Just a week ago, we got back from our 31-day trip seeing our own country. I’ve been holding off blogging on it because frankly, getting it all in print, is intimidating! How do you write up a trip on which every day was a mind-blowing adventure? Eventually, I’m sure I’ll get it in, pictures and all, but here’s a very encapsulated highlight, just so other blog entries I throw in from now may make sense.
Salt Lake City is really the only place of note in the great western mountain wilderness. We were surprised to find a freeway system as large as we might find in L.A., but with only a fraction of the traffic. We saw my friend Becky, who recently moved to a suburb of the city (after being in San Jose; Zurich, Switzerland; and Danville.) She had a gorgeous new house, but swore the wholesome people around her had no Californian jokes.
The air was so clean and clear in Idaho, it made us dizzy and giddy, like too much oxygen at an oxygen bar.
I came to the horrible realization of how Euro-centric I am when I couldn’t keep myself from comparing the geysers in Yellowstone National Park to those in Iceland. Peter mocked me mercilessly for pronouncing geyser in the Icelandic way (geiser), until I clenched my teeth and said it like the proper Amurican I am (guy-sur). For the record, the geysers in Yellowstone National Park are better than the Icelandic ones, and a lot more accessible as well. Plus, the ones in Yellowstone have bison and deer: all you’ll see in Iceland is racks of drying fish.
The people in South Dakota were so unbelievably friendly, I think we would have been invited in to someone’s home for pie and coffee if we’d stayed longer: or if Peter hadn’t so intently freaked them out. When I was praising the clear skies (which allowed me and Neil to see the Milky Way clearly for the first time) and clean air to one of them, Peter had to come in and talk about oxygen bars, and how much I liked going to them. So, once again, we Californians established ourselves as weirdos to the rest of the country.
Mount Rushmore is spectacular, though my pop-culture mind kept putting it into the context of National Treasure. We didn’t take the walk into the mountain because we needed to get to Minnesota the same day.
Wall Drug was everything its roadside signs for 50 miles in promised it would be: one of the best roadside stops you’d ever want to be at. Kelly rode a jackalope, Neil saw a “live” Tyrannosaurus Rex, and I had a 5-cent cup of coffee. And we all enjoyed the free ice water.
Kelly found her first BFF in Edina, Minnesota, who luckily was the daughter of Peter’s longtime friends, the Whalens. Then Peter took me to his old Minnesota neighborhood and discovered his hated junior high school no longer exists. Al Franken is running for Minnesota Senate, and will probably win, because of that same dry Scandinavian wit that also brought “The Body” Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone onto the national scene.
In Neilsville, Wisconsin, we met Chatty Belle the Talking Cow, though we had to pay 50 cents to hear her talk.
In Iola, Wisconsin, Comic Buyers’ Guide‘s Maggie Thompson showed us her priceless collection of comics and science fiction book. I got to touch a first-edition, asbestos-cover, autographed copy of Fahrenheit 451. I am not worthy.
In Madison, Wisconsin, we showed Neil and Kelly were we were married on Lake Mendota. They were far more impressed by the animated toys and toy tables at Ella’s Deli.
We saw the best science museum ever, the Museum of Industry & Science in Chicago before rushing the children through a whirwind tour of the Art Institute (look! Nighthawks! Look! American Gothic! Look! A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of Grand Jette! before meeting Peter’s younger brother at The Billy Goat, and then gaping at the Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.
That night we got to stay at Carl Tietz’ house in central Michigan, which was a real treat after living in motel rooms. In the morning, he led us around his rural 9-acre estate, which included wild deer and a pond.
Thanks to our neighbor Tony overnight our passports to us, I got to see Canada for the first time, along the peninsula between Michigan and New York. Sadly, I was not impressed.
It was pouring rain when we were in Niagara Falls. The waterfalls were every bit as spectacular as promised, and we walked between Canada and the U.S. admiring them lit up at night.
In western Massachusetts, I showed my children my alma mater. I left a note (yes, in Russian) for the professors in the Russian department, who were undoubtedly sleeping off their hangovers.
Conveniently, most of my college friends have congregated in the Boston area, so I got to see them over the weekend. On Monday morning, Neil was delighted to meet with the Scratch creators at the MIT Media Lab. He loved MIT, so we’d better start saving our pennies, and hope he keeps keen on his math and computer science.
We saw the Statue of Liberty then tried to take in as much Manhattan as we could in an afternoon. Thanks to a Microsoft promotion, Peter got his face on a billboard in Times Square. As Project Runway fans we were delighted to find Mood Fabrics. And at every pore, on every floor, the city bustled with people, from obvious models to disaffected street artists.
