10: Thailand

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After the big LaHamerica US road trip, my plan was to always travel abroad somewhere. My first thought was backpack through Europe, but that’s so hard to do alone and it’s extremely expensive. I thought about South America but again, really hard to do alone and difficult to get around. So when I got word that two of my friends in New York were planning a trip to Thailand, I had to jump on board. It was perfect; I would be with two great girls (Meg and Knox), Thailand is dirt cheap, they had planned a good chunk of it already, and I had always wanted to see Southeast Asia!  So off to Thailand I went, for two whole weeks!

Bangkok
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We arrived in Bangkok late Saturday evening after 30+ hours of travel. Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Shanghai, Shanghai to Bangkok. Our first night, we stayed with some of Meg’s friends who she used to work with and who had also just had a little baby. The wife, a native Thai designer, had brought her husband, a NY-born-and-raised writer, back to Thailand to raise their new-born. They taught us the lay of the land in Bangkok and told us what it was like living there. It was a nice transition into an unknown culture; one spoke of growing up there with tales of traditions and memories, while the other spoke of new experiences and interesting nuances (like being the tallest, whitest guy on the train). The next couple nights, we stayed in the Khaosan Road area, a hot-spot for quaint restaurants, bustling night-life, and road-side shops. 

On our first full day, we took a taxi to JJ Market on the northern side of town. It’s one of those places you see in a magazine (in fact, it’s on the list of 1001 Places To See Before You Die), with rows and rows of shops, food stands, spices, souvenirs, art, and even animals. It’s so large, they have a map so you don’t get lost in the maze of stores and people. Needless to say, we got turned around a couple times, but made up for it in the goods we purchased and the sights we saw. 

The next day, we ventured to all the famous Wats in Bangkok. What? No, Wat, which means ‘temple’ in Thai. The Grand Palace was our first stop, which holds the largest and one of the most-sacred of all the Wats in Thailand, Wat Phrakaew, because it contains the glorified Emerald Buddha. The grounds of the Grand Palace were a spectacular display, filled with insanely intricate architecture and detail, vibrant colors, and scattered with ornaments – a far cry from the dull, subdued Christian monuments. It was really interesting to learn about the history and background of the area and see the passion behind each stone and tile. We also visited Wat Pho (pronounced What Poe) which houses the Reclining Buddha, a 100ft-long gold buddha statue lying on his side. It was insane and no photo could capture its grandeur. After that, we walked to the river and took a ferry to Wat Arrun, one of the oldest Wats in Bangkok. We were able to climb (carefully) up the narrow, steep steps to the top and take in a view of the vast city landscape. We followed that up with a colorful long-tail boat ride through the inner-city canals of the city, zipping past contradictory scenes of vast wealth and extreme poverty. It was surreal to think just how large and diverse the city was, like nothing I ever expected. That evening, we had some dinner with Meg’s friends then (quickly) ventured down a narrow, neon-lit street, through one of the famous red-light districts (when in Rome, right!?). It was a stark contrast to the quiet, sacred scenes of that morning’s holy monuments. 

The next morning, we woke up early to take an hour-long ride out to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market. Upon arrival, we hopped in a smaller long-tail boat and wove through more canals of riverside homes and coconut farms to get to the market area. Once there, we carefully maneuvered past hundreds of other boats and shops along the water’s edge, each selling a variety of colorful merchandise as well as loads of vibrant fruits, vegetables and flowers. It was incredible to see. After a relaxing massage back in Bangkok, we packed up our gear and headed towards Suvarnabhumi Airport and hopped a plane to Chiang Mai in the northern, more mountainous part of Thailand.

Chiang Mai
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After arriving late Tuesday night and getting a good night’s rest, we decided to take a van to Pai, a little village located in the mountains, about 3 hours outside of Chiang Mai. It was a quaint little town, with cute restaurants, markets, and amazing riverside huts and hotels. In hindsight, we probably should have rented scooters or bikes so we could explore the surrounding area more but we had to catch our van back to Chiang Mai and ran out of time. That night, back in the city, we visited the famous night market and saw a spectacle of jade jewelry and figurines. 

The next day we visit Baan Chang, an awesome elephant park outside of the city (Baan means ‘house’ or ‘home’ in Thai and Chang means ‘elephant’). There, we were able to feed, pet, ride, and even bathe the elephants. It was incredible to learn about the elephants and spend a whole day getting to know them and their personalities. We even learned about the unique park and how they rescue and restore broken or hurt elephants from all across Thailand. They are one of the few elephant parks to never use harmful metal bullhooks or harnesses and pride themselves in rescuing elephants that have been poorly treated, no matter how badly distressed they are. The elephant that I was matched up with was named Kam Krua (which roughly translates to ‘ever-changing’). The handler said she was the “naughtiest” one of the 50-some elephants at the park, but was also the favorite. She had a unique personality where she went off on her own, sometimes disregarding commands and in a constant search for something to munch on. I think I fell in love with her.

We also met some pretty amazing people in our group, all from different places across the globe; London, Amsterdam, Melbourne. Each of the couples were on vacation or honeymooning and each had interesting lives and stories. The thing that resonated with me most was the amount of vacation they had – some had four weeks a year, some had up to eight – and they all talked about the places they had been and how amazing it was to travel. I thought to myself about all the places I wanted to see but how hard it was to find the time to get there and then actually enjoy it. With America’s culture, where two-weeks vacation is the norm, it’s hard to get away and actually have the time to not only see and explore but also absorb the culture without feeling exhausted by the end. It made me want to make a change with my personal life and not let work interfere or scare me into not taking the time off and travel. 

