We had originally planned to stay another day, but we were all feeling like it was time to be home. And this way there are still things we haven't done for our next visit.
So we packed up and headed out on the 13th. We stopped at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson on our way out.
I had no idea saguaro cacti grew so tall! I had expected something like 10-feet tall, not 20-feet tall.
It was hot at the air and space museum. We knew it would be, but thought we could see a few things fairly quickly and mostly stay inside out of the sun before it got too hot. But the 30-minute loop we did outside just about did in Jess and the girls.
Lots of things to see there though when it's not too hot to stand and read the signage.
After the air and space museum we got lunch at Brushfire BBQ, which was pretty good. After lunch we headed onto something less conventional--the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures (on the other side of Tucson).
I'm not sure how "Time Machine" makes its way into their name, but it's a building full of miniature scenes which was fun to look at it. And it was air-conditioned! It included a "Fairy Hunt" for the girls to complete. That is, throughout the scenes were something like 12 fairies they needed to find to get a little prize at the end. We found them all and they got to pick out a sticker and eraser or something.
One large room was all scenes related to fantasy and holidays (mainly Halloween and Christmas) which was probably the most fun part.
But the other areas with more realistic to life scenes were cool too. They were more interesting from the view of noticing how many details are included such that a photograph can fool you as to what you're looking at. Like the bookstore here, which is about 10 inches tall:
And they had these pencil tips that had been carved like this in what must have been an incredibly painstaking process:
And I also liked this old European street scene:
After those stops we drove for 4 hours and stayed the night in Blythe, CA. Then up the next day to thread the needle across Los Angeles between morning gridlock and afternoon gridlock. And we had an almost perfect run. We got slowed down by an accident for just a few minutes on the north side of LA. Once safely through LA we had dinner at Wendy's and then up I-5 and home.
On the way back to Arizona the train passed the Prada store near Marfa, TX. I had one chance to get a picture as we zipped past. I managed to catch it partially blocked by a sign and the only plant of any size anywhere around, but here it is:
After one of our meals Corinne and I walked to the end of our car to look out the back of the train, which is kind of more fun to watch than out the sides, but there's nowhere to sit since it's just the door from the last car:
We got back to Benson the evening of August 10. Mike met use at the station and we had pizza for dinner and then ice cream for dessert at local spots.
The next day we wandered a bit off road heading towards what I had thought were supposed to be petroglyphs. Both the Garmin GPS map and Google maps wanted us to cross a 30-foot fissure in the ground on what they believed was a real road. So we gave up and turned around. But I had stepped out of the van to look around and a light rainfall had turned the top 2 inches of dirt into very clay-like mud, so my shoes were unwearable. So we went back to Mike's place to grab a change of shoes.
After grabbing clean shoes, we headed down to Tombstone and had lunch at the O.K. Cafe and walked the old-timey street with the O.K. Corral. The O.K. Cafe had a bison head mounted on the wall above a map for some reason. We were the only people there after a couple left so it was a nice quite lunch with O.K. food (actually, I recall the food being pretty good).
We hadn't done our homework and learned anything about Tombstone and the shootout at the O.K. Corral before going, so we didn't know what it was all about. But we watched the 1993 movie when we got home, so we're all caught up now on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and such.
After walking up and down the street we headed further down the road to Bisbee for the Copper Queen Mine tour. I had a headache from about the moment we got in the mine until shortly after we got out. I might have attributed it to the tightness of the helmet, but I adjusted that to something more comfortable almost immediately, so I think maybe it had something to do with air-pressure differences in the mine--I dunno, but it made the time underground somewhat less enjoyable.
You get to ride the train into the mine and hear the retired miner talk about what it was like to work in the mine (pretty much awful in every imaginable way).
After the mine tour we walked around in Bisbee for a little bit. Didn't find much to do but eat some gelato. It was "Pirate Weekend" in Bisbee which meant there were people randomly dressed up in historically-dubious costume wear. (How come when people want to dress up as pirates they go for "Pirates of the Caribbean" and not, like, modern-day Somali pirates? I guess wearing cargo shorts and carrying around an AK-47 just doesn't have the same vibe.)
After wrapping up in Bisbee we headed back to Benson and to Safeway to buy dinner supplies. Apparently multiple other people have had the plan to make chili at Mike's since, after we bought our supplies and made dinner, we found two existing containers of cumin and chili powder in the pantry. So, whomever is visiting next doesn't need to buy any more to make chili.
