Michigan’s UP and Minnesota

Saying goodbye to the Powers Island, a place Liz has always loved and I grew to love over the week, we hit the road again. Back to the United States. We entered the US through Michigan’s upper peninsula, stopping to pick up two cases of Alexander Keith at the duty-free shop in Sault Saint Marie.

One last Canadian sunset

The next morning, we drove across the UP on our way to my Aunt Susan and Ed’s house, where we would be spending a few days. I always forget how big the peninsula is; the drive from Sault Saint Marie, on the far east side, to Hancock, in the northwest, took a solid five hours.

Beautiful drive across the UP

The days spent in Houghton/Hancock were jam packed with exciting activities. The first day, after setting up our trailer in my aunt’s yard, we headed up to Ed’s cabin on Lake Superior for grilled steaks and a hike overlooking the lake. The next day, Ed, Susan, and I went mountain biking in the morning. Getting back on a trail after such a long time was a little intimidating at first, but I eventually found my groove. As we got back from biking, we noticed a swarm of bee’s leaving one of their hives. After tracking down their landing spot, Ed got out the chainsaw and cut a few small trees down to get to the swarm and move it into a new hive box. That night, we went on a hike up Mount Baldy and picked a few handfuls of wild blueberries before dinner at the picturesque, lakeside Fitzgerald’s Hotel & Restaurant. I couldn’t have asked for a better end to our already wonderful vacation.

So many bees!

Monday, it was back to work. Hancock had a nice local coffee shop, Cyberia, where we camped out in their loft during the day. Tuesday was our last full day in the UP and we spent that night in Houghton with Susan and Ed. We had a great time during our short visit and are glad we’ll have another opportunity to see more of the area when we return to backpack in Isle Royale.

Wednesday afternoon, Liz and I packed up and drove to Duluth, MN. Our campground was situated on top of a ski resort, and, while it was closed for the summer, we rode an alpine coaster they built down the hillside.

Duluth Harbor

Early Saturday morning, we headed north to Voyageurs National Park. Our primary source of Nation Park research comes from “Your Guide to the National Parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald. For the most part it’s an excellent resource, with maps, recommended hikes, activities, and campground information. The book also offers “best and worst of” lists that offer guidance on the best parks for backpacking, beaches, biking, ect. One list, titled “Do Not Detour For”, should be revised though. The parks that make the cut (or don’t really) include Hot Springs, Biscayne, Cuyahoga Valley (sorry Ohio), Saguaro, Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic, and, yes, Voyageurs.  While I can see an argument for Cuyahoga Valley and certainly Biscayne – I don’t for Voyageurs. Liz and I had a great time!

This view is worth detouring for

Saturday morning, we picked up a canoe from a local rustic resort and paddled 5 miles across the lake to Kabetogama Peninsula. From there, we backpacked back about a mile and setup our tent at another, smaller, lake on the peninsula. While canoeing we only saw a small handful of other boaters and, on the peninsula, we were only accompanied by wildlife – including a fawn and doe that wandering by our tent a few times. I’d highly recommend the park for anyone looking for nature and solitude. My only advice would be to come prepared for bugs while not on the lake – lots and lots of bugs. We were able to keep them at bay with a campfire we kept going throughout the day though.

Sunday morning, we paddled back to the parks visitor center, ready for the next leg of our journey – the first state I hadn’t been to before our trip – North Dakota.

Utah To Ohio

Moab, the self-proclaimed mountain biking mecca, located in the Utah desert, is not a hotbed of wireless hotspots. The small desert town that hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year may be known for its outdoor recreation but finding a decent place to put in an eight-hour work day proved to be its greatest challenge. For starters, the town is distinctly deficient of a Starbucks – our go-to office on the go. Instead we resorted to hoping between laundry mat, crowded local coffee shops, and the campground provided Wi-Fi, which, while quick enough to work for, had a nasty habit of disconnecting every 8 minutes, leaving us to reconnect to the company VPN. While connecting to the VPN is generally trivial – doing so every few minutes quickly becomes cumbersome.

Looking for wifi

Besides seeking out the town’s Wi-Fi options, we visited the Moab Brewing Company and one of the two local national parks – Arches. Arches is home to the iconic Delicate Arch along with over 2000 other natural stone arches. Unfortunately, most of the parks roadways were under construction, so we were limited to the parks front half. Still, I think I was able to get a good sense for the whole park with the small handful of short hikes we did after work.

