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Maldives Pool

Quick post of some pictures of us in our infinity pool. As you can see from the pictures we struggled to use the camera timer. The pool is quite big. There will be more later, just wanted to put a couple up now.

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A Mini and A Marriage

So Kurt and I have some news. Big news. News you might already know about since it technically happened a couple of months ago, even though I’ve backdated this post to make it appear as though it just happened today. But just in case you don’t already know about it, I hope you’re sitting down. Because I’m about to make a huge announcement. Are you ready? The news is… Drum roll please…

WE’RE ENGAGED!!

Kurt and I are, I mean. Not you and I. Obviously. Unless, of course, *you* happen to be Kurt. In that case, *you* and I are totally engaged, making *you* the luckiest man alive.

Anyway, so there it is. Kurt asked me to marry him today! (Obviously I already revealed that I’m not writing this on the day of the proposal, which was December 29th, and instead I’m finally getting around to writing it sometime in March, because life gets busy and, hello, I’m planning a wedding, but bear with me here because for ease of reading I’m going to write this post as though today were the day, because as the writer that’s the kind of stylistic and editorial choice I get to make. Now back to the story.)

I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to get engaged. I did, however, wake up hoping that the Eagles had somehow pulled out a 4th quarter comeback against the Vikings after I went to sleep last night. No such luck. But there was no time to mope — I had a plane to catch. Knowing that Kurt was planning on taking me ice skating at Boston Commons, I picked out an ice-skating-friendly outfit, which included my awesome new silver rain/snow boots and a gray knit scarf I made for Kurt last year. I put the finishing touches on my packing, and hopped in the cab that was waiting right on time at 6:45 am outside our apartment. My cab driver dropped me off at the airport a little after 7, so I was way ahead of schedule for my 9:10 am Southwest flight.

Being early was fine with me for two reasons. First, I love airports, flying, and everything involved in air travel. Second, my fancy new boots are a bit difficult to pull off my feet, and I was anticipating a possibly embarrassing experience at the security gate if I was unable to gracefully take them off. As it turned out, I got through security without incident, and I snagged a celebratory Orange Mango Nantucket Nectar on the way to my gate. I had plenty of time for some major people watching and some light reading before it was time to line up with the “A” boarding passes. On the plan, I landed some prime overhead space for my overnight bag, and a window seat near the front of the plane. I settled in for the short flight, I read some fascinating federal court opinions about awarding attorneys’ fees, and I edited a memorandum and order I finished drafting yesterday. All in all, a delightful and productive flight.

We landed in Boston on time, I headed for the passenger pick-up area, and Kurt surprised me in the baggage claim area. I noticed he’d gotten a haircut and was freshly shaved. I also noticed that he seemed to keep me to his right side when I hugged him. But I didn’t think anything of it.

We headed back to the Mini and drove into Boston listening to the Martin Sexton station on Pandora. On the way to Boston Commons, we passed the state courthouse and another building “where law happens,” according to Kurt. We parked underground at Boston Commons, and I engaged in an elaborate transfer of necessary items from my carry-on to a purse, repeatedly faking Kurt out by falsely claiming to have everything, only to remember one more thing… Once that was under control, we took the elevator up to the street while discussing how much we missed each other. Ridiculously sappy? Maybe. I mean, it was only 5 days. But we haven’t spent that much time apart since sometime last spring. So it seemed like forever, and we were apart for Christmas, and we missed each other, so get over it.

When we got to the street, there was a cop singing some gospel music to himself by the elevator. A jack of all trades, I guess. We didn’t tip him. On our way to the skating pond, Kurt called his dad. They had a short conversation, and Kurt’s half of it was cryptic. But again, I didn’t think anything of it. When we got to the Frog Pond, we waited in line, I got super nervous (I’ve only been skating once before — last December, with Kurt, in Rockefeller Center), and we watched trying to see if anyone on the ice was falling (to put me at ease). When we got our tickets, picked out some skates, put our stuff in a locker, and got ready to get on the ice, there was a break in the skating for the Zamboni to clean the ice, which was cool to watch (at least for me and the little kids in the group waiting with us to get on the ice).

After ten minutes or so, the Zamboni was done and we got on the ice. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t break any bones in Kurt’s hand this year, like I almost did last year with my first-time-skater-death-grip on his arm. We skated for about 45 minutes, and near the end I did 3 whole laps without holding onto Kurt at all. And, like last year, I didn’t fall at all. A Christmas miracle! We took some pictures, saw a little boy whose skating style basically just looked like short-stride running, a really fancy guy who I dubbed Apollo Ono, and a little girl who will probably be in the Olympics someday. Also, they played some Ace of Base, which makes surprisingly enjoyable skating music. While skating, Kurt either kept me on his right side, or made sure I didn’t get too close to his left side. I notice that only in retrospect.

When we were done, we put our boots back on and returned our skates to a guy who took his job very seriously (he explained the importance of us placing the laces inside the skates). Before we left the Frog Pond, I posed for some obligatory pictures with some little frog statues. We “spontaneously” decided to walk around Boston Commons, since I’d never been there. Everything was snow-covered and beautiful. We walked over a big bridge, saw people walking on another pond that looked precarious to me, saw the bar from Cheers, and looked for the statue of the ducklings. Kurt and I bought the book (Make Way for Ducklings) for my nephew, Trevor, last Christmas. I hadn’t read the book as a child, and I’d never seen the statues.

Obviously, more statues means another photo op for me. With that out of the way, Kurt developed a need to sit down. Yet again, I thought nothing of it, since I knew he’d been doing some major shoveling of his mom’s driveway over the past few days, and his back was sore. So we sat down on a bench across from the ducks, which was apparently one of the only benches in the whole park that wasn’t covered in snow. Kurt made sure to seat me to his right, and when I initially sat down too far away for his liking, he made me move closer to him. More signs something was up, but I continued on in complete obliviousness.

