Author Archives: cdub

Sabbatical 2024

We went on sabbatical again! 

Our sabbatical was just under four and a half weeks and we covered a lot of different places! Trip breaks up into five sections:

  1. The Carolinas from Charlston to Charlotte
  2. Southern Appalachia from Ashville to West Virginia
  3. Upland South from Louisville to Nashville
  4. Texas from Houston to San Antonio to El Paso
  5. San Diego

The reasons for the hap-hazard-ish route were pretty simple: I’ve visited the Carolinas, Upland South, and parts of Texas numerous times over the last 10 years for work and wanted everyone else to experience the semi-interesting things I have seen for a decade, and, some of the places are in the middle of nowhere. As examples:
– Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a National Park but it is largely a swamp. It’s a very nice swamp, nicest I’ve visited, but it’s still a swamp.
– Big Bend National Park in West Texas is near nothing. It’s a nearly seven hour drive from the nearest big airport. No way I’d spend that much time traveling to and from a destination on a week long vacation. 
– West Virginia is West Virginia. 

Our timing seemed very good, we traveled the Carolinas and a good chunk of Southern Appalachia during the peak of shoulder season so no one was around; there were a few activities and places we visited where we were the only people. Everything combined over a good chunk of time at a lackadaisical pace makes for a pretty remarkable trip and wonderful experience. We don’t know anyone who travels these areas for vacation unless it’s to go to the beach in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. So this meant the trip was geared toward the things I had experienced plus whatever else we could find along the way. It turned out great! 

It rained on us nearly every day wherever we were and we drove through a storm which killed multiple people. We became pretty good at working around the rain. About a week and a half into the trip we figured out we weren’t going to be able to travel like what we had originally planned so we restructured the trip in the middle of the trip. I spent a couple of hours in rural West Virgina redoing all of our reservations like adding Nashville and taking time away from Texas since Texas was stupid hot and suffering from severe storms.

The major highlights:
– North Carolina is a stunningly beautiful state and the western part reminded me a lot of the Smoky Mountains.
– South Carolina was wonderful to visit. Congaree National Park, a swamp, was surprisingly popular with everyone.
– West Virginia was beautiful, surprisingly so. The dilapidation and destitution next to beautiful homes surrounded by gorgeous scenery was discombobulating.
– Nashville was a lot of fun for all of us. I didn’t realize music would start so early in the morning and so many families would be out and about watching the various bands and musicians.
– Big Bend National Park is one of the few places I’ve been where I felt isolated from humanity. BBNP is not below a flight path and there were no signs of humanity other than the road or trail I was on. It was weird.
– We visited 10 caves. Jac’s favorite geographical feature is a cave. Caves in Texas are hot (70F+) and humid (95%). Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico was absolutely stunning followed by Natural Bridge Caverns. Mammoth Cave NP was surprisingly uninteresting.
– This trip allowed me to visit all 50 states in the union, my last state to visit was West Virginia!
– We went to so many children’s museums we became sick of going to children’s museums.
– We ate so much BBQ we became sick of eating BBQ. Best ribs were found at Skinny’s in El Paso, Texas. Very close second was at Mission BBQ in Louisville, Kentucky. Best pulled pork was found at Bu-cee’s Truck Stops in Texas (not joking). Best BBQ dessert was the banana pudding at Luella’s in Ashville, NC. Best brisket was at Noble Smoke in Charlotte, NC.
– Tex-Mex food is amazing. Best Tex-Mex was a tossup between the food we found in the tiny little town of Ozona Texas in someone’s house and Moreliana’s in Houston, Texas; a place that serves home made Tex-Mex of every type plus home made ice cream and other home made horchata.

I’ll write about five segments later. The album below shows the highlights from the overall trip. Enjoy!

Chris W. 

Sabbatical – Appalachia 2024

We were surrounded by beauty during our time in Appalachia. Central-ish southern-ish Appalachia was remarkably beautiful and there were a surprising amount of fun things to do. We were super lucky to hike in areas where wild rhododendrons, azaleas, and other beautiful flowers were in bloom; what a neat experience! We also seemed to have found where Christmas trees come from? Despite being rained on pretty much every day we found ways to be outdoors and found enough indoor activities to do.

