Adopted Family

We reached Chicago, which was east end of the Route 66 part of our coast-to-coast road trip. That ended the more exciting part of our journey, but we still had quite a long distance to to reach our actual destination, New York City. And my brother had to be back home for an event in a couple of days, and we had to return the rental car in New York City before we get penalized for going over. So the rest of our journey was about making it back to New York City within the time constraint. But we did have at least one more ‘meaningful’ stop along the way. Since we would be passing Toledo area around lunch time, I had made a lunch plan with a family that was influential in my life — yet more ‘life-long friends’ to meet during the trip.

I considered this family my adopted family as they were the family whom I stayed with around 20 years ago when I first came to the United States as an exchange student from Indonesia. When I applied to spend one year of high school in the US, I was matched with a host family in a small town in Southeast Michigan. It was quite an experience as I came from an urban life in a city of more than 10 million people, and I was placed in a little village of 300. For my host family, it was an experience as well as prior to my arrival, they knew almost nothing about Indonesia.

It ended up to be a great experience for all of us, and my host family also played an important role in convincing me to go to a college in Southwestern Michigan for the next four years. During that time, my host sister and brother also went to college at a school nearby, so we were able to keep in touch a little bit. Years later, my host siblings got married, and I came to their weddings from wherever I happened to live. In many of those occasions, I met their extended family, and everyone in the family pretty much considered me as one of the members of the family. So it felt really like my adopted family away from my real family back in Indonesia. A few months before this coast-to-coast trip, I did a road trip in Michigan and visited the family for a couple of days. Some of the family friends in the little village also still remembered me, and going back there to visit really felt like a homecoming.

Since my host sister and her family lived in the suburb of Toledo near Interstate 80 that we would pass on our way to the east coast, we thought it would be nice to be able to meet them even only for lunch. We timed the lunch meeting so my host sister could pick up her daughter from preschool and her husband could join us during his lunch break. My host mom decided to take the afternoon off from work and drove about an hour away to meet us as well.

We made it there within less than half hour from the original target time, so it was not too bad of a timing. Just like the dinner we had with my brother’s college friend the night before, the actual lunch itself was not that memorable. But it was nice to be able to spend even only an hour with old friends whom you consider as family. These were the times that you’re grateful to have people in your life that enriches your experience and make life worth living.

Adopted family

Van Ride to Siem Reap

The van ride we decided to take from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap turned out to be an interesting experience. We wanted to see the Cambodian countryside and experience travel like the locals, and the trip didn’t disappoint. It took about five hours to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, including a fifteen-minute break in the middle in a town called Kampong Thom. The tour company that arranged our trip was right; taking the passenger van, though it’s about the same price as taking the bus, was actually faster because the passenger van is smaller and can move faster and navigate around slower traffic better than the bus.

During the ride, it was interesting to observe the passengers inside the van. On the front row, next to the driver was a British older gentleman who was traveling alone. Next to him was a Cambodian man who seemed to know the driver as they had talked with each other like friends during the trip. I sat in the middle of the second row. On my left was a Japanese gentleman who carried his Canon DSLR with him. We picked him up at a hotel just after the van picked us up at our hotel. Before he left, we saw him giving a local person a hug — seemed to be someone who had helped him during his travels so far. During our trip, I saw him uploading the photos from his camera to his laptop, then he spent some time reviewing the photos. He had many portraits of local Cambodian in rural areas; beautifully taken and seemed to have one theme: showcasing the people of Cambodia (many if not most were smiling — wonderful to see in a country that many considered as among the poorest in the world). On my right was my cousin Kristi, who spent most of the time during the trip taking a nap.