That evening, we visited the Tiger Kingdom, a place where you can visit and play with tigers of all shapes and sizes. We got to play with teenage, infant, and even new-born baby tigers. It was incredible how soft and precious they were, not much different than a playful kitten (only much much larger). We were able to get right up close to them and play. Afterward, we wandered the streets in the historic Old Walled City in Chiang Mai, walking past ancient Wats and colorful shrines. 

On Thursday, we took a van up through the mountains to The Flight of the Gibbons, a special zip-lining adventure through the jungle forest. It was an extremely unique experience and an awesome way to discover the jungle. Our guides were extremely fun and adventurous, leading us through numerous lines, ranging from fifty to eight-hundred meters! It was both thrilling and breathtaking. That afternoon, we ventured up the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai and climbed the three-hundred-plus steps to visit Wat Suthep, one the holiest Wats in Thailand. Famous for holding the ashes of Buddha, it was crowded with people in prayer, monks, and tourists. It was humbling to see the peaceful, spiritual scene and people deep in prayer and made me want to learn and understand the Buddhist culture more. Afterward, we went back to the city and explored the Nimmanhaemin area of Chiang Mai which is known for being the artsy, younger part of town – kind of like Greenwich Village or SoHo for New York City. It was cool to see the unique shops and fare of the area, each with their own story and merchandise to sell. The food was also amazing and it was hard knowing that we would be leaving the next day.

Koh Phangan and Krabi
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Friday morning, we travelled back to the airport and flew south, to the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. After arriving at the Samui airport, we took a ferry to Koh Phangan, followed by an open-air taxi ride to our resort on the north side of the island. The views were simply breathtaking, rolling up and down hills past huts, resorts, and bright, blue beaches. The resort was even more spectacular, nested in the side of a mountain, overlooking a secluded ocean bay with a private infinity pool and patio. It was the perfect place to relax after a couple days of busy travel. Koh Phangan is also the location of the famous Full Moon Party and we went to the biggest of the big because it’s the last full moon of the year. The beach-side party is packed with kids of all ages, all with their bodies painted in bright neon and rum buckets in-hand. It was an incredible, exciting, and also disturbing sight all at the same time, but totally worth seeing. The next couple days were filled with relaxing by the pool, exploring the beach, and eating some spectacular Thai food. 

After Koh Phangan, we hopped on a quick flight to another beach-side town called Krabi, which is located on the opposite side of the Andaman Sea from Phuket. Known for the famous islands that jut right out from the ocean and its crystal clear blue waters, it was a spectacular sight. One the first full day, we took a speed boat to Phi Phi Island and spent the day beach hopping, snorkeling, and eating Thai food on the beach. The water was so clear, it almost glowed a fluorescent blue along the shores and the beaches were so white and soft, it was like walking on clouds. The next day, we took a long-tail boat to Railay beach and explored the surrounding area, walking through jungle paths and deep caves. We also got to see the other four major islands; Tub, Chicken, Koh Poda and Phranang Cave Beach. The snorkeling was fantastic with schools of fish swimming inches from your body and vibrant clams the size of bed pillows. Hiking on the small islands was surreal and we even got to meet a couple friends along the way; wild monkeys lined the pathway, sneaking off with fruit and food that people would give them. For lack of a better word, it was magical. 

And it made it that much harder knowing that these were our last few days in Thailand. We had experienced so much, seen beautiful sites, and met so many amazing people. It was such an incredible adventure and I left Thailand with a completely different perspective of the country and culture than when I had arrived. What I thought was going to be a jarring place that was hard to navigate and understand, turned out to be a super-easy, laid-back place with some of the nicest people, best service, and most beautiful scenery one could imagine. And the thing that surprised me the most was how open and accepting Thai people were to outsiders and newcomers; always willing to listen and learn as well as teach and comfort, despite the language barrier – a big difference from many Americans I’ve encountered.

It was so refreshing to see how easy it was and made me realize that traveling this far wasn’t so different than traveling to California (expect with maybe more Asians and a different currency). After road-tripping across the US and now through Thailand, I felt even more confident to take my travels to more places – China, Australia, Western Europe, South America, even Africa – and I felt that much more excited to begin this new chapter of my life where I would be more free to do so. No more PTO, no more bosses or politics, no more fear of missing out on work because everything could maybe fall apart. All I had to do was work really hard when I needed to and then make the time to play hard too. And after this trip, I felt even more determined to make things happen and be happy again. 

I’m so glad I was able to have this adventure over the past few months. I’m so grateful for the people that made it happen; for my parents who sacrificed a car so I could take it across the country, for my family and friends that openly offered their comfy couches and spare beds for a weary traveller, for the people who welcomed me into their lives and happily toured me around their cities, for old friends that I was able to reconnect with and for the new friends I met and made along the way. It’s been a spectacular ride and while my bank account is a lot smaller than when I started, I don’t regret a single moment of it. I’m so thankful for all that I’ve been able to experience and learn – not only about the places I’ve been to but also about myself – and after it all, I finally feel refreshed and re-inspired. I can’t wait to get back out there and take on this exciting new chapter of my life, whatever it may be.

Next stop: Back to New York to begin a new adventure as a freelance designer.

Ch 9: Oklahoma

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Heading north, I left Texas on a windy, Wednesday morning. I wanted to get an extra day with my best friend, Haley, before her big wedding weekend in Oklahoma. The last time I saw her was in New York, just moments after she had gotten engaged to her fiancé (and also my friend), Seth. I helped him set up the whole surprise in Central Park and hid behind a huge boulder to take photos of the whole event. It was a very special moment and I was so glad to be apart of it, especially knowing how happy it had made them both. Now the wedding was just days away and I was driving up to Oklahoma City to spend some really good, quality time with my bestie before her big day!

