The “Northeast” Continued

In an effort to catch up an increasingly behind blog, I’ve lumped the rest of our time in the “northeast” (term used very loosely) into this catch all post. As the next couple posts will reveal, our October and November were largely spent bouncing between friends/family and nature. We are lucky to have such a community on the east coast and to be able to spend time with friends we don’t see very often. Our time after leaving Boston and New Hampshire included:

  1. The REAL New Haven style pizza. Pizza has also become a theme of this trip, as it is the only meal out David can immediately talk me into. We spent an evening at a farm just east of New Haven (through Harvest Hosts*) and decided we would be crazy not to take the opportunity to have New Haven pizza. My favorite pizza place in Portland is Scottie’s and I’ve always considered New Haven style pizza my favorite. However, the real deal was slightly too burnt for even me, although still very tasty! We shared a small pizza with the intent to hit a second pizza place, but found ourselves too full after Frank Pepe’s pie.

*When we returned to the farm after pizza, we saw another van that David just happened to recognize from Instagram. He messaged them and we met up in the morning to swap van tours – what a small world! The van owners are potentially moving to Portland after their year off traveling, so hopefully more shared van time is in our future!

  1. Many friends. We visited college friends of mine in DC and Philadelphia and our friend Jamie (David’s friend from college and mine from Portland who introduced us) and her boyfriend in Brooklyn. We had so much fun (especially me) visiting the new babies of two different friends of mine in DC and got to spend a day in the life of a parent to a 6 month old (thanks for letting us tag along all day, Jeff!). We also met the cutest puppy my friend Kayle in Philadelphia had just adopted. Jamie and Mike showed us all around Brooklyn, but we really just wanted to play with their cat 🙂 We still enjoyed exploring Prospect Park, touring the amazing co-op they belong to (a real one where you have to work shifts every couple weeks), and eating delicious food.
  1. Two many breweries to name. We were persuaded by my friend Sara’s husband to make a stop in Richmond to check out the growing brewery scene. He did not lead us astray and we were super impressed by the hazy beers and sours.

We (I) also loved walking around the Maymont property in Richmond and touring the mansion. If old homes of rich people are your thing, check it out! The home is particularly interesting as Mrs. Dooley (who died a few years after Mr. Dooley) bequeathed it to the City, given they had no heirs. Therefore, the home is unusually complete and reflective of a Gilded Age estate from the late 1800s/early 1900s.

  1. Many old favorite spots around Charlottesville. David has only been to Charlottesville once, and it was with a broken elbow on the way to my family reunion in North Carolina years ago. I was so excited to be back with him and revisit some spots from my college days. Charlottesville is a beautiful location, filled with tasty food, beer, wine, running trails, and hiking. We did my two favorite hikes: Old Rag and Humpback Rock. Near the end of Old Rag we ran into an old friend of mine from cross country – what an amazing coincidence! Colleen and her mom were visiting from Northern Virginia and we had so much fun chatting for the last few miles of the hike. We also did a double dinner of dumplings and pizza, ate Bodos bagels and Crozet pizza, walked around UVA, and toured Monticello. Charlottesville is just as beautiful as I remember with even more breweries. I can’t help but get a little wistful for college when walking around UVA, of course remembering the best parts of college – running on the many trails, living with so many friends, biking everywhere, carefree nights out. I’d never go back in time and it is easy to idealize the college experience, but sometimes I do miss it.

I’d visited Monticello once during college but hadn’t done a complete tour. It was fascinating and informative. In addition to a house tour, you can walk around the grounds and view exhibits in the wings of the house and outlying buildings. We went on an additional tour focused on slavery during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime and some of the questions that can’t help but come up – namely how could a man who called slavery “moral depravity” own slaves? You can read more about this on Monticello’s website. It certainly isn’t an easy topic to wrestle with but an important one to think about.

Back to Nature

After several weeks of side travel and time with family and friends, we spent about four days in New Hampshire focused on the outdoors and fall foliage. This trip has confirmed for me how introverted I am, after growing up always thinking I was an extrovert. While I value quality time with others, I really need time alone to recharge. David and I spend so much time together and have so few boundaries I count time with him as “alone time.” We both were eager to get back to the van and our usual schedule. It’s funny how we have created a typical van routine, even though each day looks very different. We have our breakfast routine, driving routine, grocery store routine, dump station routine, etc. I think these things make the van really feel like home and keep me from craving a day at our Portland home just relaxing.

We were super tempted to venture farther north, wanting more time in Maine or Vermont. However, we accepted that there wasn’t enough time before Thanksgiving for all we want to do and the weather is also suggesting we head south. Therefore, we crafted a short trip through New Hampshire that would include time for biking, hiking, and a one-night backpacking trip.

