Chicago to SoCal: the long way

Assorted maps
Fishing poles and tackle
2 tents and assorted bedding
DC power converter
Generic LG mobile phone
Nikon D-50
2 SD memory cards
250 GB Buffalo external harddrive
Compaq Laptop
40 assorted music cds
This summer, I flew out to Chicago to meet my little sister and her boyfriend for a road trip back to Southern California. I was really excited to have an opportunity to explore such a large swath of my own country- it’s crazy to think that in 3 years I have explored most of Japan, but at age 27, I still haven’t managed to see many places in the United States.
I had no idea that I would experience culture shock on this trip. Maybe it caught me off guard, being a domestic trip where I feel familiar with the culture, language, food, etc… In retrospect, it’s not surprising that things were different enough to make me feel like I was traveling abroad once you take the demographic differences into consideration, especially when you realize just how large America really is.
Ferris Buller’s Day Off. The Blues Brothers. Common. Da Bulls. Pizza and sausages. These are the things that come to mind when I think about Chicago. It’s funny, but these things, more or less, summarize my time in Chicago. Except I didn’t get to see the Bulls. Or Common. Or Ferris Buller.
One of my favorite sketches from classic SNL is the Superfans, with Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and Joe Mantegna (with memorable apperances by John Goodman and Michael Jordan among others). The hot dogs and pizza are awesome, and it is a bit spooky to see how right on these sketches capture Chicago. “This”, I thought, “is a place where I could easily become overweight, with the delicious food and weather that makes you stay inside and crank the AC or the heater to stay comfortable.”.
I loved the deep dish pizza, sandwiches (from Potbelly Sandwich Works in particular), and hot dogs and sausages. It was strange being told that I was not supposed to put ketchup on the hot dogs though. I got no good answer for questioning why using ketchup was a faux pas- does anyone care to tell me why? People feel strongly, it seems, about tradition and their hot dogs in this city.
Riding the subway was a trip. We started from the Chinatown station, which had the strongest, most concentrated smell of urine I have ever experienced (which is saying a lot, because I used to live in Isla Vista when I attended UCSB).
On the ride into the city, it was interesting to see who got on and off. Getting closer to the city center, most of the black folks got off at once as the percentage of white people gradually started to increase. At one point, it was as if there was an invisible filter through which everyone except for white people had trouble passing through (this is not unique to Chicago by any means, its just more noticeable when you’re riding on a train, which doesn’t happen too often in So Cal).
I think we were the only Asians riding the train. It’s strange to be in a place where you stick out like a sore thumb, yet speak a common language, share many aspects of our culture, and belong to the same nationality.
Chicago was a beautiful city with lots of trees, forests of deciduous trees, and scattered lakes. I was glad that I got to visit at a time when the weather wasn’t too miserable, and wouldn’t mind checking it out again at some point in time.
The things I enjoyed the most about the Windy City was the food and the botanical gardens. If I return, I intend to check out the music scene, to attend some sports games, and to try to find the best hot dog and pizza places.
After a week (or two) we finally hit the road in a QX4 that was stuffed to capacity with all of Merin’s stuff and our traveling provisions. There was just enough room for 3 people to sit in.
The first stop was Minnesota’s own Mall of America. I was underwhelmed by this really big shopping mall, probably because I don’t like hanging out at malls and because their aquarium was closed. I can’t believe that this place is the vacation destination for some people. Then again, I can never understand why South Coast Plaza is so jam packed with people during the middle of the day. Shouldn’t these people be working or going to school?
The next stop was the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Here, you can see the very bones of the Earth being slowly ground away by the wind and water, painstakingly formed into landscapes from another world. Prairie dogs, bison, coyotes, and other animals (that I remember killing for sustenance in The Oregon Trail) fit in perfectly among the vast grass plains and the giant sandcastle-like formations.
Sitting at home or in the office, it is easy to romanticize life in the great outdoors. Insects, the fickle elements of nature, wild swings in temperature, and unexpected encounters with agitated dangerous wild animals will purge one of these silly ideas pretty quickly. Luckily, these things were not a problem. I didn’t appreciate being woken up by a very noisy corvid, but I’ll take that over being attacked mosquitoes or bears any day.
The Badlands isn’t only a great place to see the prairie, awesome geologic formations, and wildlife- it’s also rich in fossils. Walking along a creek, we found fossilized shells and what I think was the leg bone of a bison four feet under the soil exposed by the creek. I get the feeling that many of the early paleontological discoveries were made by people taking a walk in an unfamiliar place without the intent of finding anything in particular, just like we did. Not that we found a T-Rex or anything like that.
The Badlands was so cool that I think it deserves a separate post all by itself.
While in South Dakota, we also visited Mount Rushmore and americaroadtrip051.jpg the Crazy Horse Monument. After growing up and seeing them on TV and in the movies, and studying them in the classroom, it was kind of an underwhelming experience. It also sucks that they charge you to see these things up close. In my humble opinion, it cheapens the experience, and deterred us from visiting the site It was fun taking pictures of my finger picking the nose of George Washington from the side of the road, though.
I didn’t eat at Taco John’s, a popular fast food restaurant in middle America, but I think I can safely say that is sucks. Call it “taco intuition”, an ability developed over time by eating at too many disappointing restaurants that serve stuff that they call “Mexican food” and only once in a great while, finding some really good food. This place has liquid “nacho cheese” written all over it (Nacho cheese, while delicious, is neither Mexican nor is it food).
