When To Take The Short Cut

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One of the harder things to decide while on vacation is when to take the fully scenic route and when to cut corners.  We learned this lesson on our recent road trip where we stopped in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Our mission, to explorer the Carlsbad Caverns.  There are two ways to get down into the cave.  You can enter the cave through the natural entrance and then walk, with a continuous downward slope, a little over a mile through the cavern to get to the Big Room.  Or, you can take the elevator from the Visitor’s Center directly down into the Big Room.  When I look back on all the times we’ve had to make decisions like these, two waring factors come into play: Pride and Practicality

The natural entrance to the caves of Carlsbad.

The natural entrance to the caves of Carlsbad.

The official website for the Carlsbad Caverns warns that only those who are physically fit should walk through the natural entrance.  They make it sound extremely difficult.  But, after comparing it to the same distance hike we did up a mountain in Austria to get to the world’s largest ice cave, I’d say this one paled in comparison.  (Do however use caution as there are a few steeper spots that are slippery.)

Down, down, down we go into the belly of the cave!

Down, down, down we go into the belly of the cave!

My pride was telling me, “Why not?”   We’d see more of the cave, the kids had done a lot of driving the day before and would be doing more driving that day, so some extra exercise would be good right?  While all of that was true, I didn’t stop to think about what it is we are actually seeing and how passionate I was about the destination.  I was excited to see the natural wonder of the cave, and while there were a few unique formations here and there, in general, the cave started to look pretty much like the same thing over and over as time went on.

Carlsbad Caverns. New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns. New Mexico

By time we got to the Big Room, which mind you is another mile plus route full circle, I was a little “caved-out.”  The Big Room was quite a spectacle, it offered a sample of every type of formation we had seen along the way and was far more fascinating.  You had all that you could have imagined your trip to the caverns to be in one circular trail that didn’t have a continuous downward slope.  Sadly for us, after spending about 90 minutes just getting to the Big Room, the kids were getting hungry and even I was getting a little restless.  We should have just taken the elevator down to the Big Room and then explored more closely the numerous wonders it presented.  That would have been the practical choice.

In the Big Room

In the Big Room, shining a little light in the darkness below.

I realized that I had approached our choice of whether or not to walk down or take the elevator down more from a matter of pride than practicality. I thought, “Of course my kids could handle it!  We’re around the world explorers.” And, “I’m physically fit to handle this, I don’t need to take the easy way in.” All of these thoughts floated through my mind.  But what I wasn’t honest about was whether or not I really wanted to see all the cave.  How important was it really to me?  Was that extra 90 minutes really worth giving up time in the main attraction? Or giving up time in the town we were heading to next?  Learning how to weigh priorities on vacation can be a difficult task, especially when you don’t imagine yourself returning to the same destination.  There is always more to see than you have time for on a vacation.  Sometimes you aren’t given the choice of the short vs. long or the easy vs. hard.  But when you are, consider a few of the following questions.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a lifelong dream come true), how excited are you to tour this site?  If it isn’t the only thing on your list of things to that day, take the easy/short route if your answer is less than a 7 on the scale of importance.
  2. How different is the scenery throughout the attraction from the beginning of the longest route to the end? I.e. will you see basically the same thing if you just take the short cut?
  3. Is there a price difference between the two? If so, what is the cost/benefit of the choices?
  4. If you don’t see everything this trip, is it worth enough to come back to?
  5. Ask yourself “pride or practicality”?

We all love a good travel adventure story, but ultimately, our desire should be to enjoy our vacation.  If part of your vacation enjoyment is the thrill of pushing yourself to do things you aren’t sure are possible (and I admit that I lean that way when traveling) then great, go for a longer harder option of your trip.  But if the accomplishment at the end is not going to be all that thrilling, then error on the side of practicality.  Especially with young kids, much of what I do with them now isn’t necessarily so that they can remember, learn and retain everything we do, but more so they get constant exposure to travel as a norm.  That makes it much easier and meaningful when they are older to truly experience different environments and not feel uncomfortable or worried about what they might encounter.  So looking back on our cave experience, myself and the kids would have gotten the same benefit out of a short elevator ride down into the Big Room, where we saw the same elements, still experienced walking deep underground and would have had more time at our next destination, which was to be sand sledding at the White Sands National Park.  Lesson learned!

Road Trip Lucky Finds-Dinosaur Footprints!!!

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Road trips are a big part of America’s vacation culture.  I remember many hours spent in the car driving with my family to go camping or visit relatives.  Unfortunately, timelines often get tight so the actual driving part can be very boring for kids and doesn’t allow for many stops or side detours.  So when I started off on our “Great American West Road Trip” I knew I wanted to allow for some unexpected sightseeing in between our different home base destinations.  You never know what you can find, and if you’re willing to stop, some amazing discoveries await you!  We came across one by chance in the northeast corner of New Mexico, in route to Dallas, Texas from Colorado.

