Tuesday, November 11, 2008

End of the Road

After 5317 miles, 19 states, the District of Columbia and Canada, 21 days of traveling, 12 different accommodations and time spent with family and friends, we have been reminded that we live in a great country. Here are our general observations:

1. Hotels - This trip, we decided to mainly bid on rooms through Priceline, except 3 nights with family and a pre-booked home in Vermont. We stayed in all types of locations, but mainly 2 1/2 and 3 star hotels (Hyatt and Marriott Courtyard types). Our average per night was $57.24 plus taxes. (This did not factor in the "free" rooms with family). With exception of Washington, D.C., we logged on to the computer every day, determined where we wanted to spend the night and placed a bid on Priceline. Bidding for rooms is an easy way to get huge discounts and we enjoyed the challenge of doing it last minute trying to get a good deal. For Washington, it took 2-3 days of bidding before we were able to secure a room, but we were thrilled to find a rate of $89, which advertised for the "discounted" $249 per night on Capitol Hill. Our favorite accommodation was the Maersk house in Vermont - hands down!! It was amazing and a comfortable place to spend the week.

2. Car/Gas - The highest amount we paid for gas was $3.37 in New York and the lowest was $1.96 in Texas. The highest amount that we paid for parking was $45.96 per night at the Hyatt in Washington, DC, which we found to be outrageous!! Best estimates are that we used 322 gallons of gas at an average of $2.40 per gallon.

3. States/Areas we visited - Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia and West Virginia. Each location was so different, yet we enjoyed every one!

4. Food - We stuck to local restaurants and tried hard to stay away from fast food. We tried as many local specialties as we could discover. The one exception was Starbucks, which we found in plentiful supply. One interesting note is that in the New England area, Starbucks does a great job with a healthier breakfast...my favorite is the protein breakfast with a small whole wheat bagel and cheese, along with a hard boiled egg and grapes. As we went further south, the breakfast items were replaced with high-fat sugar items. Our favorite restaurants along the way were Rusty Scuppers in Baltimore , the Chart House in Annapolis, the 1785 Tavern in Lewisburg, WV, clam chowder at Rhode Island Quahogs, dinner at Georgia Browns in Washington DC and the Amish dinner at Plain and Fancy.....There were SO many great places to eat!!

5. Best memories - Learning about the Amish, seeing snowfall while we were in Vermont, touring the chocolate factory at Hershey's, taking an unexpected side trip to Indiana, seeing the changing of the guard at Arlington, building a fire daily at the Maersk house, making homemade vegetable soup in Vermont, dinner with Isabelle Paul, seeing a moose, going to the sugaring farm, having my parents and Linda join us for part of the trip, seeing the beautiful foliage all throughout New England, taking a buggy ride through the Amish countryside, having lunch at the school and the Mistletoe Market at Georgetown, eating roasted cinnamon pecans and coffee at side stops, seeing Madison, New Jersey, touring the Pentagon and Capitol building, seeing the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, walking in the rain to see Niagara Falls, dinner with Vinny and his mom in New Jersey, Dollywood in Nashville, watching the Von Trapp family singers in Massachusetts, breakfasts at Starbucks, seeing 2 seasons at once (snow on orange leaves), making stops with less than a minutes notice for pictures, touring Opryland hotel in Nashville, seeing our family in Tennessee, writing the daily blog, exploring the Greenbrier, walking along the Inner Harbor at night in Baltimore, taking our time to see unplanned things and just spending time together on the road.

We've had a wonderful trip and enjoyed sharing it with friends and family. We feel so blessed to have been able to take the time to see our wonderful country. Everywhere we went, we found people accommodating and friendly. It makes us see clearly the diversity knitted together to make up our great land. Our plans are to see the remaining few states sometime in the near future - only 8 more to go!! Planning for the next trip will begin soon....We will let you know! :)

Homeward Bound

After a wonderful breakfast with Charles' mom and and the first day to sleep in, we are on the road back to Texas. This has been a wonderful journey and it was great to spend the last two days visiting our families. It's a long trip back - almost 12 hours, but we are on the road again and plan to make it home late this evening. As I am blogging, we are about 2 hours away from our house in The Woodlands - so we are officially back in Texas!!

