What is America’s Best Museum for Play?

If Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss could’ve designed a modern day wonderland, it would look a lot like City Museum in St. Louis. Never before have I climbed through so many hidden passageways, discovered so many works of art (also climbable), and laughed down so many speedy slides. My admonition to the inner kid in you: plan a trip to City Museum today.

That crack in the ground that looks like it’s under construction? It’s actually a planned passageway to an underground slide. Those caves that twist through darkness and crystals? They lead to the base of a 10-story slide. That giant pencil? It’s… actually a giant pencil (world’s largest, too).

Advice: wear athletic shoes and comfy pants for climbing (consider bringing knee pads, or you can rent them from C.M.), put your cell number on your kids’ wristbands, and prepare for adventure. If you don’t climb with your kids (which is the most fun, anyway, hearing all their giddy shouts and sounding their barbaric YAWPS!), you will lose them in the myriad passageways. The only uncomfortable climb? Outside suspended in a wire crawl space underneath a walkway 40 feet off the ground. Everything else? Thrilling and euphoric.

Oh, the tunnels and rainbow slides you’ll go on! We got there right at 9am, and crowds arrived around 10:30. Try hitting the slides first, since that’s where lines mostly form. But you can’t go wrong following your curiosity. If you’re looking for the massive indoor slide (that used to be a factory chute for shoes) find the giant whale on the first floor, then go past it down into the cave land, and keep going till you spot the rainbow lit crystal sculpture.

(Looking up at the 10-story slide.)

Young kids?  The City Express train ride was a blast for our almost 3-year-olds and even our 5+6 year olds.  They also have arts, crafts and painting for your young artists.  We explored until about 1:30pm (due to much needed kids naps) and one thing’s for certain: we will be going back. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but definitely the day after tomorrow (provided the world is not iced-over and airfare from Oregon is magically cheap).

Every city needs one of these imagination-filled play-scapes. If you have other tips on City Museum, or know of other captivating playlands, please post below. Then grab a friend and get your golden ticket to City Museum. 

Happy Exploring!

The Big Move – Summer 2017

Dear Readers, you may have wondered where The Creative Mountain went during the summer months of 2017.  Where are the stories? The pictures? The ideas?! How am I supposed to live my life?!  Joking aside, I’m sure you managed to get along swimmingly and have grand adventures of your own.

But in case you’re curious, during these past months, my family made the big move (2,000+ miles) from the Midwest to the Real West: from Wisconsin out to Bend, Oregon.

Is it exciting? Are there new places to explore? Do we miss friends and family? Yes, yes and yes. But now, instead of looking out our back window and seeing suburban homes, we see a historic flume, an island of lava rock, Mt. Bachelor, and the rapids of the Deschutes River, along with mule deer families grazing on our grass.

We have a greenhouse to spruce up for next spring, a zipline to install, and plans for a chicken coop (and of course, the trampoline and kid’s play structure/rock climbing wall are already set up). And the local community is inviting, friendly, and everything we could’ve hoped for. The only unexpected part? The Great Smoking Haze of August/Sept, as forest fires have been rampant (worst in ten+ years, say the locals). But tubing the whitewater park, kayaking around the lakes, and viewing the total solar eclipse have been terrific.

So, we feel very blessed to get to the opportunity to share new adventures and a creative lifestyle with our kids, living in a place with myriad outdoor wonders. New friends have taken us to cool blue mountain lakes, winding river bends, and introduced us to a great book-guide, “Bend, Overall,” which illuminated more beautiful hikes and even a natural water-slide.

I look forward to sharing parenting/adventure stories and creative tips with you in the great wonderland that is the Pacific Northwest.

Cheers!  – Andy.

To the Tennessee Hills, and the World’s Largest Treehouse

Part 3: The World’s Largest Tree-house

On Thursday after the beach morning/lunch, we drove north from Florida up to Chattanooga, TN.  Along the way we made a stop at a northern suburb of Birmingham, at a splendid place: Big Springs Park.  Friendly folks abounded, and I met the youth pastor of Crosspoint Church, then played soccer-pinball with my kids between the raised perimeters of the playgrounds.

