Category Archives: Traveling

Letting the Music set the Place

Early in this past summer I was excited to be reminded (in person) of a healthy music store in West Chester, PA. Such stores are quickly (already?) becoming an endangered species, and so it was particularly satisfying to come back to this store and see it offering a wide range of music and other related selections. I thought that I was going to leave without purchasing anything, but lying near the cash register was a small boxed set of five compact discs highlighting “80’s Classics”. This seemed to be a perfect match for my upcoming long haul road trip, and so I purchased it. (Actually my mom bought it for me as a “getting on the road” present.)

As the driving spurts resumed, I continued to let my iPod shuffling set the mood for a little while after purchasing the set of discs, but that got old as I began to enter the long-haul westbound territory, and so I decided that the especially long haul across Nebraska (400 something miles) would be a great introduction to the set of music. I quickly appreciated that some care had been taken in selecting the choice and sequencing of music. The first song of each disc got things off with a bang of energy and the mood rolled along after that, mixing between slower tunes and higher energy pieces. I let the whole sequence of five discs play through on that first day and it was a GREAT way to enliven the scenery and pace of going through Nebraska, which eventually gave way to the arid plains and mild mountains of northeastern Colorado.

After the first listen, I expected that the music would time capsule itself to that stretch of driving through Nebraska, and it did, at first, as I tuned into other radio offerings and back to the iPod (along with bits of silence here and there) for a little while. But in an effort to continue the sonic variety, I ended up tuning back into the CD set sooner than I expected.

One song in particular (“Good Life” by a group called Inner City – never heard of them) took on the role of road trip theme song, as I began to listen to it at the start of each long-haul driving day and felt that it set the right upbeat mood. Now, a month and a half later, the song has settled into a role as emblematic of the whole summer, and while I’m not listening to it at the start of every day, it does bring a smile to my face, as many other songs do that quickly associate themselves with the time or circumstances that you first hear them in.

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Flashback Friday to Cross Country 3

Meant to post this yesterday, but instead it can be a “flashback friday” … Five years ago today I was nearing the end of my Cross Country 3 journey. I took time to chronicle the experience in detail using the Facebook Notes app (remember that?) and didn’t post it here, though I could have. So it’s worth another look today.

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I want to be sure to post this before the calendar turns to September. I wrote most of this essay in a one day period on August 13, and have finished it off over the past few weeks…

My first cross country journey spanned from late September to late October, 2006, traveling for half of the time with my college friend Russ and half the time on my own seeing friends and the sights. This trip was a 7000 mile loop from Waltham, MA to Waltham, MA, via California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The journey, for me, was at its essence about recognizing the vast expanse of America, and seeing my own potential for growth and change in my then-new post college life.

A little over a year later, I journeyed across the country again, this time going from Beverly, MA, to Santa Maria, CA, and traveling with my mom and my cat, KC. This route took us through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. We kept a steady pace on this trip, where I had to be in Santa Maria by a certain date in January to start a new theatre position. Perhaps for that reason, this journey feels more blurry in memory than my first trip. With the possible exception of New Orleans, where we celebrated New Year’s Eve 2007 into 2008, most of the stops made me feel like “this is really great, and I wish I had more time to see the place or the surrounding area!” Nonetheless, the feeling of empowerment and potential swung in to action on this journey, where I wasn’t just seeing the possibility of change and new direction… I was actually living it, by speeding away from my lifelong Northeastern home base into a new self-directed reality in California.

At some point in early 2011, it became apparent that I might have an opportunity to embark on another Cross Country journey over the summer. The “Northern Route” had been in the back of my mind as an ideal way to return to the Northeast ever since I moved to the West Coast. I enthusiastically hand wrote a potential route to travel: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I was hesitant to commit to the idea as it would mean closing up my comfortable and rewarding Bay Area life for the foreseeable future. I decided that I would give the Bay Area a deadline – which became June 15 – for a new job to appear. If that did not happen, I would move back to the Northeast for new opportunities, reconnecting with friends and family, and a fresh start.

I wanted to make the possibility of staying in California work out, at least for a little while longer until the end of 2011. But the poor job market and lack of specific performing arts related opportunities soon made it clear that I would be leaving at the end of July. I grew to accept the reality of this choice, while not being shy of making the most of Bay Area Life in the remaining months. Looking back over those last few months makes me feel quite accomplished and proud, from the Mojave Desert vision quest to my Self Revelatory Performance to many memorable theatre performances to meaningful and memorable moments with local friends. Those last few weeks brought a surprising and admirable unity to my Bay Area life. Until July (or maybe June), I’d often felt perturbed by my floating amongst so many different worlds in the region. It felt like it reached a Zen level of balance between various social groups (Theatre, CIIS, Marin, Buddhism, etc) and my involvement and intermingling with all those strands.

Nonetheless, I knew that it would all be coming to an end on July 25. There was poignancy in that knowledge, and surprisingly not too much sadness – at least for me. Meanwhile, my mom made arrangements to again travel with KC and I for 2/3 of the driving journey, and a college friend, Nate, became available to travel for a partially overlapping 1/3 of the trip. I didn’t realize until later on that we would be traveling in separate vehicles, in an arrangement that worked far better than I envisioned. The specificity of our travel plans and needing to be in certain places at certain times (Hiking and exploration in Montana, a theatrical premiere in Michigan, etc) allowed me to plan the journey with several layover days. In this way, we would not be constantly on the road. In a three week period, only four nights would be at hotels, thanks to the kindness of friends in nearly all of our/my destination points. The stage was set for a memorable adventure.

This time, the travel journey brought the most rewards and memorable experiences yet of my three cross country adventures. I am sure this was due to the highly social nature of the trip. I was greeted by friends in almost every location, only three segments of the drive were ones I had driven before (not counting the Northeast Corridor), and I made a strong effort to document the journey on camera and in writing. I noticed the poignancy, intensity and presence of dropping in on friends for a few days and then moving on, while knowing that their lives will continue in their respective locations.

It feels like this retrospective may be best captured through a day by day narrative, so I will continue in that mode.

DAY 1, JULY 25: GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA

We left Marin County three hours behind schedule, and it was as if some part of me did not want to leave. I took a long time to gather all my Little Things in San Rafael, everything seemed to take longer than I expected, and my mom was Very Specific about how she wanted the car to be packed to ensure maximum visibility. I nearly drove away with my apartment keys in my pocket, and had to circle back to downtown San Rafael from Terra Linda to return them. My mood veered sharply from a wistful sadness at the start of the day to a more optimistic spirit of adventure as we proceeded north along US 101.

The traffic was light as we moved out of Marin and into Sonoma County. I found it hard to believe that I had driven the 50 miles north to Healdsburg just one week before for a Birthday driving adventure. Mendocino County brought even less traffic, except in Willits, and an increased sense of space and place. I had forgotten that route 101 extends for over 100 miles through Mendocino, a much larger distance than several US states. We stopped briefly at the Gomde Meditation Center in Leggett, summer home of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche.

Humboldt County brought mammoth trees and a record number of hitchhikers. It was only my second visit there. My mom seemed to latch on to the generalization of the area being a Pot Haven and thought that many people we saw might be pot smokers. This was particularly apparent in Arcata, which became our dinner stop. She felt like she’d time warped back into the 1960’s as we sat at a SoCal-eque yogurt shop watching the just returned Humboldt State students enjoy being back in town. Many dreadlocked peace loving individuals happily co-existed alongside them as the sun set over the bay. I should add that this stop also began the custom of bringing KC in with us to cafes or stops as much as possible. I was not comfortable leaving her in the car, for health and security reasons. Therefore, we created a long running social experiment bringing her with us (staying in her carrier) into cafes, at least one restaurant, and a few gas stations. Some people noticed, and some people did not!

I took the wheel of the Outback for the first time on the trip heading out of Arcata. I did not anticipate the dense, murky and amorphous fog that we would encounter between there and Crescent City. Route 101 winds along the scenic coast for the remaining 100 miles or so of California, but at night, this can lead to a treacherous mix of fog and curves. I stayed calm and slow speed as we continued north, and willingly pressed ahead at Crescent City after a brief pause. Oregon welcomed us with its name painted on to the road like a speed limit. Not too long later, we arrived in the coastal hamlet of Gold Beach. It was at least 11:00pm, four hours behind schedule, but we were there, and that was what mattered. I was impressed with this inn’s attention to detail in their clean rooms and willingness to be pet friendly. As they were right by the water, a persistent Pacific breeze was a welcome aroma while settling in for the night.