I always forget how neon green the scenery is in the Carolinas and Virginias. Minnesota is green but the Carolinas and Virginias are green. There is also a sweet smell to the air with the various trees and bushes in bloom. We stayed a few days near Sugar Top Mountain, NC, and it was fun to watch all the clouds go above and below us – it was easy to lose track of time watching the clouds. The place we picked is a huge building made in brutalist architecture built on top of a mountain which screamed: “I don’t care about nature or neighbors and WTF is a ‘zoning?'” but gave us a wonderful view and some fabulous sunsets and sunrises.

We drove a lot of country roads in the rural areas of the Carolina’s and Virginia’s. From what we could see, the locals are split between a lot of have nots, a handful of have somes, and, a tiny amount of have very much lots. There were many have nots and Miriam would call out “there’s another burned down house” while we traveled through the beautiful scenery and small communities of Appalachia. The dilapidation and destitution was remarkable and shocking. I had looked at real estate in West Virginia prior to our visit and I wondered how a four bedroom home on two acres could sell for $150k but it became immediately obvious once I visited. I’ve been to a lot of places and a lot of West Virginia reminded me of the reservations in South Dakota and other profoundly underdeveloped places we’ve visited around the world.

The small communities reminded me of where I grew up and what I’ve seen on the iron range in Minnesota – these places used to be something but whats left are the abandoned and shuttered buildings, Dollar Tree / Family Dollar / Dollar General, a small amount of folks supporting tourism, a small number of those who don’t need to leave for one reason or another, and, people who are vacationing. I was surprised with the similarities between the run down towns of South Dakota / Minnesota’s Iron Range and rural Appalachia, it felt like someone copy-pasted the communities.

New River Gorge National Park was interesting. I’m glad we didn’t make a special trip to see it, it’s terribly small and is kind of surprising it’s a national park considering there isn’t much to do or see. Around this area is were we started encountering park rangers who took the JR Ranger program very seriously and we spent a considerable amount of time completing the Jr Ranger home work to earn a badge. JR Ranger: very serious business, I guess.

The Blue Ridge Parkway ending up being a ton of fun. I’m not sure if it’s because we were visiting during peak shoulder season but it was very easy to get around and the views were fantastic. I grew up all around windy mountain roads and it usually takes about 10 seconds to get stuck behind someone going 15-20mph below the speedlimit; this didn’t really happen all that much on the Blue Ridge. Maybe it’s because commerical vehicles are prohibited too? The small taste we had makes me want to drive the entire Blue Ridge Parkway now!

Overall, I’m happy we took the effort to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and spend time exploring rural Appalachia. We didn’t know what to expect since we don’t know anyone who travels to this portion of America for vacation – we want to go back!

Enjoy the photos!
Chris W.

Sabbatical – Carolinas 2024

The Carolinas were a treat!

We flew into Charleston and our path was through the center-ish of South Carolina before we ultimately ran into Charlotte, North Carolina. After Charlotte we headed to Appalachia. So, ultimately, we didn’t actually see that much of the Carolinas. The parts we did see were quite wonderful and we’re all excited to go back and see more.

Our time started in Charleston, South Carolina. I think the only way I can describe the actual downtown tourist area of Charleston is “weird”. It’s like higher end art shops, clothing shops, and, other similar type shops. People just kind of walk around. It’s these narrow-ish colonial streets with colonial buildings but higher end shops. It was just strange probably because we don’t really shop. The permanent city market was pretty interesting but was geared toward tourists.

The beaches outside of Charleston, Sulliavan Beach and Folly Beach, were fantastic and we had a fabulous time. Of all the beaches we went to on the sabbatical, these two beach areas were the best. They were clean, warm, and, the prettiest.

From Charleston we headed toward Charlotte, NC stopping at Congaree National Park along the way. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to walk the entire path in Conagree because of flooding but we were able to get a substantially different view than the last time I was there since the flooding on and around the boardwalk made for some very beautiful scenery. Once again, this area was neon green just like the rest of the Carolinas and Appalachia.