And then—Friday.  The big day.  We veered a total of 346 miles east of Interstate 65 so that I could finally explore something I’ve wanted for the past three years.  Eight trees, and 10,000 square feet of climbing space, the grand-daddy tree house of ‘em all!

The Minister’s Tree-house in Crossville, Tennessee.

  

The heavens shone favorably on us and the rain held off for the morning while we explored the 97-foot structure.  First, we had to finagle our way through a hole in the tightly barricaded fence that was smaller than the opening to my fireplace.  Why?  Apparently the fire marshal deemed the structure a fire-hazard, and ordered it closed.  Only several years before, the place had tours and numerous visitors.

So, my kind wife stayed back with one of the boys, while I took the other three on a self-guided tour of arguably the world’s largest tree-house.  We took the spiral staircase up two stories and a couple of carved wooden statues welcomed us to the cathedral space, where two of my kids reclined in a swinging love-seat.

The spacious room had pews, balcony seating, and a basketball hoop, lit up from a skylight high above.  Later we found that most of the balconies overlooking the assembly space had rails, but a couple allowed unobstructed views, which reminded me of the book of Acts and a man named Eutychus, whom I could easily see falling off this 3-story structure, too (I was already on high Dad-alert mode due to broken glass from windows, so I had my two-year-old’s hand throughout).

Then my eldest found a way to climb above the pews on an archway above a hall, and we again ascended a spiral staircase.  Before the top, we found an impressive room with what looked to be the twelve disciples listening to Jesus.

Then we climbed up some uneven stairs to the bell-tower.  Over and over we just kept saying the word “Awesome…”

The bell-tower had a ladder in the middle above the open spiral stairs, rising ten more feet into the belfry, or crow’s nest, and I thought to myself, if this were twenty years ago and my Dad was taking me here, we would be climbing up that ladder right now.  But, I’m a little bit more cautious, so we called the upper window of the bell-tower a fine achievement.  And when I saw the loose boards of the crow’s nest from outside later, it reinforced my decision.

The final fun part of the treehouse?  The massive swing!

Each of the kids enjoyed their relaxing pendulum ride, and on my turn, I had to marvel at how the builder, Horace Burgess, had (among other feats) rigged a fifty-foot swing to the tree house.

Definitely worth the 346 miles.

Surf’s Up at the Emerald Coast in Florida

After 3.5 hours of driving south from Montgomery (And finally caving to eldest daughter’s request for blue slushies, and then face-palming about 15 minutes later when one of the twins poured his onto the seats, and then face-palming again 45 minutes later, when everyone shouted how badly they had to go potty, and we were in the back-country Florida roads with no stores in sight.  Solution?  Diapers in the car. You may think it’s gross now, but someday you’ll be there.  Or you’ll just will say no to slushies.  Or you may consider another family’s no-stopping method: kitty litter.), we made it to the emerald sand of Miramar Beach, Florida.  It really does look like sugar, but I did not advertise that to my sugar-loving kids, who only one summer ago needed no encouragement to start scooping sand in their mouths.

Before the trip, I thought we’d need several mini-excursions apart from the beach to keep kids amused, and so I researched fishing trips, boat cruises, and water parks.  (FYI—for our lodging, I price-compared VRBO.com, Airbnb.com, and local seafront skyscraper condos, and found the best value for a large family of 6 with VRBO.com.  For 3 nights in April for a ground-level condo [also helpful with young kids], we paid $530.)  But when we got there, and began swimming in the ocean and the pool at our Seascape condo, what did my kids really need?  Not more excursions, just more time with us in the water.

And since we have one swimming 6-year-old and three still-learning paddlers, it helped to get life-jackets with arm bands (We went with Paddle Pals; they allowed good head movement).  Once they were suited up, two kids swam solo fearlessly, one paddled happily within arm’s reach, and the eldest popped up for air long enough to get a breath before diving back underwater for the other side of the pool.

And so our middle-part vacation went, rotating between the beach, the pool, and our condo for meals and rest.   This Slow Movement philosophy for the beach (no other places we had to be at) worked perfectly.