We have not set any speed records today, but it's been a nice drive. We stopped in Texarkana, Arkansas for an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel. Charles says that it's tradition to stop at a Cracker Barrel while traveling, so we made sure to get it in!!

We'll send a recap tomorrow, but we have covered a lot of ground. We are so blessed to have had this opportunity to explore much of our great nation!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Winding Down with Family

Today, we enjoyed a lazy day relaxing with family in Tennessee. We were ready for some "down time" and it was very nice to just visit in one place for a while.

We brought some Vermont syrup back for Brandon, our nephew, who hopefully will enjoy true maple syrup on his pancakes. We especially appreciate Brandon's technical talents. Yesterday, I spent the day taking pictures without a memory card in the camera, much to my frustration. Brandon explained that it was easy to resolve and was able to take my camera, reset the backup mode to download the pictures from the memory of the camera back to the card. He takes care of his poor untechnical Aunt Janet! He does it so easily and I was very grateful!!

We also brought gifts for Alexis and Amanda, our nieces, from Hershey's Chocolate factory. When we gave Amanda, age 8, her bowl with Hershey's chocolate, we remembered that she doesn't really like chocolate. She confirmed our suspicions, so we explained that the bowl was an ice cream bowl and that she could simply share the chocolate with her friends. A little while later, we questioned her about her favorite candy, which she told us was Starbursts. We explained that we could just give Uncle Charley (aka Uncle Bizert) the chocolate and go together to the store and buy her a big bag of Starbursts to fill the bowl. She turned us down quickly and said that she wanted to keep the chocolate. When we reminded her that she didn't like chocolate, she replied, "Oh, I don't like chocolate, but Alexis DOES......and there are a lot of things that Alexis has that I want!!" Her little 8 year old brain had already figured out that the chocolate would be a great bribe for her sister!! We thought that was pretty funny!! :) We also got an education with girls, when we tried to take Amanda to gymnastics with the wrong shirt. Boys don't care much about their clothes, so it was fun for us to see the "other" side!!

We also enjoyed time with Randall and Sheila, Mother and Daddy. Mother and I made it to First Fruits, the most amazing store on Collierville Square, where I was able to make a fun purchase. We were also able to see the Christmas decorations already up at the Square. It's seems a bit early to us, but we enjoyed it anyway!!

Most of all, we enjoyed time visiting and sharing with family - taking the time just to sit and talk. How blessed we both are to have wonderful parents, who have given us the gift of close family ties, a happy home and a value on the important things in life. We praise God for this most special gift and we appreciate them all so much!

We ended the day by meeting Charles' mom for dinner and spending the night there. We are so very blessed with TWO great families!!

I don't care how poor a man is; if he has family, he's rich. ~Dan Wilcox

When you look at your life, the greatest happinesses are family happinesses. ~Joyce Brothers

The family is one of nature's masterpieces. ~George Santayana, The Life of Reason

Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family. ~Anthony Brandt

You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them. ~Desmond Tutu

Sunday, November 9, 2008

My Tennessee Home

I've always loved Tennessee. It's a beautiful state and it's a comfortable place to me. Most of all, I love it since our families live here. It is hard to have a home away from family, but it's nice to come back often to our Tennessee roots.
The mountains in east Tennessee were still in the midst of fall foliage and it was a gorgeous drive from Knoxville to Nashville. It's been a while since we visited Nashville, so we decided to make a detour as we passed through. I've heard family and friends speak about the Opryland hotel, so I wanted to experience it first hand.

