Flying Through Florida

A short review of the three-day span I spent in Miami, Florida, for my Peace Corps staging event.

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Hey there, lovely readers!

I hope you’re doing well as we move into the second week of September!  I know it’s been a while since I made a post, but this is my first one as a Peace Corps trainee in Nicaragua.  I plan to post about my experiences here before too long, but I figured I’d start with a slightly delayed blog about Florida, the state of our pre-departure staging in August.

Florida became my 43rd U.S. state on August 7th, though I really didn’t see much of it in my three days there.  The flight in allowed me a lovely view of the sea city of the South, Miami.  I was amazed at how the city was split in parts by the bays and shores of the Atlantic Ocean, like a cerulean iris split by the metropolitan pupil of Miami’s suburbs.  The flight went without any problems or complaints, and I was able to catch Logan on the way there, thanks to Delta’s complimentary services (note that I’m not sponsoring/sponsored by Delta at all; I simply appreciate their flight services).  When I landed in Miami, I found the public transit very easy to navigate, and I took the metrorail to my hotel very efficiently.  We spent most of the next 24 hours in the hotel for training and sleeping, but at the end of the second night, we had time to explore Miami and Miami Beach (shoutout to Peace Corps for the funded excursion!).  We ate at a couple restaurants while we were there, and I enjoyed both the Mexican and marine cuisines I found.  On the second night, I opted to check out Miami Beach with a group of my fellow trainees, and after some meandering and Uber rides, we swam in the ocean for a bit before heading out to dinner.  I don’t like beaches or oceans usually, but I enjoyed myself and even went for a short jog on the beach.  Miami Beach is certainly clean to tour though, and the hotels/resorts there are incredibly nice and fancy.  We grabbed supper in a pizza place, and we basically ended the night by heading back to the hotel and heading out the next morning.  It probably wasn’t a very great perspective of Florida as a whole, but it wasn’t my least favorite state by any means.

Stay tuned for reflections on my training sometime in the next couple months!  I’m about one month in now, so my first post will include some first impressions of culture, geography, and infection here in Nicaragua.  Until then, happy reading and safe travels! 🙂

Minnesota

Bits and pieces about the northernmost reaches of the American Midwest.

Hey there, lovely readers!

Today I have the final update from my older travels—this piece will bring us up to date on where all I’ve been, so everything from this point on will be “live,” so to speak, and (hopefully) include more pretty pictures!  Surprisingly, with as much as I’ve been to Minnesota my whole life, I’ve never really retained any photographic evidence of how beautiful the state is, so please do Google the places and landmarks as you read about them.  Without further ado, here’s my state #2!

Like Iowa, I will describe Minnesota by traveling across the state to the different places I’ve been.  Minnesota is a larger state than most though, so I actually haven’t seen a decent portion of it.  Most of the really picturesque locations are close to the Canadian border, so please do conduct further research if you want to see the raw parts of Minnesota.

The culture of Minnesota is very similar to that of Iowa, My Home.  Most people have some sort of Scandinavian or German heritage, though Minnesota does have a fair share of Native American areas as well.  Both the Chippewa and Sioux tribes have history in Minnesota, and both cultures can be seen in certain areas.  Minnesotans are also quite reserved, like Iowans, but they are outgoing and fast-paced as well.  Anyone from around here will tell you that the difference between an Iowan and a Minnesotan is about as drastic as that of someone from a different country—you don’t want to confuse the two or group them together.  However, cultural pastimes and holidays are almost identical in the two states, and the only difference in weather is that Minnesota tends to get more snow in the winter, sometimes measurable in feet, rather than inches!  Minnesota also has much greater cultural diversity than does Iowa (with many immigrants from countries in eastern Africa and Central America), and it has an especially mixed metro area near the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul).  It is becoming so popular and diverse, in fact, that it is often referred to as the next Seattle or similar city.

Minnesota is called the land of ten-thousand lakes, and it becomes pretty apparent why as you drive across the state.  Like Iowa and most of the Midwest, Minnesota used to be completely underwater.  While millennia have passed since this was the case, the evidence of such geography still lingers in the rich biomes of marshland and forest throughout the state.  Let’s look at where all I’ve been, starting in the west and moving east.

I-90 is the main interstate that runs east-west in southern Minnesota.  From the South Dakota border to the intersection with I-35, there really isn’t anything worth stopping for, so I’ll save you the time of discussing it.  Near the North Dakota border, though, I-94 leads from Fargo, ND, to the Twin Cities, in east-central Minnesota.  Moorhead, MN, and Fargo, ND, are connecting cities, and they have a very similar feel.  I-94 leading up to the two can be a bit of a boring drive, to be honest, but it does offer a good look at all the lakes and relative barrenness as you start to enter northern Minnesota.  The scenery is pretty similar until you reach the cities, so I’ll again save you tedious details.  Slightly west of the cities and still to the north lies Onamia and the area near Mille Lacs Lake.  Like my trips to South Dakota, Oregon, and Michigan, this was the spot for my college cross country team’s season opener one year.  Onamia was where we traveled in 2016, my senior year, and it was a neat location to stay.  The bugs were absolutely horrid in late August, since there’s so much water nearby, but the lakes are almost unending and, therefore, rather entertaining for fishers and boaters/kayakers alike.  Onamia is about the north-south point where Minnesota’s red-chip forests start, so anyone who enjoys hiking and camping near rivers in the woods should head north of there.

Moving back to the south, Mankato is the only other noteworthy town I’ve been to west of I-35.  It is a college town, and it has plenty to see, do, and eat, as a result.  It definitely doesn’t feel crowded or pompous, as cities sometimes can, however, because Minnesota simply isn’t populated enough to sustain a city with that feel.  Mankato leads southeast to the gravel backroads and small farm towns associated with southern Minnesota and northeast to Waterville and the Sakatah trail/lake system.  Albert Lea is the first real “hub” for anyone coming up from Iowa, but it’s certainly nothing to travel to see.  Basic restaurants, lakefront views, and movie theaters are all you’ll find until you reach Owatonna and Medford, and, even then, strip malls and discount stores are the only real attractions.  I-35 will take you north to sprawling Minneapolis, and beyond that, to Saint Paul and northeastern Minnesota.

Minneapolis is the nightlife of Minnesota.  It’s where all the major malls (such as the Mall of America), bars, clubs, restaurants, sports fields, and high-rise condos are in the state.  It attracts all ages of people, but it is becoming increasingly attractive to people in their twenties and thirties, if they can afford it.  As far as cities go, though, Minneapolis is cheaper than Seattle, Chicago, or New York, so it fits the budget of those desiring a metro area.  I personally enjoy Minneapolis, and I wouldn’t mind living there at some point in the future.  It offers a good location for driving to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, or even Canada, yet it’s still far enough away from any other major cities to be dirty and crime-ridden.  Saint Paul serves as the business side of the Twin Cities, for the most part, and it houses more of the office buildings, residential stretches, and skyscrapers, with less of the entertainment venues.

Returning once more to southern Minnesota, I-90 travels east to Austin, Rochester, and into Wisconsin, near La Crosse.  Austin is where my mother is from, so we often visited when I was a child.  The town is pretty typical of bigger Minnesota towns, with restaurants and parks to visit all over.  I would consider it a cleaner and larger version of Albert Lea, and I wouldn’t recommend driving specifically to Austin for a vacation, but perhaps stopping by along the way if you’re in the area.  Rochester is even larger and boasts some pretty quality medical school training/preparation, but I would again only stop there for the mall or for friends/family you might have nearby.  Winona is slightly smaller but borders Wisconsin to the east, and it was the very place I crossed into Wisconsin when I was younger.  Bluffs and the Mississippi River are a couple of the attractions to Winona, and the University in the city is recognized for its teaching degrees.

Switching back to northeastern Minnesota, I saved the best I’ve seen for last.  I traveled up to Lutsen with a student organization in high school, and I really enjoyed the route we took.  Once I-35 moves north of the Twin Cities, it heads east toward Duluth.  Duluth is a pretty neat college town, and it separates the more populated part of Minnesota from the more raw and natural part.  I recommend it as a place to stop for lunch or a quick look at Lake Superior if you’re heading farther north.

