Thursday, July 21, 2016

Day 33: Returning Home

After a long night where most of the GWT crew stayed awake enjoying the company of their peers for the last time we loaded the bus. Around 4am the bus pulled out of New Orleans. Most of the group quickly settled in to sleep mode as Clarence drove us across the marshes of south Louisiana. We made it to Greenville, AL before stopping for breakfast at McDonalds. Upon reloading the bus we found that more students preferred to sleep over watching a movie. The bus grew quiet again as we continued east. 

Lunch was at the famous Varsity Restaurant. The original Varsity opened in 1928 and the downtown location is home to the largest drive-in in the world being able to hold 600 cars. The restaurant now has multiple locations including the one we visited on the outskirts of Atlanta. As we walked through the doors we were greeted with the cashiers asking "what'll ya have?" as is their customary way of asking for orders. Many of the group enjoyed the legendary orange milkshakes and complimentary hats. 

After lunch everyone seemed more alert so it was time for a movie to help pass the time. I suspect you will find the teens either really excited to watch movies on regular sized screens again, or reluctant to watch another movie for at least two weeks after this trip. However, the in bus screens have been very useful in passing the time on some of our longer drives. Today is by far the longest drive of the trip. It is so long that Holiday Tours has to provide us with a relief bus driver for Clarence for a few hours to ensure he doesn't drive over his allotted hours. Bruce took over the wheel between south SC and the rest stop just south of Clemmons. We were grateful for his help but Clarence got an ovation when he returned to the bus to drive the last few miles to deliver us home safely! 

It was a bittersweet moment pulling up to the Brookstown Inn. There were some tears shed at the thought of the trip being over and saying goodbye to new friends. But as we rounded the corner students plastered themselves against the bus windows as their family members came into sight. Some new tears of happiness sprung to life and the crew couldn't disembark quick enough. It was a very joyful scene to see the kids reunited with their parents and siblings. Even still the tears flowed during goodbyes. We urge everyone to remember the quote by Dr. Seuss that says "don't cry because it is over, smile because it happened." Many friendships formed in these 33 days are forever. So instead of goodbye we say see you soon! 

The staff would like to thank all of the students who spent their summer traveling and exploring our beautiful country with the Grand Western Tour. We are grateful to have gotten to know each of you. Thank you to the parents, grandparents, and other family members who supported these students on their journey west. You have given them a priceless gift in memories that will never fade. We also thank all of the parents who have raised these students to be phenomenal young adults. The group received an overwhelming number of compliments from outsiders throughout the course of the trip. It speaks wonders about the values of the families they came to us from. So to that we say thank you for sharing your children with us as we truly enjoyed every day we spent with them. So for the final time the 2016 Grand Western Tour is signing off! 


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Day 32: To New Orleans

The crew loaded the bus before the sun rose  and set off into the sunrise toward New Orleans. It was a quiet ride as most were catching their last hours of sleep before breakfast. We stopped for breakfast at McDonalds where many of the crew indulged in smoothies and cinnamon rolls (breakfast of champions). Halfway through the trip we stopped in Lake Charles, LA for lunch spread out at a mall food court. The kids raced to the Chic-Fil-A as it was the first time they have seen one since Colorado Springs. Some tech savvy individuals preordered on the app and walked up just as their name was being called, skipping the line completely. A few kids took to the mall shops to waste the last little bit of time at the lunch stop. 

Two movies later we arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn in New Orleans. After a few hours of down time to get ready the crew headed out to dinner. Dinner was held as a group as the Grand Isle Restaurant. Everyone got to chose between three entrees: Shrimp Po Boy, Ham and Cheese Melt, or Grand Isle Burger. It was a nice classy dinner to close out the trip. 

After dinner we walked through NOLA to Bourbon Street. As we walked to the end of the street famous for its restaurants, bars, clubs, and entertainment the crew got to experience the part of the city that is the best known to tourists. It was amazing to hear the music from multiple places of interest combine into what seemed to be noise in the street. Everywhere boasted it was "the best" or "the biggest" on the street.  As much as they enjoyed viewing the night life they were all grateful to return to the hotel and air conditioning. After so many days without humidity we struggled to adapt today even though it was similar to the weather in NC.

Tonight the crew enjoyed some free time at the hotel spending their last few hours together. As the bus loads up at 3:30AM there will not be much sleeping tonight. A few tears have already been shed and there are certainly more to come as Clarence drives us closer to home tomorrow. However, along with the sadness comes the excitement of seeing our families again after so many days on the road. I have even heard some students talk about how they can't wait to see their siblings even when they usually fight all the time. The leaders are also sad to say goodbye. We all agree that this group was special. They had the ability to accept and befriend each other unlike any we have seen in the past. Leading them through the past 33 days was a pleasure we hate to see end. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Day 31: San Antonio and The Alamo

It's hard to believe that it's already day 31 of the 2016 Grand Western Tour. The group has grown incredibly close and it's amazing to see how the friendships have blossomed over the past month.

We successfully made it through our first night in the "haunted" Menger Hotel with little to no sign of ghosts or spirits. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the oldest and most famous in Texas. It is said to host over 32 ghosts including President Theodore Roosevelt, Sallie White (an old chambermaid that was killed at the hotel), and several of the fallen from the Battle of the Alamo. The hotel is very charming and is a tourist destination in and of itself. 

(The Menger courtyard)

This morning, the group slept late and met in the lobby at 10:30 to head to the IMAX Theater to watch "Alamo, the Price of Freedom." This film was a great introduction to the Battle of the Alamo and its significance in the Texas Revolution. 

The Alamo was originally named Mision de Valero and was home to missionaries and their Indian converts for over 70 years. In 1793, after the mission was secularized, the Spanish military was stationed at its location. The mission was then named the Alamo (Spanish for cottonwood) in honor of the soldiers' hometown, Alamos de Parras. 

(Waiting in line to enter the Alamo)

The battle between the Texans and Mexican troops lasted a total of 13 days. The Texans were out numbered ten-to-one and every defender was killed in the attempt to protect their freedom. A few famous men, James Bowie and David Crockett, were among the slain. The cruelty of the Mexican troops during the Battle of the Alamo fueled a desire for revenge from the Texans. They finally defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, ending the revolution. 

After the movie, the group took a quick tour of the Alamo church and plaza and departed for free time in San Antonio. Some hit the Riverwalk or the Shops at Rivercenter for lunch and shopping. The restaurant of choice was Dicks's Last Resort. With an intentionally obnoxious staff, I'm sure the group had fun and a few laughs during their meal. They all even got a souvenir hat!

For dinner, the group went to Fudrucker's and chowed down on burgers or chicken sandwiches and fries. The service and food was great and we got in and out in a jiffy, leaving more free time to roam the city. 

Tonight's curfew was at 9:30, giving the crew plenty of time to prepare for an early morning and long drive to New Orleans! Tomorrow is our last full day of the trip, then we are headed home. With that being said, there seems to be a lot of mixed emotions coming over the students. They are excited to return home, yet sad for the trip to end!