This trip took place from April 11th to April 17th, 2013.
Night 1 into Day 2, driving through the night: It’s time for our third road trip! My fiancee Beth and I had two huge trips under our belts but this trip would be a bit different; 1) we started the trip at night, 2) I was traveling with my mother-in-law-to-be for the first time, 3) this trip was only six days and seven nights and 4) we didn’t take my car! Also a first, we left during an April snow storm. After a full day of work for each of us and with a worsening weather report ahead of us, we shipped out at 9pm.
There was a large storm blanketing Minnesota and Northern Iowa with snow and high-speed winds. Leaving ten hours late to miss the storm would have resulted in missing out on several sights along the route and cost us vital hours at our destination. We had little choice but to load up the car and muscle through. Beth’s mom, Carol, was allowing us to take her vehicle, a small SUV. We were able to fit our stuff a lot better in hers and it did handle the snow better than my car likely would have. Carol took the first turn behind the wheel. The snow was a mix of rain and snow earlier in the day so it was coming down thick and heavy. The wind was so strong it was coming down sideways and travel was slow-going. There weren’t that many other cars on the road, luckily. Of those, some were managing well enough while others straddled the middle line at a steady twenty miles per hour. At times it was so hard to see that it paid to follow another car to keep within the snow treads. It normally takes an hour and a half to get to Albert Lea, MN but it took us about two. “About two” was a funny saying we had on canoe trips when I was in the Boy Scouts growing up. “How much longer until we stop?” the younger kids would say, and “about two” would be our only response. Two miles? Two hours? 2pm? Nobody knew for sure. Carol pulled in to a truck stop off Interstate 35 called Trails Travel Center. Trails is a great gas station where we stop whenever nearby. I stayed at the neighboring hotel for a few days on a work trip and ate at their cafe a few times, it’s pretty good. Trails is also a great place to buy souvenirs if you’re in to that kind of thing (which, duh, we are). I’ve bought several lapel pins and state magnets there. The three of us arrived just before the McDonald’s on the other end of the building closed for the night. Not wanting to settle for candy bars (okay, settle for just candy bars) we got some stuff and ate it quickly in a booth. Now it was my turn to drive. What I didn’t know until that moment was that the driver’s seat in Carol’s car doesn’t go back far enough for me! Beth’s dad, Ken, is taller than me and he drives it just fine but I like to sit back pretty far when I drive. My knees were pressed hard up against the interior. I stayed that way for the next few hours as I drove to Des Moines, IA. The snow let up the further South we went which was welcome. When I planned this trip months before the hope and assumption was that it would be consistently fifty degrees by now. My knuckles were white from my weather-related tight grip by the time Beth took over. I was drifting the last twenty miles before the switch and had to resort to pulling my own hair to stay awake. I don’t sleep well in the car but it becomes easier the longer I’ve been awake. This time I was fully happy to lay back, pull a sweatshirt over my face and drift off. Carol had two neck pillows along which were awesome. I don’t know how I ever slept in the car before using one.
Beth woke me up at 3am so I could take a picture of the Missouri border. Despite our efforts we didn’t get a picture of the sign. I must have fallen back asleep after that because the next few hours were a blur. I do remember that we stopped at both a Kwik Trip and a Quik Trip. Maybe it has something to do with divorce, like ‘Fleet Farm’ and ‘Farm and Fleet” stores. Anyway, we saw Kansas City by night and then it was my turn to drive again. I had to put my contacts back in and it was quite an adjustment for my tired eyes. I drove straight through until the sun rose. Although illegal, I snapped some pictures while driving as the other two slept. I’m quite good at it because all I do is turn it on and take pictures in the direction of the action. There’s no need to use the view-screen (taking my eyes off the road) to see if the pictures look alright, I’ll find out later when I upload them online. Like always I took a bunch of photos that first night but with the snow and darkness many of them were blurry. My picture-taking method is to take as many as I can so a few turn out great. This method is especially useful when I can’t see the outcome until later. Sometimes the photos are of nothing, or I should say the photos are only interesting to me. I drove to Wichita and around this time I was trying to gently encourage the other two to wake up and realize they were hungry so we could stop for breakfast. Other than an ice cream bar at a gas station and a few granola bars I had not eaten since the McDonald’s in Minnesota and I was terribly interested in a full meal. They eventually woke up and we discussed potential restaurant stops. I didn’t get my wish until Tonkawa, OK at 9:30am when we stopped at a truck stop. We ate at the Subway in the truck stop. Subway’s breakfast is alright but I’m not that big a fan of Subway usually. We spent half an hour there, stretching our legs and trying to wake up. Driving through the night is a necessary evil sometimes but it does take a while to shake off the cobwebs when the sun comes up.
A short time later we arrived in Oklahoma City, OK and headed down Lincoln Boulevard to the Capitol. The Oklahoma Capitol is very big and visible a mile down the road. It screams of advanced city planning, something you just don’t get in St. Paul, MN (just ask former Governor Jesse Ventura). The below picture is from the back of the building where we parked. I got out to take pictures, a duty for which I always volunteer. With oil a major industry in parts of the South I found it terribly interesting that there was an oil derrick with the Phillips logo in the parking lot, about fifty feet from the Capitol. They were everywhere, actually. There’s a joke about politics and lobbying by the oil industry there somewhere. From the Capitol we drove down the street to the Bass Pro Shop. My research showed that this was an excellent place to park to visit the next attraction, the Centennial Land Run Monument. The Monument and park are dedicated to when in 1889 Oklahoma was opened to settlement and a bunch of brave souls raced across it claiming land. This was my first time in Oklahoma, could I run across claiming stuff? The Monument is a series of two-times scale statues of a wagon train including corresponding settlers, livestock, and wildlife. The intricate detail was quite majestic. All the figures were posed in motion. One of the settlers lost his hat which was in the air behind him. The horses were jumping across the Bricktown Canal. There were even hoof prints in the concrete! It was all very neat. The Canal winds through the park towards the Oklahoma River just on the other side of Interstate 40 a block away. They were still working on parts of the park and had them sectioned off with construction barriers. There were some areas completed, however, including a waterfall, a little foot-bridge, and informational placards about the Land Run. It was fifty degrees and partly cloudy so I switched into shorts! Fifty degrees may not seem like shorts weather but for a Minnesotan escaping one of the longest-lasting winters in recent memory, it was practically tropical! That winter lasted into May, by the way, with over a foot of snow falling on May 1st through 3rd. It was dreadful.
