In the fall of 2012, my girlfriend and I quit our jobs, packed our apartment into storage, and drove around the country for 5 weeks in my little blue car. The blog below documented our crazy meandering, interesting food discoveries, and general last-minute planning and adventuring. Those 5 weeks pretty much changed my whole life, and there’s no going back now. I want to see everything in the world that I possibly can, eat as many different kinds of food as possible, and write it all down.
Below is a copy-and-paste version of my original road trip blog. This was the first blog that I ever kept, and I used a different website to do so. I think that it’s important to have it saved here, with the original post dates, in order to honor the trip that started it all. Here is the link to the original webpage, as well:
Check it out 🙂
Our very last stop of the trip was Pittsburgh, PA to see my good friend Rachel. Arrived very late (and spent our remaining few hours awake watching re-runs of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” from the 90’s, which made my life complete), so we decided to stay 2 nights. The next morning, we had awesome breakfast at a local favorite diner called Pamela’s in the Strip District, which reminded me a little of a more relaxed and funky version of the meat packing district in NYC (breakfast: croissant French toast with brown sugar and caramel, p.s.), and visited the famous Pittsburgh Incline, which offers a ride up an extremely steep cliff-like hill via a trolley car hooked to tracks for just $2.25. The view was amazing, though more than a little unnerving when the trolley creaked and groaned at 30 second intervals. Wandered the neighborhood at the top for a view after being denied access to the balcony due to a wedding ceremony that was being performed (guess that’s a good reason to close it off). Later on, we went to an insanely scary haunted house that almost put Katie into a coma. Finished the night with some take-out, beer and more 90’s shows because the 90’s were the best years…ever. Was amazing seeing Rachel and bopping around a fun little city.
I write this as I sit in Katie’s parent’s living room…trip officially complete. The reality of all of this being over has not fully hit me, and I’m a little scared for when it does, because it breaks my heart a little. We took this trip in order to have a real, genuine, true adventure. We wanted an adventure the way that we used to have adventures so easily when we were younger and not restricted by major responsibilities or resistance to spontaneity (and it’s amazing how quickly that resistance builds, even by 25…I know that we resist it more with each year of our life). No matter how excited I was for it, nothing prepared me for how incredible it would really be in the end. Not only did I love it…I became addicted to it. I became addicted to moving from place to place, planning at the absolute last minute, pointing to a spot on a map and saying “let’s go there tomorrow”, meeting new people, and most of all…seeing something brand new absolutely every single day. It was like a drug…I needed it like oxygen in my lungs.
This entire trip, I have felt like a newborn baby…everyday is a first, and every morning bringing me an experience that was so exciting that I burst from within…flying down an open, winding road with nothing in site, music blasting, gripping the edges of the window with both hands, eyes open wide and waiting eagerly for what my world was going to bring me next…begging to learn more, see more, do more, feel more…and never being let down. I felt energy like I haven’t since I was a little kid, and the kind of vigorous thrill for living that most people chase their whole lives. I am captivated by my world, and in the 34 days I have been gone…I have learned an insanely large amount, but still only scratched the surface. We live in a ridiculous world and it’s so much more complex than we realize…so much more than our sheltered subcultures and we don’t realize what we can see if we actually agree to do something that really scares us. We quit our jobs, put our life’s belongings into storage, and set off into the horizon with what was in our bank accounts and the simple hope that nothing would go wrong. We relied only on hope and it was terrifying…but it was the most amazing experience I have EVER had. I can only hope that rather than chasing that feeling again for the rest of our lives…that we not forget how happy we can really be, how feverishly full of life we can really feel, and how beautiful our world is. We’re free…as long as we can never forget that.
9,235 miles, 34 days, 24 states, 21 motels, 2 campsites, 3 stays with friends/family, 1,200 photos, 5 loads of laundry, 1 new set of wiper blades, no flat tires, countless cups of coffee, countless tanks of gas…and I’ll never, ever forget one single second of it.
“No we don’t have a lot of money…no we don’t have a lot of money…no we don’t have a lot of money…all we need is love. We’re free as we’ll ever be”
Our drive from Omaha to Chicago (where we would be spending TWO nights…wow!) was approx 460 miles long. Usually, these very long stretches of highway are easy to blaze along like a race car, but we managed to run into some of our first bad weather of the trip. We have had fantastic luck thus far by avoiding weird weather by just a day or two (tornadoes a day after leaving South Dakota, etc.). But hurricane force winds, annoying rain and foggy skies were definitely not avoided this time around. My car tends to blow around in a normal highway breeze, so 50-60mph gusts (even with all our crap on board) was enough to make our journey…shifty. Not only that, but it made the 10,000 semi trucks on the road shifty as well. Suddenly, our 80mph easy street drive was a 50mph headache. Part way through our drive, we pulled off into a small, sleepy town by the highway for awesome pizza with fresh garlic while we crossed our fingers for sunshine.
Finally made our way into Chicago as it got dark (which made windy driving worse) and ended up being forced to park in the 40 DOLLAR A NIGHT parking garage at our hotel, which gave me a mild panic attack. Welcome back to the big city…Our hotel, by the way, was the Palmer House (a branch of the Hilton) which we got cheap on hotwire. Initially, we were excited by our extraordinarily fancy hotel full of silk couches and people in suits…but as we quickly learned that the more you pay, the more you have to pay for extra. No free internet, no free breakfast, no refrigerator, no microwave. Beyond that, the room was super comfortable and the hotel was elaborate. Felt (just a little) fancier for a brief few minutes.
P.S. we paid our first road tolls on our drive into the city since we left Virginia on day 2 of our trip. And we paid 4 of them within 1.5 hours.
Tired and worn out, we got dressed and went to dinner at a pub/restaurant a couple blocks away. Buffalo wings and beer…yup. Hit up a local bar afterward for a few drinks while watching some awesomely bad karaoke.
Got up in search of breakfast (because it was not included, remember?). We were staying really close to Millennium Park which was surrounded by some cute food joints, so we picked a crepe and pancake restaurant called Wildberry. Fantastic crepes with mixed berries, mascarpone and sweet syrup and strong coffee. Wandered the outskirts of the park to snap some pictures of our reflections in the famous Chicago “bean” (giant metal sculpture shaped kind of like a bean that you can walk underneath). After, we met up with Katie’s friend Vicky for some daytime cocktails…which turned into more daytime cocktails…which turned into ordering room service in our hotel in lieu of going out to dinner. Shared a meal so that we did not go broke, which was actually really nice (roast chicken au jus, buttermilk mashed potatoes and yummy veggies). Had fully planned to go out and explore the Chicago bar scene more…but exhaustion got the better of us. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me…but I’ve found that I am far more excited about exploring smaller towns/cities/amazing natural occurrences and other unique places more so than large cities that simply remind me of NY. They’re great, don’t get me wrong…but I’m a sucker for being wowed by something vastly different from what I am used to.
I must also add that it’s really hitting me how close to home we are getting, especially when I notice other NY license plates and realize that it’s no longer as unusual as it was 2 or 3 states ago. That concept is very hard to swallow.
I absolutely must begin this post by sharing a few tidbits of information we listened to on the radio while in between nowhere and nowhere (listening to “big horn mountain radio” which was the only station we could get). We’ve learned that sometimes, a station can begin as country music and transform into religious preaching. This particular segment was a “pro-religion” advertisement that attempted to wow us with the story of a woman whose husband had cancer/was in a coma and who was told by her doctor that he was likely to die. Apparently, she “flicked her hand” at “doctor death” (can’t make this up) and told him…nonsense!! She then prayed, and her husband was cured. Moral of the story…pray, and nobody you love will die of cancer (oh, and “hell will claim the majority”). Olay!
Tidbit number two was a completely legitimate news story meant to cover the crime report for a small area town. The biggest story of the day? A 28-year-old woman was arrested and charged with simple assault because she hit a 27-year-old family member in the head with a corn dog during a dispute at the kitchen table. I. Cant. Make. This. Stuff. Up.
Our intellectual stimulation was completed with a paid advertisement for a general store which boasted the slogan “rifles for him, diamonds for her”.
Our one actual detour of the day was to drive aimlessly into Kimbell, SD in search of their famous popcorn balls that we had read about on a pamphlet earlier that day (GPS didn’t recognize the address…hence, aimless driving). As we learned, they only have the factory in 300-person Kimbell, but a friendly waitress directed me to a gas station where I could buy one for $1.20. Sugar honey goodness! Should have bought 10.
Didn’t want to do much in Sioux Falls when we got in…so we pulled up to a tiny take-out place called Bob’s as recommended by our food book. It was old and ridiculously un-fancy, but full of locals chomping on fried chicken at the 10-seat counter and discussing how long the baked beans would spend each day in the smoker (12 hours). Got food to go, and dug into the best BBQ ribs I’ve had since Texas (it’s possible outside the south, I guess!). Hash browns were crispy and seasoned to perfection, cooked right on the grill top. Katie added that her chicken was also the best she’d had since the deep south. I think having a smoker on-site might be the key…and when have you ever heard of an east-coast BBQ place putting beans in the smoker for 12 hours? Sorry NY…you should probably stick to pizza.
Got into Omaha the next night, to Comfort Inn (found on Hotwire for cheap!) early enough to plan a place for dinner. Called a cab so that we could sip some drinks and wandered the historic Old Market downtown area for food. The area was super cute, with cobblestone streets that caused our cab to wobble. I was surprised by the number of bars and restaurants! (USA book had promised that out-of-towners would be surprised by the city). Had awesome dinner at an Italian restaurant…duck tart with marsala sauce, crispy leeks and butternut squash, lamb kabobs with cucumber-yogurt sauce and fresh mozzarella, and Katie had pasta with fresh clams, tomatoes, basil and fresh mozz. Perfectly AWESOME food (marsala sauce was killer), but a terrible first round of cocktails for some reason (guess it’s easy to mess up a mojito and cosmo but hard to mess up duck?). They made up for it with the espresso martinis we had in lieu of dessert. Food heaven, and another colorful conversation about our road trip escapades with the waiter.
Went for drinks down the street at the first place that had music playing. Cheap drinks, cool décor, and an interesting conversation with two guys whose pickup lines were “want to go to another bar?”. A for effort…and in the end, one of them turned out to be an interesting person to talk to, who told us about growing up in a town of 150 people 30 miles south of Spokane, WA and about some of his traveling. The best part of the whole thing was when we shared the fact that we had visited Butte, Montana and he immediately asked if we had gone to Silver Dollar Saloon and met “Paulie” (aka, Paula, the bartender we chatted with there ALL night who was one of our favs of the trip). He was FLOORED by this connection (as were we). I have to add that at the end of the conversation, he thanked us for talking with him and then left without further attempts at a pickup (phew). Sipped away at our icy beers and meddled over the fact that sometimes it really is a small world before moving on in search of (GASP) an Omaha gay bar.
Did in fact find one with decent reviews on Yelp, but when we arrived we had a very hard time figuring out if we were in the right spot…from the outside there was no sign or indication of life…but if you looked closely into the lobby window, you saw a bouncer and a small sign deep inside. If you aren’t looking for it (really hard), you WONT find it…you’d think it was an office building that had shut down for the night. C’mon small town, way to be a stereotype…regardless of this hiccup, it turned out to be a super fun time inside, and not completely void of life (full of it, actually). Ahhh…breathed a quick sigh of relief at not having to look over our shoulders because we had touched hands. Nebraska was definitely not the place I expected to have that kind of relief.
Several hours from Yellowstone was our home for the night–Sheridan, WY. Wyoming, by the way, is the countries least densely populated state…which is highly believable with insanely long stretches of road with no homes, not even farms or ranches (there were more houses in the Mojave Desert and rural Mississippi). Didn’t plan to do much tonight but sleep, so we booked at a local place called Mill Inn. The place turned out to be ADORABLE…western themed, friendly with large pretty rooms that looked a little like studio apartments (AND they had Starbucks coffee in-room). We learned that the building was a historic landmark, was once a flower mill, and was the tallest building Sheridan (only about 5 stories…). Take-out and TV, a slightly restless sleep after watching 15 minutes of a bad horror movie (not a good idea in a quiet town, and in an old hotel, in the middle of small-town America) and up early in the a.m. to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
The drive to Keystone, South Dakota wasn’t too bad and we didn’t have to rush terribly. Our first stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is being built to honor the Native American tribe leader who fought Custer in the famous “Custer’s Last Stand” battle. The memorial was started by a sculpture in the 1950’s, and is still only partially finished. The sculpture’s family took on the task after his death, but as of today, only the head and part of the arm is fully complete. Short film explained that the memorial will be much larger than Mount Rushmore when it’s completed and that it’s taking so long because the family will not accept government funding (they want it to be non-profit and funded by public interest only).
