Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lessons Learned

Our west coast road trip pretty much marked the end of my domestic travels for the year. By my count, in 2008 I’ve been through 25 states (and a Canadian province) with about 42 days on the road. Something like 6,000 road miles covered. A few basic take-aways stand out from all those miles through America.

Scale: Given that my perspective is often focused on international travel, all this wandering serves most of all to remind me of how much more there is to see of the US (to say nothing of Canada). The more I see, the more the list of what else I want to see keeps growing.

Diversity: The views from hotel windows in Lander, Wyoming and Providence, Rhode Island had about as little in common as the political views at the coffee counters in Portland, Maine and Aberdeen, South Dakota. And for all the in-your-face majesty of a Humboldt County redwood looming over you or the promising view of the Teatons in the windshield, the flat endless fields of Iowa streaking past have their own distinct appeal. Difference is certainly the central commonality from coast to coast. It can make it hard to catch your breath when the colleted images of a thousand miles play back through your mind’s eye.

Food revolution: There’s great stuff happening out there in America. From the orchards of the Fruit Loop around Hood River, Oregon, to the seafood beds off Cape Elizabeth, Maine - there’s wonderful product being pulled from the earth and sea. What’s being done with this bounty in kitchens across the country is exciting - and delicious as can be. I still can’t believe the pizza with local chanterelles in the sleepy town of Arcata, California (or how good it was as leftovers the next day for lunch in a park in Crescent City). And nothing tops the fresh cheese curds CA and I bought from the small fromagerie on the road between Quebec City & Montreal. Pleen and I are still in shock that a joint in southeast Portland, Oregon is serving up no-kidding Thai street food. There’s a pride of workmanship that’s evident in the good food being done outside the traditional bastions of high end cuisine. There’s a particular message that outstanding eats shouldn’t be confined to the Five Boroughs or available only to those at the $100+ per-plate end of the spectrum. And this message, I swear, comes through at the table. You taste it and you feel it. It feels as if we’ve rediscovered something.

Contradictions: Pleen always says that it’s the contradictions in people that really attract her. I feel the same way about places. The land of Olive Garden is the land of the Corn Exchange. The 200 mile run of the California coast devoid of any chain lodgings or restaurants starting in Gualala, ends in a neon-coated wash of Holiday Inns and McDonald’s at Fort Bragg. Cutting edge wind turbines are erected and managed by high plains good ol boys. Contradictions are like spice, they serve to highlight interesting flavors.

Favorites: There’s too much great stuff out there to pick useful favorites from such a wide set of experiences. Some things that pop to the top of my memories, however, are the following.

  • City: Quebec City (because it was so unexpected. CA and I felt we were making a discovery around every corner)
  • Meal: Apizza Scholls in Portland, OR (Dream pizza with my dream girl. Perfect.)
  • View: From the Citadel in Quebec City (Flawlessly beautiful and a military history geek’s dream for guys like CA and me.)
  • Event: The hike that JB took me on in the Teatons (Because it was humbling and exhilarating at the same time)
  • Route: The haunted forest that Pleen and I drove through to pass from to the California coast (Because it seemed like a mystical little portal that wisked us from one reality to another. The contrasts were stark and immediate and the route itself was otherworldly).
  • Attraction: The lunch time glass blowing seminars/workshop at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA (Because it was a chance for normal people to see hard corps artisans at work right in front of them)

Company: In the end, nothing is as essential as great company. In fact, these road trips have been as much an excuse to hang out with my favorite people as anything else. My key lesson learned here is that I am incredibly fortunate to have such people in my life. Good company makes any experience better - and the bad ones livable.

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