The rest of the drive through Oklahoma was mostly ordinary except for the red rock formations and the occasional river. We reached the Texas border around 1pm and were in Dallas, TX by 2:30pm. The temperature had reached a steamy 78 degrees! I had a list of things to see in Dallas but the first important thing to do was to eat. We stopped in at “Maple and Motor” for a late lunch. Maple and Motor is a restaurant featured on one of our favorite food shows, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri. The place was small, as these dives tend to be. Even in the middle of the afternoon the parking lot and dining area were packed. The wait wasn’t too long and we were able to get a table within ten minutes. The burger options were mostly standard, burger, cheeseburger, a burger with brisket on top, etc. I got a cheeseburger with bacon, Carol had a cheeseburger, and Beth had the “Yardbird” (chicken). We each got fries and a drink as well but when we were done there was nearly a pound of fries leftover. Next time we’ll just share one I think. The food wasn’t extraordinary compared to other Triple-D locations we’ve tried but it was good, a little greasy perhaps. With full stomachs we raced around Dallas trying to see everything on my list. I had personally selected all the fast and free attractions I could. The first stop was Pioneer Plaza, another park filled with large sculptures. This time they were cowboys on a cattle run. After that we drove past a fountain and a park that I had found on Tripadvisor. There wasn’t a lot of parking available so we didn’t even stop, instead opting for pictures through my open car window. While looking for something else we saw American Airlines Center, home to the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars. We drove in a few circles taking in the tall buildings and famous/infamous locations associated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We took Elm Street past the Grassy Knoll and Dealey Plaza. My dad and I flew to Dallas when I was eleven or twelve and we went to the Sixth Floor Museum. It was a father-son weekend and among other activities we took in a Texas Rangers game. This visit wouldn’t provide us much time, however, so we saw as much as we could from the car in half an hour. Between lunch and sightseeing we had managed to shave an hour off my itinerary!
The drive on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston, TX was four hours. I was surprised it was only two lanes in each direction for most of it. I was driving for half of the time and was caught in several unwelcome games of lane jumping with other cars. Half the people on the road wanted to go five to ten miles per hour below the speed limit and the other half wanted to go twenty miles per hour over it. I just wanted to set the cruise to the speed limit and relax. I don’t speed much anymore, call it forced retirement by the police department. This little game wasn’t making me terribly happy. The sights from the road got a little better as we went. There were a few nice stretches of colorful wildflowers along the road, that prison was pretty neat (and pretty close to the road), and in Huntsville there was a 67 foot high statue of Sam Houston. Judging by the statue that guy had some wicked sideburns. I looked Sam Houston up just now and apparently he was President of the Republic of Texas before Texas joined the United States and went on to be a Senator and Governor of Texas. He only retired when Texas seceded during the Civil War and he was not having any of it. Sounds like a cool guy. About an hour away from the city named after that powerful, hairy man, we hit the always dreaded scourge of progress… traffic. All three of us were antsy, anxious and not moving anywhere fast! Beth called ahead to check in but it didn’t pass the time fast enough. Twenty-plus hours in the car and almost a full day since sleeping in a bed wears on you pretty quick even if you are missing a day of work. It was a huge relief when the log jam finally broke up. They should really add a lane in each direction of I-45 for that last sixty miles, if not all of it. Maybe a bullet train would reduce car volume enough. Get on it, Texas! Anyway, we reached my sister-in-law’s at about 8:15pm. Val and Dave welcomed us into their place and thankfully ignored our 22-hour car-smell. I went with Dave to pick up dinner from Star Pizza, their favorite place specializing in deep dish pizza. We told them all about the drive with dinner and discussed plans for the coming days. I had a massive list of things to do and see and I don’t think even Beth and Carol were ready for what was to come! End of day two.
Day 3, mini golf and the zoo: Taking a shower that morning was fantastic. I like to imagine Tom Hanks’ character felt the same way in Castaway when he was rescued but on a much larger level. The plan for our Saturday morning was mini golf, a Knutson and Bomben vacation tradition. Living close to downtown as they do there aren’t any great mini golf options nearby so we drove 20 some miles out to a suburb. The placed was called Mountasia and had an arcade, go-carts and bumper boats. It sprinkled for like a second but was mostly just partly cloudy. We all had our successes on the course. A few of us shot holes-in-one on separate holes. I captured Dave’s hole-in-one celebration (left). Beth was attacked by a big bug but Dave squished it. Carol, who claims to be a former member of the Pro Mini Golf Association (the PMGA of course), had the best score when all was said and done. For the record, I took second place. After golfing we spent a few minutes in the arcade and headed to lunch. Dave chose the restaurant, Cafe Adobe, a Mexican place. We got a table on the roof in the cool breeze and ordered chicken nachos and chicken chimichangas for appetizers. The nachos were good but the chimichangas were wonderful. For my entree I had the beef “Super Burrito” which was drenched in cheese. It lived up to its name in taste and size. I even had to scrape off some of the cheese because it was too much. The others enjoyed the fish tacos and the shrimp quesadillas. I’m not quite sure why the staff was forced to wear uptight formal wear but the servers were very friendly and every employee between the front door and roof greeted us with a smile. The best part of the whole experience apart from the great food was the atmosphere. You simply cannot beat that rooftop in April. There is a serious lack of outdoor patios in the Twin Cities, something to do with the terrible weather six months of the year.