The next day (August 12) we finally got the full observatory tour (without the "surprise wild animals" package). Lots of fun exploring things. And what trip would be complete without a game of "here's your Geiger counter, go find the uranium!"?
A definite highlight was playing with the stereoscopic imagery viewer which messes with how large things look and gives them an extra-3D-ey-ness somehow. It's also pretty amusing for everyone else too:
We spent that day just hanging around the observatory. The girls played Stardew Valley on the Switch and in the afternoon we played a session of "Keep the Heroes Out" with Mike and lost shortly into the second wave. I took some pictures in the evening:
One of our primary goals for the timing of our trip was to hope for a clear night to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower. On the evening of the 12th we went outside to take a look, but other than a small patch directly overhead the sky was overcast. So we gave up and sent the girls to bed. Then just as it was time to turn off the lights for them I poked my head out again and it was completely clear, so we got them back up and went out to look.
And it was pretty spectacular. The Milky Way was blatantly clear across the sky and we saw a few really good, bright meteors. We also saw a kangaroo rat wandering about, which (from stories we've been told) was the best possible wildlife for us to encounter around the observatory. Corinne has a kangaroo rat stuffed animal that she got on our trip to Arches National Park when she was an infant.
The girls went to bed and I stayed out a while longer to watch some more and try to take some pictures using the astro-tracer mode on my camera. I managed to get one that came out pretty well showing Scorpius / Maui's Fishhook and the Milky Way over Mike's FJ Cruiser.
Then, the next day, we loaded back up in the van and started our trip home.
On Sunday, July 30, we went to the Magic Springs water park with the collected members of Jess' family. The high temperature was 100F and there was a Heat Advisory in effect--that's apparently just how we do amusement parks. Of course, for both Universal Studios and Magic Springs we had purchased non-refundable tickets weeks prior otherwise we probably would have reconsidered our plans.
The only pictures we have from Magic Springs is a few of the girls in the wave pool on tubes with Papa:
Along with the wave pool the girls enjoyed the lazy river and some of the kiddie slides.
Jess' siblings and families left on Monday and we spent the day resting at the house.
What vacation would be complete without some video games?
In the evening Corinne and I explored the grounds and found this odd plant that looked like nothing else around:
On Tuesday (Aug 1) Jess and her mom tried to go to a yarn shop in Malvern, but it was closed. They also got a tire-pressure alert on the rental car on their way and stopped somewhere to get it filled up.
A family of turkeys wandered across the property in the afternoon:
Once they got back from their failed excursion we went bowling. The alley's computer system had each player take a few selfies and then used those in the silly animations between balls. It was ridiculous and the girls loved it. After bowling we went to Freddy's for burgers and frozen custard.
Wednesday we played Keep The Heroes Out and Jess and her mom went to a yarn shop in Hot Springs. The tire was complaining it was low again so we looked at it and found a screw and then I tried calling Enterprise a dozen times before getting through to ask them what they wanted to do about it. We could either wait and hope that another vehicle with 6 seatbelts was turned in that we could take or bring the car to the shop they contract with to get the tire patched. So Jess took the tire to the shop, which said they couldn't patch it due to the location, but then patched it anyways while they ordered a tire that would be in the next day.
On Thursday I planned to take the girls with me to get the tire replaced and then go to the Mid-America Science Museum. But the tire took over an hour for some reason despite having an appointment. And by then we weren't going to have enough time at the science museum so instead we got ice cream at Scoops and went back to the house.
At the house we played Zombiecide and lost. Then we scrounged for dinner and stayed up to do some star gazing. The big dipper was easily found and from there Arcturus, Vega, and Altair. We saw Cygnus and a few meteors, but not as many as I had hoped.
On Friday we went to a creperie run by a Ukrainian family that had emigrated to Belgium and then to the U.S. The crêpes were really good. And then we did go to the science museum and the girls had a blast. And it's a good thing we waited, because we spent four hours there. We watched their Tesla Coil show and their planetarium show.
They also had the Toytopia exhibit which we actually saw in Springfield, MA in April 2019 while we were out there for Dad's retirement party, but I apparently never wrote up a blog post about it.
Dancing on a giant net.Corinne was grumpy about not getting something from the gift shop.
Then it was back to the house for Stuff Stacks for dinner. After the girls were in bed we played most of a game of Everdell.
On Saturday Jess went back to the first yarn shop that had been closed. So she's hit all of her goals for our trip.
On Sunday we took the girls bowling again. This time I took some pictures of the silly animations.
