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Reflecting On A Final (Solo) Ride

Reflecting On A Final (Solo) Ride

As I sit here on night seven of my Alaska adventure with Ariel, my thoughts turn to last week’s solo adventure and really the last 12 years of solo travel.

This little getaway had a lot in common with my past solo trips:

  • Waking up not knowing where I’d sleep every night.
  • Major last-minute diversions from the itinerary.
  • Staying at the cheapest, crappiest place I could rest my head.
  • Eating most meals in the car or motel rooms.
  • Dicey moment at an international border.
  • Going off the beaten path and letting the road take me instead of the other way around.
  • Ultimate freedom.

But still, it was missing something more important than all of that.

My travel mate, Ariel.

I love traveling alone.

Chilling out at the Perito Morena Glacier, Argentina.
Chilling out at the Perito Morena Glacier, Argentina.

Anytime you travel with a partner you have to make compromises. Ariel is……less open to the kinds of places I’m willing to eat and sleep for example. She also is a planner. When we travel together, she will look at our route and look for places to eat, sleep and stop along the way and pre-book them. Our travel together ends up looking more like an organized tour itinerary than a disorganized wanderer’s journey.

Taking a breather in Northern Ireland.
Canyonlands, Utah
Standing atop the Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Utah. Not the brightest thing I ever did.
I get a little too close to a royal guardsman...
Pro tip: Never make physical contact with a royal guard in London.
Thumbs up or thumbs down at the ancient Coliseum in Rome.

This can have major advantages, especially as it pertains to cost savings on booking rooms months in advance as opposed to minutes in advance. And by preparing for your trip, you can research the best places to eat and the coolest sights to see. If this is your style of travel, I highly recommend doing it this way. Also, there are few things more demoralizing than driving for 10 hours in a day, then pulling into some tumbleweed town with one motel at midnight…only to find out there’s no vacancy there or it’s closed.

And that the next town is another 2+ hours down the road.

Not good.

The disadvantage is that when you make your reservations months in advance, it makes it much harder to call an audible like I did when deciding to go to Devils Lake just the other day. Or years ago, when I decided to go about 200 miles out of my way to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, which unexpectedly led me to my first view of the Milky Way Galaxy – one of my favorite travel memories of all time.

Pompeii, Italy
Even in Pompeii, random strangers will ruin your carefully staged picture.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s just not the same without her. The give and take between my spontaneity and her planning is really what makes us such a great travel pair. She makes the plans. I improvise whenever the plan doesn’t work out so well. We really do work so well together as a travel team.

From the deepest caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM
Ariel and I take a quick break at Carlsbad Caverns near Roswell, New Mexico.

To mountains in the sky.

Skyrim
Glacier National Park, Montana. Or is it Skyrim?

And all the way to the literal ends of the Earth.

The ends of the earth...
At The Sauvage in Rangiroa, French Polynesia. The residents refer to it as “the end of the Earth.”

I’ll still take the opportunity to go off on my own when the situation arises. A quick detour on a business trip. A short diversion on a weekend when I’m alone. But for the most part, having a child means the odds of these opportunities are rapidly shrinking to zero.

No. Going forward, travel – especially adventure-style travel – will no longer be a solo sport. It will be a team effort. As a unit. As a family. And while I may reflect back fondly on my times as a solo traveler on this blog on occasion…

Journey's end
The end of our New Zealand road trip was a bittersweet time for us.

…I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Final Day: Prairies, Bison And A Surprise Encounter With a Nuclear Missile Launch Site

Final Day: Prairies, Bison And A Surprise Encounter With a Nuclear Missile Launch Site

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.

Hey guys, long time no see.

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.

Sully’s Hill Forest Drive.

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.

A random nuclear missile bunker.

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.

This is an open road song.

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 1: Primary Mission ACCOMPLISHED

Day 1: Primary Mission ACCOMPLISHED

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.

The Field of Dreams

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 made a new friend on my hike! So what if he ran off as soon as he saw me!

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.

Little Bear Mound

Also you get a really good view of the Mississippi River from the overlooks at the site. Absolutely worth it to see this place.

The mighty Mississippi.

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……..

I did it. I can finally I’ve been to all of the continental United States.

…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.

The Iowa/Minnesota border.

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.

And that was Day 1.

On being home…

On being home…

So we got home late last night after an extraordinarily exhausting 53 hours of travel, including some borderline time travel that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Consider this, our flight left Auckland, NZ on Saturday at about 11:30 pm New Zealand time, crossing the international dateline shortly afterwards. We landed in California (after a 12 hour flight of nonstop turbulence) at 2:30 pm. On SATURDAY. That’s about nine hours BEFORE we departed.