DAY 2, JULY 26: Blended Oregon

The late arrival from Monday night meant that we were not able to see a sangha friend in Eugene, so I had to call him to explain early in the morning. He understood, and the slight disappointment did not put a damper on the day’s itinerary. As we wandered down to the Pacific Ocean, I realized that visit would be the last time I’d see the Pacific for a while. It was characteristically exuberant. A large pile of driftwood was propped up on the beach. My mom encouraged me to grab a piece of the wood and pose for a photo designed to emulate a similar shot of me with driftwood on Martha’s Vineyard around 1991.

We had to excavate KC from her most extreme hiding place of the trip: under a bureau in the hotel room that also had the television and mini-bar attached to it. I managed to grab her without incident and she wore a slightly guilty expression for the first half of the day. I’d arranged for that day’s drive to be a mix of coastal and interior Oregon scenes. I felt like we didn’t have much momentum as we made several stops and starts on the coast in places like Bandon, Coos Bay and Florence. The scenery made up for any ill will, with many views reminiscent of Maine back in New England, although with a distinct Pacific flair. I was grateful to see more of the Oregon coast, having made a visit to the Northwestern corner of it in 2006. However, there is still 150 miles or so between Florence and Seaside that will have to wait for another time.

The trek inland from Florence to Eugene brought heavy forest and the trees that Oregon is known for. Eugene’s ARCO station offered one of the lowest gas prices of the trip ($3.59) and a sudden, awkward reminder that Oregon has mandatory full service. I made the same mistake again at a Shell station the next day in Portland.

We continued up Interstate 5 and reached Portland before dark. This was one of only two destination points on the trip where I had previously visited – the other was Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Portland’s case, the circumstance felt particularly unique. In showing my mom a place that I had already gotten to know on a personal level, I felt like I was turning up the curtain on a personal experience, and modifying it into a shared family experience. She seemed impressed with my familiarity with the city as we proceeded to the Belmont district.

Our sangha friend Bettina offered warm hospitality and spontaneity over the next 36 hours. She has a comfortable house right in the heart of Belmont, and I particularly enjoyed sampling several restaurants along Belmont and Hawthorne Boulevards. I had previously come to know local favorites such as The Black Cow, Stumptown and Utopia Café. This time, the destinations included two Thai restaurants, the Cricket Café and a new French eatery.

DAY 3, JULY 27: Parked in Portland

It was so refreshing to not get on the road that morning! I had no idea how nice it would feel to take some extra time in various locations, and am sure this contributed to Portland, Whitefish and Ann Arbor (which had all the “layovers” of the journey) becoming highlights of the trip.

This day mixed social and personal activities to a T. We made our way to a shopping area near Portland Airport for some tax-free shopping. I remembered that the PDX airport had some personal significance. In 2006, I flew from there to Massachusetts, arriving on what became my final evening in the house I grew up in on Singing Beach in Manchester.

My mom and I returned back to the Belmont district along Stark Street, a local shortcut that she was impressed I had remembered. Lunch brought a reunion with childhood friend Miranda, evoking much nostalgia and gratitude for the “thens and nows” of life. I felt that there was much to talk about after a 10 year gap, and appreciated how my early childhood memories from Salem seemed to come right back. I’ll probably always remember Miranda’s greeting comment to my mom that “your voice is so familiar!”

I’d scheduled back to back social adventures for that afternoon, and was happy to move right on to a reunion with college friend and native Portlander Colin. We channeled the classy style of many previous adventures in finding a place to enjoy Happy Hour, and continued the saga joining up with my mom and her friend Ann for a leisurely Thai dinner.

DAY 4, JULY 28: 600 miles northeast all the way to Montana

KC, my mom and I all bounded back into the car for an early start to what would be our longest distance travel day. Much later in the trip, I surpassed the distance traveling from Dayton, Ohio to Wilmington, Delaware – but I was not thinking about that on this date.

I knew that the initial segment towards Montana would bring a repeat journey along the western Interstate 84, which parallels the Columbia River Gorge between Oregon and Washington. I’d taken care to document this scenery in 2006 while traveling with Russ; however, my camera was sadly stolen at the end of that trip. This time, I wanted to be extra sure to capture the gorge on camera and enjoy the experience. We had time and the sun on our side setting out so early in the morning. I decided to take the wheel for this stretch, where I was familiar with it and wanted to give my mom the pleasure of seeing the sights and choosing what to get pictures of.

The Gorge is both fabulous and fascinating. We paralleled it for 175 miles. I had forgotten about the abrupt changes in the landscape, especially following The Dalles, Oregon. Lush forest gave way to stark desert and later returned to a more arid mountain setting. We turned off I-84 in the midst of this second mountain setting. I found this second mountain range to be the dullest scenery of the entire trip. Nothing was around us, just an endless flatness, much like Nebraska had been in my first cross country journey. It seems that this banality created a happy, entertaining side project for Mom and KC and I. We began to read Joanna Macy’s autobiography, “Widening Circles”, aloud in the car while driving along. Both of us had taken strong inspiration from a recent one-day workshop with Joanna. Auspiciously, this event was scheduled for July 24, the day before departing Marin, and Joanna herself seemed particularly pleased to know we were there before traveling when we spoke briefly with her directly.

Washington State also brought the first dose of Interstate 90, the longest interstate highway in the USA. I reminded my mom with amusement that we could just continue on 90 and eventually reach Logan Airport – and then go right on home to the North Shore. 90 became a recurring character in the roads of the trip, though not the primary star. On another numeric note, this first sighting took place in the 509 area code; of course Massachusetts knows the 508 area code very well. 90 cut right through Spokane, Washington, a city that is clearly an important regional outpost. I had difficulty discerning a personality to it, and wanted to see Christopher Walken appear somewhere straight out of the Martin McDonaugh “Behanding in Spokane” play.

Soon, 90 crossed over the Idaho state line. My mom had forgotten that we were even passing through this state and viewed it as an extra treat. I found this northern “panhandle” area to be an almost complete opposite from the southern, flat Boise region that I’d seen only once in 2006. Especially following the main town of Coeur d’Alane, lush trees dotted the landscape and the road became increasingly mountainous and curvaceous. I felt bemused that I seemed to be on a roll for getting the more treacherous driving segments as I was again at the wheel of the Outback. Eventually 90 wound its way up to Lookout Pass, marking the border between Idaho & Montana AND Pacific & Mountain time. I switched the car clock – I don’t wear a watch – with a feeling of bittersweetness and fullness from a Huckleberry milkshake.

The scenery grew grander and grander as we proceeded in to Montana. I quickly came up with a metaphor of the surroundings seeming to be on a bigger scale than elsewhere in the USA. Or it could have been that we’d driven outside of the country to another region entirely. Or to the roof of the country. The allegories could go on and on!

I was surprised that the speed limit for local, two lane roads in Montana seemed to be a consistent 70 miles per hour. This helped to make good time as we proceeded north towards Whitefish, passing the impossibly blue Flathead Lake and a series of attractive small towns. We stayed with an old friend of my mom’s living on the outskirts of Whitefish. The historic and compact downtown did not reveal itself until the next day. The kindness of our host, Carolyn, and her son, Arthur, was immediately clear as we enjoyed a late night garden feast. Befitting the northern latitude, the sky did not fully darken for the night until 10:30pm.

DAY 5, JULY 29: Glamour and Glaciers

The PAUSE button was used to its maximum benefit on this day. After catching up on some rest, my mom and I decided to explore the downtown area of Whitefish. I’d originally learned of the town through a local theatre company, the Alpine Theatre Project, and was able to plant a seed for potential future employment while there. Whitefish itself seemed to be more self-consciously trendy than I expected. Well-dressed tourists rubbed shoulders with each other while out of state licensed vehicles, including at least two from Massachusetts, cruised down the main street.

For a while I was not sure if we’d be able to visit nearby Glacier National Park, which (in my mind) had been the primary purpose of having an extended stay in the Whitefish area. We proceeded in the direction of the park close to sunset and were rewarded with a truly out of this world experience.

It feels disingenuous to describe the highly visual and visceral park experience in words. I will try singling out a few sensations and experiences:

  • Seeing snow in July.
  • Driving 30 miles, about ½ involving snaking around a mountain, up to the Continental Divide.
  • At least two varieties of goats wandering around near the mountain.
  • The sun beginning to set and casting shadows on the wide Glacier valley
  • The Alpine-inspired décor and feeling of a lodge on the park property where we enjoyed a late dinner en route out of the park
  • The consistent feeling of inspiration and intrigue going through the park

DAY 6, JULY 30: Mountains to Desert

Departure from Whitefish brought a strong feeling of fulfillment after the majesty of Glacier in the preceding evening. The initial segment of our journey retraced a path along Flathead Lake, and then continued through a mountain range towards Missoula. Out of the entire travels with my mom segment, this was the day when we were most focused on “getting there” (to Powell, Wyoming) – and not so much on the surrounding scenery or attractions. We had also planned to visit a friend of my mom’s in Bozeman, Montana on the way south into Wyoming. Unfortunately, this directive meant that we’d be unable to visit nearby Yellowstone National Park and have to gaze wistfully at the many signs for the Park along our route. I was disappointed, but accepting, and hope to have a future opportunity to see Yellowstone.

