This trip took place from May 21st to June 3rd, 2012.
Day 1, Chicago-bound: Another year, another road trip for Beth and me. Almost immediately after our previous trip I began planning this one. We decided to go East this time and see all the big cities and famous landmarks we possibly could. I spent a lot of time researching and reading reviews and I mean A LOT of time. I had a spreadsheet of information and several saved websites to reference. My work surely suffered. Beth had very little say in the planning. As long as we visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter she’d be happy. We made it through the last day of work before our trip and started packing the car before bed. The anticipation was high and it was hard to sleep. The first day we set our sights on Chicago (the second best city in the Midwest behind Minneapolis of course) but before we left we had an important stop to make. We learned from our mistake during our previous trip and fore-warned them of all the states we were traveling through so our funds wouldn’t be cut off in the middle of the night! I’d recommend doing this in person. I called a few days before and when I went to the bank I double-checked with them and the guy behind the counter said there was no record of my request. I did get a kick out of his face as I recited each state aloud, all 27 of them. It’s important to learn from your travel mistakes because they will make your future trips better and remember they can make great stories! Leaving the bank we could not avoid all the rush-hour traffic in the Twin Cities, especially crossing the whole metro area from the Western Suburbs. We were both really excited to be back on the road and headed East even if that meant going through Wisconsin. Minnesotans don’t really like Wisconsin, at least the sane ones. I think they probably started it though by being mean and gross. Our radio station gave out about an hour after the border and I hit the ‘seek’ button looking for another good one. I like that part of traveling, looking for good radio stations in each new place we go. Sometimes you just don’t hear anything you like and switch to a CD but when you find a great mix of music you’ve never heard before it can be really fun and you listen as long as you can before you pass out of range. Two fun stories about station seeking; 1) on Interstate 10 in West Texas there are no radio stations at all for a hundred miles or more and 2) somewhere in Southern California we were looking for a station once and came across the explicit version of Cee Lo Green’s “F$*% You” (we must have stumbled upon a Mexican station with more relaxed profanity laws). We made a stop in Madison, WI to check out the Capitol. They were doing a little renovation of the Capitol Dome when we were passing through but it was still an impressive sight (for Wisconsin). It’s the tallest building in Madison. Back on the road it struck me that Wisconsin was a lot like Nebraska or Iowa from the highway. With so many things on the list of things to see in Chicago I had not really researched the sights of Wisconsin along Interstate 94.
Once we reached Illinois it was nice to see the city of Chicago build gradually as we got closer. The surrounding suburbs start really far out from the city center. Before we turned from the highway towards the hotel, however, we hit a big speed bump. Traffic bunched up and Beth rear-ended a guy, ironically a car insurance salesman. Luckily, nobody in either car was hurt and very little damage was done (small scrapes on both fenders and my hood was bent slightly upward in one corner). Eventually the police came and gave us some paperwork to fill out and mail in. No insurance claims or tickets were ever filed thankfully although two years later my hood is starting to warp a little more in that one spot. Sitting in the hotel after a fairly traumatic event seemed appealing but we freshened up and headed downtown. With the delay of the accident it wouldn’t really make sense financially to pay to get into Navy Pier anymore with only half an hour to explore. We drove down to the pier just for a picture and then went looking for parking. With that big list of things to see in Chicago I had not considered how much parking would cost. We decided to only park once and try to see what we could within a short distance. We parked near the Michigan Street bridge and walked to it. President Obama was in Chicago the same day for a United Nations meeting resulting in protesters and armor-glad police officers everywhere. Apparently having world leaders in town makes all the crazies come out to play. We didn’t see any protesters or action but there were 20-30 cops in full SWAT gear on the various corners around us. Despite my fear of heights I really like skyscrapers and city skylines so I took a ton of pictures. Although, to be fair, I take a ton of pictures of just about anything I see on vacation. The lift-bridge itself and the river below were cool. I believe that is the river they dye green on St. Patrick’s Day every year. With the sun giving up on us and hungry for dinner we headed for Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Lincoln Park. All the reviews said it was one of the best Chicago-style pizza
places. On the map it looked like it was twenty minutes away but in actuality (and with traffic) it was closer to 45 minutes from downtown. We placed our order to go and waited (and waited and waited and waited) for our two personal deep-dish pizzas. We don’t like the same toppings or we could have just gotten a small and shared. Apparently Chicago-style deep dish pizzas take forever to bake even if they are small. I watched the White Sox game on the TV in the bar while we waited. It made me feel like a real Chicagoan for a night (impatient?). Our pizza was finally cooked to perfection and we ate it back at the hotel. It was delicious and I don’t even like deep dish all that much. Considering it is the third largest city in the country it would be easy to spend several days in Chicago but there wasn’t time for that on this trip. I’ll save that list for a future five day trip. Sleep welcomed in a bed well earned. End of day one.
Day 2, turnpikes: I hate sitting in traffic so in retrospect rush-hour was probably a bad time to leave Chicago. We left around 8am and the highways were a mess of cars crawling along. Once we finally broke through the traffic we hit the tolled turnpikes. There is ample information online about how much the tolls cost for each route. I usually just look on each state’s Department of Transportation website. Using these sites helps you build toll costs into your budget. There was a car with diplomatic license plates in front of us at a toll-booth. We wanted to see it better and in a hurry to catch up to it I dropped the change for the booth (and broke the door lock latch in half, whoops). A short time later we hit Indiana and Indiana’s finest hit me. I had the car set to cruise 3mph over the the speed limit but my ticket said I was going 8mph over. I vote the radar gun was not accurate or the trooper (the one with the perfect hiding spot and no interest in letting me defend myself) exaggerated my speed to pad his stats. Yes, I’m accusing the State of Indiana of exaggerating my speed for profit. May this injustice be a good warning to every traveler to stay off the Indiana Turnpike (or at least keep the cruise set below the limit) and possibly avoid Indiana all together. Beth took over driving because of my frustration and pushed on. I shared my story with the next gas station employee I encountered and she shared a couple stories from other angry travelers. Anyway, the rest of the morning was spent trying to overcome time. I made two mistakes in planning this trip. The first was not accommodating parking costs on the expensive East Coast into our budget. The second was not padding our itinerary with breaks. In 2011, I used Google to estimate our travel times and set aside 45 minutes for each full meal and 15 minutes for every three hours on the road for gas and bathroom breaks. In actuality, our stops were much shorter and we sped a bit allowing us to beat my planned deadlines. This meant we weren’t late unless we purposefully slept in or stayed at an attraction longer than planned. Having left these planned breaks out of the itinerary this time around took all perception of being ‘early’ out of the equation.
This was always going to be one of the least interesting stretches of our trip. The turnpikes of Indiana and Ohio tend to be a bit bland and you cannot really exit to see anything without a whole to-do. From the road in Indiana you can see factories and steam-pipes (and jackass policemen). In Ohio we saw a lot of flat land and a sign for “Fangboner Road”, not much else. But, road trips can be fun anywhere you go as long as you enjoy the company and the adventure. Beth and I talked, she took a short nap while I drove, I watched Modern Family on my iPad while she drove, and most importantly we both drove the speed limit. We popped off the turnpike in Ohio to take a two mile detour North to Michigan, driving over the border just far enough to count it. A quick pit stop and we headed back to Ohio. I originally had a few things I wanted to see in Cleveland, including the Lake Erie waterfront, but battling some rain and more construction-related traffic in the area we decided to push on through. There was never going to be time to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this time around but hopefully I can see it some day soon before they let in Meat Loaf. We made it to Pennsylvania where the fog took over for the rain. The trees along the I-90 in Pennsylvania and then New York were a welcome sight to break up the monotony. The original plan was to see Niagara Falls in the morning but we figured out we could see it that evening if we went straight there. We found a parking ramp with no parking attendant and a sign for $5 about two blocks South of the Falls on the American side. Both of us have seen the falls before from both the American and Canadian sides and I have even taken the Maid of the Mist tour boat with my family. Seeing the falls on this occasion was just to check it off our couples sightseeing list and it really saved this day. We arrived just before sunset and within five minutes massive spotlights on the Canadian side turned on. There were two bus-loads of foreign tourists crowding the fence but we got lots of good pictures and stopped in the souvenir shop. I prefer postcards and lapel pins but I’ll buy anything unique that catches my eye (and is the right price). When we got back to the car there was no way to pay at the exit so we just left.
