To make amends for the all-night packing marathon, I conked out promptly on the flight to LA while Liz took a little longer to fall asleep. Our flight connected through PHX and was pushed back an hour or so: a welcome delay that allowed us to feast on breakfast sandwiches and get in touch with our fantastic friend Ben who we’d be staying with (along with a couple other awesome friends, Ashley and Alex). 

After arriving to LAX we took a convenient express bus downtown for $7 and Ben and Ashley met us at LA’s Union Station (the startlingly elegant waiting hall is pictured above, along with its almost entirely occupied plush leather chairs). A quick Red Line metro took us to the Hollywood and Highland stop, then a swift walk west along Hollywood Boulevard (yes, that Hollywood Boulevard) and a brief jaunt south led us to Chez Ben, also dubbed our personal Air Ben-nb. 

Friday evening saw us head out for tasty Thai to Toi (our final American Thai meal?!), followed by drinks at Chateau Marmont’s lounge bar, then wrapped up the festivities with splendid beers at the Surly Goat.

Much of Saturday morning was spent recuperating from the previous evening’s revelry: apparently moderate drinking, sleep deprivation and jet lag don’t mix well. Eventually we all collected enough energy to drag ourselves to Ben’s car and he drove us west along Sunset to Will Rogers Beach… where we promptly collapsed again, happy to have fended off motion sickness in the car. A few hours and lots of Vitamin D later, group consensus settled on plans for the night: tacos and a movie! Ben had the taco stand picked out — Cactus Tacos #6 — and after some discussion we agreed to see the newly opened Gravity. 

All of the late showings at our first choice of theaters, the Arclight Hollywood, were almost completely booked, so we opted for Ben’s historic alternative suggestion: the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz. On our way back from the beach we picked up tickets for the 9:40pm showing, then made a beeline for Cactus Tacos. Lured in by the $1.50 price and my famished stomach, I made an ill-fated decision to order practically two of everything: chorizo, pastor, and carnitas, though in a moment of sanity of I opted for just a single fish taco. I’ve never felt so sated yet concerned about OD’ing on tacos. Luckily Liz and I split a medium horchata, a sweet milky icy beverage, and it helped comfort my stomach in its gluttonous agony. Fortunately we had a couple hours before the movie, so my food happily digested and my friends and fellow movie-goers were spared any further intestinal carnage. As for the movie… it was awesome. Certain scenes were overwrought (ahem Ms. Bullock) and it was occasionally tough to sympathize with some of her perplexing goofs, but on the whole it was a riveting ride with amazing special effects. The Vista Theater itself was great as well: decked out with Egyptian art deco splendor, yet it featured a gorgeous 4K screen seats and mega wide aisles roomy enough to stretch your legs and still allow people to pass by unimpeded.

Sunday’s activity was urban, athletic, scenic, and delicious all at once: the semi-annual CicLAvia, a massive collective bike ride through downtown LA and into nearby neighborhoods, with practically every part of the route lined with food trucks, food stands or local restaurants eager to welcome us in. We rented beach cruisers from the exceptionally friendly Downtown LA bike shop and hopped on Spring Street around 10:30am. After burning of a few calories on our way to the Boylan Heights event hub, I couldn’t resist diving into a staple of the LA street food scene: a $3  bacon-wrapped hot dog piled high with caramelized onions, peppers, ketchup and mustard. Its luster faded about halfway through but I powered on in the interest of science. Then, having already forgotten my wanton consumption of them the night before, I opted for a single $1.50 pollo taco (“with everything” = cilantro, onions, radishes, cucumbers) from a food vendor in a netted tent and its deliciousness brought back delightful memories of El Chilango, our favorite food truck in Arlington. 

(Apologies for the lack of more tourist-y Hollywood/LA photos: Ben has graciously hosted us a few times and we’ve crossed most of those off on previous visits. But my bad for not snagging more pics of the tasty ‘dog and tacos! Duly noted for the more exotic cuisine soon to feature in these pages.)