The Gaylord Opryland Hotel is located next door to the Grand Ole Opry - the place that made country music famous. It is a spectacular hotel and the largest non-casino hotel in the world. It is an event just walking through it. There are over 2800 rooms, restaurants, convention facilities, a riverwalk and lots more. It was beautifully decorated for Christmas and we were amazed at all the different types of scenery. You could spend an entire vacation here and never need to leave the hotel! :)

After Nashville, we continued on to Collierville, TN, which is a suburb of Memphis. My family lives here and we were just in time for Sunday night church. My sweet niece,
Alexis, was performing so that made it extra special. Her teen group was in charge of the music, complete with upbeat songs and dance moves. They did a great job and I was a proud aunt! We are looking forward to a few days of Tennessee family time!!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Pigs Fly in the Smokies

Have you heard the expression, "When pigs fly"? You know, like, "We will purposely go into over-crowded places....when pigs fly"....oops! Well, just like the picture, the pigs are flying in the Smokey Mountains!! :)

Today, we left West Virginia and drove through the hills of Virginia right into Tennessee and the Smokey Mountains. Our goal was Gatlingburg, TN and I haven't been there in years. To me, Gatlingburg is a peaceful place in the heart of the Smokey's with Smokey the Bear and one restaurant with great pancakes on the mountain. Boy-things have certainly changed in the last 22 years!
As we drove into the general area, the streets were lined with every type of store, hotel and restaurant that you could imagine. We had heard of the famous outlet mall in the sister town, Pigeon Forge (near where the pigs fly) with over 140 stores. There were so many people shopping that they had lines OUTSIDE of the stores with people just trying to get IN. I have never seen anything like it!! After about 45 minutes, we decided that we could shop in Texas and happily decided to make a new plan - on to Gatlingburg, It was only 12 miles away, but after sitting in traffic for two hours and covering less than 8 miles, we changed our minds. Not a problem....We saw a sign for Dollywood, so off we went!! It's November.....and cold, so who goes to an amusement park?

Dollywood is Dolly Parton's theme park, which is located in the general Gatlingburg area, close to where Dolly was raised. Today just happened to be the opening (read..tons of people) of the Christmas season and tonight (translation - even MORE crowds) was the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. We enjoyed going to see the production "A Country Christmas" (a mere 40 minute wait) and rode a real train with a coal-burning locomotive up into the mountains (30 minute wait), which was fun. We also enjoyed seeing the Dolly Parton museum and seeing a replica of the home where she grew up - only 2 rooms!

The Christmas lights were beautifully done in Dollywood and it was nice to see them along with the lighted Christmas parade. I took a picture of the crowds as we were trying to make our way through. We also learned that over 3 million people a year go through this park and we determined that a good number of them chose the same night we did. By the indication of the crowds, our economy is doing much better than we thought!! I also just read on the Internet that Dollywood is Tennessee's number ONE attraction - Go figure!! :) Things really HAVE changed.
We decided to leave before the park closed to get the tram to our car. We were lucky to board after only 3 trams passed, since we are sure that the "last minute" crowd will wait much longer. As an optimist, my initial thought was to drive through Gatlingburg on our way out of town, but the traffic situation determined that a by-pass would be a MUCH better option! :)
We had a great day and we really enjoyed the sights, but we never made it to Gatlingburg.....I am really glad that pigs don't fly too often! :)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Secret Hideaways

Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices. President Harry S Truman
Our last morning in Washington was spent viewing the memorials honoring our Presidents and those who served in WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was humbling to see the sacrifices made for our country and to see the time and effort put into remembering them. However, at the foot of the Lincoln memorial, blocking the view to the Washington monument, there was a large piece of painted wood for people to sign with a banner that said, " Congratulations President, Obama - Change won't be easy, but together as one world, Yes we can!". It certainly drew a lot of attention, but the placement seemed a bit ironic. Most comments seemed to be congratulatory, but some used it as a forum to voice their disappointment.
One of our favorite displays was the Roosevelt area. Charley joined in and stood in the WWII bread line, which we thought was very appropriate!
Washington DC is a beautiful city, rich with history and culture. While we enjoyed our visit here, we are ready to go and rejoin the "real" world. While Washington is the seat of our government and a fabulous city, it doesn't appear to be a true reflection of our country.