We spent a day at Bear Brook State Park mountain biking and enduring a classic Nor’Easter. We quickly realized our tree-heavy camp spot was probably not the best place to be during the storm, but were fortunate that the only thing that went down around us were small twigs and leaves. The fall colors here were absolutely beautiful. We hit the sweet spot where the leaves on both the trees and the ground are full of color.

We next continued north to Conway and the L.L. Bean outlet, which we have been talking about visiting for years based on David’s stories of crazy deals and our shared love of flannel. Despite spending at least an hour in the store (David would say two) we left empty handed. I’m trying to stay committed to my new policy of only buying things I love. While living at home it was easy to buy something I didn’t really need and add it to all the other stuff in our house. However, in the van a new shirt or jacket takes up our limited available space and I feel the impact of each new thing we acquire. We were able to use up an ancient coupon to Friendly’s that David had been holding on to since college. The poor cashier had to call in her manager to figure out how to use the coupon, but was determined to make it work for us.

The next day we did a short hike just north of Conway and continued to soak in the fall foliage. I was confused as to whether the trees were pre or post peak, given the juxtaposition of fully green trees and bare trees. Unfortunately the clouds were extremely thick at the top of our hike (Mt. Crawford), limiting views to about 40 feet. Luckily I like hiking for the sake of hiking and don’t need a view to be satisfied! We agreed the views from the road were probably the best of the day.

The highlight of our time in New Hampshire was repeating a backpacking trip we had done nearly exactly seven years ago on my first trip to visit David in Boston. My weekend visit to David, tacked on to a work trip to Baltimore, became nearly a week trip due to Hurricane Sandy. David planned an epic visit including lots of Boston area activities and a one night backpacking trip in the White Mountains. The weather was significantly more cold this time around, but we were determined to still do the trip given its significance to us. Fortunately we secured the same tent platform we had back in 2012, which proved to be the only site in the sun and again the best choice (I believe we previously picked it for the best star viewing). I love thinking about how different our lives were back in 2012 while the tent platform and surrounding mountains don’t seem to have changed at all. It provides me a calm feeling to think about that tent platform weathering each day and is a nice place to let my mind retreat to.

We left our gear at our tent platform and hiked up to Mt. Liberty. We intended to stay on the peak for sunset, as we had done on our 2012 visit, but given how icy the trail was we thought it safest to hike down before dark. The temperature started to drop quickly as the sun set and I didn’t mind retiring to the tent early! We were both shocked to see a family including two young kids (we were guessing ages four and six) at another tent platform. As the father told me when I remarked on how tough the kids are, they were “tough as nails!” I was not as tough and was so cold I had to break in to some emergency hand warmers.

Here are a couple pictures from the 2012 Liberty Springs backpacking trip. At this point in time, David and I had spent a total of about five days together (between his two visits to Portland and the start of my Boston visit). I have to say if you told me back then we’d be in the same spot in seven years with our van waiting for us in the parking lot I would have believed it. I like to think I have good instincts about people and I knew right from the start David and I would be together. Maybe the van would have been a bit more of a surprise, but even back then David and I were starting to talk about a future trip and finding a way to spend as much time as possible in nature.

A Van Hiatus

We’ve spent the last few weeks primarily out of the van enjoying some family and friend time. We expected to be craving some time away from the van by early October, but were actually sad to leave it behind for a couple weeks of travel. We found ourselves a little homesick for the van, which I think is an excellent sign. However, we won’t pretend we didn’t enjoy a “real” bed and shower. I won’t go into too much detail on our side trips (or I’ll never get caught up on this blog!), but here are some of the highlights.

France with the Somachs

We spent almost two weeks in Paris and on a riverboat cruise around Bordeaux with David’s parents, sister, and grandma. We had a lovely time visiting museums, eating lots of good food, learning about wine, and of course drinking lots of wine. David’s grandma Bobbie lived in France for a couple years and met David’s grandfather Fred there. David’s family took a trip to Paris with his grandparents twenty years ago, so this trip brought up lots of great memories for them. Bobbie found the riverboat cruise in a Viking catalog and we were all easily persuaded to accompany her on it. Despite David, his sister Sara, and me being the youngest on the riverboat cruise (and his parents likely the next youngest), we had a fantastic time. I think we went to bed earlier than most other cruise goers most nights as well. Looking at the photos now that I’m back in the van definitely makes me long for the sunny days and prepared food!

