After my short diversion this week to states number 47 and 48, Ariel and I touched down yesterday afternoon in Alaska!
Just setting foot in this state was a pretty massive moment for me because I’m now officially a member of “Club 49” – and it just so happened IN the 49th state.
That’s a pretty awesome coincidence and even better because the 50th state to enter the Union, will also be the 50th state I enter – whenever that happens.
So we’ve now been in Alaska for just about 24 hours and it really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s huge. It’s beautiful. It’s cold. Perhaps that last one is not so surprising, but still, even being in Alaska, it’s strange to think about wearing layers and sweatshirts in August. It’s also the tail end of the season here and you can really feel the state winding down.
The colors are shifting in the bushes. The hotel employees are getting ready to head back to their home states for the winter. And the average age of the other people visiting is somewhere north of 67.
After landing in Anchorage, we crashed into bed early last night. It was a pretty long travel day – starting at 6:45 am New Jersey time and ending at about 6 pm Alaska time (which is 10 pm NJ time).
This morning we were up and at ’em at about 5 am for an eight hour train ride to Denali National Park. Unfortunately for us, we shared a train car with a pack of rabid hyenas. Wait no, they weren’t hyenas, they were just a pack of drunk retirees who felt the need to bellow and bray and hoot and holler for the entire ride.
Look, I’m all for having a good time. But we were in this unbelievably beautiful place, with panoramic windows and views of endless mountains, valleys and forests, and these loudmouths wouldn’t shut up for eight straight hours. I mean imagine sitting in one of the loudest bars you’ve been in…but on a train in a national park. At 10 am!
Even worse, the guy whose job it was to point out landmarks and give us interesting facts about the areas we were passing through just gave up trying to talk louder than them. It was so bad that I wanted to apologize to the one foreign couple in our train car. Eventually we just moved to a different (much quieter!) car. And it was such a shame because our guide from the original car was actually from New Jersey too! Dunellen to be exact. What a crazy coincidence! He was telling us about how he had lived in Barrow, Alaska which is a place I’ve been interested in going to ever since I was in Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s so remote over there that they only get one shipment of gasoline A YEAR.
Anyway, we finally made it to Denali National Park, which is truly beautiful.
It really is awesome.
Tomorrow we enter the park in search of Mount Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the world. Yeah that’s right, it’s taller than Mount Everest. Google it if you don’t believe me.
A Final Note On Iowa, Minnesota And The Northernmost Point In The Continental United States
As I write this on the plane ride home and my last solo trip is already starting to feel like a distant memory. I’m so excited to be reunited with my travel mate (and life mate!) but before I turn my thoughts to our upcoming trip to Alaska, I wanted to post some reflections on what I just experienced.
Iowa, is really covered in corn fields. Like it’s ludicrous how accurate that stereotype is. Most of the time I had corn on one side of the car and often on both sides of the car.
Now, we have a lot of corn in New Jersey…
…but nothing like this.
Minnesota is really huge. It’s basically Iowa on steroids. I was also shocked by how familiar the landscape looked the entire time I was there. If you put a picture of the Minnesota countryside next to the Pennsylvania countryside it would be really hard to tell the difference. When I got back from my 2010 solo coast-to-coast road trip I would joke to people that everything between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River is basically just West Jersey. And even then, once you get past the Mississippi (which is always an impressive sight to behold) it’s basically the same until you get close to Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Turns out that Minnesota and Iowa are no exception. Yes the Mississippi River areas were really cool. And seeing a bald eagle was really moving – as was getting to the source of the Mississippi. The western part of Minnesota did start to flatten out so you got some of that “big sky” feeling but that was really only for the last 50 miles or so.
It just doesn’t look that different from home. Rolling hills. Trees. Corn. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And that’s kind of why I was pretty ehhhh about both states.
I mean seriously, how can you compete with views like this:
Or the picture at the top of this post (Monument Valley in Arizona).
You can’t. You just can’t. No other places on Earth have those wild landscapes.