At that point, Kurt started doing some talking. About how long the last few days were, and how things are better when I’m around. Naturally, I assumed we were having a normal conversation, so I interjected with such hilarious comments as, “You just figured out now how great I am? That should’ve been obvious a long time ago.” Not to be dissuaded, Kurt pushed on, telling me how great the past year and a half have been (Me: “It has been amazing, isn’t it crazy to think we might never have met…blah blah blah…”). After calmly allowing me to finish, Kurt continued, saying how lucky he feels (Clueless Me: “I know, you are SO lucky…”).

It was only when Kurt took a small red box out of his pocket and opened it while saying he’d be even luckier if I’d say yes, and then actually proposed to me, that I finally used my gigantic lawyer brain to deduce that he was asking me to marry him. I have always assumed that when Kurt proposed to me, I would, you know, realize it was happening. I was wrong. But the total surprise of it all made it absolutely perfect. Plus, it makes for a funnier story.

So, back to the proposal. As he pulled out the ring and I figured out what was going on, I of course started crying. And nodding. And eventually I managed to say “yes.” Just like the proposal, the ring is absolutely amazing. I could never really picture myself wearing a diamond, but Kurt managed to come up with a ring that is just plain perfect for me. After I calmed down and stopped hugging him, Kurt dazzled me with a variety of facts. First, he is now an expert in diamonds. Second, he basically designed the ring himself, with the help of a really awesome jeweler in Philadelphia named Henri David. Third, he was planning the whole thing behind my back since October! My cluelessness knows no bounds!

The next thing we did was call my parents. They were as surprised as I was, mostly because I had told them I thought Kurt was starting to think about proposing, but I instilled in them my own belief that he wouldn’t be doing anything until at least my birthday, or maybe the summer. Wrong again! Anyway, Kurt talked to my dad, who obviously gave his blessing. Then I called my mom, who was at my sister’s house babysitting for my nephew. Both of my parents were thrilled, to say the least. I texted pictures of the ring to them, and announced the big news via text to some of my close friends. My sister was the only person in my family who knew what was in the works, since Kurt consulted her with some ring-related questions. Lesson learned = my sister can keep a secret!

Once the family calls were done, we walked back across Boston Commons to the Ritz, hoping to find somewhere to have a celebratory lunch. I, of course, refused to put the glove back on my left hand, and I couldn’t stop staring at the ring. A concierge at the Ritz referred us to a little french place called Bistro du Midi, a few blocks away along the park. We told the bartender we’d just gotten engaged, and he poured a champagne toast. The people next to us at the bar congratulated us and took a picture for us. At that point, we decided to let the world know by announcing the good news via our Facebook statuses. Within minutes, our phones started buzzing like crazy as well wishes started pouring in for both of us, which was awesome. The maitre’d found out, and he treated us to a second glass of champagne. We were seated by the window and feasted on croque monsieur (Kurt) and croque madam (me), followed by a quince and grape crumble for dessert.

High on our engagement and champagne, we strolled around for some window shopping on Newbury Street, I persisted in my refusal to wear a glove on my left hand, and eventually we made our way back through the park to the car. On our way to Marblehead, Kurt called his mom and his dad, and I talked to my sister. We went to see Kurt’s dad and his grandfather, who was the first of many people to comment on how amazingly sparkly my ring is! After talking through just how wonderful everything was, we headed back to Kurt’s mom’s, where we were staying. His aunt came down to inspect my new bling, and Kurt called his cousin Randy, who will be his best man. Even Cody and Smokey (the dog and the cat) seemed psyched (Cody more than Smokey). Congratulatory emails and text messages continued to pour in, and my face started to hurt from all the smiling.

We put on PJs and got comfy, then I opened my Christmas presents from Kurt’s mom, Cody, and Smokey (an awesome Christmas tree Pandora charm, super comfy slippers, and the softest blanket in the world). Sadly, the Celtics got so distracted by our happiness that they lost to the Pistons, and KG even got so blinded by the sparkle of my ring that he got hurt.

Any other day, that would have been a real mood killer. But not today. I’ve never been this happy — I literally feel like I might burst! This year has been the best year of my life, thanks to Kurt, and today was hands down the best day of that year.

And now, bring on the new year, and the wedding planning!

Top 10 iPhone road trip apps

As you know if you read our blog throughout our trip, Kurt and I are highly dependent on our iPhones, and we used various iPhone apps throughout our trip to help make things go smoothly. From navigation and booking hotels to music and finding restaurants, our iPhones were invaluable during our 6 weeks on the road. Here’s a list of some of the apps that were most useful to us during our journey:

1. Pandora Radio — so much better than the radio (minimal commercials and no need to constantly switch stations as you move from town to town), and it often manages to keep working even when your data signal and/or phone signal are weak-to-nonexistent.

2. Mint.com Personal Finance — a great way to stay on top of your finances while on the road, with the ability to check all your accounts in one place (*does require some set-up before you go if you don’t already use Mint).

3. The Weather Channel — as long as you have a good data signal (3G or strong Edge), a great way to track storms where you are and where you’re going.

4. Flashlight — when camping, the flashlight app was almost as strong as our heavy-duty flashlight, especially on a new iPhone with the LED flash.

5. Yelp — a helpful tool for finding attractions, hotels, and restaurants with reviews, addresses and maps.

6. KAYAK — for the most part, a good resource for finding hotels (once in a while it wasn’t accurate re: availability, but generally it pointed us in the right direction).

7. Priceline Negotiator — often unhelpful, but it snagged us a room at a Hilton in Omaha for super cheap, so that one success made it worth our while.

