Sunday 9 November 2014

How The Years Fly By...

Wow, has it really been four years since our big trip? Perhaps you’re surprised to hear from us after not posting for two years. I apologize for the long break, but life has been happening. I can’t say any of it is as exciting as our epic adventure back in 2010, but that momentum would have been hard to sustain!

So, it was four years ago today that we got back from travelling the country. The last time I blogged I talked about what we had been up to since, and I suppose this blog will be just another extension of that seeing as we don’t have a “Fifty First States Part Two” that I somehow kept hidden from you all!

Other than getting slightly older, we have crossed a number of milestones of our life list. I obtained an AAS degree, and now am very close to finishing my bachelors; a feat I never imagined possible when we were living in England. We also moved out of our apartment and made the big commitment to buy a house. Yes, we officially put down permanent roots!

I apologize that this blog will be a little long, but since writing the original sharing travel stories has become a passion of mine and I don’t get to do it often, plus I am glad to say we actually have a couple of new stories to tell you about. While we haven’t returned to England since 2012, we did manage to get back on the road for not just one, but two major road trips!

With my fear of flying still forcing me to avoid planes unless absolutely necessary, in 2013 we decided the best way to relax by the beach would be getting into the car and putting the pedal to the metal. Unfortunately, Minnesota is a landlocked state and pretty much as far away as possible from an ocean in every direction. This only caused one real dilemma – East, West, or South?!

Our Fifty First States tour played a big part in our decision of where to vacation as we wanted to go to some places we hadn’t been. I remembered back to planning our original trip, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t justify the budget it would take to add in a stop to San Diego. There was just too much to do there that involved hefty entrance fees! We also had to skip Denver the first time we travelled cross country, so it seemed like this would be a great excuse to hit up two major cities we had missed out on. It didn’t hurt that our plan would involve crossing Vegas twice! West it was then!

We left Minnesota on May 3rd amidst a snow storm. Yeah, that’s right…A snow storm…On May 3rd. Minnesota has some downsides I guess…If nothing else, the weather reminded us that we definitely needed a vacation. Our first day was a super long drive through Iowa and across most of Nebraska. As we only had one full day in Colorado we wanted to make the most of it. This started with a drive out to Seven Falls in Colorado Springs. The waterfall was an amazing sight to behold, but the staircase up to the top was a harrowing ordeal.

After our detour through the gorgeous landscape of Pikes Peak we headed back to Denver to catch a baseball game at Coors Field, but not before stopping for a photo op with the famous big blue bear! You know by now that we love a kooky photo op! When we did finally arrive at the stadium we found it to be a nice, but chilly ballpark. We had to skip out early on the game to get warmed up. Of course, law of sports, the second you leave something exciting will happen and we missed a game winning grand slam.

We woke up the next day and got back on the road for another long day of driving. Luckily this time the terrain was a little more interesting than the Iowan/Nebraskan fields, but crossing Utah and Arizona in one day is a lot to take on, and being back in the car was already starting to feel like more work than we had remembered.

Finally, we arrived back in Vegas! As we always stay on the strip we decided we’d save the more flashy side of Sin City for the way back and mix things up by staying in old school Vegas for a change. That meant we got to enjoy the sights and sounds of Fremont Street. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted from a full day of driving that we only spent about an hour enjoying those sights and sounds before we crashed into bed. We didn’t even gamble a cent.

The next morning we crossed into California and made it to San Diego…and an ocean! The first stop on our itinerary was obviously the San Diego zoo. As an animal lover this was a place I’d been dying to visit. We had a lot of fun walking around and there were many highlights, but mostly just getting to see real life pandas was pretty amazing.

We ended out the day with another baseball game, this time at Petco Park to see the San Diego Padres. This really was a good looking ballpark, and thankfully a lot warmer than Denver. We even managed to stay for the whole game and see the Padres win!
The next day, and I hate to admit this now, but we did go to Seaworld. At the time I was very excited about getting to see dolphins and killer whales up close and personal. Sadly, now that I’ve watched the documentary, Blackfish, I feel guilty about having contributed to a park that puts profits over the safety of their staff and the wellbeing of their whales, so we’ll skip the photos from there and move on to happier details…like meeting up with Joe’s cousin, Kim! She is lucky enough to get to live in San Diego all year round, unlike us lame tourists, and she took us out for a lovely dinner at a kitsch 50’s diner. Thanks again, Kim!

For our last day in San Diego we went exploring at the Hotel Del Coronado and spent some time wading into the sea. While we’d been looking forward to seeing an ocean again, I’m not really one for swimming in the sea. As we’d done all our swimming in our hotel pool we were content to just dip our toes in the Pacific and leave.

It had arrived at the time where we had to turn around and head home. This would have been more depressing, except it meant we got to stop back in Vegas again! This time we stayed at Treasure Island, and I gotta say I give it two thumbs up. One of the better hotels we’ve stayed at there. Our time in Vegas was pretty chilled as we needed time to relax after running around San Diego.
After leaving Vegas behind we knew it would be two very long days of driving to cap off the end of the trip. In hindsight, this was a mistake, and one we wouldn’t repeat when we took our next trip. Word of advice, don’t end a vacation by driving twenty-six hours in two day. It’ll eclipse any relaxation you had achieved. The only bright point was that we got to split up the drive with a stay at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. This was the hotel Stephen King stayed at when he wrote The Shining, and is supposedly haunted.

