Here it is, the recap of my 16,000 miles, 46 states, and 125 days on the road. Some of these stories, I never blogged about in the first place, so the details are all-new:
Highest elevation reached: 11,158 feet at Johnson Tunnel near Vail, Colorado
The van really struggled to make it over this hill. But it was worth it – on the way down the other side I stopped off at a bighorn sheep-viewing area and got to see a few bighorn sheep, which only exist at these super-high elevations.
Runner-up: 9,900 feet while hiking in Yellowstone National Park
Lowest elevation reached: -282 feet at Death Valley, California
The Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the Western hemisphere. It’s well over 100 degrees all the time so you don’t want to hang out here more than a few minutes.
Coolest animal sighting: California condor at the Grand Canyon
On this journey I saw everything from bears, bison, elk, emu, elephant seals, and bighorn sheep, and if you count zoos, then I also saw penguins, komodo dragons, albino crocodiles, stingrays, jellyfish, koalas, pandas, giraffes and elephants. But the best was a California condor sitting on a rock just 15 feet away from us at the Grand Canyon. Wikipedia says there are only 322 of these birds alive in the world – and half of those are in zoos. Seeing one in the wild is extremely rare.
Hottest weather: 107° in Death Valley, California
But it honestly didn’t feel that bad. I slept outside because it was so gloriously breezy that night.
Runner-up: 97° in Austin, which felt far worse than Death Valley because the humidity was brutal.
Coldest weather: 39° in Buckhannon, West Virginia
On this frigid night in West Virginia, I felt like Man vs. Wild sleeping in Siberia. I slept in 1-hour increments and kept waking up freezing. In the morning my laptop wouldn’t boot up at first because it was so cold, but fortunately it regained life a couple hours later.
Runner-up: 40° in Yellowstone National Park
Favorite museum: Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Musuem, Nashville
Admission was free! This place had several rooms of Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia, toys, autographed merchandise, Roscoe’s actual uniform from the show, and all sorts of equally rad artifacts. Plus, they had some of the vehicles from the show – you could get your picture taken inside the General Lee for $10.
Most time spent in one state: California, 19 days
I stopped for two weeks in Los Angeles and also visited Death Valley, San Diego, San Francisco, and drove up the coast to the Redwoods Forest. I could’ve easily spent another week here. There’s a really interesting hippie homeless settlement called Slab City in eastern California that I didn’t have time to visit, but maybe next time!
Runners-up: Washington & Texas, 7 days each
Least time spent in one state: Kentucky, 15 minutes
I merely wanted to add Kentucky to my list of “states I’ve visited,” so I passed through the eastern corner, took a couple of pictures, and got the hell out of there.
Runners-up: Missouri, Maryland & Delaware, 2 hours each
Scariest moment: Hiking on Mt. Washburn, Yellowstone National Park
Hiking alone on a narrow path through a patch of thick forest in heavy grizzly territory was frightening. When I actually saw a grizzly minutes later, it wasn’t as scary, because by then I was in an open field and could see that grizzly was far enough away that I wasn’t in any danger.
Scariest diner: Angie’s Diner, near Williamson, West Virginia
The woman behind the counter was a scary old lady with no teeth who looked at me like I was from Mars. They had the Appalachian Wireless Network playing on the speakers. One of the commercials on this radio station was for Hillbilly Days 2009. Fortunately I made it out of there alive. And the grilled cheese wasn’t half bad.
Best road name: Zzyzx Road in western Nevada
This is either a practical joke by the transportation authority, or it’s the most awesome road name in the history of the universe.
Goofiest sleeping in the van moment: Somewhere in the southeast
I can’t remember whether it was Charlotte or Athens. I was having a hard time finding a place to sleep. I ended up pulling into a random strip mall and finding a parking spot right in front of the businesses. I figured I’d wake early and get out before 7 a.m. when the businesses opened.
To my surprise, when I woke at 6 a.m., I was surrounded by Mexicans doing construction on the sidewalk in front of my van. I had to quickly jump into the front seat, start the engine and take off, which I did while earning dumbfounded stares from the Mexicans, who clearly had no idea that anyone had been sleeping in the van.