Fall Foliage with Alison

Our good friend from Portland, Alison, joined us in Boston as soon as we got back from France for a long awaited fall foliage trip. Alison lived in Washington DC for a couple years and David and I always promised we’d come visit in the fall – it didn’t happen. So Alison was kind enough to make the trip to us on the east coast to do some fall peeping. Although the weather could have been better, the trees put on a good show and we had fun just getting to spend time with Alison. She is such a good sport she even shared the van with us both nights, breaking in the small bed up front that the bench seat converts into. We spent the second night of her visit in a Walmart parking lot, so she really had the full van life experience (although we didn’t ask her to empty the tanks!). Although I try to keep up with friends in Portland on the phone, I’m not good at. Add in our unusual schedule and a different time zone and I’m pretty hopeless. So it is so good to see a friend from Portland while on the road and feel like we’re a little caught up with life back home. We can also reassure ourselves our friends will still be there when we get back and haven’t forgotten us!

Separate Weddings

Coincidentally, David and I both had good friends from college get married on the weekend of October 12th. While we were both sad to miss the wedding for the other person’s friend, we were glad they were both on the east coast at least! I flew down to Washington DC and hitched a ride with a friend to Charlottesville for my college roommate Lydia’s wedding. David drove up to Portland, Maine for his fraternity brother and post-college apartment mate Ben’s wedding. I loved being back at UVA and am excited that David and I will spend a few more days there on our way south. I went wine tasting, running, bagel eating, and reminiscing with old college friends. David went brunching, dancing, and vanning around Portland. Good times were had by all!

Marblehead Visits

David’s grandma, Jane, lives in Marblehead, just about 45 minutes from downtown Boston. Her home served as our base camp for a few weeks in between our other travels. We were also in Marblehead for her 89th birthday and our first wedding anniversary (October 20th), and celebrated the occasion with two cakes, thanks to David’s mom! We loved showing Jane our pictures from the Bugaboos and hearing her recount the story of her and Jim’s ascent and naming of Mt. Kelvin. Jane and Jim’s travels were a big motivation for the trip and the Gnar Wagon felt right at home in Marblehead. We also fit in visits with David’s aunts, uncles and cousins who all live in the area.

Nova Scotia Touring

We didn’t have as much time in Nova Scotia as we would have liked, as we had a flight in Boston to make for a trip to France with David’s family (more on that later). We managed to fit in quite a lot though, as has become our style. We are working on slowing down our pace and not always feeling rushed, but it is tough! Our top activities in Nova Scotia beyond the Cabot Trail included:

Port Hawkesbury Cèilidh

A Cèilidh is a traditional Scottish event involving music and dance. We lucked out and happened to be in Port Hawkesbury on the night of their weekly Cèilidh. We were actually doing some internet catch-up at a Dunkin Donuts across the street from the civic center. I was looking for any bars in the area with traditional Scottish music when I stumbled on the civic center’s website and the weekly Cèilidh. What luck! Port Hawkesbury is a relatively small town and I didn’t have any expectations for the event, but figured it was worth a try. Wow was I impressed! Several of the musicians were from the nearby Gaelic college and alternated instruments throughout the performance. Below is one video I took at the end where each person took turns getting up and stepping. I didn’t want the music to end and would have gladly sat and listened for a few more hours.

Halifax

We spent an afternoon wandering around the Halifax waterfront. I especially loved a farmer’s market in an old building on the Seaport. I learned on the market’s website that it is “the oldest, continuously operating farmers’ market in North America.” We also went to the Canadian Museum of Immigration just down the block from the market, which is held in Pier 21. The pier served as a gateway for immigrants between 1928 and 1971, primarily arriving by boat. The museum was fascinating and super well done, with a big mix of exhibits. We spent at least half a day there and could have stayed longer if we hadn’t gotten so hungry! We also loved Tidehouse Brewing Company which is the smallest brewery I have ever been to. The brewery has seating for 7 and standing room for 2! We lucked out and arrived just as two others were leaving. The beer was delicious and the bar seating guarantees that you’ll meet others. We got some good recommendations from the people sitting around us and loved the chance to get to meet some locals!

Peggy’s Cove

Peggy’s Cove is a tiny fishing town about an hour from Halifax and known for having one of the most photographed lighthouses in Nova Scotia. We were also warned by several people how dangerous the rocks around the lighthouse are, as unsuspecting tourists can easily get pulled out to sea by waves. We stayed far from the water’s edge and spent an hour or so wandering around the rocks. We found a delicious seafood restaurant nearby where David continued his fish and chips streak (I think this was the fourth fish and chips in two weeks!).

Tidal Bore

Our final stop in Nova Scotia was Truro to see the tidal bore. We had wanted to observe the dramatic tides on the Bay of Fundy, but this was the next best option. A tidal bore is when a river flows back upstream as the tide comes in. The Bay of Fundy produces some pretty significant tidal bores given its dramatic tides. The tidal bore wasn’t too epic when we were there, but it was still pretty neat to see! We got up early to see the 6:30 a.m. tidal bore and surprisingly found one other couple there as well. Luckily the tidal bore was a little late so it was a bit lighter out when it came through.