8. OpenTable — especially after some time zone kinks got worked out on the newest version, a great way to make reservations on the fly and rack up dining points (we earned a pretty nice gift certificate just by using it during our trip).

9. Maps (standard on the iPhones) — much easier to use than MapQuest; just be sure to map your routes or focus in on your location each time you get 3G so that it will retain the map info even if you move into a bad/no service area.

10. AAA — provides lists of businesses that offer discounts to members, including hotels, museums, restaurants, and other attractions.

Kurt and I use some of these apps in our everyday life as well, and I’m sure there are other travel apps that would be helpful to road trippers too. All of these apps are available on iTunes in the App Store.

Lessons from the road

Looking back on our 41 days journeying across the U.S. and back, we realize that we’ve learned many lessons that might be of assistance to others considering a similar journey (or even some smaller version of our massive trip). Our trek through 35 states exposed us to all shapes and sizes of travel issues: nice hotels, cheap hotels, campgrounds & all-night drives; fancy restaurants, local food spots, and snacks gathered from gas station mini marts; national parks, major tourist attractions, and quirky road trip meccas. So we’ve put together a list of some tips and things we figured out along the way, and we’re sharing them in this post. Hopefully someone, somewhere will benefit from our wide array of experiences. So, here goes nothing…

Over-Budget For Gas: When we did a rough budget prior to our trip, I used Google Maps to get a rough idea of our route. That map painted a picture of a trip that would span about 7,500 miles. We figured we’d drive more than that (around cities, sight-seeing, detouring, etc.), so we budgeted for 8,000 miles. In the end, we drove over 10,000 miles. Oops! That’s 25% more than the figure we used to budget — I was a math major, so I should know. Additionally, on more than one occasion we found ourselves needing gas while driving through a national park. There are gas stations along the main roads in the parks, but the prices are ridiculous. So sometimes the per-gallon price we paid was more than the generous figure we used to budget in advance. The lesson, then, is to pad your gas budget significantly — you’ll drive more than you expect, and you’ll pay more than you expect. Sure, the padding might be less aggressive for a shorter trip that’s focused on one or two destinations. But you still never know when you might unexpectedly take the scenic route or backtrack to get a picture you missed the day before.

Cut Corners In One Place So You Can Pamper Yourself In The Next: If you’re planning a long trip or visiting a place you’re not likely to return to all that soon, consider striking a balance between roughing it and living it up a bit. We found that it was worth a few nights in primitive campgrounds and a couple of all-night drives, when the payoffs were upscale hotels in Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago. We also didn’t mind snacking on granola bars and Pringles for lunch or dinner here and there when we knew we’d make up for it by trying a fancy French dinner at Bouchon and the best gnocchi in Chicago. Instead of keeping everything middle-of-the-road the whole time, we opted for skimping sometimes so that we could splurge other times. And I think doing both things gave us more interesting and memorable experiences — we’ll always groan when we think of the smelly outhouses at the $10 campgrounds near Big Sur, and we’ll always sigh fondly when we remember breakfast in bed in San Francisco. We wouldn’t be doing either of those things if we’d stayed at a Best Western every night.

If You Visit Multiple National Parks, Get The America The Beautiful Pass: We bought our National Parks Pass for $80 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where we could have gotten in for $8. But after visits to the Gateway Arch($6 off), Mono Lake($3), Zion($20), Yosemite($25), the Grand Canyon($25), and Grand Teton/Yellowstone($25), the pass had more than paid for itself. Plus it’s good until next July. The yearly interagency pass will get you into any national park in the country, and it will also give you discounts (if not free admission) at other monuments and some national forest campgrounds. If you’re only going to Yellowstone for a week, you won’t need the pass — the $25 price of admission for one car there will get you into both Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton for 7 days. But if you plan to visit at least 4 parks in a 1-year period, the pass will save you money (and it may, at some parks, get you through the entrance in a faster “express” lane).

Don’t Just Rely On Guidebooks; Talk To The Locals: We got some of our most helpful tips (restaurants, attractions, hotels) from one of my favorite vacation pastimes — befriending the locals. As you probably noticed if you’ve read this blog in its entirety, I rarely pass on a chance to chat it up with strangers I encounter while traveling (which is in direct conflict with advice given to me by both my mom and Kurt’s mom before we departed). Our encounters with hotel staff, park rangers, cab drivers, and people congregating at our SF hotel’s evening wine event added much more to our trip than my simple enjoyment of the conversations themselves. Without Ranger Lloyd, we never would have driven to the Lamar Valley and stood “a stone’s throw” away from a massive bison. Without Ranger Emily, we might have picked the wrong drive-thru tree to visit in northern California. Without our fellow wine drinkers at the Washington Square Inn, we absolutely, positively never would have ended up in huge tubs full of warm mud in Calistoga. And without various people working at various hotels’ front desks, we probably wouldn’t have found as many delicious local restaurants throughout this trip. So get out there and talk to people! But don’t pick up hitch-hikers.

Avoid Chain Restaurants and Eat Local: Before we left, Kurt and I agreed to avoid fast food and chain restaurants as much as possible. That’s why we were devastated to learn from our waiter at the Grand Lux Cafe in Vegas that the restaurant we had chosen for lunch that day was owned by the Cheesecake Factory. But aside from that meal, and the dinner from Subway we took with us on our first night camping (and the meals we ate on the road in the car), we managed to eat pretty much all of our meals in really great local places of all shapes and sizes. Don’t waste your vacation eating in places you could find in our around your hometown. Try the local fare — you’re more likely to get “home-cooked” food made with fresh local ingredients. Plus, local restaurants are great places to get a feel for the place you’re visiting. And, of course, to meet locals (see previous lesson).

