joanna irl

6 Things That Make Military Spouse Life Easier

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a fairly good repertoire of things that improve our lives between frequent moves to new cities and staying on a tight budget. Here are some of my resources, and feel free to share with whomever needs it, or to suggest more in the comments!

1. The USO 
The USO has made a HUGE difference for us while stationed in Illinois. They not only have really awesome airport lounges (often with free snacks and drinks, wifi, and maybe even places to nap!) but they provide access to all kinds of opportunities for entertainment thanks to donated tickets. In the last year alone we’ve been to a Bulls game, an illusionist, and a jazz concert. They are also, of course, famous for bringing entertainment to military bases for free shows (think Bing Crosby in WW2), but they do so much more than that. Search for your local USO chapter and sign up for their mailing list– you won’t be disappointed.

2. VetTix
Similar to the USO, except way more options offered on a lottery system, VetTix allows for individuals or groups to donate tickets (or just funding to fulfill wishes through the Hero’s Wish program) that military service members can apply for via lottery. If your lottery entry is selected, you pay a service fee (like you would on Ticketmaster to transfer tickets to your own account) and can go to all kinds of events for a low price. Again, sign up for your local mailing list!

3. Military Travel Agents and Accommodations 
Most bases have an ITT (Information, Tickets, Travel) office (or look up your “Military Leisure” office), but some are partnered with people who can actually help you plan your vacations. We did this when we were stationed in Hawaii, and were able to take some fantastic trips. There are also military-only hotels including Shades of Green at Disney World. AND there is a military campground inside Volcano National Park, not to mention cabins you can rent on all kinds of military bases (I love a good cabin!). Many bases have hotels that are available for leisure/recreation use, and a lot of them are right on beaches (so right at the top of my list).

4. MWR Rentals
MWR (Morale, Wellness, and Recreation) is the Military’s Parks and Rec department. They have tons of things you can rent for free or cheap, ranging from popcorn machines to kayaks to bounce houses. Do your research and make sure you know how to operate whatever equipment you’re borrowing, but if you want to take a boat for a spin without buying one yourself, it’s not a bad way to go. They even offer classes for a wide range of things.

This one is Navy-specific, but there are versions for other branches. COMPASS is a program for brand new Navy spouses to help them do things like read their spouse’s LES, navigate military life, etc. I only found out about it after I’d figured all this stuff out the hard way, so wanted to include it in case I can catch anyone in time to take advantage of it!

6. National Parks
Here’s a cool thing: military personnel and their dependents get free National Parks passes! You can find out more info on their FAQ page, but the summary is that if you or your sponsor is active duty (or reserve) then just bring your military ID to a National Park Office where they sell America the Beautiful passes and they’ll give you one! They’re good for a year, so be sure you’re up to date when traveling, but this make national parking SUPER easy and affordable! We love visiting as many national parks as possible, and it’s usually pretty affordable to stay (or camp!) in the parks, too!

Anything I forgot, or something you want to share? Comment below! 

joanna irl

April Wanderings and Updates

Oh hey! WordPress just told me it’s my 7th anniversary with this blog. Huzzah for that!

Things have been pretty hectic here the last couple of months. We were supposed to move into a new place at the start of May but for various reasons which aren’t terribly interesting the timetable got accelerated… and we moved March 24 instead. I also have been picked up for a lot more hours at my job and have successfully interviewed and been taken on as a volunteer at a local place (details to come later, as I feel it needs its own post).

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In the meantime, I have been to North Carolina twice in the last five weeks, first for my sister’s bachelorette weekend and then for her wedding (how did it go? it worked!) and now I’m at the other end of all of the things and have a few days to finish unpacking my household and putting stuff on the walls and figure out what the next six months hold.

We did hit up a national park while we were down south: Appomattox Court House, where the Civil War ended and General Lee surrendered his troops. They’ve got much of the original village either restored or replicated, and it was fascinating to visit it having just been to the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, IL, about seven months previous. The two are, of course, closely tied together and the perspectives on everything happening at that time are fascinating and sobering.

