We made it! Fair warning: this is going to be an exceptionally joyful blog post, because Randi and I finally made it to the US and back after three whole years of being away. In fact, our United flights were mostly covered by credit from our aborted holiday of April 2020, so we had a lot to pack in.
Our first stop was LA to stay overnight with Randi’s brother, Alex, and his partner Lia. They kindly shepherded us from the airport to an outdoor restaurant for dinner (because you can do outdoor dining in November in southern California) where we had a lovely time pretending that our sleep wasn’t 8 hours behind where it should be.
The next day, suitably reset, we spent some time together at the Huntington Botanical Gardens before moving on to Randi’s parents in Yorba Linda. This was a perfect place to relax into holiday mode – beautiful gardens, including some fearsome cacti, and all in sunshine.
Time for a quick side-quest, though! Before leaving the city, we also worked in a brief window to sneak off to Farmers Market and introduce Randi to my LA cousins Jackie and Jeff. This has been a long-overdue introduction, and they generously treated us to brunch while we made the most of our short time together. A really lovely Glamily bonus.
The number of books I’ve managed to get through during the pandemic has been shockingly poor, and I’ve now decided to blame being cut off from Randi’s family home in Yorba Linda. It really has become my happy place to sit by the pool and read, occasionally refuelled by trips to In-N-Out Burger (still delicious).
Obviously, it was also great to spend more time with Randi’s parents, and in the evenings we gathered together to keep pace with British essentials such as the Bake Off finale and a creepy Weeping Angels-centric episode of Doctor Who, during which I was pretty sure I could sense an army of malicious statues approaching from their backyard.
Just in case this makes it sound like we never left the house… we weren’t that immobile. Our furthest adventure was to Newport Beach for a fishy (in a good way) lunch with Randi’s friend Sonali, followed by a good walk along the beachfront itself. In news which will surprise no-one, we opted to join the small fraction of the population who ride the local 71 bus to Newport Beach rather than driving – and while it’s neither very frequent or particularly fast, I have nothing bad to say about my $2 Orange County bus experience, which was actually reasonably well-used for the middle of the day. And free masks, too, for anyone ‘forgetting’ to wear one – including for the woman who boarded, took her free mask and then got right back off again.
We also went for a wonderful (and quite philosophical) stroll around the local neighbourhood with another of Randi’s childhood friends, Sienna. Meanwhile, Randi cooked an amazing dinner for the Leikens when they came over for the evening, along with Alex’s friends Brian and Gabo, and I can confirm that it was me who finished the chocolate cake the next morning. For Thanksgiving itself, I found myself in the disorientating position of making the salad dressing (despite, y’know, not eating salad) which miraculously ended up being edible. Not quite as edible, however, as Andrew Shelanksy’s ginger cookies which have to go down as one of my Thanksgiving 2021 highlights.
And finally: Chicago! No matter where we live, this will always be the city where we met and we never plan to be away for such an outrageously long period of time again. Our home base was
Cantherine Catherine and Blaine’s AJ’s fancy new apartment, and in addition to all of the running about we did it was just really magical to spend some time again just hanging out, drinking Spotted Cow, streaming Channel 4, revisiting their wedding, stealing pizza slices from the fridge, recreating the entire Geja’s fondue experience with a DIY takeaway kit and arguing about whether ‘takeaway’ is a word. We also enjoyed a Hanukkah latke feast with Catherine’s cousins – and fortunately, we had come prepared with offerings from the land of Peppa Pig to satisfy the youngest guest.
Oh, but we did so much more. We ordered Mexican food with Toggolyn – still, by some distance, the couple with the coolest bookshelves – and then hopped over together to Robert and Julie’s for pizza and wine and incredibly tangented stories. Their two sons are also so, so much fun. We went back to Windy City Café with one of my most favourite ex-Grouponers, Ellen, who is slowly morphing into a European before our very eyes, and hit up our other go-to brunch place, Janik’s, with the one and only Cat “I’m going to move to Madison just as you leave Chicago” Hurley.