Clayton, New Mexico

Clayton, New Mexico

About 5 hours into our drive we were passing through the small New Mexico town of Clayton on highway 87 when I spotted some large dinosaur models on the side of the road in town.  The sign next to the triceratops and brontosaurus said “Clayton Dinosaur Track Way.”  I pulled into a parking lot to turn around and see what those dinosaur tracks were all about.  Next to the dinosaur models was a little tourist information building.  We went inside and inquired about the tracks.  As it turned out, flooding in the area near the lake washed away some ground cover that then revealed approximately 500 dinosaur tracks that had been preserved in the layers of earth below.  The woman in the office said it was 12 miles back west from where we were now, out at Lake Clayton, something we had seen signs for before entering the town.  The 12 miles didn’t seem too far to back track, even on a 35 mile per hour road and we had yet to stop to eat our lunches that I had packed in the cooler.  So off we went.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

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We drove the curvy road out to the lake in about 25 minutes from their downtown.  We drove into the park and found the sign directing down a dirt road to the dinosaur tracks.  We also noticed that different sections for camping and boat launching to go out on the lake.  We took the road directing us towards the track, at the end, you could park in a lot, but then had a quarter mile walk, around half of the lake, to the sight where the tracks were located.  We took a couple water bottles with us since the temperature was reaching 100.  The walk provided a few spots of shade along the way in addition to a bench under a tree half way along.  At the end of the quarter mile was a hut, with several informational signs inside about the dinosaur tracks.  It was a nice refuge from the sun and a chance for the kids to sit down one more time before we explored the tracks themselves.

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There were stairs that led down to the level of ground from the hut to where the tracks were.  A boardwalk encircled the most numerous and obvious collection of tracks to help preserve the find.  It was quite amazing to see just how many footprints there were.  That just like different types of animals today, they wandered around, intermixing and passing by different breads.  This was the first time that I had ever seen an actual dinosaur footprint!  I had scene a cast of one before in a museum, but never out in the natural environment where the dinosaur physically stepped and left it’s mark.  I have to admit, I think I was a little more blown away than the kids.  Nonetheless, they still asked some questions and thought it was “neat.”

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We slowly made our way back to the car, taking a pause again in all the shaded spots and being fascinated by the bugs that looked like a cross between a cricket and a butterfly.  At the car we unpacked our lunches from the cooler and set up acceptable eating stations at their seats so that we could get back on the road.  Our total detour time was 90 minutes.  Which put us about 30 minutes over the total of 2 hours that I had factored in for us to use as stopping time between southern Colorado and Dallas (we had stopped for an hour at a Wal-Mart that morning to stock up on water and food for the day).  But in the end, I marveled at the fact that we just stood next to the footprints of dinosaurs!  Something I will never forget and I hope my children will grow to appreciate.

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12,000 Steps in Kyoto-Japan Day 7

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It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, and for anyone who has seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” it’s a must see on their list when visiting Japan.  I’m speaking of course of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and its trails to the top of the sacred Mt. Inari.  Commonly referred to as the “Thousand Gate Shrine,” it literally has thousands of torii gates that visitors walk through up and down its numerous paths.  Next to the Golden Pavilion, it is arguably the most popular physical attraction in Kyoto for photography.

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Waking up on that Sunday morning, we had to check out of our hotel.  Our first full week in Japan was officially over.  We heard that there was a concierge luggage transportation service that would take our bags from our hotel (the Westin Miyako) to Kyoto’s central train station where the hotel had a special holding location for guests.  The downside was that you had to collect your luggage by 6:00 p.m. that same day or they’d be kept overnight.  While I would have preferred more time, I knew that getting the bags much later than 6:00 p.m. would just mean we’d show up at our next hotel in Nagoya really late, which could be a dangerous situation with a 2 year old tantrum.  Once we got the bags squared away, we hopped on the shuttle to the train station to get our connecting train out to Inari.

Map of the shrine area up the mountain,

Map of the shrine area up the mountain,

The commute time to Inari from central Kyoto was not that long, about 10-15 minutes by train.  Once you cross the tracks and start the walk through the street towards the shrine, you are immediately surrounded by cute shops and street food vendors selling Japanese souvenirs and sweet and savory treats.  It’s a little bit kitschy but fun.  The crowds seemed a bit light for a Sunday but still very busy.  I attributed the manageability of crowds to the fact that we were visiting during the rainy month, though we only had very brief and sparse sprinkles that day.  There were some wide and manageable stairs to get up to some of the religious buildings and the main shrine but were manageable with a stroller. While walking around with the kids, we drew a lot of attention since I chose to put them in their number shirts.  A group of Japanese students even asked to take their picture with us!

Walking from the train station to the main shrines and temple. Inari.

Walking from the train station to the main shrines and temple. Inari.

