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Packing light

I love packing light. For whatever reason, traveling with too much clothes drives me nuts. Here is what I brought with me for my Toronto/Chicago/Denver/New York trip this summer. 5 shirts, two pairs of shorts, swimming trunks, 7 pairs of boxers and a quick dry towel. Being able to bring so little is the advantage of traveling when it’s warm!

one month's worth of clothes

Enough to last me one month

A backpack with a month's worth of clothes

The advantage of packing light. This is all I had to worry about.

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The setting is Denver. Tuesday morning. I’ve been in Denver for 10 days now and the city is appealing to me in a way I didn’t expect. I know I will miss it tremendously. As much as I like it, I really need to go to New York City (spend some time with the lady friend). I had checked Craig’s List for anyone going to New York City, anyone going East really, but nothing came up. I was hoping to find a student returning to school on the East coast or parents driving their kids for their first year in university. No such luck. I even posted a ride request, but the closest I could have gotten was Ohio (about 10 hours West of New York City) and that would have taken me two days. Because I had my heart set on doing the Montreal loop (Montreal-Toronto-Chicago-Denver-New York City-Montreal) on land, I checked with Greyhound and Amtrak for their Denver to New York City prices. Greyhound didn’t have it available on their site (I would have had to call) and Amtrak was around 240$. Just so we’re on the same page, that’s 240$ to be sitting in a seat on a train for two days straight. I suppose it’s better than the Greyhound alternative which, if I had to guess, would be closer to three or four days. I decided to swallow my pride and check airlines for prices. I quickly found a ticket from Denver to New York City, direct, for 212$. As much as I wanted to feel like a hardened traveller and do the West to East road on land, it was an easy choice. Even if I had found a ride East, I probably would have ended up pay a lot more for gas, food and lodging.

After saying goodbye to my friends, I got on my eastbound flight on Tuesday afternoon.

Then I flew.

Then, 3 hours later, I landed in New York City. I’ll admit that it was neat to see night lights from the air. It was also a bit shocking to travel essentially the same distance that had taken me around 34 hours to cover over the past few weeks in 3 hours.

Traveling by flight, while way more time efficient, almost feels like cheating. It removes the feeling of accomplishment, progress and tactility you get from overland travel. Having to wait 20-ish hours to reach your destination really makes you appreciate the moment you see the highway sign welcoming you to where you’re going.

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I should start this post by making something quite clear. I loved my time in Denver. My friend John, basically the whole reason I went to Denver in the first place, was a first-class host and made my time there unforgettable. Instead of gushing about how great a time I had and the things I did, I will list out some of my favourite things to do and see in Denver. They are not in any order (because they’d all be number 1).

Red Rocks

Red Rocks is a natural outdoor amphitheater unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Pictures don’t do it justice and I don’t have the ability to convey the sense of awe one gets standing between two massive rock formations, with thousands of other concert goers, watching the sun’s last rays set on Denver as a band plays in front of you. John got me a ticket to go see a show there with friends of his and told me it was one of the things I needed to do in Denver. He was right. I’ve seen a few concert venues in my day, but I’ve only seen one as majestic and beautiful as Red Rocks.

Mount Evans

We didn’t do any hiking while I was in Colorado. While I love hiking mountains, it was probably for the best since I only brought my boat shoes with me. We did however “climb” one of Colorado’s 55 “14ers: mountains with peaks over 14 000 feet (4 267 meters). Our only “climb” was Mount Evans, also known as the highest paved road in North America. We climbed using John’s friend’s SUV. I’ll be the first to admit that the ride up was terrifying (so was the ride down), but it was worth it. The view from the top was sweeping and the feeling of having conquered a 14 000 foot mountain without actually having walked for more than 10 minutes is a great (and very American) feeling.

State Capital Tour

This is the most touristy thing I did during my whole time in Denver. I took a tour of the state capital building and got to learn about the state’s history as well as the building’s quirks. Denver isn’t as old a city as New York or Chicago, so there isn’t much in terms of architectural history, however, that’s not to say it has no past. Since it was settled during the gold rush, Denver (and surrounding areas) has a very rugged history. I think my favourite part of the tour was the marker indicating exactly where you are a mile above sea level (there are actually three markers, within a few feet of each other due to advances in altitude measurements). Pretty neat stuff. Plus there was a quilt fair going on a that time. Quilts are always nice.