Evening engagements included a night out in the ‘burbs with Randi’s former boss and her family, cocktails with Jason and Carrie and Thai food at Michaela and Andy’s flat where an awful lot of opinions were expressed about Omaha. I also took a solo trip on Metra out to Downers Grove for burgers with another ex-Groupon colleague, Mike, although it almost turned into a much longer diversion because I almost boarded an Amtrak train by mistake… which could have been a lengthy error.
We also spent time with our beloved flatmate Amanda, of course – not once, but twice – starting with dinner at the one-and-only La Scarola. They’ve always been suspiciously nice to me there, starting from my very first visit, to the extent that Randi assumes they’ve confused me with someone else. Still, I’ll take it, especially since this visit ended with the owner ripping off a piece of tablecloth for me to write my phone number down so he can “take me out to dinner in London” when he visits.
Anyway – having gorged on Italian food – we reunited with Amanda a few nights later at Joe and Julie’s house which, not surprisingly, is a quirky masterpiece of design. We had an uproariously great night together with Amanda’s partner John and long-time Chicago friend Karol. (Julie’s chocolate and marmalade cake is highly recommended.)
Before flying home on Saturday, we just had time for some excellent Swedish breakfasts before accompanying Catherine and AJ to buy a Christmas tree. (In truth, I think we were mostly there so that Catherine had a secure majority of people whose instincts are to bring home the biggest tree possible.) And then, far too quickly, we were in a cab to the airport. If you’re thinking that “cab to the airport” doesn’t sound like us, you should know that, when I left Chicago in November 2018, Robert very kindly offered up some closet space to store a bunch of books, board games and other possessions until we had somewhere permanent to send them to.
I certainly wasn’t intending to colonise his closet for three years, and – beyond feeling guilty – there was something incredibly gratifying about finally coming back for my stuff, even if it took an unwieldy number of extra bags to do it. Yes, stuff’s just stuff, but it was my stuff… and on the flight back, the sadness of leaving people behind in Chicago again was balanced with a satisfaction that our home in London would now become – in a sense – whole.
Appropriately, on our first flight out I reached the very last episode of Wicked Game, a podcast series recommended to me by my uncle Andrew which works through each American Presidential election from the beginning. I also picked Finding Dory for my traditional aeroplane animation fix… although, sadly, this time I found the story pretty underwhelming and one dimensional. On the way back, therefore, I went in a different direction and watched the Christopher Nolan thriller Tenet. Probably not the ideal viewing experience for that film, but enjoyable enough. The real shining moment of my first post-Covid international journey, however, was being reunited with a pack of Ruffles (Cheddar & Sour Cream) at O’Hare. Ruffles! I had forgotten about you, but you were always an excellent option from the Groupon vending machine.
It’s clearly time for this rambling narrative to end, because tomorrow we go back to the real world. At least, the real world as bounded by the walls of our flat for a few days, pending the (hopefully negative) outcome of a PCR test. We came home today to a Christmas tree of our own (it’s beautiful), a big Indian takeaway (see, definitely a real word) and the Doctor Who finale: all good reminders of our home here. But nothing makes you appreciate home more than leaving it, and I can’t wait for whatever travel comes next.
This is it! It’s the big summer holiday record of our two-week roadtrip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, on which Randi and I were joined by both of our mothers. (We invited them, it wasn’t like an episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.) Since we are exceptionally proud of our itinerary, this mammoth post is designed to be something you can follow along if you are ever planning your own trip to these amazing places.
Behold, the map!
Table of Contents
A: Salt Lake City, Utah (hidden on the map underneath J)
B: Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
C: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
D: Old Faithful
E: West Yellowstone, Montana
F: Gardiner, Montana
G: Bozeman, Montana
H: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana
I: Idaho Falls, Idaho
J: Salt Lake City, Utah
A: Salt Lake City, Utah
We landed in Salt Lake City, which is considerably cheaper than flying to a smaller airport, and were met by our mums who had already commandeered a rental Jeep in the brightest shade of lime green you can possibly imagine. It would be impossible to lose this car.