We got within inches of the Liberty Bell and saw Independence Hall in Philadelphia and I had a real Philly cheese steak, which even at a random place, was one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had.
At Peter’s parents’ place in Gettysburg, we had the relief of being able to decamp for a few days. The showed us a potato chip factory and pretzel factory in nearby Hanover, which is apparently the snack food capitol of the U.S. And Gettysburg National Park is impressively well done: a tour of the museum gives you a more thorough understanding of the Civil War than any public school class or even movie could do. And on our last day there, Neil celebrated his 11th birthday by playing mini-golf on an impressively unique course in the town.
Peter’s sister put us up for a few days in Frederick, Maryland, which we used as a base to see Washington, DC. On the first day, we saw monuments in the great mall, from the Washington Monument to the World War II monument and the Lincoln Memorial, which a statue of John Paul Jones in between. We looked for the crazies in front of the White House, but they were at a minimum, probably because it was a weekend. The next day, we took in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the National Archives with the original Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights (and other significant documents right in public display), as well as the impressive Spy Museum. To our delight and surprise, we found free parking each day, and the weather was spectacular, with the sun glistening off the Potomac, and a route from Maryland that took us through Parkland.
When Peter couldn’t contact a friend of his in Atlanta, we decided to blow down the East Coast to Disney World, but we were still caught up in a tacky tourist spot called South of the Border in South Carolina. We drove into Savannah, Georgia to buy discount amusement park tickets, and I loved the beauty of the place, even though we never did get to the famous downtown part.
We’d originally planned to spend one day on Orlando, Florida, and we ended up spending 4, one extra day because a server at work blew up and Peter frantically spent a day trying to fix it. Orlando is like amusement park central, and just from our place we had more than enough to do. With Peter, we saw Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Hollywood Studios; as well as both Universal Studios Parks. And while Peter had a bad work day, the children and I were able to walk to Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Wonderworks from our inexpensive hotel. What surprised me most of all, though, was how many British tourists the area attracted: it’s a popular package deal and British families were clearly happy to take advantage of the hot weather and weak dollar.
Because of the geographic distance and the 20-year gap between us, I get to see my brother Russ only rarely. This time I got to see him at his new home in Defuniak Springs, Florida, and we had such a great time with him and his wife (who made us a spectacular homecooked feast), I do wish we lived closer, so we could see each other more often.
Russ warned us about New Orleans, where he’d moved from after Hurricane Katrina: it was pit of decay, corruption, and neglect, plain and simple. Peter and I surmised that of all the billions of dollars poured into the place after the hurricane, it’s obviously all been embezzled. Luckily, Russ had also advised us to have beignets at Cafe du Monde, and those were great.
From New Orleans, we drove to Austin, Texas, were my friend Shelly lives. We had amazing barbecue on the way there and there, and I’ve been immortalized with one of my favorite Austin Landmarks, the Talking Oil Rig, on her podcast.
Our next destination was Roswell, New Mexico, and we wonder whether it was coincidence or real alien interference that caused an electrical failure in our car just as we reached the outskirts of town. We had a great dinner in a truly fun, funky restaurant that could have been the inspiration for the one in the Roswell TV show. Unfortunately, our efforts to get the car repaired, which required us to go to Albuquerque, meant we had to miss out on the UFO Museum. What secrets did the aliens not want me to discover?!
We seriously only popped in for a peak and the Grand Canyon, and left. It was spectacular, but by this time, we were ready to go home. We were delayed on our journey, however, by a group of Japanese girls, who wanted us to pose with them, for multiple pictures in each and every one of their cameras. To be fair to the Japanese girls, we were also trapped on the way out by Bedrock City.
I was happy to see my friend Chris, who also let us stay at her house in Las Vegas. Neil and Peter went out to see the Blue Man Group, while Kelly bonded with Chris’ daughter, and Chris and her husband and I had deep intellectual discussions about Chinese gulags. Hey, we all have our thing.
We arrived home on Sunday night, in time for Kelly to go back to school early the next morning, and for a dazed, quick run into Halloween. There’s much more to say about the trip, and over the next few months, I hope to get to it.
Hi, I loved reading about you 31-day vacation. I’m looking to take a 21-day in about 2 months and along some of the same routes you took. I am hoping that you can give me more insight as what to expect from traveling for longs periods of time, and what places are worth spending a few more days at. Please e-mail me.
cjb comments: I can’t email you directly, nor do I have any tips that would help you specifically. Even if you copy me, it’ll be your adventure! IMHO, we could have hoped for more time in every place (except New Orleans.) Just plan your route, and go: if you have to, you can change it on the fly, especially if you can travel off-season when hotel rooms are easier to get.