After lunch we went back to the house for an hour and then prepared for our afternoon activity, the Houston Zoo! Val had to check in at work for a bit so she dropped the rest of us off. I had not been to a zoo before that day since about seventh grade so I was really looking forward to it. The first animals we saw were the giraffes and zebras. There were about twelve of the former and six of the latter. One of them was a child not tall enough to reach the main food dispensers on its own. It was 81 degrees and the sun was out to play (the sun’s favorite game is “make Bryan sunburned and sweaty”) but I’d take anything over the snow back home. The rhino area was cool. It is oddly shaped so if you look at the right angle it looks like the other visitors are behind the fence with the rhinos. The monkey habitat was bit sad. There was little movement. It may have just been nap time. I did like many of the exhibits but one of my favorites was the meerkats. They are very cute and cuddly. Two of them were standing on guard on top of the rock in the center of their habitat. A few were sleeping. One of them was cleaning another while it slept. I wish I could have held one. The big cats (lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, etc.) were another highlight. The crowds certainly agreed with me. It was hard to get a clear shot of the male lion. The habitat only had one male to avoid violence. Val was able to join us for the second half of our visit. We saw the elephants next. Their habitat was relative to their size so they could spread out. Two adults and one baby were eating by the front fence. It was adorable. In the back a zoo employee was spraying a hose directly into an elephant’s mouth. She alternated between spraying the mouth and the trunk. It was interesting to see the elephant fill its trunk and then drink from it. We all went from the elephants to a variety of different land mammals and then into a small aquarium building. They have a tunnel where children (and man-children like Dave and me) can climb underneath one of the tanks with piranhas. From there we split up for a few minutes. Dave and I went in the snake and reptile section while the girls went to see the dolphin. Apparently they only have the one dolphin and it was a depressing sight. At their advice I’d say to avoid that section. The snakes and reptiles were pretty cool even though I would never want to see ninety-eight percent of those species in the wild. We were getting tired weren’t quite done yet. I was surprised to see the size of the Aviary. There were hundreds of birds and probably 80 different species. We doubled back to see the giraffes and a few of our favorite animals at feeding time and then headed towards the exit. In total we spent three hours at the zoo. We snapped a family picture at the front gate and walked back to where Val parked. The parking ramp had a waterfall on the outside wall. I like that they found a smart way to camouflage a potentially ugly structure. Before heading home we made two stops. First, Val showed us the building where she works doing medical research. Second, Dave took us to a sweets shop called The Chocolate Bar. The zoo is next to Rice University and on the other side is a very trendy area with restaurants and shops. We ordered a few pieces of cake to share. I told everyone I wasn’t a big cheesecake fan but devoured my share of the Oreo Cheesecake in front of me. I guess I was wrong, I do like some cheesecakes! Val was driving and got cut off by another driver on the way home. The idiot then stopped completely, blocking access to the round-about. On the bright side I did get to see the fountain in the middle of the round-about a little longer and it was fun sharing dumb-driver stories. And no, we didn’t just have dessert for dinner, we had regular food when we got home. We watched a movie before bed but I don’t remember which one. End of day three.
Day 4, science and soccer: For breakfast on day four Val and Dave brought us to Melange Creperie, a very popular breakfast place in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. The interesting part about the restaurant is that it is a five by three foot cart on a street corner. There is a bus stop and bench five feet away, that close to a street corner. One man runs the crepe stand and it’s only open during weekend mornings. The menu changes with whatever special ingredients he has that weekend. Beth had egg and cheese while I had strawberry with honey and oats. She got her “Texas Hot” meaning extra salsa. The guy running the stand, in addition to being really good at his job, is really nice. He takes orders with incredible enthusiasm and responds with “Heck yeah!”. He takes orders for a dozen people in line at once and serves everyone in order. He only has two cook-tops but he serves up delicious, paper-thin crepes like a professional kitchen. Dave told us that the stand is one of the highest-rated places to eat breakfast in the city and the internet confirms it. Apparently foreign businessmen show up occasionally not knowing they’ll be eating outdoors and standing. After we all ate breakfast Dave and I walked the dog around the block. They live in a very walkable neighborhood of Houston. We took several walks during the trip and each time we were able to take a different path and see more interesting houses, yards, businesses, trees, etc. Houston has no zoning laws, as Dave has told us, so houses and businesses mix seamlessly creating unique block after unique block.