Oddest language barrier experience which made me feel like I was in Mexico: Dining at El Alamo in Chicago
This is a family restaurant/grocery owned by Mexicans in a Mexican neighborhood. My waitress didn’t even speak English. I had no idea what she was saying to me when she first came over, so I finally said, “agua” and that got the ball rolling. I made un error by asking for diez y cuatro dolares in change instead of catorce, but at least I got to practice mi espanol.
Oddest language barrier experience when I really was in Mexico: In the cab in Tijuana
I’d neglected to print out directions to my host Victor’s house in Tijuana. I assumed the cab driver would recognize the address. But he didn’t, and he didn’t speak English. And I couldn’t make outgoing calls on my cell in Mexico, so there I was in a cab driving around aimlessly while failing to communicate with the driver. All I knew was, “Es cerca de la universidad!” Finally, Victor called me, and I put him on the line with the driver so they could speak Spanish and get me to Victor’s place.
Best national park: Yellowstone
This one’s a no-brainer. In addition to the bear experience, I saw 4 wolves in the wild, hundreds of bison, and lots of deer and elk.
Worst national park: Grand Teton
The park just to the south of Yellowstone was so boring I didn’t even bother blogging about it. This place was home to a few picturesque mountaintops covered with snow. And little else.
Most pleasant personal surprise: Losing 12 pounds
This was shocking because I ate a ton of fast food and got almost no exercise aside from walking. (Plus, see next entry on ice cream.) But for the most part I ate smart, even if it was just a Burger King salad or a Wendy’s plain baked potato. Now I’m wearing my skinny shirts again and loving it.
Best ice cream: Pinnacle, Broadway & W 115th, NYC
Ice cream was my most frequent indulgence. Pinnacle isn’t even primarily an ice cream store – they’re a restaurant that has an ice cream window. The strawberry frozen yogurt here is simply magical. I remembered this place from when I lived in this neighborhood in 2002, and surprisingly it still exists. And the bowl of strawberry is better than ever. It’s ice cold and super-sweet. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
Runner-up: Chill Out in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. They advertise 124 different flavors of soft serve. I got banana cinnamon.
Best business name: “Curl Up & Dye” in Logan, West Virginia
It’s a hair salon, get it?
Runners-up: “The Salvador Deli” in Charlotte; “Scrubs and Such,” a laundromat in Cleveland, Tennessee; and “Stupid Prices,” somewhere near Seattle. I loved when my GPS said, “Now arriving at Stupid Prices!”
Worst business name: “Stylez-4-U And More” in Paris, Texas
It’s a used clothing store. With a brilliant name like that, it won’t be long before they become a national chain and put Walmart out of business.
Best thrift store: Buffalo Exchanges, west coast
It’s hard to pick a specific store because these things are hit or miss depending on when you go, but I had great success at the Buffalo Exchanges, particularly the ones in Albuquerque, Seattle and San Diego. They had a really big selection of A+ clothes, and they weren’t as picked over as the ones in bigger cities like NY and LA.
Runner-up: I didn’t have quite as much success at the Crossroads chain, but the Crossroads in Seattle provided my favorite pair of thrift store pants, a super-tight pair of black jeans that you’ll now see me in every day.
Most money spent in one day (excluding car repairs): $88.20 on May 30
I was in San Diego and I had to splurge to see the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which didn’t disappoint. I also purchased some thrift store clothes and bought food and drinks at a bar while I watched game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Runner-up: $55.28 (May 12 in Austin)
Least money spent in one day: $0.00 on April 26
This was my second day at the campground in South Carolina and I was out there in the woods so there wasn’t anything to spend money on. I cooked my own food and did some hiking and reading.
Runner-up: $1.00 (April 25 in South Carolina)
Most miles traveled in one day: 565
On April 27 I drove for 9 hours, starting in Knoxville, heading west to Nashville, and then taking the highway south through most of Alabama on my way to New Orleans.