After bowling we went up the Mountain Tower. It is a tall tower built on top of a hill. The original one burned down. The second one was torn down because it was unsafe. Now there's this one. It's probably not worth the price of admission.
And after the Tower we met Jess' parents for an Alice in Wonderland themed escape room. It went fairly well except the last two puzzles we completed accidentally without understanding what we were supposed to be doing--which was pretty annoying.
We paused at one of the hot spring fountains on our way back to van. The water was indeed hot.
Sunday evening we finally finished our game of Everdell. I took the camera out to try the astro-tracer mode which took me a little while to figure out how to use and get the focus correct. By the time I had gotten it figured out it was late and I packed it in. None of the pictures are particularly interesting.
Monday we did nothing but hang around the house.
On Tuesday Jess and I went into town to see a pottery shop and then bathhouse row. But first we had to wait for the family of turkeys to cross the road:
We had lunch at the Ohio Club (renown for its illicit past and infamous guests). Then we bought some fudge and dropped off the rental car. Dinner back at the house and a game of Camel Up.
Ceiling in part of the Fordyce BathhouseThe empty Promenade behind Bathhouse Row
Heather and I worked on a 1000-piece puzzle of a dragon during our stay. But didn't finish. We got it almost halfway done.
Out the upstairs window we saw a family of deer at the far end of the clearing. They were fun to watch with binoculars, but the low light and far distance pushed the camera to the edge of its abilities to take a picture handheld. There are four--one is behind the tree on the right.
Early (4AM) Wednesday we got back on the train heading west. We climbed on board and went back to sleep, but got up again in time for breakfast.
The Best Western we stayed at in Colton, CA kept a hot breakfast running until 10 and checkout wasn't until 12. Which was great for us coming in exhausted from being out in the sun and on our feet all day.
For breakfast Corinne had bread with whipped cream and sprinkles--because vacation! She was in heaven (I think I made her eat some yogurt too).
We spent the day driving into Arizona. I was able to buy a Raspberry Pi 4 just before our trip and outfit it with OSMC so the girls could watch TV shows and movies on the van's screen while we drove. A lifesaver for long drives.
We stopped in Tucson and had dinner at a Cracker Barrel. A thunderstorm rolled through as we continued south on our way to Benson.
We got to Mike's observatory not super late, but late enough that it was bed time. In the morning we found that out train was an hour behind schedule. So we had a slightly less frantic start to the day. We had breakfast and packed up our stuff and then Mike drove us to the station. Where, here, "station" means a dirt parking lot, a slab of concrete, and a two-sided shed with a roof just big enough for two benches--it's not a busy station. And yet, on our way out and our way back there was more than one other person also getting on or off so go figure.
The train was 2.5 hours late and I went across the street to the gas station to buy some cold drinks for our wait. The shed may not have been much, but it was crucial to not melt in the heat (98F) and sun. The train arrived and we got on without issue and ate lunch while cruising across Arizona.
I developed a sore throat by this point and so the train ride was less than enjoyable since nothing is enjoyable when you're sick. It was lame. I'd spend the next ~5 days suffering the worst of it and still have a little congestion lingering almost 3 weeks later. Thankfully it seems no one else picked it up from me.
We had the family room on the train which sits on the lower level and spans the width of the car. Once we figured out a way to arrange the room that allowed us to effectively stash our luggage it was roomy. During the day we kept the top bunks open and put all our luggage up there.
Usually it's nice to step off the train at the longer stops to stretch your legs, but everywhere was 100+F so doing that was actually not very much fun.
Meals are served in local time, so when you're eastbound it feels like you're constantly eating. And since all you're doing is sitting you're not really working up an appetite. But getting up, going upstairs, and moving to the dining car is at least a nice change in scenery. I will say being on the upper floor is nicer than being on the lower floor. You have a better view out the windows and the objects you're seeing generally aren't moving as quickly past the window (since you're 7 feet up from the ground) so it's less likely to produce motion sickness (or seems to be for me).
The train was late into our destination at Malvern, AR arriving around midnight.
Jess' dad picked us up and we got back to their house and crashed.
The next morning we visited with the families of Jess' siblings that were able to meet us there for the weekend. I had to go pick up the rental car we had reserved with Enterprise. Two months ahead of time I reserved a minivan. I'll give you one guess as to whether they had a minivan available when I arrived to pick it up.