After the tidal bore we hightailed it to Boston (with a quick overnight in Portland, Maine) for a flight to France for a trip with David’s family. This started a few week hiatus from the van for some family visiting, to be covered in a future post!

The Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail is a 300 kilometer loop around Cape Breton Island in northern Nova Scotia. To be honest, I hadn’t realized that the northern part of Nova Scotia was a separate island from the rest of the province until writing this article. Cape Breton Island makes up about 19% of Nova Scotia and is connected to the rest of the mainland by the Canso Causeway. One of the benefits of keeping this blog is I typically learn much more about a place fact checking my posts or researching more context to provide! This is how I learned that John Cabot, the Venetian explorer, supposedly landed on Cape Breton Island in 1497 and claimed it for the King of England. However, logs are incomplete and he may actually have been in Newfoundland (or Labrador or Maine). I’ll admit I didn’t know the reasoning behind the name of the Cabot Trail until writing this.

The Cabot Trail is largely known for its scenic viewpoints and hiking, which we enjoyed much of. However, one of my favorite parts of the Trail was the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. As a side note, the annual pass for national parks in Canada is especially great because it includes all kinds of historic sites like this one! I never remember to take photos at museums, but the site had some really neat models and actual examples of planes that Bell worked on. I had no idea of the scope of his inventions, which include much more than just the telephone. He also worked extensively with the deaf, using his dad’s visible speech system, which is a mind-boggling method for representing the position of the organs involved in speech. Bell worked on hydrofoils, tetrahedral box kites, early airplane models, and a variety of other odds and ends. I was especially interested to learn that Bell experimented with a number of environmentally-minded inventions, including methods for purifying salt water and composting toilets. What an impressive guy and certainly an inspiration!

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Alexander Graham Bell

Cape Breton Highlands National Park makes up a sizable portion of the Cabot Trail. We did a hike on both the east and west side of the park to get a feel of the environment in both areas. The first day we hiked the Franey Trail on the east side of the park, which is about 4.5 miles. We thought we would have plenty of time for the hike, but like most days time sped by and we didn’t end up starting the hike until late afternoon. On the plus side, this led to some nice colors from the top of the hike and zero crowds! We spent most of the hike in the trees, but at the top looked out over the Clyburn Brook canyon and coastline. After spending the last few weeks in cities and small towns, getting back out into nature was very needed. I find myself missing the wild nature and backpacking from the first part of our trip and longing to capture that awe and excitement. I’m worried as the fall and winter come closer that it will be awhile before we experience anything like the Bugaboos, Glacier National Park of Canada, or the North Cascades again. The mountains are definitely my happy place and I find I am most content when hiking as far from civilization as possible!

Our second day on the Cabot Trail we hiked the Skyline Trail on the west side of the park. The landscape was very different here, with fewer trees and more fragile headland plants. A section of the trail is all boardwalk to protect the vegetation. We were both pretty upset to see a few people wandering off the boardwalk to take pictures, despite the multitude of signs urging you to stay on the trail. Leaving the trail has become one of my biggest hiking pet peeves! A section of the forest was gated as part of a test the park is conducting to determine the impact moose are having on the boreal forest. The moose population in the area has gotten too high and is adversely impacting the forest ecosystem. I was curious about this effort and found a lot more information online here. Below is a short summary of the problem:

Hyperabundance occurs when a population grows unnaturally large and begins to have a negative impact on other species and the health of the ecosystem. A healthy, balanced forest typically supports around 0.5 moose/km2. Moose density in Cape Breton Highlands National Park was 1.9 moose/km2 and the forest ecosystem was severely impacted by these high numbers. This was a huge concern, and the reason why we took actions to restore the forest such as the moose harvest. 

Parks Canada

We didn’t take any pictures, unfortunately, but we ended our time on the Cabot Trail at the very delicious Aucoin Bakery. Based on our experience, we can recommend the baguette, whole wheat bread, and brownies. I have to imagine anything there would be delicious.

While we had a great time on the Cabot Trail, we couldn’t help but think many times how much more beautiful the views would be a little later in the fall. We saw a few hints of the coming color change, but were too early for the dramatic views we had seen in pictures online. More reason for a return trip in the future!

Prince Edward Island

To get to Prince Edward Island by car (or van) you take the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick. The bridge was opened in May 1997 and is about 8 miles long, making it the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered water. The history of the bridge is pretty interesting and we enjoyed reading about it during our crossing here. In short – Canada is required to provide year-round access to the island, as part of a negotiation in PEI’s decision to join the Confederation back in 1873. Given that the Northumberland Strait ices in the winter, providing reliable ferry service proved difficult. Ideas of a railroad bridge to the island were floated, but improved ferry boats over the years kept this idea from gaining traction. It never fully went away though, and in the 1960s the Prime Minister at the time suggested funds would be dedicated towards a future causeway for trains and cars. Debate about the fixed connection went on for decades, with some PEI residents concerned about the environmental impacts of a bridge and resulting changes to island life. Ultimately the government of PEI approved the construction of the bridge, with some conditions to ensure economic benefits for the island. Construction started in 1993 and four years and 840 million (Canadian) dollars later the Confederation Bridge was complete!