Charlotte was so much fun. It’s a biggish city with lots of amenities but it’s super easy to get around. There were an immense amount of things to do for the family. I loved bringing my family to the places I’ve been: Noble Smoke, Latta Nature Preserve, Tony’s Pizza and others while experiencing new places like the UNC Botanical Garden, Mint Museum, and, Daniel Stowe Museum.

We visited Chimney Rock which is a bit outside Charlotte. When thinking about categories, I’m not sure if it’s a ‘Carolinas’ or ‘Appalachia’ category since it’s the foothills. Either way, it was a lot of fun to visit and had a lot of things to do – like hike, activities, and, animal viewing. I deeply appreciated the elevator that brought us from the parking lot up to the top of the mountain. America :).

Enjoy the photos!
Chris W.

Sabbatical – San Diego 2024

Our sabbatical ended in San Diego and it was a wonderful way to end the trip. San Diego is paradise and the company we had while in San Diego was absolutely spectacular.

We arrived at just the right time – the Jackarandas were in bloom and the beautiful purple flowers were everywhere. It was wonderful to see and we were so lucky.

We went hiking and found a neat place, Potato Chip Rock, with a super cool rock formation. It ended up being a 10/10 rock :).

As always, Ocean Beach was a lot of fun, great donuts at OB Donuts, great burgers at Hodads, and amazing fish tacos at Johnny Mananas. Unfortunately, the pier is now closed due to disrepair and dilapidation. Maybe someday it’ll be repaired.

Enjoy the photos 🙂
Chris W.

Sabbatical – Texas 2024

We flew into Houston and flew out of El Paso so we drove across all of Texas and saw a bit of New Mexico to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and, White Sands National Park. We learned an important lesson: Texas is not very close to Texas, and, a lot of Texans driving lifted trucks seemed to want to drive over us. During our travels through Texas we had four-ish surprises:

– Caves in Texas can be warm and very humid which makes being in the caves quite hot and sweaty.
– During a long day of driving toward Big Bend National Park we needed to eat and picked a highly rated restaurant in the tiny town of Ozona only to find out the “restaurant” was in a house in a neighborhood. Food was 10/10, it was 100% worth the stop.
– Buc-ee’s is amazing. The merchandise, the foods, the size, and, everything else made it absolutely awesome. We visited as many Buc-ee’s as possible. The best pulled pork we had on the trip was from Buc-ee’s hands down.
– The biggest surprise by far was when we visited Big Bend National Park and I quickly realized there were no other signs of humanity other than the trail / road we used to get to where we were – no buildings, no signs, no power poles, no fences, and the big one that is everywhere, no planes or contrails overhead. I don’t know if we have ever experienced anything similar.

It was awesome to see NASA and visit the Gulf of Mexico near Houston. Seeing the Saturn V in person was AMAZING, so cool to see the loudest thing humans have ever created. The Houston area is also the first time everyone was able to visit a Buc-ee’s – an absolutely amazing place to visit with wonderful products. I think we settled on describing Buc-ee’s as the Costco of gas stations, absolutely a 10/10 experience. In the Houston area is where we came across a Tex-Mex place that also made all their own ice cream and horchata which was another wonderful surprise. Even though we have a large latin diaspora in Minnesota it is impossible to get Tex-Mex or anything similar to what we had in Texas.

After Houston we visited San Antonio. I was surprised the shortness of the riverwalk. A person can walk the entire riverwalk in like 30-40 minutes! The riverwalk was pretty. I appreciated the buildings, the water, and lighting. I walked the riverwalk in the evenings and in the early morning. Walking in the early morning was really neat because the lights were still on yet no one was around. The caves outside of San Antonio were beautiful, probably the most beautiful we had visited other than Carlsbad Caverns.

I’ve wanted to visit Big Bend National Park for some time but it’s in the middle of nowhere and takes forever to get to. Only because of something like the sabbatical did it make sense to take the time to visit the park. The park was pretty OK. It was hotter than blazes and the mountains were fairly pretty. Missing signs of humanity was pretty wild. Even in desolate places in the lower 48 and Alaska there were always planes or contrails overhead – pretty much everywhere in the lower 48 and Alaska is a flight path. I think the little part of Texas that is surrounded by Mexico on three sides makes it a bit more to be a flight path since nearby airspace is in a different country. All that said, if I were ever to go back it would probably be in the middle of winter when it was a bit less than 110F out.