B: Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
Borrowing a trick from our Machu Picchu trek, our first night was spent in the town of Lava Hot Springs where (unsurprisingly) one can take a relaxing soak in the eponymous hot springs and ease into the holiday mood. As you can see we were also all very excited to reach Idaho.
Where To Stay: Bristol Cabins, a very sweet collection of little huts and space for RVs and campers. Spoiler alert to preempt any disappointment: there’s no camping at all in this trip.
C: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
I don’t have good enough words to describe our four-night stay in Grand Teton. It’s an insanely beautiful place, and is where we found our favourite hikes of the entire trip. It’s also the place we discovered that we can’t leave our mums alone for five minutes without them getting lost or accidentally embarking on a nine-mile walk by themselves. It was also worth visiting the town of Jackson one lunchtime, where we all discovered Huckleberry ice cream for the first time.
Where To Stay: A cabin in Colter Bay Village. Book early!
Where To Hike: The Taggart-Bradley Lake Loop has exceptional views. We also really enjoyed String Lake (which has swimming and beaching options) via Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Probably my favourite hike, however, was the Cascade Canyon trail. The first half-an-hour is uphill, but this gets it all out of the way early while also leaving you with a fine feeling of accomplishment.
D: Old Faithful
The Old Faithful geyser is the most famous attraction in Yellowstone, and we got here early enough for a front-row seat to one of the regular eruptions. The Old Faithful Inn is also well worth seeing – and a good place to have lunch – and the surrounding walks to other geysers are cool, although after a while you may feel some geyser-fatigue. After hiking in Grand Teton, this is a lot more “touristy” and I am fairly sure that bringing my backpack and bear spray to a paved path thronging with families was overkill.
Hike Stroll: Aside from the Morning Glory Pool, we also walked the path to Lone Star Geyser. It’s a paved path, which was harder on the feet and definitely makes you feel less cool, but the geyser at the end was erupting at just the right time.
E: West Yellowstone, Montana
We spent three nights in West Yellowstone as a base for exploring this side of the park. As we started to discover at Old Faithful, Yellowstone does seem a little less orientated towards hikes than Grand Teton, although the rangers will get very defensive if you point this out. They exist, of course, they just seem less well signposted and the official maps are a tad… confusing. On the other hand, the park has a huge variety of sights to see, including animals such as wolves and bison. We got way too close to a bison for comfort as it suddenly marched towards our car and we struggled to find where Randi’s mum had gone.
Where To Stay: Hibernation Station treated us very nicely.
Where To Hike: The Fairy Falls hike begins with views of the Grand Prismatic and ends at the Imperial Geyser. (Well, if you squint at the map a little.) For awe-inspiring views of waterfalls, you’ll want Artists Point to Point Sublime, although it’s also well worth walking down to the Lower Falls for a closer view too.
F: Gardiner, Montana
Gardiner is home to the original entrance to Yellowstone – America’s first National Park – and an arch bearing the inscription “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”, which is a nice thing to find in a piece of federal legislation. Aside from a few more walks, we also went whitewater rafting on the river. The wetsuits were appreciated.
Where To Stay: A cabin from Black Bear Inn and Vacation Rentals, although staying in the ‘Bighorn Sheep Room’ felt unnecessarily uncool compared to the grizzly bear, wolf or mountain lion rooms next door.
Where To Hike: We walked a good circle to Beaver Ponds – a hike which also produced the loudest snake-sighting screams. There are also boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs with views of alien-looking landscapes.
G: Bozeman, Monatana
Bozeman! The town with a definite liberal vibe which my mother fell in love with and declared that she was going to move in and open a French bookshop in. Until this happens, top things to do include the Triple Tree Trail, the American Computer & Robotics Museum (a genuinely amazing place where so many things are packed into a tiny area) and Blackbird (hat-tip: Carolyn) which makes, amongst other things, the world’s most incredible bread.