One of the things I like about national parks in general is that they preserve slices of things important to our heritage, whether it’s vast forests that have unreachable depths, ancient homes, or sites where important things happened that directly impact us today. It’s a way to literally touch history. I also generally just like being outside and doing things, so that’s nice, too.

Other big things include launching a new YouTube channel for Geek Girl Pen Pals. We don’t have many videos up yet, but the plan is to have regular content focused on our monthly site themes, and to encourage response videos from members of the community.

There have been many other things happening in the last couple of months and I may not get to all of them on here. If you need my new mailing address, please contact me in the usual way. ~_^

joanna irl, the geek life

As seen on… September 2014

meadow near El Capitan

Happy October! It’s time for another monthly roundup of stuff I did in other places. Yay!

Newsy things:
Heyheyhey, I got invited to join the staff of International Geek Girls Pen Pal Club as a “Ninja.” Whoop! Just means I’ll be doing more behind-the-scenes stuff, really, particularly in January once I’m (theoretically) unpacked and a bit more settled, because…

This is moving month. EEP. The movers come in less than two weeks and I’m trying to clear things out (which is hard in a small space) and use up consumables and all sorts of things.. Expect not much posting between now and then.

For our last weekend roadtrip, we went to Yosemite National Park this weekend! I’ve got a ton of gorgeous photos to go through asap and try to get posted for you, but the photos in this post are a sneak peak.

Half Dome, overcast day

Things I wrote:
As usual, I’ve been posting stuff in other places. Over at IGGPPC, I’ve got two movie reviews, a Hobbit Day celebration, and an everyday cosplay post.
The Giver was excellent, and much better than any of the other dystopian teen world movies I’ve seen of late. It ought to be because the source material is fantastic.
The Maze Runner was enjoyable and I’m interested in what’s going to happen next. I like that we don’t have all the information going in, and that we learn things as the protagonist does.
Huzzah and Hooray, it’s Hobbit Day! We celebrated Sept 22 over at the site, too.
Everyday Cosplay: Some things happening this month and links to other articles. Just a roundup of stuff I liked this month.
I was also featured as part of the September Staff Picks, which you can check out over here if you like.

Tunnel View after storm

So that’s about it for September. Internet might be patchy in October, but I hope to have some fun things to share about the Great Moving Adventure. See you soon!

joanna irl

San Francisco and the Muir Woods

San Francisco Golden Gate bridge crossing

The day after our visit to Monterey, J and I continued up the coast to San Francisco. Since we were so close and we’d both always wanted to visit, we couldn’t resist. We picked a destination (the Muir Woods, but I’ll get to that next) and headed north. In less than two hours, we found ourselves driving right across the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco Muir Woods, tall redwood trees

Muir Woods is a national monument and park with some of the southern-most redwoods in California. They aren’t the massively wide variety you find way up north, but they are massively tall. It’s hard to describe the size of them, and only slightly less hard to photograph the size of them, but I did try. You’ll see J standing in the middle of the wooden trail for a reference point. Muir Woods is also where the UN met to memorialize FDR’s death; he’d used the forest as an example of the value of national parks, and to show the potential for them. Many of the trees look much the same in photos from that era as they do today.

San Francisco Muir Woods, inside a trunk

I suppose part of the reason the trees didn’t seem all that wide was the sheer height of them by comparison, though obviously a very tall tree needs a very wide trunk to support it. This trunk is hollow in the middle, and rubbed smooth by the generations of park visitors running their hands across the bark. Because of this, it’s one of the only trees you’re actually allowed to touch.

San Francisco Muir Woods redwoods

The trees tower overhead, some of them in circles around a dead stump, the new generation of already ancient forests. I was fascinated by the bark that seemed to be folded into long strips along the trees, sometimes looking like stripes, and by the vividness of the red wood. We only did the short (two mile) round trip hike, and I’d like to go back and explore the area more.

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

From the Muir Woods, we drove back down to the Golden Gate Bridge National Parks area. Turns out there are a lot of national parks (and therefore a lot of places to get my passport book stamped!) It includes the bridge itself, Fort Point (a Civil War-era fort beneath the bridge), a warming hut, a wildlife area, all sorts of things. We only got a visit a few and at a very quick pace*, but it was worth it.