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Be cautious when photographing around this part and look for any “no photography” signs as there are certain areas closest to the temple where photography is prohibited out of respect for the sacredness of the area and ceremonies preformed.  Once we walked around the main buildings we started towards the path up the mountain.  My husband really wanted to go all the way to the top.  But first, he just wanted the “Memoirs of a Geisha” running through the torii gates shot!  We came to the two paths where naturally most people were walking up on the right and people were coming down on the left.  The start to the top of the mountain essentially began here and the right side of the tunnel had the constant stream of tourist starting their assent.  To get a good picture, try stepping up into the left side path that has a much slower stream of people coming down so you can get a better chance at a picture with just your party.

Go up the path on the right, but first duck into the left hand path of the downward travelers to get a less crowded picture.

Go up the path on the right, but first duck into the left hand path of the downward travelers to get a less crowded picture.

There were a couple times in between each stretch of the gated paths where you had to make a choice of direction, I found it slightly confusing to follow to get to the top, despite there being some maps.  It doesn’t always play out the same way on the path as it does on the map.  But we made our way up and up.  We didn’t make it far before we decided to stash the stroller on the side of one of the rest areas since we were met with many stairs for the foreseeable future.  We figured that it wouldn’t get stolen, but there wasn’t much choice.  For the first hour of our time there, it was beautiful and fascinating to see so many of the torii gates and the landscape of the mountain.  Half way up we got a beautiful view of all of Kyoto below.  The kids and I were very tired at this point.  We had been climbing stairs for about an hour.  I wanted to turn around and since I had already gotten so many wonderful photos, I felt I was good.  But, we promised my husband we’d make it to the top. The only thing that kept me going was that the ½ way up view was so gorgeous I kept imagining how much better the view would be once we got to the top.

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We found several Japanese tourist who wore traditional kimonos and shoes to make the pilgrimage to the top.

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The half way point view of greater Kyoto.

The boys were being troupers but even their patience was running thin.  My 2 year old was the hardest as I didn’t have the Ergo with me so we went back and forth with her walking, them me carrying her, then my husband. We had to bribe them with Oreos that I purchased at one of the stands.  Finally, after two hours from our arrival at the shrine, we reached the top.  I was SO relieved because about 5 minutes before we got to the top, my 5 year old announce that he had to go to the bathroom, and not the stand and pee on a tree kind!

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Bribing the kids with Oreos at each rest station to keep going up the mountain.

Up we go!

Up we go!

As I looked up from catching my breath from the last set of stairs, my heart sank.  We were completely surrounded by trees and in the middle of the path was this two tiered, stone landing area with a bunch of little stone shrines all around it and a gated one in the middle.  I read a sign that said “Top of the mountain.”  I looked around waiting for the amazing view, searching with my eyes for something exciting, some other little path that I had missed that would lead us to the site that would make 12,000 steps worth it.  Nothing.  Nothing but the increased pleads of my son for a bathroom.  I tried to distract him while my husband took a quick look around at the thing he was so committed to seeing, then he took my son back down the trail to look for a bathroom.  There were little restaurants, little souvenir stands and resting landings ever so often on the way up and we hoped that the last one we saw before the top would have a bathroom.  While they started down, I took my turn to look around.  It took all of 5 minutes before I saw all that I wanted to see and I started back down with my 7 year old and 2 year old.

The top of the mountain and no view of the surrounding area below!

The top of the mountain and no view of the surrounding area below!

Seeing all that there was to see of the shrine at the top of Mt. Inari.

Seeing all that there was to see of the shrine at the top of Mt. Inari.

When we reached the first landing station on the way down we looked around to see if it had the bathrooms.  Seeing none, we asked a man there and he said “no, the next, just 5 minutes walk.”  So, on we went until we came to the next stop.  Seeing nothing again, we asked. “Not here, just 5 minutes that way” as he continued to point down the stairs.  We went some more and finally by the 3rd landing we saw the bathrooms, but not my husband and son.  Continuing on the trail we finally caught up with them and we all lamented at how disappointing the top of the mountain was and how many times we had to walk “just 5 minutes” to get to the bathroom.  When we reached the base of the main shrine and temple, my husband looked at his Fitbit and said we had climbed 12,000 stairs!

Running down is fun!

Running down is fun!

We finished up the trip with some food from the street venders and a little souvenir shopping on the way back to the train.  Since we didn’t get back to the Inari station till close to 3:00 p.m. we knew we didn’t have much time before we had to pick up the luggage from the central station.  After some debate, we decided to try to go walk around the Imperial Palace grounds.  We found a wonderful playground that was a nice treat for the kids before we had to call it a day and get back on the train.  We were Nagoya bound, about an hour and a half on the bullet train from Kyoto, and there we would spend the next 5 nights of our journey in Japan.

Fresh orange juice straight from the

Fresh orange juice straight from the “tap.”