Friday, August 31, 2012

ENDED Soft Scrub Total: Review & Giveaway

Total<sup></sup> All Purpose Cleaner With BleachCleaning is such a monotonous chore, so I really dig products that make the job easier. Soft Scrub is one brand that always works well for me, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to review a new household cleaner, Soft Sc
rub Total All Purpose Cleaners. The name says it all: soft = gentle, scrub = getting down to the nitty gritty. In essence Soft Scrub does what I need it to do with minimal effort on my part. Soft Scrub Total All Purpose Cleaners are spray cleaners with two trigger options: fine mist or thick foam. It says on the bottle that they even spray upside down, and it's true, they really do. I tried the Soft Scrub Total All Purpose with bleach, and the Total Bath and Bowl. Both have been working great, and they smell good too. There is also a lemon scented Total All Purpose available.

Right now, Soft Scrub is running the Tough and Gentle Sweepstakes. The grand prize is $1000, and there are 50 second prizes of $40 in gift cards! If you'd like to enter, just click HERE. Easy peasy!

And, if you'd like to try these new Soft Scrub cleansers for yourself, I have good news for you! I am giving one lucky winner 3 FREE bottles of Soft Scrub! That way you can try all three kinds of Soft Scrub Total All Purpose. Just use the Rafflecopter form below to enter! Contest is open to U.S. residents only.

Soft Scrub provided me with complimentary Soft Scrub products. All opinions are my own.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Boston Back Bay Restaurants Offer a Break from Cooking

Sometimes I try, but cooking is just not really my thing. Day after day, I struggle to figure out what to feed my family because - I admit it - I am challenged in the kitchen. This is just one reason why few things make me happier than a meal out, somewhere like Boston Back Bay Restaurants. For a busy mom who doesn't enjoy preparing meals, needing to provide three meals a day feels like a chore. Wait, it is a chore. Please tell me I'm not the only one who occasionally resorts to cereal or scrambled eggs for dinner!

Every single day, I am on call 24/7. Beyond breakfast, lunch, dinner, and frequent snacks, there's wiping noses and tears, breaking up arguments, helping with homework, diminishing the stuff of nightmares, driving here, there, and everywhere,and the mentally challenging task of thinking about and remembering what everyone needs at any given moment. This one has a birthday coming up, that one has had a cough for a few days, this one is having trouble at school, that one seems to be growing out of his shoes. A mom's work is never done. Not only am I constantly at the beck and call of my family, but I often find it difficult to make myself a priority. I'm always thinking about what they need, while my own needs fall further and further down the list, until they often, ultimately, fall right off.

I try to things just for me. This blog is one of those things. I spend time with my friends whenever I can. I have been doing a pretty good job of exercising regularly. But being pampered is a rarity for me. I get my hair cut once or twice a year and I can't remember the last time I got a mani/pedi. That's another reason why I love eating out. It's not just a break from the mundane tasks of meal planning, preparation, and clean up. It's also about having someone look after me for a change. Someone else has already taken the trouble to plan out a menu with many delicious choices on it. Someone is going to ask me what I'd like. Then someone is going to cook it for me. And someone is going to bring it to me - I don't even have to get up! If my kids are with me, someone else fetches their drink refills and cleans up when there's a spill. When we're done, someone clears the table. I don't have to do it, and I don't have to nag anyone!  I especially like fine dining because I somehow feel like a more civilized human being if I have to dress up a little for a meal. I also enjoy exceptional service and really good food. Eating at restaurants is a way of being pampered that is somehow an allowable luxury, because a girl's got to eat.

Do you love eating out too? What are your favorite restaurants?

This is a sponsored post for Vlora. As always, all opinions and views are my own.

Thankful Thursday

It has occurred to me that I haven't done a Thankful Thursday post in awhile. It seems that traveling has turned my brain to mush this summer. But I have so much to be grateful for, so here we go...

I'm thankful...

That Chris and I are getting away this weekend, childless! 

The pediatrician's office was able to squeeze Mathilda in yesterday. This is the first time in over three years that I almost couldn't get my sick kid in to see a doctor. 

For the very nice lady at dance who did some rearranging so that Bethany could get into a very full dance class with two of her friends.

For my ability to go through Lucy and Mattie's clothes this afternoon with very little sentimentality coming into play. I did have a few moments of "Bethany wore that to a birthday party in preschool and I never want to forget that moment", but they were fleeting and I got through them. Salvation Army, here we come!

That Mattie is sitting on the couch happily singing to herself and looking at a book while she does her breathing treatment. And that she nicely drank down the yucky medicine earlier. I may have bribed her with candy but so what!

My mom does lots of school supply shopping for the kids, so I barely have to buy anything. Considering how unprepared I am this back to school season, I sure do appreciate that!

For Zumba with my friend Tina! I am uncoordinated as ever, but having fun nonetheless!

For my morning smoothies. They make me feel like I'm doing something healthy for myself every day. 

Our friend who knows instruments is going to look over Bethany's clarinet tonight and hopefully tell us it's in good shape!

For my mom and mother-in-law for babysitting almost every single time we need them, and saving us the trouble from ever having to hire a sitter.

What are you thankful for this week?

Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit

Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit
I've been packing lunches for years now, and I can attest that the novelty wears off very quickly. I trained Bethany and Connor early to make their own lunches, to encourage independence. Definitely for no other reason. Not at all because I was sick to death of doing it. Witch's honor. But Lucy is not quite ready to take that step, so my lunch-packing days are not behind me just yet.

