...and we're off!

taking a year of pretirement to travel the world

on may 23, 2013, we quit our jobs and began our year of "pretirement." these are some of our adventures around the world.

the last leg

We pulled into San Francisco around 10pm Saturday night, just in time for some drinking with old New York-expat friends. We visited Sharin’s new apartment not far from South Park before going out in the neighborhood. Our friend Mike was good enough to let us spend the night at his place, and we met up with the same crew the next day for brunch. As seems to be usual in San Francisco, some more New Yorkers were in town and we were able to meet Jason and Jackie at the Fort Mason farmer’s market. We found some awesome Afghan spinach bread and tasty hummus there too. We finished our 18 hours in SF with a long walk around Russian Hill, our California Mexican food-stuffed bellies and slight hangovers warning us to avoid any hills. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities and we would have loved to spend more time there, but we had a few more places to be before our flight left Phoenix that Wednesday.

That chilly afternoon we went over the Bay Bridge, through Oakland, over the hills and down into the Central Valley. Each mile further from San Francisco Bay brought a few more degrees of warmth. Within an hour we had gone from wearing zipped-up jackets to holding a pillow against the window to block the sun. The San Francisco microclimate always amazes me. Pulling onto I-5 toward Los Angeles we were surprised to find that the best road connecting two of the top five largest metro areas in the country is only two lanes each way. Traffic moved OK for the most part but it was bumper-to-bumper 70 mph the whole way. This being California, our decision to stay back a safe distance from the car in front of us usually meant an invitation for another person, with a weaker love of life, to wriggle his way in and try to board the car in front of him via the trunk. The drive ended with a spectacular traffic jam in the San Gabriel Mountains before we arrived in Manhattan Beach an hour late that night.

We stayed two nights with our friend Nick in LA, who had just moved down from San Francisco and was renting an apartment within a five minute walk of the beach. Plenty of time was spent wandering around Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches and the weather was perfect. We caught up with our friends David and Jamie Monday night in in Santa Monica, where I had some very strange tasting (and very California) Cabernet-flavored beer. The next morning (ok, afternoon) we were off to San Diego to meet up with our friend Dave and his family, who just happened to be visiting at the time. We stayed right on Pacific Beach in a hotel where Dave’s family had an extra bed. Everyone had a great time and we were able to meet the adult version of Dave’s brother William, who goes to college there, for the first time.

Wednesday morning was officially the last day of our 2.5 month road trip around North America. The M3 sped through the desert toward Phoenix on Interstate 8, heading due east for the first time since around Syracuse, NY. Again, the weather went from chilly and cloudy to very hot, then to unbelievably hot. We passed through Yuma, a place I’d seen on maps but never thought I would be, and marveled at the level of agriculture in that valley. Phoenix was 109 degrees that day and still well over 100 when we pulled in around rush hour. After 14,800 miles of solid driving and not enough car washes, the front of the car looked like a sun-baked entomologist’s lab. We did what we could at a nearby car wash, then found my grandparents’ old mobile home in a retirement community in Tempe. The place is uninhabited in the summer (it had to be over 120 in there), and we tried to avoid heat stroke while repacking our bags for the flight home. That night we were finally in the air, quietly reminiscing about the road trip of a lifetime but very excited to sleep in our own bed and more excited for the next leg of our adventure in Europe.

// total road trip: 35 states, 1 federal district, 5 canadian provinces, 14,800 miles


exploring the west coast

we left the beautiful mountains of whistler and spent a few hours in vancouver along commercial drive, blogging and lunching and moseying around. we then drove down to seattle for our second night with our wonderful hosts alicia and ming. we went out for dinner and drinks in capitol hill and housed some pretty delicious sushi at momiji. then we washed it all down with a jello shot and pbr combo at unicorn, an awesomely kitschy, carnival-themed bar. with drinks like unicorn jizz, my little pony, and unicorn tears, the menu definitely doesn’t fail to entertain.

in the morning, i got one last run in along the waterfront before we started off for portland. when we arrived at my friend sally’s house in northeast portland, she immediately took us to amnesia, a cool craft brewery with tasty beer and a nice outdoor seating area. alex and i really liked the quirky, cozy vibe that portland had to offer. the food and beer was phenomenal; i had the best waffle cone ever, fresh off the iron at salt & straw! before our less than 24 hours was up, sally drove us by the apartment fire she put out the day before (did i mention she’s a bad-ass firefighter?!), then took us to forest park for a quick walk down one of the many lush, green trails.