San Francisco under the bridge

Fort Point was one of the best areas, and also one of the least crowded. The signage wasn’t fantastic and we weren’t even sure it was open, so were happy to discover not only could we walk around the inside of it, but it had a lot of great exhibits. The Fort is directly under one end of the Bridge (as you can see) and also has a lighthouse (which you can also see) and a nice collection of canon.

San Francisco Fort Point

The inside of the Fort is in remarkable shape, and there are exhibits and classrooms on all of the levels, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. There are also nice views of Alcatraz and the coast from the top of the wall, accessible via a spiral staircase.

San Francisco floating docks sea lions

By this time, we were getting hungry so we headed back down to the pier area. There are several active piers (for cruise ships and fishing boats and the like) but several have become restaurant a shopping areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked a bit of the area but quickly settled on a place to eat dinner and were rewarded with awesome views of the water. After dinner we were able to walk down through the shops and see better views of Alcatraz as well as more sea lions, the Bridge in the distance, and other iconic sights.

San Francisco Alcatraz

Alcatraz sits in the middle of the bay and is a lot more colorful than I imagined. See the purple wildflowers on the hill? The day was sunny and clear and we were able to see a lot, which is unusual for this time of year.

San Francisco Lombard Street

On the way out of town, we crossed an intersection with Lombard Street, so we took a short detour to drive down the winding block that is so famous. The view from this street is gorgeous, and it’s nestled in rose gardens with the houses on either side. J and I both got a kick out of the little drive, and then hit the road toward home.

San Francisco will definitely need another visit, there was just too much to see in one day, but I feel like we gave it our best shot. We even bought a round loaf of sourdough bread for the ride home.


*It takes SEVEN HOURS to get home from San Francisco, which is fine for a weekend, but if the day gets away from you… LONG NIGHT OF DRIVING.

joanna irl

Joshua Tree National Park, revisited

Joshua Tree NP

As it is springtime (and as he hadn’t been), I took J to Joshua Tree National Park in search of wildflowers. We seem to have arrived about a week (or maybe two) too early, but it was still beautiful and the afternoon sunlight stretching across the desert made the colors all the more vivid.

Joshua Tree flowers

The Joshua trees themselves were blooming, which was fascinating. They seemed a lot greener than I remembered, but maybe that was because I’ve spent more time in deserts since my last visit.

Joshua Tree rock monument

The rocks didn’t look quite real until we got right up close to them, and they look much smaller than they really are. And this isn’t even proper perspective, since the man crouching is very close to me and the rocks are not.

Joshua Tree San Andreas Fault

I also took J to the overlook where you can see the San Andreas fault and the Salton Sea. Pardon our scruffiness, we were camping the night previous.

Joshua Tree wildflowers

On the way out of the park and heading home, we did see the start of the wildflowers. They are bright and are starting to creep over the landscape, and I’m told they eventually blanket the dry ground before fading again for the summer.

(Photos begin here.)

joanna irl

Trailer park fun and vintage things older than me: Joshua Tree camping trip

Joshua Tree camping trailers

I apologize for the break in daily posting. Last week J and I went camping (of a sort) with some friends in the Joshua Tree National Park area. We stayed in an artists’ retreat, of the sort that values their privacy (and so doesn’t give out an address, just directions a few days before you arrive) but with enough fun and random things to do to make it a really fun getaway.

Joshua Tree camping our trailer

The property has several themed trailers, from one based on a wig shop in New Orleans, to one that’s like stepping back into the 1970s (which is where we stayed). It came outfitted with everything from an 8 track to a color changing speaker system to a plug in fireplace. We had a good time just exploring the place, but they also offer activities.

