Keys to a great Roadtrip

14 05 2011

As R. and I prepare for our next legendary roadtrip through the western USA, I have been thinking about the couple of things that turn a good roadtrip into a great roadtrip.

Last time we were underway, in September 2010, we covered more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers). We did a loop in the northwest, starting in San Francisco and going all the way out to Yellowstone National Park and back, with a bunch of stops in between. If we would have driven straight, we would have covered the ground between San Francisco and Boston. A cross-country trip in a circle, so to speak.

This time we are keeping south, with visits to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and much, much more. Thanks to R.’s meticulous organziation skills, we have hotel reservations in every scheduled overnight stop, and our route has been planned down to the timing of our pit stops.

A favorite place of mine: Bryce Canyon.

So here are my personal top five ingredients for a great roadtrip:

1) A decent car, preferably something large like a van or an SUV – It is a gas-guzzler (20 mpg on a good day) but the driving comfort and sitting high up above the street is really priceless. And I can handle the bad conscience of driving one of these behemoths of the road when I’m on vacation because at home I am very conscious of my carbon footprint and I drive a smart.

2) The Rand McNally Road Atlas – SO much to see and learn on every page. Just following one’s progress on the map reveals so much about the country, its treasures and of course its size. There is a lot of beautiful ground to cover out there.

3) Satellite Radio – This is the absolute truth: Nowhere in the world are the radio stations as good as they are in the United States. In every city and every region you will find radio for every taste, political persuasion and mood. But the absolute key to great entertainment underway is satellite radio. Top three Sirius XM stations in my book: “70’s on 7”, “80’s on 8”, “The Bridge” on channel 32 and “Margaritaville” on channel 24.

4) Spectacular scenery – Of course, no roadtrip is worth going on if there is nothing to see. And, like the radio stations, no country offers more geographical and scenic variety (and beauty) than this great land of ours. Trust me on this one. (And then take another look at that photo above.)

5) Compatible roadtrip partner(s) – So that the quibbles about the temperature inside the car, the music and whether or not you are on the correct road or making a seven-hour detour won’t turn into World War 3. The last thing you want is for a roadtrip to turn into mutual road rage, especially when you have a whole bunch of miles to go together.

Surprises on the road

17 09 2010

We just got back from another epic journey in the American west. Jetlag has attacked with a vengeance (I am having more and more trouble with him as I get older, it seems), and I am up at all sorts of ungodly hours, writing. But I have to say that we had a grand time – as expected. It was also a learning experience, my second such educational tour in the western part of my own country. There is so much to discover out there and I am sure I haven’t learned nearly all I want to know.

So I decided to compile a list of things I didn’t know before I went, as well as vignettes and facts that surprised me during the 12 days we traveled through northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. Maybe you were ignorant of these as well (but probably not).

If only I could put all my cool experiences in a box and take them with me everywhere, to open and enjoy whenever I want to.

Here is my list of interesting & fun stuff (in no particular order):

  • There is a lot of desert in Oregon.
  • There is a sign at the side of the road whenever you cross into a new time zone.
  • Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park blows every 93 minutes, like clockwork. Almost.
  • San Franciscans have thoroughly embraced the Smart car.
  • Bison can swim?

"Yes we can!"

  • Buffalo wings have nothing to do with these buffalo because they come from Buffalo, New York.
  • The LDS-church temple in downtown Salt Lake City (from which non-LDS-believers are banned) is pretty small. And downright insignificant when you compare it to many European cathedrals built 600 (or more) years ago.
  • A Jeep Grand Cherokee is also called a “Laredo.”
  • New quarters will be minted with motifs of the national parks, in the order in which they were established. Yellowstone (founded in 1872) is the first to be commemorated on the back of a quarter – and I have one.
  • Coast Redwoods can get to be 2,400 years old.
  • While looking for change in my wallet at a Starbucks in Bend, Oregon, the Barista told me, “Sorry, we don’t take Euros.”
  • There is actually a place called “Jackpot” in Nevada.
  • There are many onions in Idaho.
  • Sarah Palin was born in Idaho.
  • West Yellowstone, Montana is the self-declared “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
  • It takes eight hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada (520 miles / 800 km), across a whole lot of nothing.
  • If you come to live in San Francisco, you will never leave. As a friend put it so aptly: “How can you be miserable in such a beautiful place?”