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The weekend started out beautifully. After running some last-minute errands and all the guests had arrived, the girls threw Haley a big bachelorette-type party on Halloween night, which we called Haleyween. We all dressed up in our costumes, opened presents, ate snackies, and partook in some celebratory champagne. It was a super fun night and I was reunited with a lot of girlfriends from all over: New York, LA, Dallas, and Philly. We were all there to celebrate Haley and be happy for her and Seth. After presents, we all decided to go out dancing at the famous Groovy’s Disco in Oklahoma City. It was the perfect kickoff to what would become a perfect weekend.

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The next day was filled with prepping for the wedding day. Haley’s grandma threw all the girls a bridal luncheon where we sipped more champagne and admired over Haley’s adorable nieces. That night, the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner went off without a hitch. It was a great to meet Haley and Seth’s family and friends as well, and it was inspiring to see so many people come together to celebrate these two wonderful people. There was so much love in the room, I could have burst. I even nervously gave a speech at dinner.

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On Saturday, the wedding was beautiful. Haley was gorgeous, Seth was beaming, and everyone that came to watch had smiles on their faces from the time of the ceremony to the time the reception ended. There was also a large wedding party and I had never been apart of a more chill group. We all got along beautifully, not to mention, looked pretty stellar in the process. Both Haley and Seth’s family were beyond thrilled and ultimately everything was perfect. The venue was beautiful, the DJ was slammin’, the food and drinks were tasty, and everyone had an amazing time.

The best part was being with all my friends in one place. It was so great to have them all together to celebrate Haley and Seth. We came from near and far to be with these two and it was like we had never left. My parents were also able to come and they were happy to see everyone again as well. You know it’s a good party when everyone rushes the dance floor as soon as the DJ starts playing music!

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And that made it that much harder to say goodbye. I had driven across the country (7,300 miles up to that point), seen a lot of places and a lot of people. It had been an incredible experience but my favorite moments were the ones where I was able to really spend time with the people that I loved; my family at the beach, my extended family in Wisconsin, and especially my best friends in Chicago, LA, Dallas and Oklahoma City. When you work a lot or live far away you tend to forget that the happy moments aren’t getting that promotion or discovering a new street. It’s being with loved-ones and enjoying their company, no matter what the occasion. In the end, this trip reminded me of that and I’m so thankful that I was able to do it.

Next Stop: Road trip ends, then Thailand!

Ch 8: Texas

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DallasDancing in the deepest oceans…

Dallas used to be my home for nearly five years. It was a great part of my life, right after college, where I feel I grew so much as a person as well as a designer. It’s where I experienced my first big-girl job, lived in my first big-girl apartment, and made a really amazing group of friends along the way. So as I drove through west Texas, I was more than excited to reunite with all of them and see how much the Big D had changed.

I arrived late Friday night and was immediately greeted by a solid bunch of them. We all met at the famous Doublewide dive bar in Deep Ellum, where The Cure and Depeche Mode cover bands were jamming away. We danced, drank, and had an amazing time together ‘til the wee hours of the night. It was a good start and I knew it was going to be a great weekend.

The next few days were jam-packed with friends and fun. We brunched, drank, watched football, walked around parks and I was blown away by how much the city had changed. I didn’t even recognize my old neighborhood, Lower Greenville, which was now filled with awesome bars, restaurants, and even a brand-new Trader Joes.

It was crazy to think how much HAD changed in the year and half I had been gone. Not only were there new bars and restaurants, even my group of friends had also transformed a little. There were new additions, a few had gotten married, some had babies, some had new boyfriends or girlfriends, new jobs, new homes, and some had moved away, as I did.

I reflected on how much I had changed. Besides getting a new haircut or maybe gaining a couple L.B.’s, was there anything else that was drastically different within me? Yes, I had made some new friends, explored some new places, and discovered new things, but had they made me change for the better or for the worse? I obviously felt different but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

After talking with my best friend, Haley, I realized that being away had made me an even stronger, braver person. I had to start from scratch, learn a new place and make new friends all over again. And achieving that gave me the courage to go on this adventure, alone. I don’t think I ever could have done it if I had not had that precedent. I felt like I could take on the world and achieve anything, which was extremely refreshing. I didn’t have to be afraid of failure anymore because I knew that no matter what the outcome, everything would be okay. I would still have a family that loved me, friends that cared for me, and good health and courage to take on the next thing that came my way. 

Even though I had changed and the places and people that were familiar were a little different, I knew that one thing remained the same; I still had amazing friends that would last a lifetime. 

Next stop: Oooooooooo-oklahoma where my friends get married in the sun. 

Ch 7: Southwest

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The Southwestern part of the country is such an iconic road trip region. It’s home to the famous Route 66, Grand Canyon, and RV parks around every corner. So naturally, I wanted to spend as much time there and see all I could see. But what I ultimately ended up seeing was not what I was expecting and I found that the photos I took just couldn’t grasp the sheer beauty of it all. Panoramics seemed to be the only thing that remotely worked.

Arizona

I left California and started to finally head east, towards home. It was the first time since the trip began that I would be steering towards the sunrises instead of the sunsets. It was also strange that I was reconnecting on some familiar highways but just in different places. I-15, I-40, I-25 were all roads that I had been on before, but instead of being in North Carolina, heading toward Tennessee, I was in California, heading toward Arizona.

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On my way to Flagstaff, I took a slight detour north and saw the Hoover Dam. Seeing the dam and the immense size of it was simply breathtaking. It truly is a work of engineering wonder. Weighing in at around 6.5 million tons, the dam contains enough concrete to create a highway from San Francisco to New York City! It also generates enough power for the western part of the country, even reaching as far as Canada! As I walked around and marveled at this piece of human engineering, I was truly humbled and in awe of man’s capabilities.