School hasn't even started yet, and I already feel like I'm in a lunch-making rut. So I was excited when I received a Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit in the mail to review. Maybe this is just the tool I need to help make packing lunches fun?

The kit includes a sandwich container, a side container, two snack containers, and an ice pack. The nifty thing about it is that everything fits snugly together. The ice pack is particularly neat because it has been specially designed to snap on top of the sandwich container, and the side and snack containers snap on top of the ice pack. If the ice pack is not needed, the snack and side containers also snap directly onto each other or onto the sandwich container.

I love how everything snaps together, and the variety of container sizes. But with everything snapped together (see photo), the whole kit will not fit in Lucy's lunch box. For her lunches, I think I will get the most use out of the sandwich container with the ice pack snapped onto the top of it, or the side and snack containers snapped onto the top of the ice pack. A second ice pack would be nice, so that one could go on both the bottom and the top of my containers. Additional ice packs can be purchased on the Rubbermaid website, as well as lunchboxes that are just the right size to hold the LunchBlox kits.

I am a big fan of convenience, so I was happy to read that my LunchBlox Sandwich Kit is microwave, dishwasher, and freezer-safe. Furthermore, I was thrilled to read that it is BPA-free. Another convenience is that measurements are etched into the side of each container, so I know how much each will hold. For example, the side container holds either 3/4 cup or 200 ml. I don't know what use that would be to me, but I still like that it's there!

The Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit retails for $12.99 and is available at many stores, including Target, Kmart, and Kroger. For up to the minute tips and information, visit the Rubbermaid Facebook page.

I received a complimentary Rubbermaid LunchBlox Sandwich Kit for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

ENDED Combat Giveaway: Win the War Against Ants

Every year, we get ants in our house. And every year they creep me out because they can get into anything. I still shudder when I think about the morning I rushed out of the house and left the cutting board on the counter after using it to cut up fruit for my smoothie...and came home to dozens of nasty little ants crawling all over it. Disgusting! I would like to permanently erase that image from my memory, so why am I writing about it now? To let you know that if you struggle with ants in your home, I feel your pain. I know how gagtastic it is open your pantry and wonder if you're going to see an ant scurrying behind the cereal boxes, or worse, into a cereal box. No one invited them in, but those tiny little buggers only need a fraction of an inch to squeeze in and make themselves at home. Of course at my house they probably think they're being summoned, what with the trail of crumbs that always seems to circuit from my kitchen, to dining room,  to living room, to family room, and back again.

I received two Combat products to review, but fortunately I am not currently fighting off an ant invasion. But I am going to put these products in my arsenal so that I'm ready for the next attack. One of them, Combat Source Kill Max Ant Gel, is a fast acting gel plunger. Just leave the gel where ants have been spotted or suspected, indoors or outdoors, and this ant delicacy will lure them in and kill them within hours, after they've taken it back to the colony and shared the poison with their brethren. The other product, Combat Source Kill Max Ant Bait, also encourages the ants to share and annihilate their colonies, but without any mess or smell. The bait stations are child resistant and small enough to tuck into frequent ant hang outs, like under the sink or in food cupboards. I have kids with asthma, so I'd always prefer to avoid using strong-smelling sprays that might irritate them. That's just one more reason for me to try these products out next time I spy an ant.

Use the Rafflecopter form below to enter to win a box of Combat Ant Gel so you can try it for yourself!

Also, Combat is currently hosting a Bug-Free Backyard Bash Sweepstakes! You could win $1000 to hold your very own backyard bash, along with an assortment of Combat products to get rid of ants and keep the party ant-free!

Combat provided me with samples for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

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ENDED Back to School Giveaway: Purex Laundry Detergent's Be Honest. School is starting up next week for my kids, and I am still deep in summer mode. I need to snap out of it because the first day of school is likely to be quite rude. I need to get back on the organized track; you know, the one where I can keep straight who has which activity after school and everyone has plenty of clean socks and underwear readily available at any given moment. Speaking of laundry situation is pretty shameful right now. One look at my overflowing hampers and you'd understand where I'm coming from. This has quite possibly been the busiest summer of my life. But enough excuses! Time to get back into the swing of things!

Are you ready for back-to-school? I'm going to assume you're much more "together" than me, and that laundry never accidentally slipped off your to-do list this summer, but just in case I have a kindred spirit out there who also needs to gear up for a clothes washing marathon, I have a prize that might help your cause. One lucky winner will receive three bottles of Purex Triple Action laundry detergent! That's a lot of laundry! Just use the Rafflecopter form to enter.

Contest open to U.S. residents only. Purex Insiders provided the prize.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Date Day (Sort of) in Bay City, Michigan

Chris and I spent the day together Sunday, and while it wasn't "technically" a date since we were with his mom, step-dad, brother, and other family members all day, we were kid-less, so I'm calling it a date day. His aunt was celebrating her 60th birthday at a no-kids-invited dinner, held at the Stein Haus/Atrium* in Bay City, Michigan.

Is it still a date if your step-father-in-law picks you up in a mini-van and you sit next to your brother-in-law while your husband climbs into the third row?