Delicate Arch

We will most likely make it back to Moab again during our trip to hit up Canyonlands National Park. We just felt as though there simply wasn’t enough time to do the park justice since we were on a mission to get back to Ohio by Memorial Day. Hopefully they’ll build a Starbucks in the meantime.

Driving through the Utah desert

After spending the work-week in Moab, we headed toward Golden, Colorado – home of Coors Light – to visit my college roommate Mark “Wildcard” Ferris. On the way, we had to cross the Rocky Mountains just after a late-May snowstorm had shut down much of I-70 the day before. Seeing Veil covered in snow while the lodges and slopes remained empty (closed for the season) made me want to stay and find a way to ski the mountains alone. But we drove on. While in Golden for the weekend, we made time for a jazz festival, a board game parlor with more old college friends, and a snow-covered hike at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

Blizzard in the Rockies

Our next planned stop was nearly a thousand miles away, in Des Moines, Iowa to visit Liz’s brother Matt. On the way, we slept in Walmart parking lots on both sides of Nebraska – working in the morning and driving in the evenings. In Des Moines, Matt treated us to the local cuisine – some of the best on our trip up to this point. We also got a tour of the Dimond bike shop where he works as the head engineer designing and manufacturing high-end bicycles.

At a Des Moines Cubs game

On Saturday came the final leg of our first lap of the states – an eleven-hour drive from Des Moines to Canton Ohio. In under 5 months we drove 15,000 miles, visited 22 states and 12 National Parks, bought our new home on wheels, spent 2 nights in the hospital, and crossed countless items off our bucket list. Here’s to many more adventures to come!

Phoenix

After wrapping up our two-week stint in Tucson, it was off to Phoenix. And, to be honest, I was looking forward to this stop least of our first months on the road. “What is there to do in Phoenix?” I prodded Liz. “Tons” she replied. And, as it turned out, we found enough to keep entertained. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised, having grown up on Ohio entertainment for years.

A Phoenix sunset

It helped that our stay was broken into two pieces – a sandwich – with Phoenix serving as the sourdough bread around a hearty helping of Las Vegas roast beef and old commune mustard. The bottom slice was thin – a Tuesday thru Thursday in which we played bar trivia and recouped from our past weekend in the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns.

Eating an actual sandwich

On Thursday, my 26th birthday, Liz and I headed up to Las Vegas to catch Bon Iver at the Hard Rock Café and Casino. It was Liz’s first time in Nevada, and, by extension, Las Vegas. In a city known for its entertainment – I didn’t expect we would be part of the show. However, leaving the casino hotel the next morning, we gave a man, self-proclaimed to have “traveled millions of miles” a good laugh. I guess I didn’t think anything of lugging our milk crate clothes cartons through the casino floor – but he claimed it was a first and insisted on a picture.

Cartons of clothes and this is what he wears

Friday night, we moved up The Strip to the iconic Mirage. After indulging in the unlimited beer and wine buffet, we took part in the cities most well know tradition – throwing our money at the casino fat cats. The next morning, not feeling I had done my part, I laid down two hundred clams on the Toronto Raptors to win the finals.

The Mirage

On the way out of town, we swung by the best dam site of our trip yet – the Hoover Dam. We didn’t have time to dilly-dally though as we had strict reservations that night at a run-down commune, Arcosanti. The ‘village’ didn’t disappoint. I booked the night because, after all, the goal of the trip was to not only see as much of the good ol’ US of A as possible, but to also experience its cultural breadth. The experimental town has about 60 permanent residents who live in and around a small complex of buildings designed by architect Paolo Soleri. The night we stayed, a surprisingly enjoyable drum show – a combination of both Japanese and Native American performers – pounded through the towns amphitheater.

Arcosanti

The next morning, Easter Sunday, we headed back to Phoenix, driving directly to the Musical Instrument Museum. I think both Liz and I were thoroughly impressed with the museum’s collection – over 16,000 different instruments from around the world. Accompanying the instruments was a unique audio tour which played clips of music, native to the country’s exhibit you were standing near, into your headset.

An Octobass

Later that week we saw the XX, one of Liz’s favorite bands, perform is Mesa. The next day we met up with Matt and Will – who had just flown into town to run the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim that weekend. And, after grabbing dinner with the two, met up with Liz’s parents who had just arrived in town.