If I was building an itinerary with must-see states I would always start with the Four Corners region. Then I’d spend a while in California. After that it’s a toss-up between Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Even Kansas and Nebraska had more striking vistas than where I just went. It’s really incredible how excited I was when I approached the North Dakota border and suddenly had a 360 degree view of the horizon.
By the way that’s not a knock on Iowa or Minnesota. I’m sure people from those states would throw up after spending 10 minutes in New Jersey, a state that looked like their states but was overcrowded and oversmogged. And it’s also not to say that there are “bad” states. Every state should be visited because they all have something unique to offer.
Well except for Pennsylvania. That place is horrible and is the worst place in the world.
Oh I’m only kidding.
*Or am I? I really hate Pennsylvania and it is a terrible, terrible place.
The bottom line is that I’m glad I went. Really glad. But I’m also glad that I prioritized places with truly spectacular (a word that gets WAY overused when describing places) things to see before I went here. Really it was a perfect ending to a journey that I’ve been on for most of my life because if I was just driving through on the way to somewhere else I probably would have just jumped out of the car to take a picture of the welcome signs and kept going.
Doing it like this meant I got to see the Field of Dreams! And a bald eagle! And a mound of grass shaped like a bear! And the source of the Mississippi River! And get almost arrested at the border!
Well never mind that last one, that sucked.
But you get my drift.
Finally, a quick note on the Northwest Angle, AKA the northernmost point in the USA.
Look – I’m glad I went. It would have been pretty dumb to go to all the other extremes AND the geographic center of the US (by accident no less!) and not take care of this one once I finally made it to Minnesota. But unless this is part of a personal quest of yours like the one I just completed (or you have your own fishing boat), this is really more hassle than it’s worth.
The people I met were really nice, but when compared to the other extremes, even within the continental US, this is the most underwhelming. First of all the other three locations are all on a coast, so you really get the feeling that you’re staring off into forever. Cape Alava in Washington looks really cool and features a really nice hike to get there. Key West is…Key West so it’s worth visiting on its own. West Quoddy Head in Maine has a great lighthouse and being that it is the only contiguous extreme that is TRULY the furthest you can go in America means you can stand there to watch the sunrise and be the first person in the country to see the sun.
The Northwest Angle, while quirky, does not really have anything like that. It’s surrounded by land and a lake. So when you look around, it just looks like you’re anywhere in America that has a lake. And it is SUCH a hassle to get there.
But the people are really nice. And apparently it’s a great place to go fishing – so if that’s your thing you should TOTALLY go there.
I guess what I’m saying is if you’re going to go there, make it for another reason, not just to see the northernmost tip. And go by boat if you can. Four international border crossings in one day is just TOO STRESSFUL to be worth it.
*PS I was just kidding about Pennsylvania. My sister and brother-in-law live there! And there’s lots of cool stuff to see there – you could spend days just around Philadelphia seeing Revolutionary War stuff, Constitution stuff, Declaration of Independence stuff and lots of other stuff too! And I guess Philadelphia has a lot to see too if you’re into big cities. I just hate Pennsylvania with a passion mostly because of their obnoxious and awful sports teams.
For more on Iowa and Minnesota, check out my day by day recap of my 1,200 mile journey to complete my seven-year long mission to visit all Lower 48 states.
The last day on this trip was really only a half day. After doing my usual packing routine, making sure I left nothing behind, I took a look at myself in the mirror – a solo adventurer for possibly the last time in my life…
…and then I was off.
My main target today was the Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve. This had actually been a national park at one time – and let me tell you something – I don’t suppose I’ll be in Devils Lake again anytime soon, but this is one hell of a free experience.
First a couple of stops along the lake. Apparently, the thing about Devils Lake is that it regularly expands and contracts, swamping forests and occasionally houses.