One of the things Beth and I like to do when we travel is check out the best restaurants wherever we go. There are several good ways to find restaurants that accomplish this task. First, watch TV shows that deal with restaurants on the Food Network and Travel Channel. Our favorite is “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” (also known as “Triple-D”) with Guy Fieri. A website called “Flavor Town” http://www.flavortownusa.com/ tracks all of the restaurants seen on the show by city and by state. Just type in the places you’re going to or through and see if any of the restaurants pique your interest. You can even watch the video segments on the site and check out the restaurant’s menu online. Second, use Tripadvisor and Yelp to read reviews. I prefer the former to the latter but both work. Both websites rank restaurants and attractions by type and provide details such as price range, menus, and recommendations. Third, ask friends and relatives that have traveled to the area in question. In today’s age of the internet I usually just post about a city on Facebook and ask for help. People usually love to share their advice. In Buffalo we went to a burger joint called “Grovers” that was on Triple-D. We had to place a phone order because they were closing in ten minutes and then race there. We arrived a bit after closing time but they were nice enough to wait for us. We brought our tasty dinner to a place we found listed on Airbnb.com. Our hosts were a young couple with a big, playful dog. They showed us to the kitchen so we could eat our massive burgers (chicken in Beth’s case). We stayed in their spare bedroom and it was a great value. Whenever we buy a house in the future I will consider throwing a spare bedroom on Airbnb. It is a great way to meet new people, swap travel stories and even make some extra money. End of day two.
Day 3, back-roads: A hot shower and some freshly baked muffins from our hostess, a baker by trade, and we got back in the car. Beth was up first to drive today so she stopped at a Tim Horton’s for coffee. I try to drive the morning route most days because I’m the better morning person. The goal today was the Atlantic Coast so we made our way back to Interstate 90 for a few hours. It was still cloudy but there was a lot more to see from the road. We left the Interstate in Amsterdam, NY and stopped for a slice of pizza. I-90 turns South towards Massachusetts and technically would have been the fastest route but we would have missed Vermont and New Hampshire. This meant taking back-roads. Most of the trips I’ve taken so far have been on the main highways and interstates of the United States. I do recognize the importance of traveling via back-roads, they are vital to seeing places off the beaten path. They represent a different pace of travel and a different pace of life. A business associate of mine at the time told me he was planning a motorcycle trip out West with his wife traveling primarily by back-roads. They only plan to go to the Dakotas and they won’t cover as much ground but they will experience those areas better than anyone on the freeway. This associate is in his fifties and he says the mode of travel suits him. I will be there one day but until then I like to travel far and fast, seeing as much as possible in the time allotted, even if that means sacrificing a little depth of experience. Time does have a lot to do with it. At our current age and career states both of us get about 10-12 days of paid vacation time. Ideally we’ll have a lot more paid time off as we advance at work. In order to see Vermont and New Hampshire traveling East-West, back-roads aren’t just the best way, they’re the only way! The roads went down to a lane in each direction and the terrain got more varied as we passed through beautiful National Forests and into the Green Mountains. There are cool covered bridges that look to be a hundred years old throughout the area but the most impressive bridge was yet to come. We drove over it and discovered a great unplanned attraction, the Quechee Gorge. The gorge is part of Quechee State Park and the view from the bridge is breathtaking, and I say that as a man with a fear of heights. Clinging to the railing tight we ventured across on foot having parked at the nearby gift shop. We took pictures and I contemplated proposing to her on the spot. Just one problem, the engagement ring was in the car. Beth claims she knew I had the ring along on the trip but if I’d proposed right then I know I would have surprised her. It was probably a good thing I didn’t have the ring because I would have looked pretty silly not letting go of the railing to kneel and propose. We walked down the trail North of the road for a ways and found a dam. The sun came out making it very hot and the mosquitoes were out in force. Minnesotans are not unfamiliar with mosquitoes but it doesn’t mean we like them. We pretty much had the place to ourselves too, a benefit of the back-roads I guess. It was just us and the bugs. We bought Vermont syrup in Vermont-shaped glass bottles in the shop and ended up about an hour behind schedule. Some delays are worth it.
The back-roads of Vermont had many twists and turns and great scenery. We watched a creek gradually grow into a small river while the road crossed it periodically. A few times we came upon steep hills with bright warning signs telling drivers to test their brakes before continuing and stop on flat land if necessary (like if the brakes smell funny). There was at least one cyclist along the same roads going down the hills at break-neck speeds. I would hate to have to pedal up those hills in the first place! Someone remind me in seventy years when I can finally afford to retire to consider Vermont. We entered New Hampshire and headed for the Capitol in Concord. My camera battery died earlier in the day than I would like so I stopped at a Radio Shack for a car adapter. We wanted to find a unique, local place to eat in Concord, NH but I hadn’t done any research on this area before the trip. We settled for Panera when a quick search on our phones came up empty. At this point the back-roads became frustrating for both of us. Once again behind on our planned itinerary, the posted speed limits varying from 25 to 40 went on for miles driving us insane. Both speed demons at heart it was too much to take and hitting Interstate 95 just South of Maine was a relief. We went straight to the Atlantic Ocean within minutes of sunset, similar to our previous day at Niagara. We walked near the beach and I remember being so hungry. We drove twenty minutes back inland to our hotel and got Taco Bell. It may not have been unique or gourmet but it definitely got the job done. End of day three.
Day 4, Boston and NYC: Maine is nice, the part we saw. I know from watching TV shows and a documentary called “The States” that the scenery in Maine is fantastic but the next morning we woke up to pea-soup fog. Visibility on the road was a quarter mile or less for the first hour. I drove first that morning and it was very relaxing. Finally gaining a little clarity in New Hampshire, the other cars on the road increased their speed to the limit. Of all the people in New England I would say those in Maine and New Hampshire are the most timid. It’s probably not a fair judgement based on this one small sample and considering the main competition was the people of Boston and New York. We needed gas so we consulted my list of Costco locations on our route. For those with a membership Costco gas is usually cheaper than standard gas stations and it doesn’t take long to compare a list of their club locations with your planned itinerary. If we need gas and can make it to a Costco, great. If not we fill up wherever we can. The Costco closest to our path to Boston was evidently some kind of Atlantis or El Dorado because it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Our guidance tried to take us up an off-ramp and then tried to have us exit the highway where there was no exit. When we didn’t listen it said to turn around! We wasted twenty minutes going in circles trying to save a bit of money so we caved and stopped at the next gas station, a shady little place on a busy frontage road. The place was packed with people (probably trying to find the Costco) and there was a couple of dudes that looked like employees smoking by the front door of the small building. I was thrilled to get out of there after about a ten minute wait for gas.
Having done some research on Boston I knew we wanted nothing to do with driving there. The roads are set up in a strange configuration. The drivers are aggressive. That normally wouldn’t bother me on my own turf or the highway but in cramped quarters in unfamiliar territory I didn’t think it was a good idea. So we parked at the Orient Heights train station (which was under construction at the time) and rode the train downtown, all for a couple dollars. The train was fast and went underground as we got closer to downtown. We got out at the Park Street station near the start of the Freedom Trail at Boston Commons. For a map of the trail and the historic places you can see by following it check out this link: http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/maps/pdfs/boston-nps-map.pdf. First thing you see when you come up out of the station is the Massachusetts Capitol. There were school groups everywhere. I picked up some free Freedom Trail maps at the Visitor’s Center but there is also a physical red line on the ground to mark the path. Parts of it are even old bricks laid in the newer concrete. We followed the trail past the Park Street Church, the Old South Meeting House, a Radio Shack (not kidding, right along the trail, I bet their battery and camera sales were excellent), the site of the Boston Massacre, the Old State House, Faneuil Hall (which you can buy as a landmark in Sim City 4, damn I’m a nerd), and Paul Revere’s House. You could go in most of the buildings for free but not all of them. Paul Revere’s House, for example, is not free so we just saw it from the outside. Some of the side streets we passed were made up of original cobblestones which I found absolutely fascinating. The fog and clouds of the morning had been completely chased away by a perfectly clear blue sky.
Next on the Trail was the Old North Church. We spent twenty minutes looking around and there was a guide/historian in there answering questions. Many of the pews inside have family markers on them from members like the Reveres. The trail then heads across the Charlestown Bridge over the Charles River. We were hungry but the only thing around was “Emack and Bolio’s”, a sweets shop with no public bathroom. We bought ice cream and fudge and continued on in search of history and a bathroom. There are a few dry docks on this side of the river with old ships. The USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate named by George Washington, launched in 1797 (thanks Wikipedia). There was a World War II class battleship as well. The Visitor’s Center at this end of the trail was much larger than the one at the start and thankfully had a much-needed bathroom. Up the hill from the center was the Bunker Hill Monument and a nice park with lots of sculptures. The monument itself was a 221 foot obelisk (thanks again Wikipedia) the same shape and design as the Washington Monument in Washington. After reaching the end of the Freedom Trail we headed back towards the nearest subway station. We passed back over the bridge and there was a guy fishing right from the bridge. He hauled in a massive fish as we walked by and he may have been homeless, not really sure. On our walk we also passed a riverfront park named for Paul Revere and several of Boston’s professional sports arenas. Once back on the train we rested our tired feet. We’d walked for three hours with only a twenty minute break but it wouldn’t be the longest or hardest day of walking on this trip (cough, foreshadowing, cough).