Joshua Tree camping archery

There is a small BB gun and archery range, a place to play corn hole, a rooftop Jacuzzi, a saltwater swimming pool, ping pong, a place to grill out, and a tepee with a fire circle inside so you can roast marshmallows for s’mores. The setup contributed to such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that everyone staying there the night we were hung out around the fire, chatting and getting to know each other. They ranged from musicians to engineers, photographers to physicists, and it was fun to sit in the middle of such varied conversations.

Joshua Tree camping 70s trailer

The stars were gorgeous (though hard to photograph) and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise, though it was possibly made more orange by the fact that our trailer practically glowed with the light of the 1970s.

More photos (plus some from the following day) are in this album.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

Well, I SAID I wanted to see the Sonoran Desert.

So here’s the thing.

I’ve been trying to go to as many national parks (or historic sites, as the case may be) this year as possible. I’m excited about my passport stampbook (as I’ve previously posted) and especially since we now live in the half of the country with all of the huge natural areas, I want to see them!

One of the exhibits I’ve always loved at the North Carolina Zoo is their Sonora Desert dome, so when I noticed on my newly-acquired roadmap of Arizona that the interstate went THROUGH it, I couldn’t resist! On the way home from the Casa Grande ruins, we looked it up on our GPS and found a place labeled “Sonoran Desert National Monument.” That sounded promising, so we programmed it to take us there.

And we started driving.

And driving.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert sign

See that? PROOF we were in the RIGHT AREA.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert road

We took a couple of smaller roads, then wound up on a two lane highway going straight across the Sonoran Desert, generally back in the direction of I-8, which we would pick up on the other side after stopping at the monument. The desert was fascinating, with far more plant-life that I expected in a desert, and we drove between two long mountain reaches, watching for wildlife (though we never saw any) and grateful for the full tank of gas and water bottles.

It was interesting, too, that there weren’t many cars. Most of the “scenic” stops were closed for the season, but that didn’t bother us because we planned to stop at the monument.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wide

At this point I want to note that there are not that many photos from this drive. That’s because I kept expecting to, y’know, GET to something. These photos of cacti?? Actually from BEFORE we got into the national monument area.

After a while, we reached the point where the GPS told us to turn and drive 11 miles to the monument. We slowed down to make the turn…

…and then stopped. We were facing a sandy track that crossed some railroad tracks that ran parallel to the two lane highway. On the near side of them was a VERY large sign that said: “DO NOT ENTER.” Oh, and some WILD COTTON BUSHES.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wild cotton

I looked again at the GPS. We’d followed the directions correctly. But then I noticed that the 11 mile “drive” was supposed to take over an hour… across sand… And we realized then that the “Monument” was probably the DESERT ITSELF.

THANKS, GPS. We were now in the MIDDLE of the Sonoran Desert. Well, about 11 miles from the middle, as far as I can tell.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert cacti

To be fair, I DID say I wanted to properly SEE the desert, and not just drive past it on the interstate. And boy howdy, I SAW that desert.

We checked our map and discovered we were closer to I-8 if we kept going forward rather than backtracking, so that’s what we did.

I guess some monuments are bigger than others. I’m still bummed I didn’t get a stamp for it, though.

joanna irl

Casa Grande Ruins: an unexpected very neat thing

Casa Grande, Arizona, Jo with Cactus

In my quest to see national parks (and collect passport stamps from them!), I’ve made it a habit to check for any that are an easy drive from a place I might already be. In this case, J and I were in Casa Grande, Arizona, for the renaissance festival, and we kept seeing signs that said “Home of the Casa Grande Ruins.” It showed up on my national parks guide, so off we went.

We stayed in the newer part of town, but as we drove toward the park, it felt like we were going back in time. The old town of Casa Grande looks about like I’d imagine it did in the 1960s, except with modern cars on the narrow roads. The signs are hand painted, shops are a little careworn, and pastels are everywhere. After about half an hour, we reached the entrance to the national park site.

Casa Grande, Arizona, sign

I think we were expecting something more like piles of rocks. After all, other ancient sites we’re familiar with (mostly on the east coast and upper midwest) tend to be mounds, or maybe some stones with carvings. We weren’t expecting anything like what we found.