From here on, we stayed in Airbnbs, which don’t feel quite permanent enough to recommend on here, but nonetheless were all excellent.
H: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana
Now this was a cool find! After the national parks I was expecting this state park to feature a couple of caves you could poke your head into. Instead, $12 will buy you a two-hour guided tour through legit caverns. Tours may or may not feature: bats, rat bones, a candlelit recreation of earlier times, that couple who just can’t follow instructions, much careful handrail holding and a rock doubling as a slide.
I: Idaho Falls, Idaho
After the caverns we headed back down south, stopping for a night in Idaho Falls. There isn’t a lot to write about Idaho Falls but it does have a nice waterfront and Japanese Friendship Garden, in which a team of volunteers were busy re-oiling the fence under the careful supervision of the head gardener. But the real reason we stayed in Idaho Falls was for easy access to the Idaho Potato Museum the next day. It features the world’s largest crisp! (Now slightly cracked. Not because of us.)
J: Salt Lake City, Utah
Voila, we completed our circle back in Salt Lake City. Not wanting to pass on exploring Salt Lake we left ourselves a day to look around, visiting the Utah State Capitol building (although the legislature only sits for roughly ten minutes a year), the Mormon Temple, the farmer’s market in Pioneer Park (props to the woman gathering support to expand Medicaid in Utah) and eating the world’s best carbonara at Stanza.
Slightly unexpectedly for a city of 200,000 people, Salt Lake seems to have amazing public transport. We saw buses everywhere, there’s some kind of ride-share scheme for scooters, and from the city centre we were able to catch a tram out to the airport. Good work, Salt Lake City!
OK, this was an absurdly long post, and I don’t begrudge anyone for just skimming through the photos. But we had an amazing adventure, and I highly recommend the parks to visit. Plus I knocked off three new states in the process 😉
P.S. I kept looking for an opportunity to shoehorn in the fact that we saw Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again with Amanda the week before we left, but it never seemed like the right moment. So here, without any context, I just want to pay tribute to the scene where a fisherman takes 30 seconds out of the film to deliver a monologue about the perilous state of the Greek economy.
Last week was a busy one! It started with a relaxed and cheerful evening at Wrigley Field where I showed up to watch a Cubs vs. Dodgers game with Todd, Carolyn and Kevin (note, Todd, that no Oxford comma is remotely necessary) which was, to be honest, not really diminished at all by the cancellation – due to rain – of any actual playing of baseball. That’s not intended to be a dig at baseball. It’s more a tribute to the atmosphere and the company.
The next day I turned 29 (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a prime number) and I celebrated with Randi and Amanda by going back to Red Square for dinner. It holds a special yet frightening place in our hearts because after meeting Amanda for the first time and showing her around her prospective apartment home, almost two years ago, we had all walked together along Division Street and decided to “get to know each other” over pierogi. As we walked in, the owner (or, if not the owner, an enthusiastic ambassador) put his arms around my shoulder and invited me (and only me) to the baths downstairs. I declined, somewhat fearfully, and we quickly retreated to the outside tables… but the pierogi were good! This time we escaped without any kidnapping attempts, and I returned home in one piece to enjoy Randi’s amazing homemade chocolate cake.
On Wednesday evening I grabbed a beer with Jonah, who had been sending stalkerish photos of Chicago over WhatsApp, and on the following night I was due for Birthday Dinner #2 at Spacca Napoli Pizzeria with Randi, Catherine and AJ. This was good pizza. If you’re looking for a place which is respectably fancy enough for a birthday dinner, but deep down all your heart desires is pizza, this is your place.
OK, enough prelude, let’s get to Virginia.
Charlottesville is a large town (sorry, an ‘independent city’) with a wonderfully pedestrianised downtown area, a historic university and the sort of vibe which produces colourful markets, boutique shops and RBG fridge magnets. So I was very glad we had a good reason for a long weekend visit, together with Villy, to see this for myself and undo some of the mental association between the words ‘Charlottesville’ and ‘murderous Nazi rally’.