Plan Ahead (We Didn’t): When planning your trip, you should check local events calendars. We didn’t. That’s why we had to scramble to find one of the handful of Durango hotel rooms that weren’t booked up by people attending the Music in the Mountains festival. And it’s also why we had to pay more than we should have for a below average hotel room in Monterey when the rest of the hotels were filled with bikers attending a motorcycle racing event in town. And it’s also why we had to delay our arrivals in San Francisco and Chicago, so that we could find available (and affordable) hotel rooms after the Marathon runners and the Lollapalooza attenders (respectively) had gone home. And it’s also why we couldn’t find a campsite in Yosemite or in Yellowstone, and ended up at private campgrounds outside the parks. And it’s also why we couldn’t camp overlooking the coast in Big Sur, but had to drive back the Nacimiento Road to a remote campground with no running water (although that was ultimately a fun little experience). Learn from our mistakes — don’t assume you can just totally wing everything. And if you do decide to just wing everything, be flexible and don’t freak out when you have to modify plans mid-stream.

Camping Requires More Than A Tent: Most people heading out to camp probably know this. We knew it too, to some extent. We brought along a flashlight and a lantern; a first aid kit (thanks to Kurt’s mom); bug spray; hand sanitizer; sleeping pads for under our sleeping bags; a tarp for under the tent; towels (thanks to my mom); and plenty of drinking water. We also remembered to save quarters during the trip so that we’d have them ready for any quarter-operated laundry machines (and, as it turns out, showers). But we did end up purchasing several other necessary supplies along the way: camping pillows (sleeping on a folded-up sweatshirt is not going to cut it for most people for more than a night or 2); bear spray (if you’re in Yosemite or Yellowstone, a good idea to have just in case); warmer clothing (even in the summertime, and even where it’s hot during the day, it gets colder than you might expect at night); and more powerful bug spray (regular Off! didn’t cut it for us, so we bought some heavy-duty camping stuff in Durango). Another helpful item would have been a dust pan and brush, to clean out the tent floor before folding it back up.

Hotels Have All Kinds Of Special Rates: Everyone knows that lots of hotels give AAA discounts. But there are all kinds of other deals you can find if you know where to look. For example, we noticed that the absolute lowest rate at a lot of places (lower than AAA), was an internet rate for rooms booked online. On more than one occasion, we walked into a hotel seeking a room, they quoted us a higher price than we’d seen online, we challenged the price, they said we had to book online to get the better rate, we pulled out our iPhones or asked them if we could use their business center, and they acquiesced. Some hotels also run multiple night deals — e.g., stay 2 nights, get the 3rd free. Some offer combination packages that get you free parking and/or internet access at a special rate. Some offer free internet only to members of their “club,” which you can usually join for free. I joined the Hilton Honors club before going, thinking we might rack up enough stays to get a free night. All it got us was free bottled water, but other chains (e.g., Kimpton) give you free WiFi. Making a bid on Priceline is worth a shot — it only worked once for us, but it got us one of the nicest hotels in Omaha for one of the lowest rates we paid on the entire trip. And finally, find out if your credit cards offer any special deals — for the month of July, Discover gave 5% cashback on all hotels and gas purchases (perfect timing for us).

National Parks Are More Interesting And Time Consuming Than You Think: Do NOT assume that one or two days will be enough time in any major national park. One of our biggest mistakes was not scheduling time in Yosemite — we thought one day driving through would be enough time to see it. I know — we’re morons sometimes. Our 3 days in Yellowstone were barely enough for us to scratch the surface there. On this trip, really for the first time in my life, I gained an understanding of just how awesome our national parks are. There is so much to see and explore, and it takes time to do that. Plus, they’re so vast, that it takes time just to drive through them. Getting through Yosemite took a whole afternoon. Driving from one part of Yellowstone to another can take several hours. And you’ll see things that make you want to stop along the way, making the trip even longer. And the summertime is not only a time when many people visit parks (creating traffic), it’s also a time when road construction happens inside parks (creating traffic delays). So be sure to schedule extra time in and around national parks, be sure to take binoculars, be sure to check the National Park Service website for information about construction delays, and be sure to ask a ranger for a park map.

An 8 Hour Drive Will Always Take More Than 8 Hours: Bathroom breaks, food stops, gas station visits, road construction, and sudden scenic detours will transform a drive that Google Maps tells you should take 8 hours into a drive that really takes you more like 10 hours. We almost never arrived at our destination for any given day at the time we predicted when we woke up that morning. Long drives need to be broken up into manageable chunks (plan to stop somewhere for lunch, or pick a minor attraction to visit along the way). Ideally, for a long road trip like ours, you should have more than one eligible driver in the car to share the load (and this may require advance planning, like adding drivers to car insurance policies, etc.). And if you’re going to spend the bulk of one day in the car, try to plan the next day to involve less driving so that you have time to recover. Although I’m glad we did our two all-night drives, we simultaneously loved and hated them while we were experiencing them, and we certainly couldn’t have mustered the energy to do 2 nights in a row. We also knew that our first one was leading to 2 nights in Memphis, and our second one was leading to 3 nights in Yellowstone, giving us time to recharge. So plan ahead by anticipating stops that will reduce long drives into shorter pieces, splitting the driving time with your travel companion(s), and building down time into your itinerary.

I’m sure that as soon as I publish this list, I’ll think of an 11th lesson that should have been on here. So one final tip: If you’re planning a road trip, find someone else who has done one and talk to them about it as you prepare. I got some helpful tips in advance from a high school friend who did a shorter cross-country adventure about 2 years ago. Anyone reading this blog as they prepare to hit the road is more than welcome to contact us and pick our brains about planning tips, as well as places to see, stay or eat. Happy trails!