Casa Grande, Arizona, wide of house

In the middle of a wide stretch of cactus-covered plain, there is a huge three story house. There are also the walls of a compound that surrounded the house, plus several other compounds, a ball court, and other signs of a huge community.

Casa Granda, Arizona walls

The dry, desert air has preserved the site. It used to have a small river going through it, and the people who lived there had an elaborate irrigation system for agriculture. The site was populated for a while beforehand, but the great house itself is about 800 years old.

Casa Grande, Arizona, back of house

We walked around, looking into the interior of the house where you can still see the places where wooden beams formed ceilings, floors. The walls were almost destroyed by graffiti in the 19th century, as the place was used as a waypoint for people traveling west, but has since been restored. The roof overhead was built in the 1930s and protects it from the summer storms.

Casa Grande, Arizona, house

All in all it was a very cool thing to find, and completely unexpected.

joanna irl

Joshua Tree National Park in January

in the desert

Last week, my sister came to California with me to help me settle back into the new place and to help me out with the errandy type things that always accompany a move, and which are much more easily accomplished with two people. Of course we also did some fun sight seeing (which is also better with two people) and one of the places we went was Joshua Tree National Park. We’ve been trying to get to as many national parks as possible, if you recall, and this was our first DESERT.

We had gone to Disneyland the day before, but that morning it was raining and we decided that rather than spend a second day at Disney in the rain, we’d go to see a damp desert. How often do you get to see one of those? By the time we got there (it was a good bit of driving), the rain had cleared, but it left everything softened, less dusty, and really colorful.


One of our first stops was for a short hike to some Native American petroglyphs. Someone had painted over them, which was a shame because you can’t see their original form, but it was still very cool that they are visible.

The Joshua Trees themselves are bizarre looking, turning in all different directions, with seemingly harry trunks and strange, spiked green balls of leaves. They vary in size and shape, and seem surreal in the landscape, inserted as an afterthought.

Joshua trees

There are also huge piles of boulders and of small rocks. The scale is hard to imagine, but sometimes there are simply huge, smooth rock faces, worn into turrets and towers by the wind, and sometimes there are mountains made of what look like bits of loose stone.

Rock formations

It was chilly out, being January, despite how dry everything was. Apparently it won’t get warm again until March, when all of the wildflowers start blooming and people come to camp and watch the sunsets and all of that. It might be nice to go back then.

The last thing I’ll show you is the view we got of the San Andreas Fault, right before sunset.

San Andreas Fault

It’s hard to see, but it’s the hazy dark line in the middle of the lighter haze. Very pretty view, though. As the sun set, it kept getting colder. We drove to the other major park entrance in the section we were visiting, and saw an oasis. It looked much like the rest of the park, except with palm trees in a very dense, central area. All in all, a very cool day trip.

So that was our first visit to a desert. You can see the rest of the photos here.

joanna irl, the geek life

New photos and my Passport to the National Parks

Fort Sumter

While on my wild horse chasing weekend, I discovered something that’s been around almost as long as I have– the National Park system’s Passport.

I’m a National Parks member, so I get into all the parks for free, and I went to a TON of national parks as a kid, but somehow I missed the memo about the Passport. Basically, you can collect regional stamps every years (the park system is divided into regions, so the stamps are done accordingly) and then you can collect cancellations from all of the different national park system sites all over the country. They have the date on them, so it’s a way to collect and record all of your national park visits. It’s pretty nerdy, but collecting things is FUN and the more stamps the better!

Fort Sumter interior

Really, I’m bummed that I didn’t know about it sooner because I’ve been to some really cool national parks in the last few years in Hawaii, like Volcanoes and Haleakalā and the Arizona Memorial, and didn’t have a stamp book. Most of the other parks I know I’ll probably see again (like Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, Florida), but those will be harder.

So while I’ve been out of town to visit friends in different states, I have also started stopping at national parks to get my Passport stamped. There are photos of some of these stops on the photo blog– Charleston, SC, and Williamsburg, VA can be found in their respective links.

And here’s the link to the official NPS Passport website, if you’re interested. ^_^

Jamestown Glasshouse