Because our journey to Cuba would be launched from Miami, my husband and I had an opportunity to fulfill another long-held desire: to drive the scenic coastal highway along the Florida Keys. Although we had been to Florida several times before, we had never tacked the time onto our vacation necessary to make the journey. This visit though, we added a few days to explore the area, which had the additional benefit of allowing us to acclimate ourselves to the three-hour time zone difference before we reached our main destination.
Although I was aware that the Keys – and especially Key West – had become a bit of a tourist trap, I still wanted to see them for myself. I was intrigued by pictures of turquoise waters and distinctive architecture, fascinated to read about the time Hemmingway spent in Key West, and inspired by the romance of the many songs written about this beautiful necklace of islands along the coral archipelago.
There are more than 800 islands that make up the Keys but fewer than 50 of these are inhabited (“Key” is derived from the Spanish word Cayo which means small island). The Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West is a series of causeways and bridges — including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge – and provides plenty of vistas along the way. It was built to replace the Overseas Railway that was constructed in the early 1910s and then destroyed by a category 5 hurricane in 1935. It takes about 3 – 4 hours to drive the 110 mile route, depending on traffic and the number of stops needed to admire the scenery and, of course, to grab a cheeseburger in paradise.
We only had two days set aside for our visit and, looking back, we should have allowed for more. There is a lot to see and do on these beautiful and captivating little islands.
Ever since the film “The Bucket List” came out in 2007, the phrase has become a part of the American vernacular. Whether or not the term pre-dates the movie, I have no idea, but it seems that now just about everyone has made some type of bucket list. It might be a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” or it could be a list of places to visit or goals to achieve before a specific end time (going off to college or getting married, for instance).
When I first heard the term I thought it was a clever, light-hearted way to describe a list of experiences to be had and dreams to fulfill. I’ve used the phrase many times myself but, lately, what used to sound clever now strikes me as trite. In many cases, “Bucket List” trivializes the passion, desire, and curiosity that helped to create the collection of destinations and dreams I would like to pursue while I am still able to do so. These are not merely items on a to-do list to be checked off as I flit from one to the next, but real experiences to be lived and savored.
Recently, I was able to fulfill a dream I have had for as long as I can remember: travel to Cuba. I’m not sure what planted the seed of desire in me, but I have fed and nurtured it for many years. I’ve collected articles, accumulated books, and closely charted the political winds as they have raged, then calmed, then raged again, carrying my hopes with them. As close as Cuba is – just 90 miles from the tip of Florida – it might as well have been on another planet because of the travel restrictions placed on U.S. citizens.
Then, last fall, the right opportunity presented itself and we immediately said “yes”! The person putting the trip together had experience, passion, and a great sense of fun and adventure. We’ve never been interested in traveling with tour group before, but this one promised just the right combination of group time and free time. It would give us the opportunity to see parts of the country, learn about its culture and history, and have experiences that we would find very difficult to realize on our own.
All of the arrangements were made before President Obama’s December 17 announcement of the beginning of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. When we heard of the impending thaw, we were so grateful that we would see Cuba before the travel restrictions were lifted. We wanted to see Cuba before it is irreversibly altered by the deluge of American tourists that are sure to come once diplomatic relations are reestablished.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Miami to begin what would feel like a journey on a time machine, back to the late 1950s, before the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on this tiny island nation.
Key West: Separated from Cuba by 90 miles and 50 years
Mauna Kea, one of the five volcanos that form the island of Hawaii, stands 13,796 feet above sea level. From its base, which in 17,000 feet below sea level, to its peak, Mauna Kea rises over 30,000 feet – more than twice the height of Mount Everest.
The volcano’s last eruption occurred over 4600 years ago. It is currently dormant but scientists expect there is another eruption in its future. Although all of us will be long gone when this happens (it could be tens of thousands of years from now) it should be quite a show!
Because of Mauna Kea’s high altitude, dry climate, and stable airflow, its summit is home to over a dozen telescopes. It is considered one of the best locations in the world for astronomical observation.