Sadly you can’t bike or walk on the bridge – maybe this will be a future addition!

Anne of Green Gables

I was shocked to learn that David hadn’t heard of Anne of Green Gables, written by PEI resident Lucy Maud Montgomery and inspired by time spent at her aunt and uncle’s house on the island. The island is very proud of the book series, and offers lots of ways to immerse yourself in Anne of Green Gables. I didn’t want to overwhelm David with too much Anne, so picked my top two activities: a visit to the home that inspired the book (Silver Bush, still owned by Montgomery’s family) and the musical. I was surprised to learn just how popular the book is internationally. One of the guides at the museum was from Japan and told us the book has been very influential there, especially after World War II, providing for young Japanese girls of an outspoken, caring, generous female role model.

As you would expect, the setting of Silver Bush was idyllic – green fields, large trees, a nearby pond. A plaque contained quotes from Lucy Maud Montgomery describing the place. In a letter to her cousin, she said “I love this old spot better than any place on earth.” I can see why she was so fond of the area. Much of the island looks very similar to Silver Bush, with lots of farms, ponds, rolling hills, and expansive views of the sky.

I didn’t need to worry about David enjoying the Anne of Green Gables musical. It is held in the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, the largest city in PEI. It has been on stage since 1965, making it the longest running annual musical. Both our expectations were exceeded – we loved it.

To end my Anne of Green Gables promotion, here is one of my favorite quotes from the book, that I think is very applicable to our trip (and life in general).

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Bike Trails

PEI has an amazing amount of bike trails, especially considering its size. The main trail is the Confederation Trail, which use the old railroad lines to cover the island tip-to-tip (and more), with 270 miles of trail. I risked the cloudy weather, which turned to heavy downpour, to experience the trail. The results included soggy shoes and socks and no photographs or regrets! Fortunately, we had much better weather for our bike ride in Cavendish, which followed a paved path along the coast. When I suggest a ride to David he has started asking if it is a ride for fitness or a ride for fun. I like to think every ride can be both. I think David prefers the “fun” rides which typically include a brewery stop and relaxed pace. This was a ride for fitness.

Seafood

Another highlight of PEI was the seafood. I think photos can best describe the food:

If you find yourself in PEI, I highly recommend a stop at the Lobster Barn in Victoria (picture 1 and 3).

Charlottetown

Charlottetown is the capital and largest City in PEI. For some reason I struggled throughout our visit to say Charlottetown, perhaps because I went to college in Charlottesville. We spent about a day here, and enjoyed a nice stay at the local Walmart! We enjoyed wandering around looking at the colorful houses, sculptures, and coastline.

Charlottetown was the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference in 1864. This was a grand social affair that set in motion the idea of Confederation. While the meeting included delegates from just New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, they ultimately worked for the union of all the British North American colonies. PEI ultimately joined the Confederation in 1873.

The GaspĂ© Peninsula in Pictures

The name GaspĂ© probably derives from a Micmac word meaning “land’s end.” 

The Canadian Encyclopedia
I’ve taken to marking locations on Google Maps to help guide our stops as we go. This gives an idea of where we stopped around the Peninsula.
A sign at the park indicated that gannets fence like this to protect their territory. We could have watched them for hours! We did have a boat ride back to Percé to catch though.

The south side of the GaspĂ© Peninsula is more developed without as many scenic spots, and I therefore didn’t take any pictures. We hightailed it to Prince Edward Island soon after our visit to Bonaventure Island. More on that soon!

Canadian Cities

After some much needed time visiting family and friends, we re-entered “adventure” mode and also Canada. We planned to spend a few days zipping through Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City, en route to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

On our way to Toronto, we stopped at Niagara Falls. David remembered seeing Niagara Falls on a trip with his family as a kid, but I had never been. I hadn’t realized that the falls actually includes three separate waterfalls. The volume of water going over the falls is pretty hard to comprehend. We opted to just view the falls from the Canadian side and lucked out with a parking spot right by the falls and one of the most chaotic streets we’ve seen yet – Clifton Hill. I’ll admit that I was almost as fascinated by everything on the road as by the falls.

Another striking aspect of Niagra Falls was the poverty just outside the tourist area. Just blocks away there were streets of boarded up buildings and broken down cars. I did some reading on this online and learned that poverty is also a problem in Niagra Falls, New York. This destitution was hard to see, especially after the lavish hotels and flashy destinations of Clifton Hill.