After the Hoover Dam, I drove southeast to Flagstaff. A friend of mine, Adam, lives there so I was able to stay with him for a night. He showed me around town, which wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I always thought that that area would be flat and desert-y, but Flagstaff was a quaint little mountain town, not very different than Asheville, NC. It had a small downtown area and university, as well as a lot of outdoor activities nearby. Adam works for a company that maintains and sometimes even builds park trails throughout the region. I was able to meet some of his coworkers and roommates and we spent the evening carving pumpkins on the living room floor. Even though I amongst total strangers, I felt right at home.

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Early the next morning, I drove northeast to see the ultimate road trip icon: The Grand Canyon. This was one of the major anticipated highlights of my trip and now that the government shutdown was over, I was finally able to see this natural wonder at last. As I approached the rim, and the canyon slowly came into view, my jaw just dropped. Words simply cannot describe how incredible it was and you cannot grasp the sheer size of it, mentally or through a camera lens. You just have to see it for yourself. The thing that blows my mind the most is how it was formed; the most-accepted theory being that the Colorado River slowly but surely carved its way through rock over millions of years. Just the thought of that makes my brain hurt.

I was also told that 95% of the people that visit the Grand Canyon, only view it from the rim and never actually descend into it via one of the many trails. Well, I didn’t want to be apart of the majority so I packed a small bag and began hiking down the South Kaibab trail. Going down was easy and spectacular. Getting back up was tough. Not only was it a relentless, steep incline, it was also nested in at around 7,000ft elevation, which was tough on these out-of-shape lungs. So I centered my inner Lewis and Clark and pressed on…but not without getting passed up by some donkeys. 

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After a beautiful afternoon in the Grand Canyon, and full of some new nature-inspired energy, I decided to keep driving east. The scenery on the drive transformed from deep canyons to basically the exact opposite. Instead of the earth opening up to create a hole, there were these giant mountain plateaus that appeared to have jutted up, right out of the ground. As the sun was beginning to set, I saw a sign for Monument Valley. Adam had mentioned it to me so I decided to take a small detour and check them out. I arrived at the perfect moment. The sun was beginning to set on these massive rock monuments and the colors made the scene like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Every second that passed, a new color would appear and I sat there until it was only darkness.

New Mexico

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The next morning, I drove eastward through Navajo Country to meet up with my friend, Maddy, at the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico. She lives just outside Albuquerque and we decided to meet halfway and go camping for one night there. Without cellular service, we somehow found one another and began packing for our night’s adventure. After hiking through the badlands for about an hour, we found the perfect flat spot, nestled in between two large mounds to help block the wind. I had learned that in the desert, the weather fluctuates from warm days to extremely cold nights so we weren’t taking our chances on making it any colder than it had to be. We began to hike around our campsite, jumping from one strange mound to the next, seeing the insane variety of rock formations all around. There were smooth ones, jagged ones, pointy, round, and even cracked ones. Sometimes science just blows my mind. The sunset was spectacular and we fell asleep, bundled like eskimos, under the bright, New Mexico stars.

Albuquerque

The next day, we packed up our gear and I was back on the road, heading to Albuquerque and then further on to Santa Fe. Both towns were surprisingly beautiful, each with their own southwestern style and flare. I ate lunch at the famous Frontier cafe and walked along the Rio Grande. The trees there were simply astounding; so yellow and gold that I nearly fell into the river just staring at them. Again, no camera could truly capture the amazing contrast of gold against the baby blue sky.

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After a quick hour-long drive north, I made it to Santa Fe for the afternoon and just wandered around town. I admired the unique houses and the beautiful bright colors. The streets were lines with merchants and vendors selling anything from turquoise jewelry to ornately patterned wool rugs. It was gorgeous and I was once again blown away by how special this town was – its history, style and culture has been maintained for hundreds of years. The bold colors and interesting architecture filled my view with every turn. If I only had a ton of money, I would have bought at least 50 things.

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The southwest was so unbelievably breathtaking. What I expected were flat deserts, tumbleweeds, and hot, dry highways that stretched on for miles. What I saw were inexhaustible, varying types of landscapes (some that were completely different from one side of the road to the other), gorgeous scenery in every direction, and sunsets like you wouldn’t believe. The thing that resonated with me the most was definitely the Grand Canyon and thinking about what it’s gone through. Over time, it was slowly eroded away, beaten down so much it left this vast, empty space in the earth. We’re a little similar in that respect. But even though it has been broken down and eaten away, it is now this incredible natural wonder that draws people from all over the world to stand in awe and wonder. I’m no longer getting beat down and I finally feel like I can start becoming great again.  

Next stop: Dallas to see some old friends!

Ch 6: California

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Cali

Superfuzzy (one of my best friends) and his new track…just had to share:

California has it all. Mountains, deserts, beaches, farmland, vineyards, cities, you name it! And I could see it all out of my window as I drove from Northern California to Los Angeles. It’s easy to understand why so many people live in this state and swear by it. It truly is a place where no matter what you’re interested in, you can get to it.

In my case, I was trying to get to Los Angeles. The original plan was to stay in Yosemite for two days, but because of that blasted government shutdown, which left the park closed, I had to take a detour, yet again. So instead of heading inland to the park, I stayed along the coast and took the 101 all the way south. And boy, was I not disappointed. What started out as spectacular, rocky, ocean views, turned into deep, dark forested landscapes as I steered through the Redwood National Forest. That turned into hilly farmland, then luscious vineyards where I could smell the fruit from the car. I took it all in as I passed San Francisco and pressed on through the desert mountains towards Los Angeles. 