Lutsen is part of Superior National Forest, and I would consider Superior to be one of the more enjoyable National Forests (along with those in the Appalachians and the Pacific Northwest).  The campground at which we stayed had redwood-chip trails everywhere that led to incredible rocky lookouts over the lakes and rivers nearby.  The forests in northern Minnesota are generally pine forests, but there’s usually a good mix of oak, maple, and other assorted trees in there as well.  I strongly recommend northern Minnesota over almost anywhere else in the U.S. if you’re looking to camp for more than a single night.

We slid down the alpine slide in Lutsen (like the Olympic bobsled, but with only one person and no snow), and then we headed a ways west on our return journey, to look at the iron ranges that used to be heavily mined.  We toured an old mine shaft in either Hibbing or Mountain Iron (I honestly don’t remember which), and then we came back home.  I definitely found Superior National Forest to be my favorite part of Minnesota, both during that trip and in all my ventures to the state during my lifetime.  The two must-see spots are definitely that forest and Minneapolis.

I hope that this blog post inspires you to check out Minnesota, and I hope that you enjoyed reading about what all I’ve seen in the state.  Let me know if there’s somewhere else in MN I need to go; I’ll probably be making it farther north when I venture into Canada in the future.  Until next time, happy reading and safe travels! 🙂

Oregon

A recounting of my week in the lower PNW.

Hey there, lovely readers!

Today, let’s take a trip back in time, to August 2015.  Like my journey to Michigan & Wisconsin, my time in Oregon was part of my college cross country experience.  To start my junior year, we spent a week in western Oregon and trained along the beach, and I’d like to recount it as best I can for you.  Sorry for the absence of pictures; I’m always trying to get better at taking more while traveling!

First off, let me start by saying that I think Oregon is overrated.  I might be a bit cynical and unappreciative of its natural beauty, I suppose, but I would strongly recommend Washington as an alternate destination for someone looking to experience the American Pacific Northwest.  With that said, I hope you still enjoy what I have to say about Oregon and perhaps even make the trek yourself, if for no better reason than for the thrill of travel and adventure.  Without further ado, here’s what I remember:

Our journey began with a sickeningly early morning (like 3:30 a.m., if my memory serves correctly).  We drove from our college campus in eastern Iowa to the Des Moines airport, and we left for our layover in Denver, Colorado.  At this point, I had never been to CO before, so it became state #19 for me.  I have been back to the airport twice since that flight, once on the return journey from Oregon and once when I flew to Seattle a couple years later.  Most people would argue that an airport doesn’t count as having been to or seen a state, but I would argue that I’ve spent more time in the Denver airport than I’ve spent in some states I’ve driven through.  Regardless, we made it to the Portland airport after a few hours of layover and subsequent flying, and Oregon became my 20th state.

Portland had a strangely suburban feel for me, rather than the super-populated feel I normally get from large cities.  It almost felt less populated and less-developed than other cities I had been to, but it still had the sort of charm that only a metro area can have.  We quickly left it behind after we grabbed sandwiches at Subway, however, and we headed southwest, toward our campground in Florence, OR.

As we flirted with the Siuslaw River and accompanying forests between Portland and Florence, we were given a pretty good taste of typical Oregon.  We passed countless pine trees, both those left to nature and those used for logging, and we saw our first glimpses of the renowned river scenes of the Pacific Northwest.  Mists cleared and gathered as we came deeper into the forest, and before we knew it, we left the riverside entirely to dive fully into the mossy forest.  Our campground was decently deep in a dense part of the Siuslaw Forest, so when we arrived at around 9:30 p.m., it was pretty dark already.  We weren’t about to let that stop us, as adventurous as we were, and the whole team went for a short run before an abbreviated supper and slumber.

Like several of my other earlier travels, I don’t think I can very well keep the days of the trip straight after the first night.  I know that we spent time at the Dunes National Recreation Area the next day, but my dislike of beach scenes (I know, I’m like the only person ever…) and my recent injury to my hamstring beforehand prevented me from enjoying it very much.  Not to mention that the tide came in and pretty much ruined anything nice we had on the beach…  Anyway, the team returned once or twice later in the week, but the cripples who weren’t at 100% stayed at the campgrounds at that time.  We had a lake and trails to explore, but the water was a bit too cold to really enjoy.  And I like them slightly more than I used to, but I wasn’t very keen on the mossy trails of the Pacific Northwest at the time.

Another one of the days included a trip to nearby Eugene, home of The University of Oregon.  Eugene is pretty much the headquarters for runners in the U.S.A., so it was a treat to see the campus and run around the town for a bit.  I think Eugene was probably my favorite part of the trip, and it’s the one spot I would call a must-see for anyone going to Oregon.  The campus at the University was massive and covered in beautiful flowers (like rosebushes, right in the middle of sidewalks on campus!), and the whole run around the town was really rather enchanting.

We visited the Heceta Head Lighthouse for our annual “date night,” and I enjoyed seeing the nearby cliffs and beaches as our bus climbed toward it.  We mainly just took some pictures there, but we also had the pleasure(?) of hearing a bagpiper play for a while.  I thought the lookout was cool overall, and I would recommend it if you’re looking for a sight to see near Florence for an evening.

The rest of the trip is a blur in my memory, save for the final day(s).  We drove up to McMinnville, near Portland, and ran our customary camp race for the week.  We raced Linfield College, and though the course was a bit mushy and the competition slim (no pun intended), most of us really enjoyed the experience.  The top ten finishers even received some pretty cool purple shirts, and I’m still mad that someone later sole mine out of my car in a parking garage…  Anyway, we took our happy, soggy selves to Portland and lodged in a hotel overnight before flying back to Iowa the next morning.  The trip ended rather uneventfully, and though Oregon isn’t one of my favorite states by any means, I enjoyed the experience we shared as a team and had a fond time with my stay in Oregon.

I hope this post enlightened and/or inspired you to investigate your own travels in the Pacific Northwest.  If there’s anywhere else up there I need to see, let me know!  Until next time, happy reading and safe travels! 🙂

New Mexpectations

An account of my trip to New Mexico and how it surpassed my expectations.

Hey there, lovely readers!

Since I’ve finished and uploaded my new poems I wanted to spend some time on, I can again bring you some tales of my adventures in the U.S.A.! This post will hopefully allow you to better understand New Mexico and its surprises, as well as some other states along the way.  I hope you enjoy!

My trip began from home, like most others, but this was the first time I drove somewhere to meet someone who didn’t live there.  My friend Adam (yep, the same one from my travels out west) drove down from Salt Lake City to meet me in southeastern New Mexico.  The drive was about 13 hours for him and 21 hours for me (including stops for food and fuel), so we both spread the drive out over two days to reach our rendezvous point.  My drive followed I-35 south from Iowa to Kansas City, MO.  This was my first time driving through Kansas City, and I didn’t find it as fun as large cities farther east.  I ate at a Five Guys, which you might remember I fancy from The Road to Washington, D.C., and then I crossed into Kansas and began my journey west.

Kansas was my 39th state, and I love that new states can still surprise me and go against my expectations.  I thought Kansas would be a flat, boring prairie, and while it mostly is, the stretch from Kansas City to Emporia was full of lush, green vegetation and beautiful scenery.  I hadn’t expected to like or recommend Kansas to anyone at all, but I think it’s worth the visit, just to see the change from the greenery of the Midwest to the harsh dryness of the Southwest.  It was a pretty boring second half of the day as I drove across the browner part of Kansas, but I did enjoy seeing oil derricks along the way.  I didn’t know they were used in Kansas, and it was my first time seeing them in real life.  I’ve also heard that Kansas’s sunflower fields are mesmerizing at certain times of the year, but I didn’t see any of them on my visit, unfortunately.  I stopped for the night at the Moon Mist Hotel in Meade, KS, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for lodging in the area.  It was around $50 for the night (about half of what a single room normally costs at a hotel in the U.S.), and it was kept clean and well-stocked.  Although the owners could have been a tad more welcoming, I would definitely stop here again if I didn’t have friends or family nearby.

