The Best and Worst of the USA

So, I guess my by-the-numbers breakdown of the U.S. wasn’t quite enough to get it all out of my head – ‘cause here comes another summary of my time living on the U.S. Interstate Highway System (which I have a newly-formed respect for. It might not be the most scenic way to see the country, but damned if you can’t get places quickly. But I digress.)

So, here is my (hopefully) final attempt to put the months of March to October of the year 2014 behind me, with the Best and Not-So-Best parts of the United States.

We’ll start with an easy one:

Best Drivers: Oregon

Oh, the pleasure of being able to cruise at the speed limit and not feel like you are a hazard to all of the other traffic on the road. When we lived there, there were times that I lamented the fact that it’s common for people to drive five miles under the speed limit, my stint as a semi-professional driver gave me a newfound appreciation of the fact that no one was in a hurry to get anywhere in the Beaver State.

Worst Drivers: Toss-up: Los Angeles and everyone in the Northeast Megalopolis

At first, I thought this was going to be an easy call. As anyone who was not born in the region can probably attest: driving anywhere between Washington D.C. and Boston, MA requires an amazing amount of aggression, disregard for your humanity, and a lot of booze to ease the buildup of tension you get in your body from dealing with that aggression and disregard for human life.

Then, I arrived in the city of angels. And traffic took on a whole new meaning. The sight of 16 lanes of traffic moving at 80 miles per hour merge in and out is a sight like few others I’ve seen. There’s a strange beauty in the chaos, and you know that something horrible is just about to happen, but just can’t make yourself pull your eyes away.

Best Monument: Korean War memorial

korean war memorial - best monument in the USA

The haunting statues in the Korean War Memorial

This is one of the most overlooked memorials in D.C. – which is fairly understandable because it seems like half the city is a memorial. There’s the Lincoln, Jefferson, MLK, Vietnam War, and nations penis Washington monuments all within a few minutes’ walk of each other. But the Korean War memorial has an eerie beauty to it that’s lacking in the others. The statues of soldiers in ponchos look so lifelike you swear they’re about to turn around and start talking to you. The shrubs between the statues prevent you from seeing the ground, so it looks like the statues are walking through a jungle of sorts. It was unlike any other memorial I’ve ever seen. It was the only monument we went to in D.C. that was full of silent people taking everything in.

Worst Monument: War memorial in CT

The most depressing slab of stone I have ever seen

The most depressing slab of stone I have ever seen

It’s not uncommon for towns and cities to have memorials to their citizens who lost their lives fighting in wars. These are normally quint, tasteful monuments that really drive home how devastating and far-reaching war can be. Then, there was the war memorial we found in somewhere CT.

It started out like many war memorials, listing all of the wars people from the town fought in. Starting with the early wars like the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the monument circled around listing other wars. The wars just kept on going, war after war after war. I realized that nary a generation has gone by since the inception of this country without a war occurring – which is a sad statement on how peace-loving of a country we really are. But all the wars being listed wasn’t the worst part. The final war listed was the “Global War on Terror 2001 –     “ like some Orwellian nightmare come true of never-ending war. And after that stone? About a dozen or so more granite slabs awaiting their memorialization’s of violence. It was the most depressing thing I have seen in a long time.

Best Beer: Toss-up between Portland, OR and San Diego, CA

I might be a little biased on this one by including Portland, but I’ve yet to find a city that can match it’s proclivity for making good beer. But since I can’t in good conscious name my adopted home-town as the best, I’m going with San Diego. I was shocked at the quality and quantity of breweries in San Diego. Although, they do lose a point or two because you can’t actually walk to many breweries, since it seems like it’s a 30 minute drive to anywhere in the city, so micro-brew pub crawls are out of the question.

Best Food: California

I don’t think we had a bad meal the entire time we were in California, which was a little over 3 weeks. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. that you can get good, fresh food no matter where you are. Oh, and they put avocado on everything – and avocado makes everything better.