I’ve been to Los Angeles once before and actually enjoy the city. I have a ton of friends from college there and we always have a great time but sometimes LA gets a bad wrap. I guess most people think LA is snobby or fake – which certain parts are – but as with most cities, if you have a good friend base and avoid those annoying people or areas, it doesn’t matter where you live. Which is why LA is so fun to me; I have great friends there who can have an awesome time anywhere.

I stayed with my very best friend, Sarah, who lives in Santa Monica and rocks it in the film industry on a lot of awesome shows and movies. Two of my other great friends now live together in the more-mountainous East LA, in their very own incredible artist bungalow. Angela is a graphic designer/illustrator/painter/rock star who basically kicks ass at anything you put in front of her and Clay is an insane musician/producer/bad-ass who will blow your mind with the amount of talent he has. I was also able to see my other SCAD friends, Ian and Erin who are also both incredible artists as well as John who shines as a film editor.

Hanging out with everyone and catching up was wonderful. We’ve changed a bit since college (can’t quite drink as much or stay out as late), but one thing remains the same, we’re still creative people and work super hard to grow and be successful. It was inspiring to see these artists make it and do well on their own. After quitting my big-girl NYC advertising job, I was nervous about my next career step of solely doing freelance design. Would I make enough money? Where would my clients come from? Could I enjoy eating Ramen for the rest of my life? But after seeing all of them thrive, and then some, my worries faded away a little and I was able to enjoy myself in the beautiful city of angels.

In a city that gets so much flack, there certainly is not a shortage of things to do. I laid in the sand, ate some amazing tacos, ran along a gorgeous sunset, divulged on some delicious chocolate-covered pretzels, hiked, and got drinks with friends. The three big highlights of the weekend were going to Joshua Tree for the day (now that the government shutdown was finally over), running errands around town and cracking up with Clay, and losing all fear of public nudity at a Korean Spa with Sarah. 

I wish I could have spent more time and explored other parts of California but time was of the essence and I had to move on. But as for the parts that I saw, I was definitely impressed and will absolutely be coming back…if that freelance gig turns out okay!

Next stop: Deserts and tumbleweeds…aka The Southwest

Ch 5: Pacific Northwest

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Had to have Oregon natives:

This leg of the trip was by far my favorite. There is something about the northwest part of the country – something in the water, maybe – that makes it and its people so damn great. I’m so glad I was able to immerse myself and enjoy it so much. And although the sights and cities were spectacular, it was being able to visit with such amazing people and to learn about life and love that made this part of the trip so memorable.

Salt Lake City
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I arrived late Sunday night to a half-naked house…which is something you don’t see every day in Mormonland. The couple that I was staying with, along with some of their friends, had just finished Salt Lake’s Undie Run, which is where people get together, strip down to their unmentionables (preferably with decent bodies), and run a 5k to the nearest bar. I’ve never participated in one myself and thankfully unfortunately arrived in town too late to join in on this one. So when I got in town, they were half drunk, half naked, and I had some catching up to do (on the drinking part). 

Megan and David were amazing hosts and I felt immediately at home in their cute little apartment. They were also fairly new to the area, only having lived there for a couple of months, but were still able to give me a tour of the city and a thorough list of reasons why SLC was such a great place to live. And I quickly saw how right they were; we easily rode bikes around town, strolled through vibrant city parks and Mormon temples, all while catching glimpses of the surrounding mountains along the way. 

But my favorite part was getting to know them better and meeting all of their friends. Megan and David just got engaged this summer and are starting their lives together in a completely new place. She is in graduate school for nursing and he is an adjunct professor at a nearby college. They have a perfect little apartment, with the best little dog and hilarious cat, and their love for each other was shining through the windows. They were even gracious enough to invite their friends over for a community dinner, where we cooked pasta, had salad, drank wine and chatted all through the night. It was like I wasn’t a nomad for one night and felt like I already belonged.

Seattle
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The trek from Salt Lake to Seattle was one of the longest of the trip, clocking in at around 13 hours. Driving through four states with varying landscapes of desert, mountain and farmland, I made it to Seattle just in time to catch a ferry to downtown with Mt Rainier faintly on the horizon.

It was a beautiful night in Seattle and my friends and I were rushing to catch the Sounder’s soccer game. Of course, we made time to stop and Blitzkrieg at a nearby bar, which we made into a tradition when we all used to live together in Dallas, TX. Basically, the gist is you walk into a bar, order an Irish Car Bomb, drop, chug, pay, and then leave. Doesn’t matter how many people there are, or how much time you have – you’re in, drop the bomb, then you’re out…like a Blitzkrieg! We’ve been doing it for years and we always love seeing the quizzical looks on the other patrons’ faces, especially the bartenders. So it seemed fitting to do it within the first 20 minutes of being reunited. 

Getting to see the Seattle sights and attractions were spectacular, but the highlight was spending time with old friends. We had all moved away from Dallas around the same time; me to New York and they to Seattle, but it was like we hadn’t left. And although some things had changed (all couples were now married), our friendship hadn’t altered. Which was good to see. As a single person, it can be hard to watch as some couples become different people when they get married or even sometimes become distant. But with this crew, it was the same as it ever was. We ate good meals, walked along the Seattle shorelines and even sang our hearts out at a karaoke bar.

One afternoon, we went out on another friend’s boat to tailgate at the Washington vs Oregon college football game (Yes, we tailgated on a yacht!). Being on the boat in lake Washington with four other married couples would normally be a nightmare for one single person but I soaked it all in, observing each couple’s quirks, listening to stories and admiring their looks of adoration toward one another. It was reassuring to see so much love on one little boat. 

