Greetings from Michigan! Michigan is the 21st state we’ve traveled through this year, and we picked up our first Canadian province (Ontario) on the way. By the time this particular trip ends in early September, we’ll have touched ground in 26 states since March. (As for the license plate game, we’re still on the lookout for North Dakota and Wyoming, but we’re headed in the right direction…) I was hoping this would be the year I’d notch the last three states I need, but a lot has changed since we first envisioned this trip in the spring. After being on the road for three months and just recently moving into our apartment, we’re reluctant to spend an extended amount of time away right now. We also got a later start than planned (due to move-in slipping by a month), so the weather at the western national parks is chillier than we’d like for tent camping. And then there is our fall race schedule—which kicks into high gear in mid-September—and we’d like to be rested and centered by then, not car-lagged and road weary. So we culled this adventure down to two critical objectives: visit friends in Michigan and Pennsylvania whom we’ve been talking about visiting for a year and check out two graduate schools that are on M’s short list.
We arrived in Michigan Friday afternoon and spent the weekend enjoying the waning days of summer vacation with our friend T and his family. It’s just the two of us at home most of the time, so it was a fun change of pace to be part of a lively household that stretched to more than 10 people at one point during the weekend. On Saturday, we managed to fit in an early 8-mile run along a scenic, rolling dirt road before spending the afternoon exploring downtown Lansing (the state capital) and neighboring East Lansing (home of Michigan State University) with T and his youngest son. That evening, the grown-ups (yup, we’re in that category…) ventured out to meet up with another couple and see a comedian, Gabriel Iglesias, who put on an entertaining show.
On Sunday, T’s wife cooked up a breakfast feast of pancakes and eggs with assorted meats and fruits before we all piled into two cars and drove an hour to T’s friend’s lake house for an afternoon of boating and tubing. The lake was picture-perfect and scattered showers held off until we were out of the water. Most of the ladies and smaller kids boarded the pontoon boat, while the tubing crew donned PFDs and jumped into the motorboat. M had been tubing once before, but it was my first time. The older guys (including M) went first, followed by a joint ride where each of them was joined by one of the younger boys. M and his 7-year-old co-pilot got dumped at one point, which did nothing to help my nerves. But they survived, and suddenly it was my turn. I was anxious bordering on terrified before launching myself onto the giant tube, and I was terrified bordering on ecstatic during the ride. Apparently the terror part was visible on my face, since T had his friend slow down the boat at one point to ask me if I was okay. I meant “no” but evidently said “yes” because the boat took off even faster, at first going straight ahead so we were in relatively calm wake, and then bearing down hard to the right (resulting in a game of bumper boats) and then left (resulting in M and me taking a tube to the face and me barely holding on while he slid off the side into the deep). The boat stopped to allow us time to regroup, and I took the chance to swim back to the boat and, um, let someone else have a turn.
Back on land, we capped the day with grilled meats (real and faux), side salads, and good conversation. We said goodbye to T and his family this morning, and we’re now on our way to Nebraska, a short 700 or so miles from where we started the day in Michigan. Good news is we’ll pick up an hour. Bad news is we still have 10 hours to go… -J.