Denver Cruisers

Imagine this. Cyclists from all around town (and I assume near-by cities) meet at 3 pre-designated bars at around 7pm. At 8:30pm (I our case. I guess it must change from week to week), everyone gets on their bikes and follows a leader. The leader has a stereo system set up on a wagon behind his bike blasting fun music. The leader takes the group for a ride around town until he reaches a park near the capitol building. All three bar leaders converge on this one location and a great time ensues. The scope of this thing is unreal. There must have been over a thousand people on bikes, and not only normal bikes! Some had oldtimey bikes (the really tal ones with the big front where and the tiny rear wheel), others had unicycles, etc. As if it wasn’t insane enough, every week (this is a weekly event!) is a different theme! When I was there, the theme was Circus, so we found some clown noses and some rainbow wigs! How much fun is that? Once the groups reach the park, a circle of death forms (people ride in a circle while other are trapped in the middle). Some food trucks are there and people bring some beers. We ate food, drank and had a great time. The energy there was so great. It was also nice that the cyclists respect the rules of the road while riding in such a massive group (mostly, there are always jerks). It was a great experience that mixed friends, food, drinks and biking in a safe and fun way.

University of Colorado Boulder 

Since I was in Colorado (and I was falling in love with it at an astounding rate), I decided to visit the local university. My goal was to see the campus and meet some faculty, in order to see if it was a right fit for me. The main University of Colorado campus is in Boulder, a small college town 45 minutes north by bus of Denver. I didn’t get to look around Boulder much since it was raining, but I got the feeling that it is a nice liberal and active place with all the amenities. It’s also (I’m guessing) no more than 2 or 3 kilometers away from the Rocky mountains. Not only is it beautiful, but it has great access to world class outdoor activities. The campus is stunning too. All the buildings are built in the same “Tex-Mex” style (I’m not sure that’s an official architectural term). By that, I mean the walls are rugged rocks and the roofs are red tiles. A really beautiful place. The faculty I was lucky enough to meet was also great. I met someone who is an expert in my field and she was kind and welcoming. If I could get a scholarship to study there, I would be a happy camper.

Obviously there are other things I loved about the Colorado leg of my trip, but those are the main points. Hopefully I will get to return to Colorado soon for more great times with my friends (new and old) in a terrific city.

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The setting is Chicago. Sunday afternoon. I’ve been in Chicago since Saturday morning and this city appeals to me in a way I didn’t expect. As much as I like it, I really need to go to Denver. I checked Craig’s List for anyone going towards Denver, anything going West, really. While I would have liked to stay a bit longer, I really needed to get my trip in gear and make my way towards Denver. I knew the road to Denver was to be the longest part of the trip. As luck would have it (I’m so lucky when it comes to traveling! [knock on wood]), I found a guy leaving from Chicago to Denver on Tuesday! For 80$! Amazing! I gave him a call, and set it all up. I was well on my way to be in Denver very early on Wednesday morning!

Dave (my driver) and I left the Chicago area at 7 am with a huge brand new RV in tow. Dave was unemployed. He used to be a depute sheriff in Colorado, but do to budget cuts, got laid off. He found a job hauling RVs from Illinois to Colorado for a local RV retailer. It was tough work, the drive takes anywhere between 20 to 26 hours, and he had to use his own truck, but he needed money. Dave is that kind of a guy. As tacky as it sounds, he’s a good old American man. With a wife, a boy and other one on the way, he had to keep bread on the table. I got to know Dave pretty well over the next 1 850 km (give or take) and I still believe that he’s a great man. Because the trip was his job, Dave insisted on doing all the driving.

I’d say the first few hours were the hardest. I hadn’t slept much the previous night and staying awake in truck, as the sun was rising, was a tough task. I ended up taking a little nap. I got woken up by terrible roads around Indianapolis. Because of our truck and trailer’s length, the terrible streets were causing the trailer to jump up and down, transferring that to the truck and making it jerk around like a mechanical bull. Anyway, that woke me up. It didn’t matter though, because I had gotten just the perfect amount of sleep to be the best co-pilot I could be.

And then we drove.

We had to stop by St. Louis (Troy to be more specific) to grab a reptile tank frame from a guy who sold it to someone in Denver. It was on the way and it gave Dave a couple extra buck. I helped Dave get the frame in the truck bed. This thing was way larger than we anticipated, but we managed to fit it snuggly on the truck. It was maybe 5 feet wide, 5 feet high and 2 feet deep. With 12 plastic trays. It was my first time in St. Louis, but from that visit, I know that St. Louis is hotter than anywhere I’ve ever been (this year at least). It’s surrounded by fields and nothingness, and it seems like the sun is a good 5 to 6 times hotter. To be fair though, I had just spent the morning in an AC truck, so I might have been a bit biased. Still, it was hot and I was glad when the rack was properly loaded.