In terms of animal sightings, at 7:15am on Tuesday a pod of dolphins cruised some two-hundred yards off the beach (Kids’ response: “Cool!  Now let’s throw clumps of sand into the water.”), lots of friendly dogs and owners let us pet them (maybe just the dogs), and while the brown anoles (small lizards common around Florida) were too speedy to catch, the plump toads came out at dusk, and my eldest daughter triumphantly nabbed a pair, shouting, “Toad-eeee!”

One thing I wished we had, but have no real use for outside a beach, is a giant umbrella.  So, we created our own makeshift canopy using towels and buckets.  It did the trick!

With four kids napping at the beach on Wednesday (first time this has ever happened), my wife and I threw a Frisbee back and forth by the surf.  Eventually I swam out to the sandbar, and we played from there, which is most amusing when you have to dive for the disc in the waves.  One thing I liked about this beach in the Gulf of Mexico versus the Atlantic: lack of jellyfish.  I saw one blob the size of a racquetball washed up on the beach in the morning, but no active ones in the water.  While there were cases of riptides, overall I felt the waves here were smaller (good for kids), and not as high as the Atlantic (better for body surfing).  And not as cold as the Pacific, because of the movement of the brisk ocean currents traveling south from Alaska.

For the fourth day, Thursday, we hit the beach at 9am, and since people were either in school or sleeping (or both), we basically had it to ourselves.  After 40 minutes though, the kids were clamoring for the salt-and-sand-free waters of the heated pool.  Sigh.  Well, they’ll appreciate the waves more when a two-foot one won’t knock them to the sand.  I have to admit though, a heated-pool was one item I didn’t give much thought to beforehand, but really enjoyed once we found it.  As the pool temp. was a balmy 86 degrees, we could swim nonstop!

At the happiest moments, and there are plenty of them, it’s hard to beat a family road trip to a hot destination during a cold spring.

By Land, By Sea, By Minivan. Part 1

Milwaukee to Montgomery

A favorite board game, Quelf, used to cheer, “To ancient times and distant music!”  As spring break is here at last, I like to rephrase that toast as, “To distant lands with not-so-ancient music!” (unless you count early Dave Matthews band and educational songs about presidents by Anamaniacs as ancient).

And so we sallied south from our cloudy, just-turning-greenish-land of Milwaukee, seeking greener pastures, blooming flowers, and considerably warmer waters to splash in: the emerald coast of Florida–Miramar Beach and Destin!  Should be an easy 16 hour drive, right?  Two parents, four kids ages 6 to double 2’s, a trusty Honda minivan- let’s do this!

The first leg of the journey was a nighttime foray into Indianapolis. Takeaways? The Illinois tollway loves non-integer payments totaling $8.80, The oasis stops above the highway are fun for the four kiddos to run and pretend they are kings and queens of the highway, and while it is funny when people have the Toy Story action figure Woody hanging from the back of their van, it is not so funny when a semi-truck has a large doll wearing a white hockey mask and resembling Jason roped to its back doors and staring you down. What’s creepier is after I passed it, we had a pit stop, and then in the inky blackness of the night it materialized again, more malevolent than ever. I don’t believe anyone else was happier to arrive in Indianapolis in one piece that night. 4 hours completed!

The second leg of the journey was much more enjoyable. On Easter morning we savored breakfast with the birds (also a cool place in Australia) as our open air Embassy Suites atrium in Indy was under construction, and wild birds had made their home inside the upper rafters, cheerfully calling down to us as we ate omelettes. At 7am we followed the flowering purple trees south and made a stop at 9:20 to see friends at Waterfront Park, in Louisville KY, which I recommend.

A 4-story clubhouse in the air, Waterfront Park offered plenty of climbing challenges and sliding rewards for all ages. Well-maintained grounds were great for games of tag followed by yellow and purple flower bouquet picking. The Ohio River flowed nearby, although its murky depths looked like a rusty train had derailed into a mud-bath. Kids wanted to feel the water temperature, but ominous signs told us that was a recipe for trembling stomachs. So they settled for catapulting rocks into the river. Overall, I’d recommend a visit to the park.