After two weeks in the Virginia mountains, we hit the road yesterday with the goal of picking up a few more “new” states and national parks before we head back to New England for a while. We spent Saturday night in Kingsport, a small manufacturing city in northeast Tennessee we first discovered on our March road trip. Upon arrival, we made full use of the hotel’s fantastic gym, indoor pool, hot tub, and restaurant. This morning, we drove to the Kingsport Greenbelt, a recently-completed mixed-surface fitness trail that traverses nearly ten miles of the town. We were a bit surprised by the hilly terrain, which was a change of pace (literally) from the flat rail trail we’d run a few times in Virginia, but the pleasant scenery helped the time and miles pass. We completed an enjoyable 4-mile run before heading back to clean up and repack the car. We took a driving tour of downtown and then hit the highway to conquer the remaining stretch of I-81. We picked up I-40 into Knoxville, home to the University of Tennessee, where we made a spontaneous decision to take a break and check out the downtown area. We parked in a city garage (free on Sundays!) and wandered around a bit before deciding on a place to eat. We enjoyed the weather and the people-watching as we ate a late outdoor brunch in Market Square. We picked up coffee for the road before driving the last leg of the day down to Chattanooga, on Tennessee’s southern border with Georgia. Chattanooga was featured in a magazine article we read last year as the best place to live for outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s been on our list of places to check out ever since. The weather is looking stormy tomorrow, so we’re off to study the hourly radar with the hopes of picking the right hour for a running tour of downtown… -J
During these early days of our journey, I’ve spent more time being active and less time relaxing than I thought I would. Although I love reading, it’s hard to curl up with a good book when there is a mountain to climb or a town to explore or a recipe to invent. This week I finally managed to spend a few evenings reconnecting with the likes of Thoreau and Emerson. I laughed out loud rereading the introduction of Walden two nights ago, pleasantly surprised (again) by the relevance of some of his statements 150+ years after he wrote them.
Thoreau’s contemporary, Emerson, had a few relevant passages of his own in the 1841 sleeper Self-Reliance, which I’ve also flipped through recently. To Emerson, self-reliance meant things like individualism and non-conformity and authentic inconsistency. To me, this week anyway, self-reliance means problem-solving even when we don’t have complete information. It means knowing how to read a map (and further, actually possessing one) when we’re off the grid and GPS can’t help us. It means getting creative with where and how we workout when our usual running routes are hundreds of miles away. And last night, it meant summoning all of my introverted courage to make a cold call to a person I’d never met asking them to help me.
Why did I need a stranger’s help? First, let’s back up to last week, before our friend left town. Just before heading to the airport, B filled us in on some need-to-know info about the house, practical stuff like where to find dry firewood and where to drop off the recycling. He also mentioned the closest neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. H, saying he wished he had time to introduce us to them before he left, but alas, that hadn’t worked out. So instead, we just got a passing reference to their existence, at which point for whatever reason, I catalogued their names in my brain.
There are only five houses on this gravel road, all set back into the woods and separated from each other by 1/3-mile sections of forest. We pass three driveways on the way to B’s house, but we can barely see the houses, and we’ve never seen another car on the one-lane road. Mr. and Mrs. H live just past B’s house, but we can’t see their house either. Occasionally we hear car wheels crunching over the gravel. Most folks in the area keep to themselves, and it was unlikely we’d run into any of the neighbors during our stay.
Then last night, after two days of self-imposed exile on the mountain, M and I headed into town for dinner. We knew a line of thunderstorms was pushing through the area, but we weren’t too worried. Rain’s rain. We made it to dinner and almost back to the house before the first drops hit the car. We assumed the storm was just arriving. Then we noticed several branches and clusters of leaves on the road ahead of us. “Looks like the storm already blew through here,” M commented.
We continued toward the house, through the series of dips and turns, before stopping to remove a large branch from the road in front of us. Only after getting out of the car did we notice a giant tree down, blocking the entire road, about fifty feet ahead of where we stopped. We walked closer to inspect things. There was no way around the tree, no lights visible at the nearest neighbor’s house, and the rain was picking up. The storm was just getting started.
We decided to back track to the main road where the tree cover was less dense, thinking that if one giant tree could fall, so could another. We drove the five miles or so back into town and waited out the storm in a pharmacy parking lot (where there was cell service). As rain pelted the car, we contemplated our options. We could drive back to the tree, park the car, and walk (in flip-flops, of course) the remaining half-mile to the house to pick up B’s chainsaw, which (a) he warned us wasn’t top notch and (b) neither of us had used before. We could find a map and see if we could locate an alternate route to the house, perhaps on a connecting back road. Or we could try to flag down one of the neighbors for help.