Val and Dave had to work for a few hours (and on a Sunday, gasp) so Carol, Beth and I set out for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The museum was on my to-see list and Dave suggested we check out the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Parking was a bit of a challenge. Our navigation could not find the museum parking structure so after a few spins around in the close vicinity we parked in a random ramp a few blocks away. The walk was short but we passed around the front of the museum and saw some of the park. Hermann Park is home to the Natural Science Museum, the Botanical Gardens, and the Zoo. The Baylor and University of Texas Medical Complex is right next door too. We passed by some fountains and sculptures in front of the Museum, including one dedicated to Sam Houston. This one wasn’t quite so tall though. Once inside the museum lobby the woman behind the counter had to explain the pricing structure. Some of the exhibits were available on separate tickets or you could buy combo tickets for everything. We bought the standard tickets opting out of the add-ons, the butterfly room and the planetarium for example. We first went into a small room of jewel encrusted sculptures (and some sculptures carved from jewels). There was a crystal skull like the Indiana Jones movie. He would have saved a lot of time by just visiting Houston. And a fridge saving Indy from a nuclear blast? Come on! There were also a series of carved, skeletal hands that were extremely creepy. From there we wandered across the museum to the Paleontology exhibit. They had much more than dinosaur bones. There were displays full of prehistoric bugs, fish, and many other nasty, scary looking creatures. They also had a replica jaw from a megalodon shark. The jaw was taller than me so I am very glad they’re extinct. I’m not the type of person to watch shark week on the Discovery Channel. I have a recurring dream (twice means recurring right?) where my family is swallowed by a shark while ice fishing. Oh yeah, I don’t like ice fishing either. We spent a fair amount of time looking at the fossils and replica fossils and then meandered through some of the other exhibits. The top floor had an area dedicated to the Native American cultures. I don’t remember how the display related to science. Then again, we were only up there for fifteen minutes so I don’t remember much about the display at all. Also upstairs there is an indoor overlook over the paleontology exhibit and a large pendulum hanging from the ceiling to the floor four floors down. Back downstairs, we stopped in a small room about chemistry with a giant display of the periodic table. I took a picture of Carol and Beth pointing to random elements and sent it to Ken, a chemist. They thought he would be confused by the nonsense combination they chose and we had a laugh imagining his expression. The section next door was about Texas energy. I think it was sponsored by one or more of the huge oil companies based in Houston. There was an interactive display where you spun a small steering wheel as fast as you could to see how much energy it takes to produce a few drops of oil. We each took a turn and I produced the most oil in the allotted time. There is a complete brontosaurus (or some similarly-shaped dinosaur) in the center foyer of the museum. You can walk all around it on two floors. There were more rooms at the top of the foyer on each side dedicated to shells and starfish, African wildlife, and Texas wildlife. The fake animals were not as interesting as the ones in the zoo but the shells were interesting.
The real winner of the museum was the Lester and Sue Smith Gem Exhibit and Vault, the one Dave suggested. Besides the paleontology section the gems take up the most space in the museum. The exhibit takes up much of the second floor (or maybe it was the third). The extremely large L-shaped room is really dark with glowing display cases every few feet. The cases hold a mix of gems, minerals, rocks, and jewels. Each display was labeled with a description and where each item was found. I really just enjoyed staring at all the interesting shapes, designs, and bright colors nature had to offer. Each color was represented in one or more of the gems. There were some of the purest whites and blacks I could ever imagine, several beautiful shades of green and red, and almost unnatural-looking blues. There were also a few manufactured items that were created in labs but they were pretty and bright too. The shapes were also interesting. There were perfect cubes, rocks with spike-filled divets, broccoli-head shapes, and huge crystals Super Man would covet for his fortress. One display even had a stone that looked exactly like a hedgehog. Within the Gem Exhibit on the inside of the ‘L’ is the vault. The vault is where they keep all the jewelry, which is apparently on loan from the Smith family. The vault holds a good thirty pieces of the most expensive jewelry I’ve ever seen. These items could make celebrities walking the red carpet blush. There were necklaces, tiaras, earrings, and pendants. A large fortune’s worth, all owned by one family. I overheard someone say that some of the pieces were designed by a local artist. In addition to the jewelry the vault also had a few magnificent jewels too expensive to be outside the vault. My favorite was a pink quartz stone larger than a squash ball that was found in Madagascar. That monster was 1438 karatz! I didn’t even know that was possible. We spent about forty minutes looking at the gems and jewelry but it would be easy to stay much longer.
The only exhibit left in the building after the gems was the Hall of Ancient Egypt. It was clearly marked in the basement on our museum map but when we went looking for it, it wasn’t there. Evidently the maps were printed for the upcoming season and the brand new Egyptian exhibit wasn’t finished yet (it is now if you’re in the area). The lack of velvet ropes blocking off the area did allow us to see the mostly empty basement though! Back up by the lobby we went into the disappointing gift shop. There were a lot of toys, most of which were not even science related, and very few worthy souvenirs. The coolest thing in there was a six foot canoe-shaped amethyst rock but it wasn’t for sale (and likely would have broken the bank). We left the museum after two and a half hours of exploration and went back to Val and Dave’s. They came home from work and we all went out for a late lunch around 2:30pm. A Greek/American place from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives called Niko Niko’s was the target. There’s a big, signed poster of Guy Fieri up on the wall, just like all the other Triple-D locations but I don’t know why Niko’s was on the show. Guy Fieri must have liked the menu because it wasn’t a diner, a drive-in or a dive in my opinion. The place was absolutely packed and it took a lot of luck to even get a table on the patio. I had to stand next to a group about to leave until they got up so I could snipe their uncleared table. Our order took quite a while to arrive and when it did we were a bit short on time. The food was good, not great. Beth and I both got chicken dishes and afterwards I wish I had ordered something more Greek in origin just to try it. We found out after leaving that the parking was packed as well and Dave had parked the car a few blocks away in the only spot available, a six inch deep, ten foot long puddle. Anyway, the reason we were in a rush was the Houston Dynamo Major League Soccer game. Val and Dave have two season tickets and they were able to get four more for that day’s game against the Chicago Fire. The five of us and Dave’s friend Jason squeezed into Carol’s car, the only one large enough for all of us, and we headed downtown.
