US Roadtrip Revisited

For the last three months, Nick and I have been roadtripping around the US, visiting friends, family and generally exploring the country. For those of you who were keeping up with the roadtrip on my blog, you’ll know that I did a terrible job posting regularly.  I jotted down detailed notes and reflections on each of our stops, but I was just so tired most evenings that I didn’t quite get around to writing them up!

The map above shows the route we took – heading West from MN in early June and circling around (with a few detours), ending up back in MN in August. The question we were asked most often was where our favorite places were.  I generally loved the Pacific Northwest, especially the drive on Highway 101 down the coast from Washington to Northern California.  Seattle is always one of my favorite cities to explore, and we spent a few days doing just that.  But my favorite place we visited was Lafayette, Louisiana.  I had always wanted to visit cajun country, and Lafayette is its heart.  We stayed in a great B&B, which also happens to double as one of the best live music venues in town, so we stayed up late listening to zydeco and watching people of all ages dance. There was even a guest appearance by Marc Broussard!

Nick didn’t have a favorite place necessarily, but he did think that Portland was probably the most his kind of place. He also really liked New York, mainly for its novelty – really, is there anywhere else like it in the world?! Though I think he was probably also swayed by the fact that he was introduced to beer pong here for the first time 🙂 His favorite part of the trip was the camping in general – we stayed in national parks, private campsites, and of course Kampgrounds of America. He was amazed at how  each one is so different – some having organized movie and ice cream nights, some with central campfire areas, some with pools and even hot tubs – seriously posh.

Looking back at the trip, it was pretty darn amazing.  What a diverse set of experiences.  We seriously could have spent a few more months driving around – I still only felt like we were doing a sampler tour, since there were a million places we didn’t get to go or things we didn’t see.  But still, it was pretty great. I guess that means we’ll just have to plan more US trips in the future.

So now we’re back in MN, and starting to think about getting back to the ‘real world’ – sprucing up CVs, starting the job search, getting ready for the move to SA.  We head out August 24th – let the next adventure begin!

Oshkosh II

Since the crew arrived rather late yesterday (and it was raining), we didn’t head to the airshow until this morning. All the guys were up super early, having just come over from SA and still jet lagged. Nick and I got a bit slower start, but managed to make it to the show in time for him to see Richard Branson, the Virgin Galactic plane the White Knight ‘Eve’, and one of his idols, Burt Rutan. (Until I finally saw that spelled I thought his name was Bertrude Tan – I thought it was a bit odd!)

Since we’re going to be here for a few days, we paced ourselves. We mainly sat near the flight line and watched the show – the Airbus A380, tons of awesome aerobatics, the old Warbirds (planes from the various wars). The aerobatics was pretty insane – the pilots go screaming into the air, stall, do some ‘spins’ (Pete explained to me that they’re really not in control when the fall out of the sky so it’s a little misleading to call them spins). My neck got a little sore from looking at the sky, but it was pretty cool. I think my fav was the Beechcraft 18 – it’s an old 1940’s plane that did a really pretty aerobatics routine to some very monumental music. A few other of the hot-shot guys had whole musical routines and so many product placements it was a bit ridiculous! There was also some really neat formation flying and aerobatics. Everyone is afraid I’ll get bored – and maybe I will after a few days! But I have my book and my chair, and can entertain myself anywhere!


The drive out of Chicago is a bit of a blur. We got going early (or early-ish, we’re not exactly morning people), and since our visit to Chicago had been so rushed decided to drive through some of the neighborhoods to the North of the city instead of getting directly on the freeway. It still amazes me how far some of our cities sprawl. You still felt like you were in the middle of the city 30-40 minutes outside the city center! There were some awesome apartments – I am obsessed with little balconies with window boxes, and there were so many to look at. Even amongst a row of cookie-cutter construction you’d see a gorgeous building with amazing detail. Eventually the cute shops and restaurants and buildings with rooftop decks perched atop them gave way to small, squat buildings that must be in a predominantly Romanian community. How I know that? Well, aside from the Romanian churches and Little Bucharest restaurants, there was also an office for the Romanian Liberal Democratic Party on one street. Interesting.

We got a call from Nick’s dad as we were getting out of Chicago area. He and a few of his friends came over from SA for the Oshkosh airshow, which is where we were headed to meet up with them. They were renting cars and driving from Chicago, but didn’t have directions to the house they’d rented…we luckily had Ted, so we sent them a few directions via SMS, and headed our on way. We knew immediately that we were in the right place when we took the exit to Oshkosh and saw tents, RVs and airplanes stretched out on every grassy area available. It is incredible how many people are here! We arrived about about hour ahead of Nick’s dad (thanks to Ted), and spent a little time catching up with our ‘homework’ (trying to keep track of expenses, doing a bit of writing, etc). We were glad when they finally arrived – we had worried that perhaps we didn’t have the right address, and someone would come home from work and ask us what the hell we were doing sitting on their porch drinking a few beers. That would be a bit awkward to explain!