For context, at my core, I am slightly awkward introvert who can go weeks happily without interacting with another human. So the idea of blindly ringing someone’s doorbell is a paralyzing thought. Making a cold telephone call is a close second, but it beats the in-person interaction. So from the depths of my brain, I recalled Mr. and Mrs. H’s name and used the internet connection on my phone to look up their telephone number. There were eight H’s in town, but only one on the right road. With that find, I summoned all of my introverted courage and dialed the number.
After a mildly strange introduction to the tune of “we’ve never met, but I’m staying at the house next door and is there any chance you know of another way into the neighborhood because there is a giant tree blocking the road and we can’t get home.” Mrs. H, who answered the phone, wasted no time in understanding my rapid Yankee speech and said, why, yes, there was a back road, but she wasn’t sure what condition it was in and the car might get all scratched up if we attempted to use it. After a minute more of conversation and a brief chat with her husband, Mrs. H said that Mr. H would grab his chainsaw and meet us by the tree in a few minutes. Sweet relief!
By the time we arrived back at the tree, Mr. H was busy at work. We left the headlights of our car on to shed some light on the situation. Mr. H quieted the chainsaw when we got out of our car and approached him. “You said it was a tree, but I had no idea it was going to be this big of a tree!” he said with a laugh. We exchanged handshakes and greetings and then looked up and up, to about 30 feet off the ground where it looked like lightning struck. Half the tree was still standing, splintered at its wounded top, and the other half—an additional thirty feet or so of it—was on the ground, blocking the road from side to side.
After another minute of talk about the weather and how we knew B, Mr. H got back to work, cutting off branches and limbs before tackling the thin upper part of the tree. While he figured out the best way to fillet the thick main trunk of the tree, M and I got down to work, moving the parts and pieces and stumps and logs to either side of the gravel road.
The whole task took about 15 minutes, a feat only possible because of Mr. H’s chainsaw. As it turned out, Mr. H was grateful he found out about the tree on a Tuesday evening and not on Wednesday morning as he was leaving for work or his kids were trying to get to school. He would have had to do the work either way, and better to know about it in advance and have a little help. We were grateful for his help and his power tools. Sometimes self-reliance means wielding the chainsaw yourself, and other times it means calling someone with a bigger chainsaw to help you. -J
After our week-long stay in Maine and a weekend stop in Portsmouth for our friends’ wedding, we’ve made our way to a friend’s house in the mountains of central Virginia. In a happy scheduling coincidence, our friend (who travels frequently) happens to be at the house for the first week of our planned three-week stay. It’s been nice catching up with him over shared meals and late night card games, and it will be nice to find a rhythm of our own once he’s on the road again. We arrived late Sunday night and have spent the week becoming familiar with the area and our new temporary home. The house is set back about a mile down a gravel road, with few neighbors to encounter and many acres of woods to explore. Each morning, I’ve taken my coffee outside and listened to the land come alive from my perch on the wooden swing. We’ve napped in hammocks and walked along winding paths. We’ve witnessed deer grazing in the front yard, turkey vultures and coyotes scavenging along the main road, and countless birds and butterflies and bats and other things with wings. We’ve also managed to keep our fitness routine somewhat intact, with some creative adjustments. When the weather’s been nice, we’ve brought our workouts to the back yard, and when it was raining, I set up my yoga mat on the covered front porch. We’ve explored sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and hiked to a remote waterfall swimming hole. Today, we ventured to the next county in search of a safe running route and ended up finding a converted rail trail that was perfect for today’s training run. (We’re running a 10K here in Virginia on Saturday, and it’s been a little tough keeping up our mileage on the road.) We’re now back at the house, enjoying a quiet afternoon and watching storm clouds roll in from the west. I think it’s going to be a good night to hunker down on the mountain. -J
After a whirlwind two weeks (and two especially long days of driving), we are back home tonight, looking forward to sleeping in our own bed and having breakfast tomorrow at our favorite cafe. Two days ago, we left 80-degree sunshine behind in the Florida Keys. This afternoon, we met friends of ours (in town from California) for drinks in chilly New Hampshire, rolling in to the bar directly from the highway. In order to make it on time, we logged our longest day of driving to date yesterday–817 miles from Savannah, GA to Yonkers, NY–adding to the trip total of 4,073 miles. Sal the Subaru was a champ on his first long-haul road trip, averaging more than 25 miles per gallon (fewer in the mountains than in the South). Our words per gallon fared only slightly better, due largely to the lack of downtime we built into the schedule. It’s something we plan to include more of in our longer trips later this year, but our priority for this one was simply to get far away from here and physically break away from our prior day-to-day lives. Now that we’re back, somewhat rested and fully reinvigorated, we have a long list of posts, photos, and videos to write, edit, and upload. We’ll spend most of April at home, writing, running, and finding a new rhythm. But before March ends, we have one more adventure planned: to participate in a charity trivia bee tomorrow night. After several days on island time, it will take a lot of focus and some strong coffee to ensure our brains are up for the challenge.