Behind our row there were two more rows of passengers (5 more people). One of the passengers was the American girl who was a teacher in Phnom Penh (as I gathered from listening to her talking to a couple of other foreigners right after our pick up from the hotel). The rest of the passengers were local Cambodians. The American girl also spent most of the trip taking a nap. One Cambodian gentleman who sat in the back row provided an interesting ‘entertainment’ during our ride. Apparently he was conducting business during the ride. His mobile phone must’ve received calls every 5-10 minutes, and he talked to his colleague over the phone. Some calls were in Khmer, some were in English. Quite interesting to observe…

The scenery varied as we passed towns and rice fields. Once in a while I noticed roadside stands with people selling what looked like glass bottles of drink (brownish in color, looked like alcoholic drink). I wasn’t really sure what that was — later on I found out that it was people selling gasoline for motorcycles (unless you’re in big city like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you rarely see gas station). As I mentioned in my post about National Highway 6, we passed people with various modes of transportation that are slower (oxcart, bicycle, etc.). Our driver didn’t slow down much, driving between 60-100 kmh and honking his horn to get people to notice that we’re about to pass them.

The photo below was taken when we stopped in Kampong Thom for a break in the middle. Here you can see our passenger van getting refreshed during the trip. It was quite a new Ford Transit, which we saw quite a bit in the Southeast Asian countries we visited (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam). Ford seemed to do quite a good business in the region to supply the vans for intercity travels.

Passenger van

Mount Rushmore

In addition to the 58 national parks that were set aside to preserve the nature in the United States, there are also other properties managed by the National Park Service for other reasons, such as monuments or historical sites that are preserved to commemorate historical events or figures. In the next few days, I will add posts about some of these places that I’ve visited.

The first one to mention is a monument located within few hours from the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This monument is a sculpture of four American presidents on a granite mountain — very recognizable monument, though given its location in South Dakota, unless you happen to pass the area during a road trip or you live in the state, chances are that you’ve never seen this monument in person. In fact, initially the idea of building this monument was to increase tourism to the state of South Dakota.

The four presidents represented on the monument — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — were selected by sculptor Gutzon Borglum to represent the first 150 years of American history, and because of their role in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory. The figures were originally supposed to be carved head to waist, but it ended up to be only the heads due to insufficient funding.

I visited Mount Rushmore during a road trip from Rapid City to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We only stopped briefly at the monument to take photos from a couple of different angles, but it was quite neat to see such a familiar monument in person.

The photo below was taken at one of our stops near the monument. You can see the highway in front of the monument and a couple of visitors walking (to give you scale comparison for the size of the monument).

Mount Rushmore

Badlands

Badlands National Park in South Dakota features landscape that may not conform to everyone’s idea of beautiful, but the scenery there is certainly dramatic and other-worldly. Weather erosion caused the cliffs on the Badlands Wall to have jagged edges, and mixed with prairie land around, it provides very unique and somewhat surreal landscape. This national park is also known to have one of the riches fossil beds in the world where many unique fossil species had been discovered. The national park’s prairie area is also home for some wildlife, including bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, prairie dog, and black-footed ferret.

I visited the Badlands National Park during a drive from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at the south of the park on the way to Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive through Badlands took us through very dramatic scenery with towering jagged cliffs around, and at times going through a vast prairie land where we could see a herd of pronghorn antelopes and prairie dog city in the distance.

The photo below was taken from the front passenger seat while we were driving inside the park. Someone on flickr commented on this photo saying that the jagged cliffs looked like serrated knife edge. It’s definitely a unique scenery that you can’t find elsewhere.

Badlands

Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming and a little bit into Idaho and Montana. It is the first national park ever established in the world in 1872. The park is known for its wildlife (including bison, elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, coyote, wolf, grizzly bear, black bear, mountain lion, eagle, osprey, and many more) and the geothermal features (geysers, mud pots, hot springs, including the famous Old Faithful geyser). This park also has many other features that makes it a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts — forests, mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, canyons, waterfalls.

I visited Yellowstone as part of a road trip to Wyoming along with a visit to the Grand Teton National Park nearby. Yellowstone National Park area is quite large that we decided to cover different areas of the park on each of the two days that we spent in the area. The first day we covered the western part of the park, driving north all the way to Mammoth Hot Springs area (about 51-mile drive). The second day, we covered the eastern part of the park to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area, and then drove back in a loop through the Old Faithful area. We did see some of the major features like the Old Faithful Geyser, the Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but during the two days we could only do mostly driving around with occasional stops to visit overlooks and sights.

