PCS — it means permanent change of station (or probably changing my sanity). Picture a cross-country PCS…with two children under 5, traveling 3,300+ miles over 10 days. Sound like fun? It can be; just go into the trip with the attitude that it will be an experiment in family travel — the pitstops, the snacks, and the patience.
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What are the Odds?
Moving from coast to coast happens often in the world of the military. We’ve done it three times — each time with a different route. This time we opted to make the move more of a road trip than a move. It was time to reconnect and explore the country we spend so much time, energy, and effort protecting. It was time to learn about the history of the country while crossing it. Hopefully, it inspired our kids to make a positive impact on its future.
‘Twas the Night Before our Cross-Country PCS
My husband started packing the car a few days in advance and looked at me like I was toying with him every time I came out with a new item that needed a place, but everything had a place, even the paper towel roll we found under the middle seat a month after the move. The night before is all about playing Tetris with suitcases, repacking the kids’ busy box, and packing snacks.
On this particular cross-country PCS, we were moving east to west on a northern-ish route. Check out our itinerary; you might just find some stops for your next road trip.
First Stop: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
We stopped for dinner at the Central Diner and Grille. It did not disappoint! This local favorite is casual and loud enough to drown out the wild sounds of toddlers. It provided huge portions of local fare!
Always ask about portion sizes when traveling so you know how to gauge your ordering, since taking things to-go on the road isn’t always an option. The adults split a meal at Central Diner, and the kids each had their own, which offered plenty to go around.
Second Stop: Mishawaka, Indiana
Bonnie Doon, a seasonal drive-up burger joint that was all the rage in the 40s, was our dinner stop. It could definitely use an external update, but the menu and drive-up ordering were authentic. The food was delicious and I definitely recommend a milkshake. After dinner, take a moment to stop by Notre Dame to see my husband’s favorite, the “Touchdown Jesus.”
A little farther down the route was the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, Illinois. It entertained the adults and children for hours with its agriculture area and interactive areas. And — the cherry on top — it’s a Blue Star Museum, so we were able to get free admission for our family!
Third Stop: Family Stopover in Wisconsin
We try to add family stopovers to our cross-country PCS whenever we can. For one, we probably haven’t seen them since the last cross-country PCS when we stopped by. Plus, by seeing a place with locals, we really get a sense of the town — we ate where the locals eat and enjoyed a parade in honor of Farmer’s Appreciation Day! The kids enjoyed the horses, firetrucks, and tractors, along with the music and dances. Our oldest even got to participate in the parade which just made her day!
Another bonus of staying with family is that we were able to stay more than one day. It’s a welcomed break from the daily stop-and-go.
Fourth Stop: Omaha, Nebraska
We hit the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge near our hotel, the Residence Inn Omaha Downtown/Old Market Area. There is a U.S. National Parks Museum located below the bridge with ample parking and free admission for military families with the America the Beautiful park pass. You can get the pass here or any national park.
On the other side of the building is a beautiful path up to the bridge that spans the Missouri River. In the middle is the state line — where you can stand in Nebraska and Iowa at the same time! Our oldest thought it was the best thing ever! Take advantage of these beautiful views to stretch your legs (literally) across two states! If you take a picture, don’t forget to tag Bob (the bridge has a name).
Back at the hotel, we had an evening “mix” (Monday-Wednesday) with complimentary hors-d’oeuvres and local brews and wine for guests 21 and over and a full American breakfast. The mix was a cool atmosphere and a convenient way to taste local fare.
Fifth Stop: North Platte, Nebraska
For the railroad or history enthusiast, the Golden Spike Tower is a must-see on a cross-country PCS route. It overlooks Bailey Yard, which is the largest railroad yard in the entire world. From the tower, you have panoramic views of the yard and can watch cars get linked to engines going across the U.S. Along the way up to the open-air observation deck, there are historical exhibits reviewing the history of the railroad and Bailey Yards. It is affordable, and they offer a military discount. Do check the hours before you go, as they do change based on the season.
Sixth Stop: Rawlins, Wyoming
This town may look little on the map, but it offers a lot of fun for families. We found another Blue Star Museum, the Carbon County Museum. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, and what a historical gem we found! For the train enthusiasts in our family, it offered a history of the railway through the town and a cute kids area where kids can pretend to work on a train, and even shovel coal!
The section about medicine in the 19th century was an interesting read, and there are dioramas of homes from the period. There’s also a room filled with wagons; the littles repeatedly asked where the motors were and how car seats fit in the wagon beds. While walking around the museum’s outbuildings, we found a Book Nook with a plethora of books. We pulled out a few and sat down on the steps of a caboose to read them. It was an unexpected treat.
For dinner that night, we stopped at Buck’s Sports Grill. The tagline of this restaurant is “Where the locals eat and we aim to please,” and it certainly exceeded our expectations. There was plenty of street parking, and once you enter the building you are surrounded by license plates from across the U.S. and posters of “The Buck.” The menu offers everything from burgers to pizza. Pay attention to the details, including the pricing in “bucks;” there are quite a few items that will make you giggle. The kid meals were well-portioned and included a drink and an ice-cream dessert, making it a budget-friendly highlight for the kids. We walked away with full bellies and big smiles. This local spot is the quintessential road trip stop.
Seventh Stop: Salt Lake City, Utah
The National History Museum of Utah is an expansive Blue Star Museum with exhibits featuring dinos, gems, biology, weather, the Native American nations that make up the state, and special rotating exhibitions. It was another kid-friendly stop for us — they could run around, touch, interact, and learn. This museum is part of the University of Utah campus, and you are welcome to enjoy and explore!
Eighth Stop: Las Vegas, Nevada
It’s the dam tour! When driving to Vegas, touring the Hoover Dam should be on your list. Bathrooms aren’t as easy to find here, so make sure you stop before you head in. If it’s a hot day, then it’s even hotter at the dam, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Be prepared for your vehicle to be checked before entering the park as well. There are places for paid parking to check out the dam up close, or you can park in a photo spot for a quick picture. Make friends with others taking a picture and you can probably hand them your camera so you can be in the photo too! With two young kids in tow, stopping for photos was all we could do.
Ninth Stop: California
We arrived! Our final stop was the temporary lodging facility (TLF) with a stopover at the local grocery store to stock up, but that’s a whole other adventure.
Photo Credits: Heather Walsh