We went to sleep in California at about 9:30 pm. So we were sleeping in California TWO HOURS BEFORE our plane left New Zealand. Go get your mind to grasp that.

How is this not time travel?
How is this not time travel?

After the initial depression of leaving transitioned rapidly into the depression of “I wish this miserable, never ending travel day was over” – all I wanted was to be home. Unfortunately for us, we had one last adventure left in this trip, when our baggage return carousel at Newark airport decided to jam, stranding us with 2 out of 3 bags for over an hour while the feckless Virgin America employees tried to figure out how to get 10 suitcases out of the machine.

By the time we got home, I was thrilled. Ariel wasn’t too excited, but there’s something about coming home to your own bed, your own sofas, your own TV and clothes and dining room table and refrigerator and everything else that just feels good. While New Jersey is pretty freaking far from Bilbo and Frodo’s Shire (although in some ways it’s more similar than you might think), to us, it’s our home. And there is real comfort in being home.

Not quite the Shite but it's home to us...
Not quite the Shite but it’s home to us…

As I got up this morning though, I had a very strange moment where I was highly confused about when and where I was exactly. After two weeks of never sitting still, never spending more than two nights (and usually only one) in the same bed, plus the incredible amount of time we spent in travel limbo, I’m in a strange place. Yet I’m also home. I’m back at my familiar desk in my familiar office. I drove my familiar car, with its familiar annoying noises, on the RIGHT side of the road (although now I’m struggling to remember that my LEFT hand is the turn signal hand), through the familiar New Jersey traffic to my familiar parking lot with its familiar lack of parking spaces. I went up the familiar elevator and said hello to my familiar receptionist.

Yet it all seems somehow unreal. Like any minute now I’m going to blink and find myself on a winding road in the Southern Alps or standing on the edge of a hike up the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the shadow of Mount Doom.

This isn’t the first time I felt this way – in fact, this is always the way it feels the day after getting back from an extended trip away from home.

You see when you’re on the road (whether driving or taking public transport), there are certain routines you fall into. Every day you get up, pack up your stuff (don’t forget to check the bathroom and fridge twice in case you forgot something), arrange the cooler and BOOM you’re out there. When you get to wherever you’re staying for the night it’s a similar routine but in reverse. Unpack the cooler, freeze the ice packs, connect to wifi, put your stuff in the bathroom – but don’t spread out TOO much or you’ll waste time in the morning getting it all back together.

Even Facebook is strange when you're on the other side of the world - check out the notification icon.
Even Facebook is strange when you’re on the other side of the world – check out the notification icon.

Then, after a bunch of plane rides and grueling travel you suddenly find yourself at home. No road routine. No new bed tonight. Just up and go to work like the last two weeks (or months or years in some cases) never even happened.

I also find air travel to be completely disorienting. You get into a tin box and magically, a few hours later you’re in a completely different place with different temperatures, different scenery, different times, different people speaking different languages. Plus the whole routine of checking in, going through security, wandering around in the nebulous zone between airport gates amongst other dazed travelers from all over the world, who themselves have no idea where they are really, is just so strange.

It creates such a break from everything that preceded it, that when it’s over, no matter where I am, it feels like that’s where I’ve always been. For two weeks in New Zealand, it seemed like my whole life in New Jersey was nothing but a dream. Now it seems like New Zealand was nothing but a dream.

But then I realize that my sand fly bites are itching. And that I haven’t shaved in days. And I think about where those bites came from or where it was that I shaved last or cut my nails…and suddenly it’s all very real again and I’m back in Milford Sound or Wellington or Lake Tekapo or Matamata and it just takes me right out of it.

Hard to believe this is a real place that I stood in just a few days ago...
Hard to believe this is a real place that I stood in just a few days ago…

This is how it always is. Because even when you come home – it’s the same home and the same life and the same people – it’s you that has changed. It’s the fundamental beauty of traveling to far off places and why it makes sense to spend lots money on limited experiences as opposed to permanent items. Because while the travel ends, a good trip really stays with you for the rest of your life in a way that no 4K TV or leather sofa ever can.

Our experiences on this trip will be frames of reference for future experiences that we otherwise never would have been able to compare. Even in New Zealand, with all of the wild scenery and radically different lifestyle than what I’m used to on a daily basis, I was drawing on past experiences in the Rocky Mountains or Patagonia or other places I’ve gone. It was these past experiences that better helped me to digest what I was seeing around me and have better prepared me to deal with out of the ordinary experiences even in my daily life.

That’s why getting out of your comfort zone is so important. Because while it may not always be pony-rides in May-sunshine, real travel is the time we are most ALIVE.

The road goes on…

While I’m a little sad that this was probably the last true adventure away from home we’ll have for a while, I know we’ll be back on the road again one day.