from portland we headed south towards crater lake. we took a beautiful detour through umpqua national forest to avoid a thunderstorm on the main highway. even though it was a longer, curvier route, the views were absolutely beautiful. before we knew it, we were climbing higher and higher on a narrow one-lane road, then promptly treated to amazing views of the forest from high above. we eventually made it past diamond lake to crater lake, and the views just got even more picture-perfect. words can’t describe how gorgeous this place was! and to think we were standing on the edge of a giant caldera…it was simply amazing. as we began the drive towards california, we thought about camping one last time. but with the weather much cooler and the sky darkening quickly, we decided to drive a bit further and spend the night in medford, a small town just north of the california border.

the next day, we continued south and got on the 101. alex enjoyed hugging all the scenic curves, while i attempted to sleep off my motion sickness. we decided to check out the redwood national forest on our way to san francisco. when we first stepped out of the car and into the forest of ridiculously tall trees, we were immediately humbled.  there we were, walking among some of the largest, tallest, oldest trees on earth. we saw “big tree” (1500 years old and 304 feet tall!) and explored lady bird johnson grove – a quiet, serene place completely surrounded by towering, leafy giants. then it was back on the road for us. we left the redwoods behind – and with it, the last of the green scenery we’d be seeing for a long while. it was off to san francisco!

// road trip to date: 34 states, 1 federal district, 5 canadian provinces, 13,900 miles


the northwest corner

While we were in Wyoming I got a call with the sad news that my grandma had died. We had to return to Minneapolis within a few days for the funeral and, being in the middle of nowhere, flights to Minneapolis were neither frequent nor cheap. The best flight we could find was a round trip from Seattle. This worked because Seattle was in our itinerary anyway but it meant we had to skip Glacier National Park and Banff. After seeing the Rockies, Tetons and mountains of southern Montana, these are two places that we absolutely need to come back for.

We drove from Butte, MT to Seattle in a day. The first half of the drive through Montana and Idaho was beautiful but not the most relaxing experience. The interstate is a series of sharp curves and high passes through the rugged and sparsely populated mountains. It rained the entire time and much of the road was under construction, making us feel pretty lucky to finally coast down into the Spokane Valley. Along the way, we found Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to be especially beautiful with its green mountains rising out of a winding lake. Interstate 90’s unexpected descent into the Columbia River gorge in central Washington also provides a spectacular view. Late Thursday afternoon we crossed Lake Washington and hit the Seattle skyline. Carla’s friend Alicia and her fiancée Ming live in a loft just north of downtown and were kind enough to host us that night and the following Wednesday. They took us out for some excellent pasta in their neighborhood that night; it felt great to be back in a real city after all the camping, hiking and rural motels.

The next morning we parked the car (leaving it for the first time in nearly two months) and flew to Minneapolis. It was good to spend some quality time with my parents, sister and friends but it would have been better under other circumstances. I was able to see and introduce Carla to many uncles, aunts and cousins I hadn’t seen in years.

First thing Monday morning we were again bound for Seattle, with our sights set on camping in British Columbia that night. At the border we learned that it was a holiday weekend (“British Columbia Day”) and all of the municipal campgrounds on the way up to Whistler were full. We would have to wing it. We stopped in Vancouver for some outstanding soup dumplings before finding the Sea to Sky highway. British Columbia was in the middle of a drought at the time, making the weather hot and dry for our entire stay. There was not a cloud in the sky that afternoon as we wound along the coast. The drive itself was easily among the most beautiful on our trip, with steep mountains and rock faces rising to the east and a long ocean inlet following to the west. We stopped at a beach with a particularly scenic view and a now-familiar “Campground Full” sign. Carla decided it couldn’t hurt to ask about availability. The attendant gave us a sly look and responded, “You want to camp tonight? I just had two cancellations but don’t take too long. I can have these sold in five minutes.” An hour later we had our tent set up on this truly amazing beach, our wallet only $16 lighter. That night we made sandwiches and drank a bottle of wine while watching the sun set behind the mountainous islands to the west. Somehow it seems that our best days almost always fall on a Monday.