Worst Food: The South

beignets best food in UAS

These beignets were the best food we found in the South

I’m gonna have to put a caveat on this one, because I love me some southern cooking. The cooking philosophy of putting more butter on it until it tastes good is something I hold near and dear in my heart – mainly because it makes all my arteries hardened and congealed. But when searching for vegetarian restaurants, the American South is like looking for leprechauns: you hear rumors about them, so you go out in search of them. Once you think you’ve tracked one down, you realize you have a bigger problem on your hands, because all you’ve done is piss off a dwarf and you’re still hungry. Seriously: Kim couldn’t even eat red beans and rice in Louisiana because every place made it with ham.

Best Bar: The Sip ‘n Dip, Great Falls, MT

sip n dip bar best and worst of the usa

I am finally able to cross “drink with mermaids” off my bucket list

The first thing you need to know about the Sip ‘n Dip is that they have Piano Pat. Pat has been playing the piano and singing there for nearly 40 years. She is seemingly ageless – she could be a hard 65 or a good 95, it’s hard to tell. My best guess that she was within 2 years of 80. She is the bars only entertainment. There is no jukebox, just Piano Pat. In her prime, she wouldn’t win any singing competitions and time hasn’t been kind to her, but you had to love the enthusiasm with which she sung bad renditions of Piano Man and I love this bar.

But Piano Pat isn’t the Sip ‘n Dip’s claim to fame. Nope, that falls to the mermaids that make the bar their home. Behind the bar rests a glass-walled pool in which mermaids and mermen swim as you drink your “fishbowl” – nearly a gallon of electric-blue colored liquor that they don’t serve unless you have multiple people at your table. It was hard to pull my eyes away from the mermaids, because no matter how much Piano Pat tried to draw my attention, my mind kept saying “what the f*@#?!?!? Did I just see a mermaid???” To which, I had to keep reminding myself: yes, I am drinking at a bar with honest-to-god mermaids.

Most Scenic State: Montana

Montana best and worst of the usa

A regular sight in Montana

A drive through Montana, even on the interstate highways, is like stepping into a National Geographic magazine. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to – mostly because there are so few people so Nature reigns supreme in so many areas. As long as you don’t mind having grizzly bears hanging out in your back yard, it would be a great place to live.

Least Scenic State: Illinois

I was originally going to give this award to Missouri because all I can ever remember of the Show Me state is how densely populated the state is with billboards. But, then I remembered that in the last few years, I have driven entirely through the state of Illinois at least 6 times and can’t remember a single thing about it. It’s that unremarkable. Unless, of course, you consider the Murder Capital of the World (East St. Louis) remarkable.

Best Hidden Gem: Little Talbot Island, Florida

little talbot island best and worst of usa

Kim on the beach on Little Talbot Island

Kim and I spent nearly a week at this little state park in Florida. The entire island is a park/nature preserve, so it had a wildness about it that can be had to come by east of the Mississippi. We spent the days searching for manatees in the salt marshes and watched the sunset every evening. The park is less than a 30 minute drive from Jacksonville, yet no one we talked to knew it existed. Sometimes, the best places are hidden right in our own back yard.

Best Surprising City: Omaha, NE

Yup, the big O knocked my socks off. Granted, my expectations for the largest city in Nebraska were pretty low, but even if I had had expectations, there’s a good chance I would have been pleasantly surprised. With a revitalized downtown area that has an amazing amount of restaurants, an active micro-brew scene, plus a street art community that keeps parts of the city feeling like they fell off from one of the coasts, I might just recommend people give Omaha a visit….maybe.

Most Disappointing City: Roswell, NM

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Roswell? Aliens! Do you know how many alien bodies I saw in Roswell? None. Not even any attempts at recreating one to weasel away a few bucks from suckers like me who put their wanting to believe above their financial well-being. Here are my top 3 complaints about Roswell:

  1. Virtually no companies used aliens as their mascot. The best I found was the local credit union that had a UFO on its sign. No Out Of This World Jewelry with a diamond-clad ET on it’s sign, no Martian Plumbing and Repair with an alien with a tool belt and rocking some plumbers-butt on the side of their work van. Nothing. It’s like visiting the beach and no businesses have a palm tree on their sign – it’s just wrong.
  2. When we drove by the high school, I disgruntledly said to Kim “I at least hope they call themselves the Fightin’ Aliens.” She looked at the school and said “You were close – they’re called the Fighting Coyotes.” Someone seriously missed the ball with this one.
  3. I could not find a single Alien Burger on any restaurant’s menus. How hard is it to toss some green food coloring into some hamburger and sell it to schmucks like me? It’s done to beer and ham on St. Patrick’s Day, for crying out loud!