After driving 620 miles today (mostly in Florida…), we have finally arrived at our home for the night, a chain hotel right off the highway in Savannah, Georgia. We’re a stone’s throw from South Carolina, which will be the 14th state we’ll hit on this trip and where we head early tomorrow morning. But first things first! Tonight we sleep…in a bed! We’ve been camping for the last four nights, so this plush, king-sized mattress is a welcome change. We need a good night’s sleep to prepare for tomorrow’s monster drive: 15 or so hours up the scenic I-95 corridor. If things go as planned, we’ll be sleeping somewhere north of New York City tomorrow night. By the end of the day, we’ll be closing in on the 4,000 mile mark for the trip…and we’ll be ready for another night of rest before hauling back to New Hampshire to meet up with friends visiting from California and participate in a charity trivia event. Fun times are definitely ahead, but right now…it’s time for lights out! -J
Since leaving New Hampshire two weeks ago, we’ve kept a small notebook in the car with pieces of information about our trip: gas purchases, mileage, expenses, lists of things to bring on the next trip, strange signs seen along the roadside, vanity plates…the list goes on.
The last page in our mini road journal includes a list of states and provinces labeled “The License Plate Game.” The License Plate Game consists of writing down all unique states and provinces from license plates we see on the trip. The goal is to get all 50 states and Washington, D.C. before we get home; provinces are just a bonus. It’s not a competitive game as much as it is a team effort to complete the list, in part because it helps stave off boredom on the road and in part because it forces us to be aware of the little details around us. We found two of the tough stragglers (Alaska and Montana) parked on side streets as we wandered around Key West yesterday.
In the 13 states we traveled through to get to Key West (NH, MA, CT, NY, NJ, PA, MD, WV, VA, TN, NC, GA, and FL), we recorded 44 different states plus Washington, D.C. and three provinces.
As we prepare to start the 30-hour, ~1,700 mile trip from Sugarloaf Key to New Hampshire, we have just six states left: HI, WY, ID, NM, UT, and ND.
We’ll be on the lookout for these last few states as we head back to the Northeast over the next three days. If we don’t see them on this trip, we’ll just have to continue the quest when we drive out west later this summer!
P.S. In case you’ve wondered what it’s like to drive hundreds of miles through southern Georgia or northern Florida, take a peek at this…and then rewind and watch it 600 more times.
We spent last night at a hotel/conference center/golf resort in northeastern Tennessee. We selected it based on location and price (which was free…one of the benefits of years of business travel!), but the amenities were an added bonus. We were the only people in the pool and hot tub last night, and we were the only people on the golf course this morning. No, we were not up for an early round. Instead, we headed out at sunrise for a speedy two-mile run, weaving our way through the cart paths and footbridges along the rolling fairways. The only other people we saw on the course were members of the maintenance crew tending to the greens. We capped our run with weights and stretching in the spacious gym before heading back to our room. We treated ourselves to long showers and room service breakfast, knowing we have two days of a shower-less campground and outdoor oatmeal ahead of us.