Had a cup of soup at the café and continued onto Mount Rushmore (only about 15 minutes away). Strolled through the outdoor aisle that displayed all 50 state flags and ended in a viewpoint for the memorial. It was cool to see, though surprising to learn that it was never fully completed. The sculpture had created a model that had entire top portions of the presidents’ bodies, but the rock itself only displays the heads due to a lack of funding (and Lincoln’s is not even entirely finished! No kidding, look it up). I’m very curious as to why the project was not completed at some point down the road.
Rapid City is the biggest city that’s near the memorials we visited (about 25 miles from Mount Rushmore). We booked a $40 Econolodge that had an indoor pool, hot tub and 30 foot winding water slide (huge, like the ones in waterparks). I can’t imagine ever beating that deal, ever. We went to dinner in the tiny downtown area of the city and had super tasty Tapas and wine that included a cheese board, prosciutto on baguette, seafood paella and an artichoke/cheese/cured meat appetizer. It was warm enough to sit outside, near the fire pit (2 days ago it felt like winter…my body is so confused). Did you know they have statues of all the presidents displayed along Main Street in downtown? They’re deemed the “most patriotic city in America”. That’s cool and all, Rapid City, but I think having Mount Rushmore makes it just a little too easy to put in a bid for that title. Plus, patriotism means many things…
Got to the hot tub and nobody was there (yes, all for us!). The front desk girl asked if we wanted her to turn the water slide on…umm…yes? Probably rode down it 6 times…flying around curves and up onto the sides and then getting water shot up my nose upon my plunge into the pool. I’m 12…and it’s so, so great. Free as we’ll ever be!
Next day’s plan was to drive across the state of South Dakota to get to Sioux Falls (next large-ish city after Rapid City, with little in between) and see the Badlands National Park in between. We picked a 30 mile stretch of the park that we could enter from the highway, and end further down on the highway (aka, convenient). The Badlands is actually a huge area…with stretches of volcano-made rock formations that look a little like a miniature grand canyon in some places. We wound along the curvy (very windy) road that cut between towering, oddly shaped mini-mountains and stopped at overlooks to gawk at the beautiful views. I wonder if I’ll ever get tired of looking at beautiful views. I have yet to even come close.
As we got to the end, we saw a sign for a town (within the park) called Interior. Since we didn’t want to get to our motel after dark, we pressed forward. I have developed this new mini-obsession with googling very small towns I see on our map (many that we pass), and learning about their stats. Interior, for instance, has a population of 94 and has one operational café, one motel and one bar. It’s .3 miles long with no neighboring towns.
We pass so many little places like this…many which are only accessible by a 5-15 mile stretch of unpaved road. You can look to your side when you’re driving, see the exit for the town, and notice the fact that the minute the road gets away from the freeway that it turns to loose dirt and juts off into the distance. Old pickups plow down these stretches, furiously whipping up plumes of dust behind them that linger for several minutes. A few fun facts about secluded, rural America…most of these towns have populations between 90 and 300…most homes contain married couples (very few single parents or people living alone), most men work in the farming/agricultural industry, most women work in educational services (teaching), most people have high school diplomas but very few have college degrees, most towns are 95%-100% white (with the remainder generally being Native American)…and the vast majority people have had family living in the town since 1970 or earlier. Many of these towns are unincorporated and do not participate in the US Census, so exact statistics may not always be correct. One town even had a one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse for K-8th grade. I guess with a population of 100 and limited access to other towns, there aren’t enough local children to school them separately. Sometimes things like this fascinate me more than large cities, monuments, and other “major” societal accomplishments. It’s amazing because all of this is the same America, but lived in grossly varied circumstances. I can’t begin to imagine how my view of my world might differ from a 25-year-old who lives in one of these places right now. We have so many ridiculously diverse subcultures living on the same land in seemingly separate worlds…that it’s sometimes too much to even begin to make sense of. I guess that was what America was founded to be, right?
Got close to Yellowstone National Park not long after lunch. Just before we got there, nestled in southwestern Montana, we came across a large lake with dead tree tops sticking out all over, and a sign that read “earthquake lake”. We pulled over and read the plaque, which explained that under the lake was once a functional campground full of cars, RV’s, people and trees. A large earthquake hit in 1959, causing a landslide that moved water into the area suddenly, killing 28 people camping there and forming a permanent lake. It was eerie to see the remnants of tree tops still rooted into the ground underneath the formed lake. Most bodies were never found.
Now that you’re thoroughly depressed…we moved along further into Yellowstone, paid our fee (realized we should have bought a national park pass a LONG time ago) and started visiting sites. We immediately noticed a vast expanse of burned trees as a result of the rampant forest fires in the surrounding states…which was disheartening considering the fascinating and unique landscape of the park. I’ll be honest… I didn’t really know what kind of things we would be seeing at Yellowstone. Geography was never my best subject. I didn’t realize what a hotbed of ridiculous natural occurrences the space actually embodied. We came upon our first (of many) natural hot springs on the side of the road, with brightly colored “warning” signs about keeping off the thermal area. Parked a little further down and proceeded through a half mile walkway loop that looked upon neon-blue hot springs, steam pots, sulfur pits and boiling mud pots…all surrounded by prismatic colored landscape (as a result of heat-loving microorganisms…because you needed a quick biology lesson). Dead tree stumps shot out of the charcoal grey earth in a creepy fashion.
Next stop was a super-sized area of hot springs (some of which were only 6 feet long, but 27 feet deep!), including a huge expanse of water that is popular for its distinctive rainbow color (really, bright rainbow…ice blue In the center and prismatic as it reaches the edges…google it). It was so hot though, and so flowing with steam, that it was hard to get the full color experience. The steam billowed into the sky and covered the tiny wooden walkway, making people disappear into seemingly nowhere and creating a fascinating photo-taking environment (it kind of looked like the end of the world). The ground bubbled, boiled and burst with pockets of steam and spitting geysers. I thought I was all national-parked-out…but this was freaking amazing. I really think that everybody should see this place before they die…I felt a bit like a little kid who was learning about the world for the first time.
The afternoon drifted on, so we checked into our lodge (Old Faithful Inn, near the famous Old Faithful Geyser). The geyser is called “Old Faithful” because it’s the most predicable geyser in the park…erupting approximately every 90 minutes and shooting up to 100-200 feet in the air (we learned that most geysers are highly unpredictable). My first time watching it happened while we sat on the log-made outdoor deck on the second floor, in my new winter coat (thanks Katie!), sipping an espresso…heaven? It was pretty awesome…bubbles up just before it goes off, and then the water shoots higher and higher into a several hundred foot plume bursting with white steam that fills the surrounding sky. Crowds gather at most eruptions (the staff couldn’t care less).
Continued to explore our lodge, which was amazingly cute and worth the financial splurge (end of season meant it could have been worse though). Built primarily by using large logs and low lighting, it was comforting and quaint (except our corner portion of the hallway, which looked a little bit more like my freshman dorm floor…guess they ran outta logs?). Rooms were comfortable and cute, but had no TV or WiFi (but DID have Keurig machines!). The goal was to maintain the middle-of-the-woods mindset and encourage people to unplug. It worked…my cell phone had sparse service and no internet. Hello, 1990.
Went for dinner at the dining room in the lobby of our Inn. Had a cocktail in the lounge next door while we waited, and then moved to our table to have elk medallions, which was amazing!! Came with wine reduction sauce, seasoned veggies and bangin mashed potatoes. When in Rome…do as Romans do. Dinner would have been perfect if the waitress hadn’t failed to mention that the “soup or salad” she asked us to pick from as a starter was NOT included in the dinner price. C’est la vie. After we were done, we got some more wine at the lounge and brought it up to the second floor common area, where they had log-based couches that overlooked the pretty architecture of the lounge (the middle section was open, meaning each floor could look down on the others), which is 5 stories tall (though only 3 are operational) and lets you see each log that goes into the structure of the building. Apparently, the person who designed the Inn originally built a tree-house style portion just under the roof for an orchestra to play in (which allowed the sound to radiate down throughout the other floors), but an earthquake threatened the integrity of the upper floors, making them unsafe for heavy foot traffic (aka, they were closed).
Didn’t realize that we had gotten to the Inn on the absolute last night of the season, so we ran into some boozing staff members celebrating a successful summer. Several glasses of wine later, and very (very) relaxed and un-plugged…we wiggled off to bed.
Got some breakfast to go (as they closed the doors behind us…literally was the VERY last morning!) and went to explore as much of the park as possible. It’s huge, so we did the best we could. Did another loop of hot springs, and still could not get over how BLUE they were. I just didn’t realize colors like that really existed in nature…it’s a little humbling. Visited Yellowstone Lake (which is gigantic) which has tiny cone-shaped boiling hot bowls of rock along its edges. One plaque explained that fishermen used to catch fish in the lake and immediately drop them into the bubbling pots to cook. Convenient! Saw some elk bathing in the cool waters (not gonna lie, was a little jealous…it looked refreshing).
Visited another (super cool) walking loop with bubbling mud volcanoes…which I had never heard of before that day. Yes, they are remains of real volcanoes, and some remain highly active (actually, Yellowstone itself is sitting in top of underground magma, which flows and creates bulges in the surface dirt…meaning, the place could explode, kind of).They are sheet-metal grey and boil and spit blobs of goopy mud into the air…sometimes accompanied by deep, growling rumbles from inside endless underground caves. I think that’s where bigfoot lives.
Throughout the rest of our exploration, we came upon a ridiculously huge waterfall that was hidden behind a quiet path on a roadside stop…and hot springs that spilled over vertical rock formations and looked more like icy frozen glaciers than something that was scalding. All surrounded by wild bison, strange looking birds, and an overwhelming number of elk which sometime wander into visitor center parking lots. Did I mention it is freezing cold in Yellowstone? We could see snow caps on the distance mountains. We’ve officially traveled through all the seasons…
This was honestly the coolest park I had ever seen. Around every corner is an entirely different geographic landscape from the area before it, like you are visiting a different part of the world. You will see everything that you didn’t know you could see this easily (spitting, growling mud volcanoes? Neon blue springs with sunflower-colored sulfur plumes?). It really gives you perspective on the complexity of your world…especially knowing that any small earthquake or ground disturbance could cause these volcanoes to burst, geysers to shift course and hot springs to fly into a frenzy. They say that you can come back in 5 years and see a totally different park. I’m up for the challenge.
Left Butte in the morning and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a gift shop that opened before 10am on a Saturday (none did), though Butte Copper Co. had a very misleading “open” sign flashing in their dark window. Got a postcard from CVS and some new wiper blades and continued through Montana in search of ghost towns (because they’re SO COOL). There are many in the state, apparently…and the three that were on our way were Laurin, Virginia City and Nevada City (only two of which were on the map). Further into Montana, less houses (this has become a trend in select states). Wide Wide Wide open spaces…but what they say it true, the sky is pretty cool. There is also a higher concentration of hay bales per square mile. While searching for our tiny towns, we spotted a sign that read “historic marker” with an arrow pointing down a short dirt road. Pulled off and up to several abandoned old-west style houses beside an old farm that had signs that read: “historic landmark, visitor’s welcome” and had a short description. The buildings had been preserved but clearly very old, and eerily secluded (no cars or houses in site). Peered in some windows and wandered around back, at which point we discovered an old outhouse with crumbling wooden ceiling planks. Overwhelmed by the silence, we hopped back in the car and onto real pavement.
Brief side note…we passed through our first return-trip time zone yesterday (GPS doesn’t recognize time zone changes, p.s.), which was extremely depressing.