After a longer first day (about 12 hours on the road), I took the second day to enjoy the drive a little more and prepare myself for an awesome time in New Mexico.  I crossed quickly through the rest of Kansas and the panhandle of Oklahoma (state #40) as I made my way southwest.  Oklahoma was pretty much what I expected:  a flat grassland without much to see.  Perhaps it would have been more exciting if I hadn’t been to solely the panhandle, but I still think it’s a state worth skipping.  Texas upped the ante (and the speed limit) from Oklahoma, with a relatively short drive there as well.  Texas has the scariest roads I’ve ever driven (aside from Jocassee Gorges in South Carolina), with 75-mph limits on two-lane roads with loose gravel…  I appreciated their efficiency, but it was a wild ride for the few hours I was there.  I stopped for lunch in Dalhart, TX, and I enjoyed the Mexican food I ordered (especially the guacamole!).  I jumped back on the highway after lunch, as I was about two hours behind Adam, and promptly saw more cows in five minutes than I ever had in my whole life (perhaps combined?)!  Dalhart is in cattle country, U.S.A., and, well, everything’s bigger in Texas, or so they say…

The end of day two brought me into and through New Mexico (state # 41), though the drive actually kind of passed quickly in my mind.  Northern New Mexico is mostly dry and desolate, the typical picture of the American desert, which I dislike.  Spanish radio stations are available once you get to Texas and further southwest/east, though, so I enjoyed being able to feel culturally separated from what I’m used to.  As I mentioned earlier, I love when new states can still surpass (or completely unhinge) my expectations, and that’s exactly what New Mexico did.  I didn’t expect to like it, to be honest, but I thought it would be fun to visit Adam and knock out the states I had left in the Southwest at the same time.  I found that there was more than just desert in New Mexico, however, and I was enchanted (sorry, I couldn’t resist using the term from their license plates…) by the plateaus, monsoon rains, rolling hills, and evergreens scattered about.  Our rendezvous point was Aguirre Spring campground, between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, so I even got a peak at White Sands (our destination for the next day) on my way to meet Adam.  I tried to stop at Three Rivers Petroglyphs, but the monsoon rains hit just as I was about to explore, and I opted to keep driving, rather than be drenched and stuck somewhere in the desert.

I made one of my foolish decisions of the trip (maybe the most foolish?) in foregoing the gas station in Alamogordo, as I thought my car would reach 350-400 miles before needing fuel.  I usually refill right around 300 miles, but the fuel gauge is broken anyway, and I’ve only had the fuel light come on once, the first day I drove my car and ran out of fuel, so I wasn’t sure how far I could push it without running out.  I drove past Alamogordo at around 280 miles on the current tank of fuel, and I figured that if I did run low on fuel, there would be a station between Alamogordo and Las Cruces (about a 50-mile gap).  I didn’t know that our campsite was ten miles off the highway, unfortunately, so my low-fuel light turned on just as I pulled up to our campsite.  We had planned that I would pick up Adam and we would go to Las Cruces for firewood and fuel, but the circumstances made us take his car instead, to avoid running out of fuel on the highway.  All was fine, and I bought a gas can in Las Cruces (with which we were able to get my car full enough to make it elsewhere for fuel the next day), but the whole snafu cost me an extra $15 and some wasted time (not to mention we almost weren’t let back in to our campsite, since we didn’t make it back until just after 8:00!).  We made a small campfire and narrowly avoiding a lovely sounding rattlesnake while collecting wood, and then we finally relaxed for a short while before calling it a night.

We arose a bit earlier the third morning (around 7:30 a.m.) and headed out for our adventures of the day.  We started at White Sands National Monument, Adam’s favorite place in New Mexico.  The area reminded me of what I imagine the deserts in the Middle East look like, and I conceded that it was a pretty cool place to visit, even if it is just in the desert.  The featured photo for this post is from White Sands, to give you an idea of what it looks like.

From White Sands, we headed east, with a goal of visiting Carlsbad Caverns in the same day.  I accidentally took us farther north than we planned, but it actually allowed us to drive through some unexpected pine forests and Native American villages (check out Mescalero!), which I thought was the coolest part of my entire trip.  We eventually made it back on track, but we had to forego a formal lunch for the chance to make it in time.  We toured Carlsbad Caverns and narrowly avoided being hammered by more monsoon rains, and it was a pretty cool visit.  I don’t think I would hype the place up quite as much as do most people (don’t go out of your way to see it), but I do think it’s worth it to see some caves if you never have before.  The experience is almost surreal, especially if you consider that people lived in similar places at certain times in human history.  It was fun for me to visit because of my fascination with fantasy fiction (such as Dungeons & Dragons), so the caverns were almost mythical, in a way.  Anyway, before I nerd you all out, here’s a couple shots from deep inside the caverns.  Hard to imagine people discovering this without the lights we have today!

Carlsbad2

Carlsbad

After we visited the caverns, we headed back into Carlsbad, NM, for supper.  We wanted some quality Mexican food, so we ironically ended up at a food-truck restaurant, where we both ordered stuffed taquitos.  The vender is called La Patrona and is pretty good for the price, so check it out if you’re ever in Carlsbad.  Our decision for food also tied in with our decision for camping location, because we had discussed climbing the highest point in Texas the next morning.  Once we researched the peak a bit more, however, we decided it would be best to camp northeast of Carlsbad, so that I could start my eastbound leg of my journey the next morning.  We went for a short run in the desert and camped just off some ATV trails, and in the morning, we bid our fond farewells and headed our separate ways.  Adam went south to conquer Guadalupe Peak (as he has a goal of climbing the highest point in each state), while I hopped on the highway and headed into Texas.

Day four took me all the way across Texas, and while much of the state was pretty flat and bland, the day was not uneventful for me.  It was in the late morning, while driving toward Abilene, that I heard the news of Chester Bennington’s suicide.  I couldn’t really even fathom it at first, and the haunting thoughts of it ate slowly at my attention span the rest of the day.  I won’t convolute this post with my thoughts on the subject, but please do read My Short Guide to Prevent Suicide if you want to see how I responded.

I found eastern Texas to be pleasantly surprising, much like eastern Kansas.  The Dallas-Fort Worth area was a fun metro to drive through, and the closer I came to Louisiana, the greener the scenery became.  I didn’t know (but should have guessed) that Texas became more like the South as it stretches east, so I recommend the area between D-FW and Shreveport, LA, if you’re going to make the trip.  I-20 took me east into Louisiana, my 42nd and most current new U.S. state.

I admittedly didn’t see much of Louisiana, as I stopped for the night in Shreveport and stayed in a pretty small radius, but I liked what I saw and would consider the visit worthwhile.  Louisiana has a swampy feel that is pretty much instantaneous once you enter the state, and I don’t know of anywhere else in the U.S. that has the same feel (except maybe Florida?  I’ve never been there yet.).  I tried to find some authentic Cajun food, as Louisiana is the only place with French and Creole influence in the U.S., but I was disappointed to find that the place I chose was basically just fried fish.  I wasn’t adventurous enough on this journey to try the frog legs, but I think I would go for it if I returned to this part of the south.  I stayed in the Carleton Inn & Suites by Carlson, located right night to Shreveport’s airport.  The staff was extremely accommodating (shoutout to Mehul for the random discount!), and I was able to stay in a king-size single (not because I requested it; I just asked for the cheapest room) for only $80.  The room and the hotel were both very well furnished and clean, and I found the place to be a steal, even though $80 isn’t usually in my road-tripping budget for lodging.  Sometimes you have to settle for what you can find in the U.S., unless you want to drive four hours farther along your journey.  I strongly recommend this hotel to anyone staying in Shreveport, even though the elevator smells a bit swampy…

Day five was the final day of my journey, and it took me all the way from Shreveport, LA, to my home in northern Iowa.  The worst stretch was definitely the first hour in Arkansas, as there isn’t a road faster than 55 mph until after Texarkana.  Arkansas was surprisingly very green and hilly though, and I would consider it a pretty cool place to visit if it weren’t for the speed-limit hindrances.  If Texas is unreasonably fast for its infrastructure (I think it is), then Arkansas is equally unreasonably slow.  The highway took me north, through Fort Smith and Fayetteville, all the way to Kansas City.  From there, the return journey was just like the departure, and other than the watery mess of my air conditioning going out on my car, the trip home was pretty smooth sailing.

I hope you enjoyed my latest adventures, and I can’t wait to fill you in once I make it to Nicaragua! I’m only a week away from my journey with the Peace Corps, and I know it’ll be a tale worth sharing with you all.  Until then, happy reading! 🙂

The Road to Washington, D.C.

A recollection of my trip from Iowa to the nation’s capital.

Hey there, lovely readers!

