One Last Entry
Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
45Trip End Aug 16, 2009
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We have travelled 29,500 miles, not including ground covered within the cities of China and Thailand. That’s 1.2 times around the Earth. 5,800 of those miles were in our faithful rental Kia, Westie, which (as Jim Heller pointed out) is like driving from Key West, Florida to Fairbanks, Alaska (and then another 200 miles!).We’ve covered this distance by some typical means: airplanes, cars—our own and a number of taxis, buses, vans, and subways
We’ve spent time in 5 countries and flew in, out, and through 14 airports. We slept in 21 cities (Austin TX, Fort Stockton TX, Santa Fe NM, Albuquerque NM, Page AZ, Moab UT, Boulder CO, Alliance NE, Rapid City SD, Teton Village WY, Boise ID, Portland OR, Crecent City CA, St. Helena CA, Millbrae CA, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Xi’an, Beijing, Phuket, and Muskego WI), which averages to a new bed nearly every two days. Our favorite hotel is a no-brainer: The villa-only, private-pool paradise at the Banyan Tree. Our least favorite was Albuquerque’s Hotel Blue, where we happily didn’t lose any organs. We were relieved not to have to use the gas masks included as a standard amenity in Beijing (yikes), and happy to return to America where we don’t need to brush our teeth with bottled water
We began our trip with a wedding in Austin, and ended by celebrating a 30-year anniversary in Milwaukee. In between, we celebrated a birthday and our own 5-year wedding anniversary. We documented our trip through more than 2,155 pictures and videos.
We have seen some of the most stunning natural wonders of the planet. We descended 800 feet below the surface of White’s City and experienced true darkness in Carlsbad Caverns. We viewed the palate of rust reds, chalky whites, and warm purples in the Painted Desert, and saw massive fossilized trees in the Petrified Forest. Although we didn’t get to pick fruit in Capitol Reef Park in Utah, we did get to drive through its Mars-like bright red landscape. We were amazed by Arches, but underwhelmed by Mount Rushmore (especially after seeing Crazy Horse). Craters of the Moon National Park provided us scorched-earth views of a lava flow. Redwood National Park offered up a quiet, majestic grandeur—nature as cathedral. However, few things can hold a candle to the magnitude of the Grand Canyon’s awe-inspiring vistas. Our short seven-mile hike didn’t even begin to do it justice. We also gave some serious short shrift to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. There’s never enough time to devote to places like this, where it seems that god has bumped up the color saturation
Even outside of our parks and preserves, the sheer scale and simple beauty of the landscape often left us slack-jawed. The vast, empty scrubland in Texas is studded with little bushes, making the whole landscape look furry. In Austin, we cooled down in one of the largest (and chilliest) swimming holes in the country. In Arizona, the sight of the lush green high alpine forest meeting the massive 3000-foot vermillion cliffs at sunset left us speechless. Elsewhere, we stood on the edge of a Meteor Crater and marveled at the near-absolute silence of the land. The desert dunes of Utah made me wonder if this is how ants see sandboxes, and no road trip could be complete without the stunning mix of scenery—desert scrubland to alpine meadows—that is Utah State Road 12. We crossed the Rockies—yellow on one side, a thickly forested green on the other. In Nebraska and South Dakota, we saw simple—yet beautiful—vistas. It is there that two colors dominate: the blue of the sky and green of the swaying grass. In Oregon, we met the forested bounty of the Pacific Northwest along the wide Columbia River
As far as human ingenuity, we saw plenty. The 30 miles of walls surrounding the city of Xi’an would have felt more impressive were they not dwarfed by the immensity of the Great Wall. Our 600-foot climb up 453 steps is one of our most enduring memories. (That is, unless the Great Wall is a FAKE!!) Speaking of grand monuments, the Forbidden City of Beijing and Terra Cotta warriors of Xi’an stymied our abilities to describe their scale and impressiveness. We reveled in the unexpected (and hard-to-find) peace of the Summer Garden in Beijing, and marveled at the intricacy of a half-mile covered walkway featuring over 10,000 hand-painted panels. We saw carefully designed rockeries and temples in the Beihai and Yuyuan Gardens. We were wowed by the scale of China’s cities and their unfettered pace of change (though we mourned the loss of Beijing’s hutongs). From the bright skyline of Hong Kong—dramatically squished between mountains and bisected by the ever shrinking Causeway Bay—to the twisting shapes of Shanghai’s new financial center, to the ingenuity and artistry of Beijing’s Water Cube and Bird’s Nest stadium and Moebius-like twisting of the CCTV tower, China’s premier cities are without a doubt world-class places
We even got some o’ that culture too as visitors of six museums. Some, like the Shanghai Museum of Urban Planning—with its football field-sized recreation of every building in the city--didn’t disappoint. The Museum of Hong Kong History took us back 400 million years, but the best parts were seeing how this city grapples with its own narrative of humiliation (the Opium War and the British Concession), oppression (the Japanese invasion), rise to global prominence, and reunification with the mainland. One was ironic: The First Meeting House of the Communist Party is now smack in the middle of the ritziest mall in Shanghai. Only two disappointed: The Shanghai Art Museum, because we are philistines, and the National Atomic Museum (in Albuquerque), because it was comically unfocused. The best experiences in this vein, though, were outside the museums. We saw a dance troupe practicing in the Beijing Olympic Green, and a beautiful short concert in Xi’an’s ancient Bell Tower. Factory 798 Arts District in Beijing was almost bursting at the seams with a creative, subversive energy. We could have spent 10 hours there and not had enough time, although we would have loved to have a local explain the subtext to what we saw.
Being strangers in a strange land was not without its joys and frustrations. In China, we were an ongoing spectacle for many of the locals. Maribeth’s breasts alone were an endless source of fascination, and they (and the body attached to it) made its way into a number of pictures
We weren’t just perplexed by foreign cultures, though. We spent the bulk of our time in America deep in the reddest states; though in fairness we tended to skip from blue enclave to blue enclave. We didn’t see nearly as many Mormons as we hoped. Nor did we see the kind of zealous religious nut jobs clinging to their guns that life in New York says we will, but maybe Comrade Obama’s thought police had these people rounded up and awaiting death panels
Speaking of food, no wrap up could be complete without a full discussion of our favorite topic. We put about 250 hours of planning into this journey, and easily half of that effort was spent answering the question, “Where will we eat?” We read through every Bon Apetit magazine for the past 3 years and collected recommendations for every city we were visiting. We did web research, watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, pestered friends, and even befriended an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine who gave us some solid picks for Boise ID. We built a spreadsheet with over 250 restaurant recommendations. We are serious about food, probably to a fault (our new goal is to lose the equivalent of a 3rd Grader between the two of us).
We made a pact at the beginning of the trip, that no matter where we were we would try to avoid the big chain restaurants
We ate a lot of food. Some of the more unusual items include rattlesnake, crab-ovary, “drunken” crab (raw crab marinated in wine for 3 days), frog dumplings, and a sticky-rice-with-black-sauce concoction in Xi’an’s Muslim district. We dined on Peking Duck in Beijing. (If Buffalo wings in its namesake city are just 'wings,’ would it just be ‘duck’ in Beijing?) We dove into dumplings aplenty—some deliciously soupy, others crispy pan-fried—on 5 occasions. We devoured the sweet stuff: Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland (including the maple bar with strip of bacon), a tower of shaved coconut ice in Beijing, and Maribeth’s favorite CC Lemon drink in Japan. As far as my favorite dessert, we had ice cream the country over, including delicious vanilla with fresh peach chunks in Texas, a velvety smooth marrionberry shake in Hood River’s Fruit Loop, and a sweet-hot-cold habañero mint in Portland. Portland was like an eater’s Mecca, with the freshest ingredients I’ve ever seen and serious foodies. We toured food makers, including Celestial Seasonings (with its sinus-clearing mint room), the Jelly Belly Factory (vying for 3rd ring of Hell), and Round Pond’s Napa Olive Oil operation (where we learned the meaning of a 3-cough olive oil)
We frequently made lists of our top meals by state/city, which is probably only fascinating to us, but in the interest of committing it to posterity, here are the winners:
- Texas: The Salt Lick (3350 E Palm Valley Blvd, Round Rock, TX 78665) – quite simply, the best barbeque we’ve ever had. Spicy homemade sausages, tender brisket, and pillowy biscuits.
- New Mexico: Coyote Cantina (132 West Water Street, Santa Fe, NM 87501) – great southwestern food, including fiery stuffed and fried jalapeños and a perfectly cooked duck fajita
- Arizona: El Tovar Dining Room (at Grand Canyon National Park) – with seats overlooking the South Rim, this is one of the best restaurant views in the world
- Utah: Burr Trail Trading Post and Grill (Highway 12 & Burr Trail, Boulder, UT 84716) – this place is about as close to the middle of nowhere as I’ve seen, but we dined on stellar jasmine rice cakes, fresh gazpacho, and chicken breast in a creamy caper sauce
- Colorado: The Kitchen (1039 Pearl St., Boulder, CO 80302) – rated the greenest restaurant in the state, this place serves up the best French toast (with a caramel sauce) I’ve ever tasted
- Colorado (runner up): Osteria Marco (1453 Larimer St., Denver, CO 80202-1704): fabulous pizza (we had a wild-mushroom pie with truffle oil that we talked about for days) and freshly made burrata cheese. Yum. This fortified us through Western Nebraska, where we found nothing worth eating.
- South Dakota: Botticelli Ristorante (523 Main St., Rapid City, SD 57701) – not the best Italian I’ve ever had, but the garlic bread was chewy and flavorful, and the lasagna with Bolognese sauce was quite tasty.
- Wyoming: Sackett’s Fork (Main Street, Ten Sleep, WY): Okay, there are tons of better restaurants in Jackson, but we stumbled on this little place with a wood-burning stove and homemade root beer in this town of 347. Good food, and way better than the alternatives for miles in any direction
- Idaho: Teton Thai (32 Birch St., Victor, ID 83455) – Thai food so good that when Calista Flockheart threw a party for Harrison Ford, she had these guys cater it.
- Oregon: Bunk Sandwiches (621 SE Morrison St., Portland, OR 97214) – just when you think you’re in for a run-of-the-mill sandwich shop, you come here. We had a spicy, garlicky, cheesy, amazing meatball parm, and an equally good jalapeño steak sandwich.
- Oregon (tie): Navarre (10 NE 28th Ave., Portland, OR 97232) – we hated the service, which was slow and inconsistent, but the sausages, parchment-wrapped fish, and simple sautéed greens in this French place are worth the wait.
- California: Bottega (6525 Washington St Yountville, CA 94599) – food network b-lister Michael Chiarello runs this place, which served some of the best Italian I’ve ever tasted. Makes the crowds in Napa bearable.
- Hong Kong: Hutong (1 Peking Rd, 28th floor, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) – Overlooking busy Causeway Bay, this was probably our favorite view from any restaurant
- Shanghai: Nanxian Mantou Dian (Nanxian Dumplings) (Yuyuan Lu 85) – we loved the steamer baskets of soupy vegetable, mushroom, and pork dumplings; flaky fried curry beef puffs; and the amazing-but-unappealingly-named glutinous rice balls.
- Xi’an: De Fa Chang Dumpling Restaurant – More dumplings, yes, but this 18-course meal offered up some of the most unique, including chicken, pork, egg, frog, and lotus variations.
- Beijing: Made in China (Grand Hyatt Beijing, 1 East Chang An Avenue) – simply put, our favorite meal in China. The beggar’s purse chicken is one of the best examples of that bird I’ve ever had.
- Phuket: No entry here, since we were in such a resort bubble, it seems unfair to nominate any of the food, all of which was fine, but horribly overpriced.
I’ll use a (lame) food analogy to stop talking about food. If amazing cultural, natural, and gastronomic wonders were the tortilla and meat of our “trip burrito,” then our oddball experiences were the cheese and salsa on the top. No road trip can even be called such a thing without the kitschy, odd, and laughable side attractions, and we hit up a lot of them. We tried to feel up a female vortex in Sedona, and stood exactly a mile high in Denver
Speaking of superlative sights, we had our fair share of those too. We drove the highest interstate highway (11,000+ feet; Colorado), and shopped at the world’s largest drug store (Wall Drug, South Dakota). In Oregon, we saw the largest wooden airplane ever built (The Spruce Goose), and wondered if it could outrun the 2nd largest statue of a roadrunner in the country (Paisano Pete, Fort Stockton, Texas). We stood on the highest observation deck in the world (110 stories up with a glass bottom, World Financial Center, Shanghai), in the world’s largest public square (Tiananmen) and under the largest sitting Buddha statue (Hong Kong, take the 3-mile tramway).
When we weren’t stopping by the biggest and the best, we managed some great relaxation time, and Maribeth is largely to thank for convincing us to slow down and just enjoy things
All in all, we had tremendous luck on our trip. Not a single delayed flight or lost bag, even if we did lose my cell phone charger on Day One. In fact, we’re able to laugh about our minor misadventures now, from Maribeth’s geriatric fall in Hong Kong, to my candy-striped sunburn in Thailand. Sure, we got scammed by some “art students” in Shanghai and overpaid for our Great Wall hat. And, yes, we got stopped in our tracks by the rainstorm of the century while in Yuyuan Gardens and by massive construction on the Bund in Shanghai. And, okay, Maribeth did puke on three separate occasions. And, sure, a worm pooped on Maribeth in a silk factory in Souzhou. And our cab hit a bicyclist in Xi’an and our driver proceeded to get in a fistfight. Yes, every driver we had thought they could make an extra buck by taking us to this or that camera or silk factory, but if that’s the worst of it, I say that’s a huge victory. We didn’t fall off the Great Wall, or die in China’s ridiculous traffic, and my “death card” stopped me from eating shellfish a number of times.
We have both lived a lucky life, filled with great opportunity. Yet, this was, simply put, the best 6 weeks of my life. What an honor to be able to see the world and take in its grandeur. What a privilege to have friends around the world willing to shepherd us through their cities. (Thanks Mica, Sean, Kate, Drew, Geddes, Jim, Derek, Rachel, Kyle, and Bev!!!) What luck to have loving and fun families eager to take time to travel home and celebrate together. And finally, what great fortune to find a companion with near infinite patience, willing to spend nearly 1,100 hours solid with me.
Thank you for reading. We hope you enjoyed this.
Joe and MB