Further down our endless highway and we saw a tiny sign for Laurin, and again, an arrow and an unpaved road. Entered a very small town with a church on the corner, single-story houses in the distance and a quiet cabin-style lodging establishment. After a 3 minute drive on pure amber colored dirt, seeing NO people (except a pickup pulling up to a trailer home) and no apparent ghost town either (it seemed like the houses were actually inhabited but saw no businesses), we got an overwhelming vibe that we would probably not be wanted here. We made a quick U-Turn and decided it wasn’t worth ending up on an episode of Disappeared.
Continued down the main road in search of Nevada City, which was not on the map or recognized by GPS. After a while, the road got smaller and slower and we eventually came to a “Nevada City” sign (easier than we had expected). Immediately we saw rows of old-west wooden houses and stores, all completely void of active life. To our right was an abandoned railroad train, still on the tracks, and a dirt area that didn’t have any signs indicating that we couldn’t park (so we did). Saw another car with out-of-state plates so we figured we weren’t the only curious ones. Nevada City was a several-hundred-year-old mining town that crumbled and was eventually abandoned, and has no active businesses or homes (except what looked to be a tiny historic museum, which wasn’t open). A skinny, creaky wooden “sidewalk” ran along the row-style buildings which included a “Cheap Cash Store”, fire engine company, a hotel and a bakery. Finally found the inhabitants of the other parked car (2 women quietly snapping pictures). Being there was pretty awesome…it really felt like being back in the 1800’s, especially with no operational towns in the distance. Nevada City sat all by itself in total silence. Many of the buildings’ windows were covered, but we did find one with a viewing space and inside was a glass counter with old general store products inside, coated in dust. The old businesses still had original signage, which groaned as they swayed in the breeze beside the site of the trial and hanging of George Ives (infamous American bandit). Weirdly enough, this abandoned town was about as quiet as the inhabited one down the road. In the car again to find Virginia City (still on the map) a few miles away.
Virginia City had similar-looking old west buildings that had been preserved as landmarks, but mixed in between were several quiet cafes, small gift shops and scattered homes that resided down dirt roads off Main Street. Popped into the town bar (where one person sat sipping whiskey and watching TV) for directions to food (first response we got was “we got some frozen pizzas in back”) and then found the open diner down the street. Had my first Elk burger which was pretty good…similar to beef but heartier. Diner was adorned with cowboy hats and memorabilia and owned by the parents of the teenage server (as discovered by overhearing her conversation with another patron). On the road again, satisfied with our detours…towards Yellowstone…through more wide open skies and tiny truck-only roads that led off into the horizon.
Our next nights’ sleeping location was chosen by us just a few days ago. Spokane, WA was on our route and had the largest font on our map of any surrounding city (meaning people must actually live there). Got in late and ordered Dominos and watched trashy TV. Sometimes, that’s the best thing you can EVER do. In the morning, we made an attempt to actually say we had seen the city we slept in. Drove downtown towards Spokane Falls (waterfall/tourist attraction) and discovered that Spokane was actually a decent sized city, with a busy downtown area and tons of stores and restaurants. Katie performed her first highly successful parallel park which she was HIGHLY proud of. To get to the falls, we had to take a few semi-secluded outdoor staircases and follow a short path (or pay $7.50 for a 5 minute gondola ride…which we opted against). Falls were pretty and ran under a large, scenic bridge. Had lunch inside a small shopping mall at a Japanese restaurant where all the food is in small portions and runs along a conveyer belt in single servings. You grab things off the belt as they come around your table and pay for your food by the number/type of plates you pick.
Off again to our next location (after driving through Idaho for all of 8 seconds…and getting back into a 75MPH speed zone)…Butte, Montana. We discovered in our first few days on the road that this little town was directly on our route to Yellowstone national park. Due to its special name (our lack of maturity) and the fact that it’s one of 3 US cities where you can drink outside…we realized it deserved a stop. Before we got into town, we visited a Montana gift/ice cream shop and got our first Huckleberry shake (a HUGELY popular Montana product). Huckleberries grow very well in the chilly mountains surrounding us and are like a flavor mix between blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Shake was a.w.e.s.o.m.e. Continued on our way, enjoying the beautiful mountains and sparkling light which made the earth look amber in color.
As we got further into Montana, we started to notice a persistent smoldering/burning smell in the air and a fog-like covering on distant mountains. We realized that it was a result of the rampant area wildfires that have been going on and exacerbated by 80 days without rain. Amazing how strong the scent was, even in town (it was on our clothes, our hair, etc. despite the fact that we couldn’t see fire).
With limited lodging options upon arriving in Butte, we ended up at our first Rodeway Inn which got mildly awful reviews but was fine enough for us (the door locked and no bedbugs). Drove ¾ of a mile onto teeny Main Street in our teeny town (solely because the 2 blocks surrounding our hotel looked questionable for walking) and went for dinner at Pekin Noodle Parlor as recommended by Roadfood. Up a long, skinny flight of stairs and we entered the tiny restaurant (next to a tiny liquor lounge) where we were greeting by shuffling waitresses rolling plastic carts of food down a creaky hallway. Tables are arranged in small cubicles with curtains that you can draw for private dining. The restaurant is 101 years old and before that, it was a brothel (only a little weird to think about that while eating…but explained the set up of the table cubicles :-/). The brochure says it was a gambling house, but we discovered otherwise upon further research. Our waitressed asked if we wanted sodas (obviously believing we were 16) but convinced her otherwise and ordered our $3 glasses of wine (yup), pineapple sweet & sour spare ribs and famous noodles with scallions, egg and beef slices. All very tasty and inexpensive. Definitely a cute, quirky place to go in a cute, quirky mountain town.
After, we craved some drinks and were surprised by the number of bars in the area for the size of the town. Next door to the noodle house was Silver Dollar Saloon (known as “the dollar” by locals). Plopped onto a bar stool amidst the wooden wall panels, jukebox and cowboy themed décor and were greeted by an inviting 60-something bartender who asked if we had attended the high school football game in town that seemed to be so popular today. We replied no, and that we were from out of town, to which she said. “Aah, rodeo people, huh?” I think we must have been the first NJ/NY bred individuals who had stumbled into her doors, but regardless she was highly interested in our travels and jokingly asked “how Snookie was doing back there” (Jersey Shore, mom and dad) and laughed about the fact that the East Coast was “too much for her” (and that people in West Virginia, where she was once married, were far too critical of others). She served us local-made draft beers, which were delicious, and ran us $2.50 each.
Over the course of our next few drafts, she gushed about how she has lived in Montana since she was 5 (when her father was a coal miner here) and how she has never once tired of the site of the mountains…and that it has actually brought her to tears after being away. Upon further conversation, we learned that she is a liberal and atheist who despises Romney and is soon performing in a local theater play in which she will play a Madame in a brothel. Also mentioned that if we were in town the next day that we ought to check out her curiosity shop (“Paula’s Curiosity Shop”) down the street from the bar…which we would have eagerly perused, had we not had a.m. time constraints. Probably the coolest person we have met this trip and a testament to the fact that just when you think you have a place pegged, you are once again surprised by human kind (just because a person is from a small town, even in Montana, does not mean they are conservative, bible-thumping or close-minded). Opened my eyes more than a little bit when she shared the fact that she loves where she lives because she is surrounded by a community she genuinely trusts and who takes care of each other, despite the fact that her religious and political views are different from some of those around her…“this is the kind of town where you could stumble out of a bar drunk, pass out in a gutter, and a stranger would pick you up and offer you their couch to sleep on”. I know that that’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to places like this more as this trip’s gone on (places I fully expected to avoid fervently). We can learn so much from a concept like that. I’m from NY and I don’t trust people naturally unless I am given a good reason to, and having somebody make me feel like that was neither healthy nor normal was very interesting. It made me wonder if not having that trust could potentially keep a person from ever feeling completely whole. Her strength of character and passion for her home will stick with me.
Crossed the border into Washington (which took all of 15 minutes) the next morning with destination Mount Saint Helens. Brief history lesson about Mount Saint Helens…it erupted with little warning in 1980 after being dormant for over 100 years and eradicated 220 square miles of forest in around 15 minutes (give or take). The peak and side of the huge mountain crumbled to the earth and the explosion flattened thousands of trees that still remain flat and dead over 30 years later and blackened the air. I have been told by my mother that her friend in Portland awoke to ash falling from the sky and thought that it was snowing in April. The volcano is still active and could erupt any time (comforting). Began the incline towards the peak and stopped a few times to snap some pictures. Got to Johnson Observatory which lets you get right up in front of the face of the volcano and wind around the surrounding area via a wooden path. We decided to watch a short film being shown inside the visitors center, surrounded by school field trips, which turned out to be surprisingly interesting (though the kids were spacing out). Very weird to see the highly defined lava path which has yet to re-grow any grass, plants or vegetation (nor did the land directly around the mountain, which remains a grey, dry, dust pit). The forest areas further away seem to have replenished themselves, which is a cool demonstration of nature’s ability to rejuvenate.
Continued our journey towards Seattle, arriving in time to change and go to dinner. Decided to use Hotwire for this stay, which got us a room at the Holiday Inn in downtown for 80 bucks. It was weird checking into a non-budget hotel and having them take more than 4 seconds to hand us our room key (and asking if we needed anything etc.). Made our way to famous Pike Place Market to search for a restaurant, but being that it’s mainly a daytime place, we found only a few scattered openings. Picked a lounge-y spot for caprese salad with balsamic, goat cheese/asparagus/caper/bacon pizza and strong drinks. After, we got a cab to the general area we had heard was good for bars and wandered until we found a gay karaoke bar with a nice bartender and dirt-cheap drinks. Didn’t need to look further. Even on a Wednesday night, it was pretty poppin. Go Seattle.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our pretty hotel and returned to Pike Place. During the day, it’s a hugely popular, hugely amazing farmers market with a billion fresh food vendors, talented crafters, tiny shops, bakeries, restaurants and gift items. It was the mother of all market places (Id kill for it at home!!). Meandered the aisles of asparagus, apples (with sellers handing you free slices as you passed), pomegranates and fresh seafood (smoked salmon being a main staple…got a small maple flavored pack to sample later) and fantasized about having a portable refrigerator with which to transport it all home. Visited a Russian bakery called Peroshky Peroshky at the advice of a friend for a marzipan croissant and warm cheddar scone, and then stumbled upon a balsamic and olive oil shop that allowed you to sample everything in the store (can you say “my personal heaven?”). I really, really could have spent my future rent money in a couple hours…so it was probably good that we were crunched for time.
Had planned to visit the famous space needle, but found a 73 story building with an observatory (as recommended in USA book) that boasted a much better view and cheaper entrance fee. Ears popping, we rode our 3 elevators and gawked at the fact that the cars looked like ants and you could see for miles (little foggy though). Quick bite to eat (tzasziki sauce and pita) and on the road again.
Got up early and drove 2 blocks to get an oil change at Moe’s Super Lube. Waited alongside an older gentleman at 7:55am until they opened at 8:00. 15 minute oil change and brief conversation about my NY license plates and we were on the road. Got into Portland in the late afternoon and immediately met up with my cousin Tamara at a coffee shop near the community center where baby Libi just finished a gymnastics class. Driving into Portland was fairly stress-free and a nice break from larger, more frustrating cities to drive in such as LA.
Lotssss of hugs (it’s been a long time!!), but little miss Libi was napping peacefully in her stroller amidst the chatter and clanking of espresso cups. I waited patiently for her slumber to complete itself, resisting the overwhelming urge to squish baby toes and fingers. Little miss finally arose and greeted us with a bright, energetic smile as she began to rock excitedly in her stroller. We decided to head over to my aunt Anna’s place, and managed to squish the entire contents of the backseat into a corner, leaving JUST BARELY enough room to fit Mara and little miss’s car seat. Honestly, I was totally shocked that we not only made this work but also managed to fit the stroller portion of her stroller-and-car-seat combo into the trunk along with our huge suitcases. It was like a puzzle and we were the puzzle masters.
Walked into aunt Anna’s for the first time since I was about 17. I remember visiting at least once a year back in the day, and spending time with my little cousin playing Oregon Trail and learning to pick the lock to the bathroom when Mara was showering in order to swipe her clothes (at 9 years old, she was the instigator…not the other way around…rebel without a cause). It was funny every time. It never stopped being funny.