The next morning we drove the rest of the way up to Whistler, deciding to look for a campsite earlier in the day this time. We eventually found a site with no services in a mossy redwood forest. It was strange to be as isolated as we were, and the seemingly topless trees made us feel even smaller, but these qualities were as welcome the next morning as they were intimidating that night. After pitching our tent we finished the drive up to Whistler (Carla and I had never been) and were suddenly in the middle of a resort town. It was like a cross between the X Games and Disney World. We decided to see the area by bicycle and rented low-end mountain bikes. There are countless trails around Whistler and we were only able to take a few but it was fun doing a little off-road biking on the easiest of dirt trails. After dinner we raced the sunset back to our tent and turned in early. I woke up early the next morning to the smell of dewy evergreens and walked around the nearby river. The forest was peaceful and I was now sad to leave the wilderness for the cities of the West Coast. It might be a long time before Carla and I are able to camp again.

// road trip to date: 32 states, 1 federal district, 5 Canadian provinces, 12,700 miles


helloooo, mountains

after pretty much eating our way through the south and spending over a week in hot, humid weather, we hopped in the car and began the two-day drive to boulder. 200 miles northwest of austin, we hit 10,000 miles - a big road trip milestone! woohoo! the rest of our route through texas and new mexico was a mix of dry rocky terrain, flatlands dotted with ranches, and short green grass. as soon as we spotted the mountains, we knew we’d made it to colorado! the temperature also dropped almost 50 degrees, which was a welcome change for us.

alex’s aunt’s sister clare was kind enough to let us spend the weekend at her place. exhausted from all the driving, we had a nice home-cooked meal on friday and went to bed relatively early. the next day, alex and i drove up to rocky mountain national park and did a beautiful hike around the nymph, dream, and emerald lakes. we also tried to check out trail ridge, but unfortunately the weather was a little too stormy to make the winding, mountainous drive. since she had the next day off, clare suggested we get up early and hike to isabelle lake in the indian peaks wilderness. we were up and out of the house by 6:30am, our packs full of fruit, sandwiches, water, and warm layers. the high altitude was definitely something we noticed – the trailhead was 10,500 ft above sea level, and it was noticeably harder to breathe as we went about our hike. it was very well worth it though because the views were unreal. colorful wildflowers, glaciers, and sharp, jagged mountain ridges framed this beautiful lake, which had been recently drained a bit to help local farmers water their crops. not only did we see a lone moose far away in the valley, we also spotted four gigantic ones 25 feet away from our car as we were driving back. we parked and took a few pictures – it was unbelievable how massive they were! in the light rain, one suddenly shook his body like a dog. imagine all the water droplets flying off 1,400 pounds of moose. it was a spectacular day for the cuteness passport!

that afternoon, we set off for wyoming. we made it to jackson hole by lunchtime the next day and got our first glimpse of the tetons. we were stunned by how sharply they rose from the ground – they were absolutely breathtaking. during this time of year, you can almost certainly expect thunderstorms to roll in, and we were lucky enough to drive past the storm to the north end of the park and set up camp at colter bay. after a cozy dinner at signal mountain lodge and some amazing photo-ops on the way back, we headed back to our tent and got a nice fire going. i was a bit nervous since this was our first time camping in grizzly territory, but alex insisted we probably didn’t need bear spray for our hike the next day. he had a change of heart the next morning though, and decided that it maybe wasn’t the worst idea to have it…even if it did end up being a waste of $45. my thoughts exactly! we drove to jenny lake, took the boat across, and began our 9-mile hike round-trip through cascade canyon. we stopped at inspiration point and got fantastic views of jenny lake and the eastern horizon. the weather was great for hiking - sunny and warm, even a bit hot at times – but we planned to finish by 2pm to avoid getting caught in the inevitable afternoon storm. bear, moose, and deer droppings were scattered all along the trail, a hint that we never alone. just as we reached the turning point, a pretty doe pranced onto the trail and began snacking on some leaves less than five feet away. aside from her, another deer friend, and a marmot, we didn’t see any other wildlife, and we finished our hike with our can of bear spray still intact.