The long road home

In a departure from our recent laziness, we woke up early this morning to pack up for one last day of driving. After stuffing as many of the hotel’s toiletries as I could into the side pocket on one of my bags, we headed downstairs to enjoy our free breakfast. Kurt had Eggs Benedict and I had my usual — bacon, egg & cheese on a croissant. Although I prefer a MYO waffle bar, the food was decent. After putting in a good word for our housekeeper with the front desk staff, we were off for the last time.

Our drive out of Chicago took us past Soldier Field and the White Sox ballpark. Kurt caught only brief glimpses of both, due to the fact that he was mostly concentrating on navigating through the obstacle course of potholes that graces the freeways around Chicago. The combination of those potholes, plus watching the map to chart our course out of Chicago, plus our failure to appreciate just how close Chicago is to the Indiana border, caused me to completely miss Indiana’s welcome sign. Not only did I not photograph it, I barely even saw it. Kurt alerted me to it when he saw it, causing me to fumble for the camera bag in a futile attempt to get the camera out before we passed the sign. It was disappointing, to say the least. But not quite as disappointing as the realization that the entire drive back — route 80 through Indiana and Ohio, and then route 76 in Pennsylvania– was on toll roads. Given the length of the trip, we weren’t really at liberty to find scenic, free alternatives. At least we were back in EZ-Pass territory.

Anyway, I immediately began hatching a plot to redeem myself as far as state welcome sign are concerned. The plot involved us taking an exit off route 80 that was about half a mile south of the Michigan/Indiana border. The purpose for taking that exit was twofold. First, I couldn’t see any reason why we should get so close to Michigan without entering it at least for a minute or two. Adding Michigan means that, when all is said and done today, our trip will have spanned 35 states. Second, the minor detour would provide me with another shot at the Indiana sign when we turn around and head back towards route 80 to resume our trip east. I sold Kurt on the idea, and off we went to Michigan, taking exit 107 and heading north to the border. The highlight of this trip, besides getting good shots of both welcome signs, was another close encounter with some giant cows.

With that out of the way, we got back on the highway and kept driving east. We were tracking a string of thunderstorms brewing in Indiana and Ohio, and we finally caught up with them not long before we hit the Ohio border. When we first saw the storm on the radar maps, it looked like a skinny string of storms, maybe 2 miles across at most. Piece of cake. But as we got closer, we could see lightning in the distance for a while, and the storm seemed to expand in anticipation of our arrival. A couple of miles turned into more like 20 miles, and orange spots turned into red on the radar. Kurt was driving, and in the end we spent at least half an hour caught up in some intense rain and darkness, with thunder and lightning happening all around us. At the start, Kurt commented that he’d driven in worse storms heading home to Marblehead. Less than 5 minute later, he retracted that comment and put the hazard lights on. It was slow going, and we passed dozens of cars pulled off on the shoulder of the road. We weren’t sure what those drivers were thinking — you couldn’t really wait out the storm, since it was headed east like we were. It was a long enough streak of red on weather.com to encompass areas far north and far south of the highway, so it wasn’t going away anytime soon. We focused on trying to get in front of it, even though we could only see about 20 feet in front of us.

We eventually saw light skies ahead of us and left the heavy storms behind us. We also managed to outrun a larger group of storms to our south — we had some concern that we would encounter those storms later in our journey, when the highways cut southeast to get below Pittsburgh, but luckily we avoided any further rain. Despite the weather, I managed to snap a shot of Ohio’s welcome sign (being careful to time the picture to avoid getting the rapidly-moving windshield wipers across the sign). Once we were in eastern Ohio, we checked on the storm’s progress, and the highway behind us looked like it was directly underneath a growing streak of reds and oranges for many more miles than when we passed through. We were glad to miss out on that. We were also glad that the rain had cleaned off the windshield pretty good, although the Mini was still surprisingly dirty despite the force of the downpour.

There’s not much else to report from the drive back. We ate various snack foods and protein bars from gas stations along the way for lunch, and we both took a moment to be thankful for surviving so many less-than-pristine restrooms when we made our last gas station/rest area stop of the trip. We were a little discouraged after entering Pennsylvania– seeing the sign was a relief, but then realizing we still had almost 6 hours to go to make it across the state was rough. Aside from its tunnels, the Pennsylvania turnpike is one of the more boring roads we’ve travelled on this trip — the treelined shoulders, narrow lanes, extensive road work zones, and cement barriers in the median don’t make for the loveliest of drives.

We finally pulled up in front of our apartment a little before 10 pm, and we were immediately greeted by mosquitos that were eager to bite us. They got Kurt on his heel and me on my ankle. Kurt’s doing a better job than I am of not scratching, so mine is somewhat more gigantic than his. We got most of our stuff upstairs to our apartment, looked at and then ignored our enormous mountains of mail (separated and organized in size order, thanks to Lisa!), parked the Mini around the corner, and enjoyed some Hot Pockets on the couch for our triumphant welcome-home dinner.

We have plenty to do over the next few days — laundry, cleaning, and unpacking, plus getting through the shows saved on our DVR (which is 99% full). We’ll spare you the details of all of that by not blogging it. But we do plan on getting our pictures reviewed and organized and posted somewhere that will be accessible to the public. We also hope to turn some of our really good pictures into magnets, coffee mugs, and other similar items using Cafe Press. We’ll post updates about that stuff on here, so check back every now and then to find out how we’re progressing.

The trip has been a truly incredible experience, and we’ve been extremely grateful for the chance to do something like this. We’ve also very much enjoyed writing about it, and we’re touched that so many people have followed our travels. We look forward to our next adventure (we’re hoping to visit Seattle and Vancouver, whenever we next have the time and resources to vacation). Stay tuned — we’ll continue sharing our journeys on here. They might not all involve a Mini and a map the way that this one did, but I’m pretty sure that this will not be our last road trip together.