Met my new cousin Jacob for the first time. He just turned 5, and has been a part of the family for a couple years now. Unfortunately, this was the first time I was able to get to Portland. Gave my peace offering of Toy Story wind up cars and was welcomed into the acceptable-persons club. Got a new-cousin tour of his school artwork, favorite toys and snazzy Spiderman pajamas with some friendly explanations about truck parts and volcanoes. He seemed to enjoy being the “big boy” around Libi and sharing his things (I had been told that this was not always the case). Libi tried on her early-birthday clothes and sparkly rainbow sneakers we brought for her from home. She bounced around doing her “I’ve got new shoes” dance which involved a sort of sideways shuffle and butt wiggle with a gaping smile. Happiest child ever…it was very hard not to steal her.
Made a quick attempt to go to a synagogue party in the neighborhood that promised chocolate bars and beer, but arrived only in time to see them packing up. Did get free chocolate bars though (to Libi’s excitement) and shiny apples. Not the worst outcome in the world.
Next morning we got up reasonably early (10am?), got ready and met my aunt in downtown Portland for a tasty Japanese lunch because “you girls are skinny and must like to eat healthy!”…if only she knew. Chatted about how our life was going over salmon teriyaki and mochi ice cream (Peter met up with us for the dessert portion after an office meeting). After, we found ourselves double espressos at a tiny coffee shop with tables on the sidewalk, and then stood in line at Voodoo Donut (famous Portland donut shop that has been featured on multiple food network shows). I remember coming here when I was 15 and it was a hole-in-the-wall nowhere shop that looked just slightly shady and that nobody had heard of (except locals who LOVE donuts). It’s been since renovated to accommodate its growing popularity and become a Portland staple. Had a maple bacon donut which actually had strips of crisp bacon on top of a sweet maple glazed donut log. Fantastic invention…it’s like bacon and syrup squished into pastry. Katie had a neon-blue colored concoction with confetti sprinkles called Miami vice. We bought a postcard.
Met back up with miss Mara a little later than anticipated and kept an eye on Libi while she attended an appointment. Decided to stroll to a neighborhood park but quickly learned that the little one was a big fan of watching kids on the swings but not a huge fan of sitting in one herself. That idea seemed to give her anxiety. Tried the slide (on my lap) which she did not reject but did not welcome with open arms either…she just looked at me with this unsure-of-what-my-point-was look. I guess we’ll give the whole playground thing a couple years. Met back up with Mara and took a stroll down a cute street on Hawthorne in South East with tons of little shops, cafes and small restaurants with various 20-somethings playing guitar on street corners. Definitely felt the same relaxed, children-of-hippies, artsy young-person dominated vibe I always remember from Portland culture. I could have shopped there all day (which would have been a very bad idea…I should be sticking to post cards and magnets). Bought miss Libi an alien-shaped finger puppet that she developed a particular affinity for by chewing on its head. Guess it was love at first site. Probably saw 18 espresso shops…why don’t I live here?
To make matters better, we proceeded towards dinner at a food truck parking area called Cartlandia that featured a beer garden and 20 daily-operated food trucks. Pineapple curry with rice and an icy draft and Libi enjoyed syrup-soaked French toast after we realized the cheese steak had been made with hot peppers (super shocked baby face plus watering eyes after one small bite…break my heart why don’t you!). Spent some time dancing around the dinner tables with Libi, playing hide-and-seek between metal pillars and chairs and having interesting conversations about the food in her “nummy” (tummy) and the names of the kitties at her house. Must mention that she was sporting the sparkly-star leggings, black princess skirt and rainbow sneakers we bought her. Most fashionable toddler on the west coast, and definitely the coolest.
Saying goodbye was hard. I don’t get many opportunities to see my very small family and I cherish the times that I do. Miss Libi is the first new baby to be born into our family since…Michael?? It’s incredibly exciting to be able to dote on a little family member like that for the first time in my life…especially one that is so incredibly happy, full of life, observant of her world and bursting with excitement for exploration. Instant love. Jacob is our second youngest now too and friendly, skilled at drawing and excited to meet new people. I love our new “babies” very much…and wish wish wish that we did not all live so far apart 😦 Gave Libi a huge squish goodbye as she stared back sleepily (kept her up just a LITTLE past bedtime) and unfortunately got back home after Jacob had already gone to sleep. Made sure to ask Anna to tell him goodbye for me and that I very much enjoyed meeting him.
Slept particularly well on the memory foam mattress topper in our room. I forgot what that felt like.
Back to the Pacific Coast Highway for more winding roads and crystal water below. Rolled along for a while without a town in site until we finally started seeing a few scattered wooden homes in the distance. Craving caffeine like a fat kid craves butter, we saw a tiny café on the side of the road beyond a sharp curve, and quickly pulled in. Café Aquatica was a little wooden hut that sat beside a lake with outdoor seating. Opened the car door and was greeted by the sound of gentle live music and guitar playing. Knew this would be a win. Inside was a small menu of eggs and assorted sandwiches, and a glass display of fantastic looking pastries. Ordered poached eggs over focaccia and Katie got clam chowder…plus two double espressos. The place was all organic and the food was prepared fresh. Sat outside at a wooden counter and ate to the sounds of the music and brush of the crisp breeze. On our way out, we got a slice of chocolate tart topped with raspberries and two little homemade truffles (strawberry bee pollen bite, which tasted like ice cream). The chocolate tart was like crack. Rich, gooey semi-sweet, half melted wonderful mess on top of pastry shell. I craved more and couldn’t get it…I still want it. Ahh. Want. It.
Main stop for the day was the Redwood Forest. With no official entrance to the national park, we got a map at the first visitor’s station and found ourselves an easy path to hike. Biggest trees I’ve ever seen. They were easily 10 times the size of any of the ones that grow in my neck of the woods. For the ones that had fallen across a path, they were big enough that they would carve a path through them versus removing the entire tree. As we walked, we noticed that it felt like it was easier to breathe in the park and that it took a lot longer to feel out of breathe. Big trees=more oxygen in the air….makes sense. If you visit…take a big, deep breath and savor it.
Continued driving through the park and pulled off the road at the site of a sign that simply read “Restaurant”. Standing all alone was a small diner that was only open until 3pm. Got a cheeseburger, BLT and two large coffees to go from the sociable waitress who insisted on topping off our coffees to cover what we had drank while waiting for our food to be cooked. She joked with the scattered customers who were all clearly locals (in a very and semi-secluded surrounding town) about how she promised to “not come over later unless she had the beer with her”. Got our food and snapped a pic of the Emu wandering in the backyard next door. Drove up a much-steeper-than-expected hill to what was supposed to be a scenic overlook within the Redwoods. However, it turned out to be far too foggy at that higher elevation to see much of anything. Picnic-ing up high in the clouds was pleasant regardless, and the burger was tasty. We decided that that diner deserved a spot in the Roadfood book.
Crossed the border into Oregon and immediately noticed an abundance of espresso stands and learned that Oregon is one of only two states (with NJ) where you don’t pump your own gas. Found this out after unsuccessfully attempting to pump it myself at the dismay of a station attendant. Stayed the night in Coos Bay, at a Quality Inn (with super nice staff) that had a laundry facility. At last, laundry! It’s been so long! We were one t-shirt and a pair of socks away from wearing paper bags.
Portland in the a.m.
On the road at 6am for the 3.5 hour journey to Napa Valley (wine tour starts at 10:30, needed some leeway). We made a small detour to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive along the outskirts of San Fran, since we didn’t have time to actually make a stop there. We both love that place, but are terrified to drive on its 90 degree angled streets (they are) and we knew we would come back for a separate trip. Got to our (expensive) Motel 6 with enough time to grab Starbucks across the street.
Booked our tour through Platypus, and the company comes around to where everybody is staying and picks them up on a little bus. Our tour included 3 other couples staying in the area. We were going to be taken to 4 smaller, family owned wineries in the Napa area. The first stop was up a dirt road (bus struggled a bit) to a cute, little winery called Elkhorn. A smiling man in jeans met our ride and proceeded to give us a brief tour of the vineyard and explain the process of grape harvesting and the importance of treating your employees well (if you don’t, they’ll probably bruise the fruit when they pick it…and then your wine will suck). His two large sleepy pups circled about and kept us company. The vineyard was beautiful…sunny with a hint of fall breeze and bright fields. We then made our way up the stairs of the wooden log house that sat beside it for our first tasting. We got 4 (generous) samplings of his favorites (with a long explanation about why he makes Pino Noir vs. Cabernet like the rest of Napa…it’s because it’s colder on this side of the valley), with some witty commentary about how NOT to be a wine snob to go alongside (aka just because a wine is expensive does not mean it’s better, and that sniffing your wine is useless unless you get your WHOLE nose down in the glass…hence, “small glasses are stupid”). Tipping your glass sideways and swaying it back and forth just a bit would tell you if the wine had good “legs” (wine clinging to the sides of the glass meant good legs and therefore higher quality). He also explained how important it was to develop your own personal sense of the kind of wine you enjoy. All wine will go well with some kind of food, and when sipping, one person can taste strawberries while another person tastes grapefruit. It doesn’t matter which is right, it just matters whether you prefer tasting strawberry or grapefruit.
Got served a tasty cheese and cracker platter on the bus as we moved towards our next stop. At this point we had begun to befriend a slightly tipsy and very friendly woman in our group who had an 18-year-old daughter away at college, and was intrigued by the fact that we kept talking about the kind of wine our parents liked to drink (“as a mother, I find it sweet that you take notice!”). Winery two was a little bigger and less personal. We learned here that not all vineyards have wineries attached and not all wineries have vineyards attached. This particular location was a winery that is rented by several small vineyards that don’t have room on their property. So the wine we tasted was made here and grown in several different locations by different companies. We tried about 10 samples, including some tasty ones in the $70-80/bottle range, but didn’t take any home…because this was the only winery that didn’t refund your tasting fee with a purchase, and we found that annoying.
After our second winery we gathered at outdoor tables for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, quinoa salad and fresh fruit (included in the tour). Off again to winery three which was called Hill. The lodge had a pretty, quiet, delicate look when we walked in. Fireplace, wooden decorations and sun-drenched tasting rooms with long tables and sparkling glasses. We got the chance to meet with a Sommelier (wine expert) who continued our tasting education where the first winery had left off. He also discussed, in delicious detail, the work he had done with wine and food pairing and mentioned that such tastings would be available within the next month at Hill and would include cooking in a wood fire oven (can’t even BEGIN to explain how interested this made me…sigh). Wine was delicious and we began to develop a particular affinity for the reds in the tasting, even though we both generally prefer whites.
By winery four we were getting a little more tired and a little (lot) more tipsy, so this stop included only tasting—no wine education. Really nice Sauvignon Blanc and a very expensive Syrah which I couldn’t purchase, but enjoyed sampling. Our guide did give us a detailed list of Napa restaurants he recommended for dinner later on, including a rare $200, 9-course tasting experience that I could only visit in my dreams. Bid goodbye to our now-very-tipsy, but still-extremely-sweet new friend (and her 8 new bottles of wine and mildly concerned husband). Back to the hotel we went…to nap.
Picked one of our guides’ recommended restaurants for dinner called Celadon in downtown Napa. Got a bottle of Pinot Grigio, because 4 wineries were obviously not enough for one day. My appetizer was warmed goat cheese with port-infused figs, slivers of crisp apple and crostini. A.m.a.z.i.n.g. Have you ever had port-infused figs? They’re ridiculous. Katie had soy-braised crispy pork belly appetizer which was a flavor punch of awesome. Dinner was pork porterhouse with pomegranate jus, herbed spaetzle and roasted and butternut squash. Perfection. Normally, pork can get a little dry and doesn’t tend to excite me…but this was juicy and cooked just right…and the pomegranate brought out its very subtle sweetness. And if I could get the recipe for the herbed spaetzle, I would die a little happier…took home my leftovers and actually ate them for breakfast the next morning, without a fork. Katie had steaming mussels in a tomato, bacon and white wine sauce that swirled through the air with tangy delight. Oh my god, Napa…
In sum, when in Napa: drink wine…lots of wine. All kinds of wine. When you think you’ve had enough wine to last you until Christmas…order wine with dinner. And eat delicious dinner to go with it (not hard to find), and that means splurging…this is wine country, the land of wonderful tastes, which sounds like home to me.
