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Road Tripping Archives

I wrote a full review of this device at Amazon, but figured I would post the short version here. We purchased this GPS for the road trip largely because it offered a broad feature set for $99. After a month of intensive use, I'd recommend against buying a Motorola GPS because:

  • The user interface is clunky, attempting to guess the address you are searching for in a manner similar to Google's auto-suggestion feature. Unfortunately, the processor is nowhere near powerful enough to support these operations, so entering an address is a painful process.
  • The unit overheats easily if mounted on a dashboard, rendering it useless much of the day (or requiring us to turn the AC on full blast and pump it out of the front defogger vents). One would have thought that this was a basic feature for a GPS. (That said, while parked at the U.S./Canada border, we passed one couple who had solved this problem with a similar model by putting a towel over the unit, making it look like Lawrence of Arabia.)
  • The power adapter broke in Canada, and we had a ridiculous time trying to contact customer service to get a replacement.
  • The bluetooth connection (one of the high-end features one doesn't expect on a unit this cheap) is finicky, to say the least, and did not play well with an iPhone.

Bottom line: I would steer clear of Motorola products in this segment.

A Break in the Avoidance of Quakes

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As Tony mentioned, we had a narrow escape from Cuzco prior to the strikes and protests that have left some tourists semi-stranded. Having signed up with the U.S. State Department to receive email alerts, I saw the following in my inbox:

September-October Strikes & Elections in Cusco

The U.S. Embassy wishes to alert U.S. citizens residing and traveling in and around Cusco, Peru of possible travel difficulties due to strikes and political demonstrations in the weeks prior to the upcoming October 3 municipal elections. The Peru Rail tourism train between Cusco and Machu Picchu will be closed Tuesday September 21 and Wednesday 22 due to transportation strikes. Travelers should be aware of possible impediments or delays to their travel in this region, particularly in the lead up to the October 3 elections, and remain flexible in their plans.

It would have been nice to get this earlier than 8:47am on Sept. 21, when Tony and I already had reached the airport, but probably the U.S. Embassy doesn't get much more notice of these things than the rest of us.

However, once we reached Lima, we had a different kind of disruption: on our first night, around 3am, we woke up due to an earthquake tremor. It wasn't particularly noteworthy -- a mere 5.9 even at its epicenter 110 miles away from Lima -- and I wouldn't mention it except it ended my pattern of earthquake avoidance on this trip.

Consider: an earthquake shook central Canada just a few days before we crossed the northern border. A tremor passed through the D.C. area the day before I arrived for a friend's wedding in Northern Virginia. Both were extremely unusual for the areas in which they occurred.

As we'll be passing through several more earthquake-prone areas after Peru, hopefully all future tremors will be as negligible as the one we felt in Lima. I woke up, but quickly fell asleep again, and in the morning vaguely thought I'd had a dream about an earthquake, until the owner of the hostel asked me if I'd felt it.

Boozing Across America

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Particularly given the so-hot-you-could-fry-an-egg summer New York just endured, I can't say that I spent much time regretting being on the roadtrip instead of in the city. The only story I heard that gave me a twinge of wistfulness for being outside Manhattan was Frank Bruni's report on Ward III, a cocktail lounge that promises to make whatever drink a customer wants, and to save the recipe for her. In his review, Bruni declares, "There are two pronounced strains in current cocktail culture. One exalts the classics, treating them with the reverence that a gourmand accords Escoffier. The other prizes whimsy, imagination, tweaking and tinkering."

There's truth to this, though one should be aware that a bar can hold both strains simultaneously. For example, two of our favorite Prohibition throwbacks in NYC, Death & Company and Please Don't Tell, naturally emphasize old school cocktailing, but their bartenders are also willing to play with the classics upon customer request. And our absolute favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, recently swapped from a hyper-emphasis on the classics (their original shtick was a list of "100 Cocktails You Should Try Before You Die") to a menu of original formulations by their bartenders coupled with a changing shortlist of their current favorite classics.

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.

Having been burgered, we made good time to San Francisco, where Tony's friend K very generously hosted us for a week. As she was house-sitting part of the time, we got to see multiple neighborhoods and modes of living in the city, from an apartment in the Castro to a single-family home in a gentrifying Latino neighborhood.

I've always liked San Francisco, and I see new aspects of it each time I visit. This time, K introduced us to a couple of good bars, of which Smuggler's Cove may be my favorite place to drink ever: good cocktails, reasonably priced by San Francisco standards, bartenders kind enough to bring my purse up to me when I forget it, and pirate-themed!  