Portland
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Leaving Seattle was sad, but I was especially excited to visit Portland; only a short three-hour drive south. All through the preparation of my trip, everyone I spoke to insisted that this would be my favorite city and I would immediately fall in love. My mom even voiced her concern that I would never leave or finish the rest of the trip. So I was anxious to check it out for myself.

And I must say, all their predictions came true.

I instantly loved Portland. And it wasn’t necessarily the city itself as a physical place but the people there and the incredible vibe throughout the town. Everywhere were adorable homes, bike lanes filled with cyclists and just generally smiling, happy people all around. It seemed that every place I went to, people were content with just being alive and well, doing what they loved, in no rush at all with life.

I was fortunate enough to stay with an old soccer teammate, Kate, and her girlfriend, Julie, as well as their family of incredibly cute dogs and cats. They both are insanely creative people and I was thrilled to pick their brain about Portland and hear their stories. Kate, a super-talented furniture designer, now actress/stunt double, moved to Portland over six years ago and made a life for herself selling furniture and discovering a new passion for acting. Julie, who also works in advertising, grew up in Oregon and kicked ass in the ad world (or so everyone that she worked told me). It was great to hang with them, meet their friends and start to feel that inkling of inspiration again amongst such creative people.

Once again, they made me feel right at home as I was immersed in their lives. I even tagged along with Kate in her old pick-up truck as we ran errands and met up with one of her friends that recently had adorable twins. Getting to hang with those cuties for an afternoon and walk along the river with them was so fun. And even though she is a single mother, the amount of love she has for them as well as the love from her friends and family is immense. It’s incredible to see.

As I waved goodbye to Portland and drove down the breathtaking Pacific North highway, I reflected on the people I met and the various relationships I encountered. Recently engaged, newly married, living together or with some adorable additions, love comes in many forms and it was inspiring to witness so many successful relationships. In a society where we’re surrounded by more and more dysfunctional, broken, and sometimes even harmful relationships, it’s nice to see that it truly is possible to have such happiness with another person. Which makes being single all the more exciting, knowing that I’ll find that person for me one day. Who knows…maybe they’re here, in the Northwest.

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Next Stop: West Coast, Best Coast….California

Ch 4: Detour

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Snowed In
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I went to bed Thursday night in Hill City, SD, with the full expectation that I would get up early in my cute little mountain cabin, eat breakfast, pack up the car, and head on to Yellowstone National Park. But when I awoke and looked out the window, I saw about six inches of snow on the ground and some flurries in the air. And it kept snowing…for over 24 hours. 

By mid-day Friday, all the roads were closed, the power went out, and I was snowed in.

It’s a long-running joke with my family and friends that I have the worst travel luck – we call them my travel demons. And it’s true…just about everywhere I’ve visited or tried to visit, I’ve been faced with a struggle. One time, I had to spend the night in the Atlanta airport for two nights because of a freak ice storm. Another time, my flight to Hawaii for a family vacation was cancelled because of a random hail storm. And again this past March, a late-season blizzard kept me in Denver for an extra day when I was there visiting friends. The list goes on and on…and it seems to only happen to me. So this blizzard (ironically named, Atlas) was no surprise. I’ve gotten so used to it that it’s stopped bothering me; there’s nothing I can do except make the best of it.

But this time, the travel demons had a little extra up their sleeves and threw a curveball…a government shutdown. How is it that the ONE TIME I decide to take a life-altering road trip visiting our beautiful national parks, the government decides to be turds and shutdown the government, therefore shutting down the parks!? That meant that I wouldn’t be able to see Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or many others! Well played, travel demons…well played.

Detour
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So I had a decision to make…with Yellowstone snowed in AND shutdown, I had to go a different route. Going north was out of the question because of all the snow, so I had to go south. And the nearest, largest point of interest (other than a national park) was Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

By Sunday morning the roads were finally clear enough to drive on, and after borrowing the hotel’s snow shovel and digging through about three feet of snow to get to my car, I packed up and was finally on the road again. The drive through the snow-covered Black Hills was spectacular. Each bend revealed the next incredible view and each ridge opened up to a new, inspiring landscape. Exiting the mountains, I drove through the vast grasslands of eastern Wyoming, which were still covered in snow. It was so white that it looked like I was driving on the moon and there wasn’t a cloud in the ski.

As I approached Cheyenne four hours later, I surveyed my surroundings and options of things to do. I had every intention of stopping, finding a hotel and exploring the Wyoming capital before moving on to Salt Lake City the next day. However, after driving through the downtown, I quickly realized this was a big waste of time. There really wasn’t a whole lot in the area and not much to see other than kitschy, western-style stores and boarded-up restaurants straight from the 1950’s. It was like Cheyenne hadn’t changed for over forty years. So I pressed on to Utah instead. 

Luckily, the drive through southern Wyoming, was incredible. It was so open, with no sign of human existence for hundreds of miles in each direction. I was reminded of the compactness of the east coast, where I grew up. There, it’s very rare to be in such a secluded place where no human has spoiled the land or developed on it. Yes, there are mountains and some beaches that are quiet and extremely beautiful, but often in the distance you can still see SOME EVIDENCE of other human life; a street light in the distance or water tower on the horizon. In southern Wyoming…there was nothing except the miles of road ahead of you. 