After leaving the falls, we headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small town right on the water probably most well known for the annual Shaw Festival and ice wine – we sampled both. David’s great aunt and uncle, who we visited in Bloomington, attend the Shaw Festival each year and gave us several play recommendations. We hadn’t seen any plays or music since we started the trip, and enjoyed the chance to soak up some culture. The town is beautiful, with flower-lined streets, small shops, and numerous vineyards. Regulations for the wineries require only the production of wine made with 100% locally grown grapes, so we were surprised with the huge variety of wine types. I haven’t had much sweet wine before and loved the ice wine, although it was hard to imagine drinking more than a small glass.

Toronto

Toronto was definitely a bit overwhelming of a city, especially from a traffic perspective. David always tries to learn the local rules of the road (for example, in Pittsburgh at a traffic signal if the first opposing vehicle in line is turning left, it is customary to let them go first), but this proved impossible in Toronto. It seemed like when the roads got congested, whoever was most aggressive had the right of way. I did think Toronto was a neat city with a lot of great aspects, but I’ve realized I’m much more comfortable in the van in small towns or out in nature for a few reasons:

  • Traffic: luckily David does all the driving and is very skilled and confident thanks to his time in Boston. However, I still find driving around cities stressful and getting stuck in traffic is inevitable. I also feel like we spend more time in the van in cities driving from place to place to see the top sights.
  • Meals: I typically prefer to make food in the van, but when we are in cities one of the easiest ways to experience the area is eating out. Inevitably this leads to lots of research on restaurants as we try to find out what the best local food is and make sure we pick a good spot.
  • Sleeping: in cities we normally sleep on a residential street or Walmart, which means putting the blackout curtains up at night and staying in the van. On public lands or in campgrounds, we spend more time outside of the van in the evenings, or at least keep all the windows open.
  • Activities: it takes a lot more effort to research city activities and typically the top destinations are museums or historic sites. This leads to a lot of cities feeling similar and less time outdoors, which is my favorite.

With that said, I did genuinely enjoy our time in Toronto and include it on the list of places to go back to without the van for another visit. My favorite Toronto activities included an indoor food market, wandering around the Distillery District, Allan Gardens, and another Graffiti Alley (although honestly not as impressive as the Boise one!).

The very best part of Toronto, however, was that my sister had a last minute work trip there the same night we were in town! Luckily my mom had talked to her earlier in the day and made the connection. Not only was Lauren in the same city, but when I learned she was there we were less than a mile away!

We also had lunch while in Toronto with a family friend of David’s who recommended we stop in 1,000 islands on the way to our next stop, Montreal. I don’t know if he knew we’d actually take him up on it, but we have a policy of taking as many suggestions as possible. We also have been taking more scenic detours off the main highways, so we enjoyed getting off Highway 401. As another perk, we found a town with a public washroom and shower thanks to iOverlander! While we used to be content to so shower in the van, thanks to a spree of free public showers we’ve gotten a bit spoiled.

Montreal

I’ve been excited about visiting Montreal since David went for New Years many years ago and sent me pictures of the graffiti. I’m not sure when my fascination with street art began, but I love the scale of it, color, and creativity. I’ve taken to making my own Banksy replicas at home and David suggested I paint a section of our fence, which I hope to pursue when we return (I think it was a serious suggestion…) The graffiti in Montreal did not disappoint. I also enjoy trying to decipher the meaning of the images. Some of my favorites are below – any guesses on their stories?

Montreal also included much tasty food, including bagels, vegan poutine, and Indian food!

I also loved Montreal because we found an excellent neighborhood parking spot on a quiet street near Mont Royal, where I was able to do a morning run. I love running in a new city, and especially in the morning. I think this is when I feel most like I actually live in the city and can get the best feel of what life would be like there. David and I both concluded that we could see ourselves living in Montreal.

Quebec City

We finished off our three cities in three days with Quebec City. I think the three cities could be put on a continuum based on size (largest to smallest) and degree of Frenchness (least French to most French). Old town Quebec City definitely felt European, with its cobbled streets, castle-like architecture, and bustling store fronts. We loved it. I also enjoyed visiting yet another indoor market (a new theme of the trip). We got some delicious fresh pasta, green beans and peas, local beer (David’s favorite), and 3 liters of strawberries (my favorite).