After Big Bend National Park we headed toward Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We drove through West Texas oil country and it was surprising. Pop up cities, restaurants / groceries in the middle of nowhere, and oil fields as far as we could see in every direction.

Carlsbad National Caverns is probably one of the more incredible places I’ve ever been in my entire life. Just like Mammoth, we were able to have a self guided tour so we could take our time going through the incredible formations and massive rooms. I don’t think there is anything similar I’ve ever visited in my entire life, it was well worth the visit. Nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park was interesting. Miriam picked up a random rock that had a fossil and shell imprint – she thought it was sooooo cool.

Before leaving Texas, we decided to add in White Sands National Park since we had enough time the morning before we flew out of El Paso. What a super neat area! It was crazy bright, I couldn’t actually see my screen on my phone because it was so bright out. It was hot. Oddly, we could dig an inch or two down into the sand and the sand was cold. After about 30min playing around in the dunes I noticed Miriam was laid out and Jac said she needed to rest. We decided to leave and it was clear both Miriam and Jac were affected by the heat. We later learned the sand reflects 90% of the heat energy, which explained why the underside of my widebrimmed hat felt so hot, and that the dunes are so dry it is easy to forget that it was like 115F on the dunes.

Overall, we’re glad we went to Texas. The sites were good, the Tex-Mex was amazing, the best BBQ ribs on the trip were found in El Paso, and, Buc-ee’s never disappoints. But, we’re happy we left and we’re happy we significantly shortened our time in Texas. I’m not sure we’d go back since there are other places we can visit that require less driving.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Sabbatical Upland South – 2024

One of the major reasons why I wanted to bring my family to this region of the USA was so they could experience the warmth and kindness of the people in the area. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced and is entirely different than the fake-ish “Minnesota Nice”. It is impossible to describe and has to be experienced. I didn’t realize most of interactions with locals would happen in the Louisville KY / southern Indiana / Nashville area when we set out but it’s where the family was able to see and experience the locals. The rest of the areas we visited, like Nashville, the Mammoth Caves National Park area, and, Louisville were a lot of fun and we want to go back.

First, I’ll write about the non-people part of this area.

Louisville is a fun place and well located! Louisville Slugger Museum was fantastic. The sights and smells were identical to all the different furniture factories I’ve visited in the area. It was neat to see all the bats used by all the famous baseball players and I’m sure it would have meant even more if I followed sports or understood baseball. Some of the best BBQ we had was in the Louisville area. Mission BBQ stands out as having some of the best BBQ, and, it’s a chain! We had no idea a chain could make good food! The caves / caverns around Louisville were super neat too, one of the caverns had a boat ride and that was a lot of fun!

We were told there was bad weather coming the morning we left Louisville, even the hotel we were staying in had linemen from the power companies staying in the hotel in anticipation of the need to restore storm damaged power lines. We didn’t think much of it and made our way to Mammoth Caves / Nashville. During the drive we encountered severe, like bad, weather. Trees started being disassembled and blown on the interstate. Fortunately, we were fine and made it to our destination. Nearby folks weren’t so lucky as four people died due to the storm and storm damage. The trend of “bad things happen to the people around us in the areas we visit” has continued :(.

Mammoth Cave National Park was OK. It is giant but it’s dead. There aren’t a whole lot for formations. On the bright side, the tour was self guided so we just wandered around and had a lot of fun! Next to Mammoth Cave was Diamond Cave and that was spectacular and the formations were incredible. We learned about the cavern wars and had a wonderful time in the cavern; 10/10.