Runner-up: 446 (July 5, Denver to eastern Kansas)
Total money spent on gas: $2,515.92
I had budgeted about $2400 for gas so this was pretty much right on target. Especially since I ended up traveling a lot more miles than I’d planned. The cheapest gas I remember seeing was $1.74 in Elberton, Georgia. The most expensive was something like $3.79, and I think that was on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle.
Best historical music site: Sun Studios, Memphis
They take you on a tour of the very rooms where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all the ‘60s rock legends recorded their most famous songs. You can hold a microphone that Elvis once used.
Runner-up: Grave of Elvis Presley at Graceland, Memphis
Worst historical music site: Motown Museum, Detroit
This place was disappointing because they could’ve done so much more with it. The tour was way too short and you couldn’t touch anything or take pictures. And they barely even mentioned Michael Jackson! Compared to Sun Studios, the Motown Museum was a major letdown.
Best celebrity sighting: Magic Johnson at the Newsroom Café in Beverly Hills
Melaine from travelswithtwo.com suggested this place as a celeb hotspot and it didn’t disappoint. We saw Magic dining on the eve of the NBA finals.
Runner-up: Elvis Costello at Sun Studios, Memphis
Best failed attempt to get on tv: Last Call with Carson Daly, Burbank
Jason and I attended a taping of Last Call, and Green Day was the musical guest. In fact, they played 7 songs, which were broadcast over the course of a week. I watched all the clips online and unfortunately I’m not in any of the crowd shots. Jason’s head can be seen, though.
Favorite historical site: Rhyolite, Nevada
This place is one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in America. In the early 1900s it was a bustling town but now it’s an abandoned community with an old jail, schoolhouse, train station, bank, and a bunch of other buildings still standing.
Most awe-inspiring historical site: Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
They’ve preserved the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. The tour takes you right past the exact spot on the balcony where it happened, and also across the street into the room where the shot was fired. They even have the bullet that was removed from King’s body on display. Kind of eerie, but very overwhelming.
City I most want to be a spokesman for: Albuquerque
Albuquerque was an absolute blast. Let’s count the positives: super-cheap housing, lots of dive bars, sunshine 330 days a year, small amounts of snow in the winter (I need that!), lots of positive energy, locally grown organic food, a vibrant university neighborhood, surprisingly good nightlife, a good concert scene, and lots of nature all around, from the Rio Grande to the nearby mountains. And free health care in the state of New Mexico for all residents!
Most disappointing city: Austin
This place wasn’t nearly as cool as it was made out to be. For one thing, it was only May and the weather was miserable – so hot you couldn’t even walk around. And all the cool hipster types that are supposed to dominate this city? They just weren’t around. We saw mainly college bro types.
City I’d least want to live in: Las Vegas
It’s fun to stop by for a day or two, but I’d probably take my own life if I had to live here. There was the crazy downtown strip area, and then everything else was strip malls and suburbs. We never found the cool neighborhood (if there is one), and had a hard time coming up with things to do that didn’t involve gambling.
Most messed up town: Colorado City, Arizona
Jason and I passed through here and noticed that all the women wore bright-colored full-body dresses. We thought they were Mormons, but I later discovered the whole town is a settlement by a bizarre polygamist Mormon offshoot. Had I known this, I would’ve tried to slip things to some of the kids, like a copy of Maxim, a Kanye West CD, or a Neil Gaiman book. Just something to expose them to the real world and keep them from being so hopelessly sheltered. Check out this town’s Wikipedia entry.
Best pizza: Craigo’s Pizza in Colorado City, Arizona
Yes, the bizarre polygamists made some amazing pizza. The soft-spoken, frightened ladies behind the counter took our order and baked up the finest pizza I’ve ever tasted, with a chewy crust and the perfect mix of cheese & sauce.
Most difficult hike: The Grand Canyon
We hiked two miles down into the canyon, which meant we had to hike two miles back up. It was not easy, but we were motivated by this old lady who was right on our tail the whole time. I suspect most of the weight I lost came from this hike alone. It’s actually possible to hike 14 miles down in to the canyon. If we had done that, we never would have made it back out.