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One of the serves-four punches at Smuggler's Cove

Useful Advice for Bed & Board

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A belated thank you to the commenter who suggested using the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives website for places to eat and AAA and raveable.com for places to sleep. I was initially a bit skeptical of DDD because when I'd seen the show on the Food Network, I couldn't get past host Guy Fieri's annoying mannerisms. In online form, however, DDD is a great roadtrip resource; both of the restaurants we tried that were recomended by it turned out to be tasty and reasonably priced.

After the vaunted Music & the Spoken Word taping, I ate lunch at another SLC institution that has not been overhyped: Ruth's Diner. You get massive, fluffy biscuits as soon as you sit down, and while it's a little expensive compared to a genuine diner, the quality of food and beautiful setting in Emigration Canyon on the outskirts of town make up for that. The only problem was finding parking and getting a table for Sunday brunch, as the place was packed by noon.

A few days later, as we were driving from Reno to San Francisco, we stopped for lunch at Burger Me, which had just been added to the DDD list and hadn't yet had its episode air on TV. This meant that when we showed up at the 11am opening time, the small restaurant and parking lot were empty and we got our food quickly. Again, it might be considered a little pricy for a burger joint, but considering that it's near a California resort area (Lake Tahoe) and has very filling portions, I think it's worth the money.

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Raveable.com saved us from making a significant mistake in Reno. Circus Circus in Vegas has a decent reputation, and I figured the one in Reno would be the same. It also was offering very cheap rooms. However, I thankfully checked it on raveable before booking, and the reviews there convinced us to go with the El Dorado instead, which wasn't quite as cheap but turned out to be surprisingly nice and well-kept. At least from the exterior, the Reno Circus Circus lived down to everything negative said about it. Definitely the scary kind of clown show.

I wanted to stop in Salt Lake City solely for one purpose: to see the Tabernacle Choir perform. I'd heard a lot about them, and Mormon friends advised me that Music & the Spoken Word tapings are open to the general public and well worth attending.

We reached SLC early on a Saturday afternoon, dropped our stuff at a downtown hotel, and headed to the fancy nearby shopping area to see if the Apple store had a useful case in stock for the new iPhone. No joy there, but we got lunch and enjoyed watching children play in the fountains, and came back that night to see Despicable Me. While Tony was at the hotel getting some paperwork done, I went to the not-so-fancy mall to acquire a sundress suitable to wear to church. Technically the summer performances of M&SW are at the Conference Center, not the Tabernacle, and no dress code is mentioned on the website. Still, I felt certain that I'd better be looking like Sunday morning.


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...because as of 5:45 this afternoon, we will be on a flight to Ecuador.

Of course, we'll have some time on the plane to draft catch-up posts from the road trip.

Summer nights in Texas

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My explanation for the lack of updates: all driving/downtime is currently given over to either a) trying to deal with matters related to the renting of our New York apartment or b) studying for scuba certification, which we should complete this week in Nacogdoches, Texas.

With regard to the first, we can recommend a very good and helpful New York real estate agent. With regard to the second, it's not the bar exam, but it's still a lot of study.

But some times you have to put all that aside. Like tonight, when we bring you a blog post from the inside of a small dome tent, open to the central Texas stars (but hopefully not the central Texas bugs). It seems AT&T gets just enough coverage to blog from out here.

By the way: if you are driving in Texas, try not to hit a skunk. It causes problems.

Pacific Coast Highway

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If you intend to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, I highly recommend two strategies:

a) First, stop either in Monterey, north of Big Sur, or Cambria. Anything between those two points seems to be "luxury" hotels in the $150 and up (sometimes way up) range. While there are quite a few camp sites, they fill up quickly.

b) Second, gas up in Monterey. Gas stations are few in the resort districts, and I feel we serve our readers well by preventing them from paying $4.50 per gallon.

We're driving and doing things faster than we can write, but there will be updates soon on Salt Lake City, Reno, San Francisco and the Pacific Coast Highway. Tomorrow, LA!

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The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Views Along 80 West

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Reclining in the passenger seat, post-pedicure, watching Big Sky country go by.


While most rest stops on the road between Chicago and Salt Lake City are pretty dull (even the Little America one, which tries so hard), there's one that's worth visiting. It doesn't sell anything cool -- doesn't sell anything at all, in fact -- nor are the bathrooms worth writing home about. I only noticed that there was anything out of the ordinary about it when I saw a dozen children in a plain dirt field, alternately standing very still and scampering excitedly.