They did not. Well, they had a minivan, but apparently had just given that away to someone else (who could have predicted that I'd be showing up to get the car I reserved?). They offered me a full-size SUV instead, cause who wouldn't want a vehicle twice as large? The smallest thing they had which still had 6 seatbelts (so Jess' parents could ride with us instead of taking 2 cars) was a Ford Explorer. So that was annoying and yet entirely predicted. They at least knocked $150 of the price. Though when I returned it the person checking me in showed me a price $300 more than my original reservation, but when I said that was the wrong price they were able to find the correct price.
Back to the house with the car and then hanging around for the day.
Corinne collected a pile of sticks for the visiting dog. Babies are always a hit. And playing Swoop.
Our big trip this summer started on July 24 when we drove down to Hollywood. Once we got to the hotel the girls went swimming for a bit and then we walked to Universal Studios City Walk, ate dinner at Johnny Rockets, and then had fancy dessert from the Chocolate Emporium.
The food at Johnny Rockets was pretty good. The fancy milkshakes from the Chocolate Emporium looked pretty cool, but weren't worth the price (unless your primary goal is to post cool-looking pictures on social media).
On Tuesday, we got up bright and early and walked to Universal Studios at opening. We walked directly back to Super Nintendo World and got in line for the Mario Kart ride. Although this was where 75% of the people entering the park were going we managed to get in pretty quick and line "only" took 90 minutes.
The final section of the line had a ton of really cool stuff to look at, but for whatever reason we had to basically power walk through it all and barely got to see it. It would have been way more interesting to spend the 90 minutes wrapped back and forth in that space instead of the lightly-decorated areas we were in.
The ride was fun and everyone enjoyed it. You put on the Mario "hat" and when you get in the kart you connect an augmented-reality visor to it which overlays game entities during the ride. The idea is that you're in an actual Mario Kart race against Bowser's minions and you to have throw shells at the other team to earn points.
However, the instructions didn't indicate that aiming your shells is done based on where your visor is pointing and if you don't figure that out it will seem entirely random. The whole thing does feel a bit chaotic, but I guess they matched the feel of Mario Kart 8 which has a more chaotic feeling than the earlier entries in the franchise.
Super Nintendo World was crazy packed by the time we got off the ride so we decided to head back up to the upper park and visit Hogwarts for lunch.
We had the family feast at the Three Broomsticks, which was far more food than we needed, but we actually made an appreciable dent in it. It was pretty decent. We had a couple of frozen butterbeers with lunch.
By this point it was miserably hot (high of 98F) with a Heat Advisory in effect. The line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was advertised as 90 minutes, so we went and got in line. More than 2.5 hours later we finally got on the ride. So much of the line was outside and the final section before entering the castle proper is in the greenhouse-themed area (which took ~1 hours itself). By that point we had to already put our water in a locker. It was miserable. I'm amazed we didn't see anyone pass out. I'm also quite annoyed that the worker standing in that section is apparently explicitly trained not to tell people how long the wait is (everyone was asking). Had they told us that it was still another hour from that point we probably would have bailed.
Anyway, we went through the air-conditioned castle areas and finally got on the ride. Great. Here we go. After 45 seconds the ride shut off and left us staring at a blank screen for about 7 minutes (while, I presume, the whole system rebooted or something). Heather about lost her mind, but we did survive. The ride finally started back up and Heather about lost her mind again because of the intensity of the ride. It took her about an hour to calm back down afterwords (Corinne was fine).
As we got off the ride we were given 2, 6-person, one-time-use Express Line passes for the inconvenience of the ride stopping. Heather needed to calm down so Corinne and I went back to the lower park to ride the Jurassic World log flume ride. I believe the regular line was advertised as 2 hours at that point. With the Express Line we were off the ride and walking out the gift shop in 20 minutes.
Then we went back to the upper park to ride the Secret Life of Pets ride as something extremely chill for Heather to enjoy. This ride has a virtual line (via the Universal Studios app) so had we intended to do it originally we could have done it without a line, but the Express Line got us through in about 30 minutes.
By that point we were all super tired and hot. We'd been in the park for about 12 hours and, yes, did 4 rides. 2 of which wouldn't have happened without the free Express Line passes. My conclusion is don't bother going unless you're willing to pay the extra $100 per person for the Express Line. With it you could ride every ride and probably be done before lunch. Without you will spend the entire day standing in lines.
We headed back to the City Walk and had dinner at VIVO Italian Kitchen and dessert at the Crêpe Café. Then I walked back to the hotel to get the van and pick up Jess and the girls and we drove out to the eastern edge of the LA metroplex to our next hotel in order to avoid some of the morning traffic the next day as we headed east.