There was definitely an eerie vibe there, and apparently room 418 is the most haunted. I therefore wasn’t impressed when we were put in room 420, right next door. But turned out the scariest thing about the place was the lack of air conditioning. We hardly got a lick of sleep before our fourteen hour drive home!

Despite the somewhat disappointing end to our 2013 roadtrip we weren’t put off from jumping back in the car again this spring to take another shot at the west coast. Yep, we realized there were somehow still a lot of things in that direction we hadn’t experienced, and so we decided we would put that side of the country to rest once and for all with a drive to San Francisco. While that was a location we visited on our Fifty First States roadtrip, we had a lot of stops on the way there and back that were new for us to explore!
We started out by heading upwards to Fargo, North Dakota. Being fans of the movie Fargo, we just had to stop in and see the original Wood Chipper which is kept on display at the visitor’s center. They also have an odd “Walk of Fame” there with some obscure celebrity handprints. We followed up that kooky stop with another as we detoured off the highway to the see what is apparently the World’s Largest Buffalo in Jamestown, ND.
North Dakota had gotten the brush off in 2010 as we only touched the corner. This time we did it right as we went across the whole state. Seems we should have been a little nicer to it as it was a pretty scenic place, and the beautiful landscapes continued as we moved into Montana.

As we were travelling so early in the season, the East entrance to Yellowstone National Park was still closed, so we had to travel in from the North entrance. This allowed us to see a lot of Montana and we made the most of it with a stop at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

Back in the car we got our first greeting with Yellowstone since 2010 as we clipped the corner of it to get to the town of West Yellowstone. I had forgotten just how breathtaking the place was and we couldn’t resist stopping to take a few snaps before our big tour of the park the next day.

After a good night’s rest in West Yellowstone we had a quick morning visit to the Grizzly And Wolf Discovery Center. It was cool to see these animals so close up, but it was a small park without much to keep us entertained for more than about thirty minutes. Apparently they are looking to expand in the next few years, so I’m looking forward to going again in the future.

The main focus of the day though was Yellowstone. I had been disappointed on our first visit there because we basically just drove straight through, only stopping to see Old Faithful shoot off. This time we had a whole day to explore, and explore we did. While not all of the roads were open because of it being April, coming at this time of the year did have one major perk: The park was almost empty! It made getting around so much easier.

We stopped at plenty of geysers and thermal spots, and of course, went back to Old Faithful. We even got to see a ton of buffalo, but the highlight for me was definitely Lower Falls waterfall. For some reason, I’m a sucker for waterfalls. Joe still doesn’t really “get” my fascination with them, but he humored me nonetheless.

All in all it was a long, magical day and we didn’t make it back to West Yellowstone until after sunset. I realized that the park is now officially one of my favorite places on the planet, and our day there will likely be one of the best days of my whole life. If you can go in spring, when there is still a little snow left on the ground and there aren’t a ton of people getting in your way, you’ll feel like it is just you and the beauty of nature with no distractions.

Wanting to get back to doing new things we decided a trip to the “moon” would definitely be appropriate. It had been nice to have the roads of Yellowstone mostly to ourselves, but we didn’t know desolate until we drove through Idaho. We could go more than ten minutes without seeing a single car! This seemed cool at first, but quickly became creepy, especially when we ended up on roads that kept suggesting there were top secret research facilities around. It felt like we’d stumbled into an episode of the X-Files…but eventually we found Craters of the Moon National Monument.

The park was extremely unique, and it was amazing how the Idaho landscape had just changed from fields and mountains into a set of a sci-fi movie. Lava fields from long dormant volcanic cones give the area its rocky black terrain, and you can even walk around and explore some of them. While it is remote to get to, if you’re passing that way I’d recommend checking it out.

We rounded out the day by bedding down in Twin Falls, ID; a very clean and appealing little city. It has two awesome landmarks, the Shoshone Falls, and the Perrine Bridge. It was also where Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River. To see the jump site is a little bit of a hike. I wasn’t up for the challenge, but Joe didn’t want to miss out, so he took a lone trek up a large hill.

Next on our itinerary was Lake Tahoe, which smells wonderful, but the highlight of the drive was getting to see a wild bear just happily chilling along the side of the road. We pulled over to snap a couple of pictures, but made a hasty exit. Messing with dangerous wildlife isn’t smart! The lake itself was chilly by the time we arrived, but that didn’t stop it from being spectacularly beautiful!