~musical interlude~

 

The Sunday we got back to Phoenix, our laundry had been piling up and it was time to finally break down and run a few loads through the wash. While this had never been an issue in past accommodations – and the listing indicated a washer/dryer were available – we were in for a rude surprise when later that evening our ‘host’ lectured us for several minutes, repeating that we were to ‘not touch his stuff.’ It’s kind of hard not to touch someone’s stuff when you’re living in their house.

After that incident, we circled back on a conversation we had discussed for weeks prior to setting off on our journey, and ultimately decided it was time to buy a travel trailer. The past few spare bedroom’s we stayed in were off-putting. And, while we enjoyed the full-units we had occupied, we couldn’t afford to stay in one all the time.

So, most of our second week in Phoenix was spent discussing, planning and eventually purchasing a camper trailer. Up to this point we had been living in Airbnb’s. For those unfamiliar with the concept – Airbnb is a platform that allows folks with spare rooms, or even houses, to rent them out on a nightly basis to others. While the cost of renting an entire house or even hotel room can be very high – we had been able to afford the much lower rate usually charged by renting a spare bedroom (often around $50 a night.)

Once we made up our mind to buy a trailer, we hit the gas, checking out a few used trailers the first night, and buying a new one the next day. This sudden change of plans flipped the table on our months of planning. We had Airbnb’s reserved through the better part of the next three months. Luckily, most Airbnb’s have a pretty lax cancelation policy and we received almost all our deposits back.

Our new home!

Time will tell, but up to this point I haven’t regretted the purchase yet. That is, barring a few fleeting moments after I managed to shave its side on a gas station pump barrier the day we got it.

Austin

We drove into the Austin city limits Friday morning with a mixed sense of excitement and tension. For months now, Liz and I had poured over the schedule, searching and researching for the best bands, the most captivating talks, and the markedly interesting films. In the months leading up to SXSW (South By Southwest) new events were added nearly daily – making combing through a single day’s schedule take well over an hour. With so many events going on, spread across dozens of venues downtown, I knew I would have a constant fear of missing out on the best event at any one time.

SXSW

The fear of missing out probably peaked Friday morning, as we waited, first in the badge pickup line, and then in the Express pass line to get guaranteed seats for an upcoming film starring Sam Eliot and Nick Offerman. It was in this time I also planned on attending my first session – a talk on machine learning and how artificial intelligence would change the world. Luckily –  as I would learn over the next week – discussions on artificial intelligence were not in short supply.

Ron Swanson!

Both Liz and I were afforded the opportunity to attend SXSW thanks to the generosity of our employer, CoverMyMeds, who footed the bill for our registration. And, thanks to their contribution and the fact that the rest of our co-workers were carrying on with their daily tasks, we felt obligated to attend industry-relevant talks during work hours. However, as I quickly learned, not a whole lot can be gained from an hour long talk. If you’re able to give a several sentence descriptions on the matter beforehand – it’s likely you won’t be getting much out of the talk. Instead, I found, by attending sessions only very loosely related to my daily work routine I was able to expand my horizons and get surface exposure to new topics like legal discourse when growing a technology company.

Lots of free food if you knew where to look

SXSW had more to offer than countless talks on artificial intelligence and healthcare meetups though. Over 1200 bands flocked to the city in the course of the festival – meaning every bar on 6th street had a full lineup. In the months leading up to SXSW, both Liz and I listened to countless new bands – trying to figure out what shows to attend. Unfortunately, many of the acts we already knew like Langhorn Slim, Spoon, and Sylvan Esso seemed to play at midnight or later. However, we were able to find plenty of new favorites that played at reasonable times – my favorite being Temples. We did make it to one big name – Garth Brooks. While I wouldn’t classify myself as a boot scootin’ cowboy, Garth playing nothing but his hits for nearly two hours was undoubtedly my favorite part of SXSW. Who knew I had the words to so many of his songs memorized?

Front row for Lewis Del Mar

After the conclusion of SXSW, we still had nearly a week to check out the area beyond the few square miles the conference covered. While we spent some of the time recouping, we still kept busy. Sunday, for example, we took a tour of Lyndon B Johnson’s family ranch, hiked Pedernales State Park, and met up with my cousin, Michael, who treated us to mucho Mexican food at Chuys.