And then we drove.

And then we crossed the Mississipi.

We were in Kansas at dusk. As it happened, we would be in Kansas for a good while. Kansas is like a rectangle and our highway (I-70) cut through it lengthwise. Kansas is flat and it goes on forever. I’ll also take this opportunity to get a bit preachy, but Kansas is also a great example of what happens to farmland if you subsidize corn. Corn everywhere! Funny to think that 40% of it isn’t going to feed anyone.

We kept on driving.

At around midnight, one of Dave’s mufflers broke. It sounded like a jet engine inside the truck. We stopped at a long haul garage to see if they could help us. After a bit of wire and skill, we were back on the road. It was still as loud, but the muffler wasn’t going to fall off on the highway anymore. It was an improvement and all thanks to the kindness of strangers.

And we drove some more.

We started seeing some lightening on the horizon. The lightening got more ominous as we drove towards it. We turned on the radio, blasted it (because of the noise in the cab) and tried to see if we were heading into trouble. Turns out we were. We were driving directly into a “severe” thunderstorm. Apparently, a “severe” thunderstorm in Kansas isn’t the same as a “severe” eastern Canadian thunderstorm. Back home, a severe storm involves lots of rain, strong winds, a few blown off shingles, toppled trees and broken power lines. In Kansas, a “severe” thunderstorm involves a storm that, and I swear this is how they put it on the radio, is a threat to life! We were actually driving towards something that could kill things. As we got closer, the spectacle grew more awe inspiring (maybe one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen). Nature’s destructive power was in full display. Obviously, we weren’t going to drive through the storm with a brand new RV. We decided to keep driving and wait it out, see if it would subside. Though we agreed that if it started raining, we’d find cover under a overpass. Severe thunderstorms in Kansas also come with hail, so we didn’t want to risk it.

We kept on driving West.

Call it what you will, but as we reached the town at the edge of the thunderstorm warning, the clouds parted and the warning was lifted. The truck got a bit wet, but it was practically a drizzle by the time we reached it.

And then we crossed into Colorado.

By the time we crossed into Colorado, we had been driving for about 23 hours. We were both electrified by being so close. But as it usually happens, from this point, time slowed down. Every second seemed to take a minute. Every mile lasted an eternity. But we were almost there!

Then we arrived to Denver.

Dave was exhausted. Driving for 26 hours will do that to anyone. I was exhausted, but more than that, I was nervous. We had agreed that if he was to be tired, we’d pull over for a nap. Dave was a responsible guy with too much to lose and a good head on his shoulders. Still, it was a bit nerve wracking. I started asking Dave questions. Anything. I was yelling them over the drone of the engine. My goal was to keep him engaged. Keep him awake, whether it was needed or not. We first dropped off the RV at the retailer and went towards my friend’s place. At 5:30am, on Wednesday, I finally arrived to my final destination. I shook Dave’s hand, wished him luck with employment and everything, earnestly thanked him, and claimed my couch for the next 10 days.

And that was the longest ride of my life. Little under 2000 km and little over 26 hours.

I called Dave a month after first meeting him to see if he had found a job and he had. I’m glad to know that good honest people like him get what they deserve.

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Chicago!