Today I have another of my long-past journeys to impart with you.  In the spring of 2009, my class at school took a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., in order to see the American landmarks we had been studying all year.  This post will give you an idea of what I experienced about the U.S. capital, and perhaps it will interest you to make the visit.  As it has been a while since my trip, however, I will provide this disclaimer:  I have no photos to enhance the interest of my post, and I also might not recall every detail perfectly.  I hope these factors do not detract from your reading pleasure, though, and I hope you find some value in the next few minutes of adventure.

Our journey was my first major trip away from home.  Upon departure, I had only visited IA, MN, WI, and SD; the way east was just a precursor for many subsequent trips I would take in the coming years.  We rode a charter bus all the night through, and we made it through Iowa, Illinois (state #5), Indiana (#6), Ohio (#7), and West Virginia (#8), and into Pennsylvania (#9), on the first day/night.  These states unsurprisingly remained a blur to me until I visited them again later on, and I still have no recollection of West Virginia.  I wouldn’t even know I had been there, were it not for my memory of which interstates we traversed.  Anyway, we ended the drive with our first major stop, in Gettysburg, PA.

Gettysburg is important in American history because it was the site of a major battle in the Civil War, a war that kept the country united in the face of disagreements over slavery and other, much more minor, issues.  We visited the town in order to see the battlefield and museum related to the battle.  The Battle of Gettysburg, and the Civil War in general, were full of rich events and fascinating stories regarding the people, places, and motives for tension in America’s 1860s; more information than anyone would ever care to know can be found on the internet and in American libraries everywhere.  I’ll spare you the painstaking and trivial details about the history of the place, but I will just say that the battlefield is massive and rather neat to visit, and a trip to Gettysburg could be very informative of America’s history for international visitors who are not familiar with it.  We also toured and ate at The Dobbin House, which was once used as a hideout station on The Underground Railroad (google this if you’re unfamiliar with the history of slavery in the United States).  It wasn’t particularly outstanding or special to experience, but there was some novelty and fun in eating dinner at a colonial house.

From Gettysburg, our trip took us southeast, into Maryland (state #10 for me) and the Washington, D.C. metro area.  I don’t remember exactly which day was which adventure, but our adventure farthest north was the city of Baltimore.  I really enjoyed the city and found its piers and streets charming, and I recommend it to anyone who has the chance to travel to the eastern U.S.  We toured an old U.S. naval ship, visited The National Aquarium, and walked about the boardwalks by the Atlantic Ocean, and then we were given time to find lunch amid the city’s many restaurants.  Some people in the class went to The Cheesecake Factory, while others spread out to various locales.  My group went to The Hard Rock Café, and I had an all-around grand experience there.  Our evening at a Baltimore Orioles professional baseball game ended the day, and even though I care not for most professional sports, I had an enjoyable time at the game as well.  On a side note, I was spontaneously approached by someone handing out samples for Old Bay seafood seasoning, and it has been my favorite seasoning for pasta, poultry, fish, and rice ever since.

After our lovely day in Baltimore, we traveled to Washington, D.C., where we would stay until our departure a few days later.  One day in D.C. included a visit to Union Station, a depot for trains that has been grossly (yet charmingly) “touristicated.”  I remember seeing many gimmicky electronics shops, one of which successfully lured our foolish 14-year-old selves into buying low-quality junk for a “great deal.”  Regardless, I also remember eating at Flamers, where the hamburgers and chicken sandwiches were rather tasty.  Only the first night in D.C., however, Union Station was followed by several other neat adventures in the nation’s capital.

I’m pretty confident that we visited the U.S. Capitol Building at some point, but I really don’t remember it very clearly, to be honest.  I remember eating at Five Guys Burgers and Fries one day (perhaps my favorite place ever for a burger, despite the mixed reviews online), and I think it was the same day we went to a bunch of national monuments around the city.  We visited the Washington Monument, The Jefferson Memorial, The World War II Memorial, The Korean War Memorial (which commemorates those who fought in The Korean War, like my grandfather Roger), The Lincoln Memorial, The Vietnam War Memorial, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial (probably my favorite memorial, as it had plenty of cherry blossoms and water-and-stone sculptures to admire).  We also visited the National Cathedral, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the White House on a separate day, and at one point when the class was given the chance to explore the National Mall (a grass stretch in front of the Washington Monument, rather than the shopping malls most people think of when they see the word mall), my small group visited The Library of Congress, which I really wanted to see.  The Library wasn’t as cool as I had hoped, since the vast majority of materials in The Library were in digital and referential form, rather than in physical book form.  This makes perfect sense, given the sheer amount of literature in the U.S. and the world, but it escaped my common sense as an eighth-grader.  If I were to recommend the highlights to hit in D.C., I would say that the Roosevelt Memorial, National Cathedral, and Holocaust Museum are the three must-sees in the big city.  If I ever make it back, I will surely have to visit the Peace Corps Headquarters as well, because how could I not?

After our exploits in Washington, D.C., we also spent a short time in Arlington, Virginia (state #11 for me).  We toured The Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, which is truly incredible and haunting.  It is home to the graves of U.S. militants from several wars in the nation’s brutal history, and the sheer number of tombstones is enough to take your breath away.  While at the cemetery, we watched The Changing of the Guards, a ceremony wherein the militants protecting The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (a final burial for an unidentified casualty in World War I, more recently accompanied by casualties from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) change places at the end of their shift.  The procession is very orderly and entertaining to watch, and you can watch the ceremony once per hour in the winter, or once every 30 minutes in the summer.  My favorite part of Virginia was probably our visit to Mount Vernon, the home of President George Washington’s slave plantation.  The plantation is massive and has tours through all the buildings and grounds of the farm, though the best part is definitely the stunning Potomac River, which runs right alongside the property.  I found the plantation fascinating, and I think it well worth the time and effort to visit if you’re going to Virginia and/or D.C.

After our time in the D.C. area, we took a very similar route home and finished off the last month of our middle-school lives.  The road home was completely uneventful, and my travels went on hiatus for several years afterward.  I wouldn’t mind making the trip back to the nation’s capital someday, though, and I hope you feel like D.C. would be worth your while as well after reading this post.

Stay tuned for my next post, regarding my trip to Oregon in 2015!  Until then, happy reading and safe travels! 🙂

Michigan & Wisconsin

A journey through my two favorite states in the Midwest United States.

Hey there, lovely readers!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my adventures all across the U.S., and today I have another location you should visit.  Located right along the Great Lakes in the north-central part of the country, Michigan is our destination of the day.  Along the way, we’ll also take a look at some of the most memorable points in Wisconsin, the bridge between my homeland of Iowa and the beautiful upper peninsula of Michigan.  Hopefully, this virtual journey sparks your interest enough to make a visit to these two beautiful states in the eastern Midwest, but even if not, I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

Wisconsin is the third state I ever visited, and I’ve been to the state a handful or two of times since.  It reminds me of a middle ground between Iowa and Minnesota, not in terms of location, but rather in terms of atmosphere.  Like Iowa, it has an instantly homey feel and is welcoming for the most part.  And, like Minnesota, Wisconsin has a great wealth of natural treasures and landmarks offset by larger cities, a combination that elicits constant entertainment for the traveling visitor.  Admittedly, I haven’t seen a whole lot of Wisconsin, but I’ll walk you through the lovely parts I have seen:

On the western border of the state, near the MN/IA border, is the city of La Crosse.  Wisconsin, like New York and California (among other states), has a system of colleges and Universities wherein the University of Wisconsin has schools in a bunch of major cities throughout the state.  UW-La Crosse is one example of this educational structure, and the campus and surrounding area of La Crosse are quite charming.  The city has plenty of shops, restaurants, and people, so it feels like an actual city, but it also feels very connected to the University and relatively safe and nurturing.  A great idea while in the area is to run or drive up Granddad Bluff, which offers a stunning overlook of the city and stretches all the way to the Mississippi River on the horizon.

Farther to the southeast are Platteville and Madison, home to two more of the UW schools.  I haven’t seen much of either town, to be honest, but they struck me as pretty typical Midwest towns without much for which to stop.  Of the two, Madison is definitely the more entertaining, as it is also the capital of Wisconsin.  Northeast of these two cities are Oshkosh and Appleton, again home to a UW school.  I competed in several large cross country meets in Appleton during college, including the DIII national championships in 2015.  The area, much like La Crosse, is absolutely gorgeous in the fall.  It has some larger rolling hills and plenty of trees, which makes for a colorful and exhilarating autumn visit.  The featured photo for this post actually comes from Waverly, Iowa, but it represents what you might find while walking on any trails in the Midwest in autumn.