And that is an encouraging thought indeed.

“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow, if I can.”

They’re taking the Kapoanos to Isengard… AKA back home to New Jersey

They’re taking the Kapoanos to Isengard… AKA back home to New Jersey

Well, I’m sitting here now at the lovely Emperor Club at the Auckland Airport. We had a three hour drive today followed by a 90 minute flight from Queenstown to here. Now we begin the real journey home, via California.

Since our last update, we’ve continued having some really wild experiences.

As I alluded to in the last post, on Wednesday morning we had our tour of “Rohan” AKA the Poolburn Reservoir area in the Otago region. This place was unreal. Moreso even than Hobbiton or Togariro, this was without a doubt the most Middle Earth-like area we found. They changed basically nothing for the movie. You just drive out there (with the local land owner) and BOOM you’re in a movie. We’ll have a full review of the area, including a bunch of pretty hilarious videos we got of us clowning around as Aragorn and Legolas. Really great experience.

From Poolburn we continued on to Queenstown. On the way we made a stop at the Kawariko Gorge suspension bridge which was where they shot my favorite scene in the entire series – the Great River, which is the only time in the movies where you hear the full “ring” theme in its entirety.

The River Anduin…

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you’re into), the bridge is the site of a bungee jump facility. This is not our thing. However, a lot of people really love it and if you are into bungee jumping good on ya. For me though, the blasting electronic dance music didn’t exactly evoke the kind of mood I was hoping for. Oh well!

Queenstown is a great city – I wish we could have spent more time there. We took the gondola to a really cool overlook where you can participate in more extreme sports, including more bungee jumping (what is it about New Zealand that makes people want to jump off of bridges so much?), luge and what appeared to be a really aggressive downhill mountain bike track. You can also watch a Maori Haka, which I was really excited for.

From Queenstown we proceeded to Te Anau which was to be our base for exploring Fiordlands and Milford Sound. The entire park is a must-see attraction and I highly recommend taking a cruise out on the water. It’s incredible. After our miserable weather luck in the beginning of the trip we were blessed with one of only 14 average days of clear skies they get in a year. The cruise, hikes (think Fangorn Forest type of scenery) and underwater observatory will probably be the subject of their own post as well. UNLUCKILY we were actively pursued by sandflies everywhere we went – I came down with some nasty bites on my right index finger which really made steering the car a chore.

The Grey Havens? Or Milford Sound?

That night, after we got back into town, we went on a glow worm tour. This was quite the experience. After a 20 minute boat ride, we reached the entrance to the caves where the glow worms live. We then walked through a dimly lit tunnel to a pitch black cave. We then boarded ANOTHER boat on an underground lake. I’m pretty sure if we lingered there long enough we would have been challenged to a game of riddles by Gollum. Anyway the glow worms were pretty cool but there was no photography allowed.

Gollum’s Cave. Also the entrance to the glow worms.

The last day was our last full day. We drove down the Catlins in the hopes of maybe seeing some Aurora Australis. Fat chance. But the scenery was really beautiful on the coast again and at twilight the hills were truly beautiful.

The Shire at Twlight…this time in the Catlins.

Today we came all the way back up to Queenstown. After a couple of last-minute adventures where we nearly ran out of gas and were treated to a speeding ticket (going 116 KPH in a 100 KPH zone) a mere 90 minutes from returning the car, our driving experience came to an end. All in all driving in New Zealand wasn’t nearly the challenge everyone made it out to be. But a full review and write up of that experience is coming as well.

A final view of the rolling hills of New Zealand.

Now we’re just waiting to board our flight to California, so this is going to be the last post I do from inside the country. We’re a little depressed, but we were never going to move here sooooo this moment was inevitable before we even left. However, you can expect a load of detailed reviews and write ups of our various excursions and experiences to come. Final thoughts will be coming as well once we’re home.

The Ring goes south (island)…

The Ring goes south (island)…

So it’s been a while since our last update. Mostly because we just haven’t been able to sit still (aside from sleeping) for much longer than an hour at a time.

Since leaving dreary, rainy Wellington, our injuries have mostly healed. Ariel is back to normal and I’m getting over a nasty cold/runny nose that cropped up early on Saturday morning. Apparently running yourself ragged on the slopes of Mount Doom and then going on 2-3 hour hikes immediately afterwards is not the wisest decision in the world.

Over the past few days we’ve been driving in the South Island of New Zealand. And

it

is

INCREDIBLE.

While the North Island had a lot of cool sites to visit, the South Island really is like being in a fantasy world. It is all it’s cracked up to be.