After celebrating Canada Day in Ottawa with thousands of Canadian strangers plus Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, we spent Independence Day more restfully with Tony's parents, cousins and family friends in Michigan. We got a break from the fast food diet we'd been developing on the road, with home cooked meals and more tasty baked goods (chocolate chip cookies, cherry pie, pineapple upside-down cake) than was at all good for me.

We then went an unintentional step further into gluttony by stopping at a Texas Corral restaurant on our way to Chicago. Tony ordered an entree for us to split, added a shrimp side, and figured he also should get an appetizer. I was skeptical, but not because of the cost. The whole meal, beverages and tax included, cost $20. 

Rather, I had looked around and remembered: we were back in non-coastal, non-urban America ("real America," as Sarah Palin would say). A restaurant order that would be just enough to stop hunger in New York or Canada was going to be way too much food for two people in Franklin, Illinois. And I was right. Our waitress kept bringing us warm rolls with containers of cinnamon butter; the appetizer filled a platter; the entree, with its attendant salad and sides, defeated us entirely. I thought it was kind of a Fifth of July moment: it's a great country that can feed its people so well for such a relatively small amount of money.

Much to write, and much to catch up on, but FYI if you are ever in San Francisco: they give you a ticket if you turn your wheels the wrong way when parking on a hill. It seems that the correct way is:

When facing downhill, turn your wheels to the right. When facing uphill on a street with a curb, turn your wheels to the left. When facing uphill on a street with no curb, turn your wheels to the right.

Needless to say, I got that mixed up.

After Ottawa, Toronto; and after Toronto, we crossed the border into Michigan. If you are ever considering a similar trip, I advise that you add an hour for the border crossing and getting through customs. Once past these hurdles, however, we had somewhat smooth sailing. Somewhat smooth because the roads around Detroit have deteriorated a great deal since I last drove them (before law school). Our first stop was in Novi, where we visited some of Pallavi's relatives, and then we continued to Big Rapids, where we stayed in one of my childhood homes.

The Fourth of July weekend was a story of relaxation, a chance to meet with family and friends. We grilled steak using an espresso rub, a spicy/coffee mixture that I highly recommend. After a week on the road, spending some time with a fully-stocked kitchen (and bar!) and good company made for a nice change. I got to take my old car for a spin, go sailing, and spend time with family that I will not be seeing for a year.

Typing that feels odd. We've been on the road for half a month now, but sometimes the trip does not feel entirely real. I still wake up occasionally expecting to hop out of bed, pull on a suit, and head for an office. It wasn't until we pulled out of the forest where my parents live that I started to think that I will not be "home" for a year. Perhaps more on that later.

Found on West Grand Avenue in Chicago, as storefront that takes customers "by appointment only."

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This sign adorns the door to an otherwise unprepossessing two story brick building. I have no idea what the store sells, finds, or barters, but on a street bedecked with glass-front boutiques and Starbucks sidewalk cafes, the locked doors and drawn curtains evoke unlikely mystery. I don't want to know, because the reality will almost certainly not live up to the promise of an advertisement suitable for a story by Bradbury or Gaiman.

Nonetheless, it's the odd kind of thing I hope to see more of on my travels, and reminds me why some of my friends who are writers found their own journeys to be fodder for good fiction.

The rest of Canada

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Time for a catch up entry. I would despair for our ability to update the blog while we are traveling, if it were not for the fact that our schedule gives the entire US and Canada as much time as Ecuador and Peru. I figure that once we're off the continent, we'll have a little more time for reflection (and a lot more to reflect about). In the meantime, a bit of what we've been up to since Prince Edward Island:

With only a couple of exceptions, people's reactions to hearing that Prince Edward Island was on our itinerary broke down neatly by gender lines.

Men: Oh. Why? What's there? Where is that, anyway?
Women: Like in Anne of Green Gables? You're so lucky!

Things to come

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The Canadian trip has been somewhat hurried, as we've had to cover a great deal of ground since Prince Edward Island. We'll have further updates on Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Ottawa shortly.

Karma

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I doubt it's possible to take a transcontinental road trip without one's vehicle experiencing some sort of mechanical breakdown, but yesterday's adventure was pretty harmless. On the way from Quebec to Montreal, my fondness for gadgetry blew a fuse in the minivan, which disabled the radio and the power outlet. [1] In my old cars, replacing a fuse was a simply matter of looking at a small box beneath the dash, but a 2004 Chrysler minivan hold its entire collection of fuses in an "integrated power management" box under the hood, next to the battery. Unfortunately, the explanatory diagram of the IPM box makes sense only if you already know what its acronyms mean. I couldn't immediately understand it, but as we were about to stop at a hotel for the night anyway, I used the University of Google to figured out which of the dozens of fuses probably needed to be replaced. One short hop to a pieces d'auto in Montreal and our radio happily spewed French pop music again. Figuring that they might be handy, I bought four fuses at the auto store.

