Category Archives: North America

Land of the Free

Well, we’re back on the road again! I’m writing this from the airport as we prepare to fly off to Dublin ((many) pints ‘o Guinness, here we come!). It was a whirlwind two month break from our global travels to do a little more fun stuff back home in the good ‘ole USofA. We came back for some very important events (a couple phenomenal weddings and even a P-town bear week bachelorette), and managed to fit in lots of things we missed whilst abroad. So we thought we’d give you a very brief update on some of the highlights of our trip, as well as introduce you to some old favorites and new finds from our visit to the homeland!

Our trip to the states had us landing in our “home” of Los Angeles. While we have no actual home to speak of (and I mean literally, even our mailing address no longer exists as my parents just sold their home!), our friends were very generous in letting us crash for much of our time (we love you guys!!!). Of course a big highlight for us was getting our LA grub on. While we love all food, Asian especially, we were beyond excited to get our hands on some of our local favorites. The very first day we arrived we hit some serious bases with a breakfast of bagels, lunch of Mexican food, and of course In’N’Out for dinner. Solid.

We also checked out a few new spots. We visited our wonderful friends Jamie and Eric over at their new restaurant: Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese. Delish. And while Greeny is cooking up some fancy and fabulous takes on grilled cheese, it’s really hard to pass up the classic grilled cheese with a side of perfectly seasoned tomato soup. Seriously comfort food at its max. And speaking of Max, we were thrilled to meet their adorable new arrival, Max, who joined the world while we were off in Asia.

I was quickly reminded of just how “LA” LA can be when visiting the new(ish) spot: Kreation on Montana in Santa Monica. No offense, and you all know I defend LA to the death against all those (crazy) haters, but this is one of those places that makes people despise LA. I overheard someone ask the waiter (literally), “Do you have a juice that would make me happy?” (Cue Valley Girl dialect.) Granted the menu invited this (with items like “Energy,” “Relax,” “Skinny,” and “Rosy Aura”), but… I mean. If there was any doubt I had made it back to the wacky world that is LA-LA-Land, I saw one lady pushing her pint-sized pup in a stroller and another carrying hers in a purse. Better yet, while getting a manicure in anticipation of Jenny’s wedding, I overheard the most absurd LA woman that might exist. She was, and I quote her directly now, “an Hermes and Chanel girl” who would “not be caught dead in” other lowly designers’ wears. She complained about her dinner plans for fear of the Paparazzi and proceeded to look at a woman roughly thirty pounds heavier than she and say, “oh my god, you’re so skinny, I’m so fat I just gained ten pounds.” But the best story of all, a friend told me she offered some food to a homeless man and he declined, telling her he was on a raw food diet.

We also joined friends to watch Swingers at Cinespia, the famed movie screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was pretty damn awesome. Man, we love LA. We also enjoyed our friends’ pups. And spotting a woman on a pay phone! I’ve not seen one of these in use in ages! (It’s the small things in life…)

See the Practical Info section, below, for some more of our favorite eats along the way and across the country.

But the highlight of LA was for sure Jen and Albert’s wedding. Absolutely stunning. The wedding and the bride! Seriously, how gorgeous was she!? An absolute modern fairytale princess. That Albert is a lucky man, I tell ya. Also, after six months of embracing what my friends now endearingly refer to as my “traveler fugly” phase (OK the really nice ones call it my “natural” phase), I reveled in the opportunity to get fancy and glam and all dolled up. I felt like a movie star.

One of the best perks of quitting your job to travel the world is the time it gives you to spend with your family and friends, and we truly relish this. We flew back east to spend about three weeks with all sorts of family…

…Staying with Alan’s brother Kenny in New Jersey (and visiting some friends in New York while there)…

…Visiting my family in Maine for the final nights in our cottage (which is now being torn down and will soon be completely rebuilt as their full time home) and helping them pack up and move out of my childhood home in Concord, MA. We found some serious gems along the way in that process…

…spending lots of QT with my big bro, Dev, and my dog nephews, Lou and Ryder (I am obsessed)…

…and of course eating LOTS of lobstah…

…and a massive family reunion at Alan’s mom’s house in Longmeadow, MA. It was so lovely meeting these more distant relatives and spending more time with those we already know and love.

We also fit in lots of good old left coast time. Obviously there was LA, but we also drove up to a wedding in Sonoma, and used the opportunity to stop on the way and check out the wine scene in Paso Robles. We spent two nights at a little B&B owned by a very strange proprietor. Long story short, despite the phenomenal location of this B&B, we would not recommend it. Largely because of overpromises (and false advertising!) that were not delivered on, and less so because the property was not as nice and the room was incredibly small. It’s just frustrating to sign up for something that’s detailed explicitly online and then reeceive much less than promised. Even more annoying that the proprietor made a point of talking about the amenities that she later failed to provide. Strange.