Nashville was awesome. We didn’t realize music started so soon in the morning or that Miriam liked listening to live music. It was fun to walk the streets of downtown Nashville and listen to the various bands play, Miriam danced a bit, and she was super excited to see women guitarists and drummers. One of the bars was serving Mellow Mushroom pizza by the slice so I had a chance to share the Mellow Mushroom love with those who hadn’t experienced it! Nashville was also a quirky place. One of the more memorable meals on the entire trip was hot chicken slathered in some chinese five spice sauce served on a boa bun, and, I’m pretty sure Nashville is the only place on the planet where the instructor for a science demonstration at the childrens museum will given an unsolicited guitar outro as all the children leave.

As for the people – they are very kind. Folks who stop to chat seem to be curious and genuine. We went to the Star Valley Strawberry Festival and had an awesome time. I struck up a conversation with some of the organizers and learned a lot about the area. There are lots of children and families in the area so the community invests in family amenities like the largest outdoor children’s playground I’ve ever seen, and, a lot of folks make pretty decent wages in the Louisville area while living out in the sticks. One of the organizers ended up buying me a shirt and we had we all had a great time chatting.

The genuineness is very different than the “Minnesota Nice” which is rather superficial, and, often quite empty. Many folks were curious why Minnesotans would be wandering around their neck of the woods and most folks were happy to share their thoughts and history in the area.

Probably the oddest thing about the area is the shear number of businesses and signs declaring their faith or beliefs. It was wild to see the portapotty company with “In God We Trust” next to their logo. It was also around Nashville where we burned out on BBQ. We had fabulous BBQ throughout the trip but it was time to eat other foods. It turns out, it is possible to eat too much BBQ.

Overall, we loved the Upland South. We’d love to go back!

Enjoy the photos

Spring 2024

Once again, lots of different zip codes were visited this spring.

it was shocking to visit Talladaga only to find the area around talladega is extremely rural, and, the city itself is 16,000 people. Proportionately, Talladaga punches wayyyyyyy above its weight culturally considering its status in the country music scene. It was odd driving around Talladega National Forest and being inundated with forest fire smoke, very black hills-esque, and, another reason why east central / east-north-central Alabama reminds me so much of the black hills.

I think I finally found my peach pie filling recipe I’ve been searching for the last eight years with some hints from a random woman selling home made hand pies in the rural Talladaga National Forest.
Otherwise, it was fun travel out and about in the Midwest especially considering how warm and beautiful the spring has been.

I’ve spent a lot of time in South Dakota including Sioux Falls. It’s been neat to explore a new part of the state even though it’s quite ugly.

Enjoy the photos, enjoy the spring!!

Las Vegas / San Diego 2024

I would not have believed it could rain in Las Vegas for five days straight but that’s what happened this trip.

Grand plans to visit Vegas for three days, Palm Springs for three days, and, San Diego were disrupted by an atmospheric river. Palm Springs ended up getting crossed off the list entirely because we were stuck indoors due to the rain and Palm Springs doesn’t have much for indoor activities so we stayed in Las Vegas because there is so much to do.

I have to say, the nine days of rain were a blessing more than a curse. We found all sorts of indoor activities to do we wouldn’t have otherwise done. The pinball museum, all the Chinese new year decorations, night photography ij Vegas, restaurants, Hoover Dam tour, indoor swimming in San Diego, were an absolute blast.

We had the favorites too – Bronx Pizza, Valley of Fire, hiking (on the one nice day), the strip, and, of course, the wonderful 24hr restaurant, Blueberry Hill.

Enjoy the photos!

Florida – Winter 2023

The work travel gods smiled down on me and I ended up in Florida. 

Seeing the ocean, the sun, and, people smiling was crazy. It was great to get out of the gray scenery in Minnesota. 

I’m not a seafood consumer but since I was in Florida I decided to do as the Floridians do and consumed more miscellaneous sea creatures in two days than I have probably in the last two decades! 

China 2023 – Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing

Vast changes in Chinese society occurred between December 2014 and December 2023. So much so I felt I was visiting an entirely different country because nearly none of my memories or recollections from 2014 matched my experiences in 2023. I had a very positive experience in China and would love to go back; this is basically the opposite of my feelings in 2014.