The stop in Bozeman brought gracious hospitality and “possible sight of future Zefram Cochranes” as I joked in my Twitter text post from there. I’ll probably always remember the random compliment that my mom received from her friend’s sister as we walked in to their house:Mom enters in a colorful outfit. Jan (friend and sister) says “this is Alison, my friend from Delaware.”Jan’s sister takes one look at Mom, and says “Stop. Let me just look at you!”

The sisters kindly prepared two varieties of salads for us to feast on in our break. Of course, the intended one hour visit became two hours, but that did not deter us from getting to Wyoming by nightfall. I was intrigued by the similarities of the northern Wyoming landscape to my previous visit to the state in 2006. Once again, I was driving along a high plateau with a gorgeous sunset in the rear view mirror, an endless basin visible ahead, and an awkward mixture of past (farms) and present (oil companies) industry visible along the road. We’d come into Wyoming to link up with my college friend Nate, who would be joining the trip from this point on through Ann Arbor. I was happy to have him come aboard and to know that he saw us as “rescuing” him from Wyoming, being Northeastern friends and his first and last in-state visitors.

This travel day was KC’s least enjoyable one of the trip. She was at her most vocal through the first half of the drive, from Whitefish to Missoula, and did not care for that evening’s accommodation, meowing with displeasure for a large portion of the overnight.

DAY 7, JULY 31: Continuing East!

I had forgotten that it was Sunday morning until seeing downtown Powell so obviously empty made me remember church services. Nate confirmed that the town is largely traditional and pious. I was intrigued that it shares the same total population – 5,000 – as my hometown of Manchester by-the-Sea, but Powell is spread out over twice the geographic area and none of the coastal breeze.

We all enjoyed a take-out breakfast from the local diner/breakfast place/greasy spoon. My mom seemed particularly pleased by their kindly service, as the waitress had taken much interest in our cross country journey and donated forks. I wondered why someone who had parked next to me (I waited in the car) smiled broadly at me until I saw her Oregon license plate. She must have felt a similar fish out of water feeling to be in Wyoming. I did not feel completely uncomfortable there; just noticeably out of place and unsure of what I would say if I interacted with a local resident.

Nate took the driving lead as we began our caravan-ing and proceeded out of the Bighorn Basin. This time, Mom was at the helm for a stretch of challenging mountain driving. The road of the day, Route 14A, snaked around the intense Bighorn Mountains up to at least 8,000 feet, and then back down again towards Interstate 90. Near the summit, we decided to stop at the Medicine Wheel, a local Native American monument. Mom was a little too energetic parking the car and knocked my front license plate off the car. If I had not seen it when we returned from the Medicine Wheel, it might still be sitting there. I decided to bring KC along for the longer than expected hike to the wheel site, which continued the social experiment of having her in public settings. To my surprise, the park ranger did not bat an eye when she saw that I had a cat with me and asked that I leave her at the entryway. Perhaps the ranger was more concerned with a rude visitor who had just preceded our arrival and was apparently unwilling to cooperate with movement restrictions and staying on a marked path.

This day began a series of GPS-found and memorable lunch stops. We passed through Sheridan, Wyoming, also noticeably quiet on Sunday, but still welcoming in at least one coffee shop! My turkey sandwich – I think it was turkey?! – was among the freshest I’d had in the last several months. This created some satisfaction as we continued on I-90 through several more Wyoming towns, including Gillette, with a final destination of Rapid City, South Dakota.

I almost forgot to mention the walkie talkie system that Nate introduced today. Although this was regrettably short lived, it provided for easy non-cellular communication between the two vehicles with some novelty on top.

This evening brought the first sizeable dose of Summer Rain on to the trip. We could see a series of ominous looking thunderstorms on the horizon heading into Rapid City. Shortly before we reached the destination, they erupted! This created some of the lowest visibility I have ever experienced, and I was again at the wheel. Thankfully, the hotel was under 5 miles away, and a welcome terminus when we did reach it. Nate and I celebrated with a trip over to Perkins, and I may have downed a milkshake in a record amount of time.

DAY 8, AUGUST 1: A new month, slices of Americana and best laid plans…

This Monday morning brought a clear national/patriotic highlight of our trip in visiting Mount Rushmore. I appreciated the monument much more than I had anticipated, and I think my mom felt the same way. The ride down from Rapid City brought scenery and Las Vegas style flaming decadence in Keystone, but then the curvaceous road returned to spaciousness. Nate had told us that the mountain would suddenly appear from the road – and there it was! I was stunned by the precision of the heads, where they have been there for 80 years and look like they were carved yesterday. I hadn’t intended to pull in to the $11 parking area, but once I did, there was no need to back out; it seemed worth it.

Mount Rushmore is also the type of tourist attraction that is better early in the morning before the crowds. We made it there by 9:30am. I wondered if all 50 states might be represented in the parking lot on any given day. I appreciated how the visiting area sought to balance crowd control (a wide, central viewing area with the flags of all 50 states hanging above) with the scale and scope of the surroundings. A long nature trail extended in a loop around the base of the mountain. We took it and were rewarded with multiple non-traditional views of the mountain leading up to a wooded exit back to the parking area.

Nate and I had recalculated the driving route for this day into a Capital Tour of the Dakotas, passing through Pierre, SD, and ending up in Bismarck, ND. I might have looked at the driving distances more closely, as the journey became far more epic than we intended. It did still have highlights with the surroundings. Pierre in particular demonstrated precision on the banks of the Missouri River. The city marks the Western border of the Central Time Zone, and the communities across the river are in the Mountain Time Zone. My mom joked that it must be hard to plan social engagements. Pierre must be one of the smallest state capitals in the USA, housing just 14,000 people. It’s also one of five state capitals not directly served by an Interstate highway. The others are in Delaware, Alaska, Nevada and Missouri.

I was surprised to notice that Pierre also offered the most extreme heat of our trip. The digital barometer read a whopping 109 degrees, but the lack of humidity made it not feel extremely severe. When we stopped at a local gas station, it marked the start of a brief and confusing trend where mid-grade gasoline was priced cheaper than the regular gasoline. It seemed that ethanol ingredients were the culprit here, though no further explanation was given in a public view.

The GPS led us to another winning choice for lunch – though on this day the meal was extra late at 4pm. The “Main Street Grill” offered fresh food and home cooked deserts by the owner, who also doubled as our waitress. She was accommodating of us bringing KC along even though she had an allergy to cats. Thankfully, the restaurant offered seating just outside their main area for patrons in the foyer of the building, which seemed to be a very old downtown hotel. KC was not the first pet visitor of the day. A local man came in near the end of our meal with his forceful-looking pug, who looked like he usually gets what he wants. The four of us must have seemed very out of place in Pierre: Mom with a wraparound sunhat, Nate looking around at the sights, and me carrying KC in her carrier. To prove this point, one family pointed at us and took pictures through the window as we left the restaurant.

The next segment of our travels became the most strenuous of the trip. We left Pierre at around 5pm, but did not reach Bismarck, North Dakota until close to midnight. The culprit for this lengthy journey? The setting sun and a closed section of US 83 that we were not aware of until getting close to the affected area. It seemed that the June floods in South Dakota left an extensive mark, requiring at least one stretch of road to be extensively repaired. The detoured route took us west through Mowbridge, an area which the restaurant owner had pooh-poohed earlier in the day. It was easy to see that the region did not have much going for it. To my surprise, crossing the Missouri River again (briefly back into Mountain Time) led us to a landscape more reminiscent of Scotland than middle USA. Rolling green hills sailed down to the banks of the river, and several towns seemed to have appropriate corresponding Scottish influences. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep pace with the setting sun, and proceeded up to Bismarck on a back road in total darkness, with only a casino en route serving as a sign of civilization. I appreciated the novelty of simply being in North Dakota. I rode that enthusiasm once we eventually reached the hotel, logging online for the first time in what seemed like weeks, but was really only 2 ½ days, and discussing further travel plans with Nate. KC took a liking to this hotel room, and to hotel bedding in general. Throughout the hotel stays, she particularly enjoyed finding a crease in the blankets that she could fit right into to relax and observe our actions.