While I wanted to see Crocket Park in Brentwood outside of Nashville for our next play-stop, four snoozing kids in the van meant we were wiser to keep pushing south than wake them prematurely and face irritability. As far as country roads go, the hills and trees of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama are beautiful, and seem softer and more varied than the hardwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

So we drove into Alabama, and as nature’s call demanded quick action, we exited into Athens, AL. If you have the choice between a playground in Athens, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia (like where I thought I was) I’d go with the World of Wonder in Georgia. The playground at the Sportsplex in Athens, Alabama nostalgically reminded me of my own 1950s style elementary playground, and was substantial– plenty of wooden crawl towers and rings and bars, and a cool six person xylophone area– and it did have some newer features to one side.

But a lot of the equipment looked tired– frayed rubber climbing bars, a couple of rotted wood posts, a dividing wall that strangely separated half of the playground from the other. Years of kids jumping on you will do that I suppose. It also didn’t help to have only a smattering of shade, and a bathroom that was in dire need of repair/cleaning. Broken drinking fountain, no! So, although it was April, it felt like the sweltering, dog days of August. Also, maybe I imagined it, but there was an uneasy social tension between the grandpa toting a Trump cap and the happy, Latino family celebrating Easter. And then there was the man with a tattoo on his thick arm of an evil clown popping up from a toy box. Make of that what you will.

The final part of the day was driving through central Alabama, through Birmingham and onto Montgomery. Having never been through AL before, my thoughts were influenced by two experiences: reading “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” and Mason Jenning’s song, “Black Panther,” both of which focused on the bombing there in the early 1960’s. But, Birmingham appears to be thriving now. I wish I could say more, but kids needed pool time, so we kept cruising till we hit our hotel in Montgomery. Day 2 was a success when we got snacks and much needed pool swimming at 7:30pm.  Only 3 more hours to drive!

*unmentioned parts: twin 2 year olds crying that their iPads didn’t have the movie they wanted and throwing their toys in unreachable areas, 4 year old drawing all over her seat, and 6 year old doing her best to corral the chaos. And potty breaks every hour, sometimes a blissful two hours.

Swimming into Minimalism

My wife and I have made the agreement that we want to live for experiences, not stuff.  Over the past 5 months, we’ve waded into minimalism—and the cool waters are refreshing!

Here’s some tips on how to make the leap of faith:

1. Want a Sanctuary or a Spa? Start with your Bedroom.   

Start with the basics—categorize clothes into similar groups.  Ask yourself first if you’ve worn the item recently—if not, it must go.  Then ask: does the clothing bring you Joy? Confidence?  Comfort?  If not, in the pile it goes!  Continue the cycle through each pile of similar items.  To maximize your time and prevent yourself from getting nostalgic—set a timer.  We use the time we allow—so make the alarm for 10-20 minutes.  Go!  When complete, you should have a hefty pile—load it into the car for Goodwill before kids/pets throw it everywhere and undo your magic.

2. Less Stuff is More Clarity

Clean counter-tops in the bathroom/kitchen = clean peace of mind.

Drawers a jumble?  I recommend interlocking plastic bins so you can customize the space.

Tip:  If you can’t decide what to give-away, put it in a box and out of sight for a week.  After the week passes—did you notice the item was gone?  Did you actually need it?  If not, give it away.

3. Make Momentum Work for You

Set aside one evening a week to declutter/minimize one new room.

Steps: Categorize, Question the Worth, and Organize.

Is the item adding to your dream of a relaxing, spa-like home?  Keep.  Turning into something that you have to dust/move/replace parts?  Give it away; reclaim your space.

What I’ve enjoyed:  how easy it is to find exactly what I need, and how I can enjoy my kids, reading books, or writing novels, without feeling cramped by clutter.  My conscious and subconscious mind is free to make other decisions—like what adventure to go on next, or what to build with/for my kids.

One of my goals for the next 4-5 years:

What minimalist tips/tricks have worked for you?

Seven Ways to Spread Smiles, Not Germs

1. Give the Unexpected.

Start with the people closest to you.  When was the last time (guys) you planned a meal and made it for your wife?  Do that.  You already do?  Keep being awesome.  Get up 20 minutes earlier than your wife, and make her favorite meal (and her favorite cup of fresh coffee).  I recommend omelets and sliced fruit.