The Houston Dynamo play downtown at BBVA Compass Stadium, an 18,000-seat stadium completely dedicated to soccer. We walked about a half mile from where we parked and passed the stadiums where the Rockets and Astros play. A sea of orange crowded the sidewalks. Soccer has a huge following in Houston. It doesn’t hurt that the team had a 34 game home non-defeat streak going into that game (some were ties, soccer has those). We walked into the stadium together but split up when we got to our sections. Dave and Jason sat in the regular season ticket seats and the rest of us were up a little higher two sections over. The view of the Houston skyline from our seats was fantastic! The full view of the stadium was also impressive. It looks a lot bigger than the capacity suggests. The “super-fan” cheer section was packed with, well, super-fans toting props and signs. My favorite sign was an orange picture of King Leonidas of Sparta (the Gerard Butler version from the movie “300”) with the words “Undefeated” on top. The Spartans all died and were not “undefeated” in the end but I still liked the sign’s sentiment. The Dynamo scored in the 26th minute. The crowd obviously went nuts and even as out-of-towners it was exciting to cheer on the home team. I like that people throw streamers whenever they score. Three minutes later Chicago scored a goal of their own. A quick equalizer like that can really calm a crowd back down. The best comparison to football I can think of is when your team scores and the other guys return the kickoff for a touchdown. I didn’t know very much about soccer before dating Beth. Her and her sisters played soccer growing up, then worked as referees. Ken runs the referee program still to this day. I watched soccer during the Olympics every four years (I’m addicted to the Olympics just in case you hadn’t heard) but now I watch the World Cup too. I’ve come to enjoy soccer and consider myself a Dynamo fan without a team in Minnesota to root for. Halftime was just hot, “Texas Hot” like Beth’s crepe. We stayed in our seats but a lot of people rushed down to the concessions and bathrooms. With a continuously running clock in soccer the fans have to stay put or they risk missing something. Late in the second half the Dynamo put up the game winner. My cell phone camera is great for taking rapid fire photos so I was even able to capture the goal as it happened. The Fire got a little hot (mmm, delicious word play) and the rest of the game became physical but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Dynamo. 35 non-defeats in a row at home! With the victory secured, we met up with Dave and Jason down in the concourse. I bought a Dynamo pin in a gift shop and we all headed for the car. We weren’t back at the house very long because we also had dinner plans. Jason’s wife Edit was meeting us at Khyber North Indian Grill in the Kirby neighborhood. Jason needed to take his car to the restaurant anyway so he offered to drive me. This is significant because he drives a black Viper V8. I don’t know what year it is but it has a lot of “get-up-and-go”. Jason accelerated quickly on the side streets and really wanted to open it up on the highway. Unfortunately, a cop pulled on to the highway right behind us. The entire frustrating ride was spent at the speed limit. I had very little to lose in this deal either. I don’t speed anymore but if he got pulled over I would have simply enjoyed the ride. I think Jason was more frustrated than I was having missed out on an opportunity to show off his pride and joy. That dinner was the first time I ever tried Indian food. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Everyone ordered different dishes so we could share and I could try a variety. Among the dishes we ordered were butter chicken (excellent), lamb and chicken tikka masala (both excellent), vindaloo (we got their hottest sauce so I didn’t partake), paneer (not a fan personally) and korma (my personal favorite). The waiter was a fun guy, joking around with us and even inviting us to watch the cooks make naan in the clay oven. Overall I must say I had a excellent dinner and left very stuffed. The one time I’ve had Indian food since then was locally and while delicious I had an upset stomach for a whole day afterwards. The korma was probably still worth the effort. End of day four.
Day 5, tourist stuff: Monday arrived and Val and Dave went to work. Carol, Beth and I were going to spend the day doing more touristy things but before we could we had to have breakfast. Without our local guides around to suggest a place I used Tripadvisor and found a highly rated breakfast restaurant within walking distance called “Baby Barnaby’s”. Baby Barnaby’s occupies the same building as “Barnaby’s”, a lunch and dinner restaurant. The internet warned us that it could be difficult to get a table but we were lucky and got one in the corner with no wait. Carol had the breakfast platter while Beth had the “green eggs” (spinach mixed with eggs) with chicken sausage. I ordered the “pink and white”, essentially ham and eggs. We all ordered orange juice which was freshly squeezed by a machine on the counter. My breakfast was absolutely divine. The ham and eggs were perfectly cooked and mixed with large chunks of cheese. The breakfast potatoes were also seasoned beautifully and may have actually been the star of the plate. Carol gave me a strip of bacon from her breakfast platter and it was thick and delicious. All the positive reviews online were not exaggerated. Smiles all around and we were out the door in search of all the touristy things I wanted to see around town. When Beth and I visited Houston two years prior we went to NASA and down to Galveston. This time I wanted to see some of the touristy stuff closer to home. The first place we headed was a park with a view of the city called Eleanor Tinsley Park. It was a nice little park but the view was similar to the one from our seats at the Dynamo game (just on the other side of downtown). Just a few blocks away we went to Sam Houston Park, the home of Houston’s Heritage Society. They have a variety of historic Texan homes (and a church) from the 19th century, some relocated and some in their original location. The house pictured below, for example, was built in 1823 and relocated to the park in 1973 as an example of early Texas frontier architecture. From the park we drove by Houston City Hall and went back to Val and Dave’s to freshen up. It was 85 degrees, a 60-65 degree temperature increase from what we had the week before back home. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the weather but I did have to wash my face a lot more often to keep cool. We made sure the dog was set and got back in the car for the next destination. Beth and I got a dog in September, 2012 and named her Maeby, after the character on Arrested Development. Beth’s dad and sister were nice enough to take care of Maeby and Penny (Carol’s dog) while we were on this trip. Maeby is very rambunctious; she will play fetch with you long after you’ve grown tired of the game. Thanks again Ken and Vicki! The three of us headed to the Houston Galleria Mall, the fourth largest mall in the United States (not everything is bigger in Texas!). Having the Mall of America back home the mall wasn’t the biggest draw in the world but it was still neat to visit. The Galleria has an interesting floor-plan that in my opinion makes it kind of difficult to navigate so we didn’t spend very long there. I like the layout of Mall of America a lot more because you can walk in a rectangle on each floor or cut through the middle on the first floor. We stopped in a little shop selling gifts and souvenir style items but we didn’t find anything worthwhile. It was more of a disguised dollar store. Without venturing too far into this massive mall (fourth most massive, sorry, I couldn’t resist another shot), we turned back towards the car. We saw little more than a Macy’s and one wing of the awkward layout. I suppose it would have been a good idea to see the indoor ice rink. Outside the mall on the South side was the real reason I wanted to venture out this way, the Water Wall. The Water Wall is 64 foot tall structure with waterfalls all around it spilling 11,000 gallons of water per minute over the sides. The structure was half-ring shaped and had waterfalls on the inside and outside. Carol and Beth volunteered to drive around the block while I got out to check it out. I walked around the backside first and then inside the main attraction. Mist hits you in the face when you’re inside. There were only a few people inside and they eventually moved out of the way so I could get pictures. The sound of rushing water was powerful and soothing. I walked out into the adjacent park to get a picture of the whole structure from afar. It would be a great place to have a picnic and was a great free attraction. The park and waterfall are part of the complex of Williams Tower, a 64-story skyscraper next to the Galleria. It’s the fourth tallest building in Texas and the third tallest in Houston according to Wikipedia (26th-tallest in the country). I find it interesting that such a tall building is separated from the main city center by about ten miles. I got back in the car and it started to rain a little. We went to Target before heading back to home base. With the rain we spent an afternoon watching movies. I don’t remember everything we watched except for Forgetting Sarah Marshall with Jason Segel. Beth likes to relax on vacation so this was right up her alley. With me being more of a “get-up-and-go” type of traveler (you know, like a V* Viper) she has learned to take every opportunity to relax. I’m trying to get better at compromising. For our upcoming honeymoon to London and Paris I have guaranteed Beth at least one full day of just sitting around. I get to plan the other nine days of sightseeing and adventure (like I said, compromising)!
Val and Dave came home from work and we went out for some authentic Texan barbecue. We went to one of Dave’s favorite places called “Goode Company BBQ”. The Goode Company owns a bunch of restaurants around town, including the one across the street with a big metal-covered armadillo sculpture. Everything is a la carte. I had the beef brisket sandwich. The tender beef and sweet barbecue sauce were on a jalapeño-cheddar roll. It was all very delicious and I don’t even like jalapeños. The restaurant has a decent-sized menu, interesting country decor and an outdoor patio with family-style picnic tables. We shared a big table with a family with three young kids. I forget who paid for dinner but it was either Val/Dave or Carol. Between the three of them it was hard for either Beth or me to pay for anything the whole trip. It became a race to see which of the three of them could get their credit card out first when the bill came, and sometimes sneak their card to the waiter even after someone else had already given him theirs. Even in the Summer when Val came up to visit I had to beg her and the rest of the Bombens to let me pay for dinner at Green Mill. I am really grateful to Val, Dave, and Carol for all those meals and for making our trip amazing. We barely paid for anything besides gas and activities. With wedding expenses in our near future, an inexpensive vacation was a godsend and much appreciated. For dessert, the group couldn’t agree on just one place so we stopped by two places on the way back, Amy’s and Amazon Grill. Amy’s is an ice cream place that we tried two years prior while Amazon Grill has a ‘tres leches’ cake that Dave recommended. We took our sweet treats back to their place and watched “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and had forgotten how wonderful it is (http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/273476/O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou-Movie-Clip-Man-of-Constant-Sorrow.html). Midnight arrived and everyone shuffled off to bed. Beth and I were staying on an air mattress in the living room so Dave helped us set it up before retiring himself. End of day five.
Day 6, local flavor: Val and Dave had to work again (and on a Tuesday, gasp) so the three of us made other plans for lunch. Beth and Carol didn’t eat breakfast so we went for an early lunch at “Lankford Grocery and Market”. In my research for this trip I watched Triple-D clips of every featured restaurant in town. Of all of them, the Lankford was the one I was most excited to try. It was close by but we drove not wanting to arrive all sweaty. There wasn’t much parking available so we had to walk a block. From the outside the place doesn’t look like much of a restaurant because it started out as a house. The Lankford family started selling groceries out of their basement and later turned to sandwiches and then burgers. The restaurant space is in their old garage. The two garage doors are still visible (and may still open for all I know) in the front wall. There are maybe fifteen to twenty tables inside and another six outside on the patio. There was a short wait for a table but at 11:30am it wasn’t long and we were seated by the register. We ordered the fried pickles as an appetizer and they were delicious. By the time the pickles arrived the line for a table had grown exponentially. Lankford is evidently very popular in the neighborhood and being close to downtown is also a hot-spot for business-people. There were also eight police officers waiting to get in. Even on a hot day people were willing to sit outside just to eat the delicious food. For my entree I ordered the “Grim”, a burger with mac and cheese, bacon, a fried egg, jalapeños (which I had them leave off), and more cheese! I was thoroughly impressed by the portion of the burger. It was a sizable meal and very tasty. My strawberry milkshake was an excellent complement as well. Beth ordered the regular grilled chicken sandwich but added the habanero mustard sauce that comes with their hottest burger, the “Firehouse”. Normally she’ll order spicy foods at restaurants and sometimes be disappointed by the lack of fire. For the first time since we’d been together, I witnessed her being impressed by the heat of a meal. They apparently grow the habanero peppers right out back. I tried a tiny dab of the sauce and my tongue was numb for a minute. We shared two orders of fries between the three of us but with the size of the burgers and the fried pickles it was too much. Everything we ordered was on or above par for what I’ve had at other restaurants for both taste and portion size. We all left quite full. I can honestly say that I will eat at Lankford Grocery every time I’m in Houston for the rest of my life (as long as they stay open).
