an OS built around Kodi with the goal of making setup trivial.  And it really was trivial: Install the OSMC installer on your computer, run it, insert your SD card, click some options and you’re good to go.  Pop out the SD card and plug it into the RPi.

Then I copied a bunch of movies and TV shows to a 64GB USB flash drive and plugged it into the Raspberry Pi (version 1 model B).  To get things started I hooked the RPi up to the network and the TV in the house so it could download updates and the appropriate metadata for the videos.  After initial setup I took it out to the van for a trial run.

The Raspberry Pi and associated cords fit nicely in the cup-holder.

I plugged everything in and turned on the car electronics.  The RPi booted up and was ready to roll in just a couple of minutes.  To control it I’m using this wireless keyboard/mouse combo by Lenovo which works great in this application.


Heather helped me out by watching a few minutes of Finding Nemo.  She declared it the best thing ever.

IMG_20150815_123557asThe 4 purplish lights you can see above the screen are the infrared LEDs that transmit the audio to the wireless headphones.  This allows the rear passengers to listen to the movie through the headphones while other passengers do something else–a sanity-saving feature for the adults in the vehicle.

The Very Long Trip: July 3 – San Diego Zoo Safari Park

IMG_20140703_155806asAfter wrapping up our visit to the Titan II Museum we then drove on to San Diego, CA.  After a good night’s rest we were off to our final adventure for the Very Long Trip–the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.  I was there going on 10 years ago now (whoa) with some friends from college.  Jess and Heather both like zoos so I thought it’d be fun.

First thing we did was head to the hot air balloon which is tethered, but they take you up to 440 feet to have a nice look around.  The air was cool and there was a nice breeze at that height.  There was a discount for going before noon and they shut it down due to wind later in the day.  So I’m glad we skipped ahead to take our trip up.

After our ride we started the wandering about.  Due to time and energy restrictions we had to write off entire sections of the park.  It’s a massive complex.  You could easily spend 3 days exploring.  It wasn’t very busy, for which we were glad.  There seemed to be a lot of people there, but when we left we could see just how much more parking was available.  If it were full that place would be uncomfortably dense.

We saw warthogs (and babies!), gorillas (and a baby!), elephants, leopards, zebras, and all manner of birds and deer-like creatures.  We got to see two of the world’s last seven-known remaining Northern White Rhinos which was neat and sad at the same time.

The park ticket includes a tram ride around the main grounds.  The Safari Park has many acres of land where as many species as possible co-exist to create a more natural environment.  So you get to ride around the perimeter of that.  For an additional charge you can take trips into that space to get closer to the animals and feed them and what-not.

We picked up a couple of neat souvenirs.  The giraffes are about 8 inches tall, hand-carved in Kenya, they’re only connected at the base.  They were only $22!  We thought that was a steal, so we also got the parrot.  The parrot is about 4 inches tall, made in Ecuador, and only $6!

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After lunch we hit up the carousel (Heather loves carousels) for a few rounds and then headed off. We drove until we finally got home back to our own beds. We pulled in sometime around 2 AM, I think, after over a month away from home. It was very good to be back.

Oh, and one last thing. Since we were driving along I-10 there were areas we could see across the border into Mexico. Which for Jess is the closest she’s ever come to leaving the country, so we had to take a picture. (I’ll forgo my rant about going through 3 border crossing checkpoints on this trip despite never crossing the border. Grrrr…)


And that finally concludes our epic journey known as “The Very Long Trip.” Over 3,500 miles / 51 hours of driving across 4 states and 3 time zones. I don’t know how many times we watched Bubble Guppies, Curious George, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and Frozen (with the snow monster edited out for Heather’s sake), but it was enough for a lifetime. It was quite the journey, but I think our next grand adventure is going to be via rail (tentatively Fall 2015).

The Very Long Trip: July 1-2 – Missiles

Titan II ICBM in its silo

Having spent a month studying nuclear deterrence and weapon effects I thought it would be appropriate to get some first-hand experience with the Cold War ICBM world.  When we finished playing at White Sands National Monument it was too late, but the next day we drove back out to the White Sands Missile Range where you can see the “Missile Park” and the WSMR Musem.