From wildlife viewing perspective, we were so excited to see a herd of bison not long after we entered the park, but by the middle of our first day, the bison were seen everywhere (including some that caused traffic jam as they walked on the road and took their time with a long line of tourists waiting). It’s hard to believe that the bison once roamed around everywhere all over United States (numbered between 25-60 millions by estimates at one point), but in the 19th century they were hunted to almost extinction. The herd in Yellowstone National Park was the last free ranging bison herd in the United States, and at one point there were only 23 of them left. Now there are about 3,700 of them in the park, a testament of how the National Park helped bringing back the bison from endangered species status.

We also saw one black bear from a distance, several herds of elk, and a couple of moose. Unfortunately we did not see any grizzly bear or other animals that you probably have better chance of encountering when you go on a hike into the forest trails. The coolest wildlife encounter was one that was totally unexpected. When we were driving back towards Jackson Hole after dark on the second night, at one point we noticed an animal walked across the road in the distance. We slowed down and stopped, and when we looked to the side of the car, we saw a wolf pausing after crossing the road and looking at our car. For a few moment, we just looked at wolf in awe, and before we could get our cameras to take a snapshot, the wolf continued its trek and disappeared into the darkness.

The photo below was taken near the Mammoth Hot Springs at the north part of the park. You could see part of the geothermal features nearby, and in the distance you can see the resort area in the valley and the wide open country in the background.

Yellowstone Country near Mammoth Hot Springs

Saguaro

Saguaro National Park is located in Tucson, Arizona. It comprises two areas (called districts), the West District at the west suburb of the city of Tucson, and the East District at the east suburb of the city. The park gets its name from the saguaro cactus that grow abundantly in the park area. The saguaro cactus is native to the Sonoran desert, and it’s known for its large size (it can grow anywhere from 15 to 50 feet) and long life (some can live for more than 150 years). Whenever you think of the ‘wild west’ the picture wouldn’t be complete without saguaro cacti as part of the scenery.

I visited Saguaro for the first time when I was working on a project in Scottsdale, Arizona. While I was there, I did a road trip to visit the park in Tucson. You can drive your car on both the paved and gravel roads inside the park. There are also walking paths where you can walk among the tall saguaro cacti. And a trip to the Saguaro National Park wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a living museum that showcases the native vegetations and animals.

The photo below was taken at the West District of the Saguaro National Park on my second visit to the park, during a road trip I took with my cousins on the way to Phoenix, Arizona. We arrived in Tucson close to the sunset time, in time to catch one of those amazing moments of the day in the Southwest United States when the sky lights up as the sun sets in the west. The silhouette of the saguaro cacti added interesting details to the scenery; the cacti with their arms looked like human beings standing around.

Sunset at Saguaro National Park

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon National Park is another national park in the Sierra Nevada that is north of the Sequoia National Park. The two parks are contiguous and are connected by a highway. Kings Canyon National Park consists of two parts. One part is the General Grant Grove, which has a smaller concentration of giant sequoia trees compared to the area in the Sequoia National Park. The General Grant Grove includes the General Grant Tree, the largest in the the park and the second largest by volume after the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. Another part of the Kings Canyon National Park is the backcountry area east of the General Grant Grove, which comprises 90% of the total area of the park. This includes the namesake of the park, the Kings Canyon, which at the maximum depth of 8,200 feet is one of the deepest canyons in the United States.

I visited the Kings Canyon National Park right after visiting the Sequoia National Park. We drove through the General Grant Grove area and continued eastward until we reached the end of the paved highway. It was towards the end of the day, and there were hardly any other visitor in the area, so it really felt like we’re alone in the middle of the nature. It was very quiet and peaceful out there.

The photo below was taken when we stopped at the east end of the paved highway through Kings Canyon. In the distance is the Kings Canyon and the mountain range around it. We didn’t go on any hike down the canyon, but even just from this overlook we could imagine it would be quite an experience going through the backcountry and experiencing the nature there.

Kings Canyon