The other famous association is with Thomas Jefferson and his plantation at Monticello, which we also visited. As with our visit to a plantation in Charleston, it’s difficult to square the workings of a tourist site (gift shop, shuttle bus, tour tickets) with the fundamental horrors of slavery. It’s even more complicated at Monticello since, whatever you think of Thomas Jefferson (and I am not a fan, for multiple reasons) he’s clearly a historical figure of huge significance and talent.
I can say that the presentation was more historically honest than in Charleston. We were probably lucky in our guide, a University of Virginia student. For example, during the tour of Jefferson’s house, and after giving equal prominence to Jefferson’s acknowledged and unacknowledged children, she shot down one man’s suggestion that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s “mistress” or “special friend” with a firm “no, she was his slave”. It was a small moment, but a brave one, because it’s not an easy thing to risk a confrontation like that when your job is on the line.
Talking of workplace confrontations: in a Charlottesville taproom I caught up with Brett, a volunteer we met on the 2016 Hillary campaign in Toledo, for a non-hypothetical discussion about what to do when a colleague truly believes that the Earth is flat. True story.
The aforementioned ‘good reason’ for being in Charlottesville was the wedding of Chelsea (Randi and Villy’s middle school friend) and Daniel. Congratulations to them! The wedding took place outdoors at a winery which was both incredibly beautiful and very, very sunny. Fortunately, fans were provided. It was also great fun to hang out with Villy, who was very helpful and responsive to my emergency questions whilst doing last-minute shirt shopping at Charlottesville’s TJ Maxx.
Finally, on Sunday morning we got the early morning Amtrak to Washington DC and spent the day with Randi’s cousin Ben. Randi’s patience for taking photos around famous DC monuments has worn very thin in the current era, so instead I will use this photo of a much younger me outside the Washington Monument from 1999. At least the monument itself has greatly improved!
The highlight of this day trip – other than meeting Ben – was seeing the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. To build anticipation we counted up through the portraits of the 42 previous Presidential office holders first, passing a swift-but-fair judgement on them all in turn. FDR had a line drawing of Stalin in the bottom left, which seems a little unfair.
To conclude, here is a transcribed exchange between an elderly couple over breakfast:
You might have thought that we’ve visited all of the Midwestern states in existence by now… and you’d be right. But there is still room in our lives for Midwestern minibreaks! Milwaukee in Wisconsin for example, is an hour and a half away by Amtrak. So, we took off for the weekend, armed with a Groupon for a mystery hotel.
One of the top things to do in Milwaukee is to see the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory or ‘those big dome things’. You are absolutely not allowed to call them geodesic domes. They are conoidal domes, and the Milwaukee County Park System is very clear on the matter. The domes consist of a Tropical Dome, a Desert Dome and a ‘Show Dome’ of rotating exhibits, while outside there is a sweet ‘human sundial’ which invites you to stand on the right month and then have your shadow cast onto a big clock to tell the time. (Actually there are two big clocks, to accommodate Daylight Savings, which should make people angry but mysteriously does not.) Anyway, we enjoyed the domes, although I didn’t appreciate the motorway-strewn walk back into the centre of town. Good setting for a zombie film, but not for walking.
Other Milwaukee activities included Battleship, multiple trips to the Public Market (“you guys were here yesterday, right?” asked the ice-cream man) and the cool-looking Milwaukee Art Museum. There we learned about Winslow Homer’s time in England (lots of fisherwomen) and visited a photographic exhibition on the American Road Trip, which did not make me feel any better about the aforementioned Interstate 94 along which, I suppose, a road trip might take you. We also went to the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear which explores everyday life from the 1930s and 40s. It was the kind of small museum with enthusiastic staff who follow you around to add commentary, but in a nice way.