Wisconsin, like the Sioux in Iowa and South Dakota, is home to much influence of the Chippewa tribe of Native Americans.  Many town names demonstrate this heritage, and Wisconsin communities attempt to preserve the rich culture of their history.  Oddly enough and not related at all, Wisconsin also has no gravel roads.  Every road in the state is paved, a phenomena that is pretty much unheard of in the U.S., due to costs of infrastructure (even though the costs of gravel versus paved roads can equal out over time when maintenance is included).  But enough about the fine details; let’s journey farther from Iowa and into the beauty of the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Michigan is separated into two main parts:  the mainland, north of Illinois and Indiana, and the upper peninsula, north of Wisconsin.  I made Michigan my 18th state when I traveled to the U.P. with my cross country team in 2014.  We spent a week in Crystal Falls, at a campground right next to a lake.  We ran and exercised throughout the day, but we had a solid amount of free time to explore the area as we pleased.  I used this time to kayak across the lake and back for most of the week, and, as such, the raw nature of the pine trees and pristine lake enraptured me.  Although I haven’t been back since I started exploring most of the U.S., Michigan still is one of the most positive memories I have of states I’ve seen.  The forests and lakes stretch on and on in the U.P., and they are an excellent place to camp for a week if you need a vacation.

We finished our week in MI with a race at Michigan Technological University, located in Houghton, near the tip of the peninsula.  The cross country cross is a forest frenzy for nature lovers, and the trails would likely entertain anyone who does or doesn’t like running.  A fair warning, however, is that the course may or may not have a half-mile-long hill.  My old teammates will surely remember the Michigan Tech course; it was an experience, to say the least.

Perhaps my lack of photos has made it harder for me to sell the beauty of Wisconsin and Michigan, but I hope that this post sparks interest in visiting them if you are in the U.S.  I certainly hope that I’m able to see mainland Michigan someday, and I may very well have to make a trip back to Crystal Falls with my family in the future.  Did I miss any important or awesome places in these states?  Let me know!

Until next time, happy reading! 🙂

Iowa, My Home

Anything and everything a traveler might want to know about my home state in the U.S.A.

Hey there, lovely readers!

I have a real treat for you today!  This post is my attempt at a travel blog for a place to which I don’t even have to travel—I’ve lived in Iowa my entire 22 years, and it holds more memories than probably any other place I’ve been.  With that in mind, I apologize in advance if I forget or overlook any important details, because most of what I’ve seen is second-nature to a native and happens daily without notice.  I hope this post will answer any questions you might have about my home state, and I hope it will inspire you to make a visit to the American Midwest at some point in your life.  As with my other travel posts, I don’t have many pictures to include, but most of what I’ll include in this post can be researched further and found on the internet.  I recommend following along with a map, as this will reduce the confusion with town names and locations.  Happy reading, and welcome!

First and foremost, Iowa is not a state to hit-and-run if you want to truly enjoy your visit.  The state’s two major interstates are rather barren in most stretches, and there aren’t any true “cities” to traverse in wonder.  There are both rural and populated areas throughout the state, but most of Iowa’s best treasures are found only by talking to and spending time with the locals.  I will admit that even I do not know all that Iowa has to offer, as my experiences come mostly from the eastern half of the state and are limited as a result.  The main areas of focus for me are north-central Iowa, in the small towns surrounding I-35 north of Mason City, and east-central Iowa, from Waverly to Cedar Rapids or so.  I’ll start from the western side of the state and move eastward, telling you about all the details that I think matter.

When you come to Iowa, you’ll want to keep two important details in mind:  the culture (both the people and the food) is pretty consistent and bland, while the weather definitely is not.  We have four distinct weather seasons, though we often joke that all four can occur in a day (and we aren’t really lying!).  Most of the state comes from agricultural backgrounds and Scandinavian ancestry, though there are certainly pockets of Native American communities and city-slickers if you know where to look.  The only “spices” you’ll likely taste in our food are salt, butter, and cheese, so if you want cuisine with a kick or without high fat content, you may want to make your own.  I do strongly recommend trying some of the local foods though, with what’s available depending entirely on the time of year and agricultural cycle.

 I.  Weather

Speaking of this cycle, let me try to explain our weather patterns.  We start the year with winter, which includes anywhere from t-shirt-and-shorts weather to multiple feet of snow and ice (I’m talking about temps in the range of -20 Fahrenheit at times…).  It’s pretty for about two days, and then it lasts until anywhere from late February on a lucky year to May on a bad one*.  Most people sled down hills, build objects out of snow, or ride snowmobiles through the fresh powder, but anybody like me stays inside as much as possible during the winter, curled up with a good book and cup of hot chocolate.  The winter is a popular time for Norwegian heritage to show its face in Iowa, and you might be lucky enough to find lefse (a sugary potato-pastry) or one of the many other pastries.  Most Iowans would agree with me when I say to skip the lutefisk, however (and I’ve never even tried the gelatinous, lye-soaked fish!).  Those who enjoy hunting and fishing will also find winter great for venison and pheasant, as well as ice fishing in the lakes across the state.  Basketball games and wrestling meets are both popular events to attend during the winter, as sports are quite important in Iowa society.  Roads to get there can be very dangerous during the winter months, however, and people not native to Iowa should really ask someone from Iowa to chauffer for them if they need to go somewhere, for the sake of everyone on the road.  We just don’t drive in the same manner as people from other states…

When winter’s wrath finally breaks, we enter the sadly short season of spring.  It can last until about May or June, and it bridges the cold months and the warm ones.  Temperatures range from 50’s to 70’s during the day, and it’s generally a pretty comfortable time.  It can often rain quite a bit during the spring though, and a random snow shower or two isn’t uncommon in May.  This is often when crops are planted in the state’s vast fields (primarily corn and soybeans, with some other grains and vegetables across the state), and the best foods of which to take advantage are beef and pork, which are often slaughtered in the spring to make way for new livestock.  Track and field meets are the major entertainment during the spring, for those who care to catch up on local culture.

As the temperatures rise and the thunderstorms become more dangerous, our state transitions into summer.  This usually lasts until around September, but if September is especially warm, it can hold on until October.  Summer is full of grilling, boating, bonfires, and all sorts of other activities that keep people up way later than they should be awake, but unapologetically so.  We use this time to get outside as much as possible, since we are far less able to during the winter.  Temperatures can reach up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity sometimes becoming a bother as well.  Most days are not unbearable compared to other states and countries, but it can be difficult to enjoy the outdoors nonetheless.  Mosquitos are a terrible nuisance in many rural areas, and bug spray is recommended if you plan to spend any significant time out in nature.  You’ll also want to watch out for ticks in the spring and summer, as they can dig their heads into your skin and cause very serious diseases if not removed properly.  Wildlife in general is more wild in the summer, and all sorts of small mammals make their way through our grasslands.  Most are best to avoid, but just about everyone owns some furry friends if you can’t resist the urge to pet one.  A consideration to make while traveling in or through the state (and the Midwest) is that nasty storms can come up quite suddenly.  A bright, sunny day might turn into a thunderstorm with hail and tornados in a matter of an hour or two, sometimes even less.  In these circumstances, finding shelter with a cement basement is your best bet for staying safe.  Although not super-common, tornados do ravage towns in Iowa quite badly when they hit, sometimes destroying half of a town or more before dissipating.  Summer is a great time for produce, however, with melons, berries, and all sort of vegetables ripening in June through August.  July and August are the best time to try our most famous food, the best corn in the entire world (along with porkchops on the grill).  I highly recommend grabbing an ear of grilled sweetcorn at a local county fair, with the butter and salt, of course!  In addition, we Iowans take pride in the American game of baseball, so summer is a good time to catch a game.  Our state parks offer cheap (and often free) opportunities to camp or backpack as well, so, as long as you don’t need mountains to be happy, they might be fun to try as well.