I arrived to an overcast and rainy Chicago on Saturday at 7am local time. In other word, exactly 8 hours after leaving Toronto. I didn’t mind the weather because I had Lady Luck on my side. Approximately 24 hours earlier, I received a message from a couchsurfing host saying he had a bit of floor available for me. I say a bit because this person’s house was about the size of a large kitchen and he was already hosting 4 other surfers. At that point, I didn’t care about space, I just wanted a place to sleep (and ideally some travel buddies).
I got into Chicago, unusually unprepared, with no map, no itinerary, and no sights to see. I wandered around in the mist for a while before finding a place to grab a bite. I grabbed breakfast there, not sure when I’d eat again, not because of money, but because of lack of planning. As I ate my “lumber jack skillet” I read a newspaper and waited for the rain to stop. After an hour, I washed my face in their washroom and headed out.
A luck would have it, it had stopped raining and the sun started to peek through the clouds. I walked around downtown Chicago and found Cloud Gate, that reflective bean-shaped sculpture in the heart of Chicago. After digging it for a few minutes, watching the tourist get more and more numerous, I decided to meander over to my host’s place.
He welcomed me to his place at around 11am. I dropped off my bag and decided to grab some famous Chicago style hotdogs. These dogs, topped with relish, hot pepper, onions and a pickle (I feel like I’m forgetting something), are to be eaten without ketchup and are quite delicious. Now full, I wandered towards Chicago’s Chinatown to see if it was like every other Chinatown in North America. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it exactly the same. I headed back to my host’s place around 6pm since he was expecting two French surfers around that time and he was preparing us a Filipino meal. As I got in, the two other surfers (besides the two French girls) came in (a German girl and an American). We had a delicious meal with some drinks and followed that with a drink at a bar before calling it a night. After a long day of exploring and a night spent in a car, the floor felt wonderful.

Now that my travel and housing situation in Chicago was taken care of, I had to figure out how I would get to Denver.

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Here is what I knew a month ago. I knew I had most of August off and I knew I wanted to go visit my friend John (from Korea) in Denver. But the details of this visit were beyond me.

Here what I knew last week. I was going to Toronto for a few days and after wards I wanted to check out major American cities on the way to Denver (Detroit, Chicago, and anything else along the way).

Because I’m “thrifty” and because I like to meet new people, I decided to use Couchsurfing for beds in those cities (as well as a way to make a new friend and gain unique insight on the city). However, due to the somewhat volatile nature of my itinerary, I only started to look for a host and a ride to Detroit and figured I’d look for the rest when I had a better idea where I was heading. By pure chance, I ended up finding a direct ride (overnight!) to Chicago. I jumped on that opportunity as soon as I saw it. But I was now confronted with a new problem. Where would I sleep? I figured, worst comes to worst, I could stay at a hostel and meet people there to explore with. Wrong. The weekend I went to Chicago (and the reason why I easily found a ride) was that Chicago was hosting a huge music festival. As it turned out, this large influx of people made it impossible to find a hostel two days before my arrival and after 20 or so couchsurfing requests, it didn’t look like anyone had room on their couch (or floor) for me.

Needless to say, it was a stressful time for me.

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Before this weekend, I had never been to a Broadway play. I can’t recall the last time I even went to the theater, though I feel like I’ve been sometime this millennium.

Before this month, I had never had any interest in checking out a play (Broadway or not). Sure, I laughed at the Taste of Blood bit in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, this might jog your memory), but besides that, I never thought I was missing out on anything by not checking out the theater. Never thought I was missing out, that is, until I heard of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s foray into musical theater; The Book of Mormon. I knew the South Park boys had already hilariously taken on the Mormons on tv and in the movies and I wondered: What else did they have to say (and how else could they make me laugh)? A a huge fan of their work, I needed to know (and apparently, I needed to check out this Broadway thing)!

I went down to New York City for a wedding on Saturday. Since I was down, and my girlfriend and I weren’t doing anything Friday night, I decided I’d try my luck in the Book of Mormon lottery. The ticket lottery is this thing where you go down to the theater about two hours before the show, put your name in a drum and at the bell of two hours before show time (literally the bell, there’s a church on the same block), they pick out names. These names win two tickets to see the show for 32$. Usually the tickets go for over 130$, so it’s quite a bargain. There are 20 tickets and about 10 times that amount of people participate in the lottery.

I tried my luck on Friday night. My name didn’t get picked. Since I decided to leave on Monday morning (use the bus’ wifi and outlets to do work), I tried my luck again for the afternoon show. Still no dice. Finally, on Sunday night, I tried my luck one last time. By some insane stroke of luck, I won! Two tickets! Can you believe it?

The show was amazing. We both loved it. While they could have gone the cheap route and rehashed their gags from the South Park episode “All About the Mormons?”, they decided to take a fresh new route and give the audience a fresh new comedy. The laughs (and there are plenty) aren’t really at the expense of the Mormons, but that’s not to say they’re unscathed by the jokes. I won’t go on in detail about the show, there are much better reviews out there, but, as does everyone else, I’ll say that it’s totally worth it (I’m not sure I would have ever paid full price, though that’s more because I’m super cheap…).

EDIT: Turns out NPR has the entire soundtrack available for free on their website! I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of it even if you haven’t seen the play!

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