We will arrive in the Smokies this afternoon, and we might go off the grid for a day or two. In the meantime, by special request, here is a list of the first 10 songs from Sunday’s roadtrip playlist (which we continue to listen to today). All of these songs have lyrical significance, and many are just plain fantastic. First up on today’s drive: replaying “Wagon Wheel” as we roll through Johnson City. -J
First 10 Songs from Sunday’s Drive
- Takin’ Off Today (Adam Ezra Group)
- Runnin’ Down a Dream ( Tom Petty)
- Cruisin’ With Jack Kerouac (Hot Sauce Johnson)
- Stuck Between Stations (The Hold Steady)
- The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan)
- Country Road (John Denver)
- Wagon Wheel (Old Crow Medicine Show)
- The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
- Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
- The World at Large (Modest Mouse)
Skyline Drive traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park. The north end of the drive begins in Front Royal, VA, a surprising town that appears to be maintaining itself quite well despite the economy. The architecture in Front Royal is familiar, each building crafted of the same stones, bricks and shingles of eastern towns ranging from Plattsburgh, NY to New Castle, PA to Greenville, SC. It is the architecture of hardware stores and insurance agencies, small public libraries and aging churches. We agreed Front Royal would go on the list of potential places to live “someday.”
At the entrance to Skyline Drive, Howard, the friendly, nervous, red-headed (and bearded) ranger, sold us our $80 Interagency Annual Pass, allowing access to the many places we hope to visit across the country in the next twelve months. Armed with our pass and some park literature, we hit the road. Skyline Drive is 105 miles of winding, rising and falling road filled with wildlife, old growth forest and very few other people. (Most park facilities don’t officially open for the season until later this spring.) After getting distracted by a handful of deer, two overlooks and countless circling hawks, it had taken us nearly 20 minutes to go the first five miles. It was looking like the drive would take longer than the three hours we had estimated. (The maximum speed limit on the drive is 35 MPH.) We were all smiles and in no hurry. Today, the deer posed for pictures, but despite our vigilance, the bears were elusive. Maybe we’ll be luckier in the Smokies…preferably from the car.
At the halfway point of the drive, we parked and hit the trail for a short hike to the outlook on Stony Man Trail, recommended by the ranger as a brief but rewarding trip into the woods. At 4,010 feet, it is the second highest point in the park, and part of the summit route overlaps the Appalachian Trail. The trail was well-maintained, and we cruised to the top in 20 minutes. Once there, we surveyed the valley and took in a recommendation from a local couple to visit the “Camp David of President Herbert Hoover,” also in the park. We determined that this newly found part of America was worth a second visit and a much more thorough exploration of Shenandoah National Park. Perhaps later this spring…
The second half of the drive went more quickly than the first. At the end of the road, we opted to take the highway to Tennessee instead of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the Parkway is on our “must do someday” list, it wasn’t on our “must do this trip” list. We capped off our 415-mile day with a dip in the hotel pool and a tall draft beer. My first time in Tennessee has been more relaxing than expected. I’ll be enjoying the hotel bed tonight, since tomorrow night will bring the Great Smoky Mountains and our first campsite of the trip! –M
Here’s a look at what we saw from the summit of Stony Man:
Greetings from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains! We arrived at our hotel in Virginia tonight and made short order of the dinner we had packed from home: quinoa mac & cheese and veggie burgers…with celebratory champagne, of course. We covered 585 miles today, cruising through 9 states and spending the better part of 10 hours in the car. We split the driving into two-hour shifts and passed the time listening to music, chatting, and playing a made-up game of Vanity Plate Mad Libs. (Side note: People are strange.) We enjoyed warm breezes, sunny skies, and low traffic throughout the drive.
The scenery for most of the day was standard-issue Northeastern U.S. and nothing either of us hadn’t seen before, from the Mass Turnpike and George Washington Bridge to the farmlands of Pennsylvania. That was until we were about 15 miles from the hotel, when these mountains surprised us, lurking in the fog around a highway bend. A shadowy ridgeline stretching as far as we could see rose quietly above the flat, rolling plains around it. We couldn’t make out many details since we arrived after sunset, but we have a full day of exploring the mountains planned for tomorrow. -J&M