Heather here. Aaaannnddd we’re back. Back in the Western Hemisphere. Back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. We’ve come home for good from our marathon of international travels engaged to be married and walking on clouds. We keep reflecting on our experiences in all the different countries we have been to, and how our minds and hearts have been opened and changed. And the favorite question from our loved ones is: “what was your favorite place?” What a loaded question!

Travel has also renewed our profound appreciation and love for our home and lives in San Francisco. It is a beautiful thing to be grateful. But we would only be home in San Francisco for a short stop again, as we decided to make the most of our time by seeing our own country by car, driving from coast to coast. Twice. It would turn out to be the best way to see family and to sneak in a few more weeks of leisure. Plus, what’s more American than the “Great American Road Trip” anyways?

Upon arrival from the Maldives in the San Francisco airport, we had about 36 hours to re-adjust to life as we used to know it and get our lives packed up in our car. We were lucky to get to see a few close friends, albeit briefly, grab a burrito (Fred’s weakness), do some laundry, and sleep in our own bed for two short nights before hitting the highway toward Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Since jet-lag was a factor, we were able to get very early starts over the two days it took us to reach the Jackson area, the gateway to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks.

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Neither of us had been before, so we were quite excited to glimpse these majestic mountains and natural phenomena. Jackson Hole was adorably rustic, like a modern wild west town made for yuppies and cowboys alike.

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At the Grand Tetons National Park, we made comparisons of the jagged peaks to the spires we saw in Patagonia. With the scorched lands erupting into many wildfires this year in the western U.S., the air had a smokey haze to it, though. We were hopeful it was nothing too close or dangerous to the area.

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And then we hit Yellowstone National Park (all in the same day I might add – we were on a tight schedule). We spent half a day quickly exploring the main sights: Old Faithful, the bubbling mud pits and cauldrons, and the canyon.

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A particularly entertaining sight was the huge herd of bison that settled in right next to the road in a wide expanse of meadow. I’m talking hundreds of giant, lumbering bison that do not like to move for anything or anyone, and take full ownership of the entire area, including the roads. Cars in both directions came to a complete halt. So imagine, here we were in a traffic jam that could rival any jam in a big city, but instead it was in the middle of nowhere. Everyone took it as an opportunity to take photos, so it was no big deal, even if driving side-by-side to a half-ton beast that could easily destroy your wimpy car is a little unnerving. Ironically, this would be our only traffic jam on our entire drive from San Francisco to New York. Go figure!

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Such a remarkable stretch of wilderness to behold, we wish we had more time to discover it all, but alas we had to keep forging onward to make it to Upper Michigan to see my family. It had been almost a year since I had been “home” to the Midwest and I was really craving some time with Mom, Sis, Grammas, uncles, aunts, cousins and more. We reached Ironwood, Michigan late at night, driving almost 17 straight hours from a town outside of Yellowstone where we stayed the night prior. Fred is a champ marathon driver I’ve learned! Gramma was asleep, so we tiptoed in and went right to bed, exhausted.

Ironwood is tiny, about 6000 people, and it is an old mining community that flourished in the middle of the 20th century but doesn’t have active mines anymore. Most people are retired, as the young folks now tend to move away after high school. It truly is Americana of the north-woods variety – kitschy storefront signs, neighbors helping neighbors, ladies meeting up at the coffee shops to gossip, snow and water skiing, football and hunting season.

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Fred loves to hear the local accent (think Fargo the movie).

We spent the next couple of days hanging with Gramma, aunts, and uncles. Our days were filled with a doing a jigsaw puzzle in the garage, a sauna session in the woods, saying hi to Hiawatha (the tallest Indian in America!), a couple tours around town, a day-trip to the Porcupine Mountains, and loads of Gramma’s yummy home-cooking. One compulsory visit is to Lake Superior, the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, which is only a few minutes drive away. It’s so massive it should be a sea, not a lake!

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And no trip to Ironwood is complete without a meal at the Liberty Bell Chalet, a local hot-spot that is ingrained in my psyche as as a place for comfort food with family. The pizza and caesar salad are the only things I eat there, and for me it is nostalgic and homey, and my tradition. Ironwood just feels like a safe place for me; it’s where my dad took me for all holidays and breaks as a kid, and where he is buried now. It is one very solid constant in my life. I have roots there.

Soon enough it was time to head south to Wisconsin, my home state by birth. Mom, Sis, my other Gramma, and more aunts and cousins live in a mid-size midwestern town, Appleton, home to a minor league baseball team, a sizable paper industry, and cheese. Lots of cheese. Fred and I had good quality time with family here as well, and it was especially fun to share some wedding planning with my mother and sister, including my first dress shopping experience :).

Oh, and did I mention my sister Courtney had just adopted a chocolate lab/pit bull mix puppy? O.M.G.! It was even more special to come back to Wisconsin with a little bundle of puppy love added to the family. His name is Jack, and he is amazing.

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The sucker that I am for puppies, we spent a fair amount of time at my sister’s place, so Mom made her famous spaghetti there, all of us together in Courtney’s new apartment for the first time.

And just like that we said our goodbyes once again to head out to Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital, but more importantly, home to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, my alma mater. I hadn’t set foot in Madison since I graduated in 2005, and Fred and I both wanted to visit. So we made plans to do a quick day-tour and meet up with a couple of cousins of mine attending UW at the moment. Campus was pretty much as I remembered it, save for a few renovations and additions. Lucky for us, my favorite college food joint, Ian’s Pizza, was still there, so we got ridiculous macaroni and cheese pizza and buffalo chicken pizza before topping off the day on Lake Mendota. It was a gorgeous day to sit on the terrace by the lake at the back of the Memorial Union and just soak it up. Oh memories!

That night we headed to Milwaukee, just an hour away, to stay the night with a dear, old friend of mine I know from growing up. She lived across the street and even our parents were best buds. Although we only see each other occasionally, when we do it is like picking up where we left off the last time, in a totally natural way. She’s one of those forever-friends, with a gut-wrenching sense of humor to boot. She and her husband showed us around town, and we had a fabulous sushi dinner on the river. Milwaukee has come a long way from its industrial past, and even Fred was utterly impressed.

Early the next morning we set off for another epic day of driving; our final destination would be Armonk, New York, Fred’s mother’s house. Yes, that’s right, we drove from Wisconsin to New York in one fell-swoop. But what made this even more ridiculous is that we carved out time to stop in Chicago along the way. There is a bridal shop in Chicago that I was dying to check out, plus one of my cousins lives a few blocks from it, so it seemed like the obvious choice to make an appointment for myself and my cousin to join. Us girls had a fabulous time while Fred wandered around the river and towering skyscrapers.

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Saying farewell to the Midwest, we booked it for Armonk, arriving around 3am. We flopped down and slept soundly for hours. Phase one of West-to-East was officially complete and only took us about 2 weeks. That said, it was a very quick and clipped 2 weeks, so we were looking forward to having a full week ahead of staying put in the East with Fred’s family. The Road Trip continues…

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