Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Weekend Wedding

I am settling in nicely back in DC, attending Pol/Econ training and meeting up with old friends.  Today, I even got Bailey back from my friends who watched him while I was on home leave (big thanks to Ellen and Reuben.  I can never repay your kindness to me).

But, the big highlight of the week was my cousin Mike's wedding on Saturday.  Unfortunately, FSI and my cousin conspired to make the wedding just five days after home leave ended.  If I had still been on home leave, I could have spent several days in Omaha.  I would have been able to spend time hanging out at the family cabin where we spent so many summer weekends when we were kids.  Since my trips to Omaha are usually around Christmas time, I never get to back out to the cabin.  I was very jealous seeing my sister's photos of them boating, swimming, and skiing out at the lake while I was being lectured on the differences between Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product.

My flight didn't land until after 11 on Friday night, just as the rehearsal dinner finished up.  Shelley, Katie and Paul picked me up and we drove out to my cousin Kevin's to stay the night.  On Saturday, we had to be at the church at 2 to take some family photos.  By our recollection, this was the first time all twelve first cousins, all seven aunts and uncles, and both grandparents had been together since at least 2000 (my high school graduation).  When we were growing up, we'd all get together probably a half dozen times a year or more.  All the major holidays and usually a few birthdays.  Except my family, everyone still lives in Omaha and they see each other on a regular basis.  I am usually the missing link, so it was great to be back and see everyone again.

The wedding was absolutely huge.  There were close to 300 people in the church and over 500 guests at the reception.  I don't think there is any way the bride and groom actually managed to talk to all of their guests.  But despite the wedding being a bit too big, we all had a fantastic time.  The food was good, the music was okay, the booze was free flowing, and the crowd was young and having fun.  Unfortunately for me, I had a bit too much red wine and took the mantle of the drunk cousin.  (As I was moaning outside sick, my sister - who usually takes the title of drunk cousin - kept cheering, "It isn't me!  It isn't me!")  Fortunately, the reception was almost over when I went over the ledge and my parents helped get me back to my cousin's where I promptly passed out on the couch for the next nine hours (still in my suit).

On Sunday, we met the other side of my family for lunch.  To the surprise of almost everyone, I felt great.  I spent a couple of hours talking to my aunts, uncles, and cousins - catching up on everything that has happened since I last saw them two years ago.

We really had an enjoyable lunch before my parents had to take me back to the airport.  When I got to the airport, my United flight was oversold and they were looking for volunteers to bump.  My original itinerary had me stopping in Newark and arriving back in DC after 11.  United ended up giving me a $200 voucher to take a direct flight back with US Air that landed at 8.  So, I got $200 and three hours of my life.  A fantastic end to a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The end of the road

Well, as hard as it is to believe, my trip is over.  I pulled into my parents' house about an hour ago and emptied out the (rather smelly and dirty) car.  I had a fantastic trip and the last few days have been no exception.

On Monday, I went white water rafting in West Water Canyon on the Colorado river.  The trip was amazing with about a half dozen Class III and Class IV rapids and more smaller rapids.  At least once I was tossed into the raft by large rapids.  More impressive than the rapids was the scenery.  The base of the canyon is formed by very hard, very old black rock.  This rock doesn't erode as much as the other stone, so it helps form the narrower canyon and shapes the rapids.  Above the dense black rock, red, pink, white, and yellow stone rose hundreds of feet into the air.

On Tuesday, I traveled the very scenic Highway 12 in Utah.  This road runs through three national parks and has additional national parks on either end.  The road starts in beautiful red rock area of Arches and Canyonlands national parks and then flattens into some rather brush desert.  Soon, white cliffs begin to rise in the desert as the road climbs these jagged peaks, before crashing down into another valley.  The road then curls its way up Boulder Mountain.  Seemingly out of nowhere, Boulder Mountain is covered in dense aspen and pine forest despite the desert surrounding it on all sides.

After leaving Boulder Mountain, the road enters the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument.  This park, larger in area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, features such various geologic features as the road rises and falls with the landscape.  The highlight of the drive had to be the road on Hogback Ridge.  The road traces the top of the ridge for about two miles.  The narrow, serpentine road has a sheer drop-off on both sides, with no guard rail for protection.  Driving the road was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

The last park on the drive was otherworldly Bryce Canyon National Park.  The highlight of the park is the Bryce Amphitheater, which is a wide and deep canyon with hundreds if not thousands of "hoodoos."  Hoodoos look like large stalagmites on the canyon floor that reach hundreds of feet into the air.  The hoodoos are formed from erosion, but the sheer number of identical hoodoos is what makes this park so amazing.  

Just past highway 12 lies Zion National Park.  Although I drove down to Zion (and through the creepy 1.1 mile tunnel), I didn't get to really explore anything in the park because I arrived too late, but what I did see was gorgeous huge rock.  Some of the large rocks looked like just like Jabba the Hut - same coloring, same texture, same shape, only about 1000x bigger.  I would definitely love to go back to Zion and explore a bit more.

The final national park on the tour was the grand daddy of them all - the Grand Canyon.  This is also the only park I had been to before.  We had always been to the more popular and easier to get to south rim, but since I was already in the north, I decided to check out the north rim.  It was pretty stunning - as expected- but given that everything the past month had exceeded expectations, this was the first place that merely met expectations.  I won't say it was disappointing (because it wasn't), but the drive in and out of the park was mostly 'blah', so relative to the Utah parks, it left something to be desired.  To top it off, I got pulled over by a park ranger for speeding on my way out of town.  Thankfully, he didn't give me a ticket.

On facebook, people keep telling me that I have just taken the trip of a lifetime.  While on home leave, I wanted to make a point of seeing America.  I think I accomplished that.  Over the last four weeks, I have seen nine states, thirteen national parks and driven over five thousand miles.  I played in the World Series of Poker, rode a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, saw wild bears in the Redwood Forests, spent two weeks with one of my best friends, and watched Old Faithful blow its top (albeit a few minutes late).  I really do live in a spectacular country and I am so grateful I have gotten the chance to explore it.  I don't know what my life will be like on my next home leave in 2015, but hopefully I will get to explore another corner of this fabulous land.

Road Trip by the numbers -

  • 5,666.4 - Total number of miles driven
  • $53 - cost of the single parking ticket I got on this trip while parked in Venice Beach (I parked over the line) 
  • 48 - Number of state license plates that we saw, plus D.C., several Canadian and Mexican plates, and even a U.S. diplomatic plate.  We never found Rhode Island or Delaware.
  • 45% - Percentage of total miles on the rental car that I put on during this trip
  • 28 - total number of days traveled.
  • 15 - Number of shot glasses I purchased (I collect them)
  • 14 - Number of pressed pennies that I made on the road trip
  • 13 - Number of national parks visited  (Joshua Tree, Redwoods, Olympic, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon)
  • 9 - Number of states visited including Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon*, Washington*, Idaho*, Montana*, Wyoming* and Utah (* denotes state I have never visited before.  This brings my total to 38.  I hope to be over 40 by the end of the year).
  • 6 - Number of Christmas ornaments I purchased on the trip (our family tradition is to decorate our Christmas tree with ornaments that we buy on vacations.  This makes decorating the tree a trip down memory lane.  I may have gone overboard with six ornaments, but it was a long trip).
  • 5 - Number of film sites visited.  Bellagio in Vegas (Oceans 11), Goonies house in Astoria, Sleepless in Seattle House in Seattle, Lone Ranger set in Moab, UT (starring Johnny Depp, they wrapped up finished two days before I arrived, part of the set was still there), and Kanab, UT, where countless Westerns were filmed from the 1920s until the 1970s.
  • 4 - Number of friends visited on the trip, sort of.  I met up with Ashley in San Diego, Sam drove with me for two weeks and went to dinner with Ciao in Seattle.  We also stayed with my friend's daughters in Seattle.
  • $3.99 - Highest gas price paid in Eureka, CA
  • $3.39 - Lowest gas price paid in Florence, OR (and they pump the gas too)
  • 1 - Number of times I set an alarm (to go white water rafting)
  • 1 - Number of times I was pulled over for speeding
  • 0 - Number of times I was ticketed for speeding!

Finally, in addition to looking for license plates for every state, Sam and I also created our own roadtrip scavenger hunt.  When we left San Francisco, we wrote down the following list and searched the rest of the trip to find the items.  The list is below.  All items that are crossed out were found.  Note that all animals were found outside zoos except llamas.
  • Horse and Buggy
  • Giant piece of fruit
  • Customized Car
  • Double Roadkill (two roadkill in a short span)
  • Hot hitchhiker
  • Llamas
  • Bears
  • Moose
  • Elk
  • Wildfire
  • Native American in Native American costume
  • Totem Pole
  • Earthquake
  • Bald Eagle
A few final notes about the trip.  

First, there are many things that make the United States of America fantastic, but one of the amazing things about our country is our infrastructure.  Say what you want about bureaucracy and politicians and everything else, I traveled for twenty-eight days on absolutely pristine highways.  After living in Belize for two years, I can no longer overlook how amazing our roads are.  Throughout the trip, I kept seeing signs that said "rough road" and I would brace myself for the upcoming jolt, which never came.  In America, we take these things for granted, but I truly appreciated the roads and bridges on this trip.  

Moreover, I was not driving the interstate the whole way.  I spent as much time as possible on the two lane highways of America.  These roads and bridges cut through some of the most rugged terrain in the world.  They hug the coast, cross over mountains, span canyons and rivers, tunnel through mountains.  And every road I traveled was in practically perfect condition.  

Second, I think I saw more foreign tourists on this trip than American tourists.  That didn't surprise me in the cities, but it surprised me in the national parks.  Places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier National Park are not easy to reach, especially for international travelers.  Most of these places are at least a day's drive from any major international airport.  Yet, I heard Italian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish (although not as much as you'd expect), French, Russian (Sam and I helped a Russian hotel heiress get a taxi from the Golden Gate Bridge), Greek, Portuguese, and Hindi.  (At least I think it was Hindi, it was an Indian language.)  I've met many foreigners outside the U.S. and never really heard them exclaim that they wanted to visit the national parks in the U.S. (except the Grand Canyon), but I am glad to see that so many are making the worthwhile trek to this part of America.

Third, I had fantastic weather on this trip.  With the exception of Las Vegas, I don't think I had any daytime temperature go over 100 degrees.  While the rest of the country was sweltering in a massive heatwave, I was a bit chilly on the Pacific.  When we moved east away from the coast, the heatwave broke by a day or two in front of us.  Everywhere I went, locals remarked on the fantastic weather.  I stayed dry, too.  The big storm had always just passed us by.  The first rain on the whole trip hit while drove through Yellowstone and continued off and on for three days, but that was it.  It never even rained in Seattle.  I couldn't have asked for better weather (although it could have been a bit warmer in San Francisco).

Finally, the late sunsets keep messing with my internal clock.  For two years in Belize, I got used to the sun setting early.  Everyday, it was dark by no later than 7.  (Belize does not observe daylight savings time, so it observes mountain time during the summer even though it is further east than St. Louis).  So, when I arrive in California and it stays light until after 9, it begins messing with my head just a bit.  I found myself eating later meals and unable to sleep before midnight simply because I needed "night" time to relax before bed. I know I will get used to the late sunsets in no time, but for the past month it has been freaking me out.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

America the Beautiful

Since we left Washington, we have spent the last three days driving 1100 miles through some of the prettiest places on the planet.  The Cascades were magnificent.  Eastern Washington was a desolate landscape of boring shrubbery.  Western Montana showcased gorgeous rolling hills, majestic buttes, dazzling creeks, glassy lakes, fields of bright wildflowers, picturesque small towns, and of course, big blue sky.  I loved driving through Western Montana.

At the last minute on Wednesday, we decided to add 500 miles to the trip and drive up to northern Montana to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  What a fantastic detour.  The winding road climbs the craggy peaks.  Waterfalls, both large and small, cascade down the mountains filled with fresh snow melt.  The Continental Divide at Logan Pass provides a 360 degree view of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains.  

There were not as many "glaciers" as I expected but, admittedly, I did not really know what a glacier was.  Basically, the glacier is the permanent or semi-permanent snow pack on a mountain.  Back in the olden days, these mounds of snow and ice covered most of the Western U.S.  Now, most of the summer snow pack is gone.  The glaciers melt down each summer to almost nothing.  They expect that all of the glaciers will be gone (meaning no snow covered peaks in summer) by 2020.  Definitely glad we took the detour.

The only place more amazing than Glacier National Park is the grand daddy of all national parks - Yellowstone.  This huge park simply astounds with the magnitude and diversity of astounding natural wonders.  Sitting on a still active giant volcano, the relatively close magma provides most of Yellowstone's unique wonders.  Although we did not do the park justice by driving through in a day, we got to see dozens of amazing things.  The highlights include - 
  • Mammoth Hot Springs - bubbling hot water filled with calcium permeates to the Earth's surface.  After it reaches the surface, it cools quickly depositing the calcium as it races downhill.  The leftover calcium quickly forms steps down the hill.  New springs form and old springs close regularly, leaving a patchwork of steps around the area.
  • Waterfalls - The tower falls were pretty cool, but the highlight was undoubtedly the Upper Falls and Lower Falls (Yellowstone is so old, that they can simply name them upper and lower falls) on the Yellowstone River.  Between the two falls, the river drops over 400 feet in less than a half mile.  The NPS has done everything possible to make these falls accessible to guests.
  • Surrounding these waterfalls is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  While no where nearly as majestic as the real Grand Canyon, this river-formed canyon remains spectacular.
  • Animals - While we missed out on seeing Grizzly and Moose, we saw herds of Bison and elk, along with marmots, deer, goats and other wild animals.  We even saw a bald eagle soaring through the Grand Canyon.
  • Bubbling Mud - Several parks of the park feature bubbling mud pits, which stink of sulfur, but are spectacular to watch.  Surprisingly, many of the animals live in the area near the mud pits because the pits provide ground warmth which helps provide both food and warmth during cold winters.
  • Old Faithful - The famous geyser performed a few minutes later than predicted, but the geyser was still spectacular.  Watching the show, I quickly understood why this place was the first national park.
  • The roads - Most people might overlook this, but I lived the last two years in Belize, where spectacular natural wonders are often too difficult to reach.  The NPS has done a fantastic job of building the park with roads, campgrounds, trails, etc.  That the public really has access to these sights is due to the fantastic work of the government.  Additionally, there were rangers at all the major sites happy to answer questions.
After we left Old Faithful, we drove through Grand Teton National Park as the sun began to set.  Although I wish we had gotten to see the Tetons better, the views of the peaks were still amazing.  The best part of Grand Teton were the buffalo.  At one scenic pull-outs, there was a huge herd of bison roaming across the nearby fields.  I asked a ranger about them and he let us know we could drive down a gravel road ran back through the fields toward the herd.  Driving down the road, we stared at the hundreds of bison 200 yards to our left when suddenly I looked right.  On the ridge 20 feet above us stood several Bison silhouetted in the darkening sky.  As we watched him, several of his friends joined them and they began to ramble down the hill only 10 feet in front of the car.  Simply amazing.

Road leading into Montana on the Idaho border

River in Montana

Waterfall in Glacier National Park 
Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs

New forest growth springing up after the old forest died in a fire

Me with the lower falls in the backround

The brink of the upper falls

Bubbling mud

Old Faithful

Bison on the ridge

Bison on the road in front of us

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

I have to admit - I loved Seattle more than I expected.  Part of it has to be that I had really no expectations at all.  I know people from Seattle always talk about how great a city it is, but a great city to live in is not necessarily a great city to visit.  Turns out Seattle is both.

Before we arrived on Sunday, Sam and I drove around the Olympic peninsula, which is absolutely stunning.  The highlight of the area is Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.  The winding road leads up a stunning 360 degree vista.  On one side of the hill are the Olympic Mountains (including Mount Olympus), featuring dozens of snow capped peaks as far as the eye can see.  On the other side of the hill the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound.  We could actually see parts of Canada from the lookout (albeit islands not connected to the mainland).  Absolutely stunning.  Then, to get to Seattle from the peninsula, you have to take a ferry across Puget Sound - providing a fantastic view of the Seattle skyline as you arrive downtown.

About a month before I left Belize, one of my A-100 colleagues saw my planned itinerary and offered me the option of staying in his house in Seattle.  Although he was still in Djibouti, his daughters lived in the house and we were welcome to stay.  They have a fantastic house about a 15 minute light rail ride from downtown Seattle.  His daughters made us feel more than welcome and even brought home tons of pastries and bread from their job at a bakery in Pike Place Market.  We could not be more grateful for their hospitality.  (It also worked out perfectly as we needed to do some laundry to last for the rest of the trip).

In order to orient ourselves in the city and get an idea of what Seattle had to offer, we took a "Duck" tour.  These tours are in several cities throughout the U.S. and are WWII landing boats that can function both as a bus and a boat.  The tours are high energy and high comedy.  Lots of jokes and lots of music.  The tour took us out on the water in Lake Union (featuring the floating house from Sleepless  in Seattle and paintball scene from 10 Things I Hate About You.  Then it goes around the various neighborhoods and sites in Seattle.  The whole thing was a bit cheesy, but a lot of fun and worth it.

We spent the rest of the afternoon over at the Seattle Center, which features two of Seattle's most well-known attractions.  The Experience Music Project (EMP) is a music museum developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  The two most impressive exhibits featured Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana.  The Hendrix exhibit not only covered his life and music, but really looked into how he developed new techniques in electric guitar.  Specifically, his use of those foot peddles that can distort the sounds of the notes and overdubbing - where he would play all of the guitar parts in the studio to really mix the melodies and harmonies together.  I know little about technical musical skills (as is apparent from this paragraph), but I really felt like I learned some things.

The Nirvana exhibit was your more standard museum fare with perhaps a bit more audio-visual components.  I was going through my country phase during the Nirvana heyday, so their story was not entirely familiar to me.  (For example, we spent the night before in their hometown of Aberdeen and didn't realize it.)  I never realized exactly how short their career was.  In essence, they only had two major studio albums (Nevermind  and In Utero).  They also had one small label album (Bleach), a compilation of B sides (Incesticide) and of course, MTV Unplugged.  This fact reminded me about the fact that the Beatles only released music as a band for 7 years (1963-1970).  The science fiction and horror exhibits were also quite interesting and we ended up spending several hours at the EMP.

After the EMP, we really debated about going up the Space Needle next door.  It cost $20 to ride an elevator to the observation deck and I just didn't think it was worth that much.  Ultimately, I decided that this may be my only trip to Seattle, so we had to visit the Space Needle.  As I said before, I really didn't know what to expect of Seattle, but it was much more cosmopolitan than I expected.  The downtown was quite large with dozens of sky scrapers, even while the city remained very walkable.  Most of the sky scrapers were modern, but the smaller buildings down town all had great stone and brick architecture.  Many of the building facades and arches reminded me of Europe rather than the West Coast.  Plus the waterfront(s) are spectacular.  In addition to the main port in Puget Sound, there were several other "lakes" around town that are all connected to the sea via locks, canals, and rivers.  I don't think there is anywhere in Seattle that is more than a couple of miles from the water.  Looking down upon the city, I could see why the locals love it so much (it probably helped that it never rained while we were there).

For dinner on Monday, we met with one of my fraternity brothers who moved to Seattle last year.  Ciao (real name Steve Chau) was always the crazy Asian kid bouncing all over the walls.  He joined the fraternity my junior year and I probably haven't seen him for more than five years.  He is still the same crazy kid, but in Seattle there are a lot more Asians around.  We compared notes on all our old friends and talked about our various jobs.  We went out to dinner in Belltown - which appears to be the hipster part of town.  I ate sushi for the first time (verdict - won't object if someone suggests sushi for dinner, but won't suggest it either).

On Tuesday, we started the day wandering around Pike Place Market.  I know its a tourist trap, but I really liked it.  The guys throwing the fish were fun, but that was only one small part of the market, which is filled with vendors selling fruit, fish, crafts, art, books, kitchen supplies, scarves, etc.  In the lower section, we found a magic shop, an antique store, and this cool vintage and historical documents store.  Sam and I spent an hour looking through the old maps and propaganda from WWII.  We both ended up buying these old newspapers.  I bought a WWII era paper from 1943 and Sam bought a Civil War era NY paper from 1863.  We are both nerds.

From Pike Place Market, we wandered around the waterfront and rode on the brand new Ferris Wheel.  All the locals were excited about the new Ferris Wheel, which just opened two weeks ago.  I actually thought it was pretty neat and one of the sites in Seattle which was truly worth the price of admission.  We then made our way over to Pioneer Square, which is the original downtown Seattle and home to the fantastic Underground Tour.  Following a fire in the 1860s, the city government decided they wanted to rebuild the downtown at a higher level than it had been to solve flooding problems they were having with the tides.  The business owners didn't want to wait the 10 years it would take to complete the project to rebuild.  What Seattle ended up with were streets that were one story higher than the shop entrances (picture a waffle with the stores in the depressions and streets along the ridges).  As time moved on, the whole area raised to the old second floor leaving these underground passages abandoned to time.  Really fascinating tour which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Seattle.

I have to say that overall, I really liked Seattle.  The city had a vibe that was missing in the other cities I have visited - San Diego and San Francisco.  The city felt cosmopolitan, filled with young people and fun activities.  The neighborhoods all had their own unique characteristics.  Now, all of this may be due to two straight days of sun, but I still really liked the city.

If you didn't understand the title, that is the oddball line featured in the theme song of Frasier.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Holy crap, America is big

America is big.  California is big.  These are two things that I knew before I took this trip, but have been reiterated over the past few days.  When we left San Francisco, I expected we'd be in Oregon in just a few hours.  San Francisco, after all, is in northern California.  Then, I looked at the map - I mean really looked at the map and realized that San Francisco is basically in central California.  To make things worse, Highway 1 north of the bay is super curvy.  I mean four hours to go 40 miles curvy.  Combined with our late start in leaving San Francisco, we detoured to highway 101 to save a few hours.

By late afternoon, we were entering the redwood forests area.  Seeing the huge redwoods was one of the things on my life-long bucket list.  They did not disappoint.  Soon, we saw a sign for a drive-thru tree and immediately got off the highway to go through.  (In my mind, these trees were in the path of a road and rather than cut down the tree, the built the road through the tree.  In reality, smart entrepreneurs went looking for big trees to build roads through them so they could charge tourists for pleasure.)  As horribly kitschy as it was, it was so awesome.  That particular tree was twenty-four feet wide and 200+ feet tall.  The road through the tree was barely wide enough for "Scratchy" (the nickname of our little Nissan Versa after it was keyed in San Diego) and several large vehicles could not actually drive through.

Further north, we drove through the "Avenue of the Giants."  This scenic bypass took us through some of the tallest redwood forests.  These trees are absolutely astounding and confounding in their size.  There are three types of redwoods - the coast redwood, the giant sequoia (actually smaller than the coast redwood), and some rare kind that grows only in China.  They are so tall because (a) they grow about 3-4 feet per year when they are "young" and (b) they are fairly impervious to fire, rot, and disease, so they live to be really old.  An average redwood was in the 150-200 foot range, a large one between 200 and 300 feet, and a few mammoth trees over 300 feet.

The highlight of the redwood forests was the "Trees of Mystery" north of Eureka.  This dose of American features a 45 foot tall Paul Bunyan greeting guests (he really talked to guests).  The park had a number of unique redwoods - trees growing sideways, a grove of trees in the shape of a wedding chapel, one tree that had twelve other trees living on it.  At the end of the trail, there was a sky tram that took you through the canopy to a lookout hill.  Traveling through the canopy of the redwoods - over a hundred feet off the ground was spectacular.  We could even see the Pacific ocean from the top of the hill.

We also stopped yesterday at a small safari zoo park just across the Oregon line.  The zoo featured dozens of large animals - jungle cats, lions, monkeys, chimps, zebra, etc. - in small cages.  While this may not be good for the animals, it is fantastic viewing for the guests.  (All the animals have adequate space, but none of the luxury of the San Diego Zoo).  There were also dozens of less dangerous animals wandering around the ground with the guests.  These included pygmy goats, deer, peacock, and llamas among others.  The zoo also had a great nursery which allowed guests to hold a baby raccoon, baby skunk, baby ferrets, and we even got to play with a baby bobcat.

We've had a couple other awesome animal encounters.  We've seen a deer frolicking down the highway, a bay full of seals, and a domestic herd of elk.  We spotted two grey whales feeding off the coast (thanks to John, the old local happily helping tourists spot the whales and even loaning his binoculars for a better look). The highlight of our animal adventures so far were two wild bears on the highway in Northern California.  They were playing on the local scenic detour when we came around a curve.  One fled immediately for the woods to the right of the road, but the other crossed the road to flee on the left.  Sam and I were both too stunned and the bears left too quick to get a picture, but it has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of the trip.

The other main attraction of the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Seattle (besides the Redwoods) was the town of Astoria, Oregon.  One of my favorite childhood movies, The Goonies was set in Astoria and many outdoor scenes were filmed there as well.  From the moment I found out it was a real place, I knew I wanted to spend an afternoon in Astoria scouring Goonies sights.  The highlight, of course, is Mikey and Bran's house in the Goondocks (that's where the name of the movie comes from) where much of the early action takes place.  After seeing their view of the Columbia river, I understand why they didn't want to move.  There is also the "museum" where their dad works and the jail the Fratelli's escaped from at the beginning of the movie.  The jail housed the Oregon Film Museum, which had some cool Goonies memorabilia and some exhibits about other films filmed in Oregon (such as Kindergarten Cop).  Not great, but worth the price.

Impossibly, the drive has been better than the stops.  Every turn or hill portends new breathtaking vistas.  The landscape of America has changed so dramatically from the desert mountains of Arizona, Nevada, and southern California.  As I moved up the coast, flat sandy beaches and rolling hills covered in grass took over the landscape.  The redwoods of northern California were followed by the jaw dropping cliffs of Oregon and now the evergreen forests of Washington.  Throughout the trip, the Pacific Ocean has faithfully rumbled to my left, never venturing more than a dozen miles or so from the road.  In fact, the views have been so great that I have not been able to read or sleep or play on my iPad when Sam drives for fear of missing the gorgeous views.

Tomorrow, I will leave the Pacific Ocean as we make our way to Seattle.  If the route south is anywhere as good as the route north, then I will have a fantastic trip.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sitting on the dock of the bay

I picked up my friend Sam on Monday night in San Francisco.  He is joining me for two weeks of the road trip, starting in San Fran.  We stayed south of the city in a hotel by the airport and took BART into the city both days.  For the most part, the system was convenient, cheap and clean.  I would highly recommend to others to stay outside the city and use BART to get in.

Tuesday, we started off at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or SFMOMA (we regularly entertained ourselves by trying to pronounce all the acronyms that began with SF).  Pretty cool exhibits and we caught it on a free entrance day.  We then walked around in SOMA (south of Market) neighborhood.  I love the architecture in San Fran.  There are several large public works buildings that are amazing (City Hall, for example), but the real beauty is in all the private buildings, houses, and stores.  Each building is unique with its own diverse style.  We ended up down in the Mission neighborhood, where we toured the Delores Mission, which is the oldest building in San Francisco, built in the late 1600s and surviving multiple earthquakes.  We then walked around the Haight and Castro before heading back to our hotel.

That evening, we drove over the San Mateo Bridge (huge bridge which crosses the Bay well south of the city) to Oakland for the Red Sox-Athletics game.  The Colosseum is a dump of a stadium, but the game was exciting.  The A's scored two runs in the bottom of the 9th to win it in dramatic fashion.  The scary part of the game occurred when a fly ball rocketed to our section (behind home plate and under the upperdeck awning) and hit an older gentleman in the temple.  He was hurting pretty bad, but seemed like he would be fine.

After the game, we decided to drive across the double-decker Bay Bridge (we were on the top level) into San Francisco.  The city was empty at 11 pm on a Tuesday night and we drove all around the hills of San Francisco.  Some of those hills are insane.  It felt like the car would topple over backwards going up the steep hills.  We managed to find Lombard Street and drive down the crookedest street in America.  Finally, we drove down along Fisherman's Wharf before heading back to the hotel.

We got a late start on the 4th of July but made it into the city by 1.  We took a cable car (still awesome) over the hill to Ghiradelli Square.  After lunch at an Irish pub, we rented some bikes to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.  At this point, I should mention how HUGE the Golden Gate Bridge is.  It is a gigantic, monstrous, enormous structure.  Which means, it doesn't look that far from Fisherman's Wharf.  I figured I could bike there easily along the mostly flat route.  I clearly underestimated how badly out of shape I am in.  Although I had to stop often (sometimes taking pictures as an excuse for the rest) and walk the bike up a few of the hills, I managed to make it all the way to Sausalito.  The ride was fantastic (once it was over) and I am really glad that I did it, but I don't know if I'd volunteer to do it again unless I get myself into shape.

Our original plan included taking the ferry back from Sausalito, but there were at least 300 bikes in line for the ferry that we worried it would take 4 hours to get back.  We spotted a cab with a bike rack and split the taxi with the Australian couple in front of us in line.  Once we dropped off the bikes, we walked up and down Fisherman's Wharf.  The road was closed off to traffic and filled to the brim with people celebrating the 4th of July.  Dozens of buskers were performing on the streets and Sam and I were especially captivated by the three English acrobats.  For dinner, we ordered clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl (delicious).

As dusk settled on the city and the wind picked up, we made our way back to Ghiradelli Square to watch the fireworks.  A band played 80s and 90s cover songs before the pyrotechnics started.  The fireworks show was pretty spectacular (much better than San Diego's fiasco) pairing fireworks with patriotic music.  The only real problem was after the show when we realized that there was no public transportation anywhere near where we were.  We hiked (along with everyone else) about 2 miles to the nearest metro station, where we pushed our way onto a train to take us back to San Mateo.  All in all, a long, exhausting, but fun day.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Big Sur and Hearst Castle

June 30 to July 2
Los Angeles to San Francisco - 528.8 miles

For the last year or so, anytime I told anyone about my plan for this trip, they would bring up the Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur.  The drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco along highway had been built up to such huge expectations, that I was actually slightly disappointed in the drive.  I should explain.  

Most of my disappointment was false expectations.  You see, I have been on some amazing drives in my life.  I took a road trip down the Almafi Coast with college buddies.  I toured around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland with Shelley.  I hiked the trails of Cinque Terre.  I've ridden trains through the mountains of Europe and along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  So, when everyone told me this would be the greatest drive ever, I expected it to surpass these other experiences by a considerable degree.  I expected waves crashing into giant rocks so savagely that spray would roll over the car.  Mountains would drop directly into the sea.  I built it up like I was going to be driving on Mars.  It wasn't.  

Despite my ridiculous expectations, the drive was truly fantastic.  The scenery is stupendous and on par with the Almafi Coast and Ring of Kerry (those are the top 3 in some order).  Plus, the road is amazing.  About every two miles or so, there would be a sign warning of a rough road ahead.  I'd slow down looking for the potholes or gravel before realizing that I'd already passed over the "rough" road.  The road was nice and wide with plenty of lookout points to stop along the way.  During the 100 miles of desolate coast I drove today, I probably stopped at least twenty to thirty times or more.

In addition to Big Sur, the other highlight of the trip was my visit to Hearst Castle.  William Randolph Hearst - the inspiration for Citizen Kane - began building his "ranch" in 1919 and declared it "half finished" when he stopped construction in 1947.  The estate is located in the middle of nowhere about an hour north of San Luis Obispo (a great little college town worth a longer visit some time) just off highway 1.  Casa Grande ("the big house") has something over 100 rooms with 30+ bedrooms and 40+ bathrooms.  The smallest of the guest colleges only has ten rooms.

Others can better describe the rooms and majesty of the estate.  What caught my eye was all of the artwork that Hearst brought over from Europe.  There were absolutely amazing pieces in the house.  Several medieval and Renaissance ceilings, Italian choir boxes for wood paneling, dozens of antique statues and dozens more commissioned marble statues. (Built in the 1930s, these "new" statues look so clean and fresh that they don't appear to be marble.)  One of the other things that I loved was that many of the doors featured the heraldic sigils of the original owners.  Below are a few pictures from Hearst Castle.

The front of Casa Grande

These choir boxes were modified by the architect to allow doors

The dining room features the flags from each of Siena's neighborhoods,
which are displayed during the annual Palio 
The beautiful Neptune pool

One of the "new" statues

Because one huge pool is not enough