I will admit that I did not visit the UFO museum. I tried to visit it on the day I arrived in town, but they were closed when I stopped by around 4 in the afternoon and by the next day, I was so dejected with the rest of the town, that the museum seemed too little too late.

Most Surprising National Park: Glacier

glacier natioanl park best and worst of the usa

One of the many stunning views in Glacier National Park

Most things in life don’t live up to the hype that surrounds them. Which is totally understandable. When we hear stories about places, we create a little world in our head and reality can rarely exceed our personal fantasy vision.

Glacier was one of the few places that didn’t just live up to the hype, but exceeded it. Before we made our way there, we had been hearing people tell us just how great Glacier is for months. It was one of only a few places I was excited to see on our road trip, so I actually had high-expectations for it, and it still blew me away. It had snow-capped mountains, alpine meadows full of wildflowers, honest-to god glaciers, and wildlife out the wazoo. Luckily, we had no grizzly encounters – which means I was able to keep my pants clean & dry.

Most Disappointing National Park: Acadia

acadia national park best and worst of the USA

Since when does 1,373 feet of elevation get classified as a mountain?

In a nutshell, Acadia is the antithesis of Glacier. Everyone up & down the northeast talks of the stunning beauty of Acadia, and yes it does have its own beauty, but it would be lucky to get into my Top 25 most beautiful places in the U.S. If we had visited in the fall when all the leaves were changing color, I would probably be singing a different tune. But we were there in late-June, and it just didn’t live up to expectations. The hype around Acadia is exactly what I was referring to above when a place can’t possibly live up to its reputation.

Best Overall Experience: Seeing a moose in New Hampshire

Now, this requires a bit of context because, while seeing a moose is great no matter what the circumstances, how is this the best experience in 7 months? I’ll explain:

We had just wrapped up a crazy part of our schedule, something like 12 presentations in 18 days, and were headed into our first bit of time off. We were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and had been planning a 3 night backpacking trip while we were there. We stopped at the ranger station to finalize our backpacking route when they told us that nasty storms were going to roll through for the next 3 days – so our backpacking trip was cancelled.

We had already been in the car for 8 hours that day, and now we had to re-make our plans for the next few days, something that neither one of us particularly enjoys doing, so we weren’t in our best forms. An argument ensued, one of those stupid I’m-tired-and-hungry-and-don’t-want-to-be-the-one-to-make-the-decision kind of arguments.

As we were driving down the road, a car flashed it lights at us. With perhaps a bit of melodrama, I thought that something else had gone wrong (why else do people flash their lights at you?), and pulled over to the side of the road. I rolled down my window and the guy who flashed his lights at me pointed past me to where a moose was walking through a roadside field.

The argument simply melted away as we both silently took in the scene. The moose silently walked through the rain with a nonchalance that is only found in large animals – something that instinctively lets you know that they know you’re there, but they don’t care about your presence. We both found ourselves grinning like kids as we watched the moose slip back into the forest.

It was one of those moments that, even though it’s seemingly unrelated to the situation you’re in, immediately puts everything into perspective. We stopped belly-aching about having to find a hotel, a place to eat, etc. and just took in the sight. It made me realize that whatever “problems” I thought I had at the time were just petty inconveniences. So I took a deep breath and took a mental step back so that I could enjoy the moment I was in.

It’s a lesson that no matter how many times I realize it, always seems profound. Sometimes, though, I’m so knee-deep in my “problems” that the universe has to throw something the size of a moose at me to get me to realize it.

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Author: Brian

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