The final season before we return to winter is fall or autumn.  This season is my favorite of the four, but it is devastatingly short, sometimes occurring within the span of just a  few weeks.  A long-lasting fall goes from September until November, and it is during this time that gourds and pumpkins are ready for harvesting, along with apples from the state’s many orchards.  Most people enjoy the changing colors of the tree leaves during this time, and the atmosphere of fall in general is one of hope and pure inspiration.  Cinnamon and spice permeate the air in most places, and the fresh grass of cross country courses and football fields dominates the olfactory senses.  Football is probably the state’s most popular sport, so catching a high school game on a Friday night is a must-do if you visit in the fall.  Fall is also a lovely time for a walk in our many wooded areas, and we take pride in celebrating the season with poultry, pies, and assorted savory casseroles.  You don’t want to miss out on a midwestern Thanksgiving meal!  Weather is the calmest of the four seasons during this time, with temps decreasing from 70 Fahrenheit to about 50’s or 40’s during the day.  When temperatures regularly drop below 40, we know that, sadly, we have left fall behind and are headed for a nasty few months of cold leading up to Christmas.

*Our seasons actually do have designated dates (they all start on the 21st of a quarterly month; Dec-Mar for winter, Mar-June for spring, June-Sept for summer, and Sept-Dec for fall; the ranges I gave give a more accurate depiction of what actually occurs, rather than what theoretically occurs).

II.  Towns

Next, let me give you a tour of what I’ve seen in Iowa.  Maybe some or all of it will pique your interest, but it will be a pleasure for me to describe regardless.  At this point, you’ll want to pull up or open that map you have handy…

Starting in the west, let me preface by saying that the western border of Iowa is not a place I’ve really been.  I’ve heard that much of it is full of bluffs and is similar to Nebraska or South Dakota, but I’ve only ever been near Council Bluffs and Omaha, in the far south.  This section of Iowa was one of the more scenic and pretty parts I’ve seen, despite being through it very briefly, because it is about the only part with elevation changes and large hills to see.  In addition, this part of the state does well to keep trees and forest around, and I’m a sucker for a good arboretum.

If you move a bit farther west and go way north, Storm Lake and Spirit Lake are the next places I’ll mention.  Spirit Lake and Okoboji are home to the biggest lake in Iowa, and as such, they are always packed with tourists fishing and boating on the lake.  I went here once to run a 10k, and I must say that the town was a pleasure to visit.  I only spent a day here though, so my opinion might not carry much weight.  Storm Lake, a ways south on Highway 71, is home to Buena Vista University and another of Iowa’s largest lakes.  I ran my final cross country race on the college’s course, and I must say that the town also had the sort of charm you can only find in the Midwest.  It’s probably worth a visit if you’re in Iowa, even if you don’t run at all.

Taking Highway 20 east from Storm Lake, Fort Dodge is the next destination I recommend.  I’ve been here and in the surrounding towns five times in my life, three of which were for state cross country.  Fort Dodge doesn’t have a great reputation for being clean or nice, but the small towns around it are great for a picnic, and if you’re in Iowa on the last Saturday in October, I strongly recommend attending the state cross country meet at the golf course here.  It’s an exciting environment for everyone involved, and even if you don’t like running, it offers the opportunity to enjoy the fall leaves and a pie from a nearby apple orchard.

Taking Highway 169 south to I-80 and heading east, you’ll come to the capital of the state and another great place to visit.  Des Moines’s suburbs offer a great look at what a bigger “city” looks like in the Midwest.  Neat and orderly is right across the street from distressed and dilapidated, and the many restaurants and concert venues around the city make for a night or weekend of great adventures.  I personally recommend The Old Spaghetti Works, which offers unlimited refills of pasta for a little over $10, and I recommend The Seven Flags Event Center if you’re going to a music concert.  It’s small enough to get you to the front row without a fistfight, while it’s still large enough to hold popular bands and several hundred fans.  I’ve seen Breaking Benjamin, The Used, and Taking Back Sunday in the venue, and I’ve been able to enjoy the show on every occasion.  In addition, the state track meet  (and the Drake Relays) is held in Des Moines, and it is even more fun to watch in mid-May than is the state XC meet in October.  For those who like winter sports, basketball and wrestling also compete for state titles in the state’s capital.

If you not completely enjoying Iowa yet, head north on I-35 to Ames, the home of Iowa State University.  The city itself is another nice place to visit, and the school is quite nice to tour.  There are several restaurants to try if you need a bite as well, including Hickory Park, which serves excellent barbecue.  Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in Ames, so give it a visit and take my word for what it’s worth.

Much to the north of Ames on I-35 are the towns I visited growing up:  Mason City, Clear Lake, Garner, Forest City, and Lake Mills, to name several.  These towns all have their own quirks, and they are probably more sentimental to me than they would be to a traveler, but I’ll point out some of their highlights.  Starting from the west, Forest City is a nice, semi-rural college town.  Waldorf University has a nice but subtle campus, and the town itself has plenty of parks and uptown shops to peruse.  Perhaps the best feature of the town is a few miles east on Highway 9, however, in Pilot Knob State Park.  The park is basically a series of grass, dirt, and paved trails for running, hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  Is has a nice forest and prairie dichotomy, while also having the second highest point in Iowa (in the form of a lookout tower).  I definitely recommend the park to anyone passing through in the summer months.  Clear Lake is another lovely Iowa town, and, like Okoboji, it is popular for summer tourists who have lake houses and/or just enjoy the area.  Clear Lake has great roads and routes for running or biking as well, and the town is very family-friendly, with parks and shops for kids and parents alike.  I consider Clear Lake to be one of Iowa’s finest towns, and definitely worth the trip, even if you only plan to stop in one or two towns.  Mason City isn’t particularly special, with stores and shops here and there, but one note I’ll point out is Like Creek Nature Center, which is of the same appeal as Pilot Knob (if you haven’t figured it out yet, I like forests and wooded trails).  A bit more rocky and actually larger than Pilot Knob, Lime Creek has rather flat trails and wide open expanses of hidden treasures, such as deer pastures and abandoned railroad tracks.

Had you taken I-80 east from Des Moines, you would have soon encountered the Dutch college town of Pella.  Though my Wartburg family wouldn’t appreciate my mentioning our rival Central’s hometown, there is some appeal to the wooden windmills and tulips throughout the town’s center.  I hear the Tulip Festival in the spring is a sight to behold, but I have never personally attended.

Shifting back to the northern half of the state and moving southeastward, Highway 218 will take you to Waverly, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo (better known as the Cedar Valley).  Waverly, as you may have seen in my previous posts, is the home to the college I attended, Wartburg.  It is also home to a Nestle factory, so the smell of chocolate wafting through the breeze is probably the best draw I’ve ever known for a town.  Waverly is a wonderful town with shops uptown to explore and parks to visit, such as Cedar Bend, if we follow my earlier pattern of wooded trails.  The college itself might be a sight worth seeing for most tourists, as I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find a more compact campus in all the country (or perhaps the world?).  Trust me, I’ve tried and not come up with a rival yet.  Plus, the facilities at Wartburg are a treat to behold by their own quality and usefulness.  Cedar Falls and Waterloo also contain parks and fine sights, but the main reason I include them in my tour of Iowa is that they have more choices of restaurants and cuisines than practically anyone would ever desire.  I often frequently places like The Olive Garden and Hu Hot Mongolian Grill during my four years of college.  Cedar Falls is also home to The University of Northern Iowa, which has a lovely campus and fine academic resources.  But enough on the Cedar Valley; let’s move eastward.

In the north, Iowa’s farthest town of interest to the east is Decorah.  Decorah is home to Luther College, and it is located among the rocky area west of the Mississippi River.  The appeal of the town is mostly its cliff and bluff trails, which wound around and about the town, near the college’s campus.  Perhaps by this point you’ve noticed the sheer number of colleges in Iowa, and I think I’ve realized that this is one key element of America:  we have nearly countless opportunities for where to achieve a higher level of education than grade school.  I think this is unique to the U.S., and I think it’s something visitors to the U.S. would notice rather quickly.  It makes me glad to be in a place where education is so highly valued, but it also makes me sad for the countries where there are few-to-no colleges or universities and where higher education is basically impossible to attain.

In the bottom of Iowa’s far eastern “nose,” the quad cities (Davenport and Bettendorf, IA, and Moline/Rock Island, IL) and Iowa City are the state’s final attractions in my blog post.  Iowa City is home to The University of Iowa, and it is typical of eastern Iowa cities:  it is overgrown with a plethora of shops, restaurants, and malls, and it somehow still has a rural feel, even in the midst of the downtown sidewalks.  It feels much more modernized than western or central Iowa, but it does so in a way that bridges Iowa to the greater expanses east of the state’s borders.  The quad cities stretch out in much the same manner, and in bridging Iowa to Illinois, places like Davenport and Rock Island offer the opportunity to see what makes the different states of the Midwest unique in their own right.  Perhaps you’d have to visit the cities to understand what I mean, but I hold confidence that such a trip would not feel like a complete waste on your part.

III.  Culture

My final bit about Iowa, with which I’ll leave you to ponder, is the culture of the people who call the state home.  Anywhere you travel, you will find that the culture of a place can sometimes mean even more than any of the beautiful landmarks or delicious foods that can be found.  The people determine what is important in their home, and by reaching out to them and becoming aware of the culture (if not ingrained in it), you might also be able to reach an understanding of why the value what they do.  In Iowa, the state is very heavily influenced by Scandinavian and German ancestry, as well as by Native Americans, of course.  As I already alluded to earlier, this makes for a predominantly Caucasian population, with a mix of Native reservations and racial/ethnic diversity in more-populated areas.  Most of the state’s reservations are in the western portion, near South Dakota and Nebraska, as this was largely the land of the Sioux.  Amish communities exist throughout the state as well, and they can most easily be found in the eastern half of the state, near Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.  Many families still celebrate Norwegian, German, Danish, Dutch, and Swedish holiday celebrations and pastimes, and probably just as many people in the state know German or Norwegian as a second language as do those who’ve acquired Spanish proficiency.  This (although admittedly a stereotype) tends to make Iowans more stubborn and close to home than people elsewhere might be.  Iowans tend to stay in very small radii of their homes, and it is rare to find Iowans who aren’t very invested in their towns or communities.  We feel a great sense of purpose and responsibility for our families, and we often take a while to trust anyone outside of our familiar circles.  Once a part of our close friend groups, though, a visitor would find comfort in knowing that a whole community will help a single family with taking care of livestock or cutting wood for the winter stoves (though this tradition is nearly obsolete with woodstoves phasing out for more modern technology), and a close friend group is a great tool for discovering the hidden beauties of Iowa’s unique grasslands.

IV.  A Final Note

Amid all the excitement of this blog post, I almost forgot my favorite part of Iowa, and the part I meant most to share with you all.  Of all the places I’ve been and beautiful landmarks I’ve seen, there’s one part of nature in which Iowa has yet to be overthrown for me.  Even though the featured photo for this post and the photo that follows (taken in my own backyard) cannot fairly do the event justice, an Iowa sunset is the most beautifully vibrant sunset in the world, with flares of fuchsia and tangerine light almost every night.  I have watched the suns rays dip behind city skyscrapers and tropical beaches, and yet never have they been beautiful in the same way that the Midwest’s sunsets bring hope and solace to my heart.  I hope they bring you the same joy they bring me, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading about a short glimpse of my experience in Iowa, and I hope this blog sparks interest and questions for the rarely-traveled state in the heartland of America’s United States.

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Until next time, happy reading and safe travels! 🙂

North Dakota

A very brief account of my very brief visit to the Midwest’s northern reaches.

Hey, everyone!

I hope you’re enjoying my retellings of journeys past!  The next one I have comes from my junior year of college, wherein I picked up state #23 with a college visit and catch-up with a grade-school friend in Fargo, North Dakota.  While it was only for a couple days and fairly uneventful, I hope it still teaches you more about the U.S.

 

The drive to Fargo actually took me through a part of Minnesota I had never seen before, even though I’ve lived my whole life right near the border and been in about half of the state’s vast territory.  Much of it struck me as slightly sparse and similar to southern Minnesota, but it was an intriguing drive nonetheless, especially when I passed through Moorhead, MN, and into Fargo, North Dakota.  Fargo isn’t particularly outstanding or different from much of the Midwest, but it does have a charming simplicity that often rings true in Midwestern cities.  While urbanized, the university campus was very nice and clean, and the city had quality structures and resources.  I basically spent my entire time in North Dakota exploring the university’s campus and catching up with my friend, so I actually don’t have much else to say about North Dakota.  I do think, however, that it presents a unique side of the Midwest that isn’t found in the same way in any other state.  Its allure is worth the visit, even if you won’t see any jaw-dropping sights and thrills.  You will feel welcome, and if you head farther west in the state, you will surely find Native American influence in the state’s vast reservations.  Let me know if there’s somewhere else I need to visit in the state, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my other travels!

South Dakota

An account of my two trips to the western reaches of the American Heartland.

Hey there, lovely readers!

I hope you’ve enjoyed following along with my travels as they occur in real time! For better or for worse, though, I never salvaged or recorded much of my travels in a blog format prior to 2017, so much of the early journeys in my life are scattered by my imperfect memory. :/  This will be the first of several posts that attempt to relive those journeys and bring more of the United States to you, my fans and followers.  I don’t have pictures for almost any of what I will recount, and I might miss out on some details I once cherished, but hopefully you still find these glimpses entertaining and helpful in planning future travels.  Pictures of probably everything about which I’ll write can be found on Google or elsewhere, so, for the sake of my own integrity, I won’t post any pictures unless I have taken them or am in them (as is true across my entire site).  Happy reading!

This first post will cover my two vacations to the west side of South Dakota and Mount Rushmore.  The first time was my family’s only vacation in my upbringing, while the second was my college cross country team’s training camp in August 2013.  South Dakota was the fourth state I ever visited, behind Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (in that order).  Although it’s not on my list of places everyone should see in the U.S., here is what I remember about my adventures there:

When I went with my parents, we traveled all the way to Mount Rushmore and back over the course of a week or so.  We stopped by the primitive carving of Crazy Horse Monument (which is still rather unfinished but much more defined than it was in the early 2000’s), drove through the cactus flats in South Dakota, and stopped to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell.  We brought some small cacti home and planted them, and they actually thrived for several years before dying.  In fact, we still have a seed or two from the offshoots of the cacti.  My sister Sara and I enjoyed climbing the large rocks in the Black Hills, and we all found the Corn Palace entertaining.  For those who don’t know, the Corn Palace is a building made completely out of corn.  From husks to stalks, to kernels and more, every possible part of the corn plant has been included in the construction of the structure.  Sure, it’s the typically Midwest attraction that most people find bland, but it’s interesting if nothing else.  In addition, my family and I visited the Badlands while we were in South Dakota, and my parents found them more interesting than my sister and I in our younger age.  The Badlands are basically a series of massive canyons with red and white striation in the rocks; whether or not they are worth the drive is a call you’ll have to make, I’m afraid.  They strike me as similar to the mountains and canyons in the American West, so they aren’t my idea of a paradise.

When I went to South Dakota with my college teammates, we took a very similar route and made stops at the Corn Palace and Mount Rushmore.  We didn’t stop in the Badlands, but we drove through them on our way to our training camp near the Wyoming border.  On a driving-related note, one main interstate crosses South Dakota from west to east, and each property extends for miles upon miles.  The state is one of the most desolate in the country, so I recommend emphasizing your destination over trying to see sights along the way.

For running purposes, I didn’t care for the elevation and struggled quite horribly, but our time near Spearfish made the area memorable for me.  There are nice lakes and campgrounds in the Black Hills area, so, for the outdoorsy types, South Dakota might be a fine destination.  Part of our training for the week also included running (or more like trying to run) up Harney Peak, the highest U.S. point east of the Rocky Mountains.  It was brutal, but the view at the top was decent, and the run down was quite a rush! 🙂

The rest of what happened in South Dakota is either super-specific and related to running more so than to travel or is lost to my memory, so I’ll go ahead and stop there.  I recommend that you research the Native American influence in South Dakota and Iowa (mostly the Sioux tribe) if you wish to gain a better cultural understanding of the area, but I won’t profess to know much about it myself.  I hope you find some use in this post, and I hope you look forward to reading about the other places I’ve been!  See you again soon!

Appalachian Adventures

A recounting of mountains, trees, and the occasional beast in the American southeast!

Hey there, lovely readers!