An hour later, halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, I pulled over for a cup of coffee. On the way out of the service station, I walked by an older couple standing in front of their Dodge Caravan, staring quizzically at the cover of an integrated power module. "Fuse blown?" I asked. They replied that yes, their radio wasn't working, but that they didn't know which fuse to replace. I told them that it was the one labeled "RDO," and asked if they had the right part. Although they had bought a small box of generic fuses in the filling station, none of them fit, so I gave them one of mine and a spare for the road. "How'd you blow it, anyway? Overload the cigarette lighter?"

"Yes," said the husband, sheepishly. "I was using my laptop."

[1] For what it's worth, I think that a Chrysler or Dodge minivan will quite happily charge a notebook when it is not in use, but the fuse tends to blow when a powerful notebook's fans kick in.

P.E.I. Generally

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On Friday, we left Stephen King country

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for L.M. Montgomery territory.
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On the to-do list

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What would a road-trip be without a drive-in movie or two?

Failure to cross paths

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Bad luck. I just received an email from my favorite Hong Kong tailor announcing his American tour. My last suit from Peter So garnered quite a few compliments when I wore it back in law school, and I was hoping to have a second one made. Unfortunately, he's going to be in precisely the wrong places, missing us by about a week at least three times. But if you're in his area and need a good suit, check him out.

Borders

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Greeting from Prince Edward Island! About halfway through our 300 miles of driving, we crossed into Canada. Arriving late, we've not had a chance to explore, but I'm sure PG will be updating tomorrow.

One note for anyone driving to Prince Edward Island: there is not very much between the border and PEI. Do not let your gas tank get low!

One other Maine item

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PG didn't mention this, but despite having a brand new GPS, two smartphones and an atlas, we still got lost on the way to the L.L. Bean store. One experience I've not had in a while: not minding getting lost. Although we have a couple of "must hit" deadlines on our North American trip, for the most part a minor course deviation merely means unexpected adventures. In this case, a working dock, some lobstermen, and great fried clam strips.

a port in South Freeport

As you might expect, not being stressed about sudden, unexpected changes in plans is a new experience for me.

Water, Water Everywhere

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The Inn at St. John, where we stayed Wednesday night, had a "European-style" setup in which bathrooms are separate and down the hall from the bedrooms, but the bedrooms have a working sink, as well as bathrobes and towels. After the slight awkwardness of washing up in a hallway bathroom and dashing back to our room in towel and robe, Tony drank coffee, I dropped Nutrigrain bars for the road into my purse, and we headed out. As recurred through the day, our outdoor plans were dampened by the fitful rain. We'd intended to walk through Portland's Old Port area, but after driving around for a bit, decided that we'd instead start the drive to LL Bean before noon.

The LL Bean campus in Freeport really does stand out, even in that area of yuppie outlets (going in and out, we passed North Face, Abercrombie, et al., along with the nicest McDonald's I'd seen since Milan*). There's separate buildings for Home Furnishings, Hunting & Fishing, as well as the original gear for hiking. We looked around the latter, but the most desirable thing found was the Archery Range. I talked Tony out of paying $12 per person for the Range's use, pointing out that in Michigan we could use his own archery set for free. There is the minor problem of finding a place for archery; my suggestion of the golf course on which we'd previously gone sledding was quickly shot down as likely to incur liability at worst, and the wrath of club-wielding golfers at best.

For lunch, we stopped at the famous Red's Eats lobster shack along Route 1 in Wiscasset. The restaurant is reputed to have the best lobster roll in Maine, and they are generous with the fresh chunks of meat in the sandwich. Still, at $15 for plain lobster with an oversized piece of toast folded underneath -- not to mention the lengthy wait to order and receive -- it tasted a little overpriced. Aside from the wallet pinch, it was a good time: the rain had stopped, and the tables set up outside Red's, shaded by trees and umbrellas, offer a gorgeous view of the water.

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When looking for a place to spend the night, our default is to check hotels.com, but that website heavily favors chains and has very few of the independent inns that populate so much of this area. When it does list them, they often have few or no reviews, leaving us clueless as to whether Mom & Pop's Motel is a fleapit or an under-appreciated bargain. (I have read too many articles in New York publications about people bringing home bedbugs from hotels to feel OK about just checking into the nearest quaint-looking B&B.) BBonline.com and TripAdvisor.com lack a low-high price sorter and can make discovering the exact rate for the night quite difficult.