The next morning we decided to explore the lake in more detail and drove around the whole thing. The sun came out and made the views outstanding! It was so overwhelmingly good looking, the only way to recover was an afternoon at the hotel spa…

Leaving Lake Tahoe behind, we finally arrived in San Francisco, and of course we had to stop and take advantage of a photo op at the Golden Gate Bridge! The famous fog was in full force, but we still managed to catch a glimpse of it.
We had thought we’d pretty much covered San Francisco on our first trip there, but turns out there were a lot of places we didn’t even know about…and most of them were covered by a CityPass. Yes, we truly became tourists! We started our visit at the Exploratorium. This was a cool museum focusing on science and education. Unfortunately, it was also a haven for tiny humans, and we rushed through it to get away from the madness that is kids on field trips.
Our next adventure was a cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge, but unfortunately the weather had turned and our boat ride was slightly wet and the water pretty choppy. It was still fun though, and we got to see the bridge from a new angle.
We followed the cruise up with a trip to the Aquarium of the Bay. This, sadly, was a tad underwhelming, so we quickly moved on to the submarine, the USS Pampanito. It was cool to see how the naval men lived, but was a little claustrophobic for my liking.

Keeping the pace going, the next morning we headed over to the Walt Disney Family Museum. Having worked for Disney for six years, I think I will always have an everlasting affection for anything related to it. It was fun to learn about the history of Walt’s family and how he built an empire.

Our last stop of the day was the California Academy of Sciences; another cool museum. Unfortunately, we arrived 20 minutes before closing and had to rush around the whole thing. Luckily it was a strangely small place, and we somehow managed to experience everything, including the indoor rainforest and the earthquake simulator.

On our way out of town the next day we made a detour as we had come all the way to the West coast without stepping foot on a beach. This was unacceptable, so we drove down to Half Moon Bay, a place I think I would happily retire to.

Feeling satisfied that we’d seen the ocean again, we headed back inland to somewhere that has always been on my bucket list: Yosemite National Park. My original idea for our Fifty First States tour was really borne out of a dream I’d first had when I was just sixteen and became interested in photography. It was then that I had discovered the work of Ansel Adams and I wanted to visit the place that he had made look so majestic. That dream then expanded into wanting to travel the whole of America taking photos.

Despite that dream being the birthplace of what would later become our epic 2010 adventure, I somehow didn’t fight hard enough to include stopping at Yosemite back then because it was a hell of a detour to include. I’m glad now though because Yosemite needed more limelight than it would have gotten when mixed into with a 74 day trip where it would have got buried.
The beauty of Yosemite is hard to describe. It just takes your breath away. It is a prime example of why the National Park Service is so important. We’ve now been to many NPS locations, and I love what they do by preserving these amazing places. They keep them from being ruined, but also allow us to get up close to historical places that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.
Leaving behind something as amazing as Yosemite was tough, especially when we left it for Reno, NV. We were excited for Reno. Mostly because 2014 has been the first year we haven’t been to Vegas since we moved to America four years ago. Reno is not Vegas. The casinos downtown were a disappointment, and if you walk outside them you’re in for an even bigger disappointment. Thankfully, we were staying in a casino away from downtown, so after a short visit for dinner we retreated back there.
The next day we had planned to hangout downtown, but there was nothing appealing about going back there, so we treated ourselves to another spa day! If you ever have the misfortune to find yourself in Reno, make sure to stay at the Atlantis, visit their day spa, and then hit up the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet!
It wasn’t hard to leave Reno behind, but it was a long trek to our next stop: Salt Lake City. Apart from being a little smelly, the actual lake was serene and calm. We hung out for as long as our nostrils could stand it before heading into Salt Lake City. Having just recently seen the musical, The Book of Mormon, I now can’t hear the name of that place without wanting to giggle…

Our end goal for the night was Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival. Being a huge movie nerd, I’d always been curious about this town and seeing as we’ll likely never get to the actual festival, I just wanted any excuse to go there. As it was just a place to lay our heads for the night we didn’t get to do much more than have dinner there, but I could imagine going back one day; even if it’s just to ski the awesome looking slopes rather than rubbing shoulders with Hollywood hotshots.
Having learned our lesson about ending the trip on nothing but two long drives, we smartly split this up with a stop in South Dakota. This meant we got to revisit four presidents and a crazy horse once again! The first time round I didn’t know you could walk down to the bottom of Mount Rushmore, so we did the little hike to get a new angle.
Heading over to Crazy Horse we were expecting to be wowed by how much progress had been made. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like much had changed in four years. We’ll have to wait another few years before going again. We escaped into Custer State Park, where we did actually see some buffalo this time round! Joe enjoyed the hairpin turns of Needles Highway about as much as last time, and so did I. Not sure we’ll ever agree on how much fun mountain driving can be!

Our two major road trips since 2010 reminded us how much we love getting out and exploring everything the open road has to offer. We’re extremely hopeful that next year will bring another one (we’re leaning east). If we learned anything, it’s that despite how extensive our original trip was there are still a crazy amount of cool places we haven’t even come close to seeing, and until we do this blog will live on.
I might not update it very often, but I can assure you we are always thinking about our next big adventure…and holding onto the hope that we’ll one day make it to Hawaii!! After all, the Fifty First States tour won’t truly be complete until we do, so until then, we’ll just have to keep exploring!
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