DAY 9, August 2: Dakota Minnesota

We did not give ourselves much time to see Bismarck, needing to press on to Minneapolis in order for my mom to connect with her friend she would be staying with that night. We did get to quickly drive by the North Dakota state capital building on the way out of town. My Lonely Planet guide book described it as “Stallinesque” and they were not far off the mark.

This day became our most focused On The Road day due to the evening commitments. We enjoyed periodic radio communication between the two cars, and ruminations about the surrounding landscape. One stretch of the North Dakota I-94 was very obviously affected by floods yet to fully evaporate. I was surprised to see a train line running right in the middle of a flooded area, and wondered if it is the same line that the Amtrak “Empire Builder” from Chicago to Portland and/or Seattle traverses on a daily basis. Later in western Minnesota, 94 seemed to be loaded with permanent frost heaves nearly all the way to Minneapolis.

We did budget time for a lunch stop in Fargo. Nate and I both felt that the initial rural residential feel of the town was highly similar to Amherst, MA. However, that development quickly gave way to a more traditional Middle America shopping mall orientation. We’d hoped that the GPS had led us to another memorable lunch spot, but the intended spot turned out to be a Chinese food buffet. We proceeded inside anyway, even though KC was unable to join us and I was probably more nervous about leaving her in the car than I needed to be. The $7 price was right, with an interesting cross section of patrons and odd preference for Michael Jackson songs on their stereo.

A few hours later, we reached the western outskirts of the Twin Cities, made obvious by the increase in traffic and brake lights. The Twin Cities provided the most intense traffic of the trip. I did not mind it, but I was reminded of why I drove out of traffic times as much as possible in the Bay Area. I will remember the provocative moves of public transportation drivers in that area, later confirmed by Nora, our host for the night. One bus driver cut off two lanes of traffic on I-94 in an effort to make his exit.

Later, Nate and I experienced Minneapolis cross town traffic. It was a thing where it seems easy and basic once you know the specific route, as I found out the next morning. However, initial unfamiliarity magnifies the confusing nature of being in a new area. We did reach our hosts for the evening and were rewarded with a sushi meal in “Uptown”, one of the trendiest spots in the city. A stop at a nearby gas station revealed another side. A hipster biker was involved in some scuffle, and stood near a police car awkwardly waiting to be released while another man was inside the car angrily addressing the assembled officers.

DAY 10, AUGUST 3: Continuing On North by Northeast

 

This day marked my mom’s planned exit from the trip, flying ahead home to Delaware to resume her teaching commitments. I saw her off to the airport and felt excited to be continuing on the driving journey. Nate and I also faced the shortest drive of the trip for that day (120 miles due north) and allowed some leisure to permeate the schedule. He found his way to Al’s Restaurant, a famously small diner in Minneapolis, while I spent too much time on the computer catching up on the digital life. Nora, our host, rejoined us for lunch at an upscale local eatery. I chose the “California Wrap” out of dual nostalgia and curiosity. It was heavier on the flavor – turkey and avocado – than most “real” California sandwiches would be. Nora had to partake in some errands, so we traveled with her to a nearby Best Buy. This suburban glimpse did not lead to the Mall of America, just 8 miles east of where we were… but it did lead to Xerxes Avenue, so named as part of Minneapolis’ alpha-numeric street system.

 

The extreme Minnesota heat of the previous day had mostly evaporated by the time we set out for Duluth and Superior around 3:30pm. The traffic for the day had already begun and I quickly found myself in the lead for our caravan but separate from Nate and unable to pull over to wait. It seemed unbelievable that through traffic for north I-35 only received two lanes. But that was the reality and clearly the source of the initial backup. We passed over the bridge site that had collapsed in 2007 (now occupied by a graceful replacement) and continued north through several tight curves as the Twin Cities metropolitan region began to fade. A GasBuddy.com spotted cheap gas station served as reunion point. I could have driven away without paying for gas here, where my card was not initially read at the pump and yet it filled anyway. I only happened to catch the notice of “not read” out of the corner of my eye.

 

Nate took the lead again as we proceeded north towards Duluth and back into heavily forested country. The frost heaves returned as the surroundings became more rural. To combat this development, we switched to a two lane road advertised as “parallel scenic alternative” to get to Duluth. Unfortunately this transition also marked the end of the walkie talkies, when one was inadvertedly left behind at our post highway rest stop, and we did not discover its absence until arriving in Superior.

 

The two lane road became a hypnotic Tunnel of Trees continuing north through many small towns. Several names evoked New England, most clearly in a brief passage through Holyoke. We skirted the edges of Duluth, which seemed to be an appealing city that I would have liked to spend more time in or at least look around. Perhaps another time. I later discovered the city houses two highly progressive theatre companies, one that had recently run a regional premiere of a Neil LaBute piece.

 

Our entry into Wisconsin easily won the award for Most Dramatic State Entrance as we crossed the Blatnik Bridge, a high crossing at least 200 feet above Lake Superior. It was initially confusing to figure out where downtown Superior existed due to various construction projects. Thankfully, Nate’s cheerful friend Dustin came to the rescue and provided us with hospitable and friendly accommodation for the evening. The neighborhood and community oriented life was immediately apparent in Superior. The town itself seemed to be an awkward mashup of time warp, depressed town and shire town for a larger region. We did find an oasis of urbanity in a coffee shop on the way out of town the next morning.

 

DAY 11, AUGUST 4: UP, UP, UP!

 

Today’s route heralded the stretch of scenery I was the most excited about seeing: the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This region is so far off the typical tourist map that some people half jokingly refer to it as the 51st state of the USA. To reach the “UP”, we first had to traverse the northern frontier of Wisconsin. This became an easy trip along US 2, a route I have come to know in its New England incarnation. Perhaps the most intriguing sight here was an enormous seawall in Ashland, Wisconsin, like something out of Lord of The Rings.

 

I had thought that the crossing into Michigan would bring an immediate switch to Eastern Standard Time, but the border communities are actually in Central Time, to avoid a discontinuity with Wisconsin. We sampled the famous “pasties” (very similar to empanadas or other meat pies) in Ironwood. I enjoyed mine, but I enjoyed the accompanying slice of pumpkin cake even more. There was extensive two lane blacktop driving to be done over the course of this day. The Eastern time zone soon appeared during a rural stretch of road, marked by a very small sign. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I was not more affected by it. I suppose the novelty of being on the UP and the dramatic scenery kept my spirits up. Lake Superior was a near constant presence to the left (north) as we continued east, through the major city of Marquette and many smaller towns. The town of Munising doubles as the southern gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Seashore. At least two friends had recommended we see this park, best known for its white cliffs. It turned out that the cliffs were too far off the beaten path. I did lead the three of us to a scenic and welcoming beach area, Sandy Point, creating KC’s first visit to a beach. Nate joked that she may have thought of it as a giant litter box. I found the water to be warm and the sand to be calming. It would have been easy to stay there for a few hours. But there was still a long distance to go to Sault St. Marie, and by this time I had also discovered one of my headlights had burned out. I did not want to get a traffic ticket while on the road – and luck stayed with me throughout the rest of the journey.

 

It was almost confusing to reach interstate highway (75) for the last eight miles of the journey. After all, the day had covered almost four hundred miles of two lane roads. Sault St. Marie quickly appeared on the road signs, served by only two exits before the interstate crosses into Canada. I was amused by the directness of the Canada-bound signs; one in particular only said “STRAIGHT THRU” rather than “NEXT LEFT” or “KEEP RIGHT”.

 

I had hoped that “Sault” might be the site of a random late movie on the trip. Instead it was a random and late dinner, as Nate and I were directed to the local Applebee’s, the only thing open at 9:30/10pm, and served as some of the last customers of the day.

 

DAY 12, AUGUST 5 – ACROSS THE MACKINAC, DOWN THE PENINSULA, JUST IN TIME FOR A SHOW!

 

The Days Inn in Sault St Marie provided the least satisfying breakfast of the trip, with poorly cooked eggs being the only thing I ate in a very awkwardly designed seating area. Nate got stuck with a crumbly bagel and very small cup of coffee. We set off to see the downtown and hope that there might be more breakfast options. The downtown seemed very hospitable to me, with the emphasis on community very evident as shopkeepers got ready for a street fair that day. The Canadian influence felt clear, too, although not in an immediately physical way. Nate pointed out that it would be a shorter trip to New England to drive from Sault through Ontario and Quebec than down through Detroit, which I had not realized until he mentioned it.

 

We had to stay on schedule in this day, needing to reach Ann Arbor, 325 miles south, by 6pm. As such, we were back on I-75 by 10:30am. For some reason, this day’s drive felt the most hypnotic to me at the time and now in retrospect. I was initially surprised and weary of the long distance, with many signs pointing to Saginaw as over 200 miles south. And yet the time seemed to pass quickly, or I lost track of time, as we proceeded south. My IPOD had run out of battery and I relied on periodic radio station entertainment for this drive, which might have contributed to the disorientation and speed.

 

There was a clear highlight in the journey south over the Mackinac Bridge, linking the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. I’d read that the bridge had some structural similarity to the Golden Gate, and indeed I could see the resemblance. It seemed to be a sleeker and greener cousin to the GG, with just four lanes instead of six. I got stuck behind a truck going south, but used some creative sneaky driving techniques to catch up to Nate’s lead by the end of the bridge. The bridge itself is five miles long with a mix of causeway and suspension flair. I was surprised to see that it is referenced as a northern destination point for northbound I-75 until at least 200 miles south of it. The popular perception of Michigan as two separate states was also reinforced when we passed a “state welcome center” just south of the bridge, as if travelers had entered from another state or forgotten where they were.

 

Eventually, we arrived in the hardscrabble town of Flint for a short visit to Nate’s friend and former colleague. For me this was the most jarring stop of the entire trip, as destitute areas co-existed with awkwardly obviously redeveloped downtown stretches. We got a glimpse of the less desirable neighborhoods before stumbling on the downtown. I have never seen a place so clearly re-developed, even featuring cobblestone streets (?) and newly installed arches along the way. I did enjoy the lunch spot choice, a loud and raucous underground-seeming pub clearly inhabited by only locals. One group in particular seemed to be having a grand old time, laughing at the current sports game and talking loudly to each other over their own din. Meanwhile, I stepped into Social Coordinator mode, planning activities for that evening in Ann Arbor, which ultimately developed into a joint opening night cast party and college reunion adding our friend Anna. I was briefly unsure if we’d be able to make it down there – another 50 miles – in time for the show. However, the solution was to “floor it” along US 23 and stay cool. This made all the connections work, dropping off KC at Russ’ house and then continuing over to the nearby West Park Band Shell just in time for opening night of the Penny Seats!

 

DAYS 13-14, AUGUST 6 & 7: Ann Arbor with a Kalamazoo Interlude

 

As before, staying off the road was considerably more rewarding than I might have anticipated. The exciting premiere weekend of the Penny Seats made the whole weekend sustain a creative and high spirited energy, whether it was walking around and hanging out around downtown A2 with Russ and friends, hanging out as a Penny Seats groupie, seeing the show a second time under initially heavy rain that gave way to mist, experiencing the sign of the times walking around Borders’ soon to close flagship store, and soaking up the youthful and progressive A2 spirit again.

 

I also arranged a side trip to Kalamazoo to visit theatre friend Kristin. While I felt the effort leaving A2 at 8:30am Sunday after a late Saturday night with Penny Seaters, it was worth the effort to catch up with Kristin and see another part of Michigan. This side trip also brought my first view of a Delaware license plate in the entire trip.

 

I closed the zestful weekend in a relaxed way on Monday the 8th, and allowed myself the leisure of waiting until 2pm to head out southbound towards Dayton, Ohio.

 

DAY 15, AUGUST 8: Middle America

 

I was relieved to not be covering a (relatively) huge travel distance when KC and I got back on the road on Monday afternoon. Routes 23 and 75 proved to be an easy way to scoot down into Ohio. I remember being surprised at the smaller distance from Ann Arbor to Ohio (35 miles) than I expected. Then I remembered that each time I had left Ann Arbor in my previous visits, I had done so via Detroit, which adds an extra 50-60 miles. Michigan scenery quickly reverted to a countryside motif before giving way to Toledo suburbs. The city of Toledo itself was invisible on my route, but I got a good look at it last December and January.

 

Dayton proclaimed itself to be “The Crossroads of America” with its junction of interstates 70 and 75. I understood the crossroads motif, but also noticed that many exits were missing signs. My host and local native Chris later explained that 75 is in a semi-regular state of reorganization. I made my way out to the southeastern suburbs and his hometown of Bellbrook. This time, the relief and gratitude came from relaxation. I needed the pause of staying in a house and not being busy more than I expected. A certain amount of spontaneity still made its way into my activities that evening, especially when we decided to visit a local discount cinema. I had thought that $3 movies were a thing of the past… But not in Dayton. In a neat twist, the film we chose (SUPER 8) was set in the Dayton area. I debated whether I wanted to go to a late film, knowing that I would have to head out early the next morning, but am glad to have done so. I recall that I’d wanted to go to a film throughout the cross country trip, so in a way it was good to save the treat to close to the end of the journey.

 

DAY 16, August 9: Eastward Exertion

 

I stayed on a self imposed schedule this morning, leaving the house almost exactly at 9am. I had noticed the day before that Dayton offered the lowest gas prices of the trip ($3.40 per gallon) – but the one closest to the highway was more like $3.60. The higbway extended infinitely, especially as I got onto Interstate 70, which would provide the majority of that day’s two lane blacktops. It was interesting to be on another part of 70, as I have traveresed it in Colorado several times, but never elsewhere. On this trip, a large array of newer highway signs greeted me. This was a trend I had first noticed in Michigan, and upon Googling it, became aware that several states have adapted a new highway sign font: “Clearview”, with intentions to take it national in the future.

 

I wish I had written more about this drive immediately following the experience. It seems like a long blur as I look back at it just shy of two weeks later. However, there were some spontaneous highlights that included:

 

  • Discovering the unique geography of West Virginia, when I entered the state at Wheeling, exited it, and then entered it again about an hour later.
  • Visitng my father’s college town of Washington, PA, where he has not visited since 1978.
  • The novelty of seeing West Virginia for the first time from a car. I got a brief glimpse of it from a train last December.
  • Continuing along Interstate 68 through the West Virginia and Maryland panhandles. I had specifcally chosen this route to avoid the $25 toll from taking the PA Turnpike. It seemed to have the most hills of any interstate I have ever been on. For a while, it seemed like that was all there was to the road, as it moved from one 1000-2000 feet high ridge to the next.
  • The surprise of falling back into traffic on Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway – I referred to it by the British term of “ring road” later that day.
  • Attempting to avoid the double-toll of exiting Maryland and entering Delaware, and then realizing that would not be possible and getting back onto Interstate 95.
  • The friendly familiarity, and knowledge of being close to home, of getting on 95 again.
  • Bemusement about how quickly the $4 toll booth appears after the Delaware state line.
  • A warm reception by my mom and Richard when I did reach Wilmington, Delaware.

 DAY 17, August 10: Pampering and Relaxation in Wilmington

 

Initially I felt over indulged to know that my mom had scheduled an ionic foot bath, massage, facial and pedicure for me to indulge in while laying over in Wilmington. But it worked out well, and I’m sure my internal systems were grateful. The ionic foot bath was particularly unusual, putting my feet into what seemed like a normal foot bath, until the water began to change colors over a thirty minute span.

 

I also got a refresher on Delaware’s status as a sales tax free bonanza as we visited several chain stores. I’m glad to have chosen to buy several theatrical scripts that day at a soon to be closed branch of Borders. The cost for five books was around $40, and would have been $75 if they were up at their listed price. We balanced it out with some family reunion time, eagerly planning our upcoming adventure to the homelands of Martha’s Vineyard.

 

DAY 18, August 11: Northbound into New England

 

My mom and KC and I re-teamed for this home stretch, but switched base cars into her Subaru Forester. We set off in what felt like a very haphazard manner, almost saying “oh, right, we have to travel today!”. I was relieved that the New Jersey Turnpike had little traffic, and felt impressed that the Garden State Parkway was similarly expedient. We sampled Ravenna Michalsen’s album of dharma songs, followed by music from the Secret Garden taking us in to New York state.

 

For some reason, it has taken a long time to determine an ideal route to travel to my uncle (my mom’s brother) and aunt’s house from Delaware. After this trip, I think we have it. The primary NY route involved Route 22, which winds its way out of Westchester County and into familiar lower Upstate rolling hills. Spontaneity invited us to make a brief visit to an ice cream parlor in Putnam. Their prices were a far cry from the Fairfax Scoop, my local Marin County ice cream parlor of choice, and so I moderated the purchases for that visit. We continued north and I felt a comfortable anticipatory feeling as the New England border neared. By Millerton, New York, this feeling escalated to one of genuine excitement, and I initiated a high five as we crossed into Connecticut. My mom was amused by the officialness of my remarks, as she may have considered the non metro NYC areas of New York to be suitably evocative of New England. But now we were really back in the homelands. The familiarity and close-knit community was immediately evident passing through Salisbury, CT, and on up the hill to the Salisbury School.

 

Our arrival was well timed – two of my three cousins (of that branch) arrived back home a few minutes after us, and their grandmother, whom I may not have seen since 2002, was also making a short visit to the house. I was pleased with the choice of activities for the evening, taking us all down to a lake on the Salisbury campus to enjoy catching up and the evocative scenery. I recalled with pleasure that visiting this branch of the family had marked the Return to New England on my first cross country trip, the Departure from New England on my second, and was now once again serving as the Return to New England.

 

DAY 19, August 12: Massachusetts!

 

Our travel schedule coincided with the Return of my cousin Leighton, and I was pleased to be able to stay a little longer into Friday morning, just long enough to welcome him back and take a few Family Photo Op reunion pictures.

 

My mom and KC and I continued on our way into Massachusetts. I had forgotten that the border between Canaan, CT, and Sheffield, MA offers no official “Massachusetts Welcomes You” sign, but was grateful enough to see the familiar MA storybook-style town line sign. Many memories of previous Berkshires region visits – and my longer time in nearby Chester in 2007 – washed over me as we continued north along Route 7. Great Barrington did not seem to have changed at all, though some differences were visible in Stockbridge and Lee.

 

Richard called to check in on us as we got to the Mass Pike. He seemed to immediately understand – or see past – my enthusiasm of being back in my Home State. He said something like “does it really feel good to be back there? You’ve just left one of, if not the most, beautiful areas of the USA…” which made me admit that “you’re right, I will feel differently in a few days, but feel positive today.”

 

I arranged a Mass Pike radial rendezvous with long time friend Elizabeth so that Mom could continue on to her Ayurveda conference and we could go on to Worcester. Again, for me, the switch out of family and into friend mode meant that I could exhale a deep breath. I made sure to get KC comfortable with the surroundings of Worcester, where she would be spending the next week in that apartment. At the same time, I rolled with the punches of what Elizabeth and her brother Kevin chose to do, which ultimately revolved around a lot of Indian food for that evening.

 

DAY 20, August 13: Waylaid in Worcester

 

This day won the award for most self-consciously slow day of the trip. I had the choice of going back to my home region of the North Shore with Elizabeth and her brother, but elected to stay in Worcester instead, partially because of wanting a breather from the travel and partially wanting to keep KC company so that she was not alone in an unfamiliar environment.

 

I ended up spending most of the day writing this essay, and though it was long, I’m sure that I will be grateful to have done it in the long run. I also recall the awkwardness of exploring an unfamiliar Worcester neighborhood when I ventured outside to purchase a personal pizza for lunch.

 

DAY 21, AUGUST 14 (FINALE) – ON TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD!

 

A humid rain could not damper my anticipation of traveling from Worcester all the way back to my family homeland of Martha’s Vineyard. In a fortunate coincidence, Elizabeth’s landlord was traveling in to Boston that morning, so I rode with him as far as Newton and cracked many jokes about my home state. I should add that the novelty of being back in MA was starting to wear off by this point, just as Richard had predicted.

 

I enjoyed a long-overdue reunion with childhood friend Matt in Newton. I wished it could have been for a longer period of time, but am sure there will be other opportunities in the future. I chose a local Starbucks as a reunion spot, but was beginning to grow tired of the chain, which I had been patronizing more frequently after receiving a birthday gift card. I’ve finally finished the card as of today, August 30.

 

My mom and Richard arrived late to the rendezvous, causing us to then speed right along down routes 128 and 24 towards Martha’s Vineyard. There was some debate about whether we wanted to rush on to the next available ferry or proceed with the previously scheduled reservation of 7:45pm. Once we reached Woods Hole around 2:45pm, it became clear that the reservation could not be changed. To my veteran eyes, it seemed that the Vineyard had more auto and foot traffic than any time I had been there in the last 10 years. Of course, that’s great for the Island… and a headache for travelers.

 

We upped the ante on our travel-hardiness and visited the nearby Fishmonger Cafe in Woods Hole village. The rain had not gone away by this point, but the sea breeze remained refreshingly fresh. It was mutually decided that I would go ahead as a passenger in order to set up my tent at the campground and then go on to Mr. Ben Taylor’s annual concert at the Whaling Church in Edgartown. I liked this option and felt that it would be a fitting finale to make the ferry crossing as a solo journey.

 

I boarded the ridiculously large ISLAND HOME ferry at 3:45pm. The boat stuck to schedule and cruised right out on to Vineyard Sound while the tourists mingled and read up on the Island. I felt a natural unity and right place, right time standing there on the front exterior deck. As the Vineyard began to come into view, West Chop first as always, I knew I’d come home again.

Boulder Building Blocks

It’s a rare (for my current routine) day off from the road here in Boulder, Colorado, and so I’m celebrating by not using the car and embracing the pedestrian oriented culture of the city.

After going and going for two months on the road, with occasional but not consistent “pause” stops like this, it still feels a bit odd to slow down. There is a sense of getting a bit addicted to the art of going from one place to the next, and it feels strange when that routine comes to a stop.

However, the wider through line of the travel experiences involves making the most of each day as it comes (as in staying in the present moment) and letting it all unfold in an open-ended, though still very full way.

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Memorial Day a week later

Wrote this last week without a direct internet connection back on Martha’s Vineyard.

Today brings the pleasure of being the second consecutive Memorial Day where I do NOT have to leave Martha’s Vineyard. This is significant as this holiday often serves as a “back to reality” type of day after the long summer teaser weekend, and that was particularly the case for me growing up, so much so that I continue to associate Memorial Day with “leaving the Vineyard” even on years when I have not been here on the island.

So, how has it been to be back at “The Family Homestead” as I fondly call Martha’s Vineyard on social media? Pretty smooth and pretty comfortable, like falling right back into the best type of routine. This was exemplified on my first day back when a short, spontaneous walk along Main Street in Vineyard Haven (one of the island’s main drags) led to random greetings with several familiar friendly faces, culminating in seeing my godmother from a distance and walking towards each other as if in the celebrated finale of a film.

Visits to the island’s other primary towns have also generated senses of comfort and familiarity, although they have also been mixed with thoughts like “I wish this was less of a rich playground” and “I can’t see myself relating to that particular activity.” I guess what those thoughts mean is that I’m increasingly (but not surprisingly) taking the local position on how various activities impact the Vineyard. That’s not a new perspective for me, but it is refreshing to know that it’s still present and active.

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On the Road Again – and Again

In my current travel mode I’ve decided to make an effort to blog more. So I wrote this a few days ago attempting to recap the initial driving on the road experience of this summer.

I spend a lot of time looking forward to traveling, but I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on traveling. But maybe that will change with this summer on the road. I’m writing this from almost as far south as one can go in the USA, just 100 miles or so from Miami and the end of the road.

It was a fun challenge to come down here from Michigan and do the trip almost entirely on the same road, Interstate 75, which extends up the middle-center of the country from just outside Miami to the Canadian border at Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. I, of course, know the road particularly well in the Detroit area, and had encountered portions of its Florida path before.

This time, the decision to travel southbound included significant stretches of Kentucky and Tennessee, two states I’d never set foot in before, and (in going through them it is) now bringing my remaining states yet to visit to just four, with the lower 48 set to be clinched next month. I expected to see more pastoral farmland than I did in Kentucky, and I wished I’d had more time to explore the surroundings of the area. Nonetheless, both Kentucky and Tennessee offered a surprising (to the visitor) range of pastoral mountain scenery, similar to what I know from the northern reaches of back home in New England. (It also served as a reminder that my car is not the best one for mountain environments.)

Road scene captured during Lexington, Kentucky area rush hour.

Road scene captured during Lexington, Kentucky area rush hour.

This rugged environment continued farther south into Georgia than I expected before abruptly giving way to the Atlanta area sprawl. Well, maybe the gradual widening of the highway was a clue, but the sudden merging of two major highways brought traffic to a full stop. As the traffic inched forward again, the exits revealed a veritable golden highway of tourist attractions. Carter Center! Turner Center! MLK Jr National Historic Site! Downtown Atlanta itself! If I’d had more time, I would have arranged to explore a few of those places. But it will have to wait for some other opportunity.

As for Florida, the state is “open for business” as the sign at its welcome center proudly proclaims. In a cute touch, they even offered free orange juice at the center, with an attendant cheerfully handing the beverage out (in a small cup) to anyone who wanted it. I needed the fortification when, an hour or so later, the clear skies abruptly gave way to rain so heavy it was like a flash flood. The deluge continued for maybe 10-15 minutes and I turned off the stereo to concentrate solely on navigation. In this case I was grateful for my small car and easy maneuvering from the slower to middle lane. It was a relief to see the rain go away and I needed to pull off at the next big town, Gainesville, to recover from the excitement.

It was rush hour in Gainesville and the stop served as a quick redux of a city I wouldn’t have expected to get to know over the past few years; this brief stop was my third time there in the past three months. The main commercial area near the highway has undergone modest to sizable changes since the first time I was there in 2012, with increasing emphasis on sprawl and congestion, which looks unlikely to change anytime soon. Because of the heavy traffic I was unable to look for a “cheap” gas price and had to settle for the currently high $2.34 per gallon, which was clearly an overage from what other stations were offering.

The process of making a long trip quickly and succinctly reminded me of the value of Intentional Traveling, where there is value in taking a quick look at a map before you get underway and deciding on a tentative outline of where and how frequently to stop on the way to your destination. I will be following that mode as summer on the road continues.

My Yelp page is more of a blog than my own blog these days

  • 4870 Cass Ave
    Detroit, MI 48201
    3/23/2016

    I’m glad this establishment has joined the ranks of area dining destinations, but I’m not sure it was worth the nearly two years of anticipation. (Signs advertising the restaurant have been in place since at least the middle of 2014.)

    I’ve visited here for a handful of meals since their opening in late February, and have decided I need to take a break at this point, with the possibility of a revisit in a month or so. Not because their service has been poor to me – though there was one occasion where a long line formed not long after I placed my order – but because the novelty and excitement of a mac and cheese restaurant has worn off faster than I expected. i recognize that I’d previously enjoyed their countertop offerings at Somerset and Great Lakes Crossing, but, those were experiences that only happened around once per month.

    The menu offerings that I have tried have kept up the hearty consistency that I found in their other locations, with the “four cheese” and “pesto mac” being particular personal favorites. The dine-in environment is colorful and welcoming, but could clearly use a little more thought, not only in terms of how and where customers wait, but also how to dispose of trash and if the seating can be mixed up a little.

    It’s fun that they offer some “brewz” in addition to the standard menu, but I’ve noticed that the servers have seemed a bit befuddled regarding how that section operates, so I hope they develop a clearer distinction or simply better integration between the main menu and the libations. And that they are willing to buckle up and make things work for lasting in the neighborhood!

  • 4830 Cass Ave
    Detroit, MI 48201

    Dependable if not fantastic destination serving Mediterranean fare mostly to the campus crowd. I’ve been living and working near here for a while, but paid little attention to the restaurant until last fall, over a year into my stint in the area. I think I would have enjoyed it if I had noticed it sooner.

    The restaurant places particular emphasis on the freshness of their food, for the most part, so I’d advise an eat-in experience over the take-out. As well, the take-out options can be annoyingly overly wrapped, which decreases from their freshness in the case of the fries and leads to spillage with some of the wrap sandwiches. Take the time to get to know the servers if you are coming here regularly, as they are personable and happy to help.

  • 50675 Gratiot Ave
    Chesterfield, MI 48051

    3/23/2016

    I found this theatre to be disappointing after getting to know other (newer) MJR locations in Troy, Clinton and Sterling Heights. While MJR is always endearing to the community with its great theme song and affordable pricing, this theatre suffers from a tight layout and currently a literally in-between status as it converts to those roomier seating arrangements that are taking over the industry. The location is relatively convenient in that it’s close to I-94 and various shopping attractions, but I’m not sure I’d come again.

  • 2124 Michigan Ave
    Detroit, MI 48216

    I’ve made a couple of visits here in the past year, and can’t shake an impression of it being overly hipster pretentious for its own good. If the space was larger and had a better sense of crowd control, plus built-in wifi for customers, I might think higher of it.

    I have enjoyed some of their food products, including the particularly good egg sandwiches and some other baked goods, but haven’t felt inclined to stay and enjoy or linger since the crowds tend to be large. It is worth noting that the business is an anchor of the Corktown district and certainly offers appealing local flavor if you’re willing to try it.

  • 2200 W Lafayette Blvd
    Detroit, MI 48216

    3/23/2016

    Recently made a belated first visit here. One of the most tasteful places I’ve discovered in Detroit, with a delightful and extensive array of sliders, all very inexpensively priced. I also tried the New England clam chowder, since I hail from that part of the country, but felt it should have a different name since that dish is NOT meant to have red sauce and more of a potato emphasis.

    The service here was on the slow side – how long can it take to make a small slider? – and one might suggest they should have a better system to get things all sorted out than the array of visible slips on the kitchen window. But that wasn’t a total negative for the visit and I could see myself coming here again if the occasion presented itself. Extra points for the provided parking, too, and not having to do awkward searches on the street.

  • 151 E Wacker Dr
    Chicago, IL 60601

    3/20/2016

    One of the most full service hotels I’ve ever visited and in a perfect location to take advantage of downtown Chicago. Very generously sized single room, practically double the size of what the “average” might be, and a good range of resources within the hotel to take advantage of, including a fitness center, general store, conference rooms, and several dining options.

    I get that they are trying to maximize the efficiency with an automated check-in system, and it worked fine for me, but they might want to consider having staff members more clearly visible for questions and helping the visitors, perhaps in a clearly marked information desk type area.

    No trouble with the hotel wifi (just enter your name and room number) or any of the additional customer offerings at the hotel. The lobby itself has more of an airport feel since it is so busy, but it is welcoming and does the job well of treating guests to a comfortable base for all that Chicago has to offer!

  • 643 Hastings Ave
    Holland, MI 49423

    3/20/2016

    Generally I appreciate the modest aesthetic of Microtels and that’s why I chose this place to stay in during a brief visit to Holland this weekend.

    The location is odd: close to route 31, but not much activity going on around the hotel, and the downtown and other regional attractions are a driveable, not walking distance away. The room I was assigned on the second floor offered the typical layout of the chain, with a generously sized bed, but smaller surrounding area in the room. It did have the nice window nook that I have particularly enjoyed at other Microtels.

    As someone who can be sensitive to light in dark places, I didn’t appreciate that the in-room satellite dish seemed to not have an “off” option, so that it created a constant blue light in the room even when lights were off, which was magnified by the in-room mirror. It’s possible I did not find the off switch, but, not everyone watches or needs TV.

    The included breakfast was OK the next morning, with a good range of basic pastries, fruit and yogurt, although the waffle machine was running low on its mix.

  • 4202 SW 40th Blvd
    Gainesville, FL 32608

    No frills and literally on the edge of town next to the highway, but seems to have good character and good value for the price. Staff also seem relatable and not pretentious or looking down at you.

  • 5295 International Dr.
    Orlando, FL 32819

    Possibly the most well stocked Ross I have ever been in! (I have been deprived lately since the company is not present in my current home state of Michigan.)

    I’m sure I fell right into their target consumer mode this morning, stopping by right when they opened (at 8:30am, perfect to keep the day going on a good start) to stock up on a few additional travel supplies and apparel items. If I wasn’t on a tight schedule, I probably would have stayed to browse longer and see what additional deals I could find.

  • 8001 International Drive
    Orlando, FL 32819

    3/14/2016

    Stayed here last night and felt that the place was serviceable but didn’t really know what it wanted to be. It presents a “resort” atmosphere but it is right on the corner of a very busy stretch of Orlando. My rate, admittedly negotiated through a third party site, was just a room and nothing else such as breakfast included. The grounds are nice if one looks at them a certain way (not facing the sprawl of International Drive) and does not have to walk too far. I found the floors to be quite thin as well, and could hear my upstairs neighbors in building 7 stomping well into the night. The place is not terrible, but it’s not as appealing as the name branding and other advertising led me to believe it might be. And I couldn’t believe they wanted me to pay extra for wifi – get with the times!

The Avengers Endure

I’ve written before here about my enduring appreciation of The Avengers (NOT The Marvel Avengers.) On June 25th of last year, an inevitable day came to pass when series star Patrick Macnee died at age 93 of natural causes after a long and full life. I held off from viewing any episodes for four or five months after that, as I wasn’t sure if knowing that Steed (the central character) was no longer with us would affect my perception of the many episodes he left behind and continuing to watch the show.

When I did pull out the DVDs again, I deliberately chose a Steed centric episode from what many fans consider the series’ best season, its last in black and white, to honor Macnee in my mind. To my surprise, the episode endured in nearly the same way as before, and I even felt I was looking at it with fresh eyes. This could have been because of a long gap in viewing episodes, the changed circumstances without Macnee, my long-lasting appreciation of British culture on the whole, or some other reason entirely. Whatever the case, not only did the episode continue to feel like “visual comfort food” – my occasional term for watching the show – it still felt fresh in the present day, now just over 50 years after it was first transmitted.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

2015 Timehop recollection of a 2007 visit to an AVENGERS filming location in England.

In the past couple weeks, for one reason or another, that appreciation has grown into a celebration, as I’ve watched more episodes in a month-long time frame (or so) than over the past five years. They all continue to be emblematic of the 1960’s era in which they were made. However, based on certain aesthetic choices of the series producers, perhaps centered around decisions to have limited extras and not too much rooting in that same era, the episodes can come forward in time and still remain just as entertaining and relevant. If Steed and his various partners were seen dancing in Swinging London or hanging out at a Stones or Beatles concert (which they may have done in their off-screen time), the impression would be more nostalgic and arguably dated.

As it is now, the shows stand on their own terms, and they are each like little mini-films within themselves, as more than one writer about the series has come to observe. And I know I’m not the only one for whom this continuing appreciation of this series endures.

Marin County (still) relies on Golden Gate Transit

Coming to the end of a visit back to my “California homeland” of Marin County, my Yelp page has turned into a blog for this trip. I looked again at a Yelp review I wrote in 2011 of the local transit provider. It was quite wordy!

I’m coming to the end of 2 1/2 years of relying on GGT for a regular Marin to SF commute and returning home back over the bridge.

If you commute on a typical 9-5, Monday-Friday, schedule, GGT has your number. Very efficient and frequent service, especially on routes 4, 24, and 54, from various North Bay locations. As noted with the 4, they seem to have a soft spot for Mill Valley commuters, and I’m not exactly sure why that is. In the afternoons, I’ve often seen back to back 4s where one is very crowded and the next one not at all. Lack of information as to the next bus at SF stops can be irritating, although I have heard that they are working to update this in the near future. Last fall, they introduced a new fleet of ultra-modern larger buses that seem to be in service mostly on the Sonoma County routes.

They also offer service to the East Bay on routes 40 (express) and 42 (local). I have taken those buses a few times and find them to be mostly efficient. It’s nice to not have to pay the Richmond Bridge toll. A discount when going on to BART would be appreciated.

On the other hand, late night and weekend buses are another story. The 101 semi-express bus (which was surprisingly only introduced in 2009) stops running after 8pm, leaving the only options as the 70 to Novato or 80 to Santa Rosa, which alternate on the half hour up to 10pm and ONLY run once per hour following that time until 1am. Also after 10pm, the buses will make Every. Single. Stop. along Route 101, including an awkwardly long initial jaunt through Sausalito and awkward stop-over in Marin City, as they proceed north. (The buses do seem to have done away recently with the long layovers in Marin City, although the northbound 22 – a local route – still halts for no apparent reason in San Anselmo.) As you might imagine, this long journey home can be excruciating when you either just want to get home or don’t have anything to read or write on the bus. Those same “basic” routes (so named by GGT) are often populated by a considerably more diverse cast of characters than the typically business suited commute bus rider.

It’s no secret that Clipper (formerly TransLink) cards will give you a discounted fare on GGT, but I am surprised how many people seem to still not know that. GGT seems to be aware of where their income comes from, as they claim that Clipper can not be used for the popular AT&T Park ferry, when it most certainly could if you tag in and out at Larkspur.

On the ferry, the service is also reliable and comfortable. The early morning departures and 5:00 hour returns from/to Larkspur are filled with strong representation from the financial district. It’s always amusing to notice how the ferry becomes a tourist line between 10am and 3pm or so, and then thins out drastically for the last few runs back to Marin after 7pm. But why does it not run later than 9:30pm??? (More on that later…) Meanwhile, weekend ferries never run on time and seem to be populated with a large number of passengers who have either never been on the boat(s) before, treat it as a party boat complete with beers or other beverages, or are only there every few months.

As you can tell, GGT is well organized and mostly supportive of its riders and clientele. They even have “advisory committees” for bus and ferry passengers to participate in.

But as a frequent and loyal rider – admittedly with no other public transportation option – I have a few persistent questions:

1) Why continue with the constant raising of your fares? I moved to Marin in early 2009; San Rafael – San Francisco was $7.28 roundtrip on TransLink cards. Now it is $8.40. Not everyone can afford the constant rising in costs, and I don’t believe the haughty statement that it “keeps pace with inflation” – having some stability or consistency with these costs would be welcomed.

2) Don’t assume that everyone who is on GGT goes to SF for business. It’s clear that the schedulers may think that, based on the ratio of commute to general bus service.

3) Give us more options to get home to Marin at night. As stated above, the 70 or 80 can be excruciatingly long or an unappealing prospect. What about one or two buses around 11pm that go direct to San Rafael? Or Santa Rosa? Marin residents deserve more options. Not everyone here has a car or the luxury of being able to drive across the bridge as they please. I read somewhere that there was once a late night Friday and Saturday ferry to Larkspur. Why not bring that back?

4) You’ve bought two brand new ferries to add to the fleet within the past two years. Why not use them on the weekends and permanently retire the older Spaulding vessels?

5) Be more transparent about yourself, GGT.

6) WHY DO YOU NOT OFFER A MONTHLY PASS??? YOU SHOULD.

I’ve enjoyed my time with you, GGT. I know you can be better. I look forward to seeing you mature.

And if you read this far, here is a throwback video to one of my many Golden Gate Bus rides across the bridge…

Revisiting Into the Wild

In anticipation of my upcoming return to the West Coast, I decided to take a look, for the first time in several years, at a seminal “West Coast” film for me – Into the Wild, originally released in the fall of 2007. Hard to believe that is almost a decade ago at this point in time!

ABQ Movies

Revisiting the same cinema in Albuquerque, February, 2014

The circumstances of when and where I first saw the film likely contributed to its lasting impact. I was spending a few days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, accompanying my mom to a conference, but with an open-ended personal schedule, just like the main character in the film, to some extent. The New Mexico crisp quality of light, color and air was in full abundance in the late October time of year, and it was my first time ever seeing the state. I’d just had a phone interview, while on that trip, that led to my first job in California, and the prospect of that transition and opportunity was even more eye-opening, again in a more structured way to what the main character of the film anticipates with his journey to Alaska.

I saw the film again 4 or 5 months later at The Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo, California, still one of the friendliest movie theatres I’ve ever spent time in. By that time I had settled in to the California lifestyle and the film took on more of a “reinforcing” of the open road feeling, as opposed to the potential of the earlier screening in New Mexico. Still, there was a yearning there, and many possibilities existed for where my path could go at that time, in a way that I see now is characteristic of one’s early 20’s, and I was right in the same age bracket that the main character of the film was during the narrative.

For some reason I was less familiar with the original story and circumstances of Chris McCandless’ life at the time, probably because the main events took place when I was much younger. However, I was aware the author Jon Krakauer was a highly-regarded fellow Hampshire College alum – yet another personal connection to the story. And the director Sean Penn would later briefly be a down the street neighbor in Marin County.

So, in 2007 and 2008 the film made a lasting impact on me, with its wide vistas of Alaskan scenery and intense story of abandoning one’s personal possessions and family members for a back to the land life. Eddie Vedder’s original songs continue to be on my personal playlist from time to time, including one particular track (that I’d forgotten is not actually featured in the film) which feels emblematic of just driving around on the West Coast, and the sense of sky and open space that is so unique to the region.

In 2015 the film feels like a time capsule to me. First on the level of its featured actors professional trajectory, such as lead Emile Hirsch perhaps finding it difficult to top the performance he gives in this film, and running into some personal troubles with law enforcement earlier this year. Of the supporting actors in that age bracket, Kristen Stewart appears in a small role and looks noticeably younger, while Jena Malone has since branched out further into a mix of popular and independent fare. The older actors in the group soldier on  in the industry, but their fortunes have also varied, with Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughan and Marcia Gay Harden among the group. And IMDB tells me director Penn is preparing his first directed film since this one for release in 2016.

I guess I wasn’t expecting to feel the distance from the narrative that I felt on this re-viewing. I’ll still continue to regard it as a key film in my West Coast life, but … I also feel how time has passed.

Sometimes I miss that British way of saying things

Just received a form email from British Airways, and their distinct phrasing caught my eye. Wouldn’t it be nice if USA organizations sent emails as straightforward (yet stylish) as this.

Dear JP,

You have previously confirmed you would like to receive information about the latest offers, products and services from British Airways.

We are currently carrying out some housekeeping on our database and we’d like to ensure you are still happy to receive this information.

If you wish to continue receiving communications from British Airways, you need do nothing further. If you no longer wish to hear from us, you can unsubscribe here

Yours sincerely,
Customer Services