Monday, March 17, 2014

Home Leave: The Roadtrip

Well, we are no more in Arlington, VA. We spent a solid month planning the move, which was being complicated by the planned Home Leave – that one month of mandatory vacation the State Department wants us to take every time we change posts in order to re-familiarize ourselves with the motherland. Our Home Leave was a 3-week road trip starting in Salt Lake City and ending in San Francisco, followed by a week of cruising. The complications: On one hand, Fat Cat could not come with us during Home Leave for the very simple reason that we are we did not think it was a wise idea to have a hyperventilating cat with massive claws stuck in the car with us for three weeks. Thus, we had to find a temporary home and someone to put him on a plane to Brazil. On the other hand, the planning was also complicated by the fact that Home Leave would include both skiing and visits to rainy states, as well as a week in California and one more in Florida. Which would mean that we would need one suitcase with warm skiing clothes, and one with light, summer clothes. A final complication is that we leave for Brail immediately after the cruise, for which purpose we have additional 4 suitcases, weighing about 60lbs each, which we clearly could not and would not take on the roadtrip with us unless we traveled on a school bus. Which we did not. So, we deposited the 4 monstrous suitcases with a couple of VERY close friends and the Diplomat will go fetch them after the cruise is over on the day we leave for Brazil and drag them somehow to the airport where Son and I will be eagerly waiting. As I said, a lot of planning went into this. I am also currently VERY suitcased-out.

I’d like to offer a few astute observations from our road trip so far:
  1.       America is beautiful.
  2.       America is largely under-populated. There were miles upon miles without seeing a single soul, whether it was human or bovine (and there is a LOT of bovine around the NW).
  3.       America has an astonishingly large amount of Walmart and Fedex trucks. Every second truck on the road is a Walmart truck, and every third one – Fedex. What are people SENDING and BUYING so much??
  4.       America has an even larger amount of microbreweries. Each one claims to have the BEST beer. Half of it tastes the same.
We started the trip in Salt Lake, leaving the frivolous life of FSI behind and flying over. We settled in a rather dated Sheraton in downtown SLC, and spent the next three days skiing in Alta, a fabulous skiing mountain, which was made even more fabulous by the fact that no snowboarders were allowed there (no hatin’ but suffice it to say that there is nothing more annoying to a skier than a posse of young snowboarders with pants bottoms hanging lower than Foucault pendulum, sprawled out leisurely in the middle of a run, usually right after a turn and thus, not clearly visible, chatting the day away oblivious to the frantic skiers trying to avoid them upon stumbling upon them suddenly and with great speed). Son was deposited in ski school, which he absolutely loved while we gallivanted though the sunny, powdery slopes and drank copious amounts of beer.
I would like to take a brief pause from my typically flippant writing style and pay homage to a good friend and reader of this very flippant blog who passed away about two weeks ago. The reason we began our trip in Salt Lake was indeed to see our friend, a fellow diplomat with whom we worked in Bangladesh, who was fighting a very cruel terminal disease. Ever courageous and gallant, just a month before our arrival he had told the Diplomat that he could not wait for us to arrive so that we can all ski together and have fun in their gorgeous house in Park City. In fact, he had been skiing every day until then with zero function in his arms. Lou Gehrig’s disease (or ALS) had other plans, however, and less than a week before our arrival, our friend suddenly passed from the various complications that come with ALS, leaving behind a gorgeous wife and two small baby girls. I am forever grateful that she allowed us to spend some time with her last week, sharing memories over exceptional homemade meatloaf and copious amounts of red wine. Dear D, you were an adventurer in the true sense of the word and you will inspire us forever! May you rest in peace!

From Utah, we continued through the vastly unexciting vast landscape of vast burnt high desert to the happening town of Boise, Idaho, where we stayed with another couple of fabulous friends of ours. They happen to have a set of twins the exact same age as Son, which made for a VERY loud house for the three days we were there. I must say that Boise was an unexpected delight – the very first night we arrived, the lady of the house H took me on a wine/beer/chocolate/nut/food tasting bonanza through town, also known as “First Thursday.” The idea is that every first Thursday of the month, participating shops and restaurants open their doors until later than usual, allowing Boisians and their lucky visitors to stroll through downtown, enjoying galleries hosting wine tastings, unique stores offering cheese and snacks, even nut shops featuring microbrews! It was fabulous! I barely remember getting home. I did manage to acquire, however, in my, err, rather felicitous state, a bag of exceptionally spicy peanuts, appropriately dubbed “Ghost Chilies.” I remember eating a few of them in the store, thinking them a stupendous idea at the time. Keep in mind that at the same moment I was sampling raw beer from a 25 gallon jug so my judgment just MIGHT have been clouded on that one. The next day it became apparent that eating more than one per day was injurious to the health. Also, no one else but me would go near the damn nuts. I persevere and eat them. As a matter of fact, I JUST had one, to prove a point. I am amazing! I am also currently breathing fire more impressively than the dragons on “Game of Thrones.” The point it – Boise is happening! Go visit.