We took the train back to the car and took the Massachusetts Turnpike through the Ted Williams tunnel which passes below the airport and part of the harbor. I normally try to hold my breath in tunnels to make a wish (again, I’m a dork, get used to it, you’ve read this far) but I couldn’t hold my breath long enough this time. The fastest way from Boston to New York City is via Hartford, CT on I-90 and I-84 but we took I-95 through Providence, RI in order to check Rhode Island off the list. We saw the huge Capitol Dome from the highway and didn’t even have to stop. This route is about half an hour slower in perfect conditions but it’s possible we lost more than that with traffic. If Rhode Island was a blink, Connecticut was a coma. The traffic was awful and my new-found timidness behind the wheel (screw you Indiana) kept me in the slow lane. There was a long stretch of I-95 that had construction signs limiting the normal speed limit to 45mph. A common speed limit for a two-lane country road it was no match for a six to eight-lane Interstate full of aggressive New England drivers. I followed the construction speed limits despite no other evidence of construction and I was the only one. School buses passed me and Beth slept peacefully unaware of the delay. The traffic became worse and worse the closer we got to NYC. Bridgeport, CT and the surrounding area is one of the most heavily congested metro areas in the country. Eventually my foot was so tired from stop and go traffic I needed to switch. Beth took over driving into New York City proper. We passed over the George Washington Bridge on the lower level. At least I think it was the GW. That would mean we were in New Jersey at some point and re-entered New York. I remember it being the GW and the few poorly-angled pictures I was able to take kind of look like the ones on Google Images. I will let the picture back me up I guess but if anyone can confirm or deny my claim please let me know.
It started to rain off and on, sometimes pretty hard. Beth pointed out to me that she often ends up driving through the large, confusing, and frustratingly busy cities we visit. She was driving in Chicago and exiting Boston so she’s probably right but it’s not like I planned it! We wanted to see Central Park so we drove down a few streets until we found a sign for a garage on West 56th Street with a special (hooray, only $22 for the evening!). The valet was waiting to park our car so we didn’t have a lot of time to grab our stuff. It was warm enough despite the rain but I wish I had time to grab my sweatshirt. We did grab the broken umbrella from my trunk (left behind at my Radio Shack store once by a previous Regional Manager no longer with the company) and our cameras. We walked a few blocks to the SE corner of Central Park at 59th and 5th. Even though we only ventured into the park a little ways in one corner we saw some really neat things. The stereotypical horse-led buggies were waiting to pick up passengers (maybe some other time). There were ducks and other wildlife all over the pond we walked around. My research told me that the cool bridge (the Gapstow Bridge) from Home Alone 2 and the tunnel from several movies including Jodi Foster’s Brave were in this corner of the park. We wandered around holding the umbrella up with two hands because it wouldn’t stay open by itself. The manager of Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant let us use their bathroom. I read that they closed a few months later after 24 years of serving New Yorkers… okay serving tourists. I hope they didn’t close because we peed without buying dinner. We were going to take the subway but decided to just walk to Times Square because it was only about a mile and a half. On the way we bought some souvenirs and a new umbrella. I still use that umbrella to this day but I was actually pleased with how well the tall buildings blocked most of the hard rain as we walked. Beth had never been to Times Square before so we spent half an hour checking it out and then headed over to 30 Rockefeller Plaza on West 49th Street. It was too late in the evening for any tours but we rummaged through the NBC Experience Store and took lots of pictures. I bought a “The Office” themed mug of Kevin’s face which is now one of my most prized possessions. Next time we’re in New York I promise myself I will get to see the making of show like Jimmy Fallon or at least take a studio tour. Actually I should look into seeing Jon Stewart too, wherever he films. My parents saw Letterman back in the 90s. He’d be fun to see too. Back to the car we gave up on any hope of seeing the Statue of Liberty from the shore as it was already dark and late. At least we had both seen Lady Liberty before. My family’s trip to NYC included a trip to go up to the top but due to an electrical problem (or possibly a security risk for all I know) they shut down the island right before our boat landed.
Looking back I wish we would have eaten something stereotypical New York right then. We thought we would have the chance to eat in New Jersey but after passing through the Holland Tunnel (a very nerve-wracking and narrow experience) we didn’t see a serviceable restaurant the rest of the night. The options at the first gas station were the opposite of appetizing. A young guy pumped our gas for us because pumping your own gas is illegal in New Jersey. I took over driving duty and sped down the New Jersey Turnpike in the increasingly annoying rain and fog. It was already 10pm and there weren’t very many cars on the road once we were further out. We were technically on time but I pushed the speed limit a bit whenever I couldn’t see other headlights. Beth woke up from a nap for our entrance to Pennsylvania. Our accommodations were another house we’d found on Airbnb in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyncote, PA. The owners weren’t even in town so they sent us the code to get in and told us to make ourselves at home home and eat whatever we want. Did I mention the owners were vegetarians? Granola bars for dinner! End of day four.
Day 5, Philadelphia: Further exploration of our rented home turned up some eggs (so we know they weren’t vegans). Beth made us breakfast, our first real meal since lunch in Connecticut the day before. A 45 minute drive into Philadelphia and we found $16 parking at a ramp close to all the touristy action. I use Tripadvisor to find attractions to visit as well as restaurants. It can be helpful even if I’ve visited a certain city before to discover new things and hidden gems. I then craft my itinerary around a list of places I want to see and try to do as many as possible. The closest place to the ramp was the Declaration House on 7th and Market. The first floor is an exhibit dedicated to the writing of the Declaration of Independence because the second floor is where Thomas Jefferson wrote it. They have recreated the rooms Jefferson rented with period furnishings so it looks like it did when he lived there (just ask him). Next we walked down the block to the Independence Visitor Center. There we learned that they had sold out of tickets to tour Independence Hall for the entire day. I had suspected this possibility but the tour would have taken quite a while anyway. I will make sure to book ahead of time on our next trip to Philly. We then headed across the lawn of the park to the National Constitution Center. The best part about visiting tourist attractions on a weekday is less people. For historic places, however, this can also mean more kids. Just like in Boston there were kids on school trips everywhere, and like their chaperones, we were outnumbered. They clogged the Constitution Center entrance hall and gift shop. After waiting in line twenty minutes to buy a lapel pin and a small Liberty Bell replica (while being bumped into constantly) we left for the freedom and open space outside. Why those kids were allowed to buy so much candy I will never know.
We walked back across the lawn taking pictures of Independence Hall from a distance. It was absolutely gorgeous with perfectly green grass and a cloudless blue sky. Ben Franklyn’s grave is a block away in a small cemetery. The site of the first President’s House is also on this block at Market and 6th. Washington and Adams lived there during their terms (as did their slaves). The house was demolished at some point but was partially excavated for the monument. We then saw the line for the Liberty Bell was only the entire length of the Liberty Bell Center so we decided to get a start on our wait. That cloudless sky I so enjoyed for taking pictures earlier became an obstacle to not sweating to death. We took turns leaving line to get drinks of water and go to the bathroom. The line went faster than we thought because the kids were only interested in taking a picture on their phones, not reading any of the displays on the way to the Bell. I think they were doing a bit of renovation at the time because half the displays were incomplete. The Liberty Bell, of course, was a must-see and well worth the hour wait. We took some more pictures of Independence Hall and took a stroll down the thankfully tree-lined Chestnut Street. This historic street and the one parallel have some really interesting buildings such as Congress Hall, the original Philadelphia City Hall, the Second Bank of the United States (now a public art gallery), Carpenter’s Hall and numerous others. We circled back towards Independence Hall which has a square and park on the backside. The block kiddy-corner is Washington Square with gardens and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution. The eternal flame is surrounded by American flags and monuments to the dead. We walked back to our car hungry for lunch. A Triple-D featured restaurant called Federal Donuts was our target. We got there right before they closed. This place is so small you can see the entire kitchen and all three workers from the counter (there are four seats in the seating area). By buying a specific amount of chicken daily they ensure they don’t have waste. They close when they run out of food so I’d recommend showing up for an early lunch to be safe. When we arrived they had enough for four orders left. Beth ordered Chile-Garlic fried chicken and I had Buttermilk-Ranch. Wait Bryan, didn’t you say the place was called Federal Donuts? Yes, fried chicken and donuts! They make fresh cake donuts in-house in beautifully delicious flavors like Strawberry-Lavender, Vanilla Spice and Cinnamon-Brown Sugar. The owner of the restaurant asked us where we were from and we told him of our trip across the entire Eastern U.S and he wished us luck. We got our food and drove a few blocks away to a local park, found a bench in the shade and ate our delicious local treats next to a basketball court. I will staunchly support that restaurant and suggest it to anyone visiting Philadelphia. Ah hell, here is the website: http://www.federaldonuts.com/main/. Enjoy.
The views of the city skyline heading South were great. The skyline is amazing and from the Interstate you can see several pro-sports stadiums like Lincoln Financial, home of the Eagles. I-95 parallels the Delaware River for a while and then we passed through the state of Delaware and its largest city, Wilmington. Traffic slowed us down half an hour but we got to Maryland by mid-afternoon and cruised a section nicknamed the JFK Memorial Highway. Our destination for the evening was Columbia, MD, and the home of the Burnetts. John and Jennifer Burnett are friend’s of Ken and Carol, Beth’s parents. They made us dinner, told us embarrassing stories (mostly about Ken) and then we watched TV. It was very relaxing and a great way to unwind. For the first time on the trip we unpacked a small amount of our stuff. End of day five.