We also got an upgraded car thanks to Ariel haranguing Budget for all the issues we had with the GPS and the crappy car in general. It’s been a major difference since we’re able to spread out. This is a key thing to keep in mind, the size of the car may hurt you a bit on gas mileage but when you’re spending 5+ hours of your life in it everyday, the most important decision you’ll make on one of these trips is how you are getting around.

The second, and last, of our mighty steeds…

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve been up to over the past few days.

On Saturday after dumping the rental car, we traversed the Cook Strait via ferry. Unfortunately it was pretty grey and dreary but it’s still a great experience. If you are doing the rental car thing MAKE SURE you take the Interislander ferry, not the Blue Bridge like we did. More details on this in our upcoming detailed review of renting a car in New Zealand. From the ferry port of Picton we then took a quick drive around the Marlborough Sounds region and then drove across the longest winding mountain road I’ve ever seen. Some of it in the rain. Fun.

After what seemed like hours (because it was) we finally emerged onto the West Coast highway of the South Island. Wow. Imagine the Pacific Coast highway in California…but maybe better.

We went on to see the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki. At this point, the sun was teasing us coming in and out of the clouds – this time with a rainbow. The whole place was awesome but we were exhausted (especially me – at this point I was really not feeling well and driving was getting to be a real chore).

Finally we arrived at the west coast town of Greymouth just in time to crash in our motel bed.

The next morning, we continued on to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. I wasn’t feeling too hot so our hikes were really limited. Also limited was the visibility. Apparently they get five meters of rain there a year. That’s a lot. It was rainy and foggy and we were only able to see Franz Joseph. Pretty disappointing but it was still cool.

The Franz Joseph Glacier – it’s much more impressive in person…

After the glaciers, we barreled across the Southern Alps (AKA the Misty Mountains). Once we got across into the valley, the sun came out again – this time for good. We took a short forest hike down to the Blue Pools before continuing on to our final destination of the day – Lake Wanaka. It had been a few days since we stayed somewhere with air conditioning…apparently from Wellington on south, it’s not really common to have AC. This was the first night we badly needed it.

On Monday we went from Lake Wanaka to Twizel, where the famous battle of Pelennor Fields took place in Return of the King. After a pretty sad attempt at a drone flight over the area we continued to a Mount Cook overlook (AKA the Lonely Mountain only in real life it’s not so lonely). This place was really breathtaking. Unfortunately, it would become the site of a minor disaster the following day.

From there we went all the way up to Mount Sunday across a 20 mile stretch of not-so-smooth gravel road. This was where they filmed the outdoor Edoras scenes in the Two Towers. The hike up looked like it would be tough, but we powered through and aside from a couple of mishaps crossing a stream, we got to the top with no incidents.

Full review of the area coming in a separate post.

Mount Sunday… or to Lord of the Rings fans, Edoras.

From there we drove back down the way we came until we arrived in Lake Tekapo where we stayed the night. But not before taking a trip up to the Mount John Observatory after dark for a stargazing tour.

Absolutely incredible. And also worthy of its own post.

The Magellenic Clouds. Each of those fuzzy areas is an ENTIRE GALAXY.

Finally at about 1:30 am the longest day of the trip (and one of the best) came to an end.

YESTERDAY we had a bit of an incident. From Lake Tekapo we returned to the Mount Cook area – this time to a different overlook. Here I got it into my brilliant brain to try and take the drone out for a spin again. It…didn’t go well…

Immediately after takeoff the wind just took it away from me. Immediately I had to go running after it just to try and get it to respond to my commands. Eventually I managed to bring it down on the wrong side of the street. After sliding down the side of the cliff I was relieved to see it stayed together in one piece. All I needed to do was reach for it…and… I stepped, through what I thought was grass right into a knee-deep swamp. Disaster. And what made it worse was that I still couldn’t even reach it so now I had to put my other foot into the swamp in order to get it.

Now my shoes, socks and shorts were soaking wet, covered in mud and slime and Lord knows what else… and we had about five hours of driving before we got to our next stop.

So that sucked. Luckily I was driving around with practically an entire wardrobe, so aside from the fact that I had to drive in flip flops for the whole day it wasn’t too bad. At least there weren’t any leeches.

But in that moment… man…

The rest of the day wasn’t too eventful, we made some cool stops along the Waitiki Valley and on the east coast but I was just relieved to arrive at our home for the evening – the Millfield Cottage in Omakau. This place was great, but again no air conditioning and no screens on the windows.

Yesterday morning we had our tour of Rohan and spent some time in Queenstown, but that’s going to be the subject of its own standalone post soon.

That’s all for this update, stay tuned for more, including the resolution of one of our primary missions for this trip. Would we be able to find the location of this famous scene?

Stay tuned…