We continued on to the National Cathedral, which is the 6th largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. This episcopal cathedral was built in 1907, but it took a total of 83 years to finally complete it. The last finial was added in 1990 in a presentation with Pres. George H. Bush. The church has been used for many decades during the various levels of construction and Congress has designated it a "National House of Prayer" . The Cathedral serves to unite people of all faiths during times of national emergencies, honoring its goal to pray for peace and for the people of America.

We also enjoyed driving through Georgetown, a beautiful neighborhood along the Potomac River in the NW section of Washington. Georgetown (founded in 1757) is noted for its beautiful Federal-style row houses, shops and restaurants as well as Georgetown University. While exploring the area, we stumbled onto the Mistletoe Market held at Georgetown Visitation, a girls prep school attached to Georgetown University. The parents were grilling out on the lawn, so we stopped and joined in with lunch and shopping. Since I am missing the annual Nutcracker Market in the Woodlands this weekend, it was a nice alternative and I enjoyed every minute!!
We drove into West Virginia and found the fabulous, ultra luxurious resort - The Greenbrier. This 5 star, award winning hotel is located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. As a National Historic landmark with classic architecture and exquisite interior design, it has hosted distinguished guests from around the world, including Presidents, movie stars and royalty since 1778.

While the resort is spectacular, we found it very interesting to learn that The Greenbrier was the secret location where presidents would be whisked away in case of an attack or national emergency. The secret bunker is underground with steel vault doors and an advanced communication room used to monitor every nook and cranny of the facility. There are even dormitories and meeting rooms large enough to hold the entire House of Representatives if needed. They've recently opened the bunker for public tours, so we can only assume that they have found a new hideaway for the President!!

We have been fortunate to have found wonderful restaurants during our vacation and this Lewisburg, West Virginia eatery rated right up at the top. The 1785 Tavern had incredible food and we enjoyed every bite. The warm apple cobbler pictured was a great way to end our day.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Protection in force...

11/6/08 - Happy 8th Birthday Amanda!!

Today, we visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was interesting to see the history of flight from the Wright Brothers to the present day. The displays were impressive including the original plane that Orville and Wilbur created to make their first flight and Amelia Earhart 's "lipstick red" plane that she flew over the Atlantic. It makes us thankful that these early adventurers were determined and fearless in their quest for exploration.
The highlight of our day was going to the Pentagon, with clearance provided by our congressman. Our guides were Naval officers and excellent at teaching us about the many facets of the impressive facility. The Pentagon is the world's largest office building with over 23,000 employees - both military and civilian. It has 17.5 miles of corridors on the 5 floor-5 sided large building. The Pentagon is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, where all 5 branches of the military are managed and coordinated. It left us with a strong sense of protection and pride in our military.
We also saw the Pentagon's new 9/11 memorial, which just opened September 2008. It was touching and cleverly designed with 184 benches angled at 43 degrees, the same angle in which the plane struck the building. At each bench, there is a small reflecting pool with lights making it both symbolic and solumn. In addition, a memorial and chapel were built inside the building, located at the exact point of impact.
The Arlington Cemetery was only one stop away by Metro, so we were able to see Kennedy's grave and the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. There are over 300,000 military and dignatary graves, and it provided us with awe and humility for our fallen heros.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by Union Station, which was built in 1907. This historic train station is beautiful and has over 100 shops and restaurants,, and even a movie thetre. With Amtrack and the metro exchange, along with the retail outlets, it is a busteling concentration of activity 24 hours a day.

We finished the day by meeting a friend, Greg Moore, for dinner. It was good to see him and we were able to sit in Washington and enjoy conversation with another republican........We are finding very few of us here!
**Just as a side note - In Washington, DC, polls show that over 93% of the voters supported Obama during the election!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Capitol Impressions

We began our day in Washington, DC with a tour of the White House, arranged by our congressman, Kevin Brady. The tour was brief, yet we were able to view the red, blue and green "sitting" rooms, the ballroom and the reception areas.

We also saw the state dining room, which can seat up to 140 people as needed or covert to a smaller dining area. All of the rooms are beautifully and regally decorated in period furniture.