The Best of the Midwest

We finished our trek east with visits to a number of friends and family members. We loved telling stories from our travels and getting to see the homes of friends and family we had never visited. It certainly was nice to have a guaranteed place to sleep, laundry facilities, and an unlimited shower. Our time was a bit more rushed than I would have liked, so it felt like we had barely arrived at each place before we were pushing off again. Of course we didn’t do as much relaxing as we had imagined, feeling the need to keep moving east before the summer is over and our trip to France with David’s family. The time was still nourishing and restorative and I think we both felt ready to get back out there adventuring once we had paid our last visit. We didn’t take as many people pictures as we should have, but below are some photos to capture our stops.

Minnesota

Ever since I learned our friend in Portland, Meghan, was from a farm I was eager to visit and had lots of questions to pepper her with. When I was growing up I had an unusual fascination with farming and especially the Amish culture. I wanted to live in nature and liked being able to see the results of hard work. I’m curious how I would have actually liked growing up on a farm versus how much I idealized the lifestyle. I have come to appreciate the complexity, uncertainty, and decision-making that is involved in farming, elements that I would find challenging. When talking about our van trip with Meghan, she mentioned her parents live just off I-90 and would welcome a visit on our way through Minnesota. Therefore, I’ve been looking forward to this stop on our trip for quite a while.

We spent a lovely day with Meghan’s parents (Don and Teresa) and also got to meet her brother’s family, including his two adorable kids. I can’t gush enough about what a great time we had. Don and Teresa are warm, open, and gracious and made us feel so at home on their farm. They happily answered my many, many questions and we loved getting to see where Meghan grew up (and where Don grew up as well, as the farm was originally his parents’). We spent a couple hours walking around the farm, which is about 750 acres. I was so amazed by the amount of equipment needed to run a farm, especially one that grows organic produce like the Chirpich farm. David loved the chance to operate the combine and tractor, which involve an impressive amount of technology. It was hard to comprehend just how much corn and soybeans the farm produces, but viewing the massive grain storage containers gave me a bit of an idea. We are excited for a future trip back during harvest time so we can witness all the action.

We made a quick stop in the town of Spillville, Iowa after leaving the farm. Don had recommended the Bily Clocks Museum and mentioned the upstairs included an exhibit on Dvorak. David was immediately excited, as Dvorak is one of his favorite composers and he had remembered that he lived in Iowa for a summer. The clocks were fascinating, with intricate carvings inspired by locations around the world (although the brothers never traveled more than 35 miles from home). They designed and built the clocks in their spare time and never sold them, intending them to support their younger sister when they could no longer work the farm. Sadly, their sister died young and so they decided to leave the clocks to the town of Spillville, with the requirement that they never be moved. I haven’t included any photographs, as the museum requested that we not share them. However, you can read more and see a photograph on this Visit Iowa page.

Madison, WI

We made a quick stop in Madison to break up the drive from Minnesota to Chicago. Madison has also always been on my list to visit based on what I’ve heard about biking and beer. We didn’t have too much time to explore, but managed to fit in a brewery stop, morning run (for me), delicious brunch, and stop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison cheese shop – delicious! This definitely gets added to the list for a future visit of its own.

Chicago

We stopped in Chicago to visit Ben and Deirdre. David lived with Ben in Boston (and they went to school together) and they did the hike in Newfoundland together that we plan to tackle in a couple weeks. We unintentionally timed our visit to Chicago for their last night there and Deirdre’s 30th birthday party. We loved seeing their apartment on the first story of a cool old house and making plans to meet up for some winter skiing. David and I rode on the trail just a half-mile east of their house along the water for some nice downtown views. We couldn’t believe how many bikes, people and scooters were on the path. I was too busy trying not to hit anyone else to take any photos or videos, but it was wild. While bikes and walkers were separated on some portions of the trail, in pinch points (or where the lake overlapped the path) everyone shared a narrow path. I did some reading on the path and learned that significant improvements have been made in the past couple years.

Indiana

We took a scenic route from Chicago to Cleveland in order to stop in Indianapolis and Bloomington. David’s Grandaunt and Granduncle (Sue and Murray) live in Bloomington, which is a lovely town about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures, but I went on a nice run around Indiana University and through downtown. We enjoyed lunch with Sue, Murray and a couple other relatives before continuing the drive to Cleveland.

Cleveland

We spent a couple days in Shaker Heights (just outside of Cleveland) where David primarily grew up. Unfortunately his mom was out of town visiting her mother, but fortunately his sister, Sara, was also in town from Dayton. While we had dreamed about spending this time lounging on the couch and sleeping in in a real bed, we ended up spending the majority of it doing a full clean of the van. We removed everything except all the pantry contents in order to do a deep clean and reorganization. While we didn’t end up getting rid of too many things (mostly a couple kitchen items and extra clothes), we did make some good adjustments to our storage. We added another layer of bins in the back so now the bed is a little higher than it was before. This helped remove some of the clutter accumulating around the bikes and on the bench seat. Our goal is to have a place for everything so we don’t have to pick up a lot of things in order to put the kitchen table up, the bed down, or cook a meal. Can you believe everything in the photo below fits inside the van?