After lunch we headed back downtown. Some research the night before told me that the Houston City Hall, which we passed the day before, had a Texas Gift Shop. With nothing better to do and being so close we headed down there to check it out. There is one block of free parking for two hours in case you’re ever in need. Inside I finally found the souvenirs I had been looking for all week. I got a Texas lapel pin, some Goode Company brand steak-rub, postcards, and a mug. There were some interesting things to see in there as well, including a map of Houston and historic photographs of the area. Across the street from City Hall is Hermann Square where we walked around the fountains and sculptures. It looked like some government staff and caterers were setting up a function in the park for that evening. After a short stroll we went back to Val and Dave’s. We took the scenic route so I could see the skyline from the highways. We watched a movie and washed the linens from our beds so our hosts would not need to. Val and Dave got off work early to spend the afternoon with us so we picked them up. Dave had a new board game to try out called Lords of Waterdeep. Beth and I played with him and lost, as usual. Dave is “King of Games” like Marshall on How I Met Your Mother. Lords of Waterdeep is a very interesting game if you ever get a chance to play. It involves a lot of strategy as opposed to luck like some games. Each player can do three things per turn to acquire cubes and complete quests. It is important to prioritize each action because the other players may need the same supplies you do. We liked it so much that we own it now too. It sucked having to pack up our stuff after that. I could see us living in Houston in another life; a life where it only snows once a year if that. We went on one last walk around the block with Maple. The sidewalks and some of the local streets are in pretty bad shape. Pot holes are abundant and tree roots often push sidewalk stones out of place. People with weak ankles should take caution but it adds a lot of character to the neighborhood. For our last dinner in town we walked to “El Real”, a Tex-Mex restaurant in an old cinema, glittering marquee and all. The patio is just off the busy (and loud) Westheimer Road but we wanted to sit outside one last time. We ordered the chicken nachos for the table and they brought us chips and salsa too so we were all pretty full before our meals even arrived. I had the puffy tacos, one chicken and one beef. Afterwards, I wished I had two chicken tacos instead as the beef was over-cooked. Besides that everything was good. The others got the chicken tacos, pollo verde and a pork dish I don’t remember the name of. Everyone ended up with a lot of leftovers. Before we left they brought us complimentary dessert shots that tasted like chocolate milkshakes, although I’m not sure if this is normal or if they were running a special. I just had a taste, though, because I don’t drink. It started to sprinkle on our walk back. A quick search of the house for forgotten items and we were ready to head home. Everyone shared hugs and kisses and we took off into the night. End of day six, kind of.
Night 6 into Day 7, who needs a bed?: We headed North on Interstate 45. The sun went down and darkness enveloped us. It is a completely different feeling driving at night, but if you’re awake enough it can be enjoyable and relaxing. I took the first shift, Beth slept, and Carol caught up on emails. The road was fairly empty which was a pleasant change from the trip down. I didn’t have to deal with tortoises or hares, the road was mine. Carol took over at a rest stop in Corsicana, TX, and I tried to sleep a little. I wasn’t able to sleep very well or for very long. I remember playing a few levels of Angry Birds on my phone. I don’t remember if Carol woke me or if I was already awake at the time but we switched to Interstate 30 to pass around Dallas to the South. The city is lit up beautifully at night even if the Dallas Cowboys suck (the Bombens hate the Cowboys so I put that in there for them). It was just after midnight so it was technically the last day of our vacation when we switched to I-35. I was sufficiently exhausted but only slept off and on. At about 1:30am we crossed into Oklahoma. We took the very first exit so we could all go to the bathroom. Finding a bathroom on a road trip can be a complicated art. Finding one at night can be especially difficult. I don’t want to name names but one of us (cough, Beth, cough) had to go so bad she was quite hostile for a few minutes. That gas station bathroom was a few miles further than desired but just in time. [For another example of difficulty finding a bathroom read our adventure in Salt Lake City in the post titled Trip #1.] For a gas station right over the border I was disappointed by the lack of shiny things to purchase and left empty handed. About a mile further North we passed the largest casino in Oklahoma, The WinStar. The resort and casino did look pretty huge from the road and even had a replica facade of European landmarks. If we weren’t so tired maybe we would have stopped to drop a quick Hamilton (that’s how cool people say ten dollars). I believe I finally slept after that for about two hours. Someone woke me up as we drove by Oklahoma City but my pictures didn’t turn out very well. I don’t really remember when we switched drivers or who even took over but an hour and a half later we arrived in Kansas. We paid the toll and continued on to Wichita. It was 6:15am and we were right on schedule, for a change. My research found a monument at the junction of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers called “Keeper of the Plains”. The monument is 44 feet tall and commemorates local Native American tribes. We got lost for a few minutes but eventually found a parking lot to a Native American Cultural Center that was close by. The picture at right is the monument but definitely not the pictures we took! It was way darker than I thought it would be when I planned the trip (and maybe I assumed we’d be behind schedule too) and all we could see from the opposite river bank was an outline. There is a footbridge across the river, the tall structure to the left in the picture, but we didn’t cross because it was raining and really, really dark. This beautiful picture was found at http://www.mickeyshannon.com/gallery/wichita-kansas/. The monument is apparently surrounded by informational displays too but I’ll have to return during the day sometime to read them.