Other than from an airplane, we don’t usually get to observe clouds from above. The view from the summit of Mauna Kea is incredible – the vista, the clouds, the sunset, and then the amazing night sky filled with stars – and I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to see it for myself.
My husband and I just returned from our first post-retirement road trip. Even though we mostly stuck to our planned schedule, it was very freeing to know that, because neither of us have a job to dictate our return date, we could stay away as long as we wanted… or at least until the money ran out.
We had a terrific several weeks in northern California; in Monterey at a car club “convention,” visiting my brother and sister-in-law in the Bay Area, and spending time in Santa Cruz with my husband’s family. In fact, we had such a good time we started to plan our next trip as we drove home. Yep, I think we could get used to this!
In addition to planning our next escape, we’ve been talking about what we can do to make it easier for us to just pack and go. We want to put a few things in place now so that, when the spontaneity spark hits us or a can’t-miss-it opportunity arises, we can take off at a moment’s notice.
We’ve already made the conscious decision not to have pets because of travel. Although I miss having a dog or a cat, the freedom has been a positive tradeoff.
Our landscaping is – by design – fairly low maintenance, so we don’t need to arrange for upkeep while we were gone as long as our plants don’t have to go more than a couple of weeks without water.
Seasoned travelers have told us that it’s best not to put a vacation stop on mail and newspaper delivery because it is an alert that we will be out of town. Because of this, we have a neighbor pick up our mail and paper while we are gone. Since we provide the same service to her when she’s on vacation, it doesn’t seem like an imposition. To make things simpler and to avoid overlapping vacations, we are considering cancelling the paper completely. Our mailbox is attached to the garage wall so we want to create an opening that will allow the mail to drop directly from the box into a container inside the garage.
Ideally, we’d like to have someone stay at our house for absences lasting longer than a week or so. Not much would be required beyond simple watering and generally keeping an eye on things, but having a presence in the home would make us more comfortable while away. Although we live in a pretty safe neighborhood, this is a big city and we’d be naive to think nothing could happen.
When I was younger, single, and living in a condo with my cat, I had plenty of friends who were happy to stay in my home while I was out of town. They either lived with their parents or with roommates and welcomed the opportunity to have their own space for awhile. They enjoyed the quiet and privacy and I received cat feeding, plant watering, and house watching services. Win-win.
Fast forward a few decades and circumstances have changed. Married or not, our friends tend to be happy with their living situations so are not available to house-sit.
House swapping is something we might explore in the future, especially for longer stays, but for now—and for shorter stays—we are looking for that perfect match; someone who is pet-free, trustworthy, responsible, and who would welcome the opportunity “get way” for awhile in our home.
Hopefully we can find someone before we take off again.
I am back in Southern California following my two-week vacation (“Practice Retirement”) spent driving across the country with a friend. The trip was a positive experience overall and I’m happy I was able to have the adventure.
Looking back, I have several observations that I need to consider for future road trips I hope to take with my husband after I join him in retirement.
Bring a paper map
In an earlier post, I wrote of my love of paper maps. Although we were well-equipped with a GPS, two iPads, and a smart phone to help us get from here to there, I would have felt lost if I hadn’t had my US Road Atlas with me so I could track our progress along the way.
Keep a journal
I brought along a small tablet for general note-taking, and, every evening, to write a page or two about my experiences that day. Because often details can slip away from the memory banks, keeping a journal helps me capture moments I don’t want to forget.
It will also come in handy, if I ever pass that way again, to help me remember what not to miss – places to eat, things to see, experiences to be had.
Be aware that small moments can become big memories
Random conversations with strangers, eating at a local hole-in-the-wall, seeing a rainbow through an opening in an otherwise cloudy sky. These are the experiences that stay with me and make the journey most memorable.
Don’t be shy
I am not an extrovert by nature, but, over the years, I have become more and more comfortable striking up conversations with people I don’t know. Away from home, I think this practice is even more important. I had a so many enjoyable interactions and learned so much just by opening myself up and initiating conversations.