If anyone has a suggestion about a better way to meet our goal -- a clean, decent but not-fancy room at a low price -- please do leave it in the comments or email it to us. In particular, a website similar to BBOnline.com with regard to highlighting non-chains, but that focuses on more moderately-priced accommodations, would be welcome. In the meantime, we'll probably be trying out AAA's recommendations and booking them through hotels.com when available there, as hotels.com is offering a promotion in which one gets a free night's stay for every ten nights booked through the website.

Road Trip Theme Song: Country Edition

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People have told us that this road trip will afford us a great opportunity to relax, to discover our country, to learn more about each other and ourselves. However, there is one opportunity of this road trip that no one had mentioned, but that we are enjoying very much: country music on the radio. Of everything you can get in New York -- and that really is quite a list -- you cannot turn on the radio and hear country music.

Since the genre is one of our shared favorites, and we've heard it so little in the last few years, the minivan's radio tuner frequently falls upon the local country stations scattered up the East Coast -- again, everywhere except New York. Today, I heard for the first time a Zac Brown Band song that, while not musically brilliant, is currently my front-runner for a road trip theme song. (Debb's proposal of "Roam" has the advantages of (a) working for the international leg as well, and (b) being a song people have, you know, actually heard.)

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Lyrics:

Boston to Portland

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A long and eventful "first" day. We skipped Boston proper, instead making our way to Cambridge, where we grabbed a burger at the world's most political burger joint. (Mr. Bartley's burgers are named after local luminaries and national politicians) right outside Harvard Yard. We wandered around campus, which served as a great way to kill an hour, but I didn't find it as impressive or interesting from an architectural perspective as PG's alma mater, the University of Virginia.

The rest of the day was spent meeting people we knew, including one of PG's college friends in Chelsea, who told us to leave Boston before 3:30 when the traffic would hit. This good advice prevented us from being too delayed on the way to Portland, Maine. Highlights of Portland:

  • The Inn at St. John. A very price-competitive bed and breakfast, whose cheapest rooms are less expensive than a chain hotel. True, we have a European-style across-the-hall shared bathroom and an in-window AC unit that may date from the Eisenhower administration, and some of the furniture and wallpaper shows its age. Nonetheless, the rooms are charming, if slightly dusty, with plenty of colonial trimmings.

  • Local 188 (warning: link has sound). I don't know about the food here, but the bar serves very potent cocktails. If you order the sazerac, they'll happily substitute absinthe for pernod, and PG found the "margarichio" strong enough to knock her for a loop. The bar was recommended by blogger Sherry and her husband. I had not seen her since she acted as my unofficial mentor in law school, and this was her first introduction to PG. Still a great mentor!

Which brings us to a big travel lesson: local friends are invaluable when exploring a place quickly. We'd planned to spend tomorrow in Portland proper, perhaps doing some sailing, before heading on up to Prince Edward Island. They recommended better places to sail, other places to see, and which campground would be the best to get to by tomorrow night. I'm sure we would have had fun without the advice, but having heard their tales, we're really looking forward to tomorrow.

And so it begins...

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Today I learned that our life (defined as "possessions we'd be willing to pay to keep in storage for a year") fits comfortably in a room 10 X 5 X 8 feet. And that our plan for packing light for the road has, at least initially, failed miserably. There is plenty of room in the back, but little floor space, and our bags and boxes are not well organized. Still, we're on the road.

By late afternoon, we closed up the apartment and managed to make it to the FDR, which obliged us by remaining relatively uncongested. After a few setbacks involving road construction, we found ourselves on our way to Hartford, Connecticut, where old law school friends introduced us to a wonderful recipe for poached salmon.

We're considering this Day 0 of the trip: too short to be a full day's travel. Tomorrow, we'll make a brief stop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that I can say that I have at least seen Harvard Square once in my life, and then settling down in Portland at nightfall.

Good news for our road trip: posting will be easier because Starbucks will start offering free wifi in July.

Bad news for our road trip: AT&T considers Canada foreign enough to justify international roaming and data rates. At least while we're Up North, the cell phones go off, and we'll be in contact a little less often.

The Missing Part of the "C"

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You might notice that the roadtrip doesn't make a complete circuit of the country, but instead forms a "C" shape, beginning in New York, curving up through Canada, across the Midwest, down the Pacific Highway and coming to a stop in Texas.

For me, there's already been a kind of prelude to the roadtrip Tony and I are taking together. My parents loaned us their minivan, but as my parents are in Texas and we would be starting our trip from New York, we somehow had to be united with this minivan.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like