Then it was back in the car to drive to Tucson, AZ.  We spent the night in Tucson before visiting a real (decommissioned) ICBM silo in nearby Sahuarita, AZ.  The “Copper Penny” Titan II Silo was turned into a museum with the missile still intact (warhead removed, of course, and presumably unfueled as the fuel was nasty, dangerous stuff).  I thought it was pretty neat.  Too bad we didn’t have more time (or mainly Heather wouldn’t have put up with it) to do the longer tour where you get to go through the whole thing top to bottom.  But we were able to get on the short tour where you see the control room and the silo itself.  They run a pretend launch sequence with the 2 keys and the code book.  I found it interesting, Jess and Heather…somewhat less so.

I spent a month studying the strategies and theories behind how nuclear weapons might be used and what would be targeted with them.  The Titan II carried a W-53 9-megaton nuclear warhead.  An airbust would result in a fireball with a radius of ~1.45 miles.  Most homes would collapse out to a radius of ~10.3 miles.  And exposed persons would experience 3rd degree burns within a radius of ~19.5 miles.  If you detonated one above NYC you’d kill about 4 million people instantly and injure another 5 million.  Over Tokyo would be over 5 million deaths with another 10 million injuries.  These were not surgical weapons.  [Calculations from NukeMap]

Being in the bunker and knowing that the launch of that missile would have meant the immediate death of a few million people and the inevitable death of hundreds of millions (as presumably an all-out nuclear war would be occurring) was sobering.  And the great joke of nuclear deterrence is that no one knows if it works or not.  We only have post hoc reasoning, some logical inferences, and hope.  During the Cold War the Soviets were convinced the U.S. was just waiting for a chance to wipe them out.  The U.S. was convinced the Soviets were just waiting for a chance to wipe us out.  It’s amazing we all survived.

I was able to buy a souvenir from the museum.  It’s a piece of the re-entry assembly from a Titan II.  When the missiles were decommissioned someone got their hands on some of them and cut out these squares from spacer made from an aluminum-copper alloy.  Not everyone gets to own a piece of an ICBM. [Last photo in gallery below.]

The Very Long Trip: June 30 – White Sands

IMG_20140630_180308asAfter Carlsbad Caverns we headed off to White Sands National Monument.  When planning the trip I wondered whether it would be worth it to stop off to see some sand, but it wasn’t too far out of our way and it was worth it.

We arrived in the evening and I expected the air to be hot and the sand to be hot from sitting in the sun all day.  But it wasn’t.  The sand was amazingly cool, not like sand at the beach for whatever reason.  The sun was on its way down and mostly behind clouds and there was a nice breeze so instead of being unbearably hot it was almost pleasant.

Heather thought it was the most amazing thing ever.  When it was finally time to leave she decided to just take off into the dunes instead.  There’s nothing dangerous around so I just followed behind her waiting for her to get tired out which she eventually did after running up and down a couple of dunes.  You can buy sleds from the gift store, but since we didn’t know what it would really be like out on the sand we didn’t buy one.  However, a family that stopped at the same place as us let us borrow one of theirs for a little bit.  It didn’t work out very well, but it’s the closest thing to sledding Heather’s ever done anyway.

We discovered a fun game of taking some of the more solid chunks of sand and hurling them way up in the air and then watching them land.  When they land they make a very satisfying thud, but explode into plain sand.  So it just disappears back into the all the other sand.  It was fun.  Heather got into pretty quickly, so here’s a video:

If you’re in the area it’s worth a stop.  You’d think that a whole area covered in sand would be pretty dead, but there’s actually a fair amount of life going on.  I managed to spot a few of the white lizards that live in the sand.  There are plants that rapidly grow as a dune moves over then, but then when the dune passes they collapse down in a heap.  And there are other plants that hold a column of solidified sand underneath themselves when the dune passes by them.

Once we finished up at White Sands we headed into Las Cruces, NM to stay the night.