Most common roadkill: Armadillo
In the south they were everywhere. I never saw a single one of these creatures alive.
Best small concert: Andrew W.K. & The Evaporators, Vancouver
Andrew WK brought his silly 2-minute punk rock songs to Neptoon, a small record store in Vancouver, where he gave a raucous performance that included crowd surfing and general mayhem. What else could you do at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday that would be more fun than this?
Best large concert: Flaming Lips, Chicago
The Flaming Lips closed out the Pitchfork Music Festival in grand style, with dozens of giant balloons, confetti cannons, and most of their best songs. It was such sensory overload.
Cheapest drinks: Austin
Ok, there was one good thing about Austin and it was the drinks. On Sixth Street competition is so fierce that they recruit you as you walk past – “Come on in, dollar beers, dollar mixed drinks!”
Most expensive drinks: Los Angeles
At one club I bought two mixed drinks for $14 and Jason said, “Wow, that’s a good price.” Can you imagine? And then there’s the matter of $20 cover charges. I wouldn’t spend much time in bars if I lived here.
Worst traffic jam: Anaheim, California
I never did experience a brutal traffic jam where I sat for hours. Near Anaheim, en route from L.A. to San Diego, I got held up for about an hour, but traffic was steady the whole time, if slow.
Runner-up: Birmingham, Alabama, surprisingly slowed me down for quite a while.
Worst vehicle mishap: Break down in Austin, Texas
Amazingly, we only had one real vehicle mishap. Outside of Austin, while driving with Jason towards San Antonio, the van just stopped running on the highway. We got it towed and had to replace the battery and alternator, but aside from that it was mostly smooth sailing all the way. We never did see the Alamo, but I’m not particularly broken up about that.
Most memorable couchsurfing experience: New Orleans
I had some terrific couchsurfing hosts – Michael in Seattle, Adam in Salt Lake, Lisa in Boston, Heidi in Minneapolis, Maggie in Little Rock, Kim & Jeremy in Chicago – but the most memorable was in New Orleans. My host Brandon loved to open his place up to multiple couchsurfers at a time. During my stay I was there along with another surfer, Jackie from Denver, and 5 other French girls who were traveling together. It was crazy but fun. One of Brandon’s friends took a couple of us out for a night on the town, which included a strip club in the French Quarter. Epic! We all went out for dinner one night and stayed an hour after close at this Thai place because it was one of the Frenchies’ birthdays.
Best way to not get homesick: Meeting people from home along the way
I was able to coordinate my trip so that I met up with friends all over. In Knoxville I spent a couple days with my aunt and uncle and cousins; in Pigeon Forge I met up with my friend Keilan and got a home-cooked meal from his parents; in Nashville I hung out with my volleyball friend Tasha, who was in town for a music festival and introduced me to her friend Deena; and I met up with a bunch of former Pittsburghers along the way: Donn in West Virginia, Dan & Andy in Austin, Justin in L.A., Renee in Portland, Chris in New York, Gerard & Diana in State College. Plus, my friends Jason and Robin accompanied me on the trip for a few weeks.
Worst memory lapse: I forgot I was in Canada
While in Vancouver, I forgot that I was in Canada and used my phone to run the internet for a few hours, leading to a $300 phone bill. Oops! This was the only financial screwup of the trip.
Interesting places I saw that I never thought I’d see:
Mormon church headquarters (Salt Lake City)
Malcolm X birthsite (Omaha)
The Bush vacation compound (Kennebunkport, Maine)
The exact center of the United States (in north central Kansas)
A country music concert at the rodeo (Greeley, Colorado)
Dolly Parton statue (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)
That’s about all I can think of for now. Keep this blog bookmarked, because I have hundreds of unpublished photos and a bunch of untold stories from this trip. I’ll continue to blog so that these pics & stories see the light of day. And if there’s anything in particular you want to read more about, make a request!