Verona

Our last stop in the United States before entering Canada was Verona, just outside Pittsburgh. My Aunt Lisa recently moved here from Florida, making the Pittsburgh area home to both my aunts and cousins on my mom’s side. We were so lucky to enjoy a homemade dinner with the whole family! What a treat it was to see so much family at once, especially since we live across the country and time together is rare. We were sent on our way with some delicious brownies and Iron City beer, which was much enjoyed! David, who has become quite the dog fan, enjoyed doing a small photo shoot of my aunt’s dog Diesel, who proved very photogenic.

We Head East

We have spent the last two weeks making our way pretty quickly across the Country, with the goal post of eastern Canada. Our time has been filled with driving (for David, napping for me), visiting friends and family, scenic stops, and of course seeking out breweries, bike rides, and trail runs. This hasn’t left too much time for blogging as I’ve been using coffee shop stops for trip planning as we continue to make things up as we go. So as not to be endlessly behind on the blog, I’ll give a quick run down on the last couple weeks.

Bozeman, MT

We have developed a thing for western ski towns, and Bozeman is no exception. I love the multitude of outdoor activities, walkable downtown, breweries, and relaxed atmosphere of Bozeman. We spent a couple days here to recoup after a spree in the outdoors (and wait for an Amazon package). We didn’t have any problems finding things to do, including an unexpected computer and robotics museum, sour beer and kombucha festival, delicious pizza, and a fun bike trail through farm fields to an overlook.

Wyoming

Our time in Wyoming was defined by amazing skies. David was delighted to stumble upon some storms, which brought some pretty crazy clouds. We also made a detour to Devils Tower. The National Park Service says this about the tower:

The Tower is an astounding geologic feature that protrudes out of the prairie surrounding the Black Hills. It is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians and indigenous people. Hundreds of parallel cracks make it one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America.

National Park Service Website

There are a few theories on how the Tower was formed, but most agree that the Tower originally formed below the Earth’s surface and was exposed as the surrounding area eroded. The columns of the Tower are hexagonal, with lots of straight lines and sheer surfaces. We saw one climber on the Tower and heard one Ranger tell of the awesome experience of climbing to the top. We were content to do the paved trail around the Tower.

South Dakota

I’ll admit South Dakota wasn’t high on my list of must-see destinations when planning the trip, and I assumed we’d drive through as quickly as possible. However, we ended up spending a couple days here and it was certainly a highlight of the trip. We paid an evening visit to Mt. Rushmore, which was both more touristy and impressive than I expected. We learned it was carved for the explicit purpose of promoting tourism in South Dakota, and nearly a century later I can say it is successful. This is the first National Monument or Park where we have had to pay for parking ($10) and Keystone is certainly the most touristy place we’ve seen yet (featuring adventure parks, mini golf, gold mines, a wax museum, and similar establishments). Despite the cheesiness of the area, I had to admit Mount Rushmore itself was pretty neat, even in its unfinished state. I enjoyed looking at photos of the carving work on this site.

After spending the night in national forest near Mt. Rushmore, we spent the morning in Custer State Park. David was attracted by a couple scenic drives in the area while I was hopeful of seeing some more wildlife. Neither of us were disappointed. We saw hundreds of bison on the Wildlife Loop Road and I enjoyed petting a few burros (although we seemed to be the only ones that hadn’t brought carrots, so it was hard to compete for the burros’ attention). While in the Park and texting with my parents, my dad mentioned that he had hiked to Black Elk Peak while there a few years ago, which is the highest natural point in South Dakota. Once I knew about this hike, I didn’t think I could leave without doing it so I ran up to the peak while David enjoyed some time by the beautiful Sylvan Lake. The highlight of the Park (at least for David) was probably the Needles Highway scenic drive, which involves navigating a few tight tunnels. Luckily the tunnels proved no problem for David and the Gnar Wagon.

We ended our time in South Dakota with an evening drive through the Badlands. We’d paid a quick visit here back in 2014 when David moved across the country to Portland. Then we had a moving truck that was towing the Saabaru, so the van seemed small and nimble in comparison. Of course we had to stop at Wall Drug first, as you can only ignore so many road signs before the appeal of 5 cent coffee, fresh donuts, or ice cream gets you. The Badlands were just as wild as we remembered, with sunset further adding to their beauty. I especially enjoyed this quote from the National Park brochure:

Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water — without an animal and scarce an insect astir — without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.

Thaddeus Culbertson

Clearly my attempt to keep this quick was unsuccessful. I find that I don’t want to skip over anything because each part of the trip feels significant and special. Therefore, to be continued with our time in Minnesota, Chicago, Indiana, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh!