Adjusting to a New Normal

In a recent conversation, Rachael described the sequence in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale where Moira, after escaping from Gilead, finds herself struggling to cope with her newfound identity as a refugee in Canada.  The social workers who help Moira settle in give her new clothes, some money for groceries, an apartment to stay in, and leads on finding work; they ask her for a list of friends and family that they can be on the lookout for and notify her about if any of them also cross the border.  Moira’s entire identity shifts from being a brave, ruggedly self sufficient survivor under an oppressive regime to someone who has just escaped a long horror and is in serious need of assistance.  Moira has transitioned from a “save yourself” society to a “let’s help each other” one.

In describing this sequence, Rachael was trying to illustrate the way she was feeling about our move from the South to the Pacific Northwest.  We had a lot of reasons for making this move, but it’s undeniable that one of the big ones was our wish to live in a society where community cooperation is more highly valued and human rights are protected.  We get to experience that on the West Coast in ways that it never seemed possible in Georgia.  The most obvious way that Rachael picked up on before me (because she started training for work about a week earlier than me) is in our work as educators.  We had realized things were going to be better in terms of our quality of life (we’re going to be earning significantly more as a family than we have for most of the last decade while we’ve been going through graduate school), but we didn’t quite grasp how much better our quality of work could be.

Our health benefits are superior; we get better pay; we are treated as educational professionals in a way that you never see in the South.  The reason for this is pretty straightforward: Oregon is not a “right to work” state.

Some clarification of terms.  The phrase “right to work” is code for legislative policy that is designed to be unfriendly to workers’ unions.  The way it’s typically used rhetorically is statements like, “You have the right to work without interference from those overbearing, inflexible unions.”  It’s a stance that grew out of the fact that unions, because they are about pooling resources in order to accomplish collectively what individual workers lack the power to do, can sometimes overlook the specialized needs of individuals (this is a reality that occurs in any organization of sufficiently large size; it just gets turned specifically against unions because they work to take power away from the power centers that are favored under a capitalist system).  In places where unions are strong, there’s a lot of social pressure for workers participating in a given industry to throw their weight behind the union.  This reality has historically been used as a wedge to discourage unionization with an appeal to individuality.  The logic goes that the government should protect you from that oppressive union so that you have a right to work under whatever conditions you find acceptable.

This rhetoric is extremely popular in the South.  I was raised to have a pretty significant distrust in unions as wastes of time and money.  In college, when I spent a summer working as a clerk at Kroger, I was required to pay dues to the workers’ union there; I remember complaining to my parents that that money was coming out of my paycheck for benefits that I wasn’t really receiving.  When I started working in education, I accepted that I would be joining a teachers’ union.  In Georgia your union is the way that you get access to affordable tort insurance and legal aid in the event that there’s a conflict between a student’s family and the school where you could be personally found to be at fault.  These are important benefits to have, but they’re about all teachers’ unions in Georgia provide (everything else beyond that is pretty much just discounts on financial services and other things, which are great, but they assume you have enough money to need help managing it; I’m still waiting for that stage of life).  With this sort of model, I never had much of an opinion of the unions that I joined at the two schools where I worked in Georgia.

The reason for that unions work like this in Georgia is, again, the “right to work” legislation.  This sort of legislation is designed to prevent collective bargaining, which is the big benefit that strong unions provide to their members.  In Georgia, when you get hired as a teacher you are given a standard contract that the district has written, and you have no power to negotiate the terms of that contract; you either accept it or you decline the job because the district can always just look for another person to fill the vacancy.  This preliminary assumption that prospective workers have no ability to dispute the terms of their employment falls under the umbrella of a “right to work.”

Flash forward to Oregon, and Rachael and I are in the process of learning just how much negotiating power our respective unions have in acquiring benefits for its members (we work in different districts and so belong to different local associations within the larger state- and nationwide organizations).  The contract under which educators work is still standardized, but it’s a document that the district and the union work together to come up with on whatever terms they can mutually agree to.  In my district, as I’ve recently learned, we don’t have a current contract yet; the previous one expired in June, but its terms continue to be in effect until the union and the district come to a new agreement.  I’m writing this post up on the first full work day for all employees that the district has had, and part of our kickoff agenda was a meeting among the union members where the committee in charge of negotiations gave us all an update on what is being asked for in the new contract and how close the district and the union are to coming to an agreement.

This collective cooperation, both in terms of the good-faith negotiations and the way that everyone is on board with supporting the union’s efforts because they benefit everyone in the district, is something that’s really new to me.  It takes a little getting used to the union culture, but the effects are really positive so far.  This is one of the ways that we’re gradually coming to realize just how much better life is going to be for us out here.

Oregon Trail Experiences

The purpose of this post is to hit some specific highlights from the overall trip across the country and to give some insight into how Rachael and I viewed different experiences.  We came up with the categories and then got to work on making our own personal lists for each without consulting so that we didn’t influence one another’s thoughts too much.

Most Stressful Drive


  • Easily the most stressful drive I had to do during the trip was outside of San Francisco.  The Bay Area is beautiful and coastal, but it’s also wedged right between the water and some pretty serious mountains.  Because of this geography, a lot of the roads in the area that aren’t part of the Interstate system tend to be very winding and very narrow.  Throw in the fog that rolls in from the waters most evenings, and you have a low-visibility, high-attention drive that worked my nerves after an evening spent in San Francisco.  That drive, along with the general stress associated with navigating a new city for the first time, led Rachael to suggest to me that we spend the next day just relaxing in the Half-Moon Bay area where we were staying.
  • Honorable Mention – The day we left Ft. Bragg we expected to only have a four hour drive to our campsite in the Del Norte Redwoods State Park up close to the California-Oregon border.  What we didn’t anticipate was that the mountain roads are subject to constant rebuilding due to erosion, so we had multiple delays on the switchbacks that turned our four hour drive into around a seven hour one.  I think that one was hard on both of us, but since it happened in daylight when we were in road trip mode, it didn’t grate as hard on me as the Bay Area had.


  • For some reason, I kept ending up with most of the interesting and difficult legs of driving, including most of the bad weather. I guess Jason’s sunny personality just bends the road to his will, or else the road heard my cry for adventure and threw everything it had at me. This means at various points, I drove through big city traffic (Houston, Texas during rush hour was particularly terrifying and confusing, and I’m pretty sure I still owe some toll fees?), dense coastal mountain fog, and an eerie desert thunderstorm where lightning danced around us for an hour through the spattering rain.
    But the worst drive for me happened on our very first day, as we sped through Alabama into Mississippi. Being former residents of Georgia, Jason and I are familiar with tropical thunderstorms this time of year. These storms gather mass over the Gulf of Mexico, then plow their way inland in thick bands of very heavy rain so strong you can’t even hear the thunder, which is also all around you. So I’m driving down a sunny road, when far ahead we see the blue sky just sorta end into a black cloud bank taking up the whole horizon. I’m speeding along, skimming for signs of tornadoes, but it’s just this huge pulsating thunderhead trailing a skirt of mist. And then I see we’re coming up on a huge, long bridge, only the bridge just vanishes halfway into mist where it meets the start of the tropical thunderstorm. Jason snapped a quick picture of it just before we entered.
    The rain was so thick and heavy we slowed down to a crawl because we could barely see the car in front of us otherwise. I could actually feel the rain pressing against the car as we struggled on at 20mph across that bridge. Every 10 minutes or so, the band of rain would end and we’d get a couple minutes at a higher speed until the next band hit. It was treacherous and dangerous driving. When we finally drove out of the storm, I told Jason I’d done my leg, even though I technically had another hour on the clock. He completely agreed and took over the wheel.
Most Scenic Drive


  • Holy wow, was this road trip SCENIC, and it’s hard to even compare the legs because there were so many points of perfect beauty that were still very different from one another. For me, this is a toss-up between the Northern California coastline and the mesa deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to a true desert, and NM / AZ bring desert beauty in buckets. It’s the color and the geological formations, how you get all these gorgeous painted rock layers that shift and change with the light as the day goes on. At sunrise and sunset, it just murders you.
    But I think NorCal edges out the desert by just a teensy bit, in my very unbiased opinion. The NorCal coastline was so beautiful that I started swearing aloud at it because “This is pretty” was no longer cutting it. “WHAAAAT is that a waterfall going down a cliff into the ocean? Fuck you, California, and that pristine beach with the sun going down red on the water! No, you did NOT put another damn overlook in that coastal redwood forest, did you? YOU DID, DIDN’T YOU?” And so on and so forth.


  • I had to think long and hard to decide which drive I liked the best.  There was some spectacular scenery all across the Southwest, from the big open plains and multicolored sunset in Texas to the huge rocky formations in Arizona; California had a generous share of beautiful stretches, like just about everything that we saw north of the Bay Area.  It was all a lot to take in, and any given drive held some sight that could take your breath away.  I think my favorite for sheer spectacle was the drive through the Arizona desert though.  When we left New Mexico, we ran into a little bit of rain, and that little bit of rain signaled the edge of a full on storm.  The desert is so wide and flat that we could easily see the epicenters of the storm miles away.  I tried for a while to get pictures of the lightning that was flashing out there, but it never worked out.  Later on Rachael and I learned that desert storms are actually very dangerous because there’s always a risk of flash flood; the ground gets so parched and compacted that when it does rain, the soil isn’t porous enough to soak up all the water, so it just runs along the top of it.  We didn’t have to deal with any of that though.
Yes, and…


  • Early on, Rachael and I established an ethos for our road trip; we’d approach it with the attitude that outside our scheduled stops we were willing to explore and do anything that struck our fancy.  This led to more than a few days where we went to a location or saw a sight that we hadn’t expected to hit on our trip, and we appreciated it all the more because of it.  Probably my favorite unplanned stop was a visit to the Trees of Mystery in northern California.  This roadside attraction has huge statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox constructed out in its parking lot; that was enough for us to decide that we were going to detour back from our campground the next day to go visit the statues at the very least.  What we didn’t know before we arrived was that the Paul Bunyan statue is more than just a statue; inside it is a control booth where an operator can make the statue’s hand wave and speak out of a loudspeaker as Paul Bunyan.  Rachael and I didn’t go hike the trails inside the Trees of Mystery, but we had a blast watching little kids arguing with the statue.


  • This category represents the things we did on the fly when we got a tip or saw an interesting sign. This includes a wide variety of historical sites, restaurants, and roadside attractions all along our route.
    My personal favorite was visiting The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a roadside attraction/restaurant on the old historical Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas (thanks, Rebecca Middleton, for the tip!). It has a giant dinosaur wearing cowboy boots sitting outside, a bunch of creepy animatronics, and also the, er, “steak ranch” has a great menu, plus an ongoing eating contest where poor schmucks attempt to earn a free meal by downing a 72oz steak in 1 hour. This stop ended a very long drive through most of Texas and provided some welcome cheesiness (and steak!) at the end of a tiring day.
    A close second is definitely our stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico the following day, where we visited friends at the zoo and had a great meal. Which truthfully might take first in this category, except for it didn’t have a giant dinosaur statue, and I Brake For Dinosaurs (TM).
Best Hotel


  • Well, first off, shout out to the Timbers Inn in Eugene, Oregon, which we checked into on the fly because we were sick of camping and just wanted a real shower. That was was way ridiculously nicer than it had a right to be for the price. I mean, they had complimentary local beer on tap in the reception area! And there was one of those awesome rain showers in the shower! It was quite classy, and we loved it.
    But really, let’s talk about the Fleur de Lis Inn and B&B in New Orleans, because THAT place had so much character that it’s truly unforgettable. I booked the room blind through a deal site, so I was surprised when during check-in, the innkeeper asked whether we’d seen pictures of our room online? Nope, I said.
    “Well, you’re going to *really enjoy* the Hollywood Room,” she said with a nod and a wink.
    The Hollywood Room, as it turns out, is a converted garden shed that has been covered walls and ceiling with mirrors. Mirrors EVERYWHERE. Did I mention the toilet is located in this room, and is also included in the MIRRORS EVERYWHERE? But what we really loved about this place were the common areas. The inn has incorporated part of the actual interstate overpass into its layout, so you can chill out outdoors on a couch during a rainstorm and stay completely dry while all that traffic whooshes past overhead. It really was pretty awesome in a way I can’t fully put words to. It made us want to book up all the rooms in the inn and hang out there with some friends all night, talking and drinking and playing board games or such.


  • The places where we stayed during our road trip varied a lot in quality.  We hoped that we’d be able to save a bit of money by camping in parks for a few nights, but we also recognized that two and a half weeks on the road could get tiring very quickly, so we built in a few luxurious stops along the way to recuperate.  What we learned is that we really are not big fans of the bed and breakfast experience, at least not when the proprietors seem very much to be in the business just so they can socialize with their guests.  Camping was fun, but after we accidentally punctured our air mattress after the first night in the Grand Canyon, we were significantly less enthused about it (happy ending: we found the leak and repaired our mattress so it’s doing great now!).  It was the more mid-range hotels that suited us best, and we were really taken with the roadside charm of the ones that were more humble than a generic Holiday Inn.  Still, I think the best one we stayed in was one that we didn’t even originally plan on going to.  After camping among the redwoods, Rachael and I realized we were not in the mood to do two more nights of camping before we arrived in Portland, so on the way into Oregon we booked a hotel in Eugene called the Timbers Inn.  It was relatively cheap, and we figured we could kill a couple days in a college town easily regardless of how nice the accommodations were.  We lucked out though, because when we arrived at the Timbers we found that the place had just recently been renovated; for the price it was an incredibly comfortable hotel that had a beer tap in the hotel office (one free pour per person when you book a room).  We spent a whole day staying in our room and watching ’80s movies because it was such a pleasant environment.  If we ever have reason to go back to Eugene and the prices are still good, I’d definitely want to stay at the Timbers again.
Best Food


  • I’ll be honest, the thought of listing the best food that I had while we were on the road is a really daunting one.  Yes, we were moving, but we also treated it like vacation and ate a lot of good stuff.  I had the first steak I’ve eaten in years in Amarillo, Texas (it was pretty good, though definitely not something I’d enjoy eating regularly), ate a really outstanding eggplant sandwich with some super creamy macaroni & cheese in Williams, Arizona, and chowed down on freshly baked artichoke bread in Pescadero, California.  The thing that sticks out most for me though is a bowl of chajang myun that I had from a Korean noodle place in Eugene.  I’ve never had chajang myun before; it’s a noodle dish with a black bean sauce that looks like death but tastes delightful.  It’s certainly not everyday food, but it was good enough in this case that Rachael and I decided to eat dinner at the noodle place both nights we were in Eugene.


  • We ate a LOT of good food on this trip, and oftentimes I think it tasted best when we were really hungry, whatever the food quality. I remember especially eating lamb and dolmas at a Mediterranean restaurant called Fadi’s in Houston… mmm…
    I’m going to have to pick two favorites. First, Cocina Azul in Albuquerque, where our friends Sarah and Josh introduced us to the local controversy over red vs. green salsa (after trying both of them, I’m on Team Red, for the record). This restaurant features New Mexican food, and while I’m not entirely sure of the exact difference between Mexican and New Mexican, it was memorably delicious, and the company was extraordinary and fun. It made me wish I had more excuses to visit the area, just so we could debate the merits of fried dough the world over with our friends.
    Tied for first would be this taco place in Anaheim, California my friends and I randomly wandered past after grabbing coffee at the Ink & Bean Coffee Shop. It was one of those places that does Californian/Mexican fusion or something? [Jason: I looked it up; this place was called Pour Vida Latin Flavor.] All I know is they put sushi ingredients into tacos, and also served this homemade fruit juice that also contained jalapenos, and geez it was good and I want to go back there like yesterday.
Best Beer


  • We visited 5 actual breweries on our trip, and several other excellent brewpubs, with a focus on trying as many different local beers as possible. I have clear and easy favorites in this category, so let’s get to it!
    My favorite brewery was North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg, California. I’m basically at the dead center of their selection choices, as they had several great Belgian-style ales, including one Brother Thelonius, plus a really great seasonal Berliner Weisse made with peaches that I could drink all day. Also a great lineup of IPAs, and of course their signature Old Rasputin Stout, which I’d tried all the way out in Athens, originally.
    My favorite brewpub was this place in Williams, Arizona that did both local beer and local mead flights. Yep, that’s right, they had several kinds of MEAD available for sampling at once! That place was great. Also, it had a muscle car parked in the restaurant. Wish I could remember what it’s called. (Jason, do you remember?) [Jason: I didn’t, but I looked it up!  The place with the excellent beer and mead flights was the South Rim Wine & Beer Garage.]


  • On the way through California and Oregon, Rachael and I managed to visit five breweries in a little over a week.  We don’t like to drink very much at a time (too much alcohol and my palette for beer just sort of disappears), but we sampled a lot of good stuff on the northern leg of our trip.  Probably the best beer that I remember having was a wonderfully fruity Belgian ale at North Coast Brewery in Ft. Bragg, California.  It tasted of apricots.  I’m also pretty fond of stouts in general, and there was a good vanilla stout that I think I had an Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene.  I’m a sucker for beers that don’t finish really bitter, and I remember Ninkasi’s Oatis being particularly smooth drinking.
Best View


  • Honestly nothing really compared with the views along the Pacific Coast Highway.  The stretch through northern California was torturous for traffic reasons, but it had no shortage of gorgeous vistas overlooking the ocean.  There was one spot on the day when we drove back south a little ways to visit the Trees of Mystery that we stopped and saw whales breaching out on the water.  That was a pretty cool moment.


  • I mean, it feels like cheating to say the Grand Canyon, but it’s the Grand Canyon, y’know? Sometimes when you visit famous landmarks or attractions, they’re just kind of a letdown. You show up, you take a picture, and that’s that. I feel this way about the Eiffel Tower, for example. Cool building, famous, not much more to it (except maybe the light show at night). But maaaan, the Grand Canyon, y’all! It’s not so much seeing it, as it is seeing it from multiple angles during the full length of the day as you hike along it for hours and hours. That canyon is RL SRS BZNS, y’know? Like the rest of the desert, it shifts and changes colors throughout the day, as the clouds and sun move, as *you* move. And there are all these kamikaze squirrels running along the rim, taking dives to wherever squirrels go in a big place like that. And huge birds soaring across the open space! And terrifying thunderstorms dancing along the rim! That place is ridiculously beautiful, and will steal your breath for hours.


  • Bourbon Street in New Orleans was the Platonic Ideal of disappointment. I was expecting some sort of interesting cultural experience, like Moulin Rouge-type vice, but instead it was just that seedy part of any town where you find the strip clubs and bad bars multiplied by 100. I guess if I were an 18-year-old college boy on his first Spring Break, I *might* have found it interesting, but there was literally no other appeal to it. I’d love to revisit New Orleans, but I won’t waste my time on Bourbon Street in the future.


  • The trip did have a couple of really unsettling moments.  The clearest one in my mind was actually when we stopped in a small town on the way out of Ft. Bragg to refuel where we witnessed at a gas station a group of four people whom I can only describe as California rednecks run up on another guy on a skateboard like they were going to attack him.  He ran away, but the fact that this happened right in front of our car in broad daylight was disturbing, to say the least.  We left that town very quickly.
“We’re Not in Georgia Anymore”


  • Having lived my whole life in Georgia, I’m not terribly attuned to what sort of things can be different outside of the South.  The biggest moment of culture shock for me was probably when we were hanging out in the Unsung Brewery in Anaheim with a few local friends and decided to get a group picture.  Being an educator, I’ve always been wary of documenting myself consuming alcohol.  It’s one of those cultural quirks of the South that educators are not supposed to be people who drink, and breaking that illusion can have serious consequences (the irony of this culture is that it’s one big open secret that most of the educators I’ve worked with make no bones about drinking while off the job among themselves).  Our Los Angeles friends, who happen to also work in education, were befuddled by this fact and assured us that no one on the West Coast cares if educators drink when they aren’t working.


  • So we’re on our first day of driving through Texas, and it’s time to stop and get gas. We spot a place called “Buc-ee’s” on the side of the road. It reminded me of a CostCo: a giant warehouse building with a little gas station attached, and it’s absolutely hopping. We figured it must be some sort of superstore, so we stopped for gas.
    We were wrong. It was not a superstore. Nopenopenope. It was a *gas station.* A huge, huge gas station.
    So as I’m walking through the world’s biggest gas station convenience store, complete with the Wall O’ Snacks and a bunch of decorative patriotic yard crosses, I start noticing all these dudes strutting around in bright cowboy costumes, complete with fringe and spurs and bright blue leather, all color coordinated. And then there’s the women who all have REALLY BIG HAIR, like they’re practically carrying around blonde animals curled up on their scalps. And at first I’m about to laugh at how silly everyone looks, but then it hits me: THOSE ARE NOT COSTUMES. Those are Texans.
    Never has a region so quickly fulfilled all my stereotypes at one go. Thank you, Buc-ee’s. You were an experience that did not disappoint..
“Well, That Was a Place”


  • Clovis, New Mexico. Lacks the spectacular scale and nice wide roads of Texas, but doesn’t have the harsh desert beauty of the rest of New Mexico. We got in after dusk and left before dawn, and that felt about right to me.


  • Clovis, New Mexico appears on maps of the United States as a town just across the Texas-New Mexico border.  It exists for an Air Force base that’s located there.  Rachael and I arrived at our hotel (a generic Holiday Inn) after sundown, and we left before sunrise the next morning.
“I Wish We Were Moving Here…”


  • One of the fun aspects of a cross-country road trip that ends with you relocating to a new place is the fact that along the way you get to play the game of imagining where you might like to end up as an alternative to your actual destination.  Rachael and I have a lot of those moments as we got farther west.  It probably hit the first time in Albuquerque, which was a delightful town to pass through (and the first place where we realized that the climate had truly changed in a way that we could be happy with).  Probably the strongest feeling for both of us though was in various places throughout California.  It’s a really big state, and traveling the length of it in a week gives you enough time to get a sense of how different regions have significantly different local cultures.  Probably the strongest contentment I felt was when we were hanging out in Half-Moon Bay; it’s a relatively quiet coastal town with easy access to a big city and a vibrant local scene.  If Oregon doesn’t work out for some reason, I’d be happy checking out a couple places in California.


  • I mean, I always get the “maybe we should just move here” feeling when we visit Los Angeles, but that’s honestly more related to the friendship than the actual city (although the metro area has its high points, and we always have fun as long as it’s not Hollywood). But I kind of fell in love with Northern California on this trip, partially because we spent so much time there, and partially because in many ways it represents everything I love in life all in one region. Oceans! Mountains! Great cities! Adorable roadside produce stands getting into avocado price wars with their neighbors! Great food and beer, and lots of character! It felt like every time we made an incidental stop, we wound up in the middle of another farmer’s market on some gorgeous sunny day. It was a happy leg of our trip, and it made me think if this whole Oregon thing proves too snowy, it wouldn’t be half bad to just skip on down the coast a little further and we’d settle just fine.
“We’ll Be Back–With Friends”


  • I’m keeping this short since I’ve touched on these places in other sections, but definitely the Grand Canyon to camp and hike with friends, and to that quirky B&B in New Orleans to chill beneath an overpass late at night after walking the French Quarter and visiting Nicolas Cage’s death pyramid mausoleum. Because those are experiences I definitely want to share with my friends ASAP. 😀


  • Contrasting with places that we think would be nice alternatives to living in Portland, Rachael and I also developed a sort of running list of locales that we wanted to revisit someday with friends in tow.  The Bay Area was lots of fun in this respect, but the place that I think we were both most impressed by was the bed and breakfast we stayed at in New Orleans.  Aside from Bourbon Street being a huge disappointment, New Orleans was a fun town, and the most delightful part of our stay there was definitely our lodgings.  The Fleur de Lis Mansion is a historic building only a mile or two from the French Quarter, and it has the most kitschy sense of decor.  I say this with nothing but positive feelings though; the place knows its style and it fully commits.  It has two outdoor hot tubs and a lounge area that’s located underneath a highway overpass one pillar of which is used as a wall for the lounge.  Rachael and I stayed here because we got a really good deal through a website for one night in the bed and breakfast’s smallest room, which we discovered on arrival was outfitted from floor to ceiling with mirrors.  It was a strange experience, to be sure, but Rachael and I concluded that the next time we came to New Orleans we’d have to bring a big group to rent out the whole hotel and luxuriate in its strangeness.

Completing the Oregon Trail

We did it!

Rachael and I have successfully crossed the country without succumbing to dysentery or losing any wagon wheels while fording a river, and now we are safely nestled in Oregon.  Along the way we saw a bunch of friends and had a lot of small adventures; much of what we experienced we shared with our friends and family via social media.  There were some… awkward moments (although our trip was supposed to end with three nights camping in a couple of state parks, Rachael and I realized we were just too tired to go any longer without the comforts of modern living, so we adjusted our travel plans and spent a couple of restful days at a motel in downtown Eugene), but overall it was a wonderful experience driving across the country.

Part of my blogging about the trip has been an effort to create a little archive of what it was like while we were on the road.  Besides a couple of minor moments of unpleasantness, it really was an incredibly fun thing to do.  When I don’t mention any negative moments in these posts, it’s because they really were that rare and inconsequential to the overall feeling of the road trip.  What’s been easy to forget as we’ve been going along is that our road trip hasn’t just been a vacation; we’re in the middle of moving, and there’s a lot of work to be done once we get settled in Portland.  We still don’t get to move into our apartment until the end of the month, which is a bummer.  Rachael and I both have to do new employee orientation some time before we report to work towards the end of August.  We have to actually get our things out of storage and replace the essential furniture we couldn’t bring with us on the move.  It’s going to be a pretty full last month of summer break.

Still, this has been a truly remarkable experience; I’m happy that for such a major move Rachael and I were able to do it in this fashion.  We have a plan for one last post to help give a little more perspective on the trip as a whole, but that will likely have to wait a few more days.

It’s good to be here, Portland; I hope you’ll be kind to us.

Oregon Trail Days 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16

It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since my last update, but I suppose things just sort of got away from me.  We’re due to arrive in Portland on July 20, and before that we’ll be doing three nights of camping in a row, so this is likely to be the last major update before Rachael and I are happily ensconced in our new home city.

The last few days in Los Angeles were incredibly good, primarily because we have some really great friends who live in that area who are willing to take us in and let us be part of their lives for however long we’re able to stay in town.  Much of what we did during that part of the trip was just simple day-to-day stuff that anyone living their lives would do, but with house guests tagging along.  Rachael made the entire family shepherd’s pie as a thank you on our last night there, and it was really good; I think she improved on the last time we attempted that dish.

There’s so much promise on this plate, and unfortunately it was a rare case of disappointment.

The same day that we had the shepherd’s pie, we also went out to eat at a local Mexican restaurant that had some delicious creamy mushroom soup and mole fries.  I had a chicharron quesadilla which was a little disappointing (chicharron is pork belly, and I was expecting something crispier than the super fatty filling I got in my quesadilla).

After Los Angeles, we trekked up California’s I-5 towards Half-Moon Bay, a little coast town just south of San Francisco.  We were warned that the five is a really boring drive in comparison to the Pacific Coast Highway, but it’s faster, and since we’d never driven along it before we were actually very intrigued by the variety of farms, orchards, and vineyards that line the roughly two hundred mile stretch that we did.  Subsequent drives along the five are likely not to be as interesting, but it was worth doing once.

We spent that evening trying to navigate San Francisco’s metro system, the BART, in order to go hang out with some writer acquaintances of Rachael’s in the city.  The BART had a pretty steep learning curve, and the workers at the stations were occasionally less than helpful with city newcomers, so that was a point of frustration with the evening.  Besides dealing with transit though, it was a fun excursion with some good Thai food to bookend the commutes in and out of the city; I did learn pretty conclusively that I’m not a fan of driving mountain roads after dark though.

For our two nights in Half-Moon Bay we stayed at a local bed and breakfast that’s run by a local couple who were extremely pleasant if a little hard to disengage from when we needed to retreat to our room or go out about our business.  All things told they were extremely sweet though.

Our full day of rest while in the Bay Area was spent enjoying the local leisure activities of Half-Moon Bay.  Rachael and I got up and took a morning stroll along the coastline while the fog slowly burned off the water, had lunch at a local brewery, were mistaken for guests at a local wedding, took a short drive south along the coast to a small rural town to pick up some artichoke laced bread (it didn’t last past the drive the next day), and finished the day by walking along the beach again to view the sunset and get dinner at a local seafood place.

On the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. It really was that cool.

Today (I’m sure I’ve skipped over a lot, but what are you going to do?), Rachael and I hit the road towards Fort Bragg, another small coast town farther north.  On our way out of town we drove through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge (it is a very impressive thing), then we stopped over in Santa Rosa briefly where there was a local farmer’s market happening.  We got some fresh fruit and learned from a lady at the information center that we weren’t far from a winery belonging to Nicolas Cage’s uncle.  We obviously couldn’t let this opportunity pass, so we stopped there on the way and took some pictures of the movie memorabilia on display (alas, there was nothing Cage related; I guess he was really serious about distancing himself from the family name) and moved on.  The rest of the drive was pleasant, but winding.  We took a mountain road through some of the redwood forests that are dispersed throughout northern California, and while it was a very beautiful drive, I definitely felt a little stressed doing the windy switchbacks.

Sea glass glittering in the sunlight.

Once we got to Fort Bragg we decided to take it easy for the afternoon, so we only did a little bit of hiking at the glass beach for which the town is famous.  What’s notable about this beach is the vast amounts of sea glass left over from bottles and other glass containers that were previously tossed into the ocean that washes up on shore, polished into tiny little gemstones.  We didn’t stay too long there, and the rest of today has been a very relaxed one mostly spent lazing about in our hotel room.  Considering that the last stretch of our journey involves a bunch of camping, we figured that we’ve earned a rest day.

Next time I check in will probably be after we’re in Portland; here’s hoping I can gather up enough brain cells to rub together and present some final thoughts on this extended road trip.

Oregon Trail Days 8, 9, and 10

After two days camping at the Grand Canyon, we’re finally back in civilization.  The park was a ton of fun; we spent the two days that we were there hiking all along the trails that line the canyon’s south rim (I think we clocked nearly twenty miles of walking in total).  The weather was generally good, though there were a few scattered rain showers and thunderstorms.  At the visitor’s center for the canyon, the park posted each day’s projected weather forecast with high and low temperatures at different locations and the likelihood of rain.  We learned from some of the park staff that the funny thing about the canyon is that it’s actually very difficult to predict weather patterns in the area.  On the morning of our second day, a ranger came by our campsite to warn us that there were likely to be heavy thunderstorms in the afternoon with hale, so we should get out early for any activities we wanted to do.  There were a few showers that morning, but the afternoon thunderstorm never materialized (this was a major reason we did so much; we started early on our one full day in the park with the expectation that we might only have half a day of good weather, and then when it never turned we just kept going until we were exhausted).

Rachael and me in our dorky camping hats at the Grand Canyon. I’m still not very good at doing selfies, especially when it’s so bright outside.

The camping facilities in the park were extremely nice.  We booked our sites back at the end of May (before we even had jobs lined up and our moving plans were still hazy) because you have to make reservations really far in advance, and even then we ended up with two camp sites for two nights, requiring us to break down our camp and move it after our first night there.  Despite that inconvenience, we really enjoyed the campgrounds; each site had enough space to pitch two or three tents and they were significantly spaced out so you didn’t feel crowded by other campers around you.  The only unpleasant part of the experience was the rocky ground; the park advises campers to bring an air mattress or thick pads to put under sleeping bags because the terrain is so rocky.  Rachael and I brought an air mattress, and while the first night was comfortable, we suspect that in moving our camp we must have put a hole in the mattress somewhere because the second night it lost so much air that when we awoke we were nearly on the ground.

In addition to the good camp sites, the park’s general store was also very impressive; it carried most of the gear that you need to be comfortable when camping (except for tents), and it had a grocery store that was almost as well stocked as a standard supermarket.  Once we learned that we could indeed have campfires (we saw signs all through Arizona on the way to the park warning that fires were restricted because of the danger of wildfire, and so we had planned cold meals for our stay in the park) we were happy to have the high quality store nearby to get more substantial groceries.

The trails along the rim were very pleasantly designed.  Because the park gets so much traffic every year, it has a shuttle bus system in place to help visitors get around to different areas instead of clogging up the roads with their cars.  One extra advantage of the shuttle system is that it has stops all along the canyon where people can see the scenic overlooks and take pictures.  Since the rim trails follow this same pathway, anyone hiking along the rim is never more than a kilometer away from a bus stop where they can catch a ride if they’re tired or out of supplies (it’s really important to carry water and salty snacks when hiking around the park because it’s very easy to become dehydrated).  Rachael and I had a lot of fun hiking along the “Trail of Time” where markers are laid out to give you a sense of the time scale on which the canyon formed (it’s probably a four kilometer trail from end to end).  We also got to see the seabed fossils that are located on the canyon’s highest layer, and we learned a little about the geology of the region.

After we finished our time at the Grand Canyon, Rachael and I drove on to Los Angeles where we’re still visiting some very good friends of ours.  The drive across the Mojave desert was probably the most uncomfortable weather we’ve seen since leaving the South.  It’s extremely dry out there, but the heat is unrelenting; we thought we could have a brief picnic at a rest stop on the drive, but the first one we came to didn’t have fully shaded tables, so we decided to move on.  The second rest stop we found did have full shade, but it was still so hot out that we only spent about fifteen minutes eating a small lunch before we got back on the road.  After about a hundred miles in the desert we finally saw a sign for a California welcome center, and Rachael joked that they wait until you’ve crossed the desert to decide they actually want you here.

The time here in Los Angeles has been incredibly pleasant and laid back.  We’ve taken time to do our laundry (all restocked and ready for the second half of our road trip!) and visited with friends.  Last night we hung out at a coffee shop that advertizes itself as a spot specifically for writers to write, got tacos at a place in Anaheim that were remarkably good, and then went to a local brewery that’s superhero themed (I didn’t know that was the place’s motif until we got there, and I was so happy about the decor).  The plan for today is to do some swimming, restock a few groceries, and generally enjoy the company of our friends some more before we have to get back on the road tomorrow.

In reflecting on our trip so far, Rachael and I have both been struck by the relentlessly good time we’ve had even after a solid week of travel.  We’re total homebodies under normal circumstances, and we were both a little anxious about this extended leap between our old home and our new one.  I think part of what’s made the trip so good though (besides the fact that we always enjoy one another’s company) is all the time we’ve been able to spend with friends along the way.  We seen both old friends from our college days and more recent friends whom we got to meet in person for the first time, and they all continue to be incredibly neat and warm people who have welcomed us while we’re traveling.  It’s the hospitality of people that has allowed us to take this leisurely pace and see so much cool stuff along the way.  It means a lot to both of us to have such good friends; this would be a very different road trip without them taking us in along the way.

Oregon Trail Day 7

We spent Saturday driving across New Mexico and Arizona to get to Williams, a little town about an hour south of the Grand Canyon National Park.  It was a long day of driving (about as long as the previous day when we drove across most of Texas), but it was generally pleasant because the weather wasn’t terrible and the landscape changed drastically every few hours.

Desert hills in New Mexico.

Our major stop of the day was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we visited an old friend from college and spent some time walking around the Albuquerque BioPark.  We got to see a portion of a documentary about a photographer who has spent the last decade taking pictures of endangered animals to be logged into an archive he calls the PhotoArk.  His hope is to use his photography to help communicate the amount of biodiversity that’s being lost because of careless human interactions with the environment and try to get people to act in ways that are more friendly to the life with whom we share the planet.  We also saw exhibits at the zoo like a bug house where a colony of leaf cutter ants traveled across the atrium on an open air overhead vine between their colony and their food source and Rachael was extremely excited by a container of old tarantula carapaces labeled “Education Molts.”  After the zoo, we tried some New Mexican food and received an education on the importance of poblano chiles to the local cuisine and how one’s opinion on green versus red chile salsa is a vital matter.

The rocks on the sides of the hills all through this leg of the drive were humongous.

The afternoon drive saw us attempt to detour to the Petroglyph National Park, but we decided to skip it after we learned it would take at least an hour to hike the shortest trails, and we needed to make sure we didn’t arrive in Williams too late to check in (arriving in a town late with no place to sleep would have been pretty bad).  Because of that we skipped a couple other attractions that might have been fun to see, like the Meteor Crater in the Arizona desert.  A lot of this paranoia had to do with time zone weirdness, as our GPS predicted we’d arrive at one time, but it didn’t line up with the projected travel time.  We didn’t solve this particular mystery until this morning when I looked up a time zone map and discovered that most of Arizona does not participate in Daylight Savings Time, which means that this time of year the majority of the state is effectively on Pacific Time.  That one was a weird puzzle since our phone clocks updated accordingly, but, because it needs to be changed manually, our car clock didn’t.  Since we knew we were still in the Mountain Time zone, you can imagine our confusion.

That all worked out okay though, and we got into town with plenty of time to check in and go out to a nice local gastropub where they served us flights of Arizona craft beers and local varieties of mead, all while we sat next to a classic muscle car (this place is located inside a converted auto shop).

I was taken with how drastically the weather changed every time we’ve crossed state lines in the Southwest.  Texas had these beautiful, serene skies with big, billowy clouds, and New Mexico was unrelentingly sunny all the way across.  As soon as we crossed the Arizona border the storm clouds set in and we were treated to a desert thunderstorm.  I tried to get some pictures of the lightning, but that’s really hard to do even when you aren’t riding in a car that’s moving at seventy-five miles per hour.  It was still pretty spectacular to see, and I did get a few pictures of the isolated storms that were happening in different spots miles away from each other.

We ended up driving through that splotch of light directly ahead on the horizon with rain coming down hard on either side of us. There was also some much heavier rain later.

Today we’re heading out for the Grand Canyon, where we’re going to camp for a couple nights.  Power and internet are likely to be scarce resources out there, so expect another major update around Tuesday or Wednesday when we’re stopped Los Angeles for a couple days to see more friends.

Oregon Trail Days 4,5, and 6

It has been an incredibly busy three days.  Tonight we arrived in Clovis, New Mexico, which is the one stop on our east-west leg of the trip that doesn’t really have anything interesting to recommend it as a town, which means this is the ideal place to do a quick recap (and sort our bags, and maybe do laundry?).

One of our family mascots, Bacon, decked out in his finest for July 4th.

The holiday was a lot of fun with tons of quality time spent with my family.  I got to cook dinner on the grill for everyone while it was raining, so I naturally got soaking wet (this is sort of a pattern that I’m noticing with regard to Moving Week).  It was a lot of fun, and after doing that, I cooked s’mores with my dad (Rachael and I gave him a set of s’more ingredients and a fishing rod marshmallow skewer for Father’s Day).  To cap off the evening, Rachael and I set off fireworks for everyone to watch.  It was especially nice since some kids from the neighborhood stopped by to watch as well, so we had a decent little audience.  After all that excitement, I got some pictures with my parents.  We had a really good day together, but I know that it was hard for them with the move happening.  We’re hoping that we’ll be able to arrange to come back home for the holidays in a few months, but that requires a little bit more planning and discussion.  Altogether the day was good, but very exhausting; I slept very well in preparation for the first day of our big trip.

Rachael, Dad, Mom, and me.

In the morning, Rachael and I unveiled our specially selected Oregon Trail t-shirts.  Rachael is known for her love of dinosaurs, so of course she went with the design that has a T-Rex (this is another theme of Moving Week).

I really my shirt is accurate. I’m pretty sure it is. Rachael’s shirt reads, “You have died of temporal anomaly.”

Over that bridge is Mobile. Yes, there’s a bridge in this picture, I promise.

The first day of the trip involved crossing four states to arrive in New Orleans for an evening of fun.  Before we could go party though, we had to get there.  Our plan for this road trip is to parse out the driving in roughly two hour chunks; the first day involved about eight hours on the road, so that meant two shifts for both of us.  This worked out fine for the first round of driving, but very shortly after Rachael started her second shift, we approached Mobile, Alabama where a tropical storm was raging.  It was really cool riding into the storm, but not so much fun actually being in it.  Rachael declared that half an hour of driving in stormy weather with extremely poor visibility constituted a full shift, so we switched off early.  It worked out great except that just before we got to New Orleans she had another turn and so she got to drive into another major city with bad traffic, though thankfully without the terrible weather.

These were good, but after walking thirty minutes in the heat and humidity, we appreciated the water on the table a lot more.

In New Orleans, we stayed in an amazing bed & breakfast that had a lot of character and was located only about a half hour’s walk away from the French Quarter.  It was incredibly humid, so we sort of regretted walking all the way, but the city was enough fun to make up for this bit of unpleasantness (and we later decided to just call a cab to take us back to our hotel).  We checked out the beignets at Cafe Du Monde on the recommendation of folks in my family, and we ate at a pretty touristy restaurant that had excellent appetizers but underwhelming entrees.  Somewhere in there we walked the length of Bourbon Street and determined that it’s a really disappointing experience.  There’s not much that distinguishes it as an interesting vice district, and by the time we had walked the street’s length we weren’t really sure what the appeal was supposed to be.  It reminded me a lot of Panama City Beach: a place that’s designed to draw in college kids on spring break, but otherwise lacking in local character.

Day five started with us leaving New Orleans early (the sun had barely risen, and the heat was already oppressive when we hit the road) to trek across Louisiana into Texas.  Our plans for this day were built around visiting with friends who live in Texas, so we spent a lot more time driving overall.  We did stop at the border rest stop where I found a bronze of an alligator snapping turtle.  You can see from the selfie that I was overjoyed.

I also couldn’t see my phone screen, so I had no idea if this picture would turn out okay.

Not pictured: the terrible traffic surrounding Houston.

Our first stop was in Houston, which had a really impressive skyline on the way in.  Rachael once again got saddled with driving the obnoxious city traffic, and we agreed on the spot that I would do the drive up to Austin because her bad luck with driving shifts was getting kind of ridiculous.  Go figure the only obnoxious thing about the Austin leg was that there were a bunch of toll roads that we had to learn how to navigate all while panicking over the possibility that we might not use the right toll road and get some sort of big fine that we couldn’t pay because, y’know, moving.

On the way out of Austin (that was this morning on day six), I sort of fell in love with the wind farms located across Texas.  I’ve never seen these giant wind turbines before, and they are hella impressive.  I want them everywhere now.

Can I keep them, please?

This was a pretty good reason to drive ninety minutes out of the way.

Because we hadn’t planned anything major for today’s leg, Rachael and I decided this morning to add a detour to our route and plan on visiting the Big Texan Steak Ranch for dinner.  The main reason we wanted to go to there was because of the giant statue of a dinosaur in cowboy boots, and otherwise we were just going to drive for eight hours without any major landmarks along the way.  It ended up being a really good decision, because this place was amazing.

The Big Texan’s signature attraction is the seventy-two ounce steak that it serves in the restaurant; anyone who can eat the entire steak and its sides within an hour gets the meal for free.  We didn’t care about attempting that, but we did get to see a guy try for it while we were having our own dinner (they have those brave enough to try sit on a stage in the middle of the dining room so everyone can watch them chow down).  Our waitress explained that if he wasn’t done by around the thirty-five minute mark he probably wasn’t going to do it; by that point in a meal your brain has had time to signal that you need to stop eating, and it stops being pleasant to put that much meat down your gullet.

Besides the steak, the attraction also just had a lot of really kitschy photo opportunities.  It’s an old Route 66 icon, and it glories in its goofiness.

I don’t know why the hot dog is wearing a waistcoat, but I’m prepared to find out.

After dinner we did a final stint on the road towards Clovis, where we’re bedding down for tonight.  The sunset was spectacular along the way, especially with all the wind farms visible across the plains (this last bit for the day was driven across the Texas panhandle, which feels very much part of the Great Plains).  You know that moment at the end of the third level in Flower?  So much of this drive was reminiscent of that.

I want to go to there.

We finished up in New Mexico, which immediately feels very different from Texas (we think they actually pave their roads wider in Texas just to make you feel like everything’s bigger).  The plan is to hit Albuquerque tomorrow morning, so it’s time for me to get to bed.  We have another early day, and I’m pretty wiped.

Road Trip Days 2 and 3

There’s not a whole lot to say about the last couple days that we’ve been parked in Atlanta.  We’ve visited a lot with family and friends, and we’ve been busy doing some last minute errands to get ready for our road trip.  It’s been a much busier couple days that we anticipated, but it’s still been really good.

Pictured: things now in my belly. (Roasted cauliflower, kale, ratatouille, rosemary red potatoes, mushroom ravioli, sesame tofu, and roast turkey)

For our second day in Atlanta, we took a trip to Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market, a huge international farmer’s market that has an impressive food court where you pay for your plate of food by the pound.  We didn’t go just for the food court; the plan in going to the farmer’s market was to buy a new set of spices to ship ahead to Portland.  The spices for sale at this farmer’s market are incredibly inexpensive (you can get half a pound of most spices for under a dollar).  It’s one of the best deals in Atlanta, and we’ve taken advantage of it several times in the past.  The way we figure it, this spice run will last us a couple years, and by that point we’ll have figured out Oregon well enough to know where to go to get good spices.  Following that stop, we decided to hit a Trader Joe’s to get road trip supplies for our first few legs.  The funny thing about Trader Joe’s stores is that they simply aren’t located on the south side of Atlanta.  Our GPS said that there was one only about fifteen miles away from the farmer’s market, but with traffic it would have taken us over an hour to get there.  So instead, we took the loop that circles Atlanta to hit up a Trader Joe’s on the north side of town that was significantly farther away, but which we could reach in only about forty minutes.

Atlanta is a weird town.

After that outing, we had a relatively relaxed afternoon in.  My parents came over to have dinner with us again, and as an early birthday present, they gave me a fitbit (I figured this would happen).  It’s a really nice gift, and I’m having a lot of fun keeping track of all the weird little fitness stats that it records.  We went for a walk after dinner where Rachael and I showed my dad and my aunt how to play Pokemon GO.  With the sun going down and the breeze blowing from an incoming thunder storm, we had a really nice time walking around the neighborhood.

Today was much busier.  On the way in from Athens the other day, we discovered that one of our car’s twelve volt chargers wasn’t receiving power.  Seeing as how we’re going to be on the road a lot for the next two weeks, and we’ll need to be able to recharge various electronic devices, this was kind of an important thing to get fixed.  That meant that we had to make an appointment with a local dealership to bring our car in for service and let them know that it had to get done today, what with the holiday tomorrow and our plans to leave early on Wednesday.  Coincidentally, today was also the day we had set aside to visit one of our oldest friends from school and her family, so we really needed to have a car while ours was in the shop.  Fortunately for us, my aunt saved the day by loaning us her car.

At our friend’s house, Rachael played an extended game of let’s pretend with our elder god-daughter (she is nothing like Cthulhu, I assure you) that involved a phone, the Fairy Council (eventually replaced by the absolute monarch Fairy Queen), and dressing up in various silly costume pieces and flapping around the living room.  There are pictures, but none of the ones I took are any good, so you don’t get to see Rachael wearing a witch’s hat and opera gloves.  Overall the visit was great and far too short.  Once it was time for the kids’ naps, we bid everyone farewell, went to pick up our car from the shop, and returned to our temporary home.

The evening’s been spent figuring out what to eat for tomorrow night’s Independence Day get-together and deciding exactly how many fireworks will be needed.  At this point, we are confident that everything is in order, and our last night in Atlanta is sure to be a fun, if bittersweet, one.

Road Trip Day 1

Loading the crate was good.  We had rainy weather all day, but we were relieved that it was dry and overcast while we were actually loading.  We still got soaking wet after getting caught out in a mid-day shower.  I wish we’d gotten a picture of the inside of the crate after it was packed, because it looked really impressive.  I’ll have to make a mental note to photograph the crate when we get to Portland in a few weeks.

Of course it would be rainy on the day we moved out.

For our final night in Athens, we did a tour of some of our favorite downtown spots.  We started with the rooftop bar above the Georgia Theatre (the menu and drink list are unimpressive, but the view of downtown is undeniably good), then, after a sprint through a sudden rain shower, we had dinner at Transmetropolitan, a pizza place where you can get “Sicilian” pizza slices, which come on top of inch-thick semi-crunchy dough, and then we finished at Trappeze and Highwire, a pub with pretty good food, an excellent rotating beer list (there were so many sour beers on tap that our waitress brought us a free sample of one that she particularly enjoyed), and perhaps our favorite dessert menu in Athens.  Rachael had red velvet cake, and I had the salted caramel cheesecake.  There was a live lounge singer in Highwire who sang crooner songs all evening.

The view from our outdoor table in front of Transmet. The rainstorm had just passed and the sun was starting to shine through on the sides of the buildings across the street.

We discovered that Mama’s Boy has a basket of homemade fortunes by the door that you can take on your way out. “Everything educates, and some things educate more than others.”