Day 6, Washington D.C: We got up bright and early and ate breakfast. Jennifer left before we even woke for a road trip of her own out to Arkansas to visit their daughter. Columbia, MD is an excellent jumping off point to visit Washington D.C, I guess that’s a good selling point for living there. We drove a short distance to the train station where it cost us $5 to park because it was a Saturday. We lathered up with sunscreen on the train and talked about our game plan. With all the significant, historic, and iconic places to see in D.C I found it difficult to choose where to go. I had done lots of planning, of course, and knew what was where and how much most things were going to cost but we still hadn’t narrowed down the full plan. Like most areas we visit the list of things to see is usually longer than the available time so we just had to make the best of the time we had. We got off the train at the Capitol South Metro Station right by the three Library of Congress buildings. We walked around two of them before we found the public entrance. Almost immediately I was sweating so bad the sunscreen I had put on was practically useless (I could feel it being useless). The inside of the main building was really cool including the painted, ornate ceiling. It almost felt wrong to take pictures with all the security people around. The pictures I did take I made sure not to get other people in the shot or use the flash. The entire place looked old and grand. It was a treat just to be there and it was the first stop! Next we walked a block to the Capitol. The entrance to the Capitol’s Visitor Center is an underground ramp. We had to wait in line just to get inside the entrance area of the Visitor Center. Security checked the stuff in our pockets and we got inside. The wait to actually take a tour of the Capitol was ridiculous so we explored the sculptures, art, and displays in the ante-chamber and bought some small stuff at the gift shop. I’d like to take that tour eventually. Beth had already taken it having visited once with her family. Back outside we walked around the Capitol and took some photos. The day was hot as hell but the blue sky was great behind the iconic buildings and memorials in D.C. We walked around the reflecting pools wishing we could jump in. It was nearly lunch time so we headed for the National Air and Space Museum. My Quarter-Pounder meal from the museum McDonald’s was $9.50. I don’t usually order that meal but I do know it usually runs about $4 back home. We ate among 600 school children but luckily these ones were older and better behaved. The museum was really fun for the nerd in me. They have planes and other aircraft from the entire history of flight attached to the walls, the ceiling, on the floor, and in interactive exhibits that let people sit in or walk through them. I could have spent another three hours there but after an hour we ventured back into the bright sunlight. We crossed the National Mall which was being worked on at the time. They had the whole thing dug up in the middle, kind of ruining sight lines a bit. There is a cooky sculpture park and a big fountain on the North side of the Mall. We checked that out before heading to the next big line to stand in. We eventually got into the National Archives and Records Administration where pictures are not allowed, which sucks. Inside we saw the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. They are housed in the same big room with some other historic documents. It is really dark in the room in order to prevent further fading to the documents (some of them are already mostly faded). I like to think my Nic Cage jokes were appreciated by some but probably not Beth. Once outside we bought an ice cream sandwich. I took a picture of the ice cream sandwich and in that small amount of time it became completely impossible to eat cleanly. I used a drinking fountain to wash my hands. The next couple blocks we passed several buildings I would like to explore some day but on this trip there was no time. We saw the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the IRS, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (a definite stop the next time I’m in D.C), the Department of Commerce, the American History Museum, the Ag Department, the Department of Energy, and the Smithsonian. The Washington Monument was also being worked on during our trip in order to fix earthquake damage. I’ve seen pictures since then so I know we were lucky to not have massive scaffolding blocking all views of the Monument. It actually looks like it is supposed to in our pictures.
We turned South towards the Potomac River Tidal Basin and more of the famous D.C landmarks. We passed the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Beth’s dad, Ken, is a big coin and currency collector. He has a lot of old, foreign and old/foreign currency in his collection and I’m sure he would enjoy a trip to see money being made. I’ll have to remember to check out if they even offer tours for our next visit. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial came into view next from across the tidal basin. It looked peaceful off in the distance. The stroll along the shady sidewalk was a refreshing change from the constant sun and the breeze was delightful. Continuing around the basin we passed through the FDR Memorial. Although there were a few people milling about this was the smallest crowd of any of the memorials we visited. The Memorial is obviously not one of the best-known but it was still interesting. It has a vastly different structure than the others. Instead of a single large marble building it is a series of red granite sculptures and water features spread out over a few acres. For those with a plan to walk the sights like we did I would recommend visiting the Memorials around the Tidal Basin really early in the day while your legs are fresh. You may get lucky and avoid longer lines at the museums in the afternoon. After FDR, we walked to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, a brand new addition to the area. The tall sculpture of MLK was very impressive and there was quite a crowd gathered. Being a newly developed memorial site there was practically no shade. The memorial itself provided a bit of protection but there were no mature trees or man-made structures around. By this point it was a chore keeping our heavy feet moving in the right direction. We trudged along to the Korean War Veterans Memorial which was thankfully tree-lined and shady. There were tons of events scheduled for Memorial Day weekend probably making it the busiest time of the year to visit D.C. Veterans and their families were gathering everywhere, catching up around their classic cars, motorcycles and picnic blankets.
We emerged from the trees to the left of the Lincoln Memorial. Pictures online don’t really do it justice. We climbed the many stairs leading up to the structure and took in the view of the Reflecting Pool with the Washington Monument in the distance. The Lincoln Memorial was the most crowded of the landmarks during our visit. It was tough getting pictures of the Lincoln statue itself with so many people standing in the way. My Photoshop skills would be put to the test when we got home to take the best shot I got and remove the people in the background. There are inscriptions of Lincoln speeches on the walls of the inner chamber going all the way to the top. I didn’t know before we went that there are a few rooms within the memorial. Including the bathrooms there is also a room showing a documentary on Lincoln. As a kid my family visited the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL, so now I’ve got two of the iconic Lincoln sites under my belt I suppose (perhaps Gettysburg completes the set). From Lincoln the next stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Only a few feet wide at times the Memorial was difficult to walk through. Loved ones were making etchings of the names of the fallen on the wall and leaving flowers. We did our best to take in the place but moved fast to avoid getting in the way. There is a pond near the Reflecting Pool with sculptures dedicated to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence where we spent a few minutes. The Declaration one has large golden copies of each signer’s signature. At the other end of the Reflecting Pool is the World War II Memorial. Before the trip I had no clue this memorial existed. Of course I could have surmised that a memorial dedicated to World War II existed and indeed should exist, but I had no idea it was in that specific spot. There is a large fountain surrounded by concrete pillars, one for each state. There were quite a few people around enjoying the cool mist in the air from the fountain. From there we headed towards the White House. We were tired and at the end of our eight hour day of walking so we didn’t go around to the front on Pennsylvania Avenue. If I’m lucky we’ll have time for a tour of the White House and the Capitol on our next trip. I have a sudden urge to watch the West Wing. I hope to eat a posh D.C restaurant on the next trip too instead of an expensive museum McDonald’s. I still think we did pretty well for ourselves in the limited time we had. We made a beeline to the nearest subway station (Metro Center Station) and took a well deserved seat for the ride back. That night John cooked us dinner and one of his sons and his wife came by for a visit as well. They brought their giant black lab to clean the dishes when we were done eating. Despite warning all of us to watch out for the water dish in the kitchen it was Eric that kicked it over soakinghis own foot (twice). We told them about our day and laughs about my sun-burned forehead were shared by all. End of day six.
Day 7, VA/NC: Beth and I packed up the car, thanked John and made our way up to Baltimore. Just before the toll tunnel we exited for Fort McHenry. The fort has been around since 1800 and sits right at the tip of Baltimore Harbor. The Visitor’s Center is free to visit but we also bought $7 tickets to go into the Fort. The Visitor’s Center, while small, is filled with really effective exhibits and displays. One of them is interactive and allows the viewer to watch a giant map on the wall progress through battles and troop movements. Once an hour or so they play a brief video about the history of Fort McHenry including the War of 1812 and the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. SPOILER ALERT: The payoff of the video is the end when they build the viewers up emotionally by talking about the National Anthem and dramatically open the video screen to reveal the American flag still standing above the Fort. It’s a spoiler because it isn’t initially apparent that the screen is covering a huge window facing the fort. After the video we left on a guided tour which are optional. We only had an hour and this particular tour took most of it before we even made it inside the damn place! The guide even mentioned that this tour was lasting longer than usual so after a while we broke off on our own to explore. The fort itself has been restored and houses additional exhibits, definitely worth the low price of admission.