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Next Stop: Mormonland and the Pacific Northwest

Ch 3: Midwest

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The first actual driving part of the road trip included roughly 1,800 miles of the glorious United States Midwest. While I’ve grown up and lived most of my life on the east coast, the Midwest is not unfamiliar territory to me; both of my parents are from Wisconsin and a majority of my extended family still lives there. I remember driving many times from North Carolina to Wisconsin in the family van for some aunt’s wedding or cousin’s baptism – but the trip was always a straight shot, never stopping in the cool cities or towns along the way. So I was excited to finally take it all in and do some exploring. What I ultimately discovered was unexpected…

Nashville, TN

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Traveling west, through the Great Smoky Mountain, my first stop was Nashville. I had heard so many great things about the city – its interesting art, food and hoppin’ music scene – and decided to see for myself. And boy, was I not disappointed. Music has always been very important to me, and while Country isn’t at the top of my list (okay, let’s be real, it barely makes the list sometimes), I found the Country music in Nashville to be spectacular. Even the Honky Tonk had my foot tappin’! The atmosphere of the old, country-western bars and their live music was really exciting and I felt right at home in my flannel shirt and whiskey-rocks in hand. After some barhopping, I stopped by the famous Hatch Show Print store on Broadway and took a peek in the window at all the amazingly-designed music and event posters. I would love to be able to design with my hands and old letterpresses instead of sit at a computer all day. I was also able to stay with an old soccer teammate of mine, Lindsay, who showed me all the cool neighborhoods and Nashville highlights. I had not seen or spoken to her in over 8 years but it was like we never left.

St. Louis, MO

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The next morning, I was up early and on my way to St. Louis, the gateway to the west. I stayed with my Aunt Sue and her family who had just moved to a suburb of St. Louis, two years prior. My two cousins had grown so much since I last saw them and I couldn’t believe that one of them was already in high school – man, how time flies! I was able to drive around the downtown for a bit and see the beautiful Forest Park, which was the location for the 1904 World’s Fair. I also went to the famous Gateway Arch and was able to ride to the top to look out for hundreds of miles. I met (and was hit on by) an interesting group of guys in the arch’s claustrophobic pod elevator. They were in town from San Francisco to watch an NFL game and an MLB game over the weekend. They take these “boy’s trips” once a year to watch sports, which I thought was an awesome concept. St. Louis was a cool town and I wish I could have spent more time there, but I had to keep moving. Plus, those guys weren’t my type…they all were married. ; )

Chicago, IL

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The next Midwest stop was the hustling and bustling Chicago, where I was visiting my best friend from college, Kate, and her husband, Matt. She is eights months preggers and about to pop! Our other best friend, Sarah, flew in all the way from Los Angeles as well so we could have a girls weekend together before Kate has her baby. It was so incredibly great to see and spend time with them. We had to laugh thinking how much of a contrast it was that almost ten years ago, we were having a wild time in college, going out and partying with our friends, while this time, we were content with just sitting on the couch at her apartment, eating cupcakes, catching up and watching episodes of Breaking Bad on TV. So much has changed since college, but we are still the best of friends. I also love Chicago. I have been there many times before, sneaking down on the train for a day when my family would visit our grandparents in Wisconsin, and every time it’s been amazing. This time, I was able to rent a bike and ride along Lake Michigan, visit the Lincoln Park Zoo, and stroll around the park. The weather could not have been more perfect. I only wish Chicago’s winters weren’t so crazy…I’d move there in a heartbeat.

Racine, WI

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After spending a couple days in Chicago, I drove up to Racine, Wisconsin and was lucky enough to have Sarah tag along for a night since Kate had to work. It’s only an hour-long drive through beautiful Wisconsin farmland, just west of the vast Lake Michigan. We arrived at my Grandma and Grandpa Reesman’s house to a huge welcoming party! My mother is one of nine kids; seven girls and two boys, and a good number of my family was there to greet us and have dinner. It was so great to see them and reminisce about stories, listen to their memories, and catch up. Grandma passed out as much food as possible and Grandpa showed us all of his carpentry work. It was hard to believe they are in their mid 80’s. Sarah was also having a hard time trying to keep track of who was who…which is difficult when we tallied up that I have 31 first cousins and about 20 second cousins. Sometimes I can’t even keep track! The next day, Sarah and I drove to my Grandma Hansen’s house and had lunch. I think both of my grandmothers are on a pretty even playing field when it comes to the amount of stories they tell…they can sure talk! But it’s always so wonderful to hear them. After dropping Sarah off at the train station, I was able to visit with my dad’s side of the family and then go out with my cousins. It’s so funny to think how different in age we all used to seem and now, all being above the age of 21, we’re all about equal – same work problems, same dating problems and same life problems. The next morning, Grandma Hansen pulled out her high school yearbook and started showing my cousin, Nick, and me the pictures. She had just celebrated her graduating class’s 80th birthday. She knew every single name and had a story for each person! I barely remember the names of 20 people at my high school. It was so incredible to see their photos from 60 years ago – they all seemed so much more mature than when I was a senior. And to think about all that they’ve seen and gone through: three major wars, television, computers, and the Internet! No wonder they’re all still such spitfires at 80. Seeing my family and actually getting to spend a good amount of time with them was such a treat.

Minneapolis, MN

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Next stop was Minneapolis where my cousin Liz lives with her husband, Jake, and little one, Vaughn (who is quite possibly the cutest thing alive). They have a great house in Northeast Minneapolis in a beautiful neighborhood. Liz was able to show me around the town, crossing the Mississippi into downtown, passing the old flour factory and walking through Loring Park and the Sculpture Garden. We ate and chatted and had an incredible time catching up and sightseeing. Minneapolis is a super cool town with lots of young people, coffee shops and dive bars. And it seems to be growing really fast; Liz was even amazed at some of the new apartment buildings that had sprouted up in no time. I would have loved to spend more time but I had to be on the road again.