She's right, you know.

Golden Nugget(s)

6 09 2010

So we all know that there are about a million reasons to come to San Francisco, and it’s a scandal that it took me 37 years to get here myself for the first time. But for those of you who were lucky enough to have discovered this place long before I did, I’m wondering if you too know about a few of the treasures that my personal Swiss tour guide has on his list.

One particular jewel is a dingy little bar on Powell Street across from Union Square. Claiming to have been around since 1933, the Gold Dust Lounge was voted as the “Best Bar In Which To Nurse An Early-Morning Hangover” by “Best of  San Francisco” in 2005.

The Best.

Well as far as I’m concerned, it still is. Faux chandeliers hang from the high ceilings, decorated with painted murals of naked cherubs and frolicking nymphs. Its plush scarlet sofas and boudoir-atmosphere are the perfect place to unwind with an Irish coffee (voted as one of the city’s five best classic cocktails in 2010: “warm, fortifying, and downright hallucinogenic”). And if you ask nicely, the bartender can make you a pretty mean Singapore Sling, too.

An added bonus: this is a place that cards over-40-year-olds, as I had the honor to personally experience.

The three musicians, (“Johnny Z and the Camaros,” if the billboard outside is correct), whose combined age probaly equals the number of years since John Quincy Adams was President  (approx. 185), are really good. They take requests, crooning everything from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel. Their binders full of dog-eared, handwritten cheat-sheets, stacked at least a foot high, reveal their wide repertoire across pretty much all musical genres of the past 50 years.

The night we were there, they did refuse one request, though, from an overly made-up and inebriated middle-aged woman who was trying to hit on them. She repeatedly approached the band and desperately wanted them to play “Memory”… “That’s not a really uplifting song,” the drummer (who, I assume was Johnny Z) told her, repeatedly. “And besides, we don’t know how to play it.” You have to draw the line somewhere, I guess.

For the most part it was your typical Friday evening crowd, relieved another workweek was over and looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend. We sat in silence and enjoyed the music, the people-watching and the booze. And in a place like the Gold Dust Lounge, you know that deep inspirational toilet graffiti is not far. The best of the ladies’ room, in blue ballpoint on the inside of the door: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

How true.


2 09 2010

And we’re off! A 12-hour flight lies ahead of me today. Zurich-San Francisco non-stop, Seat 30A on flight LX38 to be exact. The last couple of days have been rather taxing, and the last two sleeps far too short. In fact, I will be spending more time in seat 30A today (sitting upright) than I spent in bed (lying horizontal) in the last 48 hours. Just thinking about that exhausts me. I’m getting way too old to travel across nine time zones in cattle class.

Though excruciatingly, painfully long, the actual flight – the getting there – stresses me the least. And when it comes to organizing whatever trip we are about to undertake, we also usually have all our ducks in a row. This one’s really easy: we know our way around and we speak the language.

Up, up and away!

It’s always a crunch down to the wire when I’m about to go someplace…and it seems no matter how well I prepare, there’s no way to make the last few days before departure less stressful. (And we’re not even talking about work here…) As you probably know yourself, even the best-laid plans just go to hell at the last minute. After all the traveling I’ve done since I was six years old, you would think I’d be the savviest jet-setter you have ever met.

Much of my travel stress comes from me getting way too far ahead of myself; I obsess about what it will be like to return home after vacation. And you say – “But….that’s the last thing you should be thinking about!” Well, no, it’s actually the thing that worries me most. When I walk in my front door after 3 days away or 3 months, aside from the depression of returning to real life and realizing that not a darn thing has changed since I left, I’m also bringing home a suitcase full of dirty clothes, the one or the other negative experience (along with all the good stuff, of course) and maybe even some tropical disease, for good measure. I need the place to be tidy and spotless so that I can make a new mess and drop into bed like a stone to sleep off the jetlag. Dealing with re-entry and the mountain of laundry is more manageable when I am rested and there isn’t a bathroom waiting to be scrubbed.

When we return to Switzerland in two weeks, Fall will have arrived, with foggy, frosty mornings, a bitter-cold wind and shorter days. I call it “suicide weather.” A very bad time to be getting the post-vacation blues. Therefore I need my home to welcome me home.

Then there’s the whole “What-did-I-forget-to-pack?” drama that stresses me out at least as much as the “I-must-come-home-to-a-clean-place” complex. Several checklists and excel spreadsheets usually help me not forget anything really essential, like my brain. Toothbrush, hairbrush, deodorant, check. Driver’s license, credit cards, passport, check. Laptop, Kindle (new toy!), Blackberry, check.

(Wait a second – get back here, you evil piece of office equipment….you’re not going anywhere today.)

But sometimes even checklists can’t help my faltering memory and there comes that moment of truth (and anguish) when I remember that one particular item I set aside in a prominent place at home especially so that I wouldn’t forget it as I’m running out the door. And where it still sits a couple of hours later as my plane reaches cruising altitude.

So when I collapse into my seat on LX38 this afternoon and settle in for that long haul, I expect to be served a gourmet lunch accompanied by a very good bottle of red. I’ve certainly earned it after all that self-imposed pre-trip stress.

Oh yeah, I forgot. I’m flying economy.

My Swiss Tour Guide in America

16 08 2010

So after writing about my job/workplace once I think its time I got back to some of the more interesting things in life. Like my next vacation, starting in exactly 17 days.

The summer has been a long haul and it’s about time for another break. On the one hand SOMEone’s got to hang around and hold the fort when everyone with kids decides to take off for Rimini, St. Tropez or Ibiza. On the other hand it’s been stressful trying not to die of boredom, while sitting in an office building watching the clock tick and paint dry, looking out the window at the sun-drenched scenery below and wishing one was out there and not in here. And when I did get out there I’ve been training my tush off for the marathon (in exactly 40 days).

But soon I’ll be getting on a pseudo-psychedelically-painted plane, headed for San Francisco…. You got it – with flowers in my hair.

Photoshopped here, but this airplane also really exists.

The West is still a bit of a mystery to me, I of Yankee Mid-Atlantic heritage. Before I met my husband, my first-hand experience of the U.S. was limited to the region enclosed by the following geographic perimeter: the Canadian border to the north, the Jersey Shore to the east, the Potomac to the south, and Pittsburgh to the west. I also kind of knew a bit about South Florida, where I was born and my father had retired, and oh yeah, when I was 12 I went to Toledo, Ohio once, for my sister’s college graduation. And I once had a boyfriend who dragged me to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. (24 hours in Louisville were more than enough.)

So I had to meet this Swiss guy when I was 36 in order to discover some of the real treasures in my own country. In his former life, R. was an adventure tour guide based out of San Francisco – nice work if you can get it. He has traveled every highway, byway and dirt road left of the Rocky Mountains. Multiple times. He is, so to speak, my personal living, walking, breathing Rand McNally Atlas of the American West.

He introduced me to some of the most spectacular natural and man-made features my home has to offer, many of which I had previously been ignorantly, scandalously unaware of. Others I had seen only in National Geographic documentaries and my parents’ large-format coffee-table books. On that first trip out west together we covered all the relevant bases, and more: We hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again (The Classic), he taught me how to play craps in Las Vegas (The Reckless), and we feasted on 18oz ribeyes off the Swingin’ Steak Grill at the Mexican Hat Lodge (The “Kick-Me-If-I-Ever-Contemplate-Turning-Vegetarian-Again”).

The highlight was, of course, the City by the Bay. And we have spent the past three years since then trying to figure out how we can end up there. You know, for good. So far without success, but hope still springs eternal around here. We’re working on it.

Coming soon!

This next road trip out west in (in 17 days) will be more than just a visit and an homage to the place we know we’d love and thrive in. We’ll also be taking in another part of the country I’ve always romanticized but so far never actually met – the Northwest: the northern California coastline, Yellowstone, the Redwood forests and Grand Teton National Park. We’ll stop in wonderfully-named places like Bend Oregon, Jackpot Nevada, Boise Idaho and Jackson Hole Wyoming. And once again my Swiss sweetie will be my all-American tour guide extraordinaire. Can’t wait.