We stayed longer than expected but this particular day had built-in buffers. It was only a 323 miles to drive, or so I thought. The drive was actually 388 miles because of a mis-communication about where we were staying that night. Beth’s college roommate, Maria, lives in Raleigh. She originally said she didn’t have a room for us the night we were in town and somehow, some way, I got the idea in my head that she had told Beth things worked themselves out and we could stay with her in Raleigh. This idea was 100% incorrect. Beth realized this somewhere in Virginia and confirmed it in an email. I hastily searched for a good hotel deal online and found a cheap room in Fayetteville, NC (65 miles further South). Despite this change in itinerary, there really wasn’t all that much for us to do during the day. The only thing we planned to do in Raleigh was see the Capitol and hang out with Maria. If you’re sensing a pattern in the types of things I like to see on trips you’re correct. State Capitols and Historic Monuments/Sites can be quick places to see without stopping off for four hours. Some places warrant a four hour layover, obviously, but sometimes you just have enough time to stretch your legs and snap a picture. Of course I am also occasionally guilty of taking pictures from the car and not taking advantage of the stretching-legs part. We snapped pictures of the Capitol and then drove to Durham, NC to Maria’s boyfriend’s place. We watched stand-up specials on Comedy Central and went to dinner at a sports bar called Carolina Ale House. I don’t remember what I ordered but the restaurant had a variety of burgers, sandwiches and ribs. We stayed in Durham a bit later than we maybe should have and didn’t arrive in Fayetteville until after 11pm. The hotel with a “cheap room” I had found that day via my smartphone turned out to be a slum. To this day I use that slum as a reason I like to book hotels well in advance of a trip. Some people like to fly by the seat of their pants and just book a room wherever they are when they get tired of driving that evening. For me, however, websites like Tripadvisor and reviews on Google make it easy to find a hotel with good customer service and fair pricing before I ever leave home. I like to research the areas we’re visiting and make sure I find the right place to stay. It could be tough if something unexpected comes up that delays us but if all goes according to plan it is much easier to just roll up to a hotel and know they have a room for us in our budget. The Fayetteville Knight’s Inn proves me right. The advertised “king bed” was two twin beds pushed together. The foot of the bed was a full six to eight inches higher than the head of the bed. The room looked like it was designed in the 80s and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the 90s. The parking lot was dimly lit and scary. The hotel was next to not one but two strip clubs serving the military base and greater Fayetteville area. And the beyond rude desk clerk wouldn’t open the window to speak clearly to us, instead preferring to talk at us through a closed window (the lobby apparently closed at 10pm). We didn’t unpack much, parked the car as close to our room as possible and slept with the lights on. End of day seven.
Day 8, Memorial Day: We were never happier to be up and out of bed, leaving that dreadful hotel. I couldn’t wait so I wrote my Tripadvisor review from the car and it was not pleasant. This particular day was the longest of our trip and the weather report wasn’t pretty. Tropical Storm Beryl was headed for the coast somewhere between North Carolina and Florida, basically our entire route. With little leeway in our itinerary we got in the car and hoped for the best. We didn’t experience any rain for the first few hours on Interstate 95 but it did rain once we turned onto Interstate 26 towards Charleston, SC. The whole day we closely monitored weather apps on our phones including a radar app which was helpful for warning us of the heaviest rain ahead. It really poured on us for a while, so much so that the windshield wipers were at full blast and not keeping up. A constant wave of white pounded the car. I was extremely worried the rest of our trip would be ruined by the weather but after half an hour of some bad rain (and some really bad rain) it luckily stopped. The main reason to visit Charleston for us was to say we had. It is by far the most famous city in South Carolina and holds a lot of history. According to my Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives research it also holds a pretty trendy food scene. We stopped in for lunch at a bar called the Tattooed Moose. I ordered their signature dish, the triple-decker Duck Club sandwich. It is made with duck confit, bacon, cheddar, garlic aioli and standard stuff like lettuce and tomato. I thought the french fries were a bit soggy but they weren’t bad. They fry them in duck fat because they have a bunch lying around for some reason. Beth liked her chicken wings but they weren’t spicy enough for her because they rarely are. The overall Tattooed Moose experience was unique. It’s a small place without a lot of seating. The tables they do have are covered in sharpie-writing. The walls and bathrooms (especially the bathrooms) are all covered in the scribblings of past patrons. I wanted to write something but I didn’t see a marker anywhere and it’s possible they stopped this activity because they just ran out of room. From the bar we drove in circles around Charleston. With the rain stopped for now there were many holiday pedestrians exploring Charleston on foot. Lacking time and a free parking place near Charleston Harbor we parked at a Prep School near the Ashley River intending to walk. We were much too far from the harbor to walk but we explored along the river for a few minutes and saw some beach wildlife. Back in the car we took smaller two lane highways to get back to I-95. The approach to Savannah, GA from the North crosses the Savannah and Little Black Rivers on an impressively tall bridge. Our schedule had us basically passing through town so I only picked one thing to see, Bonaventure Cemetery. The 160 acre cemetery is the 5th ranked thing to see in Savannah on Tripadvisor. It started as a private family cemetery but has been public since 1846. There are many notable people buried there including Georgia Governors and Generals (even dating back to the Civil War). The layout is fairly complicated and the ancient trees made the whole place seem far spookier than any other cemetery I had been to before. Most of the cemeteries in Minnesota are rather small and might have five trees. Having been there for ten minutes I can say it was an interesting experience but there must be better attractions in the area for our next trip, something historic but without hanging out with dead people. We found our way to a local Target store to look for souvenirs and use the bathroom before continuing South. My need for speed would generally go untapped during this trip but especially in Georgia where they have roaming packs of squad cars… everywhere.
We made it to Florida and were excited to see a sign that said Florida Visitor’s Centers offer fresh Florida orange juice for free. Of course we pulled in to the first one we saw and were dismayed to discover the orange juice was unavailable on holidays. The road passes around Jacksonville proper but I snapped a view pictures as we drove. Radio reports of the weather mentioned Tropical Storm Beryl dropping intense rain all over the area and at least two related tornado touchdowns. We managed to avoid really heavy rain the rest of the day. Our plan for the afternoon was to see the ocean again. I-95 gets within five miles of the coast between Palm Coast and Daytona Beach, FL so we targeted that area. I was driving so Beth picked a random route to the beach. The views of Florida from the Interstate were nice, it was still tropical and all, but in the future I would like to drive along the coast (and perhaps on a sunny day if possible). The beaches there are world-class. We had an hour of daylight left at most and it was dark in the dense trees along the twisty little road. The water was at road level in places due to the amount of rain that week. We finally broke through the trees to the coast at North Peninsula State Park. Even with the clouds it was beautiful. The swells were massive. We parked next to a stairwell from the road down to the beach. The moment I saw the waves and the pure sand I knew this would be a wonderful place to propose. We were down on the beach taking pictures and I doubled back to the car for my flip flops and the ring. Beth claims she knew what I was up to but when I made it back down to her she was distracted by a crab in the sand. I knelt down behind her and she turned around with a surprised look on her face. Even if she knew I planned to propose on this trip I think I still surprised her. I was so nervous that all I could muster to say was, “Will you marry me?”. I had no pre-prepared speech and nothing came to mind when the time came so I just went with a classic. She said yes and I placed the ring on her finger. It was a bit too big for her ring finger. There was no one around when we first arrived but a few people had wandered up. One man asked if we had just gotten engaged and where we were from. He was apparently from Minnesota originally and now lives in the area (I don’t blame him). He told us there was a restaurant on the beach up the road in Flagler Beach, FL so we went for a bite to eat. We were supposed to be done driving by now and pretty far behind schedule but a restaurant with an amazing beach view was a fantastic way to celebrate our engagement. The food was alright and everything was charged a la carte but they heard us talking and brought us a free bottle of champagne which was very nice of them. We each called our respective parents to tell them the news. There were police and lifeguards running around on the beach and we learned that a teenager was missing from nearby Daytona Beach and presumed drowned. Overall we were very lucky the weather wasn’t way worse for us. Beryl ended up being the strongest Tropical Cyclone to make landfall outside of the traditional hurricane season to date (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropical_Storm_Beryl_(2012). Beth doesn’t like when I tell that grim part of our engagement story but it happened. The sun set while we ate. We got back to the road and drove to our hotel, the Kissimmee Super 8. The hotel was easy to find and our hotel room was the same number as our apartment back home. Most importantly the staff was nice, the room was clean, and the area was safe. End of day eight.
Days 9 and 10, Islands of Adventure: Of everything we wanted to do in the Orlando area, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios was at the top of the list. Beth and I are both huge Harry Potter fans. We each have our own cherished sets of the books and have read them several times each. We own all the movies on regular dvd and bluray. We have a sorting hat and a stuffed Hedwig in our apartment. So yes, we’re fans. One of the main draws to Florida was the new theme park. We had a small complimentary breakfast at the hotel that morning and left early for Universal. It was maybe a twenty minute drive and it was sprinkling a little. There was a short line of cars already waiting to get in the parking structures. The park itself isn’t that big on a map, nothing compared to the massive compound of Disney World. They have parking structures to handle all the cars instead of giant parking lots and trams. With a small footprint the park kind of blends in to the surrounding area seamlessly. We parked in the Spider-Man lot and laced up our tennis shoes for a long day of walking. We thought about visiting Disney as well but financially it made the most sense to buy a two day pass to one park instead of one day passes to each. The passes we bought allowed us to get in to both Universal Studios and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure (where WWHP is located). The line at the gate first thing in the morning wasn’t too bad compared to my expectations. We headed straight for the Wizarding World but unfortunately for us, so did everyone else. You may know that since its addition to the park Wizarding World has become the top attraction. It has been such a massive success that they are now adding more Harry Potter themed areas and rides in the main park of Universal Studios (as I write this we both have kept up with the construction news down there and are excited to go back soon). We hopped in the line for the Forbidden Journey ride. Now I’m not much of a rides person. I don’t like heights and I don’t like being in an open-air vehicle I can’t control. Luckily for me this particular ride is the kind where the entire experience is indoors. The cart holds four people and is attached to a crane that takes riders in front of various IMAX screens and 3D effects like huge spiders and ghouls (I dumbed down ‘acromantulas’ and ‘dementors’ for you muggles). Because I knew I was never higher in the air than 30 feet I wasn’t scared. Universal Studios friendly tip #1: single riders have a shorter line than groups. On most rides you won’t be able to interact with your friends anyway so get in the single riders line which is used to fill odd-numbered groups. You can still hang out in line together but you save a lot of time. Beth and I went together the first time and spent a long time waiting, then whenever the lines were too long the rest of the day we split up. Friendly tip #2: pay attention in line. The queuing area for this and every ride at Universal is themed. Since this ride was in Hogwarts Castle the queue was based on the grounds and rooms of the castle. There were magical plants and objects everywhere. Moving pictures talk to you, books fly around, and the main characters show up in full size holographic form to provide back-story. Even if you save time by splitting up, both queuing lines are worth seeing. The castle specifically also has a walk-through option that allows non-riders to see the inside. They made extremely detailed areas within the building that you could spend a long time searching. Another example, next to a door labeled ‘Potions’ you can hear a teacher talking to a student. The ride itself is a lot of fun too. You follow Harry Potter on a magical broom ride through and around Hogwarts. We rode this one ride about twenty times in two days and each time I noticed something different, including the one ride where it stopped in the middle for a minute (probably because someone’s shoe fell off) and I was able to look around longer. From Forbidden Journey we were hungry (standing in line for an hour can make you hungry pretty quick) so we walked a short distance to the Three Broomsticks pub. It was raining at a moderate clip but we were able to get fish and chips and eat under a covered table on the patio. Despite the rain it was fairly warm. Friendly tip #3: food at Universal Studios is expensive and not that filling. It was, however, delicious. There is a surprising amount of seating behind the pub for those interested in a little space. The inside is large too but with the rain it was packed with people. After brunch we walked through a few of the shops. All the shops, while tiny and crowded, are filled with amazing Harry Potter detail. Even if you don’t want to spend your money on souvenirs (we did obviously) the shops are fun. There are magical candies, wands, books, clothing, cauldrons, and creatures all over. No ceiling or wall space is without something interesting to look at and explore. Before noon we also got Butterbeer, the tasty drink famous from the books. If I could buy bottles of it at the grocery store near us I would. Beth then rode the other two rides in WWHP called Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, both roller coasters (one huge and tall, the other low to the ground). I stood outside the rides while she waited in line because I’m a huge chicken, I’m adult enough to admit it. Also while waiting I witnessed two separate people take a sip of Butterbeer and immediately throw it out. I was appalled! Not only is it awesome, it’s not cheap! Even if you don’t like it after a single sip you shouldn’t throw it out! What if you take another sip and it grows on you or what if you’re desperately thirsty after your fish and chips? I was tempted to hang out by the cart and just snipe these picky people’s cups as they went to throw them out.
We wanted to see more of WWHP but decided to check out the rest of the Islands of Adventure for a while. A show was starting in the Lost Continent called The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad. Picture a giant cave, an evil queen that can summon monsters, and two goof-balls trying to capture some treasure. The whole show was stunts, water effects, fireballs, and cheesy jokes. We saw the show again the next day and it had a different cast and slightly different cheesy jokes. Outside of the show is a talking fountain that interacts with passersby. It spits water at kids and makes fart noises, really highbrow stuff. The next attraction was Poseidon’s Fury, an adventure “ride”. More of a show than a ride you follow an “intern” on an archaeology dig searching for the head archaeologist. The intern the first day was really funny (the second day not so much). SPOILER ALERT: Poseidon shows up and gets pissed, fireballs and sprays of water happen. From the Lost Continent we went through Seuss Landing. We looked around a while but didn’t ride anything. The rain had stopped and the following sunshine was hot. The next place we headed was Marvel Super Hero Island. The Adventures of Spider-Man ride is similar to the Forbidden Journey of Hogwarts ride in that it doesn’t go very high and takes place completely within a building using IMAX screens. I have to say I was very impressed. This is easily my second favorite ride at the park as a non-roller coaster fan. Okay, so I only rode four actual rides the whole two days but still, that Spider-Man ride is really fun! Apparently they had just finished refurbishing it. We rode it twice in a row, the second time using the single-riders line which saved us twenty minutes or more. The whole Marvel area is designed like a city with both hero and villain references everywhere. We ate lunch at the Fantastic 4 Cafe. The queue for Spider-Man was through the Daily Bugle, the newspaper where Peter Parker worked, so cool! From Super Hero Island we walked through Toon Lagoon, home to the Universal’s games area. Beth and I met working in the games department of Minnesota’s main theme park, Valleyfair, so we meandered through this area laughing at feeble attempts to win prizes. One of the workers tried to get us to play but we told her we had too much experience with these things to waste our money. Even if we had won a cheap prize we would’ve been carrying it around all day. Next was Jurassic Park. The main ride in this area is the River Adventure, a river ride and 85 foot flume drop. I rode this one two despite my fear of heights. I’ve been on flume rides before so I made it work. Friendly tip #4: lockers are available to store your stuff for a small price and the black ink from the souvenir bags will run when wet. The river ride is straight out of the movie. It starts as a gentle dinosaur tour until one bumps the boat off-course and into the raptor pen! A T-Rex tries to bite your head off and then you plummet. I closed my eyes and held tight to the safety bar until the bottom when we got considerably wet. Afternoon brought us back to the Wizarding World. The lines and crowds were much shorter by this time which was great information for the next day. We rode Forbidden Journey a bunch and just hung out in the queue areas looking at cool stuff. We also spent a ton of time in the shops and made a few strategic purchases. It would be easy to spend a small fortune, ah hell, a large fortune on the interesting Harry Potter merchandise available but we restrained ourselves alright. The big purchase for each of us were replica wands. Beth chose a replica of Sirius Black’s wand and I chose Ron Weasley. My decision was based on look and design while Beth’s was based on her favorite character. Along with the shops there are also a few things to experience within WWHP like Ollivander’s Wand Shop. The lines for this attraction can get quite long because only 30 people can go in at a time and it takes a few minutes for each group. There was only one small child in our group so they naturally got selected to choose a wand as part of the experience. Watch the boxed wands on the wall for movement too. I don’t remember what we ate the rest of the day but we saw a sign advertising an all-day food pass. For something around $20 you got unlimited food and drink at any of three separate restaurants around the park. Enticed by the savings we signed up for the pass the next day. The restaurants were the ones offering simple meals like burgers and sandwiches but they came with sides and desserts. We’d already eaten at the Three Broomsticks once so we weren’t going to miss out on anything. The next time we visit I would like to try Mythos Restaurant on the Lost Continent. Evidently it has won several awards for theme park dining and they take reservations. Anyway, the first day at Islands of Adventure was a lot of fun but it had to come to an end when they closed the park. We were there from open until close and standing for most of it. For a late night snack we stopped off at a pizza place of which Beth is familiar. Hungry Howie’s has locations from coast to coast but only in some areas.There are heavy concentrations in Michigan and Florida with others all over. See the following website to find a location near you: (http://www.hungryhowies.com/locations?search=55305). Beth ate at Hungry Howie’s all the time living in Tempe, AZ for college and I had tried it a few times while visiting her on Spring Break. I had figured out that there was a location near our hotel so we jumped at the chance to have it again. Hungry Howie’s is known for their flavored crusts (butter, butter-cheese, asiago, cajun, sesame, onion, ranch, and our favorite, garlic-herb) and a large is like $9. What a deal!! We each got our favorite kind and ate in bed with our feet still pulsing from walking all day. End of day nine.
The next morning we again rose early. The forecast was clear and steamy so I put on a bunch of sunscreen. Like D.C, the efficiency of the sunscreen would be dependent on how sweaty I got. A free danish each from the lobby and we were off to the park. Our two-day passes could get us in to the other Universal Studios park too but we couldn’t not go back to see more Harry Potter stuff. I don’t like that many rides anyway so more HP was an easy decision. To skip the morning lines this time we went left to Super Hero Island. There was no wait to ride Spider-Man so we rode it twice, even taking longer to examine the queue. I think my favorite part about the ride is the big drop. For a heights-phobic person like me it made me happy to see the drop for what it was, a visual trick using a big screen. The cart shakes and you appear to drop from the top of a skyscraper but Spider-Man catches the vehicle and you abruptly stop before smacking the pavement, a cool effect. Beth also rode the Incredible Hulk but there was a line for it. The Hulk is the signature ride of the island and one of the most intense roller coasters in the country (from what I’ve heard and read obviously). Beth’s dad even tells a story where he was fine until the eighth loop-de-loop when some of the fun and all of the color drained from his face. While Beth was in line I found a Shrek pinball machine in the nearby arcade. At 11am the food pass restaurants open so we were in Jurassic Park to eat a late breakfast. In order to make the food pass pay off we knew we had to eat three meals that day (oh what a simple task it appeared). The burger was nothing special but the fries were good and both desserts (brownie and cake slice) were tasty (and unlimited). The Jurassic Park Discovery Center is based off the Visitor Center in the movie. There are interactive displays mostly geared towards kids but we found them to be entertaining. One of them allows you to control a dinosaurs arms and legs while another takes your picture and makes it into a dinosaur version of yourself. A few times a day the staff (I think they had sciency titles) showed patrons a dinosaur egg hatching behind the glass of their lab and then let one of the kids name it.
After lunch we went and spent several hours in Wizarding World. Friendly tip #5: Beth found a website that provided a guide to hidden easter eggs within WWHP. I don’t remember the exact website but Google it, the answers are out there. Some of the things you can see include: 1) At the Three Broomsticks pub look up to see shadows of working house elves 2) an owl pops out of the Hogsmeade clock tower at irregular intervals 3) inside Filch’s you can see trunks with student names like Dean Thomas, Fred Weasley and Neville Longbottom, etc. It was fun going down the list and finding every single one. There is no shortage of cool stuff to see. The experience in each area is fully immersive. Toon Lagoon has funny signage and buildings to see and everything is like a cartoon. Everything in Seuss Landing is Seuss-ified. We made the rounds throughout the park. We rode the Cat in the Hat ride which is quite dizzying but thankfully air-conditioned. The Seuss restaurant has a tram ride that goes right through it around the ceiling.
We went all over but always ended up back at Wizarding World. It is so enchanting that it’s hard to leave. We bought postcards and had them stamped by an official Hogsmeade Postwoman. The post office is filled with owls and owl poop (very intricate props). I ended up buying another wand, this time Dumbledore’s elder wand. I couldn’t help myself. We also bought these really cool Hogwarts House cups. We rode the Forbidden Journey one last time and really milked the experience. We stood in front of the rules video and the character hologram for full rotations to see all the variations. I love that the actors from the movies were brought in to make these videos. It really builds the universe as a whole. Anyway, it came time to eat dinner but we weren’t really even that hungry. We got the food anyway and picked at the entrees before eating the dessert. With the restaurants not opening until 11am and the park closing at 8pm it was harder to get three meals in to the day than we thought it would be. Friendly tip #6: buy one food pass per couple in order to get unlimited drinks, desserts and fries and buy the second entree a la carte. They have likely thought about this but if you’re crafty enough and sit in a secluded area you’ll save money overall. In the restaurant of the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, for example, part of the seating area is sixty feet from the service counter, way over by the windows overlooking the lagoon. We spent our last hour at WWHP hanging out. There was still so much to see and there are less people around at the end of the day. I was able to go through the queue for the Hippogriff ride and see Hagrid’s cabin, the flying Weasley car and Buckbeak the hippogriff. Hogwarts Castle at sunset was excellent and with nobody around we got a clear picture in front of it. Although our two days at Islands of Adventure were filled with excitement, sun and wizard goodness it was all over. And, because we love it so much we got Hungry Howie’s again. It was marvelous. End of day ten.
Day 11, Atlanta: It was really hard leaving Kissimmee that morning. Neither of us wanted to leave Florida and head home yet. The Super 8 was just perfect for our trip and a great value. I’d highly recommend a stay there if you’re visiting either Universal or Disney. The free breakfast was nothing to brag about but it was free. We didn’t swim in the outdoor pool but travelers with kids would put it to some use I’m sure. I don’t remember if we left on time or not. We only had to drive just past Atlanta to get to our next hotel so we had a little buffer time in our day. Not much happened along the route. The central part of Florida was uneventful except the occasional toll booth on the turnpike. We also stopped off at a crocodile themed gas station and souvenir stand. For a souvenir stand the selection was putrid. Another storm related to Tropical Storm Beryl caused us a little trouble near Gainesville, FL. The storm was shaped like a crescent roll and was hard-hitting. For the second time on our trip we had the windshield wipers at full blast and it wasn’t fast enough. All the cars on I-75 slowed to 35 or 40mph to compensate. We saw a couple buses driving along that were open with no roof. Some company must use them for open-air bus tours or something. I hope they had waterproof seats because I wouldn’t want to be the next passenger back there. Fortunately we got through the main body of the storm and the rain slowed. We didn’t have many problems when we finally reached Georgia. The scenery in Georgia was nice though nondescript at times. There are a lot of State Parks in Georgia that I’d like to explore one day but you don’t really see much from the road. It got really hot that day. It hit 100 degrees and it was a dry heat so we were thankful to have the A/C cranked. Once closer to Atlanta the traffic built up pretty quick. After a while we exited in favor of back-roads. On the advice of one of Beth’s friends we headed for Piedmont Park in the North-West part of town. The park is big and was bustling with activity. There is a gravel track for joggers, a pond, an aquatic center, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, a tennis center, miles of walking paths and a whole lot more. We parked at a restaurant about half a mile away for $14 an hour. There is no available parking at the park so we were forced to walk. Time was ticking because I certainly didn’t want to pay for a second hour. We walked across the jogging oval and between baseball and soccer fields where there were recreational volleyball, softball and kickball games going on. If it weren’t for parking costs and the pre-established leagues I might have joined in to play! We went to Lake Clara Meer, which was more of a pond in my opinion. There was a neat little bridge that we walked over. There were tons of birds, a few of which were exotic so we sent pictures to Beth’s mom to see if she could use her bird books to figure out what they were. We explored a bit more but were unable to stay long. I raced back to the car myself and I was able to get it out three minutes before the next hour would have started. I picked up Beth and we drove in circles for a while trying to navigate the maze of busy one-way streets. I really wanted to visit the facilities from the 1996 Summer Olympics. One of the parks designed for the games is called Centennial Olympic Park. There is a flag for each competing nation and tons of green space but the main focus is an Olympic Ring shaped fountain. Kids can run around in the five circles of water jets most of the day but there are also shows where the water is launched in patterns set to music. Next to the park is a huge conference center and one of the CNN buildings. I didn’t know this at the time but just a block down was Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks NBA team (if I had known I would’ve made sure to drive by it on our way back). We watched the music show as the sun went down. The mosquitos were out in force as we walked back to the car which was parked in a shady lot nearby. From there we drove half an hour North to our hotel, another Super 8. We got dinner and watched TV. The window coverings didn’t close all the way in our room so we used a coat hanger to try and keep them closed. I’ll have to remember to bring something better next time like binder clips or a bungee cord. The bed was really comfortable and we slept well, even if this trip was almost over and work was calling. End of day eleven.
Day 12, Nashville, etc: Our free breakfast included waffles this time! I like waffles but as often happens in hotel lobbies the first one doesn’t really turn out. Take two was much better. I like getting unlimited apple and orange juice too. Is there anything better than free breakfast when you don’t have to do the dishes afterwards? Anyway, Beth and I packed up the car again and made our way out of Georgia. It was rainy again but considerably colder now. Just after the border, Interstate 75 turns back North-East towards Knoxville and Great Smoky Mountains State Park, a place I would definitely like to see some day. For this trip, however, we switched to the 24 and Chattanooga, TN. Chattanooga is fun to say, which is why I mentioned it just now. The road in this area is a little strange. You enter Tennessee on 75 but re-enter Georgia for about two miles on 24 and then re-enter Tennessee. This strange little dip back South was helpful for us because the picture we took of the state sign while crossing the first time was blurry. The road also crosses the Tennessee River at what appears to be the widest point. It was raining really hard for the trip across the bridge. There is a Tennessee Welcome Center on an island in the middle of the river. Can you imagine working on a tiny island in the middle of the river with nothing else around? We probably would have stopped if it wasn’t raining so hard. The road passes really close to Alabama too. Beth and I wanted to include as many states as possible in our trip so when I was planning the route before we left I found Bridgeport, AL, the closest town to the border. Anytime we’re within four miles of a border to a new state I like to cross it. Some people say you can’t count a state if you pass through an airport but I disagree. Two feet in and the state counts in my book! Beth and I like to buy those little state magnets you can buy at truck stops and gas stations. There are at least two companies making them so they’re not 100% consistent depending on where you buy them. They are sometimes hard to find for the state you’re currently in so we buy them wherever we find them. If you miss one in Maine while you’re in Maine buy it later when you’re in Tennessee! We’ve got 40 of them on our fridge now, one for each state that we’ve traveled through together. I hope they made magnets for countries too because we’re running out of states to collect. We stopped at a historical marker for the Trail of Tears just inside Alabama which evidently started in this area. The town of Bridgeport itself had next to nothing going on besides a new bridge that was way bigger than it needed to be (government pork barrel spending perhaps). We turned around and headed back towards the Volunteer State where we ended up eating lunch at a Hardees.
The next big city in our path was Nashville, TN. When in Nashville I highly recommend seeing the first thing we stopped to see, the Parthenon. What’s that you say? The Parthenon? If you thought there was only one Parthenon in Greece you would be mistaken. Nashville is home to the only full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in the world (built in 1897 according to Wikipedia). This Parthenon is in a big park next to the Vanderbilt campus. There was a music festival that week and there was a band practicing in the pavilion. We didn’t go inside the Parthenon, which is an art museum now, but from the outside it was quite impressive. The structure is not only massive but also placed perfectly with a view of downtown Nashville. Beth got a headache so we went to a Walgreens at Vanderbilt. Their bathroom was disgusting by the way. From there we drove to the State Capitol to take pictures and saw LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play. I’m a huge NFL fan so all the stadiums we kept passing were neat to see. Because of confusing directions we ended up circling the city twice, really taking in the scenic view. We’d spent some time in Memphis the year before and now we were in Nashville. If you asked me before I’d been there I would have probably listed a bunch of Tennessee stereotypes but I found both cities very metropolitan and friendly. Granted, these visits represent about three hours total between the two trips and we were seeing basically a hospital and a college campus but my opinions of the state have changed (nothing has changed my opinions of Indiana, Indiana still sucks). We left Nashville and headed North-West past Clarksville of “Last Train to…” fame. We crossed into Kentucky and passed Paducah (for definition, see Chattanooga, TN) and we were right on into Illinois again. We drove through the late afternoon and arrived in Granite City, IL. There was a Catsup factory. It was intense (like camping, get it, intense, in-tents). We drove up to our friend Katie’s and were greeted with open arms. End of day twelve.
Day 13, river country: Katie, as those in the know know (two knows in row might be a no no), worked at Valleyfair with us. She came up to Minnesota for college and work, where we met. Some of my best memories of working at Valleyfair involve Katie. We once made up a back-story for a teddy bear, a prize in one of the games. He had a family, a career, and hobbies… we had some boring days at work that we improved through imagination. Anyway, Katie was living in St. Louis proper the year before when we visited but she had since moved to Granite City, IL, a smaller town across the Mississippi River. She had also shacked up with her boyfriend Joe. The two were selling insurance (she had left teaching) and had just bought a house down the street from their rental! That morning we took a walk to a small Italian restaurant for breakfast. I don’t know for the life of me if their Italian food is any good but the breakfast was. There are only about fifteen tables in the place and they bring around the specials on a big white-board. After a decent amount of rain the past couple days it was pleasant to see the sun (and it stayed out the whole day). We walked around Wilson Park nearby as Katie and Joe do once or twice a day. It is a sizable park with a lot of amenities including a community pool, tennis courts, gardens, a playground, sports fields and walking paths. Katie likes to jump/stomp on dried leaves on the sidewalk as a fun thing to do. They took us past the house they had just purchased but hadn’t yet received the keys so we couldn’t get a tour. Back at their current place we geared up for a trip up to Grafton, a little riverside town about forty minutes North. Also, when I say “geared up” I mean Joe grabbed a hat and we all hopped in Katie’s car. It was kind of nice not having to drive or worry about directions for the first time in almost two weeks. Grafton is on the Mississippi River but very close to the Missouri and Illinois Rivers. We passed the point where the Missouri and Mississippi meet where Lewis and Clark State Memorial Park sits. There is a big tower/memorial thing that we thankfully did not climb. The road paralleled the river the whole way and it was beautiful. Once in Grafton we parked and walked down the road of craft and antique shops. Joe suggested a nearby zip-line course or horseback riding but I hate heights and neither of us really had any interest in riding a horse that day. Instead we walked along the river, watched boats, and browsed the shops. It was fun looking at all the weird stuff for sale, a lot more fun in a group than it would be alone. I tried to convince them to buy a weather vane with a fish on top for their new house. “A house is not a home without a fish weather vane,” I said. We ate lunch at a small burgers and hot dogs style place and then drove back towards Granite City. The scenery in the area was great, including bluffs, caves, bridges, locks, damns, and of course the rivers. Back at their place we sat down to watch a movie. Joe had to get some work done so we watched Hot Rod, a movie he has confessed to not liking very much despite it being one of our favorites. Personally I think Hot Rod was too legit, too legit to quit. It’s from the movie, if you’ve seen it you’ll understand. Go see it if you haven’t. We also watched another personal favorite, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Joe joined us for the third movie of the day, one of their recent finds called Fired Up. We may have just watched three straight movies and stayed indoors for five hours of a beautiful day but after a long trip it was certainly relaxing for the two of us at least. The four of us walked to a local ice cream place called the Dairy Bar in the evening. Small local ice cream shops are excellent places to get a delicious treat and take in the local sights. Back at their place we loaded up in the car and drove South to a tavern for karaoke. Joe and Katie are karaoke fanatics, possibly addicts. The tavern was the definition of a hole in the wall place. Joe did two of his favorite songs and Katie chose two as well. All four songs were Pop or Pop/R&B. The local patrons made a few choices, mostly Country but a little Classic Rock mixed in. Beth then joined Katie for a Spice Girls song. I didn’t participate. I might do karaoke some day, I have thought about possible songs I would sing, but I wasn’t feeling that audience. The Country-loving tavern folk weren’t inspiring any courage that night. We drove back to their place and enjoyed one last peaceful night of vacation sleep. End of day thirteen.
Day 14, Iowa and back to reality: I hate the end of vacation. Who wants to stop traveling and go back to work? No one! That person is a myth. Even really dedicated workers would probably still work from the road or a tropical location if they could. I know I would. Of course, if one of us won the lottery there’d be no working to speak of, at least nothing ordinary. If money wasn’t an issue I might work at a movie theater or go join a film crew somewhere. With the end of this vacation nearing it was with sadness that we woke up early that morning. We did a sweep of the room for our stuff and said goodbye to their rambunctious cat, Mr. Darcy. Katie and Joe took us out to breakfast again at the same restaurant as the day before. It was nice to get a full breakfast before the day’s drive, a luxury for us road-trippers. There was bacon, excellent bacon! We bid adieu to Katie and Joe as they had to get to work and we had a road to rejoin. We crossed into Missouri on 1-270 and took I-70 to a Costco to fill up for the last leg. I don’t remember much about that day. The weather was gorgeous, the pictures confirm that. Other than standard highway sights like tractors and fields there wasn’t much else to see. A gorilla-balloon shilling fireworks may have been a highlight. We played car games and talked about dreading returning to work the next day. Iowa was no treat either. Traditional Iowa boredom is made worse for anyone heading back home through Iowa. Let me explain. A traveler going from coast to coast looks at their passage through Iowa as a means to an end, a temporary obstacle to fun and excitement. For us, however, Iowa is close enough to home that it is hard to look beyond. Let me clarify, I do not hate Iowa (here’s looking at you Indiana), I just find it boring. There isn’t a lot to see or do. The only cool thing I’ve ever done in Iowa involved roulette and a friend’s 21st birthday. Furthermore, this leg of the trip was mostly a re-tread of day one of our previous trip but in reverse. I don’t mind taking the same route twice but preferably not in consecutive years. I can’t imagine willingly following the same exact route over and over again when other options exist. I’m sure I’ll find that road a little less taxing in a few years. At least Iowa has windmills! Minnesota popped up eventually and it was a welcome sight. Just about everything about the last day of our trip was uneventful but we made it home safe and with lots of memories and stories. We saw Minneapolis rise up before us while it was still light out, a vast improvement from the 2am arrival at the end of our last trip. End of day fourteen.
Summary: Our trip included 27 states; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and Iowa. We visited six state and one national capitals; Saint Paul, Madison, Hartford, Boston, Providence, Washington D.C and Atlanta. We also traveled through 19 of the 200 most populous cities in the United States (according to population figures at the time); New York City (1), Chicago (3), Philadelphia (5), Jacksonville (11), Baltimore (21), Boston (22), Washington (24), Nashville (25), Atlanta (40), Raleigh (43), Cleveland (45), Minneapolis (48), Saint Louis (58), Saint Paul (67), Buffalo (70), Orlando (79), Madison (82), Providence (131), and Cedar Rapids (189). We drove over 4801 miles. I say “over” because that was the planned minimum and we didn’t keep track of actual mileage (I wish we had but we forgot, again, seriously this is a problem we’ve had twice). We did not track how much money we spent exactly but it was at least $2000. Gas, food, lodging, attraction tickets, wizard wands, tolls and parking were our biggest expenses in that order.
If you have any questions about the trip feel free to ask on this site or on twitter. My facebook friends can enjoy all 800 photos from this trip that I thought were worthy of social media (there were a lot more, trust me). I hope you enjoyed the read and please check back for future posts. Also, I accept donations and shares of lottery winnings via Paypal or check. Happy travels!