The only Mexican food that I ate on the trip was made of buffalo meat served on top of indian flatbread and topped with standard Tex-Mex condiments. This is one of the rare opportunities in which trying the regional ethnic food was even an option.
Jewel Cave was also a pretty cool stop in South Dakota. At 136 miles long, it currently the second longest cave in the world (it’s still being explored, and it might one day claim the #1 spot). The rock formations are stunningly beautiful, and I would love to come back and go cave exploring. Notice I use the term “cave exploring”. I’d rather go cave exploring than spelunking any day. Spelunking just sounds so…
Immediately after spelunking Jewel Cave, we checked out America’s first national monument, Devil’s Tower (also known as Bear’s Lodge). This place was awesome. Indian princesses fleeing a great bear and climbing the rock into the heavens almost seems possible, looking at this massive column of basalt.
The reverence that American Indians have for this place reminds me of how aborigines feel about Uluru (or Ayer’s rock, as the white man calls it), as do the problems that arise. There were some a-holes climbing this sacred site, even though there were signs posted by Native American groups asking people not to climb during what was a holy time for them. And people wonder why Americans have a bad reputation around the world for being disrespectful and rude. There is a very visible minority in our country that can’t even treat each other with dignity, let alone people with different customs, beliefs, and languages. Sucks for the rest of us who enjoy living and traveling outside of our country.
On the way to Yosemite, a waitress told us about a Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot springs. My arm was pretty scraped up- the results of an unsuccessful jump picture off of a small mesa in the Badlands. I will take any excuse to go to the onsen, and this one fit quite nicely.
Thermopolis turned out to be a land of extremes. The weather was so hot that I was the only one to go soak in the waters. I enjoyed this place, but it was decided to carry on to Yellowstone with haste.
YELLOWSTONE (located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho)
Yellowstone was more magnificent than I had ever imagined. This was nature as I had never seen in America, and I didn’t even have to fly or hike for days to get here. Geysers of all sorts put Beppu to shame. It was as if my memories of the diaramas of the Natural Museum of History, that I had seen as a kid, had come alive.
For someone disenchanted with life in the city or the vast expanses of our suburban sprawl, visiting this place can be as profound an experience as I imagine making a religious pilgrimage to others is. This is a place that I would like to live in for an extended period of time.
If you do go, please, don’t be a jerk and stop your car in the middle of the street, set up your tripod, and take pictures while oblivious to the line of cars behind you. It would be better for everyone else if you stayed in your apartment and watched the Discovery channel.
We fished a little bit along the way, with little success. While in the Grand Tetons, we saw a storm roll in over the mountains across from the lake. Just before the rain reached our shore, the trout went crazy, and were biting everything that we threw at them. When the rain reached us, the bite stopped for good. Ah, the mysteries of fishing…
Potatoes are what come to mind when I hear the word “Idaho”, but Idaho is much, much more than where we get our French fries and potato chips from. The land is beautiful beyond description, especially in those fleeting moments when the rain and sun fight for domination of the skies.
We drove through a land of lush green mountains, rivers, and fields, painted by light piercing the dark rain clouds. Above is only one of the many rainbows that we saw. This is one state that truly caught us off guard. I think that I’ll have to find my way back up to Idaho one day.
From this point, we decided to just drive straight home and so there are no pictures of Utah, Nevada, or California. To sum up, I drove from dusk until dawn, sustained by a lot of caffeine and loud music. I do not recommend driving along the straight, long expanses of highway at night time, as it is tedious and becomes hypnotic unless you have someone to talk to. In the morning, when night sky started to hint of the next day coming, I found myself hallucinating, singing along to They Might Be Giants’s album, Flood. We had reached California, and though exhausted, I spent the rest of the trip awake. It was a good finish to a good road trip.
Road trips are awesome because you are constantly moving, trying new things, eating new food, and meeting new people. I feel as if my life kind of mirrors a road trip, as I have been able to do all of these things on a regular basis.
I think road trips should be a mandatory part of our educational system, especially trips to foreign countries overseas.
I don’t think you can truly know what it is to be an American unless you spend some time out of your comfort zone, out of your culture, away from your family and friends. I don’t think you can know what it is to be an American if you don’t travel around the many different parts of America. How can you know what it is to be American, or any other nationality, unless you experience and explore other perspectives than the ones you are comfortable with? I don’t think you can, and I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be able to have done these things.
Anyone up for a road trip?

5 thoughts on “Chicago to SoCal: the long way”

  1. I’d love to go on a road trip. I’ve been to a few of those places. My parents just got back from a trip along the Lewis and Clark trail, from St. Louis to Astoria…dunno if I could do that though…

  2. Yup. We went through 2 campers and 2 stretch vans doing road trips with four young children, all of whom helped cook, clean, explore, photograph and journal their travelling experiences. Remember your RoadKill photo album that began in Mammoth Lakes, and ended with morbid fascination somewhere near Death Valley? Excellent road trip blog! Thanks for the memories.

  3. your writing prowess never ceased to amaze me. I think a road trip through the South would be interesting. Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Iowa….all those non-vacation places that make up the bulk of the non-coastal people portion of America. However, I would need a tremendous amount of input and guidance.

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