From Boise, we set out to Salem, Oregon on a two-day trip, spending the night in Bend, OR. Thankfully, the landscape changed and we began enjoying rolling hills and multiple cows around us. In Bend we checked in into the stylish Shilo Inn Suites Hotel from the similarly named shabby chic mid-Western chain, which besides a rotating Lazy Boy also boasted a devastatingly handsome gas fireplace with an elegant wall timer, allowing for full 15 minutes of unmitigated romance and natural warmth. Looking dreamily into the gay, most natural flames of the fireplace, I began to think that I knew why those jetsetters Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt named their first-born child Shilo – could it be that she was the wonderful outcome of a playful night in front of the gas fireplace at one of the several locations of the Shilo Inn Suites in, say, Tillamok, Oregon after a day of sampling cheese or maybe in Nampa, Idaho or even Elko, Nevada?? I am just saying…
We had dinner in one of the ubiquitous microbreweries there, The Deschutes Brewery, where Son as usual drew dinosaurs all over the children’s menu (the kid is somewhat of a Dino Picasso, if I may say so rather proudly!) and I as usual ate an enormous burger with three kilos of French fries. Good times! The next day was back on the road towards Salem, another 130 miles or so. Easy, no? No. Everyone kept mentioning that we “would be fine if we have chains or traction tires.” Traction who? The weather was a pleasant 59 F, and I kept remarking just how lucky we had been with it all along. Apparently there was some mythical pass where the situation could be different. We scoffed, bought a coffee at yet another ubiquitous phenomenon in the Northwest – a drive through espresso joint – and went on our merry way into the forest. 20 mins later, it began to drizzle. Another 5 and it was raining. Then it turned into flurries, and to my amazement another 15 mins later we were full deep into a snow blizzard. WHAT?? The Diplomat was cool as a cucumber, and glued himself behind a semi-truck who slowly went up through “the pass” clearing the road for us. I sat there in the passenger seat, white-knuckled, without chains or traction tires, or even without so much as a sweater, counting miles. Folks, it was surreal! Mere 30 miles below, it is sun and rainbows. Up there – blizzards and traction tires. Another 20 mins and we were out of the snow inferno, back into pleasant green pastures and more placid looking cows. Soon we were in Salem, a delightful little city in the midst of the green vastness of Oregon. Son spent the next three days creating major mischief with his slightly younger cousin while we tasted wine, spent a windy day at the Oregon coast, drank more beer (where else) at a local microbrewery, and generally did not do anything useful besides laundry.

Next stop – San Francisco (well, San Ramon, where my sister-in-law, or SIL, lives). The trip had to be broken in two again, given the over 600 miles distance. The Diplomat decisively determined that we shall cruise through fun coastal roads rather than drive on the highway, and thus, had to wake up at the crack of dawn to be on the road by 7.30 am. I agreed and we managed to be on the road by 8.30 am, which isn’t bad given our usual standards. Packed with snacks and waving tearful goodbyes with his cousin and his 36-week pregnant wife, we drove off to the border of California in search of Redwoods and more sunshine. The Redwood National and State Park is located in the northernmost coastal California, right off the border with Oregon and stretches about 50 miles south, generally oriented along Route 101 between Crescent City and Orick. It is home to majestic redwood pines thousands of years old and quite ginormous. Some of the tree trunks are so large that some idiots earlier in the previous century decided to carve tunnels through them so that they can drive cars through the tree. Man and nature, true harmony.

We drove slowly through this natural wonder and decided to stop and take what was supposed to be a 30 minute hike through the grandiose forest. The trail, however ended back into the parking lot after 7 minutes. Clearly disappointed, plus Son insisted to checking for some of the alleged local fauna like Roosevelt Elk and banana slugs, I decided to take another trail that went somewhat parallel to the main road and promised to cross it in half a mile and go back through the trees on the other side of the road according to the nice map we looked at. All was well, and the Diplomat, Son and I were enjoying a pleasurable walk through the beautiful nature until it became clear that we are back to where we had parked the car except that we were about 400 feet from the road and while we could see the car parked there, there was no trail that led to it as promised. Clad in knee-high boots, I looked at the high grass and random shrubbery and decided that we will just cut across NATURE and get back to the road. While it wasn’t as easy as walking on a trail path, it wasn’t climbing Mount Everest either. The Diplomat disagreed. He did so loudly. In fact, he kept disagreeing though the 5 minute trek that did involve, among other daring things, climbing on a cut tree trunk and jumping over a small ditch that ran parallel to the road. The man is just not the outdoorsy type. Clearly, we survived. We managed to get to Fortuna that night, where we had dinner in a…YES, a MICRO-FREAKING-BREWERY! Dude…

The next day we had about 200 miles left and looked like we would make it to the house of SIL before lunch until suddenly the Diplomat got a hankering for mission-style burrito. So, tacos were had and then we just happened to stumble upon Sonoma Valley so we had to stop at our second favorite vineyard, Clos du Bois, to taste some of their newest inventions and eat our mission-style food (is it just me or “mission-style” sounds dirty??) Then one last pit stop at McDonalds and after 3 hours in San Francisco traffic, we were finally at the doors of SIL’s house in San Ramon, CA. Epic.

Fun fact – when I returned the rental SUV that same night, I decided to look exactly how many miles we had driven. Check this out – it was EXACTLY 2000 miles. EXACTLY! To the mile! Unreal. Karma. The trip was awesome. You’d think that spending 8-9 hour days locked in a car with your beloved and your small child for days on end will end up in several nervous breakdowns but it did not. It was, in fact, rather fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Diplomat for driving 1800 miles (I did drive here and there) and never once complaining about it! We should do this again. Like, in 10 years.

In the next post, I will regale you with stories of how Son entertained himself during the trip (very useful info) and how we went to a Go Kart place today.