We left Wichita while it was still dark and rainy. We stopped at a rest stop on the Kansas Turnpike with a memorial to Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne. He was from the area, apparently, but I’m not sure why the best they could do was a plaque at a rest stop. He likely has a bigger memorial at Notre Dame at least. We made it to Topeka, KS at 9am. It was still raining and the radar and forecast got steadily worse all day. I drove straight for the Kansas State Capitol. The dome was under construction at the time and was surrounded by scaffolding. Beth was in contact with a former Costco coworker that had moved to Topeka the year before and we were attempting to meet up for breakfast. I was quite hungry, as usual, so Beth found an address for a breakfast place within a block of the Capitol. There was no restaurant at that address so we did a few circles of the Capitol looking for it. We never found the right place and Beth’s friend didn’t know enough about downtown Topeka to make another recommendation. After a few spins around town wasting half an hour I finally had enough and pulled in to Hanover Pancake House. We had passed it three times looking for the other place and I decided it would suffice, or rather my stomach decided it would suffice. Beth’s friend joined us and we ordered. The waitress was nice and even improvised some combo meals to save us money. I ordered the Banana Joe; scrambled eggs, chopped bacon, and cheese wrapped in a huge banana pancake. I put maple syrup on top which was good but I felt weird considering there were eggs and cheese inside. It came with bacon strips too. My meal was so big I could only finish 60% of the damn thing, and I was starving when we got there! Everyone enjoyed their breakfast and we parted at 10:15am. On the way out of Topeka we went by the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. The school-turned-museum was open for the day but lacking time to see it properly we just took pictures from the car. We got lucky with the rain for the most part until we were just outside Kansas City, KS. It really started to pour. It was like being under the Water Wall in Houston, just pure white rainfall all around the car. Beth was driving and had to fight the weather and unpredictable drivers. Some drivers ignored the rain and sped past while others were crippled by it. Several times she came upon a car going 20mph in the center lane forcing her to avoid them or slow down abruptly. Crossing bridges over bodies of water in that weather was perilous and especially nerve-wracking. I had a list of things to see in Kansas City and despite the clouds trying to drown all of us we attempted to see some of them. I tried to navigate us to the “KC Fountains” but the address online must have been wrong. There was nothing remotely close to where we ended up and I found out afterwards that Kansas City is called the “City of Fountains”. We did see a few of the fountains while driving around. They are in rather mundane locations sometimes, like street corners or in the medians of roads. Next we drove to the Kansas City City Hall. The building wasn’t in as interesting a location as Houston’s City Hall but it was taller. Actually, both buildings look quite similar. There was a police station next to it and the fuzz were everywhere. One cop pulled out behind us and followed us to the highway. Even the best driver can feel nervous with a cop following your every move. We got gas and he kept going. The National World War One Museum was also on my KC to-see list but there wasn’t enough time. I’d also like to see Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play. Maybe some day.
From Kansas City, Carol took over driving duties and the wind ushered us North to Iowa. A large storm played chicken with us and we were fortunate to miss the worst part of it. Iowa looks a lot more ‘Iowa’ when it’s raining by the way. Miserable. We arrived in Des Moines, IA at 3pm. We parked at the Iowa State Capitol. It was raining and around 40 degrees so Beth didn’t want to get out of the car. Carol and I grabbed umbrellas and wandered around the park. The rain slowed so we spent probably twenty minutes looking around instead of the planned five. There are a bunch of interesting statues and monuments next to the Capitol, ones that memorialize soldiers from various wars, famous Iowans, etc. There was also a bust of Christopher Columbus for some reason, as though he visited Iowa at some point (he didn’t obviously). The Capitol itself is different than most I’ve seen. Instead of one dome there are five, one golden main dome in the center and four smaller black domes on each corner. The Capitol complex redeems Iowa a bit in my mind. It was rather interesting. We returned to Beth in the car and drove fifteen minutes further and stopped at a Panera for a late lunch. The place was packed leading me to believe there was nothing better to do in town. It sucked being so close to the end of our trip but we finished our lunch and headed for the great state of Minnesota. We had lost a bit of time from my planned itinerary but there wasn’t a huge rush. The picture I took of the Minnesota sign three hours later was blurry through a rain-streaked window. We stopped at Trails again for one last bathroom break and I purchased a lapel pin shaped like Oklahoma. Like I’ve said before, I don’t mind where I buy souvenirs on a trip as long as I get the ones I want! I’ll be posting a picture of all my lapel pins in an upcoming post so look forward to that (you know, if you’ve got nothing else going on). We reached Carol’s at 8pm. Maeby was very happy to see us. This was our first trip away since adopting her and she probably thought we had abandoned her. We recounted the highlights of our trip to the rest of Beth’s family, Ken and Vicki, for an hour or so and then moved our stuff to my car. It was bittersweet going home but it was very cute the way Maeby sat in Beth’s lap the whole way home. A solid eight hours of sleep in a real bed awaited each of us. End of day seven.
Summary: Our trip included six states; Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. We visited two state capitals; Des Moines and Oklahoma City. We also traveled through 9 of the 200 most populous cities in the United States (according to population figures at the time); Houston (4), Dallas (9), Oklahoma City (29), Kansas City, MO (37), Minneapolis (47), Wichita (49), Des Moines (104), Kansas City, KS (166), and Topeka (198). We drove about 2560 miles. I wrote the mileage down somewhere and I’ll write it here if and when I find where I wrote it. We did not track how much money we spent exactly but it wasn’t that much. Val, Dave, and Carol picked up a bunch of restaurant bills, which helped considerably. A lot of the attractions we visited were free and the ones that weren’t were decent values like the zoo and science museum. Gas was the largest cost but it was cheaper than flying. Not everyone can drive 22 hours straight but if you love the open road I encourage you to give it a try at least once in your life.
If you have any questions about the trip feel free to ask on this site or on twitter. My facebook friends can enjoy all 1204 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 trips and posts. I’m still working on “independent wealth” and donations are welcome. Happy travels!