Taking the windy city by storm(again)

After nearly 6 weeks of traveling, we’re definitely getting lazy in the mornings. We slept late again today, with the help of our stress relieving scented pillows. We left the hotel a little before noon and headed straight to Millennium Park to have lunch at the Park Grill, which operates an outdoor café in the summer on what becomes an ice skating rink in the winter. Since we couldn’t show off my expert skating skills (which made their debut in Rockefeller Plaza last December), we settled for some sandwiches and lemonade-based cocktails served by Michael, a red-headed hipster who didn’t really want to become my new best friend.

After lunch, we checked out a very weird set of fountains in Millennium Park near the Art Institute of Chicago. They’re two huge columns made of glass cubes, with water running down all side. The space between the two columns is a very shallow pool of water, and kids congregate there in bathing suits to frolick in the water. The weird thing about the columns is that there are video projections of human faces – one on each column – looking down on the water and smiling. Even weirder is that every ten minutes or so, the faces move their mouths into a spitting formation, and then water spouts out of a hole in each column that’s lined up with the video mouths. Kids love it – who wouldn’t want to run around in the spit coming out of giant scary faces?

When we’d had our fill of the scary faces and spent enough time studying how many overweight kids were playing in the water, we went to the Art Institute. Kurt got in for free by signing up for a teacher’s pass, I paid the regular admission like a sucker, and then we visited a fraction of the dozens of rooms full of all kinds of art. We passed by most of the modern art, having had our fill in San Francisco, and focused more on the older American and European displays. A highlight was the fact that the museum has Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” in its collection – we have a print of that in our living room, and Hopper is one of Kurt’s favorite artists. They also had “American Gothic,” which was sold to the museum for $300. The plaque by that painting taught us that it’s a farmer and his daughter (not his wife). That was news to us. While looking at Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Kurt explained that my lack of a complete movie education prevented me from appreciating the fact that the painting was featured in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. We also saw Picasso’s “Old Guitarist,” a ton of stuff by Whistler, and a couple of rooms full of Monet.

When we left the museum, we walked back towards our hotel via a few gift shops (magnet, check!) and checked out more of the stolen chunks of buildings embedded in the Tribune’s façade. We decided to shower the humidity away before dinner, and we also decided to downgrade our dinner plans. We had been considering treating ourselves to a final dinner at Spiaggia, the fanciest Italian restaurant in Chicago. The head chef there is a guy we watched on Top Chef Masters, and the food is supposed to be amazing. But a shourt perusal of the prices on the menu quickly caused us to reconsider our plans.

Instead, we opted for Café Spiaggia, a more reasonably priced, less fancy sister restaurant, also boasting a menu created by the same chef. It was the right choice. First, Kurt didn’t have to borrow a loaner jacket just to be able to enter the restaurant in compliance with a dress code. Second, the food at Café Spiaggia was wonderful. Our caprese salad included mozzarella that was probably the best cheese I’ve ever had. I had gnocchi in wild boar ragu, and it rocked my world. For dessert, we had 3 kinds of gelato – the honey and stracchiatella were awesome, and the chocolate was life-changing. An amazing dinner, capping off an amazing trip.

After leaving the restaurant, we walked a block (going underneath Lake Shore Drive) to the Oak Street Beach. Walking along the boardwalk and under the expressway, we noticed that spiders are either stalking Kurt or have taken Chicago over independent of our visit. They were all over the walls, the railings, the lights, and anything else that might support a web. It was pretty gross and it almost made us reevaluate our tentative conclusion that we prefer Chicago in general to Philadelphia. Luckily, we made it onto the sand without any spider attacks. The first thing we noticed was that view of the city from the beach is great. The second thing we noticed was that the beach has been totally taken over by tiny mosquitos. I noticed this after I ran through the sand to stick my feet in Lake Michigan. Bugs swarmed, as is visible in a picture Kurt took of me swatting at them while standing at the edge of the lake. So we ran right back off the beach and decided that the army of spiders along the walkways leading from the city to the beach are serving a critical gate-keeping function.

To escape the insects (a real theme of this trip, which you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following our whole journey), we went to the John Hancock building to have a drink at the Signature Lounge, which is on the 96th floor, above the Observatory. We waited in a line to get on an elevator, but when we got to the top we were fortunate enough to arrive just as a couple was vacating their seats by the windows looking west. As we began taking in the view, we noticed that many bugs and spiders have no qualms about hanging out about 1,000 feet above the ground. The outsides of the windows were covered with moths and spiders, and other unidentifiable bugs were flying all over the place, visible in the lights shining off the top of the building.

Refusing to let the bugs intimidate us out of enjoying the view, we took some pictures, ordered some cocktails, and marveled at the fact that the trip is ending. Somehow, it simultaneously feels like we’ve been gone forever and like we just left. Similarly, I’m eager to get back to our apartment (especially our new couch, our own bathroom, our kitchen, and our deck), but I’m also reluctant to see the trip end. Kurt may try to tell you that talking about the end of the trip made me shed a tear or two, and my response to that is “no comment.”

In any event, we finished our drinks and our little retrospective of the past 5 1/2 weeks, and we headed back to the Conrad. I went upstairs while Kurt had a conversation with a hotel manager that resulted in us getting free breakfast lined up for tomorrow morning. A good night of sleep and the complimentary breakfast will hopefully be enough to power us through the 13 hour drive back home. I’ll post once more about tomorrow. When we settle in at home, we’ll get our pictures organized and ready to share, and I might write a final entry summing up the highlights of the trip. So the blog isn’t quite over yet.

Chicago is our kind of town

After last night’s blogging marathon, we slept pretty late this morning. On our way out of the hotel, around noon, we made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to convince the front desk staff to give us an upgrade. We’re constantly reading hotel reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other similar sites where the reviewers mention receiving an upgrade at check-in. We had no idea how that happened, and, after taking a stab at it ourselves, we still have no idea how that happens. We’ll have to research it for our next trip.

The only part of our conversation with the guy at the front desk that wasn’t a failure was the part where he recommended a nearby Italian place called Volare for lunch. We took his suggestion and enjoyed some awesome ravioli (Kurt) and rigatoni alla vodka (me), served to us by a great waitress who called me “honey” and told me I “did a really good job” when she came to clear my plate. When Kurt ordered, he asked whether she recommended the lasagna or the ravioli, and she said, “that depends, are you feeling meaty?” She seemed like a Rosie.

After lunch, we decided to try to catch a boat tour of the city offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was recommended in my road trip book, and also by Slavisa (the bellhop who brought our bags up last night). We just missed the 2 pm tour, so we got tickets for 3 pm and then killed the extra time checking out Millennium Park. The park is full of awesome stuff, including tons of sculptures, gardens, and fountains. We saw the “Cloud Gate” sculpture, better known as “the bean” — a huge, shiny, silver bean that reflects everything around it. We also saw the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is a large outdoor music venue with a really cool stage that is basically a huge sculpture itself.

When it was getting close to 3, we headed back to the river and boarded Chicago’s First Lady. That’s where we met Captain George, who was taking us on our cruise. He introduced himself, told us to use the handrails when moving around the boat (“otherwise you’ll trip, and that’s not the trip we have planned for you today”), and said the most important guy to know on the boat was Juan the bartender (“he can get you a hot coffee…[break for laughter from the audience sitting & sweating in Chicago’s humidity]…or a cold beer”). He also taught us that the bathroom on the ship is called “the head,” and “it’s unisex, so make sure you lock the door.” I loved him like crazy.

But then he introduced us to the docent, Alan, from the Architecture Foundation who would narrate the tour. And Alan is the one who really stole my heart on this trip. Before beginning, Alan (probably in his late 60s) put some Avon sunscreen on his legs. With that out of the way, he proceeded to preface the tour by providing us with “300 years of history in just a couple of minutes.” The best part of that was when he taught us that Chicago gets its name from a Native American word meaning “tall, smelly onion grass.”

The tour was 90 minutes long, and it was awesome. We explored the Chicago River — the main part, along with the north and south arms. And all along the way, Alan (Chicago Architecture Foundation class of ’96) told us all kinds of fascinating stuff about Chicago and its impressive number of really cool buildings. We learned about different styles of architecture, including signature features of buildings designed by various Chicago-based firms. We also learned about the use of the river in city planning — it once was gross and toxic, so buildings had no windows facing it, no residential development occurred along it, and statues near it faced away from it; now it’s clean and awesome, so newer buildings line it with tons of windows, and huge condo and apartment buildings are everywhere. When Alan explained how the river used to be toxic and disgusting, he told us about some genius engineer who decided to reverse the flow of the river, which cleaned it right up (sending the polluted water right down to St. Louis). He also said that Wisconsin and Indiana sued Illinois for taking water out of Lake Michigan, and that as a result an agreement is in place that the federal government has control over water-related issues in that area. The lawyer part of me wanted to ask a lot of questions about that, but the tourist part of me didn’t want to interrupt Alan while he was giving his awesome talk.

Alan also talked about the famous Chicago fire started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn — he even pointed out a building a few blocks back from the river that stands where her barn once stood. We got to see the Navy Pier and the locks that separate the river from Lake Michigan, although we didn’t venture out onto the lake (which is 6 feet higher than the river). At one point during the tour, the air started to smell really chocolatey. I thought I was imagining it because I was hungry, but a moment after I detected it Alan stopped, mid-sentence, and instructed everyone to take a few whiffs, explaining that a local chocolate factory was obviously open and working today.

When Alan talked about the Sears Tower, he told us that it’s now called the Willits Tower. He then went on calling it the Sears Tower, and explained that it’s the tallest building in the U.S. (and used to be the tallest in the world until somewhere around 1995). He also showed us buildings designed to have no corner offices (with only elevators in the corners, no windows), buildings designed to have 16 corner offices per floor, and buildings designed to have no corners at all (by an architect who believes there are no right angles in nature, so there shouldn’t be any in buildings either). Near the end of the tour, we even saw a cool wavy building designed by “a lady architect.” The tour was hot, but we both really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting (or even living in) Chicago. Definitely worth the price of admission ($32 per person).

After the tour, I chickened out of talking to Alan (he was too much of a celebrity and was surrounded by groupies already when we left the boat). We walked back to the hotel via the Tribune Building, which is awesome. It’s Gothic on top and bottom, but modern in between, and along the street there are pieces of major events, locations and attractions from all over the world embedded in the building, brought back by journalists working there. We saw items from the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the White House, the Great Pyramid, and rubble from the World Trade Center after 9/11, just to name a few.

Because the weather was still nice, we hopped on the El and went to Wrigley Field. The Cubs are on the road this week, but Kurt wanted to see Wrigley. We took some pictures (Kurt under the big Wrigley Field sign; me on a giant noodle — the second statue that I was unable to climb myself, requiring a boost from Kurt). Then we walked around the perimeter, peering in through the bars at a couple of places where you could actually see in to the field itself. I was fascinated by the houses around the field with bleachers on their roofs, which I was not aware of prior to visiting the field.

After taking it all in, we got back on the El and returned to the Magnificent Mile. We started looking for a place to eat, and we quickly settled on the Weber Grill (because it was close to our hotel, and because we just recently purchased a Weber Grill). When the girl at the door told us it would be a 20-30 minute wait, we decided we were too hungry to wait, so we left to look elsewhere. And thus began an hour-long search for a restaurant. We first walked to a restaurant owned by the winner of the first season of Top Chef Masters (the Frontera Grill, owned by Rick Bayless). We arrived there to discover that it’s closed on Mondays, and we noticed a homeless person using the patio area of the restaurant as his changing room. We then headed for a place where we could get 1,000 Open Table points if we made a reservation, but the prices on the menu were ridiculous. Only after wandering away from that place did we notice people eating outside at a pizza place, causing us to realize that we should obviously give deep-dish pizza a try before leaving Chicago. So after walking for what felt like forever, we settled on Giordano’s, which is supposed to have some of the best deep-dish pizza in the city (we Googled it, so it must be true). There was a huge line and a long wait there, but we were too tired to care. We ordered a famous stuffed pizza with cheese, pepperoni and green peppers to go. During the 45 minute wait, we had some beers at the bar and rested our weary feet. When our pizza was ready, we brought it back to the the hotel and ate it in the room while watching a really bad movie called Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The pizza was so unbelievably delicious, we didn’t even mind how terrible the movie was.

All in all, we did a bunch of cool stuff today and are discovering that Chicago is really an awesome town. We’re looking forward to another day here, and we’ve already discussed the need to return someday when the Cubs are in town.

Iowa not as boring as you think

Today we took to the road for the second-to-last time, heading from Omaha to Chicago. We got a late start — the black-out curtains at the Omaha Hilton are no joke. Without Mother Nature to wake us up by 7, we accidentally slept until 10:30. I was freaking out until Kurt calmly informed me that our checkout time was noon, not 11 like it is at most places. Phew!

So we showered and packed, got some fruit and a muffin from the Starbucks in the lobby, and hit the road. I got so busy navigating our way out of Omaha that I missed the Iowa welcome sign. Thwarted again! I shook that off and, as soon as we were settled on I-80, I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday. And to schedule a time to visit soon after we return, since the Mini will need all of the assorted cleaning products and tools that my dad’s garage has to offer.

Our drive was fairly uneventful, although Iowa is a lovely state full of idyllic farmland with nice rolling hills. And wind farms. There were tons of those, and since I’m obsessed with them I took an excessive number of pictures of them. We also saw more motorcycles, so I did some research and discovered that this week is the 70th annual Motorcycle Rally held in Sturgis, SD. That explains all the bikers we’ve encountered lately. (Note that my aunt independently verified this fact in a comment she sent us today.)

Interesting fact: did you know that most of Harley Davidson’s women’s apparel is designed for women riding as passengers, not drivers? I overheard a female bike at the Yellowstone KOA lamenting this fact the other day. Apparently it’s tough to find good riding pants if you’re a woman who drives your own bike. Get with the times, Harley.

For gas and a late lunch, we stopped at a Kum & Go. Yes, that’s the name of an actual gas station/mini mart chain in the midwest. And they sell Tshirts. After Kurt ushered me away from the merchandise, we grabbed some protein bars, G2, and other snacks, and resumed our journey through scenic Iowa. During that journey, we had the pleasure of seeing the largest sculpture of a bull’s head in the world. Resisting the temptation to stop there was difficult, but I managed to keep it together.

After our double failure to get a picture of an Iowa welcome sign, we hatched a plot that couldn’t fail. I hope you’re ready for this, because it’s pure genius. To put this plan into action, I prepared to stick my head out of the Mini’s moon roof and snap both the Illinois welcome sign on our side of the highway and the Iowa welcome sign that would be facing the westbound drivers at the border. Brilliant, right? This plan would kill two birds with one stone — we’d get the shots, and I’d get to ride with my head through the roof, which has been a life dream of mine.

So as the border approached, I assumed the position and diligently scanned the shoulder of the road for the signs. Which never came. Because road construction crews are apparently intent on ruining my efforts to document our border crossings with photographs. Infuriating.

Most of Illinois was boring — flatter than Iowa, and just generally less pretty. We did, however, pass two exits that would have taken us to the birthplace of Ronald Reagan. We didn’t budget time for that, though, so I guess we’ll have to put that on the agenda for our next road trip.

As we neared Chicago, traffic got heavier, which we hadn’t really experienced since California. Eventually, the skyline of the city appeared through the haze, and we were both surprised by how substantial the skyline is. Pretty soon we arrived at the Hotel Conrad and, for the first time on this trip, we let the bellhop carry our bags for us. We’re really living it up!

Our room is awesome. We’re on the 6th floor, which is the hotel’s 2nd floor (the lobby is on the 5th floor, above a huge mall on the Magnificent Mile). Plus, there’s a 2 in the room number, so we think our streak is still alive. We even have robes and slippers. And we ordered fancy pillows from the Conrad’s pillow menu. For real.

After settling in, we headed to a restaurant I found using Yelp. It was called Bandera, and it was about a block from the hotel. They had a jazz trio, good wine, and awesome food. Especially the banana cream pie. After dinner, we stopped for a drink at our hotel before returning to our room. The Conrad has an outdoor bar called the Terrace, which is on the 5th floor and provides some cool views of the city. They show movies there on Sundays, so we caught the tail end of Eight Men Out while enjoying our overpriced drinks and taking pictures of Chicago’s skyline at night.

After drinks, we went to work getting the blog up to date. We know we’ve been leaving our readers hanging. We know this because several of our readers have not hesitated to remind us of that (namely, our moms). So we wanted to get caught up. It took until 2am, but we got it done. Kurt had the worst of it, since all of the stuff he does comes after my writing is done. Luckily, we’re here until Wednesday, so we can sleep in tomorrow.

Traveling in our Mini Cooper Around the Globe