Anyhow, the real reason we came was the wine, and that, my friends, did NOT disappoint. We adored the wines here! It’s not pretentious in the way that some might argue Napa and Sonoma have become, and it’s still in fact quite cheap. Tastings are generally $10 a piece, the pours are generous, they credit the fee against purchases, they’ll let you try anything you liked again, and a few places give you a glass to keep. The wines themselves are fairly reasonably priced, though we did splurge on a few bottles. Is there anyone out there who can not splurge on a bottle of good wine by the time you reach your third tasting? OK, it was only our second when I started buying multiple bottles. Must find a home with a wine cellar. I’ll start with just a home. See the Practical Info section below, for some of our favorite vineyards, wines and restaurants.

Also worthy of a shoutout is Destination Drivers, a company that will send someone to drive your car around to the vineyards for an hourly fee. All wine and no drunk driving, yippee! This would in theory work out to be cheaper than the wine tours on offer, that is if you didn’t spend six hours tasting. Oops! What I loved most was the tackle box full of bread and meats and cheeses that they supply to keep you going between tastings. Yum!

After Paso we enjoyed Felix and Amanda’s spectacular wedding at the Kenwood Inn and Spa in Sonoma, and even managed to squeeze in a beautiful local hike with the groom just hours before he wed.

From there, we had a great afternoon in the East Bay catching up with Brian and Kim and Camilo and Hillary and all their kids. Alan and Quinn had a nice scat session. Afterwards I jetted off back to the east coast to help my parents finalize the move, and then attend the last of the wolfpack’s bachelorette parties on Cape Cod. This was my first time in Provincetown, and it happened to be bear week, which happened to be amaze-balls. Of course, the hot pink Lady Gaga wigs didn’t hurt. Congrats KP! So excited for her wedding in the South of France! Stay tuned for the blog coverage of what I’m sure will be nothing short of stunning.

Meanwhile, Alan and D-Bell drove up to Humboldt, then took the PCH all the way back down to LA, and reminded himself how much we love this left coast. Watching the World Cup semifinal games at Patterson’s Pub in Mendocino and then The Tap Room at the Lodge at Pebble Beach were experiences to cherish. Oh California, you beautiful beast, you.

And now, we are in Dublin! Stay tuned for lots of pictures and stories, most of which will likely entail blustering shorelines and big glasses of beer.

Practical Info

We will not try to cover everywhere we ate and everything we did over a couple months in the US. Instead, we will touch upon some highlights. If you have questions, feel free to ask.

Transportation: There are many ways to get from New York to Boston, including flying or taking the train. The cheapest option is usually the bus. We have taken one of the Chinatown buses in the past, but this time friends told us about Bolt Bus. It departs New York from multiple locations; we took the train from New Jersey to Penn Station and then walked the long blocks to 33rd between 11th and 12th. In the 1980s you would not have wanted to be here outside your car that would’ve been bombarded by unsolicited windshield washing, but now it’s fine. For $27 (2 tix), we arrived painlessly at South Station in Boston. And the bus offers WiFi and electric outlets.

Accommodation: We found a great Airbnb place in Santa Monica near 20th and Montana. We were less enthused about Emily’s House in Paso Robles (see Jenni’s rant above), though the location was nice in easy walking distance from town. The Kenwood Inn and Spa near Sonoma is definitely a splurge, but the rooms are beautiful and the pool is super refreshing in the NorCal valley heat.

Food: In LA: Shout out to our man at the helm of Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese on Melrose. Jenni covered this above, and when she was back east I returned and also had the Buffalo Blue. This thoroughly satisfied my buffalo pangs…for the night. Katsuya is something we crave when traveling, so we made a few visits while back. We usually go to the Brentwood branch, but it’s much cheaper if you can schlep to the valley. The happy hour in Brentwood helps to let you afford multiple orders of the spicy tuna on crispy rice and baked crab hand rolls. Poquito Mas is solid mini-chain Mexican. We would not assert the bagels compare to New York, but a fine place to hold you over is New York Bagel and Deli on Wilshire in Santa Monica.

In Santa Barbara: Rincon Taqueria (115 E. Haley Street). Hole in the wall, but good tacos and reminds us of wedding planning.

In Paso Robles: Dinner at Artisan was great. Il Cortile was good but not great. Di Raimondo’s is an excellent cheese shop. While wine tasting outside town, we made an enjoyable stop at Pasolivo for free olive oil tasting. The cookies at Brown Butter Cookie Company were the bomb dot com.

In New York: Late night pastrami at Katz’s Deli. A superb brunch at momofuku ssäm bar…think fried duck and waffles with mascarpone and a raspberry compote.

In New England: Of course we hit the legendary White Hut in West Springfield, plus the new branch in the center of Longmeadow. Mike’s (actually now called Pool Street Market) for lobstah rolls in Biddeford is de rigeur. In addition to the standard trip to Cape Pier Chowder House, I had my first ice cream at Goose Rocks Dairy, and Jenni, Dev and I had a lovely afternoon brunching at Tia’s Topside followed by free beer tasting at the Kennebunkport Brewing Company. Jenni gives a nod to New London’s subs in Concord, where she ate her farewell Concord lunch.

Wine: Paso Robles is known for its Zin, but we actually came away with an adoration for the local Syrahs and Roses. Overall, we were very impressed with taste and value. We tasted at:

  • Chronic Cellars – Nice, fun wines made by the sons of the folks behind Peachy Canyon (which, by the way, sells a solid SUPER budget zin available in LA). We enjoyed the ’13 Kindly Swallows Rose, the ’12 Dead Nuts Zin blend, ’12 Suite Petite Syrah blend (sold out, sadly) and the Tranquilo late harvest Petite Syrah.
  • Kiamie Wine Cellars – We loved the ’08 Meritage and the R’Own Style Blend. You can find their wines at Enterprise Fish Co. in Santa Monica (the Vinocata ’08) and the Meritage at Grill 23 in Boston.
  • Halter Ranch – I don’t have specific notes on this one as we mostly chatted about foods we loved with the friendly lady pouring here.
  • Oso Libre – Loved the ’11 Carnal GSM. Otherwise we were pretty underwhelmed (especially with the whites).
  • Terry Hoage Vineyards – Jenni told them that their rose smelled like armpits, but not in a bad way. As you might surmise, our tasting ended here.

We also tasted at the downtown tasting rooms of:

  • Grizzly Republic
  • Burbank Ranch – Solid wines here. Loved the Syrah “Sunset” and ’13 Grenache “Picnic Meadow” Rose. Runner up rose was the ’13 Syrah “Friends” Rose. Overall, the roses in Paso were dry and superb! The ’13 Arneis “Little Rascal” white was a nice porch wine. ’12 Zin Estate “Fall Colors” and the Malbec were nice as well, and Jenni loved the ’11 Petit Verdot “Wood Pile.”

Other vineyards that were recommended to us, but that we couldn’t fit in were DAOU (supposedly great views), Starr Ranch, Tolo, Jack Creek, Kenneth Volk, J Dusi, Ecluse, Booker and the Treana & Hope Family. Downtown, we had tried to visit LXV, where the couple running it had a wine and Indian food pairing party (so sad we missed it!), and had also heard good things about Pianetta.

May 25 -July, 22 2014

Operation Alan, Jenni, Hooty and Sven see America: Complete!

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Going back to Cali

We arrived back “home” to Los Angeles around lunch time today. True to form, LA greeted us with 75 degrees of comfort and sunny blue skies. We drove by our old apartment and waved hello, picked up a bottle of bubbly at our old Ralph’s and grabbed some In-N-Out. No better way to welcome ourselves back and toast to a road trip of stellar proportions. We started with a bottle of Moët camping in San Simeon our first night on the road, finished with a bottle of Moët and an In-N-Out burger on our first night “home.” I’d say that about rounds it out!

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Full circle

Here are the stats:

Miles driven: 11,815

States touched: 35 (CA, OR, WA, ID, MT, WY, SD, MN, WI, IL, IN, OH, PA, NY, VT, NH, ME, MA, RI, CT, NJ, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TX, NM, AZ)

Money spent on gas: $1,411.12

Money spent on tolls: Countless dollars (I’m looking at you New York – what is $15 for one toll, honestly?!)

Locations we laid our weary heads to rest: 39

Stops by the fuzz: 1 (to tell us we were in the hood and not to come back)

Tickets: 0 (woot woot!)

Stops by Border Patrol: 2

Stops by the FBI: 1

Accidents: 0

Visits to the Volvo service shop: 3

Football games attended: 3

Weddings attended: 3

Times Alan wore his tuxedo: 4 (also approximate number of showers)

Number of times someone vomited in the car: 1

Items lost: 3 – Alan’s headphones, Alan’s bathing suit (later retrieved by Jenni’s parents yay!), nail clippers

Family members visited: 30 (including all our living grandparents)

Number of college campuses visited: 12

Serious injuries: 0

Mosquito bites: millions

Surprisingly painful ant bite: 1

Other mysterious bites: lots

Spiders in the car: 3 (seriously?! Ugh)

Beetle in the car: 1

Ladybug in the car: 1 (good luck!)

Craziest (non-wedding) party: Halloween on Frenchman Street – New Orleans, LA

Guns fired: 4

Biggest surprise: Fairhope, AL and the bomb sushi spot there

Biggest letdown: Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

Memorable dishes: Franklin’s brisket (Austin, TX), Graze’s burger (Madison, WI), Bon Mi’s bahn mi (Eugene, OR), Pig in a Fur Coat’s tomato salad (Madison, WI), Parasol’s firecracker shrimp po’ boy (New Orleans, LA), Yolk’s breakfast sandwiches (Portland, OR), College Town Bagel’s vegetarian bagel (Ithaca, NY)

Worst value hotel: Days Inn (Charleston, SC) …though they did throw in a box of condoms next to the Bible

Scariest experience: nearly being hit by a maniacal driver after witnessing a parking lot altercation in Alabama

Funniest moment: Seth mooning the rafters after falling into the river

Coolest animal sighting: tie between wolf and pine marten; honorable mention: prairie dogs, zebra on the PCH, camel in White Sands National Monument, NM, alligators, wild boar, puffer fish

Neatest spot discovered on a stranger’s recommendation: Granite Hot Springs, WY

Best campground: toss up among Bell Bay Campground – Lake Coeur D’Alene, ID, Two Medicine Campground – Glacier National Park, MT and KOA – Devil’s Tower, WY

Note: this is a joint post co-written by Jenni and Alan in celebration of completing our road trip. We apologize for being so far behind on the posts, and we aim to finish them before we leave the country on November 21st (for a quick pre-planned jaunt to Chile)! Stay tuned 🙂

Update re Jenni & Alan see the WORLD (Sven is afraid of flying and we may launch a Kickstarter campaign for Hooty’s airfare): We finally booked tickets for the first major international leg to Asia!  We depart LA for Hong Kong on December 3 (arriving December 5), then fly to Colombo (Sri Lanka) December 8, to Kochi (India) December 16, from Varanasi (India) to Bangkok (Thailand) on January 10 and from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to Kathmandu (Nepal) on April 1.  This gives us some structure while allowing lots of flexibility in India and for nearly three months elsewhere in Asia before Nepal.  In India we are thinking about Kerala, Goa, Mumbai, Ajanta and Ellora caves, Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.  In addition to the countries above, we currently intend to visit Laos, Malaysia, Philippines (our thoughts are with their people as they battle this horrific typhoon), Borneo, Indonesia and Singapore.  After Nepal in mid to late April, we will probably visit some of the Silk Road ‘Stans and China before returning to LA in late May.  If you have any thoughts or advice, please come with it!

Operation Alan, Jenni, Hooty and Sven see America: Complete!

::full circle::
::full circle::
We arrived back “home” to Los Angeles around lunch time today. True to form, LA greeted us with 75 degrees of comfort and sunny blue skies. We drove by our old apartment and waved hello, picked up a bottle of bubbly at our old Ralph’s and grabbed some In-N-Out. No better way to welcome ourselves back and toast to a road trip of stellar proportions. We started with a bottle of Moët camping in San Simeon our first night on the road, finished with a bottle of Moët and an In-N-Out burger on our first night “home.” I’d say that about rounds it out!
::fine eats and fine drinks::
::fine eats and fine drinks::
Here are the stats:
Miles driven: 11,815
States touched: 35 (CA, OR, WA, ID, MT, WY, SD, MN, WI, IL, IN, OH, PA, NY, VT, NH, ME, MA, RI, CT, NJ, DE, MD, DC, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TX, NM, AZ)
Money spent on gas: $1,411.12
Money spent on tolls: Countless dollars (I’m looking at you New York – what is $15 for one toll, honestly?!)
Locations we laid our weary heads to rest: 39
Stops by the fuzz: 1 (to tell us we were in the hood and not to come back)
Tickets: 0 (woot woot!)
Stops by Border Patrol: 2
Stops by the FBI: 1
Accidents: 0
Visits to the Volvo service shop: 3
Football games attended: 3
Weddings attended: 3
Times Alan wore his tuxedo: 4 (also approximate number of showers)
Number of times someone vomited in the car: 1
Items lost: 3 – Alan’s headphones, Alan’s bathing suit (later retrieved by Jenni’s parents yay!), nail clippers
Family members visited: 30 (including all our living grandparents)
Number of college campuses visited: 12
Serious injuries: 0
Mosquito bites: millions
Surprisingly painful ant bite: 1
Other mysterious bites: lots
Spiders in the car: 3 (seriously?! Ugh)
Beetle in the car: 1
Ladybug in the car: 1 (good luck!)
Craziest (non-wedding) party: Halloween on Frenchman Street – New Orleans, LA
Guns fired: 4
Biggest surprise: Fairhope, AL and the bomb sushi spot there
Biggest letdown: Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
Memorable dishes: Franklin’s brisket (Austin, TX), Graze’s burger (Madison, WI), Bon Mi’s bahn mi (Eugene, OR), Pig in a Fur Coat’s tomato salad (Madison, WI), Parasol’s firecracker shrimp po’ boy (New Orleans, LA), Yolk’s breakfast sandwiches (Portland, OR), College Town Bagel’s vegetarian bagel (Ithaca, NY)
Worst value hotel: Days Inn (Charleston, SC) …though they did throw in a box of condoms next to the Bible
Scariest experience: nearly being hit by a maniacal driver after witnessing a parking lot altercation in Alabama
Funniest moment: Seth mooning the rafters after falling into the river
Coolest animal sighting: tie between wolf and pine marten; honorable mention: prairie dogs, zebra on the PCH, camel in White Sands National Monument, NM, alligators, wild boar, puffer fish
Neatest spot discovered on a stranger’s recommendation: Granite Hot Springs, WY
Best campground: toss up among Bell Bay Campground – Lake Coeur D’Alene, ID, Two Medicine Campground – Glacier National Park, MT and KOA – Devil’s Tower, WY

Note: this is a joint post co-written by Jenni and Alan in celebration of completing our road trip. We apologize for being so far behind on the posts, and we aim to finish them before we leave the country on November 21st (for a quick pre-planned jaunt to Chile)! Stay tuned 🙂

Update re Jenni & Alan see the WORLD (Sven is afraid of flying and we may launch a Kickstarter campaign for Hooty’s airfare): We finally booked tickets for the first major international leg to Asia!  We depart LA for Hong Kong on December 3 (arriving December 5), then fly to Colombo (Sri Lanka) December 8, to Kochi (India) December 16, from Varanasi (India) to Bangkok (Thailand) on January 10 and from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to Kathmandu (Nepal) on April 1.  This gives us some structure while allowing lots of flexibility in India and for nearly three months elsewhere in Asia before Nepal.  In India we are thinking about Kerala, Goa, Mumbai, Ajanta and Ellora caves, Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.  In addition to the countries above, we currently intend to visit Laos, Malaysia, Philippines (our thoughts are with their people as they battle this horrific typhoon), Borneo, Indonesia and Singapore.  After Nepal in mid to late April, we will probably visit some of the Silk Road ‘Stans and China before returning to LA in late May.  If you have any thoughts or advice, please come with it!

The Final Days: Going (going) Back (back) to Cali (cali)

We took the 10 through Arizona, passing through Tucson just enough to see its traffic and the surrounding mountains (which are quite pretty). We felt real fancy staying at the La Quinta in Phoenix after our recent hotel stays because it had indoor hallways and a room that didn’t smell like vomit! Yay! I refuse to tell you where we ate dinner because it’s embarrassing. But it may or may not rhyme with Schblerger Schming. Two nights in a row. I know, we’re gross. I guess the road started wearing on us.

Anyway, we just crashed at the hotel, and got up early for our FINAL TIME on the road again!!! The on ramp to the 10 west listed Los Angeles as the destination. It may as well have said, “Alan and Jenni – home is this away!” Hugeness. We were super amped for our return “home” and to complete the first major leg of our traveling journey, and here’s how we celebrated:

We got in the car and I played “On the Road Again” for the final time.

Then I played Phantom Planet’s “California.” (We’ve been on the run, Driving in the sun, Looking out for number 1. California here we come, Right back where we started from. California! Here we come!). I’d been waiting to play this song on the ride practically since we left LA in the first place.

Then I played Biggie, “Going Back to Cali.”

Then I played the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

And then Joni Mitchell’s “California.”

And then 2Pac’s “California Love.”

Wilco’s “California Stars.” (shout out to Barbra & Dave!)

And the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin.”

Tristan Prettyman’s “California Girl.”

And then RHCP’s “Californication.”

And then I ran out of California songs on my iPhone.

So then we just got excited for our In N Out and Champagne date in LA. (See the joint post we wrote about finishing up our journey here).

Then we got to Brentwood, and it was literally 75 and sunny. Oh, LA, I love you.

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Which brings me to another general observation from this trip – the disdain with which people routinely respond to LA is almost as universal as it is misplaced. Is it jealousy? Ignorance? I don’t know, but what I do know is that Alan and I ADORE this place and it feels good to be home. Not that I’m not excited to leave it again, it’s just so good to know it’s there waiting for us whenever we get back with open arms and sunny blue skies.

We’re spending our time in LA mostly working on catching up on these blogs (new resolution: stay on top of blog posts!!!!!), getting vaccinated like woah, planning what the hell we’re doing in Asia for the next six months, trying to cram six months’ worth of clothes and malaria meds into a backpack, and lots of other loose end tying up. In more fun news, we’re also trying to squeeze in much needed LA friend time, and I was honored to throw a bridal shower for my dear friend Jenny (it was a pink explosion)!

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::lots of pink::
::then lots of blogging::
::then lots of blogging::

Also BIG thank you to our amazing friends Jenny & Albert and Mike & Lauren for letting us crash with you!

Going Home!

We left White Sands National Monument and passed the sharp, dramatic Organ Mountains.  In this area the traffic lights are all horizontal, I guess due to the wind?

Tucson is backed by nice mountains and here we saw our first In-N-Out since leaving California nearly three months ago.  Despite the temptation, we held out for our traditional coming home meal.  La Quinta hotel in Phoenix was a splurge that even had internal hallways!

Friday was the last day of the trip and the excitement was palpable.  Will we make it all the way back with no accidents or traffic tickets?!  In Phoenix we saw our first signs for Los Angeles, confirming the final stretch.  Jenni did a great job deejaying several California-themed songs…of course starting with Biggie’s Going Back to Cali and followed by tunes like Phantom Planet’s California, California Love by 2Pac, Hotel California, etc.

Much of the drive between Phoenix and Palm Springs is very pretty, and south of the 10 near Tonopah is a nice mountain.  I have driven to the Palm Springs area many times but never approached from this direction.  We descended quite a hill down to Indio.

We made it back to Los Angeles at 1 pm, having driven just under 12k miles.  And it was literally 75 and sunny.  We closed with a bottle of Moët, just as we began our first night camping at San Simeon.  For some fun stats summarizing our three-month road trip, see the post here that we wrote at that time.

November 8, 2013 (Friday)

White Sands National Monument!

Our last fun stop (we spent a night in Phoenix right before arriving in LA, but just so that we wouldn’t have an insane driving day) was in a place that neither of us had ever heard of before beginning this trip. As you can probably tell by reading these posts, we rushed the Southern route of the country way more than we did the beginning, partly because we needed to get back to LA for various reasons, but also we figured anything close to LA (Joshua Tree, Bryce, Arches) is easy enough to do on a weekend trip from LA where we will most likely end up once the travel bug is out of our systems. That being said, we changed our itinerary for this route a handful of times, and we were kind of searching for something unique to do in between Carlsbad Cavern and LA. The 1000 Places to See Before You Die (US and Canada edition) came through once again (thanks again Janice and Gareth for the thoughtful gift!) and I discovered White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

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We drove in from Guadalupe and stayed at the Days Inn in Alamogordo. This felt like one of the shadier hotels we visited, as the check-in area had a window with one of those glass/plastic barriers where people just slide the money in through the opening on the bottom. Not to mention the guys hanging outside our door with drinks in paper bags. However, the price was right, and the food options around were plentiful, albeit mostly fast food (and your pick of fast food, pretty much everything save In N Out). We got some Burger King, and it was delicious. I so rarely eat it that I forget, but I’ll admit it, a Whopper Jr. makes for a tasty meal!

Be aware if you visit White Sands that the road leading in (I believe Highway 70) is closed frequently as it lies in the middle of a government missile testing area. You have to call or check the website in advance to find out if it’s going to be open. Also be aware that you should not pick up hitchhikers, just in case you miss the signs that advise against it due to the detention facilities in the area.

The next morning we headed over to the dunes (the “monument” itself opens at 8am, though the visitor center that we recommend visiting doesn’t open until 9am). They had a nice orientation video that we enjoyed, and through which we learned (among other crazy facts) that we were about to enter the largest gypsum dunes in the world. They’re formed because the rain and snowmelt from the mountains rich in gypsum collect in the basin and leave gypsum crystals as the water evaporates. The wind scatters and breaks the crystals down until it forms a fine white sand.

We also stopped at the visitor center and bought a sled and some wax to make it go super fast :). The annual park pass bought us entry (normally $3 a person, such a steal… I think more people should know about this place!). Entering this place with the top down felt pretty spectacular. It looks like you’re in a winter wonderland, as you start going to a road that exists solely because they use a snowplow to clear out a path.

::snow - err - sand plow::
::snow – err – sand plow::

The scenery is just other-wordly beautiful here. The sand dunes have that beautiful ripple effect from the wind, and it’s a perfect snow-white in color. There are big mountains backing the landscape. I was literally jumping for joy with excitement. The sledding was super fun, though Alan for some reason couldn’t get going very fast. He definitely got into the fun, jumping off the hills into the soft soft sand at the top. It’s much more difficult to ascent, as it fills your tracks as fast as quicksand. I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking on how awesome this place is.

We even saw a guy with a camel… and a film crew. What? I think he was trying to get people to find Christ, so we avoided him.

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People always ask “what’s been the best part? the highlight?” And it was so hard to answer for most of the trip. We saw a lot of beautiful places, and had tons of fun, but we couldn’t pick one thing as a highlight. Then we went here. And this question is much easier for me to answer now. I thought this place was the bees knees. It was totally unexpected, practically unplanned, massively little-kid type fun (just look at us jumping at sledding), stunningly beautiful, and very different than other places. So, this was the highlight of the trip for me.

We hit our second border patrol stop on our way out of New Mexico. We also passed through a number of areas that have signs and flashing lights warning of dust storms and low or zero visibility. Scary. Also, I’m pretty sure in New Mexico the signs advised to not stop in traffic lines during a dust storm blackout, though in Arizona I could swear it said to come to a complete stop in case of blackout. What are we supposed to do!? Anyway, I’m just glad we didn’t experience one of those storms. I’ve driven through some rain and snowstorms with no visibility and that is scary ish.

::gorgeous mountains continue for much of the drive::
::gorgeous mountains continue for much of the drive::

Oh, but most exciting of all – there was a DUNKS in New Mexico! Are they coming to Cali at long last to answer my prayers and dreams!?! Say it’s so, Dunks. Tell me it’s for real!

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)

Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After Franklin we headed up towards Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We went through some pretty middle-of-nowhere stretches of road to get there. We stayed at the Rodeway Inn at White’s City, which may be the only hotel in town. We woke up to a sunny but cold day, with temperatures in the 40s, and picked up fixings for PB&J at the little grocery store (if you can call it that) before heading over to the caverns.

There are several tours offered at Carlsbad Caverns, though we opted to explore by ourselves and learn about the formations by reading the informational placards placed throughout the walkways. For the more adventurous you can even do tours in the complete darkness that require you to crawl around army-style. I was tempted, but one of the caves was called Spider Cave, so I figured they weren’t for me. We took the elevator down, planning to walk back out (most tourists do this the other way, as it’s a steep 750 foot climb out, but we wanted the exercise). Once underground, you emerge into a gigantic room with a one and a quarter mile long path on which you can explore a massive display of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, soda straws, draperies, and popcorn in constant 56° temperatures and 99% humidity.

We took our time exploring as the caverns are really quite a spectacular sight and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s easy to forget you’re nearly a thousand feet below the ground. Also impressive there is a cafeteria and full-blown restroom facility down there. The walk out was a quick ascent and you definitely work up a sweat if you walk it as briskly as we did (not to mention the humidity).

One of the biggest draws of Carlsbad Caverns is the viewing of the Mexican free tail bats that live in the caves from March to October. Each night at sunset they leave the cave in a mass exodus to eat (up to half their bodyweight in a night) and mate, a process visitors can watch from an amphitheater built at the cave’s natural entrance. We had fingers crossed they’d be late to leave for the winter, but unfortunately the bats stopped coming out just a few days before our arrival. On the plus side, it meant to we could do the caverns in the morning and head over to Guadalupe Mountains in the afternoon without worrying about sticking around for sunset at Carlsbad.

Onward we went and back into Texas to check out Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There are several entrances to the park, which are not super close to one another, and we were torn on which one to use. We ended up using the Pine Springs entrance and stopped at the visitors center. Having not enough time to do the entire 8.4 mile, 3,000 foot elevation gain hike to the peak, we decided to do the first few miles of it up to this spot the ranger had recommended where you get a view of a canyon on each side. Much of the elevation gain was in the first few miles anyway, so it was a great workout with rewarding views.

Our annual pass saved us $10 each at Carlsbad and $5 each at Guadalupe.

On the drive out we stopped to snap some photos of the mountains, and the views were great, which further solidified our position on being happy we entered the park through Pine Springs.  In fact, the views were pretty stunning for miles, which was welcome entertainment since there are no services for a 130 mile stretch of highway. I’d love to spend a day with someone from Dell City, TX… see what they do all day, for a living, for fun. 130 miles of no gas, food. It’s got to be such a different life. Anyone? Know anyone there?

We stopped for gas in El Paso which seemed like a rough place. We eventually made it back into New Mexico. It was on this drive that we got stopped by Border Patrol for this first time on our trip. I had no idea they stop people who aren’t actually crossing the border. Pretty serious I guess, there were even canines!

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

Austin

Back on the 10 to Texas we went. The swamp areas we drove through were quite beautiful. Upon entering Texas our first impression was, “hot damn, is this a big state.” The last exit on the 10 (or the first if you’re coming from the East as we were) is 878. That’s a wide stretch of the 10! I laughed out loud at the billboard for a jewelry store that boasted merchandise that’s “Just a Little Bit Gawdy!” we quickly noticed that drivers in Texas – at least Eastern Texas – are very aggressive and abide by the “keep left pass right” mentality despite the signs advising the opposite and the Welcome to Texas signs that advise visitors to “Drive Friendly – the Texas Way.”

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We checked into our hotel in Austin, conveniently located at 6th and Guadalupe (an Extended Stay – nothing to write home about other than cheap and well situated, don’t believe their lies about free wifi, you have to pay for wifi that actually works). We walked out to 6th street and Alan pointed out the places he’d partied at Josh’s bachelor party. There are tons of food trucks all over the city, but this being Sunday night we couldn’t find any open. We opted for Turf N’ Surf Po’ Boy to try and squeeze in an oyster po’ boy before we left the south. Unfortunately they were out of oysters and we got a buffalo shrimp with blue cheese to share. Much more up Alan’s alley than mine, but not horrible. The bar itself seemed like a pretty fun place to watch a game as well, and the people were very friendly.

We faced some threatening weather the next day (first time in a while on this trip – we were so lucky for pretty much all of the eastern seaboard and south). We drove over to Juan in a Million for breakfast tacos. SO good. I got a guacamole taco (literally just guac on a taco, so I’d probably skip that next time but the guac is fab) and a nopalitas and egg taco which was so freaking amazing. Nopalitas is prickly pear cactus. By the way, for breakfast you could definitely get away with one taco, I only ate half of each and took them to go. Kinda weird, but the nopalitas held up surprisingly well. Alan go the machacado and migas, also both fantastic.

After breakfast we drove across the lake, and over to South Congress. I loved with area. Tons of cute shops and coffee shops and food trucks and restaurants. The signage is probably my favorite thing about Austin. You’re nothin’ if you don’t have a hipster-cool neon light. I particularly enjoyed wandering around Uncommon Objects to check out the antiques, and we tried on some cowboy/girl boots at Allen’s. Big Top Candy Shop had a ridiculous selection of candies, including a number I’d never seen before. And I know my candy.

After South Congress we drove to Covert Park at Mount Bonnell and climbed the 100 or so steps to the top of Austin (775 feet) for some beautiful views of the river and downtown Austin. We admired the mcmansions on the waterfront, and afterwards we drove around Scenic Rd admiring more impressive Texas sized homes.

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We checked out the University of Texas campus, which was nice and more urban that we’d expected. For lunch Alan got his second barbecue fill at Iron Works. Both Obama and Bush were pictured on the wall, so I was prepared for some legit BBQ. We shared a combo plate that had beef brisket, ribs, sausage, potato salad and beans. The ribs were best, the brisket OK. I didn’t bother with the sausage, and the beans here had nothing on Brick Pit’s.

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For dinner we went to Chuy’s which came recommended by several friends. Alan ordered the Texas Martini, which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt, and with jalapeño stuffed olives. Be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce (free) for your chips and salsa. We split the enchiladas chicka chicka boom boom (fantastic) and the tortilla soup (OK). After Chuy’s we went to Rainey St. and met up with a friend of Sam and Kaitlyn’s for a drink. He was super friendly and had given us lots of tips on what to do in Austin, and Rainey St. is such a unique place. With Austin rapidly expanding, they turned this residential street into a row of really funky bars and restaurants all built in these former residential homes. They have backyards you can hang out in, play cornhole or watch live music. This is also where G’raj Majal is located (massively successful Indian food truck that is now expanding into one of the houses on Rainey St.). We were very impressed with the young working professionals’ scene in Austin, and I can imagine this is a really nice place to live for people in their 20s and 30s as there are several areas around town with great bars and restaurants.

On our way out of Austin we went to the barbecue mecca of Franklin. We’d been told you’re fine to get food if you arrive by 10:30am (they open at 11am and people line up in advance). Well, we arrived at 10:10am and Alan dropped me off to get in the LONG ASS line while he found a parking spot. He was devastated to return and see me standing right behind the guy with the “Last Man Standing” sign in hand, meaning he was the last person guaranteed food. We were told we could wait around and see if there was food left, but it would be close to 1pm by the time we knew if that was the case. We were so bummed, and talked with the woman managing the line about how we were on an epic road trip all the way from LA. Alan considered bailing (blaspheme) but luckily he is so slow at making decisions that before he could pull the trigger, she came back and pushed the last man standing card back based on a reevaluation of the availability of food. Still, we were told that it was a long shot that we’d get any ribs (and they wound up selling out a few people ahead of us). Settling in for the three and a half hour wait, the boat chairs came in clutch again. There was a girl walking around selling beer and cold drinks which we took advantage of for one round. Note that you can also BYO, which a number of the fellow waiting diners did. Finally at about 1:30 we ordered our food. Aaron Franklin himself cuts the meat for you, and he gave us a nice free sample of the brisket, which confirmed the three plus hour wait was worth it. I never thought I’d say that about meat, and especially barbecue, but mmmmm mmmmmmm mmmmm. Maybe you’re just so deliriously hungry by then? No, no. It was that good. The brisket at least. I personally wouldn’t wait for the turkey or pulled pork. On another recommendation we also got the banana crème pie, which was a crusted bowl of melt in your mouth happiness. So if I ever went again I would get only the brisket (maybe try the ribs if available) and a pie. Also, they had blueberry soda, which we mixed with regular soda and it was really tasty. I would also get there at 8am. You wait three hours no matter what, so may at least guarantee yourself a shady spot to sit and your choice of meat. All of the guys working the counter were friendly and struck up little conversations with us. I loved that the last guy heard us say we were from LA, and he told us about how he ordered a salad from a  Whataburger in Oklahoma and the cash register attendant asked, “Are you from Los Angeles?”