(Written on Wednesday, October 30th at 4pm)
Total Days: 27
Total Mileage: 6, 500
When we first began planning our trip to South America, our biggest concern was not our safety, the money, or the need to quit our jobs and put our belongings in storage. The problem was that we had family all over the country whom we might not get to see for anywhere from one to two years. It had already been too long for some (like my extended family in Louisiana), and Don had been eager to show me Michigan since early on in our relationship, but the greatest draw was to Austin, Texas, where Don’s older sister Tanya lives with her husband, 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. People will say I’m biased, but Don’s niece and nephew truly take cute to a whole new level. We were able to see the whole family in July when they came to Portland, but we couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing Annabel until she was 3 or 4 years old, and we knew we needed more time with Rocky as a baby because we already missed his chubby cheeks and irresistible smile. And so the idea of a pre-South America road trip was born.
The more we brainstormed, the more extensive the trip became. We knew Michigan, Louisiana, and Austin were non-negotiables…but as we mapped it out, it only made sense to add in Chicago and Moab, where we had friends and mountain biking. Then there was the fact that we could live anywhere we wanted when we got back from our trip, so we decided the road trip could also serve as a chance to check out some potential future homes, like Whitefish and Durango. You could say the trip got a bit out of hand, after all we are already at 6,500 miles and only in New Mexico, but we would not have had it any other way. Every destination has provided us with wonderful memories, good stories, and a whole new appreciation for food and culture. Needless to say, we were eager and excited to finally get to Austin late Saturday night, and the 3 days we got to spend there were exactly what we had in mind 10 months ago when all the planning began.
I already mentioned that Tanya lives with her husband, Aaron, and their two kids, but as fate would have it, just a couple months ago Don’s little sister Shannon had also moved out to Austin and so our visit became a true family reunion. They were all sweet enough to stay awake and welcome us when we got in at 2am early Sunday morning after a long drive from Lafayette, Louisiana. We caught up just a bit before exhaustion got the best of us and we all went to sleep. On Sunday everyone had the day off, so we spent most of our time relaxing at the house, playing with the babies, and just enjoying family time. Tanya, Shannon, Don and I went for a run in their neighborhood, and it felt so good that we went each day after that, beginning a healthy family tradition that we can’t wait to extend to holidays and other get-togethers. Probably the most drastic difference between this road trip and our cross-country bike tour last fall has been our inability to get exercise. We are still eating without reservation, but then we sit in a car for up to 13 hours a day, and our bodies are not happy about it. The running was a welcome reprieve from this routine. On Sunday evening we all headed over to a friend’s house for a fun, laughter-filled barbeque.
On Monday Tanya took the day off work but Aaron had to go in. The rest of us loaded up the car and headed to downtown Austin to check out Mount Bonnell, Zilker Park (where we went for another run), and the Barton Springs neighborhood. I had been told how great Austin was for years now, and it was good to finally experience this beautiful city first-hand. We ate a late lunch at the Magnolia Café (where we had some tasty Mexican food, but bad service) and then headed home so the kiddos could get naps and we could all get some rest. Later that evening Shannon, Don, and I went downtown for some more exploration. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to see over a million bats fly out from under the South Congress bridge, which apparently is an iconic Austin experience throughout the summer. People liken the appearance to the “smoke monster” in the TV show “Lost,” and we could understand the comparison. After that we made our way through a few neighborhoods; we enjoyed a margarita on South Congress, a viewing of the new “Evil Dead” movie in a bar on 6th Street (where all the college kids hang out), a walk through Rainey Street where a number of bungalow homes have been turned into bars, and finally a late-night breakfast at Kerbey Lane Café.
Despite the late night out, I woke up the next morning excited to visit Tanya at the charter school where she works as a high school science teacher. It was great to see yet another version of education, this one where kids are challenged to learn in the “flipped model” that somewhat mirrors a college system. The kids are given material to read and study at home, and then they come to school prepared to hear a lecture and ask appropriate questions. The students were well behaved, and while the system isn’t working perfectly for everyone, it is clear that many students are being appropriately challenged and forced to think on a higher level. For me it was hard to look past the “education gap” that I learned about while in Teach For America and I left the school wishing that my students in Southside Chicago could have experienced an education even half as advanced. I spent the next few hours at a coffee shop in the town of Round Rock (just north of Austin) before heading back to the house to get in more quality time with Shannon and the really adorable babies. The 3 days we had with Annabel and Rocky were probably the most extensive amount of time I’ve ever spent with kids and I was so fascinated by the whole “child development” experience. I can see how parenting is so much like teaching and vice-versa and I had fun analyzing a two-year-old’s thought pattern and behavior. Sometimes I think I should have gone into child psychology. Anyway, once everyone got home from work we went for another run and enjoyed one more family barbeque before having to take off in the morning.
Today we woke up early to say goodbyes and get packed up and on the road. It is a 13 hour drive from Austin to Taos, New Mexico and so far we’re doing great. It is crazy how used to driving you can become. We don’t know much about Taos except that it is supposed to be a neat little town and it is supposed to get down to 22 degrees tonight. We still haven’t decided on a game plan for sleeping, but we’re going to see how we feel when we arrive in town. From Taos we will visit Durango, Colorado and Moab, Utah and then it will be a measly 12-hour drive back to Tahoe where we can relax and regroup for a little over a week. Our flight to South America leaves Reno, Nevada on November 14th, which is coming up quicker than we can believe. We’re going to miss family and friends a lot, but we feel much more content about the whole trip now that we got in so much quality time.