Left LA for Monterey, CA and met up with the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1, runs nearby the 101). Bright perfect sunny day for our scenic adventure. Made our way through Malibu, Laguna Beach and Santa Barbara alongside the shimmering coast. This part of the drive was still sufficiently busy, and the road drove at a smooth, comfortable speed. We had no shortage of town facilities (gas stations, cafes, etc), so as it neared 5pm, we pulled off the road and into a little shore town called Calicos Beach. Strolled along the sand and put in an order for a quick mini-pizza at a tiny boardwalk stop. Expecting to be in and out of the area in less than 15 minutes, we groaned audibly when the exceptionally peppy counter woman told us that our pizza would take at least half an hour (we were the only people on the boardwalk…). Since we had already paid and she was SO energetic, we agreed and took the opportunity to roll up our jeans, touch the Pacific Ocean, and snap some pics. Realizing halfway into our wait that the walk-up taco shack down the block would have been a sufficiently more time-conscious option…we regrettably waited the 40 minutes it took to get our 5-bite pizza and flew out of there, suddenly less hungry.
We started getting away from towns and boardwalks and into the most incredible stretch of pavement I’ve ever seen. The road darted away from the 101 (which was further inland at this point) and began winding higher and higher up coastal cliffs. At this point, my GPS was flipping out that I would not get off my detour and onto a sensible highway. The sun began to get lower and the amber glow illuminated the pristine blue waves that lapped the edges of the rock. The road continued to wind, steeper now. Do not attempt this route unless you have very good brakes and a car that does not struggle with inclines. It’s not for the faint of heart or anybody with a fear of heights. Guardrails are scarce…and road signs only occasionally indicate upcoming sharp curves with squiggly, swirling arrows and unrealistic speed limit suggestions (55mph allowed when I couldn’t go above 30 without flying over the edge). Locals seem to be seasoned pros and will tailgate you, forcing you to use “turnouts” to allow passing (frequently). Recovering from the initial shock, we sunk deeper into the winding cliffs as our eyes darted about in awe of the paradise we’d become a part of. Nothing compares to leaving a populated, tourist-filled beach town to stumbling upon undisturbed, natural, jaw-dropping beauty just minutes away in what seems to be a separate world entirely. You can pull off onto an unpaved turnout next to the single-lane drive and glance behind you at the road you just conquered, and it’s a struggle to make out where exactly that road even is. At a quick glance, it just looks like several hundred-foot cliffs of gorgeous rock overlooking crystal-colored water and vast skies…but if you squint, you can see tiny cars hugging the edge on a barely-there stretch of space. We served as an unnoticed piece of background space in a largely untouched utopia.
Big Sur was supposed to be the most incredible part of the drive. However, the 70 or so miles that preceded it set a very high bar to overcome. Misjudging our timing quite a bit, the sun had set before we made it to Big Sur. 75 more miles to go, without any means of getting off the road. We had no choice but to navigate our slinky-shaped route in the pitch black. Guided by reflectors on the ground, we slowly rolled further towards our destination, passed little log cabins nestled in the trees, greeted by the sweet smell of fireplaces. Scary as it was to be responsible for not plummeting into the sea, we took a minute to realize the rare depth of the night sky, and pulled over to gawk at the breathtaking display of stars. I want my honeymoon to be here.
Made it to Monterey late, and spent a record amount of time in a single motel room of the trip…9 hours. On the road again at 6am (before our free breakfast was even served) to get to Napa for the wine tour we booked the afternoon before:)
The drive from the Grand Canyon to LA is approximately 450 miles, with the majority of it winding through the Mojave Desert. Left early and got an extra large jug of water and a full tank of gas at our first opportunity…just in case. We made one last attempt at finding scattered portions of route 66, but there was becoming less and less to see in terms of interesting building and landmarks (that we could get to without veering completely off course). Most of 66 on the Arizona to LA portion takes you a good distance from the highway and once you’re on the road, you can’t get off and back to civilization for 20-80 miles or more. Fearing a breakdown/flat tire/whatever, we avoided most of these detours.
Driving in the desert allows you to fly down the freeway like a tiny blue racecar without fear of constant merging or traffic lights. After a while though, the whole same-thing-in-every-direction (aka sand and hills for hundreds of miles) becomes tiring all on its own. Oh, and you do see mirages…and it does look like the road ahead of you is in fact under water or not there at all until you are close enough to realize the blazing summer (fall) sun is to blame. No. Clouds. At. All. Anywhere. As we got closer to LA, the mountains in the distance did make for a particularly pretty view. Pretty, yet empty. In an (much needed) attempt to find a bathroom, we stopped at the first gas station we had seen for over 50 miles, sitting alone in the sand, and asked the friendly 20-something in the mini-mart if he had one.
“Sure, I do…but it’s a porta-potty on the side of the highway by the entrance…and most of my customers are alcoholics, so I can’t promise the condition of it is ideal”. There was a large sign above his door that read “Alcoholic beverages cannot be consumed in the parking lot!!”…needless to say, I was desperate. And it wasn’t as bad as he made it sound.
Down the road, Katie had been driving for several hours and her back was going into spasm. Being that we were in the MIDDLE of the desert, we had no place to stop, I looked on the map and saw a TINY town called “Daggett” just over the border into CA, which I found out later is an unincorporated community with a population of about 200 (we went through a lot of towns of this size). Took the exit, but every sign we saw that indicated a store/gas station/community center etc. was coming up ended up leading us to an abandoned site. Most of the town seemed to be boarded up and only scattered trailer-sized homes remained. After driving several miles in (feeling more and more uncomfortable) and passing an Army Marine base, we made a desperate stop at the entrance of a particularly seedy looking mobile-home park with a broken wooden sign. Three seconds later, we had switched seats…Katie rested and I sped back to the highway in a cloud of dust.
The moment the buildings of LA broke through our sandy scenery, our 2 lane highway turned into a 6 lane raceway. Everybody was in a hurry, and everybody really does drive (EVERYBODY). Realized quickly how big a city LA really was. It felt like it took a hundred years to get to West Hollywood (where we were staying) from the time we crossed the LA city border. Saw the Hollywood sign for the first time.
Stayed in the cheapest lodging establishment in the neighborhood, which got horrible reviews but ended up being pretty acceptable to us. We wanted to be in West Hollywood and on Santa Monica Blvd, the epicenter of the gay-borhood, and it’s usually pricy. Bumbly, slightly awkward counter person greeted us through a plexiglass window and checked us in. Motel had free parking, which is a luxury in LA.
Craving a quick bite and a desperately needed beer (drive into the city almost killed me), we walked down the street to Barney’s Beanery because we liked the name. Sipped an icy Blue Moon and got a margarita pizza to go while trying to explain to the guy at the bar next to us why it was that we were from the NY area, rooting against the Yankees and wearing Phillies attire while hanging out in LA. Blew his little mind a bit.
Exhausted as we were, we pumped ourselves up and hit up the bars. West Hollywood is a 2 mile stretch of LA that is WELL known for it’s gay community. Rainbow flags everywhere and several crosswalks painted in rainbow colors. Where am I?? J Had planned to hit up The Abbey which is supposedly the “world’s best gay bar”, but ended up at another super busy club that was on the way (and we walked, *shudder*). LA scene is interesting…people take notice in how they look but sport an “it’s-no-big-deal” attitude…like they rolled out of bed wearing skinny jeans, ankle boots, off-shoulder tops and smoky eye makeup. Friendly in the bathroom line but cliquey in groups of friends. Then again, this was just the impression I got from this one bar. We all know I don’t like to over generalize people. Managed to see 4 girls from our Showtime TV shows (The L Word and The Real L Word) within the first 20 minutes of being there, one of which also played a role in tween drama “Secret Life of the American Teenager” (aka one of katie’s favorite shows). Made. Our. night.
Slept in and ventured off to tourist-filled Hollywood walk of fame, Chinese theater and Dolby theater. Immediately realized that it was like the time square of LA (and I hate walking in time square). Was honestly pretty cool to see it all though. If I have to be touristy somewhere, LA is not the worst place. Scoured the flip-flop-filled pavement for the cemented hand prints of our favorite celebs and agreed that if their palm prints matched ours in size, that it must mean that we are destined to be lifelong friends. We even found Shirley Temple’s square in the pavement…it’s lasted a long time with all the foot traffic! Got a tour of Dolby Theater which is where they host the Oscars. Sat in the 1st level balcony like I was getting my award. I didn’t realize that the place they host the awards and walk the red carpet is located in a simple converted shopping mall…think about it next time you watch! Stopped for delicious farmer’s cheese and raspberry crepes for lunch (Katie got fresh mozzarella and tomato).
Had dinner that night at Café Med (which at the top of a very steep hill, reminiscent of San Fran) as recommended by our USA road trip book (thanks mom!). This place stole my heart when they asked if I would like balsamic vinegar with my French bread and olive oil. Of COURSE I would like balsamic vinegar with my French bread and olive oil 🙂 Penne vodka with perfectly cooked salmon and fresh asparagus. Katie’s usual linguine Vongole. Lots of wine. Went home expecting to chill out a little before hitting up The Abbey…but fell asleep in our dinner clothes with the TV on. One late night out at a time is about our limit on a trip that requires as much driving as this one does! Made it up to ourselves by getting breakfast at The Abbey in the a.m. (they do that!). Waffles with fresh huckleberry preserves, browned butter whipped cream and lemon-maple syrup….oh…my…god. I didn’t think breakfast could be this happy. Plus, our super awesome waitress was from NY and thought our road trip was the shit (which it is). Will miss ya LA…with your beautiful people (they really are, sorry), sunny skies and rainbow sidewalks.
Got to the Grand Canyon by 11am (were only staying 70 miles away) and set up our campsite. Temp was supposed to drop to 32 degrees that night…however, camping=$18 and cheapest lodge still available=$160. We packed layers. Definitely got the luxury suite of campsites…about twice as big as the one we got in Great Smoky Mountains, and less crowded by other sites. Tent building took 5 minutes this time around, ya know, because we’re pros. An elk family wandered through our site and caught us off guard, causing a delay in our ability to get the mattress inflated. Didn’t realize just how big elk really are (about twice the size of dear). We realized later that the campsite inhabitants before us had left a pile of popcorn kernels on the ground by our tent. Scared that we would get more wilderness visitors at night, we quickly scooped it up. Really people, what did you think “don’t feed the wildlife” meant…?
What to say about the canyon itself….it’s definitely overwhelming. You have to see it at least once. It’s so vast that it looks like a painting and not something that’s actually in front of you. If you own a camera with a panoramic lens, do do do bring it with you…because point-and-shoots just don’t do it justice. The sun is also so bright that cameras don’t really capture the multi-colored layers of rock that make it so unique.
Because the thought of hiking to the bottom was so thoroughly hilarious for wilderness rangers like ourselves…we walked along an easy path that skirted the edge and snapped some pictures until we got tired. That night, we had made reservations at a fancy restaurant that sits on the south rim. Didn’t get a window seat, but got one close enough to glance over our shoulders at the sunset. Roast duck with cherry glaze and Katie had NY strip with demi-glace and asiago polenta plus prickly pear cocktails. Hadn’t had a fancy dinner out in a while…ohh how I’ve missed this taste.
Back at our site and we whipped up a campfire so quickly that the people next to us should have felt honored to be in our presence. Uncorked a bottle of wine and sipped it away until the fire gave out. Didn’t get eaten by an elk or scorpion, and didn’t freeze. Wooo!
Bid farewell to the canyon in the a.m. after making friends with a 60 year old lesbian couple taking a morning walk with steaming cups of coffee. They told us that they completed a 5 month cross country road trip the year before, and agreed that trips like this really do let you see the country that you live in in a very special way. I’ve definitely realized how easy it is to get stuck in the culture you grew up around and forget how completely and utterly different every other part of the USA is from the part before it. It’s far more vast and complex than most of us realize, including me (and I’m from NY, the ultimate melting pot).