Often a simple “hello” said with a big smile can be the beginning of a memorable exchange. Even if I only got a smile in return, that’s one more smile to add to my day.
Try the local cuisine
Since we were traveling along a southern route, we had the opportunity to chow down on barbeque in Texas, slurp gumbo in Louisiana, and sample fried pretty-much-everything in multiple southern locals. I’m not a big fan of bacon fat and I prefer my vegetables fresh as opposed to being smothered with oil and cooked beyond recognition, but I thought it was important to at least taste everything.
When we wanted to take a break from heavy food, we looked for, and often found, a Panera along the way so we could supplement our diet with fresh salads.
Make room in the suitcase for a little vanity
Because it was just my girlfriend and me for two weeks, I didn’t bother to bring any make-up. Although it was freeing to just wash my face and go, I often wished that I packed a little something to brighten the bare face that stared back at me in the mirror every day.
Although I don’t wear a lot of make-up (and often none at all on the weekends), I know that wearing at least a bit makes me feel perkier.
Allow for alone time
Even though it would have been cheaper to share, it was money well spent to have separate hotel rooms along our route. My friend has very different sleep habits than I do (she stays up late, and rises late in the morning), and, after spending many hours together in the car, I needed to have some time by myself.
Fortunately, my husband and I share sleep schedules so we won’t be needing separate rooms, but having a bit of time by myself allows me to recharge my batteries. I do much better and am much less cranky if I can carve out an hour or two of “Me Time.”
Only pack what is needed (and learn to need less)
I had envisioned that I would post to my blog regularly during my trip. In the end, I managed to make only one post, and it was more difficult than I thought it would be.
I love the writing process. I write, I edit, I rearrange, I delete, I fuss, I re-write. I brought along a laptop because I thought it would be too hard to do that on an iPad. Now, I’m not convinced that the laptop helped at all, and it added bulk and weight to my luggage.
Before going on another trip during which I want to blog, I need to practice writing and posting from my iPad.
In two weeks, we went through three time zones and fourteen states. We experienced temperatures up in the 70’s on down to the low 20’s. We enjoyed warm sunshine, thick clouds, bone-chilling wind, and driving rain storms. I rode a bigger-than-life, cut-out buffalo, visited Elvis’ birthplace, and got to view Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks so close I could almost smell the coffee.
I missed my husband, my house, and sleeping in my own bed, but I’m so happy I didn’t miss this journey.
Many years ago, as part of a workshop on effective communication, I saw a video called “Going to Abilene.” It illustrated the “Abilene Paradox,” which is a term used to describe the tendency for group to agree to support a belief or action that directly contradicts what the individual members of the group actually believe is right. This tendency is often referred to as “Groupthink.”
The video dramatized (actually, “dramatized” may not be the correct term since, as I remember, the acting was pretty terrible) the story of a family relaxing on a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas. One member suggested driving up to Abilene for ice cream. Despite it being a 50-mile drive, someone else said that it sounded like a good idea. Then another family member, not wanting to be disagreeable, also said “let’s go!” Soon, they were all piled into an old, non-air-conditioned station wagon, driving in the heat and dust to Abilene.
When they returned home four hours later, hot, exhausted, and out-of-sorts, they discussed what they had just done. It soon became clear that none of them, even the person who suggested it, really wanted to make the trip in the first place. They had all agreed “just to get along,” because they thought it was something everyone else wanted to do.
I was so impressed with this concept that I told my husband about it, and “are we going to Abilene?” soon became our code question when we needed to check out whether or not we both REALLY wanted to do something. 20 years later, we still use it.
So, of course, when planning my trip across the United States, when I saw that we would be passing near Abilene, I insisted that we make it one of our stops. Fortunately, my traveling partner agreed; not just to get along, but because it sounded like a good idea to her too (at least I think so…).
Abilene turned out to be a charming town. We ate some great Texas barbeque, met a number of terrific people, and found several wonderful photo ops. I think I’d like to make a trip back here when I can spend more time exploring.