Last morning in Athens started early because we had to do last minute cleaning and loading up the car.  After we got our walk through with our landlord done, Rachael and I went to Mama’s Boy for breakfast.  Mama’s Boy is a really popular Athens restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch.  They have a small parking lot and outdoor seating just for people waiting to get inside the tiny brick building (pro-tip: the wait isn’t that long, but finding parking is difficult; however, the restaurant is located on the edge of a city park, and if you just drive around and park on the other side, you can take a short, scenic walk to get back to Mama’s Boy).  The food is decadent, slightly fancy versions of breakfast standards like bacon and eggs and french toast; everything is served with a giant fluffy biscuit that you’re supposed to eat with the raspberry jam they provide on the tables in squirt bottles.  We’ve not been able to eat there very often because the trouble to get in has always been too much hassle in the past, but for our last meal in town, we wanted to do something special.

The last stop before we said goodbye to Athens was Memorial Park where we visited the local wildlife zoo and saw the turtle pond (the turtles aren’t part of the zoo).  It was around mid-day at this point, so we were feeling hot and tired after a day-and-a-half of moving, so we cut it short to hit the road.

A turtle conga line in Memorial Park.

Our first stop on the road trip is with my aunts, who are hosting us through July 4th.  They made us spaghetti with meat sauce, and my parents came over for dinner as well.  We talked a lot about all the exercise we’ve all been getting lately (mostly by accident), and now it seems that I am destined to acquire a fitbit at some point in the future so we can have more family togetherness.

Believe it or not, the best picture I could get of Charlie (left) and Buddy (right) was this one where neither of them was looking at the camera.

The Banner Saga is Oregon Trail with Vikings

There really is a lot more to it than that (we need to discuss the heavy tactical RPG elements), but if you want a succinct, one sentence summary of The Banner Saga, then you just say that it’s Oregon Trail with Vikings.

I’ve been interested in The Banner Saga for a couple months, mostly based just on the fact that I knew it was a tactical RPG and I thought the art direction looked especially beautiful.  Beyond that I didn’t know precisely what to expect, but when I saw it on sale for five dollars on the Playstation Store, I couldn’t pass it up.

The story of The Banner Saga is a pretty straightforward apocalyptic narrative.  The protagonist for most of the game, Rook, is a guy from a small village on the eastern end of the continent where all the action takes place (it’s not clear if there are any other landmasses in this world), and through a series of unfortunate circumstances he finds himself leading a caravan of refugees running from the invading armies of dredge, a race of stone creatures who have started migrating south for an unexplained reason.  Along the way you learn that there’s some end-of-the-world level stuff going on, but Rook’s primary concern is protecting his daughter Alette and getting as many of his followers as possible to safety (the fact that safety is a moving target with dredge popping up pretty much everywhere continues to complicate things).  It’s very much in the same narrative vein as a lot of zombie apocalypse stories (like The Last of Us or the movie version of World War Z), but it’s set in a Viking fantasy world, and the dredge are actually intelligent, if belligerent, adversaries.  Though there’s nothing especially outstanding about the story, I do find the small scale story set against a massive world-changing backdrop pretty compelling stuff.

The title screen gives a good idea of what the game looks like.

There is some exploration of what exactly is happening that’s causing the dredge to leave their homeland, but nothing is definitively explained in this installment (the sequel, which I’m assuming continues the larger story, just recently released, though it’s not yet been ported to consoles); there’s just enough to get a sense that this is serious stuff (there’s a giant serpent that’s really upset because it’s supposed to eat the world and whatever’s happening means that it can’t), but because Rook’s our perspective character we don’t worry about any of that.  Overall, I’d say that the general sense you pull from the narrative is that Rook’s attempts to escape are probably futile, but that’s not going to stop him from trying as hard as he can.

Besides the macro story that plays out in conversations and cut scenes over the course of the game’s seven chapters, the tension for the player is derived from one of the game’s two core mechanics: caravaning.  Because this is a game about running away from danger, most of the time you’re watching Rook’s caravan move along from one location to another.  Time passes as they trudge along, and the end of each day marks a reduction in supplies that will become reduction in followers if you have no food left.  Most days also involve a randomly generated or pre-scripted event that requires Rook to make a leadership decision which will have a variety of effects on the state of the caravan.  This is where the game is most like Oregon Trail, because the decisions come frequently, and they often carry unforeseen consequences that have the potential to make travel more or less difficult.  I’m pretty confident that the outcomes are all pre-scripted, which limits the fun of replaying the game (I replayed a large middle swath of the game after I found out a decision I made resulted in an unavoidable character death two chapters later; it wasn’t unpleasant, but scenarios I recognized worked out the way they had previously in every instance where I made the same decisions), but they’re well written enough that they carry decent emotional weight; this is an important thing to pull off when the state of your caravan is mostly just reflected by a few numbers at the top of the screen.  As if the Oregon Trail connection weren’t already strong enough, there’s also a moment late in the game when you have to decide how to move your caravan across a body of water, and the choices are all straight out of Oregon Trail.

The other half of the game is tactical combat, which I found to be remarkably challenging.  About halfway through I decided to turn the difficulty down to easy because I was getting frustrated with some of the fights, which are designed to pretty much always be wars of attrition between your units and the enemy’s.  The tactical combat is very similar to many other TRPGs where each unit has specific strengths and weaknesses on the field, and much of the strategy comes from deciding how to compose a team of units that complement each other and can defeat enemies faster than they can defeat you.  The most unusual innovation is the direct connection between a unit’s offensive strength and their remaining health.  As characters take damage their capacity for dealing damage to other units diminishes so that, much like in real combat, someone on the verge of being incapacitated isn’t of much use offensively (conversely, it becomes a pretty standard tactic of sacrificing near-dead units to draw attention away from healthier fighters who can still do damage).  To add complexity to this system, units are able to attack each other’s defense stat, which leaves a unit open to taking more damage but doesn’t diminish their capacity to hurt others; it becomes a balancing act between attacking the offensive and defensive stats to keep your side’s offensive edge over the enemy’s.

While I enjoyed the game very much overall, I do have one pretty major complaint.  This is a fantasy story set in a pseudo-medieval world filled with stone monsters and giant men who have horns sticking out of their heads (they’re called varl, and they’re a literal all male race, though this is hand waved by the world’s lore saying that they were all created by their patron god, and now that the gods are dead there are no more varl being made), but it’s stuck in a patriarchal attitude regarding women as participants in warfare.  The number of female characters is incredibly small compared to the men (in a roster of about twenty playable characters, only four are women), and they are all the same unit type (archers).  There’s a subplot where one of the women, Oddleif, begins training other women to use a bow and arrows so they can help defend the caravan, and you have the opportunity to support this move as Rook (it’s a good idea to do it from a purely mechanical perspective because it converts some clansmen, who are functionally useless, into fighters, and unlocks a character later in the game), but the game leans on the narrative convention of the men being unhappy with the decision.  This is pretty infuriating, since we have historical evidence that women were participants in combat in actual ancient Nordic cultures.  Sticking to a story where women aren’t supposed to be fighters derives from a patriarchal attitude that we know just isn’t accurate.

Despite the game’s flaws, I enjoyed it overall.  The art really is quite beautiful, and the soundtrack was composed by Austin Wintory, who also composed the soundtrack for Journey, one of the best games I ever played.  If you enjoy tactical games and a bit of Oregon Trail nostalgia, then you should pick it up.  I’m definitely going to keep the sequel on my radar for the future.