Sunday, July 30, 2017

Great American Road Trip Part 3: Gateway to the East

Last week we made our way from Oklahoma City to St Louis, working our way backwards through the Route 66 song. While we didn't stay in Joplin, MO, we did stop and eat at a Braum's there on Rangeline Rd. My Grandma informed me that my Great-great grandparents had a farm on Rangeline Rd. in Joplin, MO way back when and that she used to go visit them when she lived in neighboring Kansas. There were no traces of any farms on Rangeline Rd. when we drove through - it has been well incorporated into the town. So we stopped and had our last Braum's ice cream of the trip to commemorate the ancestral link.

We did stay in Broken Arrow, OK and Springfield, MO on the way up to St Louis. Broken Arrow, which is a suburb of Tulsa, might sound like an odd choice, but it marked the point where our cross-country trip intersected my cousin Eli's cross-country Drum Corps International (DCI) tour. We had never been to a DCI event and we were blown away. This is as close as it gets to professional marching band. Seven teams each took the field for 10-15 minutes each to do their routine - each with an overwhelming amount of intricacy in music and movement. Imagine if Cirque du Soleil did a marching band performance - that's what DCI is. At one point, one of the band member was spun around in a wheel around the field, trumpets blared as they rotated back and forth on the wheels and Eli's team's performance incorporated a lot of  cool snake imagery, the theme to mark the band's 50th anniversary.

It was Mae's first experience with a marching band and she seemed into it. She was not a dan of the ear muffs though.

We were amazed by the turnout - there must have been 5000 people there. Eli's band, the Santa Clara Vanguard, will be competing for the grand championship in early August in front of an expected 30,000 people. Bryn was excited to have discovered another sub-culture.

Our next atop after Broken Arrow was Springfield, MO. I was working during the trip so we stayed put in the mornings and then drove in the evenings.this scheduled left little time for exploring our surroundings. But in Springfield, I got to relive my days of traveling with Grandma & Grandpa by staying in a Best Western. This wasn't just any BW, though - Elvis had stayed there in 1956. His room had been decked out in chrome Cadillac fenders and went for a significant per night premium, so we opted for a normal room, but Mae and I posed for a picture outside.

She seemed to be pretty into the cultural history significance of the moment.

This hotel was also cool because 1) they offered s'mores, which we indulged, and 2) the owner of the hotel had kept all of the old signs. The first was the original sign back from the Elvis days. In the tradition of route 66 marketing gimmicks, the hotel's name comes from the split rail fence around it - not it's proximity to any rail station. I wonder how many disappointed travelers the name attracted over the years.

At some point in the 70s, it became part of the Best Western chain. As a kid, I remember associating motels that advertised this sign outside as being older, less nice and, most importantly, pool-less.

But if it sported this new, rebranded sign outside, you knew you were in for a much more exclusive hospitality experience.

And Best Western has been keeping up with the times, as you can see with this newest branding. I appreciate this new logo's use of the classy "BW" initials. Just a reminder of yet another point that the hotel chain shares in common with me: initials. The marquis board is very effective at advertising the hotel's Elvis heritage.

Finally, Thursday evening, we made it to St Louis, gateway to the east from our perspective. Similar to Phoenix, our visit to St Louis coincided with a record heat wave. It made doing anything outside kind of miserable, but the neighborhood my aunt and uncle live in has nice trees that provide lots of shade. This was a weekend for hanging out with family, anyways. It was good to have a little reunion in St Louis during our trip.

Mae meeting Uncle Phillip

We still managed some sight-seeing though: this is the old downtown courthouse where the Dred Scott case was heard.

And of course, we made it to the arch

And up into the top of the arch. For those who haven't been to the St Louis arch, it's a fun ride up in a little 1960s era, Jetsons style pod train. It wasn't very windy the day we went up, but apparently the arch can start swaying a few inches when the wind picks up. My Uncle Phillip encouraged us to rally all of the other tourists to run back and forth in unison across the viewing platform in an effort to rock the arch like a boat. We didn't do that, though.

Mae's first trip across the Mississippi river was in St Louis!

And, Mae's first independent swing ride was also in St Louis. It was a weekend of many firsts.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Great American Road Trip Part 2: The Possibilities!

This whole business of driving cross-country got my brain thinking about the ultimate cross-country road trip. Of course, there are many ways to define that. One approach might be to visit every national park in the contiguous United States. Apparently, you can do all 47 over 15,000 miles.
But just looking at that map, you can see that only hitting the jewels of America's most beautiful spots leaves out a lot in the center of the country. If you want to take a more democratic approach to touring the country (this is America, after all), you could hit all 48 contiguous states plus DC. Of course someone has already mapped that out for us.
That trip is more manageable, too, at less than half the mileage of the national parks circuit: 6,872 miles. Of course, adding on Alaska and Hawaii would increase that number dramatically. I guess that's why they're worth their own, separate trips.

But looking at the route above, I noticed a few things that irked me. First, It's not coast-to-coast. The trip starts in Maine and ends in Montana, never giving a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. I know the oceans aren't states, but they are pretty momentous features defining the United States. If I were to drive nearly 7000 miles to see every state, I'd feel like something were missing if I never saw the Pacific in the process.

Second, upon close inspection, the route in this map doesn't even actually hit all the 48 contiguous states: Pennsylvania got cut out. Now, you can probably SEE Pennsylvania on this route; IH-68 comes awfully close, but actually stays in Maryland. This omission disqualifies the route entirely. I'll give you the Pacific Ocean since it technically isn't a state, but Pennsylvania definitely is a state. You can't leave that one out.

Finally, the map above involves several points of back-tracking. Most notably, there's a little spur going east from Chicago to hit Indiana and Michigan. I don't like backtracking. I took a lot of advice from my Grandpa when it comes to living life with honor and integrity and one of those pieces of advice was to not go home the same way you left. There's just too much of the world out there to take the same route twice. The spur to Michigan in the map above may be the most efficient way to see all of the lower 48, but it's not one that I could follow in good conscience.

Having noticed these flaws, some of which were fatal, I determined to make my own route that would allow me see all 48 contiguous states without 1) omitting a major ocean; 2) omitting Pennsylvania (or any other state) and; 3) backtracking.

Ben's Version

I know, this route looks pretty similar. It's about 400 miles longer than the first map but much more complete in my mind. For a step by step guide, here are the route specifics. Another fun fact: if you're looking to drive coast-to-coast and pass through the least states possible, then California to North Carolina via Arkansas and Tennessee is your best bet. The more you know!

Anyways, these are just fantasy for now. We aren't doing any of these trip this time around. We have prioritized visiting family and friends over states this time around and the past three weeks have been spent seeing my and Bryn's family. We had a week in Austin, a week at a lake house and then the past week has been in Oklahoma City. It seems like a week is just about how long it takes for Mae to get adjusted to a place, so we're keeping up a pace that ensures she's never quite settled in. Poor girl. She's being a trooper though. Even when we dunked her in Barton Springs for her "baptism". 

She seemed completely comfortable kicking around in the water. She wasn't so happy about the dunking, but it didn't ruin her day either, so we're considering it a win. 

We continued the water theme in Oklahoma City at a great splash pad that rained, sprayed, waterfalled and misted all the kids running around. Mae enjoyed it too, seeing as how she could keep her feet more on solid ground. 

We're doing our best to get her used to the water. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Great American Roadtrip Part 1: The Southwest

Mae delivered on looking pensively over great heights at the Grand Canyon. I'm not sure if she registered that anything was particularly different or unique about the Grand Canyon, but we at least caught her in a few moments where her face was aligned with the panorama. That counts, right?

And even if it doesn't, we got this great Lion King shot of Mae on our last morning at the Grand Canyon.

But let's be honest, most of the time Mae was just looking at us, a little bewildered, wondering why nobody was feeding her.

This was my fourth trip to the Grand Canyon - third that I can remember. Like Mae, I also visited the Grand Canyon on a cross-country trip when I was an infant. The other three times, I had spent most of my time on the North Rim and just briefly stopped along the south rim while we drove through. This trip was my first time actually spending time along the south rim and it was amazing. The park services nearly 40 miles along the south rim, offering dozens of lookouts, trails and rest stops. On previous visits, I had dismissed the lodges and amenities offered along the south rim as too decadent, opting for the purely natural approach on the north rim instead. But the amenities are really well done. We learned about Mary Colter, the architect who designed most of the original tourist accommodations along the south rim. I was impressed by her ability to incorporate the natural surroundings in a way that highlighted them, so that her structures complimented the environment rather than obscured it. Providing a little shade and water also helps. One of my favorite of her features is a fireplace in Bright Angel Lodge made up of the various layers of the Grand Canyon. You can't see that stratification in one frame in the actual Grand Canyon - it's just too big - so scaling it down to a fireplace makes it just a little more comprehensible. I appreciate little touches like that one. 

Grand Canyon strata fireplace at the Bright Angel Lodge

On previous trips, I had also dismissed the Desert View tower on the eastern point of the south rim as a tourist trap. How wrong and naive I was back then...

Looking up into the Desert View tower
In a final coup de grace to my old luddite approach to the Grand Canyon, Bryn treated me and her dad to a Father's Day rim-to-tim helicopter ride across the canyon. Not only was this my first aerial view of the Grand Canyon, it was my first ride in a helicopter as well, so my senses were reeling as we crested over the south rim and the bottom fell out from beneath us. It's amazing how quickly the trees pass by underneath as you buzz across the plateau during the approach, but then once you cross over the rim, everything slows down and it feels like you're just suspended there over the canyon. I can't tell if I'm more frustrated or awed that the entire round trip took about 30 minutes. Eleven years ago, I hiked the Grand Canyon from north to south rim. It took us three days and several gallons of sweat. 

A tiny sliver of the Colorado River from the helicopter

Looking west during our return trip from the North Rim

As we headed east from the Grand Canyon, I found myself reflecting on summer trips with my Grandparents when I was a kid. Every summer, we'd head off to the great American West: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon. One summer we flirted with the Mississippi River and went as far east as Lake Superior, but always the focus was on the west. Armed with a Rand McNally atlas and a national directory of Best Western hotels, we set off to see the great landscapes that my Grandfather, who grew up in northern Louisiana, had to see to believe. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to go on those trips and am happy that from now on, Great American Road Trips will always evoke memories of my Grandparents.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the 20+ years since we did those trips. Instead of picking our route based on where the Best Westerns were located (and driving hotel to hotel looking for a room) now we can book a room from our phones as we drive along. We aren't limited to Best Westerns, either. The advent of Air B&B and puts hundreds of options at our fingertips. One of the things I love most about sites like Air B&B is that they get you off the main drag, where the Best Westerns are, and back into the neighborhoods that tend to get overlooked and passed up. You meet and talk to people that you wouldn't have otherwise. It makes your overnight rest just as much part of the adventure as the daytime explorations. 

Nowhere was this more true than in Alpine, TX, where we stayed on a small ranch on the edge of the mountains and Mae learned about horses. We all fell in love with Alpine during a brief stay there and have vowed to return for a longer sojourn. Grandpa and Grandma would have loved Alpine, but I'm not sure we ever would have made it there during the 1990s - the Best Western there only opened a few years ago.
Meeting Sonny in Alpine, TX

Of course, the internet doesn't only help with overnight accommodations. We've been on all sorts of backroad adventures that I doubt would have been possible without google. In Deming, New Mexico, Yelp told us about Tacos Mirasol, a colorful little shop where the AC was out but we didn't mind. I had my first tacos al pastor and Mexican coke in months there and that's all that mattered. Mae loved getting to watch a few minutes of Telemundo and Bryn savored her Chile Relleno. We stopped at a weird time - around 3pm - so there was only one other patron there at the time, a middle aged and friendly guy who worked night shifts at Mizkan, the chile canning facility in town. I put it together then that whenever you buy a can of Hatch green chiles, you'll see Deming, New Mexico on the label. He was the guy responsible for putting those chiles in the can. I acquired my love of New Mexican green chiles from my Uncle Robert and wished he could have been there at that moment. He probably could have had a more informed conversation with our fellow diner than I did. 

We also got off the beaten path just outside El Paso, TX, where we went to visit International Boundary Marker Number 1. This white obelisk marks the beginning of the US-Mexico land border in New Mexico. From there to to the Gulf of Mexico, the border is marked by the Rio Grande but from this point west, to the Pacific Ocean, it's just desert, fence and a few dozen more of these white obelisks. I point out that this really is the border. In the picture below, the tree just behind the obelisk is Mexico. We could have easily walked Mae over there and logged her third country. However, there was a Border Patrol agent in a truck just off camera keeping an eye on things so we stayed well on the US side of the marker. We waved at a few tourists parked on the other side, in Mexico. 

International Boundary Marker Numero Uno

The last story I want to share from this whirlwind of a week was our stop at McDonald observatory just outside Fort Davis, Texas. Perched on a hilltop over 6000 feet above sea level, this cluster of telescopes has put Texas on the astronomical map since the 1930s. Back then, they trucked a (relatively small) 82" diameter telescope up the dirt slope in the bed of an old Ford. Now, they still have state-of-the art telescopes that are among the biggest in the world. We went during the day, so weren't able to do any star gazing, but the views were amazing and seeing the telescopes close up was even more impressive. I can only hope that some of that knowledge got stored away in the back of Mae's brain and sparks the flame of science. But who am I kidding - she slept through most of the tour and ate from the bottle for the rest. She had no idea what was going on. I guess that just means we'll have to keep trying.  

107' Harlan Smith Telescope

Outside the 360" Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Goodbye Saigon, Hello Flagstaff!

Happy Father's Day everyone!

I'm taking the opportunity of my first Father's Day to reflect back on the past six months of Mae. She was born last December and everyday since that one has been an introduction to fatherhood. Bryn and I are taking it all in pretty well, but really because Mae has spoiled us with (mostly) quiet nights and a warm friendliness that I can only attribute to Vietnam. We do our best to keep her happy, and she is doing the same. We feel incredibly fortunate to have fallen in so well with her. Of course, this probably means that she'll go through an especially horrific vampire stage in her early teens (or whatever the equivalent will be in 2030) but at least we'll have started off on a positive note, right?

Later today we're heading to the Grand Canyon, which is a pretty epic way to ring in my first Father's Day. Mae and I have been practicing looking out pensively over wide expanses from our balcony in Saigon. I think she's about got it down now, but the Grand Canyon will require more pensiveness from her than she may be ready for. We'll see how it goes. I'll definitely provide updates.

Mae practicing for the Grand Canyon in Saigon back in April
We left Saigon for good this past week, saying goodbye to all of the friends that made our first post so amazing. As we were flying back, I recounted how I was not all that excited to be going back to Vietnam in February. We were still interpreting Mae's operating instructions and had quickly adjusted back to life in Austin. Why uproot all of that and fly 24 hours across the Pacific Ocean just to finish out the four months left on our tour? It seemed masochistic. Maybe it was, a bit, but it's amazing how significant four months can be. During that time, Mae went from a cute but minimally interactive newborn to a playful little rugrat. Four years after our initial trip to Vietnam, I was able to convince Bryn to go back to Hue for a weekend; we saw firsthand how the common trait of having an infant can seal bonds of friendship faster than I ever thought possible. Mae became best friends with our nanny, Thuy, who loved her as much as we do but had the baby experience and knowledge to back that love up with competent child raising. We will miss them all. We will also get back to Southeast Asia sometime - but hopefully after Mae is able to rush her own backpack up and down stairs across an airport terminal to make a tight connection.

The Grand Canyon is the second stop on our 2017 Great American Road Trip. We are making the most of our 2.5 month layover in the United States before making our way to our next post in September: Belize! That will have to wait for a whole other post, but for now, we are in the American southwest, reacquainting ourselves with phenomena such as low humidity, stillness and twilights that last longer than 5 minutes. Other than the heat, Phoenix was about the most opposite place I can imagine to Saigon. The sparseness of the landscape there is an aesthetic completely foreign to Vietnam, where at least 20 varieties of plants and insect inhabit every square foot of the country. Vietnam is a riot of life. The humans there are just emulating their own natural environment: nature there long ago concocted a medley of fruit trees, creepy crawly critters and landscapes that change every 20 miles and now humans do their best to copy it with tightly packed bodies, motorbikes and neon signs. The humans haven't quite accomplished the same elegance as nature has, but they're still working on it. Vietnam is a feast for the senses, always providing stimulation wherever you are, but also making it difficult to notice anything beyond a three foot radius that is your bubble.

A little creek bottom down the hill from our place in Flagstaff
But here, in the foothills outside of Flagstaff, I can actually walk around the street and soak in my surroundings. I can look 100, 200 feet off into the pines to notice squirrels chasing each other up a tree, or stop to hear a woodpecker doing his work 100 yards off. Outside of the Saigon Zoo, these experiences are virtually impossible to recreate in Vietnam. There is nature there, for sure, but the jungle is like the city in that you are never really sure what's happening more than three feet away from you in any direction. The ferns and palm fronds and banyan tree roots trap you in and demand your immediate attention in the wilds of Vietnam just like motorbikes, banh mi stalls and broken sidewalks do the same in the cities.

Flagstaff, Arizona has been a great kind of decompression tank for us in between chapters of exhilaration. Saying goodbye to Saigon was emotionally draining and the Grand Canyon (along with the rest of the American southwest) demands a sense of awe that I'm not quite sure we're ready for yet. Flagstaff, and the peaceful pines surrounding our little mountain getaway, serve as the perfect interruption between the two, allowing us to find our sleep rhythms again and take a few breaths of thin, mountain air before we go on to the next, utterly amazing slice of earth.