I’m sure “are we going to Abilene?” will still be a question my husband and I will ask each other now and then when we need a reality check, but now, after spending some time there, “yes” won’t be such a bad answer.
Several months ago – back when I thought I’d be retired by now – I happily volunteered to go on a two-week road trip with a dear friend. She used to live in San Diego before moving to Pennsylvania, and now drives west each winter to spend several months seeing friends and avoiding the snow. I thought it would be great fun to join her on her journey back home.
I am fortunate that I was still able to arrange a two-week block of time off work, and lucky that I have a husband who understands the importance of the trip and is OK with me being away for that amount of time.
We planned this trip before the dreaded polar vortexes (vortices?) hit, so I’m now questioning the wisdom of leaving sunny southern California and heading to the east coast. To avoid as much cold weather as possible, we’ll take a mostly southern route before heading north once we reach Alabama. Since I’ve never lived in the snow, I don’t have the proper clothes, nor do I have a clue how to drive in the stuff. I really hope that the worst will be over by the time we head out in a few weeks.
I’m also nervous because I’m an introvert by nature and crave a certain amount of alone time. The thought of being with someone other than my husband, in close quarters, all day, for two weeks is somewhat unsettling. Fortunately, my friend and I share similar interests, and our taste in food, music, books-on-tape, etc. is close enough so I’m fairly certain we’ll be fine.
Although a two-week trip across country could be called leisurely, we won’t make many site-seeing stops. We’ve identified a couple of points of interest that will require longer stays, and plan to see a few friends along the way, but mostly our overnights will be in small towns, strategically spaced to break up the drive into reasonable chunks.
This trip is the type of adventure (albeit with my husband) I am looking forward to the most in my retirement. Without any hard deadlines or schedules, I hope he and I can take off when the desire hits us, and stay away as long as we want. I have no idea how often we will actually do that, but just having the option feels very freeing.
This road trip with my friend will give me a chance to practice being retired. Along with as many warm cloths as I can stuff in my suitcase, I will take my journal and my camera, a commitment to be flexible and open experiences outside of my comfort zone, and, most of all, my sense of adventure.
My husband and I decided to take a leisurely route on our drive home from Sacramento a few weeks ago. On our trip north, we took Highway 5, which runs up the middle of the state – it’s the best choice for getting from here to there in a single day, but there’s not much to see along the way. For our return trip, we opted to take Highway 1, which has to be one of the most beautiful highways in the country, if not the world.
I’ve traveled on this road many times; on family vacations, riding along with my parents and older brother when they delivered him to the University of California, Santa Cruz where he went to college, and then again when I attended UCSC, and a handful other trips over the years. Each time, I have been transfixed by the breathtaking beauty along California’s rugged coastline. As I got older and became more aware of these things, I marveled at the level of planning, engineering, and construction expertise that must have gone into creating this ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline.
This time, because we began our journey in Sacramento, we had to negotiate a number of freeways before we were able to connect up with Highway 1 in the city of Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz, our journey took us south through Capitola, Castroville (the “artichoke capital of the world”!), Monterey, and Carmel, before we began the approximately 90 miles of highway that winds along the coastal area known as Big Sur.
It is difficult to capture in words how stunning the scenery is along this route. To the north, the highway passes through a lush pine forest, then, as it winds south, the road turns toward the coast, offering views of the turquoise blue Pacific Ocean meeting a rocky shore that rises abruptly to become the Santa Lucia mountain range. Because we were traveling south, our lane was on the outside, close to the edge of the cliffs. Great for taking in the views, but a bit harrowing as we wended our way along the curvy road. Fortunately, there are many turnouts provided along the way so travelers can stop for a closer look and to take pictures.
Up until the 1930s, this part of California’s coastline was relatively inaccessible. In 1921, state and federal funds were appropriated for the ambitious project of constructing a road from Carmel to San Simeon. San Quentin Prison provided much of the unskilled labor, paying the prisoners a whopping 35 cents a day, and the promise of reduced sentences. Because of the area’s topography, 33 bridges had to be constructed, including the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened in June of 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, it was redesignated as Highway 1, and, in 1965, became the first State Scenic Highway.