River crossing in Pedernales State Park

To anyone thinking about visiting Austin, I’d highly recommend it! Be sure to hit up Zilker, a picturesque park next to downtown that boasts hiking trails, running paths, and a unique swimming pool built into the nearby creek. After you’ve built up an appetite, fill up with the bar-b-que Austin is known for or Chilatro – a mouth water Korean bar-b-que option.

Barton Springs

My only regret is not being in town for Austin City Limits. I guess we’ll just have to make our way back to Austin again sometime (on our way back to Big Bend).

Mardi Gras

Well it’s been nearly three weeks since we’ve left New Orleans. I’ve found it a lot harder to keep pace with these updates than I thought it would be. Even though I’m writing half or less of em’, there’s just always so many other things to do. When you’re in a city for a week, sometimes less, every night not out absorbing as much as possible feels wasted. Yet, at the same time, without taking the time to stop and reflect it can easily become a blur. What were we doing a month ago? Heck, what did we do last night? Be warned – the rest of this post has been written almost three weeks and three cities ago, so its contents may be altered, misremembered, or flat out made up.

To say I didn’t plan part of the first few months of our trip around being in New Orleans over Mardi Gras would be a lie. After all, the goal of this trip, at least for myself, is to absorb the culture, beauty, and diversity of the United States from every angle and there aren’t many cultural events more iconic than Mardi Gras.

However, an unexpected pit-stop for an appendectomy in Mississippi left me ill equipped to handle the Bourbon Street crowds. Luckily, there’s more to the festival than the late night stupor. For weeks, parades close down streets and command throngs of tailgaters, much like an OSU game day in Columbus. Liz and I attended one of the parades, a several hour long stream of floats, each dedicated to a pop culture celebrity of the past, including Marilyn Monroe, Abe Lincoln, and Elvis. All faux celebrities threw beaded plastic necklaces in lieu of candy. Half way through, I had enough necklaces to cause a slight pain in the shoulders under their weight.

Beyond the parades, walking the French Quarter offered an unmatched opportunity for people watching. Coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde gave us a great vantage point to observe the hordes. Being new to town, Liz and I went plain-clothed, unaware most attend dressed head to toe in colorful and unique costumes (although given Liz’s aversions to Halloween, I doubt knowing would have made a difference in her dress.)

We tried to spend as much time as possible outside the confines of our rented room. Not only because we wanted to absorb as much of NOLA as possible, but also because the house made us a little uneasy. From the wheezing, homely, lap dog that stared us down while we ate, to the disheveled counters, it was hard to feel settled.

Looking back, I’m glad we included New Orleans in our itinerary, although I don’t feel a need to head back any time soon. To those looking to make the trip themselves, I’d recommend hitting up the NOLA classics; grabbing a coffee at Café Du Monde and strolling down Bourbon Street.

Miami – An Intervention

Alright Miami, it’s time we had a talk. Your masked insecurities are coming off as pretentious elitism.

I get it. You were built on a swamp. Now you are worried your Mar-A-Lago POTUS is failing to acknowledge climate change, and that might put you back under water. However, that’s no excuse to charge over ten bucks in tolls to drive from one side of town to the other. And, while we’re on the topic of traffic, do you really need massive light up signs to remind drivers that running over the plastic dividers in the road is illegal? Perhaps, by solving your constant congestion, the issue would work itself out.

img_20170213_174256445

South Beach around sunset

I don’t mean to berate you Miami. There are redeeming qualities! Lo De Lea Argentinian Grill, for example, makes a mean skirt steak with generous wine portions at a reasonable rate. Also, Concrete Beach Brewery created a great atmosphere by placing their service bar in the middle of open-space indoor/outdoor seating that offers a full view into the production facility. However, I’m a little concerned its Wyndham neighborhood drank a little too much of the Stiltsville Pilsner and is having trouble walking the fine line between hip and sketchy.

img_20170216_181017525

Skirt Steak at Lo De Lea

C’mon Miami. Your income disparity is the largest of all major US cities. Do you really need an endless stream of Lamborghini’s parading by the man sleeping in the bus stop? Should iced coffee really be served in a martini glass? No. No, it shouldn’t.

Those who have taken their talents to South Beach have packed up and left. It’s time to take a long hard look inward and ask yourself ‘Is this the best me, Miami?’