For kids, a date together to a favorite eatery/play area/hike with your son/daughter—just the two of you—goes a long way to say that you love them and you care about their interests.  This gift of time together will strengthen your relationship.

For friends, offer to babysit their kids and give them the night out, or offer to host the next dinner and game night (Murder Mysteries are a good time, but not separately).

For co-workers, bring a delicious treat to the office, pick up their work-mail, make them a mix-CD, recommend an interesting podcast (How I Built This, and TED radio hour are a couple favorites).

For students, mix a game into the lesson (For English classes, Improv games work well with most stories, Mafia works well for war/detective/Crucible stories, and there’s always Kahoot for any subject); find creative ways to form groups based on personal interests, and bring treats for student birthdays.

2. Give Genuine Compliments.

It’s always good to notice new haircuts/clothes, but try to think of traits you truly appreciate in the people around you.  Do they continuously work hard?  Let them know that.  Do they listen well and include people?  Tell them at lunch.  Do they have a positive attitude?  Pop up next to them really fast like a gopher!  “Hey, Frank!  GREAT CODING TODAY!”

Or not.  However you choose to share, aim for five compliments today.

3. Plan a Mystery Night!

Take initiative and find something on your own (or on Groupon) that you know your friend/spouse would enjoy, and ask them to reserve a spot in their calendar for a Mystery Night.  Try a new, local restaurant, find a new hike, and treat them to a surprise haircut from behind!  (Don’t actually do that.)  Other options:  concerts, food/drink tours, waterfalls, animal shelters, IKEA (look for organizational tools), how-to classes, comedy shows, and of course – a Mystery Science Theater show!  It’s Rifftrax now, and I went to one in Milwaukee–it was beyond hilarious.  It nearly killed me.  My doctor says only one per year.

4. Use Inflections.

We can usually name the people in our lives that make a point of speaking with inflection, and often, they have the most interesting stories, and have such vibrant energy that we leave feeling positive, too.  Be that person.  Extra credit:  Try a British accent (or other) for as long as you can. (Link)  Use the Gollum impression (Link) for special occasions.

5. Try a Different Form of Walking.

This one is great with kids.   And weirdos.  And Monty Python fans.  Let me guess, you walk with alternating arm-to-leg movement, right?  Try one of these on for size: same arm-same leg strides, robot walk (or Robo-Boogie from Flight of the Conchords), lots of mini-steps like you’re a ninja, giant strides like Conan O’Brien, hops and windmills.

Use your judgement if this will fly at your work.  If it does, you should never quit

6. Smile Big and Often.

Grin with your “Good mornings” and all forms of communication.  It’s surprisingly contagious.  Fun fact: people can tell over the phone if you’re smiling.

7.  Say Thank You, and Mean It.

Give specifics for what you enjoyed, and show gratitude whenever possible.  Make the day count by showing your friends/family/co-workers you’re glad to be with them.

Calling All Creatives and Explorers

Do you have a thirst for adventure?

A desire to hike new trails, soar on rope-swings, adapt energizing habits, or learn useful ways to make life more enjoyable?

That’s good.  Me, too.

At its heart, The Creative Mountain is a place to find and swap stories and advice.  Blog articles here will range from Creativity, to the Outdoors, to Maximized Living.   Life is like a mountain, and with the right tools, creative approach, and friends + family, exploring it makes for one grand adventure.

Some other subjects I’ll be writing about:  Swiss Family Parenting.  Writing + Books.  Fun with Frugality.   Minimalism.  Financial Independence.  Improv.   And touring the USA.  I’ll share my experiences, research, and goals, and let you know what works swimmingly, and also what sinks. (This cardboard boat race was on the tepid waters of Lake Michigan.)

I hope you’ll join me in exploring the great outdoors, the possibilities of new ideas, and savoring the views of your own creative mountain.

Cheers,

Andy Adams

Writer, Teacher, Husband

+ Chief-Creative-Officer/Dad of the Fantastic Four