the next morning we rented a canoe and paddled around jackson lake. it was beautiful outside, and as we glided along the shore we saw a bald eagle capture a fish and land nearby to feast. alex got some great pictures with his zoom lens, and we were treated to more sightings further along when a family of deer came out and began to nibble the bushes on the rocky beach. they were so cute! i was a bit bummed that we hadn’t seen any bears, especially from the comfort and safety of our canoe, but then again, it probably was for the best. we left our pretty campsite and began the drive north through yellowstone national park. we rented bikes and explored the different hot springs and geysers - including old faithful, which was just as impressive as ever. we also saw the morning glory pool, an incredible mix of blues, greens, and oranges swirled together in a steaming pool of smelly-ness. it was epic. we continued driving through the majestic scenery and saw a large group of pronghorns gathered by the sunset. our final stop was at the mammoth hot springs, which was equally magnificent, and equally smelly. alex and i marveled at how everything looked a little fake, like a well-done plaster rendition of the real thing. yet the amazing truth was that it was all very, very real…one of mother nature’s works of art.

it was beginning to get dark and we were hoping to camp again, but unfortunately the campgrounds were full and the weather just wasn’t on our side. as soon as we crossed the state border the rain began to fall, and streaks of lightning danced around us. we decided to push on for a couple more hours and make a run for butte, montana.

// road trip to date: 30 states, 1 federal district, 4 canadian provinces, 11,850 miles

houston, we have a problem

We left Naples Thursday afternoon aiming for a Friday afternoon arrival in New Orleans. Carla’s brother Eric was along for the ride and found himself stuffed into the M3’s back seat for the long haul around the Gulf Coast. Except for my first time setting foot in either Mississippi or Alabama, the drive was uneventful. Carla’s friend Kevin was good enough to let us stay with him for the weekend, which worked out perfectly. He lives in a beautiful part of Uptown, which allowed us to get a taste for the local lifestyle away from places like Bourbon Street. We were also lucky to arrive in New Orleans on Friday afternoon, leaving us a full weekend in the city. The first thing I learned about New Orleans after pulling into Kevin’s place is that it’s allowed (and practically encouraged) to walk around town with an open container of alcohol. We complied, and walked past rows of beautiful and well-restored 19th century homes to a popular neighborhood taco truck. I was struck by how many people were out walking the sidewalks, talking on street corners and enjoying their front porches in this neighborhood of yards and houses. There were even full front yard parties spilling out into backstreets. Around the taco truck there were groups of people sitting under trees, eating, drinking and talking to their friends or neighbors rather than hustling to the next destination.

Saturday was spent enjoying an unbelievably rich Southern brunch including fried chicken and gravy (with grits), looking at houses during a long walk in the Garden District, and walking around the French Quarter with drinks in hand. While Carla and her brother went on a ghost tour of the French Quarter I sat near the river and read. The river park near the French Quarter is an interesting combination of parents taking their young kids for a walk, couples watching the sunset behind downtown, groups of young people jamming on drums, and drunks reeling out of the Quarter to sleep on the first patch of grass they find. We came back to Bourbon Street late that night to take part in whatever happens there in the early hours of Sunday morning. Eric had a 7am flight to catch, meaning we had to stay out until 5, which we did. At 5:30, sick and exhausted, Carla escorted Eric to the airport and I went to sleep. I was pleasantly surprised by New Orleans. The city’s charm is its slow pace and casual hedonism, while remaining culturally apart from the rest of the South.

We headed for Texas Sunday afternoon via the Louisiana bayou. While there wasn’t much to see from the road, the thick swampy forest looming on either side and the long stretches of bridgelike raised highway reminded us that we weren’t on solid ground. We made it to Texas that night and pushed through Houston the next morning with San Antonio and later Austin as our goals. The morning was going perfectly when, just out of Houston on I-10, I pressed on the gas and the car did nothing. I downshifted to 5th, tried again, and the car still had no power. This was clearly bad. We pulled into the right lane and pretty much coasted to the first exit, which was a small town 15 miles past the suburbs called Brookshire. Carla did some fast Google Mapping and Yelping to find a mechanic that was a) nearby and b) at least somewhat honest. We pulled the M3 into Brookshire’s Best Auto Repair at 1pm, walked up to the man relaxing in the garage in front of a big fan, and said hello. Needless to say, we were worried. An abrupt and serious engine misfire could be a countless number of things, some costing thousands of dollars and days to install and some involving $50 and an hour of labor. We didn’t know how much of our trip would have to be skipped and how much of our budget would be blown on this mishap.