Siesta Key

What could be better than sipping margaritas next to your grandpa every night? How about watching the sunset over the Florida gulf at the same time? Or maybe floating in a 90 degree pool with a drink in one hand and a crab claw in the other? 

img_20170130_181242134_hdr

The past two weeks have been about as relaxing as could be (if it weren’t for the 40 hour work weeks.) While we may not have left Siesta Key with the most captivating pictures and videos, we did leave refreshed and relaxed.

img_20170201_171046085

Our first week in Siesta Key we hit up a few local favorites including El Toro Bravo for some authentic Mexican food, Captain Kirks for world famous clam chowder, and Gilligans for a beer. One evening, after work, we kayaked the inlet behind our condo, exploring the mangrove trees. I have never been much of ornithologist myself, but bird watching around the mangroves was worth the trip alone. Among the fowl were pelicans, egrets, herons, and osprey.

img_20170202_191611_681

On Friday, we headed up to Sarasota for a marine boat tour at the MOTE aquarium, where we learned all about the lives of the seafood we later consumed at the sushi bar. Saturday, we headed to Myakka State Park for Liz’s first wildlife alligator encounter. Then, drove up to Zephyrhills where we caught up with Liz’s Grandma Linda and Great Aunt Donna and were treated to some tasty Ruby Tuesday’s.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-12-12-13-pm

Sunday, we stopped by the Siesta Key beach, voted Americas #1 beach on Tripadvisor (I guess its better known for sand than surf – Liz and I were the only two in the water.) After toweling off, we drove up to my Uncle Bill’s house to celebrate the Superbowl ©® the American way – eating way too much and washing it down with Miller Light.

img_20170205_120024448

The next week was spent doing more of the same – sunsets and beach. Later in the week, my Great Uncle Bill captained his seaworthy pontoon down to Casey Key Fish House where he entertained the patio with his docking attempts and my stomach with a mouthwatering grouper sandwich. The two weeks we spent in Siesta Key were perfect and I’m sure we’ll make it back at some point in the future!

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-12-10-22-pm

Orlando

What a whirlwind of a weekend! Friday, after putting in a hard day’s work from the Black Tap coffee house in downtown Charleston, Liz and I made the six hour drive down to sunny Orlando. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t play its reputed role. In fact, I witnessed a lot of folks bundled up in gloves, scarves, and winter coats to bare the mid 50’s weather.

img_20170128_090354990

We spent our nights with the Beck family, who graciously opened their house to us. Both mornings we were treated to a full spread yogurt and oatmeal bar Andrea prepared. However, other than sleeping and breakfast, we didn’t spend any time hanging around the house. There were just too many things to see and do!

img_20170128_145601

Early Saturday morning we headed to “The Happiest Place On Earth” (someone should have told the crying kids.) It was Liz’s first time to Disney and my first in over 15 years, so having our own personal Disney sherpa, Evan Beck, was a godsend. Evan knew every ride and restaurant, allowing us to see more of the park than I could have imagined. A few of my park favorites include Splash Mountain, the Carousel of Progress, and Space Mountain. However, I think the most memorable experience was the Once Upon A Time show. The program involved unbelievably powerful projectors shining onto the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, making it appear to change texture and shape, all while beloved Disney characters climbed and flew their way about the castle.

img_20170128_110750720

With Sunday morning came rain. That didn’t stop Liz, Lauren, Evan and I from taking advantage of the free tickets Lauren got us for Universal Studios. The rain, along with low temperatures, kept lines short. I doubt we waited more than 20 minutes for even the most popular rides. Most of the crowd that did show up arrived in their wizarding cloaks, looking to explore Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade (for the muggles out there, these are Harry Potter locations.) While the Harry Potter world was enjoyable, my favorite rides were the ‘3D coasters’. They were unlike any other amusement park ride I’ve experienced – a mash up roller coaster, 3D movie experience that places riders into the middle of hit movies like Transformers and King Kong.

img_20170129_145031993_hdr

As if that weren’t enough for one weekend, after Universal, Liz and I made the drive down to Siesta Key Sunday night. It was certainly one of the most jam-packed weekends I’ve experienced in a while. Although I enjoyed every moment of it, I’m looking forward to relaxing and sipping margaritas beachside for the next two weeks. Thanks again to the Becks for all of their hospitality!