Could not get the song “Santa Fe” from Rent out of my head, all day. Pulled into the town around dinner time at a Days Inn after Super 8 was booked up (didn’t think that ever happened). Beautiful mountain view from the main road and cool evening temperatures. We were only staying 3 miles from downtown, so we ventured in and had dinner at a high-top bar table at a cute restaurant near the Plaza (main square in downtown surrounded by stores and restaurants). Blackened salmon sliders with chili mayo and homemade chips with queso, salsa, guacamole and chili lime ranch. Yayyyyy tasty food.
Wanted to check out the bar scene in Santa Fe a little, and found that there are limited options for this. Downtown is cute…full of friendly people, guitar players on the corners, little cafes, a FEW bars and beautiful sandy colored architecture. Had a few drinks at bar 1 before checking out the local gay bar (Santa Fe has a fair sized LGBT population, apparently). It was fun and busy, and nice to step into an area where we didn’t have to look over our shoulder at who was gawking at our hand-holding (we spent a lot of time in the south…). Area seemed safe and well lit, and didn’t leave us anxious about walking alone back to our car at the end of the night.
Next morning we went back into town to check out the Indian craft sellers (very big thing in Santa Fe). Beautiful turquoise jewelry displayed on blankets on the ground by family sellers and little tamale trucks for wandering shoppers. Tried to visit a famous church in the square (ahhh can’t remember the name) that had a spiral staircase that was supposedly built by some sort of divine intervention. The story is that the church needed a staircase built and a mysterious carpenter appeared, built a spiral staircase that supposedly defied physics by staying up without any obvious form of support …and then disappeared without being paid or identified. I actually watched the story of this on Unsolved Mysteries when I was 12 years old, so it would have been more than a little cool to see in person. Unfortunately, mass was starting, and we didn’t have time to wait for it to end…so on the road again with just a snapshot of the church door.
Stopped in Flagstaff, AZ for the night before the Grand Canyon in the a.m. Ordered Chinese food and watched TV, nursing my altitude sickness. It’s real, you know…and at 7,000 feet elevation in a little desert town, I noticed the light headedness, physical exhaustion and dehydration more than I expected. No cocktails tonight.
Old historic route 66 spans from Chicago to LA. We decided to make a point to pick it up on our way down in that direction as much as possible. Touristy as it is, it’s still a super interesting piece of history. Route 40 (major highway) runs right along 66, but unlike we thought initially, they are not the same road. Most modern road maps/GPS do not recognize 66 as an actual road (ours did though, on a few occasions)…it winds over and under 40 and goes off into different directions. We found a listing for a Route 66 merchandise shop in Amarillo and made a trip there before starting the drive. The lady behind the counter immediately took interest in our route planning. She was thoroughly bubbly and highly caffeinated. When we mentioned that Albuquerque was our next destination, she replied in shock and disapproval “Ooohhh noooo….you don’t want to go there…there is a LOT of gang violence there…no no, don’t go to Albuquerque! I have friends there who lock their doors by 6pm!”. Now, she may have been more than a bit paranoid when she went on to describe her mortal fear of large cities and in particular, New York and DC…but the picture of doom that she painted about our travel choice was uncomfortable enough to cause us to change our course to Santa Fe, NM. You don’t want to be the one that the little old lady says “I told you so” to. You just don’t. If the phone in the shop hadn’t rang at that point, I think that we may have been there til sunset hearing about the Native American tribal pottery she had for sale and about how her nephew wouldn’t get anymore homemade peach pies if he moved to Manhattan. We left without a legitimate route 66 map (her store name was misleading).
Following the route on an old brochure we had and wikitravel.com, we made our way through several tiny towns that had a mix of operational businesses and abandoned, historic landmarks of the route’s past. At times it was hard to tell which motels and cafes were in fact still open and un-abandoned and which weren’t. Neon displays and original signage made these sites a unique glance into the past.
My favorite parts of 66 were the portions that took you off the freeway, away from towns and into a secret, hidden portion of history. Though it was difficult at times to figure out if you were on the route or maybe just in somebody’s extra long driveway into the middle of the desert…we realized we were spot on when we got to our first abandoned property on an old stretch of the road. We were far enough from the freeway at this point that you couldn’t any longer see it (or much else). We had dipped behind rocky hills and wind-y turns. We rounded the corner to a crumbling home, complete with old fashion rusted pickup truck half sunk into the ground and various sheds and pieces of furniture. We pulled off the road onto some gravel to jump out for a photo and pause a moment to recognize the silence, and the fact that there was nobody (NOBODY) within yelling distance. Mind blowing feeling to be somewhere like that, alone under the sun, on a road that isn’t technically there.
Having Route 40 nearby turned out to be a lifesaver for those times when the skinny side-roads became too much. Pop off the freeway and you come to abandoned gas stations, motels, restaurants, general stores…all of them just sitting there since somebody walked out the door and decided not to come back. They’ll probably be there until they crumble into the dirt. Attempted to find an old town graveyard and church, but 10 miles down a loose-gravel portion of road brought us to a very sharp turn and dip down into a tunnel that was thick with mud and seemed to be unpaved. Made a quick (but tight) U-turn and backtracked the way we came, uninterested in breaking down in a muddy, pitch-black tunnel to who knows where with no cell phone service. Sped past a car going in the direction we had just come from a few miles away, and made a “DON’T GO THAT WAY” gesture, but to no avail. Hope they aren’t still stuck.
Stopped for lunch at a cute 50’s western style diner on a more populated portion of 66 called Joseph’s Restaurant before setting back off. GPS wanted us to continue on 40 until another major road that would take us up to Santa Fe. Picked route 84 (found on paper map, yay!) instead because, at the absolute last minute (3 seconds before the exit) we thought it looked prettier. It cut straight through the mountains in the distance for a ridiculous panoramic view. Nothing in any direction except phenomenal landscapes and smooth pavement. Katie saw her first live tarantula crossing the road. Thank god I missed it…because we might have crashed. Drove past a few lone houses and onto a pre-1937 portion of 66 that house a full-on ghost town…with western-style disintegrating buildings, spanning several blocks of dirt road. Nearly 100 years ago, these exact structures were part of a living, breathing community. You could actually see what their neighborhood looked like. Only downfall of this discovery was a lack of space to pull off on the side of the road for pictures without blocking the only lane of traffic. So we drove on…leaving our little snapshot in time to the dust.
Blazed our way through the rest of Louisiana and into Texas. First stop was Houston, to visit Katie’s good friend Erika. Had planned to potentially find a craw fish restaurant but were told that it was not the best season for such. Decided to grab some bar food and beer at the Blue Moose and surrounding venues, and played some giant jenga and corn hole (game involving tossing bean bags into opponent’s target) and chatted about life until we realized nobody was left at the bar but us (it was Wednesday…).
Next morning we were Dallas bound. Texas is a huge freaking state which we knew would take us several days to cross…so couldn’t dawdle. Have started to notice that I haven’t seen a single non-Texas license plate since crossing the border. According to Erika, Texans are known for being big on family…and many don’t ever leave the area where they grew up. I’m beginning to understand the obsessive “Texas Pride” I keep seeing in the form of bumper stickers and clothing items.
I’ve now been in the state for 2 days and haven’t yet had ribs (an obvious issue), so we picked Sonny Bryan’s from our food book to get dinner. Technically, Sonny Bryan’s is a small chain restaurant popular in the Dallas area. However, the location we picked was the original one, and you’d never in a hundred years know that there was more than one of them. It was small and shack-like with a slightly tacky neon sign hung above, and sat on a quiet stretch of highway next to a liquor store that had some questionable individuals loitering inside. Surprisingly, this is exactly what I wanted…because as I read in my food book, “you won’t find a genuine BBQ pit next to a Pottery Barn”. Inside it had an old-school decor, with vintage signs and single-person wooden tables designed like school desks. Counter person was incredibly friendly and warned us that if we were sharing a platter, we should definitely opt for the “large dinner” and recommended a good local beer to accompany. He found the concept of our road trip incredibly cool, but struggled with trying to understand how we even came across this barely-there BBQ joint. Needless to say, he was thrilled and shocked to hear that they had made the “food book”.
Sat outside at a picnic table with country music playing over an outdoor speaker system. The ribs were everything I thought they would be and more, accompanied by a side of extra BBQ sauce (in an old corona bottle) which dripped with sweet and smoky deliciousness. The meat fell off the bone but had just a touch of charred crunch to counter the juiciness. Perfection. Best thing I’ve tasted this trip.
With no energy for a night out, we crashed and went to the Texas State Fair the next morning. They say that everything is bigger in Texas…and the fair definitely trumped the NJ State Fair by a landslide. Sorry, jerz….the crazy mouse ride was crazier, the ferris wheel was taller and there were more food stands than there are Starbucks in Manhattan. A very abbreviated list of the fried delicacies available to us included: Fried bacon (had it), fried chicken wings, fried oreos, fried snickers, fried lemonade, fried BUTTER, fried sugar cubes, fried cookie dough (had it), fried beer, fried latte, fried caviar (that one confused me more than the others), fried jambalaya, fried cheesecake, fried pineapple upside-down cake, fried PB&J, fried chicken ‘n waffle, and fried bacon cinnamon roll.
We actually saw an ambulance leave with somebody who had just had a heart attack. Swear to god…I wouldn’t joke. Really.
On a quick side note, we saw several lesbian couples at the fair today. Texas lesbians DO exist…amazing!
Next stop Amarillo, TX as a place to sleep before hitting historic Route 66 on Saturday. Never thought I would get as much life experience from a 6 hour drive as I did between Dallas and Amarillo. Got to route 287 N which we rode on for between 200 and 240 miles straight. Went through some moderately sized towns and scattered Walmarts and strip malls before hitting the legitimate middle of nowhere. I thought Mississippi was bad…but it was silly and naive. This was truly nowhere…the fields began and suddenly all signs of life evaporated. Fields in front, behind, left and right. One highway. During the course of this drive, I counted close to 25 “roads”– with signs–that my GPS didn’t think existed…they were largely unpaved and ran off to either side (usually over railroad tracks and off into the horizon and into seemingly nothingness). Stopped reluctantly at a rest stop next to the freeway into eternity…whose sign read “tornado shelter” and “watch for rattlesnakes”. You know I had to pee really badly to avoid passing this one by. Paused for a moment before jumping back in the car to recognize the total and complete SILENCE surrounding us.
Feeding our curiosity further, we started browsing our paper road map to see what towns we would be passing. After going through several tiny towns and several REALLY TINY towns, I started being able to predict the population of an area based on how large a font their town name was in on the map. It became a special sort of road game.
I didn’t know that towns like this were real, and you have to wonder how people end up settling there. Unless you own a thriving cattle farm or ranch, I just can’t fathom the kind of situation that would result in the desire to live in such a vastly isolated world that’s seemingly frozen i time. We passed through more still-inhabited ghost towns than I could name. In several of them, as many as 9 in 10 houses and stores were burned out or boarded up…with scattered ‘active’ businesses in between, shack-like homes made of old wood with dated signs and rusty pickup trucks. I am not lying when I say it felt like I had walked into the year 1900 on more than one occasion…and these places weren’t set up that way for tourist appeal or historic preservation, they were real. The style and make-up looked like something from an old western movie and I half expected to see tumbleweeds and horses in the street. Blink your eyes and the town would end and there would be nothing again for 30 miles…leaving you to wonder if it was even really there in the first place.
Furthermore, scattered along the empty spaces between towns we passed abandoned houses, barns, gas stations, stores and vehicles…many that looked like they had been there for 10 years + and that didn’t seem to belong anywhere, like they were just dropped into a pile and left. Maybe the area is just so absurdly enormous that clearing out these kinds of things just isn’t a priority. A business fails and nobody wants the space, so it becomes part of the nothingness and freezes in time.