I spent time in Shanghai, Suzhou, and, Beijing for work, about a week total across all three. What I found was remarkable: what was once a very dirty, gross, crowded, loud, rude, and, overly difficult place to travel in 2014 became a clean, polite, appropriately-loud, and, mostly easy place to travel. Of all the big changes it was good to know KFC was just as delicious as before and I cherished the opportunity to eat KFC three times – which is about three more times than what I’ve had KFC in the USA for the last nine years.

The most remarkable differences between 2014 and 2023:

  • I didn’t see physical currency the entire time I was in China. Alipay and WeChat was used to pay for everything.
  • I saw blue sky in Shanghai for the first time! It was beautiful! The pollution smell was mostly the same but the amount of air pollution was profoundly less.
  • On-the-fly translation devices like Google and whatever is used in China makes communication a breeze.
  • There are fewer young people and ever fewer kids.
  • I saw more “American / white people-esque” activities like lot’s of Chinese people running for exercise outdoors.
  • China was just a gross place in 2014. Lots of bodily sounds like coughing, spitting, and, throat clearing and lots of very loud voices. That all seems to have gone away, at least in the urban areas.
  • Far fewer taxis, way more electric vehicles, zero honking. It looks like ride hailing like Uber is now the defacto way of getting around instead of taxis and there are a massive amount of electric vehicles on the road.
  • I did not encounter any other foreigner engineers the entire trip, and, there were few foreigners in general.
  • My cellphone worked the same in China as the USA, except Apple News, but facebook, snapchat, and, all the other sites worked just fine.

So I don’t know what happened in China to make China what it is in 2023. The shear scale of change is absolutely staggering to a point where it was a bit discombobulating. It greatly enjoyed my experiences this visit, certainly compared to the prior visits.

The entire journey actually started in November when I needed to get a passport and a Chinese visa. I didn’t have either and needed to expedite both – what an incredible learning experience. All I know is I am lucky to have a passport office in Minneapolis and that was the lynch pin of getting everything sorted so quickly.

The trip over went well. My plane left Minnesota at sunrise and I landed in Shanghai right around sunset. Overall, I had about 22hrs of sunlight since I was flying the same direction as the rotation of the earth. Pretty neat for winter in the northern hemisphere!

Traveling around China for work the first couple of days was shocking. No honking. None. Plus, everyone was going exactly the speed limit, no one too slow and no one too fast. I asked about this and I learned honking was banned and there are so many cameras around that speeders get caught immediately. What a huge difference from Minnesota where speed cameras are constitutionally banned!

At some point China stopped using physical currency – like no bills and no coins, everything through Alipay. I read as much before I left so I didn’t exchange any dollars into RMB. This is the very first time I’ve traveled to a country and NEVER used local currency. It was WILD! Using Alipay was surprisingly easy and easier than Applepay. Scanning QR codes to buy things turned out to be absolutely fabulous and is now my preferred way to spend money!

The air pollution was wayyyyy better in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing. I actually saw blue sky multiple times in Shanghai! It was surprisingly beautiful and only added to Shanghai’s stunning urban scenery. The air still had a pollution smell but the air taste was gone entirely. I can distinctly remember tasting the air on the 200+ AQI days but I never experienced anything like that this time!

It was super easy to communicate in China – I could use google translate and they used whatever program they used. It was amazing to speak to my phone and it translated on the fly. Last time, it was a bit tougher to communicate which made traveling harder. No so much this time!

I saw more Chinese doing activities common in the USA – like going for a run to exercise. I also encountered a person who gets gout – a diet related aliment typically relegated to the western world. Last time in China I definitely felt “othered” but there were far more similarities than differences this time.

Another of the biggest shocks was the fact I didn’t encounter many foreigners and encountered zero foreign engineers. Even Nanjing Street and the Bund were overwhelmingly locals / Chinese. Even the stores in Nanjing Street turned over to appeal to the change in demographic – what once was a shopping district littered with shops selling memorabilia like chopsticks, tea sets, scarves, and, other wares have been replaced by high end clothing shops, jewelry shops, and, such. Afterall, what Chinese person needs chopsticks, tea sets, scarves, and other memorabilia since all that stuff is made in China and available across the country anyway?

Overall, 10/10. Great trip.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.