Several areas along the route are prone to landslides and the road has to be shut down from time-to-time to clear the path. Fortunately, I have never experienced one of these slides in progress – I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to have rocks and boulders suddenly rain down on my car and the road in front of me.
In one area where a large number of landslides have occurred, the California Department of Transportation is completing an ambitious project designed to protect both travelers and the fragile coastline. At Pitkins Curve, they have realigned the road by constructing a bridge that juts out from the side of the cliffs, thereby allowing future landslides to pass under the bridge and not fall onto the road. They are also building a “rock shed,” which is I can only describe as an exterior tunnel. The theory is that rocks and boulders will fall onto the roof of the shed, rather than on the cars and cyclists on the road.
The original construction of the highway (even with the poorly paid convict laborers) was extremely expensive and could have only been done with tax dollars. I am so grateful that, back in the early part of last century, the federal government and the citizens of California wisely saw the value of such an ambitious project.
I can’t say that I enjoy paying taxes, and I certainly disagree with a lot of things my tax dollars fund. I also understand that there is a lot of waste and a certain amount of fraud in the system. It’s not perfect, but I do know that it takes a lot of money to keep all of the moving parts of this great country operating smoothly. When I travel on roads built long ago because the government and voters at that time thought it was important to dream big and create a legacy for future generations, I realize that the decisions we make today will reflect the values we hold.
In our current climate of tax resistance and reduction in government spending regardless of the societal cost, I wonder if we would have the vision and commitment to the common good to fund a project like Highway 1 today.
Several hours and a few hundred miles away from home, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my beloved road atlas with me on our trip to northern California. My husband and I have driven these freeways many times before, and it’s a pretty straight shot, so getting lost was not a worry. Both of us have smart phones, so both Google Maps and the ability to call for help and directions were both readily available. Still, I wanted a map.
I like being able to plot our progress; I want to see what little towns are up ahead, and, during the especially boring parts of the journey, to see how much further we have to go before something more interesting will appear. What’s the name of that lake over to the left? Which turnoff did we take last time when we visited that great little winery? Have we passed from Kern County to Kings County yet? Without a paper map, I am left with a blue dot moving through the state on my iPhone screen. Empty and soulless.
I inherited my love of paper maps from my father. He kept a large stack of them on his bookshelf – many were of often-visited locals, some he picked up on his and my mother’s journeys around the country and the world. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to throw any of them away – even when he picked up newer versions of ones he already had. This made it harder when I was clearing out his home for sale after his death. I discovered that I not only had inherited his love of maps, but also his reluctance to throw them away. Each was a souvenir of a trip taken and a physical memory keeper of his and my mother’s journey together.
The California road atlas I had inadvertently left home last week was one that belonged to my father. It is dated 1986 and contains notes he had written on many of the pages. Not all of them are trip-related; on the detail street maps showing the city of Los Angeles, he made notes indicating where the 1992 L.A. riots were occurring. I can picture him sitting at his home in San Diego, watching the news on television, the map book opened to the pages showing the parts of L.A. that were on fire.
As my father’s mind slowly slipped into the fog of dementia, and his earlier memories were clearer to him then recent ones, I discovered that he had adopted a ritual using the local newspaper’s daily US weather map. Every day, he mapped his journey – across the country, and then overseas – that he took as a young recruit during the Second World War. Every day, he plotted his movements, from Cincinnati, through Denver, to California (where he met my mother), to Las Vegas (where they married three months later), to New York. Then he drew an arrow to the right towards Europe.
I don’t know much about his experiences during the war, but I do know that he was one of the lucky ones. He avoided the worst of combat and came home physically and, I believe, mentally unscathed. What he plotted every day on the newspaper map were memories of a great adventure. I wish I had kept one of those sweet, precious maps.
It’s probably time to buy a new California road atlas (assuming they still make them). I know that many roads have been added to the state since 1986 and a newer one would be more useful.
I also know that I will not throw away the old one that belonged to my father.