Sioux Falls, SD

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The drive through Minnesota into eastern South Dakota was spectacular; a wonderful mix of low hills, lakes, rivers and of course, farmland. I had been to Sioux Falls before, many years ago for my Aunt and Uncle’s wedding but I was so young that I barely remembered it. I stayed with the same Aunt and Uncle and their two kids (who are now in high school and middle school)! It still amazes me to think how quickly time flies! They gave me a grand tour of the city, showing me the beautiful waterfalls at Falls Park and the cute downtown. I even got some kisses from their adorable dog, Reggie (named after the great, Green Bay Packer player, Reggie White). After a delicious dinner, my Uncle Ed and Aunt Cindy sat on their back porch and chatted late into the evening, talking about the area, life, and jobs. It was so nice to see them and talk. I feel like I relate to them so much more because they have also lived in several places and enjoy similar things like exploring local restaurants, flipping houses, hanging with friends and trying new, tasty beer. I felt right at home there. If I knew what was to come in the next few days, I definitely would have stayed longer.

Visiting so much family was both incredible and humbling. I discovered a lot from seeing the many different kinds of families; old ones, new ones, ones with loss and ones about to begin. Each with their own forms of love and levels of devotion. I’m reminded of my own family and how close we are and how well we get along. My sister and I grew up with two amazing parents who showed us that strong love between the parents can extend down to the kids. My grandparents continue to show how infinite love can be and how long it can last (they have to with 50+ children and grandchildren). And although I’ve been away for most of my life, my aunts, uncles and cousins don’t hesitate to let me into their spare rooms, share their lives and make me feel right at home. It was truly special to see and be with them all. 

Black Hills, SD – Seclusion

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The drive on I-90, through South Dakota, was spectacular. Even though there was a light mist all the way, it was simply beautiful. Colorful red, green and yellow farmland, contrasting against the blue-gray sky, as well as rolling hills, mixed with scattered rocks and cliffs was all the eye could see for miles. Photos just couldn’t capture the beauty of it. The next thing I new, I was greeted by a different world; the Badlands. The scraggly rocks and sharp peaks were like something from an alien planet. Add in the fog and mist from the rain and I felt like I was on Mars. Unfortunately, because of the recent government shutdown, I wasn’t able to drive through the entire park and had to back track to I-90. That was the same story for Mount Rushmore and other parts of the Black Hills Forest. Luckily, I was able to see the monument from the road, but I couldn’t stop or pull over into the National Park. The rain was starting to pick up as I drove deeper into the Black Hills to my little mountain cabin in Hill City. Driving through the mountains was beautiful and it was interesting to see the difference between the reds, yellows and oranges of the North Carolina Mountains and these, which were dark green, black and bright yellow. The storm was picking up and the weatherman was calling for some light snow. What I woke up to was something completely different…

Next Stop: Yellowstone National Park Snowed In 

Ch 2: Outer Banks

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I spent the next leg of my trip with my family at the Outer Banks, North Carolina. We stay at a house in Manteo which is on a little island in the middle of the sound, between the coastal banks and the main land. It’s absolutely beautiful with a pool right on the waterfront and bar right next to the pool.

My family goes with about four other really great families and we’ve gone for about four years now. It’s perfect. Each family is so chill; relaxing when we all want to relax, and upbeat when we feel a dance party coming on. Not to mention the Outer Banks is amazing.

I was lucky enough to have my two very best friends come for the first part of the trip. We are all the exploring type and took a day to drive up the coast to see the wild horses on the beach and climb the Corolla lighthouse. Seeing the horses on the beach, running wild and free was so amazing and a nice little reminder of what this trip is for.

After the Hoods left, I spent the rest of the week trying to look as much like Beyoncé on the beaches of Greece as possible. I literally sat by the pool with a thick layer of sunscreen, read some books, and sipped on some delicious drinks for about 7 hours a day. As did the rest of my family…the weather could not have been better.

Later in the week, we decided to awaken from our sun-kissed slumber and were able to celebrate my sister as she was sworn in as an attorney at the Dare County Courthouse. It was so nice to have so many family and friends there and even better to have them there when we celebrated afterward – what started out as mimosas during brunch turned into drinking champagne and dancing on the coffee table. 

Needless to say, it was an incredible week. I left the Atlantic ocean, rested and ready to head towards the Pacific.

Next stop: Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Wisco, and Minneapolis for the first leg of the real-deal, solo road trip.

Ch 1: Home

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My last day of work was bittersweet; I was excited to be free from the 10-hr-plus work days and busy schedule but sad to leave all my colleagues and creative team who work so hard every single day. Leaving New York was tough as well, as I’ve come to love it so much. But it was time to head back to where my heart really was: home.

I arrived at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport late Saturday night and was greeted by my amazing parents. With the cool, North Carolina air blowing through the car windows as we drove down I-40 to Greensboro (my hometown), I was finally able to relax. There’s always something about being home that makes you feel so at ease.

I got to spend a whole week visiting family and friends and spending some time in the North Carolina mountains. Some great family friends of ours have this amazing log cabin right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and I try to make it up there whenever I can. It’s so incredibly peaceful and relaxing.

I even visited my high school alma mater to watch a girl’s field hockey game. It was my first time back at that school in almost 10 years; so much has changed…and not just in the school. It’s crazy to think how I’m so different from that little girl that did student council, played soccer, passed notes with my high school boyfriend, messed around with art and hung out with so many friends.

I’ve lived away from home for so long, I hardly speak to those same high school friends, I barely recognize the city, that boy and I are long since forgotten and the things that were important to me then aren’t the same at all. Times were so simple then and through the years I’ve gotten so caught up with getting ahead that it’s inevitably worn me out. 

So now that this first leg of my trip is over and I’ve been able to get back to basics, I’m ready for what’s ahead and excited to get back to living that simple life again.

Next stop: The beach, for some rest and relaxation!