On the way to Bay City, we stopped for a short visit at Chris's aunt & uncle's house in Fenton. Chris and his brother had never been there before, and it is a really awesome house so they wanted to check it out. I have been there before, but I wasn't opposed to going on the grand tour once again. This was, however, my first time seeing the garage. That might sound dull, but this garage houses four Corvettes and a neighbor's airplane, so it's a little cooler than most. After the tour, we sat down and snacked on some cupcakes that looked too good to eat. I've been trying to decrease my sugar intake by a lot, but Sunday was a total sabotage. I mean, someone offers you a scrummy cupcake, and it's kind of rude to say no, am I right?

And, ummm, is it still a date if you're sharing cupcakes with your husband's uncle?

Stein Haus and Atrium in Bay City, MI
After our visit, we all continued on to Bay City for the birthday party. The Stein Haus (Atrium? see note below), is housed in an old car dealership. The dining room we were in was the former show room, so it was quite large and airy, with tall ceilings. There are even patio tents set up (see photo) to cozy it up a bit. This part of the restaurant is quaintly decorated with a European countryside air, and shows no vestige of its car dealership past. The connected bar has a definite Deutch flavor, with steins hanging from the ceiling.

I'm assuming because we were part of a large party, we ordered from an abbreviated menu. I was not terribly impressed with the vegetarian options. I went with the pasta, and naturally ended up not loving it because I rarely ever enjoy restaurant pasta. On the plus side, the freshly baked bread with herb butter was delicious, and the salad was crisp, cold and fresh, just the way I like it.. The staff was friendly and I have no complaints about the service, but our food was a long time coming. By the time our meals were served, we were famished. Although I wasn't thrilled with my selection, I would like to return and maybe order from the full menu and try something else.It's a really neat place to have a meal.

Is it still a date if you're walking around the restaurant, snapping pictures for your blog?

We had a good time mingling with family whom we don't get to see very often. Everyone is pretty spread out, geographically speaking, so special occasions are a treat for catching up and chatting. I love Chris's family so it was really fun.

Throughout our meal, I was taunted continuously by a red and white building across the street that I had been told was a candy shop. Sugar reduction who? As the party drew to a close, we said our good-byes and high tailed it to St. Laurent Brothers/ The Nut House (does everything in Bay City have to confuse me by having two names?). And we came home with a large, heavy bag full of candy. For the kids. Ha. I don't want them eating too much of that crap, so I have been eating as much as possible to save them from it. When it's gone, I can really concentrate on eliminating sugar from my diet. And yes, I realize I sound like a junkie. Just one more time, I promise, then I'll quit for good...

It was a good day, even if the date part was a matter of speculation.

*I'm not actually sure what to call it? Our glasses we were drinking from said Stein Haus, but the sign over the door we walked in said Atrium. I'm thinking the bar is called Stein Haus and the restaurant is called Atrium, but I'm just not certain!

The Stein Haus, Bay City, MI

Stein Haus/Atrium, Bay City, MI
Temptation at St. Laurent Brothers/The Nut House in Bay City, MI
And more temptation...Bay City, MI
It goes on and on...Bay City, MI

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Blog Inspiration

Not long ago, I learned that one of my favorite bloggers, Anne Andrus, passed away. I have mentioned her family's blog,, before because it has been an inspiration to me since I stumbled across it six years ago. After I randomly picked up the book One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children by David Elliot Cohen from the library, I was on a quest to find other families who had taken extended round the world trips together. That's when I found sixintheworld. At that point, the Andrus family was in the midst of their travels. I loved what I was reading and seeing, so I quickly went back to the beginning of their journey via their blog posts and marveled over each and every post. From then on, I followed them until they returned to the states, and then kept reading.

I was saddened to learn of Anne's initial cancer diagnosis, and I kept her and her family in my thoughts and prayers through the ups and downs of her illness. Their blog updates were scarce, but I was always excited to see a new one and hoped for good news every time. The last one I read just after we returned home from our road trip, and I cried as I read Anne's husband Tom's eulogy post, Celebrating an Amazing Lady.

Although I didn't know Anne in real life, I did feel that I knew her in some small way from reading sixintheworld. It's an odd feeling, to have a sense of connection with someone I've never met. That's one of the wonderful aspects of the blogging world, I suppose. It's pretty awesome to have the medium to influence, inspire, and share; both for the reader and the blogger.

Reading sixintheworld exemplified to me the possibilities available to anyone with the will and desire to follow their dreams. I saw a large family doing something I wanted to do, but that felt so impossible. I'm grateful to the Andrus family for showing me that the impossible can become possible. I don't know if my family will ever travel round the world together, but I do know that a few years ago it felt impossible that I'd ever be able to drive my kids across the country on a road trip, and this summer I did just that.

Anytime I hear of a young mother dying, it shakes me to the core. Since reading that Anne Andrus died, I have had a hard time not dwelling in the darkest recesses of my heart, where I hold a fear of leaving my children motherless. I love them so much and don't want to miss a minute of them growing up. But more than that, I don't want them to miss me and to know what it is to be a child with no mother. Who knows what the future holds, but I hope I will be around for a long time. Nonetheless, I try to live in the moment because no one knows what tomorrow may bring. Thankfully the Andrus family took their dream trip when they did, because as soon as they came back, Anne got sick. In the same spirit, I try to maintain a sense of joy in our family; to provide my kids with a strong foundation of love; and to do my best to ensure that they have a multitude of happy memories to hold close forever. Today is important; it's all we have. The time to recognize and move toward our dreams is now. The time to do what we love and say "I love you" is now.

Have you ever been deeply inspired by something you've read on a blog?

Book Review: Finding Emma by Steena Holmes

As a parent, my biggest fear is Something Bad happening to my kids. The ambiguous Something could be anything...sickness, disease, injury, the d-word, kidnapping, or anything else that would be painful and horrifying to them and prevent them from fully living a good, long life.. I'm going to make an assumption here that there are not many parents who would disagree with me. It's the stuff of nightmares, without a doubt. Before I had children, I couldn't have imagined the things that I now envision happening to my kids during my darkest moments.

Steena Holmes' novel, Finding Emma, explores what happens to one family when their young daughter mysteriously disappears. After two years, Emma's mom, Megan, is (as I see it) still naturally obsessed with finding her child, while her dad, Peter, feels the need to move on, find closure, and turn the focus of their lives to their two other daughters. While in theory I can see his point, I think the unknown would drive me to the brink of insanity. I'm not sure I could ever stop looking for my child.

Megan is faced with a brutal decision: move forward with Peter and stop her urgent search for Emma, or risk losing her family. Megan isn't sure she can go on without the love and support of Peter, but has too much damage been done to save their marriage?

After reading this book, I truly can't imagine what I would do in a similar situation. I would have three other children who would still need me and depend upon me, but I would undoubtedly always feel like I was letting my missing child down if I wasn't searching ceaselessly. I can only pray I'm never faced with such a reality. I try to avoid even thinking about things like kidnapping, so it was a little tough for me to read Finding Emma at first. But once I got into it, I had to know how it ended. I finished the whole book in less than 24 hours, which meant a little sleep deprivation, but it was worth it. The ending wasn't my favorite, but nonetheless I would recommend this book. Right now the Kindle version is only $2.99 (click the picture above to take you right to it), so I suggest you get right on it!

I was provided a complimentary copy of Finding Emma for review purposes, but all opinions are my own. Please note that 50% of the proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Missing Children's Society of Canada.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The birthday girl
Bethany had a birthday on the 20th, and now, unbelievably, I have an 11-year old daughter. This is surreal because she was just born.

Eleven years old. I remember 11. Pretty clearly actually, which for me is amazing because I have a horrible memory. It was a pretty eventful year, what with finishing elementary school, starting middle school, and all the associated drama. But it was fun too. My friends and I were tight. We had a good time. I was starting to feel pretty grown up.

I used to think Bethany and I were very different. In some ways we are. She is so loud. I am quiet. She is an extrovert and I am an introvert. She has always been confident, whereas confidence is something I struggle with, even as an adult. But the older she gets, the more I see our similarities. The 11-year old me wasn't so different from the 11-year old Bethany. I was so anxious to grow up! I was all about the make-up and the shopping and the clothes and the accessories. I sassed my mom and thought I knew better than she. Every freaking thing embarrassed me. I wanted to hang out with my friends all the time. I had a lot of friends, from all different groups, just like Bethany. I liked to write, and so does she. We are different in many ways too, but I wonder how much of that has to do with our vastly different childhoods. If our childhoods were more alike, would we be even more similar to one another?

Bethany drives me plenty crazy, but she also makes me beaucoup proud. I can count on her. Actually, I can count on her so well that I have to watch myself so that I don't count on her too much. She's a good friend. She speaks up for what she believes in. She is a terrific big sister, even if she does take that position a little too seriously at times. Her kindergarten teacher used to tell me that she tried to run the class, and in the same spirit she tries to rule the roost by lording it over her younger siblings. She is creative and full of ideas and plans. She is tech savvy. She saves me the trouble of giving her sisters manicures and pedicures. She amazes me when she does flips on the trampoline or climbs like a monkey. (Physically speaking, we truly are very different. She's athletic, flexible, and graceful. Me, not so much.)

My little girl is 11 years old. I can scarcely believe it's true, but it is. In two weeks she'll be in middle school. I hope 11 is good to her. I hope it will bring her lots of fun times and good memories. Happy Birthday, baby girl. Eleven or not, you will always be my baby.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Free Does Not Always Technically Mean Free: Midland Center for the Arts

Midland Center for the Arts
This summer, I've been linking up with Mrs. Weber's Neighborhood for My Michigan Memory, and entering the Michigan-themed giveaways. I love writing about Michigan, so it's been fun...but I've also been lucky! I've won TWO of the giveaways! I won a family four pack of tickets to Midland Center for the Arts for the Bob the Builder exhibit, and I won a family four pack of tickets to the DIA. Winning is awesome sauce, no?

The Bob the Builder tickets were set to expire this past weekend, and truth be told I just didn't know if I was going to get to it. Midland is over two hours from my house, and we have spent so much time away from home recently. But the day before the exhibit ended, I saw fit to cajole Chris into a little day trip. Bethany was mortified and did not want to be seen going into a museum that was advertising a juvenile Bob the Builder exhibit, but too bad kid. You're still under our thumbs. I did sweeten the deal for her a little by suggesting we stop on the way home and do a little school clothes shopping.

So, umm, are you catching this? Two hours from home? School clothes shopping? Is it just me, or does this "free" day sound like it's about to get expensive? Let's break it down.

  • Four free tickets to Midland Center for the Arts. Going rate: $8/adults, $5/kids. Which means we saved $26. Great!
  • But...there are not four of us. There are six of us. Mattie was free, so that left us only needing to buy 1 child's ticket @ $5.
  • Sucker daddy can't walk through the gift shop without buying a trinket for each of his lovies. I'm talking about the kids, by the way. I don't know how much he spent, but it wasn't free.
  • We left the house right about lunch time...brilliant move. This meant stopping at a drive-thru for lunch on the go. We did make the kids drink water with their crap food. Because that made it so much better. But the food was not free either. (Please note: I did not really take part in the fast food orgy. I ordered apples and yogurt dip, and drank organic ice tea that I brought from home.)
  • On the way home, we stopped at Birch Run (outlet mall) and did a couple hours worth of school shopping. Amount spent: let's not go there. We did save quite a bit by shopping for bargains, and Chris even convinced the sales clerk at The Children's Place to accept our 25% off coupon, even though it clearly stated that it was not valid at outlet stores. Still though...not free.
  • Chris spotted a Toys R Us at Birch Run, and I remembered that Mattie still had a gift card from her birthday.. But then of course it would not be "fair" for Mattie to get something and no one else, so everyone got something. $$$$
  • By now it was dinner time, so we stopped to eat before driving on home. Yeah, we had to pay for that too.
  • Long drive = lots of gas. Not cheap.
Midland Center for the Arts
So, I won these tickets, which was awesome. This motivated us to have a family day. We had a great time, and we're so glad we went. But the price tag on our day was considerably higher than free. I'm thrilled that I won the tickets, of course. I just think it's kind of funny that those tickets ended up costing us a pretty penny!

I wonder how much it's going to set us back when we use those DIA tickets?

Thank you to Mrs. Weber's Neighborhood and Midland Center for the Arts! All of us had a great time at the museum! And I'm also thankful for the family day inspiration!

Midland Center for the Arts

Midland Center for the Arts

My kids are on a never ending mission to grace all photos with silly faces. Midland Center for the Arts
Midland Center for the Arts

See what I mean about the faces? Midland Center for the Arts

Saturday, August 18, 2012

ENDED My Michigan Memory: Goma Dairy Farm and a Giveaway!

I'm linking up with Mrs. Weber's Neighborhood for My Michigan Memory.  Head over and enter to win a Potter Park Zoo giveaway. If you are a blogger with a Michigan related blog post to share, link up for extra entries!

Just a couple days before leaving for our road trip (which you can read about here, here, here, and here...with more posts coming soon), I had the opportunity to partake in a totally awesome event for local bloggers. Even though I was completely bogged down with travel preparations, I could not refuse an invitation from the United Dairy Industry of Michigan to visit the Goma Dairy Farm in Marlette, Michigan.

My day on the farm started off by meeting a comfortable, air-conditioned bus at one of three centralized locations. We were offered a variety of breakfast items, including yogurt, bananas, milk, and coffee. Everyone introduced themselves, including our resident experts: Deanne Kelleher, registered dietitian; Dr. Ron Erskine, veterinarian; and Katie Dellar, Facebook's Dairy Mom. We were given a folder full of information, and once everyone was on board, we watched a short video. Before long, we arrived at the farm.

Goma Dairy Farm Cow
Sweet little calf at Goma Dairy Farm
I have visited farms before, with various levels of interaction. But I had never before been treated to such an informative, behind the scenes tour. The owners of the farm, the van den Goor family, personally escorted our group around and told us about each stage of the process of dairy farming. With 2700 cows that produce a whopping 29,000 gallons of milk everyday, Goma  is one of the larger dairy farms in Michigan. The place is huge!

We saw lots of cows. We saw where they live, learned what it takes to keep them comfortable and happy, found out how their diet is carefully moderated, and much more. We saw the cows getting milked, which was much more sterile and industrial than I had imagined. Human hands never touch the milk. It goes in pipes directly from the cow, to the basement to be cooled, and out to the trucks, which deliver it to Yoplait and Kroger.

Goma Dairy Farm Milking
Getting ready for milking, Goma Dairy Farm
I now have a clearer picture of just how time-consuming and grueling the farming life is. The cows get milked every day without consideration of holidays, sick time, or vacations. It is truly a never ending job. Farmers are dedicated people, no doubt about it, and I have a greater appreciation for what they do to get food on our tables.

After our tour, we were lead to the barn (it was a remarkably clean barn, by the way), where tables were set up for lunch. The meal was great, and I was pleased to see vegetarian options. Gertie van den Goor, one of the owners, sat next to me, and I enjoyed interesting conversation with her while eating. The family had cute goodie bags for us to take home to our kids (each contained a piggy bank, magnet, coloring book, and more).

My lasting impression was that Goma Dairy Farm is a well-run farm lead by a great family who truly cares about their animals, the dairy industry, and the people who drink their milk. It was truly a wonderful day, and I'm so glad I took the time out of my busy schedule to participate.

For more information about the dairy industry, please visit the following websites:

I received an incredible "Get Mooooving" dairy gift bag, which included the following items:
  • Magic Bullet 17-piece hi-speed blender/mixer system
  • $50 Mastercard gift card
  • reusable grocery bag
  • got milk? baseball cap
  • dairy themed socks
To be honest, I was feeling pretty spoiled. Well, guess what? Maybe you'll soon be feeling spoiled too, because The United Dairy Industry of Michigan is providing an identical gift bag for one lucky MichiGal reader! Just use the Rafflecopter form to enter! US residents only.

Thank you United Dairy Industry of Michigan and van den Goor family for an amazing experience!

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Friday, August 17, 2012

South Dakota Supreme: Part 1

My road trip story last left us foraging for a hotel room in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was excited to be in South Dakota because I had some cool things planned for us during our brief stay. I crammed 900 miles into our first two days of traveling so we could linger a bit in the state best known for being home to Mount Rushmore. In fact, I drove about half that distance over days three and four on the road. But the bulk of our touristy fun happened in South Dakota during this leg of our trip, so we were pretty much always going at warp speed.

Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
There was no way we were leaving Sioux Falls Tuesday morning without paying a visit to Falls Park, home to the waterfalls for which the city is named. The park has a very unique stone landscape, and was the locale of a former massive mill that harnessed the power of the falls in its operations. It is clean and well maintained, and kind of urban. Looking over the falls and seeing the city in the background felt a little odd. Not exactly a setting with a natural feel. But beautiful nonetheless. We did our best to see as much as we could in the sweltering heat (again, 100+), knowing that our day was just beginning. Much to Bethany's bitter disappointment, we did not check out the restaurant, with its promises of ice cream in the window sign. We did do a little shopping in the gift shop, but we did not go to the top of the lookout tower, which was housed in the same building. We probably should have done that, but when I say sweltering, I mean that as in I was about to lose all of my children to heat stroke induced meltdowns. It was time to move on, lookout tower or not.

The next stop I had my heart set on, the Ingalls Homestead, was going to take us a couple hours out of our way. I knew we had a really long day ahead of us, and the kids were already worn out from walking around Falls Park. I was about to poll everybody to see if they wanted to take the time to do it or not, when Connor excitedly asked if we would be going to the Ingalls Homestead next. The kids were all geeked, as it turned out. I was half relieved because I had been wanting to go to this place for years, and half dreading the excursion because it meant a lot more driving. I had also sort of been prepping the kids by playing a CD copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek in the van. No, we were not actually going to the real banks of Plum Creek, but it was the only audio version of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book available at the library the day I went in. It did kind of get us in the mood.

Years ago I learned of the Ingalls Homestead in what was to become one of my favorite books, Storybook Travels, by Colleen Dunn Bates and Susan La Tempa. This tourist attraction specially tailored for Laura fans calls itself "Laura's Living Prairie". The Ingalls family actually lived and walked on the very land we were standing upon. The structures on the property are not original and were not the ones used and lived in by the Ingalls family. However, they do a good job of demonstrating what life was like for them during that time.

The first stop at the Homestead is the gift shop, where visitors can peruse the somewhat over-priced selection of prairie-themed items. Curious guests are invited to sit down and watch a short film about the Homestead before investing ten bucks per person (ages 5 and up) to tour the grounds and partake in all activities. I drove all this way, we were partaking. No question.

Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Remember it was a miserably hot day. But we trudged all around the Ingalls Homestead, sweating our butts off all the while. We saw a dugout house, built into the side of a little hill, with dirt for walls and grass growing on the inside (ewwwwwwww!), a shanty, and a house built to resemble what Ma's Little House would have looked like. The kids got to pump water out of a water pump, just like Laura, and drink the cool water. They learned how to make simple toys out of a piece of yarn and a button, and had the opportunity to do laundry with a washboard, hand-operated ringer, and clothesline. There were pony rides, but it was too hot so I deftly discouraged that. In the building housing Laura's Travel Exhibit, we were able to climb into a covered wagon and marvel how a family could fit all of their possessions inside, along with the family itself, and travel long distances. We took a covered wagon ride out to the one room schoolhouse, similar to the one Laura taught at briefly before getting married. At the school house, costumes were available to anyone who wanted to really feel the moment. Mattie very briefly wore one, and she was so cute, but it only lasted a few minutes. Again....too hot! Kittens galore were scattered around the hay-roof barn, and kittens never fail to captivate my kids. They also all got to try their hand at making rope, which they were able to keep. We missed some other activities, such as making corn husk dolls, but what we did do was really fun. Plus being where Laura once was, well that was surreal. The Homestead is also a campground, and campers have the option of sleeping in covered wagons. I want to do that, but maybe not when it's 108 degrees outside.

One thing I noticed in South Dakota was that people were generally friendly and trusting. Gas stations allowed me to pump before paying. At the Ingalls Homestead, refrigerators were in a few locations around the grounds, stocked full of ice cold water for sale, with a sign asking visitors to pay on the way out. The honor system? How positively novel!

We enjoyed our time in De Smet at the Ingalls Homestead. I would recommend it to any Little House fan, or even just anyone interested in history. The hands-on aspect ups the fun quotient considerably, too. Was it worth the 80 miles or so it tacked onto our day? Absolutely, yes. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

By the time we left the Homestead we were starving, so we hurriedly slapped together some sandwiches and ate in the van on the way to our next stop: the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace is exactly the type of kitchy tourist attraction I envisioned encountering on our cross country road trip. Every year a new theme is chosen, and the entire exterior of the building is decorated with corn, depicting pictures and scenes in keeping with the theme. You can go in (FREE), where you will find more corn decorations, pictures of Corn Palace decorations of the past, a snack counter, restrooms, and a massive gift shop. We could barely pry the kid away. It's really close to the highway, and an easy and relatively quick diversion. Worth a stop for sure!
Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

Finally, finally, we were on our way to Interior, where I had made our reservations for the night. Interior is home to the east entrance of Badlands National Park, another must see attraction on our list. What I didn't realize is that one must actually drive through a stretch of the National Park to get to Interior. Or at least, that's what my GPS told me, and I was in no mood or mind frame to question my GPS. By the time we were getting close, it was dark out. It wasn't exactly storming, because there was no rain to speak of, but the sky was lit up with frequent lightning flashes. I came upon the entrance gate to the park, which was unmanned because it was late, and drove through, silently praying that we were going the right way because we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, with no other vehicles in sight.

I didn't really know what to expect of the Badlands. But I do know that I didn't expect my first experience driving through this amazing landscape would be in pitch black darkness, with creepy flashes of lightning illuminating my surroundings every minute or so. To say it was freaky is a huge understatement. We appeared to be the only ones in this part of the park, and it was so completely dark in between flashes. Night driving isn't my strongest suit to begin with. It was a stressful drive. We were exhausted. My brain was cooked. And when we got to our motel, the Badlands Budget Host Inn, we found that the office was locked and closed for the night. I had a moment of panic (middle of nowhere) before noticing a sign on the door directing customers to a trailer out back when arriving after hours. Said trailer was apparently the home of the manager. My mom was questioning my choice in motel by this point, but she gamely got out and knocked on the trailer door until a lady answered and handed her a real live key, telling her we could check in at the office in the morning. I had done my research on Trip Advisor (not fool proof, as I learned all too well another night), and sure enough our room was spotlessly clean and had two very comfortable beds. The carpet had just been cleaned too. The next morning, when we walked over to the office/gift shop/ restaurant, we realized we were privy to some fantastic views of the Badlands. Breakfast was not included, but our rate with a AAA discount was quite low, which left ample room in the budget to buy breakfast. Camp sites are also available at the Badlands Budget Host Inn. It was simple, but a nice place. I wish we could have stayed a few days. There are no televisions in the rooms. I call that awesome. When (not if) we return to the Badlands, this is the place we'll be staying. (Incidentally, the options in regards to accommodations are extremely limited.)

South Dakota was so incredible, I can't quite squeeze it all into one post. Stay tuned for Part 2...

This quartzite is everywhere at Falls Park. Prisoners at one time hauled it from the bluff to build a prison.

Notice the remains of the old mill in the background. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Notice the city church in the background. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Covered wagon campers at the Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Could you pack the entire contents of your household into this wagon? Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Living in a shanty would be too close for comfort! Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
We rode in this wagon to the one room school house. Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Lessons in the one room school house. Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Making rope at the Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota
Maybe we need a washboard and ringer at home to get everyone all excited about doing laundry? Ingalls Homestead
Close up of the corn decorations, Mitchell Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
My little cobs. Inside the Corn Palace, with corn mural in the background. Mitchell, South Dakota

South Dakota Supreme: Part 2

South Dakota Supreme: Part 1 chronicled our first day in South Dakota. This post covers our second day.

View from motel parking lot, Interior, South Dakota
Wednesday was another banner day that I had been excitedly waiting for. I was grateful for the 10 a.m. check-out at the Badlands Budget Host Inn because it got us moving earlier than usual. After breakfast, we got back on scenic route 240, the Badlands Loop Road, and drove west through the rest of the National Park to the Wall entrance. I didn't really know what to expect from the Badlands. From what we saw, it was a lot of amazing, other-worldly scenery and some hiking trails. I think we drove past a visitor center in the darkness of the previous night, but on our drive-through in daylight we didn't really see much at all other than scenic overlooks. We got out once or twice for pictures and noticed signs warning of rattle snakes. A concerned man looked at the swarm of kids crawling out of my minivan and informed me that he had seen some rattlers himself and that we should be sure to stay on the trails. I assured him we weren't going anywhere, just stretching our legs and taking some photos. None of us were dressed for hiking. Another time, I hope. There was some construction going on, so at one point we had to pull over and wait for a leader truck to guide us past the work zone. The road was down to one lane, and there was no wiggle room, so they had to make sure traffic was only moving in one direction at a time. This took a few extra minutes, but wasn't terrible.

The Wall Drug backyard, Wall, South Dakota
We exited Badlands National Park in the town of Wall. So far we had seen approximately 573 signs advertising Wall Drug, the world's biggest drug store. Who can resist 573 signs? We had to investigate. Well, it's big alright, but not as I had imagined. Wall Drug is basically a block filled with stores that are connected to each other. You can get from one to the other from the inside. But you have to pay for your items from one area before moving onto another, which definitely made it feel more like separate stores than one big store. There was quite a bit to look at, and it was neat-o. But it was also crammed to the max with merchandise and tourists. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had no children with me, or if my kids were older and I could trust all of them to meet me at a certain spot and time, so we could all look at what we wanted to look at without irritation, confusion, and frustration. Since that was not the case, I was about to blow my top after a short time. I was sick of their obsession with gift shops already. And I am especially not such a big fan of crowded shops. We saw what the fuss was about and got back on the highway.