After that, it was on to Sully’s Hill which is effectively a safari exclusively for big plains animals like elk and bison. Back in the early 1900’s, as these giants were being hunted to near extinction, Teddy Roosevelt set up what are effectively safe havens to ensure these species would survive. Now they let you drive around amongst them – for FREE! Ariel and I had been to one near Denver a few years ago and it was really cool. This one might have been even better. It was basically deserted and also included forest drives, a prairie dog town (!!!) and a scenic overlook of Devils Lake.
Really cool stuff.
From there, it was time to head to the airport. With four hours until my flight and only about 90 minutes of driving to get there, I was free to take my time. This meant I could go a little out of my way and stumble randomly across a decommissioned nuclear missile silo.
So so so cool. And more than a little terrifying in our current geopolitical environment. They actually have a ton of these all over the Dakotas, Wyoming and Colorado. I’d been to one in South Dakota on my big roadtrip in 2010. That one was unreal because they let you actually go into the control room where “missiliers” (the guys who actually push the buttons) sat for years waiting for the orders to destroy the planet.
This wasn’t that, but still a cool find in the middle of nowhere. And it was also fascinating that it was right next to yet another sunflower farm.
The rest of the day passed without incident. I stopped a few times to take in the scenery and just appreciate the splendor of this beautiful country of ours.
And then, it was over. I returned my trusty Hyundai Sante Fe to the rental car company at Fargo, went through security, boarded the plane and headed home, to Ariel and Sammy…
Final tally: 3 states, 1 Canadian province, 4 international border crossings, 1,276 miles 1 border incident
Now Ariel and I leave for Alaska on what is OKPROBABLYACTUALLY going to be the last adventure we go on before the baby.
Stay tuned for that as we take one last trip before our family grows.
Day 3: An Anti-Climactic Conclusion, A Detainment, And An Amazing Sunset
Keeping with the Paul Bunyan theme of the last post, the morning of Day 3 started with a trip to his….grave?
I don’t know. This was pretty amusing considering there’s about a 99.9999999% chance this guy never existed. But it was somehow a little moving. Paul Bunyan is awesome. Is this really where he’s buried?
No. It isn’t. But still.
Anyway. So I finally made it to the northernmost point of the contiguous United States – Northwest Angle, Minnesota. This was a pretty great moment because I’ve been to all of the other extremes as well as the geographic center of the United States.
So this was it.
It was……not so exciting. I mean it was cool to cross this off the list. But the location itself was not so inspiring. I mean it was fine. But it’s not even the “real” northernmost point, which is unmarked and requires a guide or a boat to get to. No thanks. This was good enough for me. It was also a pain to get to, with gravel roads making the last 30 miles of the journey through Canada and back into Minnesota a slog. It was pretty cool to use the video phone to check in with both US and Canadian customs as I went in/out. Still…not the most exciting moment of my life. Not even the most exciting on this trip (the first moments in Minnesota or the headwaters of the Mississippi would take that crown).
Oh and in a final insult, the only restaurant in town can only cook fish that you catch yourself!
It’s not really their fault, there’s some regulation issues with them catching fish from the lake. But what the hell! I did have a nice conversation with the bartenders there about life in “the Angle”. It’s crazy, but from 6th grade onwards, kids have to cross the border back into the “mainland” of Minnesota each day to go to school! It’s two hours including a customs inspection EACH WAY. EVERY DAY. UGH!!!!!
From Angle Inlet, I had a decision to make. Do I head right back into the US and make for North Dakota or gun it across Manitoba into Saskatchewan to get credit for the province. After an hour of gravel roads though, and realizing that it would take me about ten hours out of my way (AND through Canada which means either international roaming charges or no phone for an entire day) I decided to play it safe.
Turns out it was probably for the best, because crossing back into the US at the Roseau border crossing was a bit of an adventure. I’ve crossed in and out of Canada lots of times by car and never had any issues. Apparently though, my story about Ariel being away for the weekend, prompting me to fly to Iowa and drive all the way up to the Angle and back was not too believable.
The border patrol woman had me drive off to the side and then politely asked (ordered) me out of the car. It might have been my imagination but I’m pretty sure she had her hand close to her hip (i.e. close to her gun) the entire time. She also made a point of stating that my door was unlocked which allowed her to open and inspect the car. Now I had nothing to hide obviously, but when I realized that this whole time they still had not returned my passport, I started to get nervous.