Between arranged tours, we were thankful to gain entrance to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing after only a 30 minute wait. We saw the printing processes that go into the many layers of ink on our bills to prevent counterfeiting. I was most intrigued with the case pictured of 1 million dollars - in ten dollar bills. I've always wondered what a million dollars actually looks like, and it makes a pretty large stack of green!!
In the afternoon, we had arranged a visit to the Capitol. We met with an intern from Kevin Brady's office, who guided us on a personal tour of the capitol buildings, going right through the tunnel system in the same path as the legislators walk. We enjoyed seeing the great rotunda as well as the galleries filled with impressive statues and magnificent art.
This was supposed to be the exact middle of the capitol building, but they later found that it was mis-measured! However, it is considered lucky to rub your foot in the middle and it is worn down quite a few inches from so many doing so. We couldn't resist, so we hope for good luck and blessings for ourselves and for our great country!

This was taken in the Old Senate Chambers. The main reason it is used today is to take pictures when someone is sworn in or signing documents.

We left the Capitol and visited the impressive Library of Congress. This has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington D.C. We especially enjoyed Thomas Jefferson's library with its amazing array of books, mainly from his own personal collection.

This picture was taken in front of the Congress Building. The media was busy filming statements in front of it and we agree that it makes an impressive backdrop!

After a good day, we decided to drive to Annapolis for dinner. We had wonderful seafood at the Chart House at the harbor and we did a quick drive by the U.S. Naval Academy. Overall, our initial impressions of Washington DC were a bit dampened by the elections, but we feel priviledged to live in such a great country with liberty and justice for all.......

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Amish Experience

We spent the night at a Historic Inn/Bed and Breakfast in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania so that we could have the entire "simple" experience. However, no television to check the campaign coverage (and no Monday night football) was a little rough! :) We did have an incredible breakfast of apple pancakes and potato latkes prepared by the owners as we enjoyed our meal on the porch!
We started the day by taking a tour of a typical Amish home, then enjoyed a buggy ride with Aaron. He is old-order Amish and helped us learn more about Amish life as the horse pulled us through the farm lands. They have very little connection with the outside world and only attend community owned one- room-schools until the 8th grade. They also do not use electricity, cars or phones and live a very simple and plain existence. Aaron must be more progressive, since he told us that he reads the local paper and went to vote early this morning! Normally, Amish don't allow pictures, but Aaron surprised us and offered to take a picture - so we did! We headed out in the car afterwards traveling to an Amish bakery, then had an Amish lunch at a farmhouse, which was very good.
After leaving the Pennsylvania Dutch area, we traveled on to Wilmington, Delaware. It was raining, so we only viewed the downtown area, including the capital building, pictured above.
We decided to have an early dinner in Baltimore, Maryland which was so much fun!! We had a friend tell us about the "Inner Harbor" (Thanks, Tom) and we were very impressed with the downtown renovation around the waterfront. We walked the entire harbor area with panoramic views and activity everywhere. We had dinner at the Rusty Scupper overlooking the marina glittering with lights. There was live piano music and the food (crab cakes, of course) was absolutely incredible!!

As we arrived into Washington D.C and walked into the Hyatt-Capitol Hill, we realized that in just a few hours, we had seen both extremes of life - The Amish vs. Capitol Hill! To top off the experience, the Hyatt was hosting the Election Watch party for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee right in the lobby! Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were in the ballroom and media was swarming around the hotel - What chaos!! We joined in for a while - acting as "silent" republicans in a hostile environment - but finally had to go upstairs to watch the final returns without the cheering and yelling!! However, we did go back downstairs, just to share in the final excitement, even though we were disappointed with the returns. As we end the evening, we offer Congratulations to President-Elect Obama!! This was not the outcome we wanted, nor the results we hoped for, but we must accept it the decision and go forward together. We will certainly be praying for wisdom as you lead our country, for clarity of decisions as you select your cabinet and strength of character to make the best decisions for the American people. We hope that God will be in midst of those decisions and may God Bess America!!