A particularly memorable little town was that of Clarendon, Texas…population 2,000 and 3 square miles. In those 3 miles it housed approximately 20 + billboards on lawns and roofs of stores with sayings like “REPENT NOW OR HELL IS IT”, “JESUS IS HERE”, “HEAVEN IS FOR BELIEVERS”, “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU WILL SPEND ETERNITY?”…and a monumentally shocking display that indicated that 9/11 was the act of an angry god (cannot remember exact wording). Sound a little Westboro Baptist Church to you too? The signs were not on private driveways either…they were on the “welcome to Clarendon” signs, general stores, street corners and cafes. And again, the area looked like an old western town…all wood, with dirt roads winding down tiny stretches of sleepy single story homes. It also sported a local motel called “IT’LL DO MOTEL”…can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want to spend the night, but we bid a tearful goodbye as we slammed on the gas and welcomed the empty fields ahead before our skin burned off.
Passing through one last mini town called “Goodnight, Texas” which was unincorporated and had a population of 18 (meaning about 5 houses and no stores, so we almost missed it), and it started to get dark and stormy. Because I like to terrify myself, I started frantically checking weather.com on my phone for tornado warnings (when I could get service…not too many cell phone towers in the Bermuda Triangle). Most of the towns we were passing were too small for weather.com to even recognize, and one report finally indicated that funnel clouds were not likely to reach the ground tonight. Yay. The whole scene looked like the movie Twister just before the little girl’s dad was sucked out of the basement by the storm. The clouds got darker and it was us and our headlights and about 80 miles to go. Racing heart the entire way. No tornado shelters in site…but eventually we saw lights in distance that weren’t coming from semi trucks and Amarillo here we are. Whataburger (southern fast food chain) for dinner and sleeeeeeeeeeeeep in our slightly shady motel with 3 stray cats hanging by the outdoor pool.
Ooooh New Orleans…where do you start with New Orleans? First off, it should go without saying that this place deserved the luxury of the 2-night stay that it was granted. I heard so much about this city before I even crossed the border…good and bad. I made the mistake of googling traveler’s blogs on my smartphone while Katie made the last leg of the drive down route 10 and we hit the water. People seemed really scared of this city. I had heard that if you stayed in the French Quarter and kept yourself aware of your surroundings that all would be well…but post after post told me that I was walking into a war zone where I should expect to be stolen from and harassed in broad daylight. I shutoff my phone and agreed to walk into it with an open mind, but secretly feared that one small misstep would cause a huge stain on our otherwise smooth trip.
On a very quick side note I must mention that we passed through Alabama and Mississippi on our way here. I wish I had more to say about these two destinations…but I was overwhelmed by hundred-mile stretches of road with nothing but one or two lone houses and a handful of hitchhikers. If you count the houses that are boarded up and abandoned, I guess I saw closer to six. We did make one VERY brief stop in a town called Fairfax, Mississippi to use the bathroom at a visitor’s center, and got a free cookie from a very sweet woman behind the desk with a very very thick southern accent. We pretended to browse through brochures for 2 obligatory minutes.
Once the highway hit the water on our way into New Orleans, I realized quickly one of the reasons why the flooding was so awful during Katrina. The water sat just under the major highway into the city. Not 15 or 20 feet below it…closer to 5 or 10. It looked like it wouldn’t take much of anything for it to rise over the road. Once we got inside, we were welcomed by hundreds of single-story homes. Great protection for high winds and other hurricane-like conditions…but an obvious death trap for rising waters. Saw a lot of homes that looked like they were still in major disrepair from the storm. I can’t lie and say that the outlying neighborhoods in New Orleans did not meet up with some of the reading I had done. They looked rough and run down. However, I only drove through…I’m no expert. I can’t pass judgment.
Just inside the French Quarter and the streets got thinner and were largely one-ways. Not all stop signs are honored by locals, but luckily you can’t drive very fast. Dropped our luggage and got directions to a garage with 24 hour security (as recommended) by our fantastically friendly desk man. Parking was about 6 blocks away, on the street I had read should serve as the border between streets-you-walk-on and streets-you-DON’T-walk on. Also, fairly accurate…but still acceptable enough to venture on in order to make it back to our room. Stayed at Inn on St. Peters, which was quintessential New Orleans. Small, homey, wrapped in a thin and slightly slanted metal balcony with mini round tables and chairs along the edges. First floor hid a private courtyard for guests with slate tiles on the ground and a wind-y staircase. Our room was shockingly nice for 79 bucks a night. Small, but furniture and bathroom decor looked brand new and very modern.
Changed clothes like lightning and headed outside (it was 8 already). Since the free WIFI in the room had fallen short, we headed off to Bourbon street (major nightlife-type area) to wander and find food. The 2.5 blocks between our Inn and Bourbon were surprisingly quiet. Very few people were out and about and for a minute the New Yorker in me kicked in and I insisted we walk on the side of the block without parked cars so that nobody could jump out at us without warning. In hindsight, I was only slightly paranoid. The whole area is actually beautiful. As Katie said, it really does remind you of Paris…buildings are short and sit close together, and the architecture is unique and quaint. Most buildings have at least one decorated metal balcony that wraps around the entirety of the building. Many are wound with decorative vines and flowers. Almost every little brownstone-esque building is a different color than the one next to it, and many are doused in neon pink, green, purple or blue. Hidden between tiny apartment buildings and 200 year old inns are tiny shops with Mardi Gras masks.
Turn the corner to Bourbon and BOOOM it was like the city woke up and I instantly understood where ALL the people were. Flashing lights, signs, stores, restaurants, bars, PEOPLE…everywhere. It was Monday night. We meandered past several dozen daiquiri & hurricane drink-to-go stands and bars with live music and open doors. The music was less country and more blues-y than Nashville, with a more diverse assembly of instruments (saxophones, etc.). Just down a quiet side street we had dinner at Oceana. I had turtle soup and red fish with mushroom Creole sauce, and Katie had a dozen super-sized oysters (which cost 12 bucks in the French Quarter) and I’m-gonna-die-kuz-they’re-so-good-crabcakes. Oh. My. God. I figured “when in Rome” when it came to the turtle soup…but it was super delicious, especially given that I had NO expectations going into the whole situation (can you imagine what it would taste like? Because I couldn’t). Closest thing I can compare it to is chili…but not nearly as thick and with much tastier seasoning. Tangy rather than spicy, and the turtle meat (I’m serious) was mild and tender. I would eat turtle soup again, def.
Did I mention that you can drink on the streets of New Orleans? Open container laws permit alcohol outside as long as it’s not in a glass bottle. Due to this fact, bars keep stacks of clear plastic cups by all their doors, so you can transfer your drink and go on your way. Cab drivers don’t even blink when you bring your sloshing cups of booze into their backseats. I haven’t been this excited about a drinking ordinance since I realized I could drink legally in the Bahamas when I was 18.
I could easily see how late nights can turn into early mornings. Bars open when they want and close when they want. If nobody’s around, they might close. If they are, it could be daylight before that happens. It’s busy and touristy, as we figured…but not NEARLY as aggressive and intense as we had also heard. Yeah, people stand outside bars with big signs and try to real you in with promises of cheap beer and a good time. There are more strip clubs than you’d expect, sandwiched between fancy restaurants and blues clubs, and a few handfuls of special characters staggering around…who may have hit the bottle a little too hard, a little too early…but who appear largely harmless in the scheme of things. I found South Beach, Miami to be 10X more aggressive and that doesn’t get nearly as much negative hype.
Walking home also felt surprisingly safe. While it’s mildly deserted on non-major streets at night, the few people you do see scattered about are late-night dog walkers or 20-something locals heading home. Streets are peaceful and charming, lit by candle-filled lanterns hanging from corner bars to guide you back to bed.
Day two was spent scoping out the areas of the French Quarter that didn’t offer 2-for-1 Kamikazes. Had super tasty breakfast at a café by the Mississippi river that may or may not have included a fancy cocktail. Wandered past street vendors selling handmade paintings by the park and walking tours largely populated by the 70+ crowd. At night, we joined a 2 hour ghost and history tour that tuned us into the darker side of New Orleans history. Didn’t realize how old the area was or that much of the buildings and architecture we were seeing was original to the 1700s and 1800s (or how much brutal murder and warfare happened on the streets we spent our time spilling our vodka tonics on every night). There was even a bar that stood for 250 years, was still actively functioning, and never had inside lighting installed. If you want a beer after dark, you get it by candlelight. Pretty sweet. Also got a tip about a genuine French Patisserie which has its employees come in at 4:30am to bake fresh croissants. Have the almond one.
Decided for our evening boozing that we would explore Frenchman street, the slightly milder and less tourist littered side of the nightlife. Just outside the French quarter which means we officially broke the DON’T LEAVE THE FRENCH QUARTER rule. Still have my wallet and phone, cheers to me.
This area was more of what I expected the city to be. More soulful, more cozy. More diverse. Spotted Cat was our first bar which contained swing dancing and modeled a fully functional grand piano in the girls bathroom, for no apparent reason. Our cab driver scratched his head as he left us there, going “why is it called the spotted cat?? Hahaha…” Couldn’t tell ya, but the swing dancing wowed me as I swirled into another late night ending in pizza at 2am. The pizza sauce is unusually sweeter in New Orleans, p.s.
Leaving the big easy wasn’t easy. The city is something really special, and it has a lot of layers to get through before really seeing all you need to see. I could have spent a week there (my liver couldn’t, but I could) finding hidden local spots and falling in love with it the way that the locals seem to have. It’s lively and artistic, overflowing with history. I can see why the horrible events of Katrina must have taken so much from it that it once had. The French Quarter is inland and was not as decimated from the storm as everywhere else. However, the area is largely stores and restaurants…meaning that the hugely residential area that “protected” it from the water was taken out completely. What good is it to have businesses alive and well when nobody any longer has a home? New Orleans is famous for its culture which is passed along by its locals. Take away the livelihood of those locals, and you threaten an entire history of culture. It’s rebuilt itself though and despite the serious crime that I know still rages in its outlying sections, the fear and hype that I read about was not reinforced by my experiences.
To be honest, I was floored by how inaccurate a lot of those “warnings” were. If a few inebriated and verbally expressive locals in an otherwise decent area meant I should be terrified to be outside, than I guess I’ve been living on the edge my entire life. I think that if you don’t like the locals (and understand that a few bad seeds do not represent the majority) then maybe you shouldn’t be a tourist. People like to fear, but they forget to look at the big picture. This is a beautiful city with a supremely fascinating history that experienced a tragedy like most of us will NEVER have to. We have to appreciate the culture that’s been built back up from rubble as nothing short of heroic, and open our eyes a little before we pass judgment based on what we think we know. We need to respect and honor the people who made the city into something we so badly seek to experience.
Hit the bottle (just a little) hard while getting ourselves acquainted with Nashville nightlife. Sleeping in was glorious…so by the time we dragged ourselves out of our slumber semi-coma, we needed breakfast. At 12:30pm on a Sunday, everybody needs breakfast. Found The Loveless Café in my Roadfood book and made the 20 minute drive to check it out. The book (and café) claims to be in Nashville, but it’s definitely far outside the city and nestled into residential neighborhoods near the freeway. At 1:15pm, we still had a 45 minute wait for a table. We read that you can wait up to 2.5 hours if you try to go early on a Sunday morning, so I guess it could have been worse. Checked out the adorable “hams and jams” store next door while we waited, which sold jalapeno BBQ bacon by the pound. Oh my god.
The café is super famous for it’s country ham and biscuits. I’m not a big fan of ham, but this was like nothing I’d ever tasted. Country ham is super salty, which is the key. The salt brings the smokiness and tanginess front and center, for a flavor sucker punch you’d never think you could get from ham, ever. I can never eat ham outside of the south again. Now the biscuits are an item I could probably live on for a solid month or more. Butter…flake…sweet…hint of salt. Add homemade blackberry jam and that’s it. Who needs eggs and bacon? Kidding, obviously…those were bangin too.
Last night out in Nashville was full of blues clubs, honkey tonks and homey live music stops. Dictionary time…a “honkey tonk” is basically a bar that plays live country music. They’re loud and bustling but not in the same way we’re used to with traditional nightclubs. You can still talk to people around you without screaming. It’s not unusual to see people eating dinner and then shifting to dancing and drinking in the same location an hour later. Dinner, by the way…consisted of fried pickles, fried catfish, fried chicken fingers, fried sweet potatoes and beer. And I’m not even in Texas yet…
Another notable feature of Nashvillians was the meeting-people-in-a-bar etiquette. If a guy wants to talk to you, he starts a conversation and asks you if you would like to dance rather than just jumping in…the approach is much less threatening than I am used to. Not to sound old fashion, but it’s a little more like being courted than being hit on. And when you say no, it’s generally not taken too hard. Dancing, as well, is upbeat and friendly. There are steps involved that I would need to learn before jumping in, but the atmosphere seemed pretty amenable to newbies.