Chicago briefly…

Originally we intended to bypass Chicago on our way to Oshkosh, and head back ofter the show. However, we all of the sudden found ourselves in Michigan a day early, and decided we’d might as well take advantage of the time. Plus, I think we might be getting a little bit traveled out…

We found a great deal on a hotel right near Michigan Ave downtown – quite a change from our little tent! After making ourselves a bit pretty, we hit the town and wandered down the ‘Magnificent Mile’ – not quite our speed with all the fancy shops, but the buildings are gorgeous! In Millennium Park we had to take a few pictures at the big mirror ball-thing (technical, no?). We were just walking by, and all of the sudden we started feeling a tremendous sense of peer pressure – everyone had their cameras out. We felt compelled to whip ours out and take a few pics! It actually was kinda cool – it’s rounded so you can get a reflection of yourself with the city in the picture.

Despite a few wrong turns, we finally figured out how to get down to the lake front. It was a fabulous day – sunny, a bit breezy so not too hot. Walking by the marina we were really jealous of all the people with boats. We did a little shopping, looking for which boat we want to buy (the dream: the next long trip will be on our boat, but in reality we have to decide between a boat and a house…unless we win the lottery!). We decided on a modest catamaran we saw moored there – it’s not home, but it’s much. There were quite a few people ‘green-boating’, as my uncle calls it – saving fuel by sitting on their boats and drinking rather than going.

We had arranged to see the Blue Man Group in the evening – Nick has the CD, and hadn’t ever seen a show, and we’d tried unsuccessfully to see it in Boston as well. (For those who don’t know, they’re a 3 man percussion group that combines random instruments with showmanship and comedy). The show was fun – though the skits could use a bit of updating. The humor was at least 10 years dated in some skits! But the music was awesome – I loved the tunes played on the PVC piping. Our highlights tour ended with a giant stuffed Chicago pizza at Giordano’s, and a ride back on the El. There is SO much more we could have done in Chicago – I can’t wait to come back again – but in our limited visit we had a lot of fun.

One of the most interesting things was on the ride up to the theater we saw a group of apartments that had what looked like tennis courts on the roof. Groups of college kids seemed to be playing some sort of crazy drinking games – beer tennis, maybe? Looked like a fun Sunday afternoon! There was also a full on street party going on near Fulton street, and a ton of happy Cubs fans.

Viva Las Vegas!

What could possibly compete with the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon? The man-made garishness of Las Vegas, of course.

On our way we made a few detours. Nick had asked me about Route 66 – I knew that it passed through this part of the country, but despite the signs we’d seen in Flagstaff I didn’t put two and two together and realize that the current Interstate 40 is the old Route 66 in many parts until we were leaving the Grand Canyon. When started seeing signs for the ‘Historic Route 66’ – I had a little ‘aha’ moment. We hit the road early, so we got off in Ash Park, Arizona to find somewhere to eat our breakfast. The town used to be a main hub for the Santa Fe Railroad, and also had a large hotel in town. When the railroad moved its line, the hotel closed, and I-40 bypassed the town, Ash Fork was pretty much deserted. It still has some folks living there, but it’s pretty quiet. Sound familiar? It felt like the movie Cars could have been based on this little town, though I am sure there are a million more like it out there.

Next stop: Hoover Dam. It’s nice to go to a major attraction that they don’t make you pay to look at! It’s big. And it was windy. I have to say I wasn’t too excited about looking over the edge, but Nick was. I was more tempted to use the fancy art deco bathrooms in one of the columns – just to be able to say I went at Hoover Dam. Actually, the most interesting part for me was the bridge that they are building just a bit up the road from the dam. It is meant to be a bypass, and will be HUGE. They’re building it from both sides, and it looks like it is about to meet in the middle. I can’t imagine a much worse job – being suspended above the water like that doing construction. Gives me the willies just thinking how far down it would be…(can you sense a theme? I’m not much of a heights fan).

We arrived at my Uncle Pat’s place in the ‘burbs of Vegas on Fathers’ Day, just in time for Kathy’s awesome pulled pork sandwiches and mac & cheese. The golf was on and everyone was already happy. It was a well-needed early Sunday night, and it meant we were ready to get an early start on the strip the next day! We happily got stuck into the mid-morning traffic, which gave us a good chance to look around and ogle the sites. I’d been here once before, but wasn’t 21 at the time so it wasn’t much fun. To be honest, Vegas isn’t really Nick or my scene, but we wanted to check it out. We tried to stay out of the Vegas heat as much as possible – it was hotter than a (insert some random, funny phrase here – I’m no good at those). We parked on the one end and made our way through a bunch of the casinos. I felt like we weren’t really taking Vegas seriously – it was almost 5 before we even had a drink! But luckily we caught up with a few margaritas and beers, then decided to try our hand at gambling. We are both major losers (not it the general sense, just when it comes to gambling…). Knowing this we only put aside a little cash to play with. Nick probably lost his in 5 minutes at the blackjack tables. Mine lasted longer, but only because I was playing the 1 and 5 cent slots. Not exactly a high stakes gambler! I was just mesmerized by the pictures, hoping they’d all line up – kept me entertained. We should have listened to our yes/no coin, which kept answering ‘NO’ whenever we asked if we should play this particular table or machine.

We ended the evening with an amazing dinner at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Casino – we sat out on the patio, which overlooks the dancing fountains at the Bellagio (one of Nick’s favorite parts of Vegas). It was great to sip sangria, eat blue cheese smothered steak frites while listening to ‘I’m Proud to be an American’…Yes. Odd. Nick thought it was the funniest song out there, and I can’t say I disagree. We headed home with lighter pockets but our heads full of lights. It really is a kind of fairy land at night with all the colors and flashing pinpricks. I can see how it would be addictive!

Grand Canyon

I’d been to the Grand Canyon on a family vacation about 10 years ago. I remember clearly thinking yeah, it will be cool, but really – what’s all the fuss about a big hole in the ground?

Yep, I was wrong. I was surprised at how astounding it really is. And it was just as breathtaking this time. I’d managed to book a place at one of the campsites right in the park – amazing, given it’s now Summer and most of the places seem to be booked months in advance! Unfortunately the weather didn’t really cooperate. When we arrived it was windy and of course started to rain as soon as we got out to pitch the tent. Luckily (and unsurprisingly), not long after the rain passed over and the sun even poked its head out. It made for some amazing light over the canyon. Like Sedona, the colors are amazing, but a bit more colorful. There are a lot more blues and purples and yellows in the GC. We had a really clear day and the visibility was great – we could see for miles. Because of the route we were taking, we came at the Canyon from the South, which is the much more developed side. It’s both good and bad – there are a lot of organized walks and activities you can take advantage of, but there are also huge crowds of people. We did one Ranger guided walk along the rim that talked about the wildlife. Ranger Emily (in her oh-so-stylish Ranger hat) told us some interesting stories about the early attempts at park management that went wrong – makes me wonder what we’re doing today that people one hundred years from now will be shaking their heads at. There were also a neat exhibit that showed photos of the early life on the rim – I’m always into the historical perspective.

Nick made a good friend as we were having a snack on the canyon rim – Sammy the Squirrel. He wasn’t tame – he was wild for people! I was afraid he might bite if we didn’t give him what he wanted…a sort of wildlife terrorism. I’ll add our little video we took here.

Camping here was really the highlight of the GC. Our campsite was great – it was surrounded by other sites, but you didn’t really feel like there was anyone there. We managed to fit in a little happy hour with cheese and crackers, a good bottle of wine and some tunes before we drove back out to a scenic overlook to view the sunset. BEAUTIFUL! We made ourselves jiffy pop, toasted sandwiches, and Nick got to try s’mores. He’s pretty handy to have around – he managed to fashion a marshmallow toasting stick out of a long piece of wood, rope and the short metal handle from the popcorn…though why we couldn’t just use a stick I don’t know.

The Border…

Surreal. that would be the word I would use to describe the landscape on the drive from Southern California into Arizona. The landscape is barren, empty, with small rocky hills lining the sides of the road. It’s clear that you are in the desert. The rocky ochre hills are dotted with cacti, including my favorite kind that look fat and fuzzy (you know the ones I mean). As we went further East, huge swaths of green arose in the midst of the arid land. Some entrepreneurial farmers have created farmlands in the middle of the desert! The lush greenness seems out of place – I wonder where they get all the water for irrigation. There is also evidence of using the vast, flat terrain for something a bit more environmentally friendly. In one area, there were hundreds of wind turbines lining the ridges around the road. They were pretty amazing up close – huge, white blades contrasting with the cloudless blue sky.

The road parallels the US-Mexico border most of the way. All those stories about the difficulties immigrants face trying to cross the border come to life when you see just how brutal the landscape is. Everywhere there is little beyond the asphalt, rocky hills, brutal sun and heat and Border Patrol vans patrolling the area.

We took a small detour and passed over what looked to be a dry creek bed. Looking over the edge we saw a bridge off to our right. I was surprised to see 3-4 life sized scarecrows set up under the bridge. Their arms were made of branches outstretched into a V, and they were dressed in over-sized tattered clothes. I am not exactly what they are set up to scare away, but I would be afraid if I ran into them unexpectedly!

I’ve only ever approached Mexico from the air or sea, never by land. Crossing over into Mexico on this trip is out of the question – Nick doesn’t have a visa, and I actually left my passport at home (it was an odd feeling – I NEVER travel without it). However, I was really interested to see what the US/Mexico border crossings looked like. We drove South from the main freeway and approached the border in Calexico, California. Calexico might as well be Mexico – all of the signs are in Spanish, the attendant at the gas station didn’t seem at all comfortable in English, and there isn’t much that distinguishes the area geographically from Mexicali across the border. The border crossing looms up out of nowhere to bisect the straight road between the two cities. It is ‘monument grey’ – a big, ugly concrete building, with the US border fence erected nearby. We drove up as far as we could to check it out, but to be honest it was a bit scary and intimidating, so we took our out and exited when we saw a sign that read ‘Last U Turn in the United States’. I so wanted to take a picture, but with my bad experiences taking pictures in foreign countries I wasn’t about to take a photo near a US government installment, no matter how benign. Who knows if I would have made it home! It was fascinating to see this 60,000 person/day crossing. I of course had Calexico playing during the drive – always nice to have a little theme music!