Since it’s a little unusual for us to stay in an actual hotel rather than an Airbnb, we decided to complete our wild Saturday night of beer+cheese+pretzels by getting into bed, turning on the TV and working our way through all the TV channels like couples used to do in the olden days. Through this method we discovered the amazing Forged In Fire: Knife or Death, a competition in which contestants turn up with their own knives and work through a knife-based assault course where they, um, basically have to cut a lot of things in half. The best part is that the final part of the course is often a dead chicken, or a fish, or some falling watermelons. Needless to say everybody takes it Very Seriously, even though it seems that the people who turn up with the biggest, sharpest knives are pretty likely to win. Highly recommended.
Thank you Amtrak for getting us back to Chicago in time for La Scarola on Sunday night. Other non-Milwaukee things from the past few weeks include a ‘Run for Something‘ fundraiser (although I was not in the demographic of those whose funds were being raised) and finally watching Moana. I know everybody loved this film, and it is true there are many things to love – particularly the characters, the visuals and the opening few songs. I thought it got a bit slow towards the end, though. If this were the mid-1990s and I was a 7 year old with Moana on videocassette, it’s probably the beginning bit I would have worn out by now with replays. (Fun fact: when I watched Lady and the Tramp again after many years, it was the romantic scene of them eating spaghetti at La Scarola-for-dogs which had been watched so many times it was fuzzy.)
It feels like my last post was forever ago, especially since I’ve been living out of a backpack for the past two weeks in various Californian locations. More on that shortly. But first I want to note the fun Chicago meetups which happened before I left, especially dinner and drinks with Ellen and Emilie, having Marte and Alex over to play board games (even though we didn’t actually get round to playing any board games, but we did learn how competitive Marte would have been) and McKenna and Rusty’s ‘leaving’ party. I mean, they really are moving to Berlin, one assumes. They just haven’t actually left yet.
So, California! This was a three-part escapade which I have illustrated with this hastily labelled map:
1. Palo Alto
As you will know if you’ve been following along, this was for work. For our purposes, the most important thing is that I had my regular catch-up with Nolan, this time over fried chicken and waffles and beer. Also, the guy in the build-your-own-burger place learnt my name, which is a little worrying. I don’t come to California for the salads.
2. San Francisco
That relationship-building with Nolan in step #1 was critical, because for the weekend I borrowed his apartment in San Francisco while he was away. Kudos to his roommates for (a) being great and welcoming, (b) encouraging me to steal their baked goods, (c) not calling the police when they thought I was slowly breaking into the apartment, and (d) having an electric kettle.
While in SF (which, I must say, was a joy to walk around) I was lucky enough to hang out with not one but two cousin families. On Saturday night I had dinner downtown with Jamie, Paul and Lori before Jamie and I saw Weightless, a rock opera retelling of Procne and Philomela’s story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Not being cultured enough to have read Ovid (sorry) I was not sure what to expect, but it was really, really good. We especially enjoyed the narration from an unidentified Greek god, and the music was engrossing enough that I was tempted to buy the CD afterwards despite not actually having any way to listen to a CD anymore. (Thankfully, there were other options.) It’s the kind of production which obviously takes years of work to put together, and if this ends up touring more widely, I recommend seeing it.
The night afterwards I hung out with Jonah, Staci, Julien and Desmond in their local Oakland kid-friendly sort-of-pub, which was really lovely and a great opportunity to plant the seeds of future travel in the minds of the next generation.
Dear Lori, Julien and Desmond: one day, the odds are that you’ll want travel to distant cities and countries. We’ll be ready and waiting with the free sofas to sleep on. Lots of love, your older cousins.
Finally, a grateful shout-out to the Mechanics’ Institute Library & Chess Room of San Francisco. For a mere $15, you provided a quiet place in the city to sit and read, and you were well worth it. I feel so old.
3. Yorba Linda
Finally, Randi joined me at her parents’ house in Yorba Linda for her mum’s 60th birthday and surprise party. My role in the surprise was minor and slightly embarrassing (I had to hide in the toilet so that we wouldn’t leave the house too early) but I was happy to play my part. Happy birthday!
We also escaped a bobcat. That’s two wild animals which haven’t killed us so far.