In summation, while in Tennessee:
DO: Watch out for pieces of car tires on the road (there are a lot). Eat country ham, biscuits and anything with BBQ sauce. Drink sweet tea. Wear boots. Be friendly. See as much live music as possible.
DON’T: Expect un-fried food that is easily accessible or at any popular restaurant. Drive less than 70mph on the big freeways, you’ll just look silly.
Saturday took us from the fascinating silence and open air of the smokies to the heart of downtown Nashville and it only took one time zone to get us there. Because we couldn’t reasonably leave the area without doing some sort of walking activity, we picked a mile-long hike that ended in a pretty waterfall. It was fairly easy, so we strolled and munched on mini cereals. I had to be careful not to drop any, due to the fact that I managed to develop an unhealthy paranoia of bear attacks in my short mountain stint. Clearly, it’s reasonable to believe that bears’ super spider-man like senses would instantly detect the smell of 3 honey nut cheerios being crushed beneath the sneaker of a careless hiker. That’s clearly normal thinking.
We made a last minute decision to go zip-lining before getting back on the road. The journey commenced at the bottom of a long gravel road, where an employee scooped us up in a big pickup truck (which we road in the back of, on a plank of wood…Katie was extremely pleased with this arrangement). Zip-lining was Katie’s plan, but she was probably the most apprehensive of anybody in our group (and we had 3 small children with us). Our instructor learned we were coming from NJ and lovingly deemed us “jersey shore” for the remainder of our excursion. For a first zip-lining experience, this was absolutely the place to be…flying through wide open air, above the trees, hanging from a single cord. Turn to one side and you have a ridiculous view of the mountains from an angle you never expected to see them from. It catches you off guard, enough so that you forget for a minute that you are gliding thousands of feet above sea level in pure zippy freedom. If any of you ever go…put aside your fear for a moment and don’t forget to look to your side at that view. You might not ever get it again.
Saturday night brings us into Nashville. Since hotels right in downtown ran about $160-$230 a night and ¾ of them were booked, we opted for the $50 Econolodge just off the highway which promised a cab fare of just $12 to get downtown (which was accurate). Even with round-trip cab fare, this worked out pretty well for our wallets.
I have to say, I was totally blown away by how much fun I had this first night out. Nashville, for lack of a more articulate explanation, was the sh*t. Guidebooks told us to try 2nd Ave and Broadway for good nightlife. There were so many bars to choose from we didn’t know where to look first. Every place had live music. Every place had dancing. Every place had friendly, energetic people who had no reservations about starting conversations with strangers and that came off surprisingly un-threatening. My NYC mindset has taught me to be skeptical of the intentions of people I don’t know. I realized quickly that if I didn’t want to appear like a fish out of water that I would have to adhere by the concept of “when in Rome”. When in Nashville, be friendly and take it easy, simple as that.
Since we hadn’t had dinner yet, We ordered ourselves some chicken fingers at our first bar coated in the most amazing BBQ sauce I’ve had to date (surprisingly, meals have been more rushed than expected on our trip so far…with so much to do, and so much moving about, my appetite is not what it usually is). The bar was located on the historic “printer’s alley” and the band that was playing ranged in age from mid-20’s to mid-60’s…as did the patrons of most of the bars on that strip (another unique identifier of Nashville). I have to take a moment to recognize the keyboard player in this group…whose grey hair danced around his shoulders in a frenzy as he tore up his keyboard like he was playing for a crowd of 10,000. We couldn’t stop watching, and I think we both wished secretly that we could feel that passionately about any one thing…so incredibly animated that he looked like he might just burst.
We hopped from bar to bar (Mylie Cyrus’ uncle was playing at bar #2) til the early morning hours, then poured ourselves into a cab and back “home” for an impromptu country music dance session in our room. The Nashville experience is something you have to see for yourself, because if you think you know how it will be, you could easily be mistaken. Cowboy boots outnumber flip flops, and pants are “britches”, but music is the culture. Dancing is meant to be silly and carefree and without any stringent rules. You will hear dozens of songs that everybody in the room knows the words to except you. You will get over it…it’s worth feeling a little out of place…even for somebody like me who always likes to know my surroundings and know what to expect. You can tell who is a native from a mile away, but it welcomes those who aren’t. And a genuine welcome is a rare, unappreciated gesture in today’s world that really ought to be given a little more attention.
One more day of music city tomorrow…time to sleep in late for once. That’s become a rare experience!
Mountain-bound, we plugged “blue ridge parkway” into the GPS and got ourselves back onto our 40MPH whirlwind of a road (but not before passing a giant billboard on the lawn of a store that said “Virginia is Romney/Ryan Country”…and contemplating what exactly we had gotten ourselves into). Realizing that taking this route all the way to our campground would get us in somewhere around midnight, we opted for the freeway after a 20 minute attempt. Did I mention, though, that there are gas stations ON the mountain? It’s the strangest experience to come around a steep bend with a thousand foot drop-off and crumbling rocks and boom, gas pump. Nifty, but odd.
Rolled into Great Smokey Mountains around 5:30, after driving through the surprisingly thriving town that borders it. Did you know that there are a HUNDRED of things to do in Gatlinburg, Tennessee? Because I didn’t. Mini-theme parks, zip-lining, horseback riding, bright flashing lights surrounding show-themed restaurants that looked a little like the Vegas of the south. Passed several gun shops, a bible outlet mall and the steepest road I’ve ever driven on ever in my life ever, and we were camping.
We’re not terribly outdoors-y, and we don’t like spiders. So, camping makes sense (hah). Not only that, but we managed to pitch a tent AND build a fire (with starter fluid, a tiny rainbow lighter and newspaper that was donated to us by a 4-year-old boy in the campsite next door). I dropped 3 hotdog rolls into the ash before I was done with that situation.
The mother of the generous 4-year-old introduced herself to us and struck up conversation. When it came to us explaining the concept of our trip, she was confused…to say the least. Didn’t seem to understand why anybody would want to see a different place every 2 days, or even every week. Her tone shifted from interested to skeptical, bordering judgmental. Considering the bottomless pit of friendliness and hospitality we had experienced thus far in Tennessee, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when she said she wasn’t from Florida.
As I mentioned, I’m not a camper…but this had to be the perfect time of year to camp. It was mil d during the day and crisp and cool at night, keeping the bugs to a minimum. After card playing and mix-drink sipping by flashlight, we fell asleep to the sounds of the forest. Occasional gusts of wind would woosh through the layers of trees and cause them to shake their leaves onto our tent in a frenzy that sounded like rainfall. And despite the warning signs to NEVER LEAVE FOOD OUT, we didn’t get eaten by a bear…holler.
So, first couple days flew by in a frenzie with very (very) little downtime. I’m a little behind on these entries, so I’ll break them up and start off with what I had planned to jot down after day one…
Day one started bright and early with large coffees and a GPS set simply for “Roanoke, VA”, our stopover before great smoky mountains. The details of our exact destination were worked out en route. Our car was heavy with luggage, snacks, camping equipment and a bottle of birthday grey goose (this was a non-negotiable item). After several hours, we ventured off the highway and into a little town called Fairfax to take a break. I learned during my brief stint in this town that in Virginia there is a substantial gap of time between traffic lights turning green and cars actually moving forward, and nobody seems particularly phased. We were definitely not in NY anymore.
Our primary “activity” for this day was going to be a drive down Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway which, according to our nifty guidebooks, were some of the prettiest drives in the US. A drive down a nice road may not sound like the most exciting way to spend the first leg of a long adventure, but we are on a budget, and in a hurry.
Before blue ridge, we stopped for lunch at an adorable, old fashion, quaint little diner called “Southern Kitchen”, which was mentioned in not one, but TWO of my where-to-eat-on-the-road books. I figure that this must mean that somebody writing one of these books actually ate there. We had fried chicken, mashed potatos, honey glazed carrots and peanut soup. Peanut soup. Not as weird as it sounds…while initially concerned about it’s thinned-out, liquid peanut butter-like texture…the onions and spices managed to counter the peanut flavor for a unique soup-eating experience. Now…the fried chicken was like christmas morning on a plate. It sounds like a stereotype that fried chicken is better in the south…but…it is. It’s just better…and the crispy, savory, juicy combo of sensations I experienced while biting in left me in grease heaven. Arteries, get ready, this isn’t the end.
After getting directions from one of the friendly waitresses at Southern Kitchen, we made our way to Shanendoah National Park, where we entered Skyline Drive. I have to note that we found this WITHOUT using our GPS. Let that thought marinade for a moment. $15 gets you into the park and onto the drive, and is worth every penny. Up the mountain we go, with dozens and dozens of overlooks on the side of the road where you can pull in and take pictures. If you ever take this drive…I recommend stopping at about every 1 in 3 overlooks. Less, and you may miss a nice angle…more, and you will be sick of pretty mountains faster than you ever thought you could be sick of pretty mountains.
The view was out of this world. I’m big on nice views…and it’s just one of those things a camera can’t show. You have to see it, and you have to appreciate that there are still things in this world that can take your breath away.
By the end of Skyline Drive, we realized just how much longer it takes to drive on mountains than on highways (especially highways with 70 MPH speed limits). We entered Blue Ridge Parkway, but didn’t stay on long for fear of getting stuck up there after dark…there are no lights, super wind-y turns without warning, and no guard rails (well, I think I saw one…I think). I felt like I was on “Ice Road Truckers”. Before exiting, we passed one lone bicyclist who looked like he was between 60 and 65 years old. Nothing says instant awesome like biking up a road so steep that it even made my car tired. You go, dude.
By the time we got to our $50 motel room (which, in Roanoke, VA buys you a king size bed, couch, fridge and microwave…but sits next to a terrifying little graveyard called “Old Lick Cemetery”), we had been traveling for about 12 hours. Halfway through the trip we had all these plans for where we were going out to dinner and what we were going to see. 12 hours later, it was ramen noodles and a 6-pack of magic hat from a 7/11. Never. Tasted. Better.
Slight hiccup in our plans. Back in NJ for the night…long story…wont get into complexities right now. But early tomorrow morning we set off again. Ultimate destination is Great Smokey Mountains, but will likely stop somewhere around Roanke, VA (total trip is about 11.5 hours, and no amount of espresso will make that feasible in one shot). This is the official start of the cheap-motel-we-book-on-the-spot phase of our trip…wish us luck, and will away potential bedbugs with your magic powers. Please.
Washington DC was nice start to our lil adventure. Parked and found our way to the Metro and downtown all by ourselves like big kids (despite being totally confused by the metro ticket…fyi, it’s not like New York, and you can’t share cards…big no-no. Also, don’t ride the escalator down on the left side if you plan to just stand there and not walk…another no-no). Visited the holocaust museum and american museum of history and took some pics by the monument…in between which we got stuck in a little souvenir shop when the skies opened up and down poured like the Apocalypse was here. Souvenir shop workers joked about how this might be a good time to put a sign out from stating that they sold umbrellas. Considering my phone was blaring a “flood warning imminent” message in my face for 20 minutes…I think it’s safe to say we were a little beyond umbrellas. My shoes are still soaked a day later.
Stayed with my aunt and had an amazing dinner which included cheese tasting, champagne, steak and atlantic char, and a really tasty red wine that I would have never been able to pick out myself. I’m just starting to get really familiar with white wines…one step at a time. But as any of you know who know me…food is my thing. I get so incredibly excited by meals that it should be illegal. I get far more excited about where we’re going to eat than what attractions we’re going to see or where we’re going to stay. However…I write this as I am eating a giant tub of cheeseballs from Target and drinking a Coors Light. Nobody is perfect.
Pray for the same AMAZING luck we’ve had with weather and traffic and not getting lost for our driving endeavors tomorrow. If that luck runs out…we have a starbucks card and a long highway full of service areas to make up for it.