The owner of the shop, Curtis, turned out to be about the nicest guy in Texas. However, the situation only got worse. His mechanics spent a good hour and a half digging through the engine compartment and reading codes only to come up with “misfire on 4 cylinders.” They couldn’t find anything wrong and ultimately referred us to a BMW specialist in Katy, about 15 miles to the East. Curtis, saint that he is, wouldn’t take a dollar from us because he couldn’t find the problem. Thankfully the car was able to limp over to Katy, where we pulled into C&B European Auto Repair for a more thorough diagnostic. They spent another hour without finding the problem before closing for the day and asking us to bring it back bright and early the next morning. The owner Craig was also a good guy (we were 2 for 2) and pushed us to the front of the line because we needed to get back on the road as soon as possible. It turned out neither San Antonio or Austin were in our itinerary that day. I was feeling pretty terrible about our plight that evening until I sat down by the pool at our super 8, got out my book, smoked a cigar, looked at the palm trees and decided I had first world problems.

I won’t bore you with the details but late the next morning the mechanic rushed into the waiting area and basically said “Eureka!” It was a part that went bad so often that it had actually been recalled but my car had never had the replacement. However, the symptoms are usually different so nobody thought to test it. That afternoon we were back behind the wheel, nervously pressing on the gas and making sure the car “felt” fast again (it did), before pulling into Austin.

We stayed with Carla’s friend Cassi in South Austin while spending a couple days checking out the city. The first comparison I thought of was a hot, spread out Williamsburg where people have pools and nice apartments instead of bedbugs. We spent a 100 degree afternoon at the Barton Cold Springs, where heavily tattooed Texans soaked up the Wednesday sun. That night Cassi had her weekly team karaoke competition downtown, which is tough to put into words. Of course we had a blast. It took place in a gay bar and featured Cassi’s team’s full-costume rendition of Lady Marmalade from Moulin Rouge, a modified hip-hop version of Aladdin’s “Never Had a Friend Like Me,” and a silently acted out synopsis of the Wizard of Oz (in full costume) set to Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Keep Austin Weird. We took a dip in Cassi’s pool the next morning, which was already hot, and headed toward the mountains for the next chapter in our journey.

// road trip to date:  26 states, 1 federal district, 4 canadian provinces, 9,800 miles


southbound and down

our daylong break in new york marked the start of the second half of our trip. more than a month had already passed, and yet it felt like we’d just gotten started! at this point we were enjoying our fifth week on the road, and living out of our car felt totally normal.

after spending a couple of weeks in the north, it was time to head south. atlanta was the next big city on our list, but on our way down we decided to pass through charleston. it was brutally hot and muggy, but despite the heat we enjoyed a few hours strolling around (just plain walking doesn’t seem to be a thing in the south). we took a historical detour and visited the old slave mart. we set foot on the same ground where slaves were bought and sold in the 1850s. it was an eerie reminder of how terrible it was to be different back then. overall though, we really liked charleston’s relaxed vibe and beautiful architecture. every street corner was full of quintessential southern charm.

after alex’s map wizardry helped us dodge a slew of storms, we made it to atlanta. we spent the weekend with ashley and aaron – two really good friends we miss dearly and wish had never left new york. they were the best hosts ever! we enjoyed some amazing meals, hung out by the pool, and met a bunch of their friends out for some drinks. aaron also gave us a tour of where he works – he’s an animation director at bento box and leads a team of 60+ animators (no big deal). they’ve been working hard on seth meyers’ new series called “the awesomes”, which just premiered on hulu. pretty sure it’s going to live up to its name!

we then continued south to the sunshine state and met my family in naples after a long day of driving. we spent a few days relaxing at our family friends’ amazing condo. it’s hard to believe that it’d been more than five years since our last family vacation (which also happened to be in florida at disney world!). even though the forecast was full of lightning bolts, we managed to get a couple of hours of sun each morning. there were also many late night mah jong, catan, mega man x, and catchphrase games played. on our last night, we snuck out to the hot tub after hours and hung out under the stars.

when thursday rolled around, my brother eric became our second (and last) lucky passenger in the beemer as we cruised towards new orleans.

// road trip to date: 22 states, 1 federal district, 4 canadian provinces, 8,300 miles