I had to wait in the facility with another agent while she performed a thorough search of my car. She even got the mirror pole thing to look underneath. And the whole time she’s doing that, I’m standing inside, at a counter (like at a deli), while the other agent is politely asking (interrogating) me questions. Now he didn’t CALL it an interrogation. And it wasn’t like in the movies with the bright lights and all that, but he was asking me lots of questions – in a way that was designed to just sound like a chat – but was clearly looking to poke holes in my story.
Like he mentioned to me that he saw I’d been to the Dominican Republic “a few times” – that’s not true. I was only there once and my passport was clearly stamped as such. He asked me where I lived, what I did for a living, where else I’d been in the United States. Did I eat anything while I was in the Angle? What was it? Where did I eat it? It was all very non-confrontational, but just knowing what he was doing (and what she was doing in my car), made me feel like I DID have something to hide, even though I didn’t.
And I kept thinking about what the female guard said when she had me get out of the car. I’d mentioned that Ariel was at a bachelorette party this weekend which is why I was free to travel on my own. She asked me if she was ALREADY my wife, how is she at her OWN bachelorette party. Which of course, she wasn’t. She was at her FRIEND’S party. But I guess the agent mis-heard that and therefore thought I was lying.
Again, I knew I had nothing to hide, but all kinds of visions of crooked cops planting evidence flashed through my mind. Had I actually done something wrong that they saw on camera as I approached without knowing about it? What if they didn’t like my (always problematic) attitude/demeanor and decided to teach me a lesson?
And I still had not been given my passport back…
Eventually, the agent came back and just inserted herself into the conversation I was already having with the other guy…who FINALLY gave me back my passport. We had a discussion about where I was going next (Devils Lake, ND) and what they both thought of the area. In the end, I had to ask if I was free to go. No one told me I was in the clear until I asked. And I just knew that they still didn’t believe anything I told them. And really why would they? What kind of weirdo comes ALL THE WAY from New Jersey to go the freakin’ Northwest Angle? Having been there, I can understand their skepticism.
Finally I was back on the road. And finally after two miserable, grey, drizzly/rainy days, as I headed west I could see a literal end to the overcast.
It was amazing, like I had been driving through the Holland Tunnel for two days and suddenly burst out in to the light. Only instead of Jersey City, I was greeted with one of my favorite landscapes in the world.
As the sun went down I stopped by the side of the road…next to a SUNFLOWER FARM. One of the greatest places I’ve ever watched the sunset.
Another hour of driving and I settled in at the Rodeway Motel at Devils Lake for the final night of the trip. All missions complete, back in America, my thoughts now turned to home as I turned in for the night.
And that was Day 3.
Day 2: An Incredible Sidequest To The Source Of The Mississippi River
Day 2 began in Rochester, Minnesota where I stayed at the Days Inn. Whatever. Next it was back to the Mississippi River at Lake City. The views there were pretty cool, but not so different really than the Hudson River.
Until I looked up…
Look, I get that for a lot of people in this country, bald eagles are just birds. But I’m from NEW JERSEY for God’s sake. It might as well have been pterodactyl. Supposedly there’s a bald eagle pair somewhere in the Meadowlands, but I sure don’t know anyone who has ever seen it. The only other time in my life that I ever saw a bald eagle (or any eagle I think) was actually in Canada with Ariel on our first ever trip together. That was awesome. But seeing a bald eagle IN AMERICA WHERE IT BELONGS was a really moving moment. It also was flying right over my head for a solid 20 minutes. I was transfixed. I mean they really are such graceful animals, you just need to look at one in flight for five seconds before it’s incredibly clear why they chose them as our national symbol.
After the eagle sighting I made my way up to Minneapolis. I didn’t stay long because……….I have very little patience for cities. We have New York City. That’s enough city for 100 lifetimes. While I was there, I stopped at Prime Deli for lunch. It’s a kosher restaurant that serves grass-fed beef. I’ve never had grass-fed beef.
It was amazing. In fact, I’ve never encountered a kosher restaurant that serves grass-fed beef so I HIGHLY recommend making the trip for this. I’m not saying I would fly again to Minneapolis just for the burger I had. But I would definitely think about it.
From Minneapolis it was a race against the setting sun to get to Lake Itasca State Park. Lake Itasca is the official designated headwaters of the Mississippi River. This is no joke. I’m talking about seeing the 2,500+ long river, which is ELEVEN MILES wide at its widest point, at it’s starting point.
Which is all of 18 feet wide.
I mean, it’s really incredible. You can literally look at the lake and see where the river begins. I don’t know if there’s something like this for the Amazon or the Nile, but this was really an incredible sight.
Being that it was a Friday evening, that also meant I got to do my Shabbat ritual with my bread and wine (this time grape juice yuck). Saying kiddush (the Jewish prayer that welcomes the Sabbath), at the headwaters of one of the great rivers of the world – and doing the hand washing ritual AT THE SOURCE OF THE RIVER – is something I will have a hard time topping. Finding creative places to make kiddush is one of my ongoing quests so this was a big one for me.
From the headwaters of the Mississippi, it was onward to Bemidji, Minnesota where they have a statue of Paul Bunyan (who is apparently a big deal in these parts) and Babe the Blue Ox.
They also have a real infestation of some awful flying insect.
And that was about all I could take for one day.
So far on this trip, I’ve knocked out the two remaining states I needed in the contiguous United States and got to see the source of the Mississippi River. Not bad. Today I’m heading to the northernmost point in those aforementioned Lower 48. That should be fun.
So the first day 1 of this trip are now behind me……..and so far, so good.
Day 1 started with a relatively painless experience at EWR and then a pretty long layover in Chicago. The United Lounge at O’Hare was ehhhhhok. Apparently they’ve decided to follow Delta’s lead and offer up Mac ‘n Cheese plus soup. It just wasn’t as good as Delta’s offering in Atlanta. Anyway, who cares, right? United Lounges all suck and you should never pay to use them.
Landing in Iowa was actually a pretty big moment for me because right then and there, I got my 47th state.
After switching my car rental reservation from a minivan to a pretty lame (but not as lame as a minivan) Hyundai Sante Fe it was off to the races. I had only three hours to get from the airport to the “Field of Dreams” and then get to Effigy Mounds National Monument before it closed at 6 pm.
I made it. The Field of Dreams site is actually really cool. I had never seen the movie until I watched it on yesterday’s flight, but like everyone else I always knew the whole “if you build it, he will come” thing. The filming location looks exactly like the movie, as you might expect. The outfield wall really is a cornfield. What really makes it a must see destination though is that it is TOTALLY FREE. I mean, I was barely a fan of the movie and I would have happily paid a few dollars just to see the place. It’s also pretty easily accessible as it’s only about a three and a half hour drive from Chicago. You can easily make a day trip to here AND Effigy Mounds from the Windy City.
Speaking of Effigy Mounds, that was stop number two. This is a really interesting location that was basically used by American Indians as a burial site. Today it’s a preserved space with really nice forest hikes.
I’d already been to a place like this near St. Louis that is much bigger and more impressive looking from afar, but what makes Effigy Mounds so fascinating is that they created these burial mounds in the shapes of animals. I only got to see the one that looks like a bear, but there are lots more if you have the time.
Also you get a really good view of the Mississippi River from the overlooks at the site. Absolutely worth it to see this place.
From Effigy Mounds it was, at last, time to move to the completion of a mission I began just over seven years ago. State number 48, the last state I had to visit of the contiguous United States was Minnesota……..
…and I finally did it on my first day out here. Man, what a feeling. The border crossing where I went from Iowa into Minnesota was pretty remote. I was alone.
Well except for like 1,000 mosquitoes but I didn’t care. It was really amazing to be able to say that I’ve been to every one of the Lower 48 United States. Alaska and Hawaii are still to come, but those are “vacation destination” type of places that are not so different than going to the Bahamas or Europe. Amazing places to be sure (I’ll let you know firsthand about Alaska next week), but in some ways easier to get to than say, Nebraska. You have to REALLY WANT to get to Nebraska. And Delaware. And Maine. And freakin’ Minnesota. So it was really a big moment for me to get this done.
So this has been a pretty big year for us. Not only did we bring home a new dog member of the family………
But he’s going to be a big brother to our first child this coming January!
Needless to say, as excited as we both are, our availability for travel – especially the type of travel we love best – is going to be dropping from complicated (with the responsibility of a dog) to essentially nonexistent (with a baby…toddler…family).
It’s not that we won’t be able to go anywhere, but truly unplugging in some remote location at the far end of the world will soon be literally impossible for years. And while finding adventure in the everyday is how we try to live our lives, the days of 50 day long road trips from one side of the US to the other are well behind me at this point.
So it’s time for one last ride.
This weekend Ariel is going to a bachelorette party. Next week we are going on a “babymoon” to ALASKA. In between, with a suddenly free weekend of being solo, staring down the barrel of the ultimate responsibility, I decided to move closer to completing TWO of my main travel quests.
Years ago, I decided I wanted to try and reach all 50 states. The only two left of the lower 48 that I haven’t been to are Minnesota and Iowa. With Alaska coming up next week, I decided to sandwich in a quick getaway while I still have the chance.
Here’s the planned route:
It’s a little bit aggressive.
1,020 miles in just about three days works out to about 6 hours on the road per day. I’ve dealt with much worse. The big question I suppose, is really, why even bother with this whole endeavor?
Well here’s what I’ll be crossing off the list over the next three days:
1. Hitting the last two states in the Lower 48. With Alaska next week, that means I will be one state away (Hawaii) from my ultimate goal.
2. Due to an odd quirk in how the border between the United States and Canada was designed (more on that later), I have to actually venture into Canada on this mission. That gives me credit for Manitoba. Along with British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, I’m about halfway to getting all the Canadian Provinces! Actually who am I kidding, when in the world am I ever getting to freakin Nanavut. Still, I’m only Yukon and Saskatchewan away from all the bordering provinces at least. Whatever.
3. If you follow my map, you’ll see I’m heading all the way up into the farthest tip of Minnesota. This is actually the northernmost point in the Lower 48. I’ve already been to the furthest east (Lubec, Maine), south (Key West, FL) and west (Cape Alava, WA) points. AND due to a sheer stroke of luck I stood at the geographic center of the Lower 48 (Lebanon, KS). So this is it for that list. Another sidequest completed.
4. My route takes me to the source of the Mississippi River, the “Field of Dreams” in Iowa, and Fargo, North Dakota! Also Effigy Mounds National Monument and Minneapolis are on this route.
The bigger question – is why now?
Well, to be honest, I really don’t see another opportunity in the immediate future. Maybe ever. Minnesota and Iowa were two states I left off of my epic solo road trip in 2010. Ariel isn’t especially interested. And what circumstance really exists where I would ever bring a child (or an entire family) to either state? No offense, but they don’t exactly rank very high. The priorities – outside of the immediate vicinity of New Jersey – would probably be places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other amazing places that Ariel has never been. Certainly the Grand Canyon or the Utah Parks, plus numerous international travel destinations, would come first. And if Ariel and I are going for a mom/dad only weekend getaway…….neither Iowa nor Minnesota are likely to make the cut.
Taking it even a step further, as the name of this blog implies, this – right now – is the time I’ve been given to achieve this goal. Who am I if I don’t take my own advice?
Finally, with our trip to Alaska coming up next week, that means that whenever we go to Hawaii – most likely as a family – I’ll be able to share the ultimate completion of my main travel quest with my future children and wife.
I can think of no better way – even if it doesn’t happen for decades – to reach the finish line, than that.