Our next planned stop was one I had been dreaming of for years. We reached the Ramada in Rapid City, where I had made reservations ahead of time. For once we arrived before check-in and killed some time eating lunch at the mediocre 50s style diner, Arnold's, that's next to the hotel. As soon as we could, we got to our room, unpacked, and freshened up before leaving for Mount Rushmore. I have always wanted to see Mount Rushmore up close and personal. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's because the famous national monument is just so iconic and patriotic. We had all been looking forward to it, and we were all excited.

Mount Rushmore was about a 30 minute drive from our hotel. A twisty, curvy, up and down hilly drive through the Black Hills. The drive was a little more intense than I had been expecting. In fact, I wasn't really expecting intense at all. We had talked about staying for the 9 p.m. lighting ceremony so we could see the monument all lit up. But doubt started creeping into my mind...I wasn't sure I wanted to make the drive back to the hotel in the dark.

There they are! Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota
Before we even went through the gates, we had a few glimpses of the Presidents. They were right there. Wowsers! We paid the $11 parking fee (this is the only entrance fee), found a parking spot in the parking structure and went in. I don't know quite how to describe it, except to say it was more built-up and modern than I had expected. The setting was beautiful, both natural and man-made aspects. Seeing Mount Rushmore was amazing. We took a lot of pictures, browsed through the visitor center (skipped the film, which I wish we hadn't), had over-priced ice cream cones, and did some shopping. There is a trail that allows visitors to get closer, but it started raining and I worried about the little girls slipping on the endless stairs leading up, up, up. Plus the rain confirmed for me that I did not want to drive back to the hotel in the dark. So we decided to leave earlier than we had planned and skip the lighting ceremony.

Okay, all this build up to see Mount Rushmore, then we finally got there and we did not take full advantage of the situation at all. I have regrets, but the kids were happy and satisfied. If they had seemed heart broken because they weren't going to see the Presidents lit up, I probably would have caved. If they had begged to watch the film in the visitor center, or pleaded to walk the trail, I don't think I could have said no. But they didn't. We were all tired. It was a long day. That's the problem with this kind of trip. But at the end of the day, we saw Mount Rushmore, and I'm so glad we did.

On the way back we decided to simplify dinner and pick up some pizza to eat in the room. We found a Little Caesars and headed back. The kids were also chomping at the bit to try out the totally awesome looking pool they caught a glimpse of when we checked in.

A word about the Rapid City Ramada.When I called to reserve our room, I was asked if I wanted a room by the pool or a room with an exterior door, so I could pull right up to park. I chose the exterior door because I thought it would be less trouble when unpacking for the night. But I didnt' want to have to walk outside to get to the pool, so I asked about that and was assured there were indoor corridors too and not to worry about that. So I had imagined that the room would have both an exterior door and an interior door. But it did not. The set up is kind of odd. The pool is literally in the same room as the lobby. There are rooms all around the pool, inside. Then there are the rooms with the exterior doors. There are some corridors, but there is definitely some outdoor walking involved to get to the pool, the front desk, and the breakfast room. It ended up not being a bad walk once we figured out the lay of the land, but it was very different.

When we checked in, before our trek to Mount Rushmore, there was one kid swimming in the pool. When we came back after dinner, the place was jam packed. My heart sank. Then I felt the water. Icy. Crap. "Bethany, take Mattie in the pool, please." Yes, I am that mom. It's too bad, because it really was an awesome pool. It was shallow and perfect for kids, with zero entry on one side (picture walking into a lake from the beach, without the pesky sand and rocks). Lucy lasted all of two minutes or so, then joined me on the pool side because she couldn't take the cold. Mathilda had some fun jumping to Bethany several times, but I had to put an end to that before long because she was shivering and her teeth were chattering. Bethany stayed in for a few more minutes, and Connor was the last hold out, but we only had to wait for him for about 10 minutes or so. Have I mentioned that I hate freezing cold swimming pools? Well, I hate freezing cold crowded swimming pools even more. For the first time in our trip so far, the night was cool, and we had to walk partially outside to get back to our room. Not a huge deal, just not exactly ideal.

Breakfast the next morning was a mixed bag. They had a great selection, for sure. I love complimentary breakfasts with lots of options. But, no surprise after our experience at the pool, the breakfast room was very crowded. We nabbed a four-top for the kids the moment the previous diners finished their food, and then I commenced to eat breakfast while standing up. A couple of nice ladies from a neighboring table had two empty chairs, so they invited me to sit with them. My mom joined us when she came back with her food. We had some pleasant conversation, and it all worked out. The thing is (you'd probably never guess, right?) that I am not crazy for crowded places. Especially places that are crowded to the point of barely being able to walk, like the Ramada breakfast room in Rapid City, South Dakota. Note to self: I need to learn to be more flexible. In progress.

Our time in South Dakota was all too brief, but filled with wonderful, long-lasting memories. There was more I had hoped to be able to do, but we had places to be and people to see, so we did our absolute best with the time we had available to us. In Rapid City, I really wanted to check out Dinosaur Park and Storybook Island, two free kid-friendly attractions. I also wanted to partake in the City of Presidents walking tour, to get a good look at every one of the life sized presidential statues adorning the street corners of Rapid City. The Museum of Geology sounds interesting, as well as historic Deadwood. Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park all sound amazing and are practically within spitting distance of Mount Rushmore. I discovered that I love South Dakota, and would like to, at some point, fully dedicate an entire vacation to this beautiful state.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Lucy is holding her handcrafted rope from the Ingalls Homestead. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I can't believe we're here! Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota