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Home Stretch: Arizona & Texas (July 24-August 6)

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We wrapped up our North American road trip by hanging out with family: Tony's brother Mike in Phoenix, my parents in East Texas and my older sister Prathima in Houston. We also stopped in El Paso for Tony to show me his old haunts from when the Rickeys lived there, and Austin to see some old friends of mine.

ARIZONA: I had one last thing to do before we crossed the border from California, which was to try an In-n-Out burger. On the East Coast, it is well nigh impossible to say "X's is the best burger I've ever had" without someone from Utah or California asking, "But have you had an In-n-Out burger?" [1] And I have to say, Western people, I was not impressed. It seemed very similar to a White Castle burger -- inexpensively-priced, small, skinny patty -- except there was a ridiculous queue at the drive-thru to get one at lunch on a Friday.

Once in Phoenix, Mike took us in hand to get outfitted for our travels. We started at REI for hiking/backpacking gear, checked out Cabella's and Bass Pro Shop, then headed back to REI, which really seemed to have the best selection and service. We each got a pair of hiking boots and convertible rolling suitcase that could be turned into a large backpack, as well as a smaller daypack attachable to the larger case.

With that crossed off the to-do list, we relaxed at Mike's beautiful house, ate what he grilled for us and watched movies. I saw "Die Hard" for the first time (surprisingly good), as well as "Charlie Wilson's War" for the second (still love it, and not just because Wilson was my hometown's congressman).

TEXAS: The next stop of note was El Paso, though it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as Tony's favorite coffee shop was closed and his favorite restaurant had become a noisy, poorly-run college place. Still, I saw his parents' old house and ate at the famous Taco Bell.

And once you drive through the rest of West Texas, you feel much more appreciative of El Paso. Despite having been raised in Texas, I'd never been further west in the state than San Antonio, and the dusty nothingness of the left half of Texas was a revelation. I used to claim that I grew up in the middle of nowhere, but East Texas is a bustling metropolis in comparison. We intended to stop in a town called Van Horn for lunch, but it was so bizarrely empty -- the only human life we saw was one woman, presumably homeless, pushing a shopping cart -- that we shuddered and drove on to the next town. It was a great relief when the dry mesas became the green hills of central Texas. We went camping, visited friends, ate Tex-Mex (enchiladas with gravy! score!) and introduced Tony to drive-thru liquor stores.

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In East Texas, we spent most of our time getting certified for scuba diving so that we could dive off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and perhaps other places as well. It was a really good experience: Diver's Depot sent us the written materials to review ahead of time, and set us up with our own instructor for a three-day crash course in the water. We spent the first day in a saltwater tank getting accustomed to breathing underwater and practicing the required skills, then went to a lake in Huntsville to get to some meaningful depths. Once I got comfortable with being fully underwater for long stretches of time -- something that took the mental breakthrough of It's OK if my mask fills with water, I can fix this without going to the surface -- scuba diving was wonderful.

Houston was much like Phoenix: an opportunity to get our final preparations for the trip made, while also relaxing with a sibling who generously made time to take us where we needed to go, having left the minivan with my parents. Prathima took me with her to an interesting World Affairs Council reception with a speaker on "The Role of the U.S. Military in Afghanistan." I really like going to events like this; they remind me of being in college and getting exposure to a huge range of knowledge. Hyper-specific panels like "New York versus London as the Place of Arbitration" (the prior speakers' event I'd attended) are interesting to me, but aren't enjoyable in the same way.

Prathima also treated us to lunch as part of Houston's Restaurant Week, and we had a last family dinner with my parents and grandmother. Even though I'll see them again at the end of February in India -- assuming some South American consulate cooperates -- this round-the-world trip still marks the longest I'll ever have gone without seeing my parents. They have been amazingly supportive about this adventure, cheering our ambitious itinerary and keeping (most of) their worries to themselves. Our families' and friends' assistance and enthusiasm for what we're doing has bolstered my own confidence that we're going to have an extraordinary experience.

[1] For the record, the Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien is probably my favorite NYC burger: big, beefy, can be ordered with fries, milkshake or pitcher of beer, open until 2am, just three blocks from our apartment, and a graffiti-scribbled hole incongruously hidden by a red velvet curtain in the lobby of a 4-star hotel. On the other hand, Parker Meridien's fancy restaurant, Norma's, should be strictly avoided due to its high prices and lousy service.

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7 Comments

A note on the "famous" Taco Bell. Whatever else might be said for El Paso (and really, the less the better), there is a Taco Bell on Sunland Park that defies every expectation you might have. The food actually looks like the tacos, enchiritos, and gorditas found in Taco Bell advertising. For all I know, the commercials are shot there.

I generally like Taco Bell, but I generally wouldn't go so far as to call it "good" food. I don't know what makes the Sunland Park Taco Bell different, but it actually is a great meal.

@T, Does this Taco Bell beat the NYC Taco Bell served on real dishes with silverware though? ;-)

@PG, Isn't Hans Gruber one of the best villains? So glad that movie introduced Alan Rickman to mainstream America for he=awesome at whatever he does. I'm really shocked that for all the movies/bands you've introduced me to, you've not seen Die Hard till recently. When you get back to the states, I feel like I need to get you to watch more machismo/butch movies to learn you the ways of badassness. =)

T'other half and I are still engaged in our quest to find the Best Burger Ever. We've ranked most of the burger joints in London (into "contenders", "trying" and "meh, might as well be in McDonalds"), but it constantly amazes me what other people will reckon a good burger. Possibly my choices amaze them too!

My knowledge of US burgers is non-existent, though, so next time I'm there I'll have to ask for recommendations. When you next pass through London, let me know and I can get your opinions on my favourite :)

PG, didn't you ever get a burger at the White Spot in C-ville? I recall the cyclops being a popular burger of choice. Yes it sound ghastly but I love having an egg on top of anything. I don't know why it's taboo when it a sunny side up egg on a burger but suave when it's poached egg on greens.

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