   I hope those of you in the United States were able to enjoy the holiday celebrations recently, and I hope all of you enjoyed this past weekend!  I was on the road for most of the past four days, and that’s good for you, because it means I have more stories to share about my journeys.  I took the weekend to travel to South Carolina and back, hitting up some sights and other destinations along the way.  The excursion brought my U.S. state count up to 38 (NC, SC, GA), and I’m very excited to bring it to 42 in a couple weeks!  But without any further ado, here’s what went down in the Appalachians:

 

My journey started with the typical first day of heavy driving, which I always like to do so that the following days can include more exploration of new places.  I took the major interstate route through Peoria, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Lexington, and I stopped for the night in southeastern Kentucky.  My hatred for Illinois didn’t change at all; the state was still just a long and monotonous expanse of roadway to overcome along the way.  I found, however, that I have a weird pleasure with driving through cities.  In every major city I went through, I was nearly unhindered by traffic, even with it being a holiday weekend.  There’s an oddly calming sensation for me with being on a three-or-four-or-five-lane interstate or highway; I strongly prefer it to the miles in-between said metropolises.  Anyway, one surprise of the first day’s drive was that Ohio (which I hate almost as much as Illinois) actually has one spot of scenic views:  the southwestern tip of the state, near Harrison, actually has greenery and hills!  I found the same to be true of Kentucky, as I had only ever been in its western tip previously, but I still don’t find either state worth the drive.

To reach Falls Creek Campground, I traveled down through Daniel Boone National Forest and took Highway 90 east.  Though this way allowed me to see more of the forest, I wouldn’t drive it again, because the road was constantly winding and curving to the point where it was more annoying than enjoyable.  The campsite itself was pretty nice, but I headed out right away on Sunday morning, as Kentucky was never my intended destination for sight-seeing.  Plus, the overwhelming number of cicadas I encountered started to creep me out…

Day two was full of both frustration and joy for me.  As I came upon southern Kentucky and headed into northeastern Tennessee, I saw some amazing mountain overlooks from the beginning of the Appalachians.  I unfortunately don’t end up with many pictures on trips where I drive a lot, so I didn’t snap any.  I guess maybe you’ll just have to see for yourself how pretty it is? 😉  I also tried Waffle House for my first time ever, and it’s a pretty solid choice, as far as American fast-food chains go.  And since it’s in the South, you have to order the biscuits and gravy when you go (assuming you don’t order the chicken and waffles, of course).

As I continued past Knoxville, TN, I found my first and only unpleasant experience of Tennessee in my life.  I took the route through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, and let me say that it was not at all worth the drive.  I became frustrated very quickly with the traffic and gimmicks of the towns in southeastern Tennessee, and I had had no idea going in that Gatlinburg was a tourist trap.  All I had ever heard about was the massive fire damage, so the standstill traffic certainly took me by surprise.  And when I finally made it into North Carolina, there wasn’t even a welcome sign! Out of all the states I’ve driven to/through, that’s the first without a welcome sign.  Just who do they think they are!?  But I digress…

North Carolina was very similar to Kentucky for me; it had pretty, forested mountains and all, but it wasn’t any special location worth a long drive.  I made my short journey through the state in the late morning, and from there, I found the best parts of my entire weekend.

South Carolina is a true gem of the South.  The landscape is incredible, the historical influence is obvious and rich, and the wildlife is abundant, just to name a few of its qualities.  I drove down through Cross Anchor, a small town in the northwest portion of the state, and as I saw road signs and markers for plantation-museums, I realized that South Carolina is a very genuine and honest state.  Unlike much of the South, it doesn’t try to hide or defend the dark American history of slavery; the state displays it as a source of information and curiosity, just like it does with its forests and natural wonders.  While I didn’t stop for any of these attractions, I felt respect for South Carolina’s honesty.  And this appreciation for the state only increased when I saw its wildlife!  I drove through and stayed in Sumter National Forest, which is reminiscent of forests in northern Minnesota, Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest:  pine trees abound and smell heavenly, while all kinds of critters scurry and slither about.  I stopped exploring the forest only because I feared I might run into a venomous snake or spider and not see it before it saw me.  This might seem sort of silly if you’ve never been to the Midwest, but we simply don’t have many animals that can kill you, as do other parts of the country and world.

I stayed at Magnolia RV Park and Campground, and although the bugs are a slight bother, I strongly recommend it to anyone staying near Whitmire, SC.  As I’ve surely mentioned in other posts, Magnolias are my favorite species of tree (see below!), so sleeping underneath one was a treat.  The campground staff was extremely kind and accommodating as well, and the campground had trails to explore, if a person was brave enough.  It was on these trails that I found some colorful mushrooms (likely unsafe to eat…) and pretty rocks, but as I reached down to pick up one of the rocks for a closer look, I noticed a small green snake about two inches from my hand (see below!)!  I looked it up earlier and found it to be a relatively harmless Rough Green Snake, but it made me wary nonetheless and cut my forest exploration short.  I found the July humidity to be nearly unbearable in South Carolina, so although I enjoyed my time there, I didn’t find much rest or respite the second night.  I also don’t know if it was from the campground’s pool, the bugs in South Carolina, or a different cause altogether, but I developed a sort of rash, with red splotches on my midsection.  It went away in a couple days, but it alarmed me as well regardless.

MagnoliaShroomSCSnake

My third morning of vacation started extra-early, with a 5:00 a.m. departure, since I couldn’t sleep anyway.  I headed north before the sun had risen, and by the time I made it to my destination of Jocassee Gorges, the day was freshly underway.  Ironically, I passed through a town called Sunset right before the gorges, and I felt it would have made for a quality photo opportunity on a return journey.

The Jocassee Gorges could easily be renamed the Jocassee Gorgeous (okay, I admit that’s pretty cheesy, but it’s true).  As part of Sumter National Forest, the gorges are full of wildlife and quite a treat to see (as shown below).  As someone with an older luxury car, however, I should not have taken my car on their trails.  The trails were very rocky and windy, so I recommend a vehicle with some off-road ability, instead of, say, a Buick…  The view is incredible, however, and it was in the gorges that I saw a bear in the wild for the first time in my life.  While it was an exciting moment for me, it was simultaneously frightening to see a little black bear (probably a cub) come barreling across the road about 15 feet in front of my car!  I kept my eyes peeled and nerves steeled the rest of the drive in the gorges, because I really didn’t care to see the mother of the cub!  One careful note to make about the gorges is that the rocky, windy road through them does not actually go all the way through them.  It traverses about 10 miles, give or take a couple, before ending at a closed gate.  Anyone wanting to see the whole trail will have to do some hiking.  And if you hike where bears are, more power to you, because you are braver than am I!  The gorges had some nice lookouts of the Appalachians, and the pictures I took represent pretty well what you would see anywhere in the South.  From Kentucky in the northern portion to South Carolina and Georgia in the south, and west all the way to Mississippi, these views are typical of the mountains a traveler would see in America.  Speaking of which, let me tell you about the mountains in Chattahoochee National Forest!

JocasseeGorgesJocasseeFalls2

Chattahoochee is in northeastern Georgia, and it is one of the more beautiful portions of the American South.  The mountains give off an ebony or darker vibe, almost as if signifying the depth and history of the South.  The Forest stretches to about the middle of Georgia, and I skirted the northern border almost all the way to Alabama before heading north to Chattanooga, TN.  Georgia was less busy and no less beautiful than the rest of what I saw on my vacation, so I strongly recommend it to anyone wanting to see the South.  It was in Georgia or Tennessee that I decided to drive as far as I possibly could on Monday, with the ultimate hope of making it back home and not paying for a hotel or campground for another night.  I really enjoyed my vacation in the South, but I also wanted to return to everyday life and gear up for my next expedition.

As I left Tennessee and headed through Illinois, I realized one reason why I prefer driving in the South to driving in the Midwest:  the interstates are surrounded and almost crowded by lines of trees.  In Iowa especially, the interstates are border by nothing but corn and beans fields.  There isn’t any scenery worth seeing, and most of the state is as flat as can be, so the lack of trees almost seems like Iowa just doesn’t care as much as the states in the South.  But, again, I digress…

My attempt at driving from Whitmire, SC, to north-central Iowa all in one day did not succeed.  I found a second wind of joy as I drove through a nearly-deserted, sun-setting St. Louis, Missouri, at around 8:30 p.m. (Central Time, as opposed to my 5:00 a.m. start in Eastern Time), but my weariness set in shortly thereafter, and I called it quits for the day at 18 hours on the road.  It was a new record for me, and likely one I won’t try to break any time soon.  I stopped at a hotel in Hannibal, MO, and I finished the rather uneventful drive home the next day.

I hope to someday return to Georgia, if not also South Carolina, but in the meantime, stay tuned for posts about my travels from before I started my blog, my opinions on what states to visit/skip, and my next adventure in a couple weeks!  The destination will be a surprise!