Before I could embark on a total taco bender, Liz pulled me aside and shared some of her mixed fruit salad she’d just picked up: freshly diced mango and pineapple with a perfect sprinkling of salt and chili powder. It was pleasantly refreshing enough to distract me from my taco quest and our group was able to resume our cyclical explorations. The weather was gorgeous but just so toasty that we realized we needed to quench our thirst quickly: Ben had the perfect suggestion of Wurstkuche, a gourmet sausage and beer garden in the Arts District. Alex and I started with modest half-liter pints but upgraded to one size up once we spotted gigantic liter mugs. For patiently waiting on us and our successively sillier antics: thanks, friends!

The rest of Sunday was spent reclining on Ben’s couch hoping we hadn’t gotten sunburned, helping Ashley pack for her redeye flight back to DC and alternatingly cheering/yelling at the TV in hopes that fantasy football players would respond appropriately. (It worked.)

Monday and Tuesday were fairly uneventful, and as jumbled as this list: delicious Mexican at the history-packed El Cholo, more packing and repacking, Fatburger decadence, errand running, noodles and rice at tasty Chibiscus, $5 yoga in Runyon Park, a painfully long but ultimately successful quest for cheap 2x2 passport photos (Kinkos: thank you; CVS on Hollywood: screw you).

Late Tuesday evening Ben earned yet another sterling rating for Air Ben-nb by kindly shuttling us to LAX. A few hugs later, Ben left and we rearranged our backpacks a bit more inside terminal B — connecting buckles, tucking straps into assorted pockets, unfurling and attaching each bag’s rainfly to protect little odds and ends from getting devoured by ruthless baggage handling equipment. We presented our shiny new passports to the EVA Air check-in desk and jumped through a couple easy hoops: providing the original credit card used to book the flights, along with proof of onward travel out of Hong Kong to Bangkok, next Monday, October 14. (Quick aside: this onward travel business may be a little tricky to manage at times but we think we’ve got it mostly figured out.) As we finished the check-in process, passed through security, wandered through the posh new Bradley International Terminal (imagine a joint Vegas-Beijing airport), waited at our gate and boarded the EVA plane, one thing became more and more clear: we’re definitely minorities now.

We’re actually on the EVA flight at the moment: a near eternal 14 hour flight (hence this voluminous post) that started off with some rather disconcerting turbulence over the Pacfic but has since settled into a comfy voyage with the best in-flight entertainment system I’ve experienced, entirely attentive flight attendants with near constant water and juice, and bathrooms stocked with several kinds of moisturizers and lotions. Perhaps the best part? On a whim I selected the seafood meal option when we purchased our flights: I received my meal ahead of time, and was offered a remarkably fresh and crip Taiwan beer.

Now, time to wrap up and settle on our brief 7-hour Taipei itinerary: Taipei 101, the Democracy Memorial, and at least a couple noodle shops. We land at 6am and our flight to Hong Kong leaves at 6pm. 

This post brought to you from the other side of the International Date Line.

We flew from Anchorage to Indianapolis via Denver late September 16 and arrived back in the Midwest on the afternoon of September 17. It felt simply wonderful to have a fixed location for an extended period of time, particularly since that place happened to be home. We felt pretty spent from our time on the road (and all the roads in between) and spent the first several days lounging around home. (Surprisingly, it took a couple days to adjust back to Eastern time from Alaska’s 4 hour time difference.)

Bursts of productivity punctuated the lazing about and Liz took the lead on knocking out wedding thank you notes as well as plenty of other items that had been lingering on our to do list. Highlights of the time home include: crashing Daniel’s downtown hotel during his work training, target shooting with Paul (hint: Liz rocked everyone with the upper left grouping), lots of bike rides and walks with mom and dad, just a bit of GTA V, and glorious Sunday football.

Before we knew it, our departure date to LA and beyond came rocketing towards us. A few frantic days of logistical preparation ensued: copying ID documents, ordering of finances, shopping for a few travel-suitable items of clothing (thanks mom!), purchasing a cheap netbook and not-so-smart phone (unlocked, at least), researching of appropriate backpacks and then final frenetic packing… which of course required us to pull an all-nighter before our 8am flight on Friday, October 4 to LAX. (The record should note that Liz was, as usual, ready far before I was.)

Last hugs, kisses and farewells were shared and then we hopped on the first of many one-way flights west.

Alaska Part 6: As we puttered back to port, playful porpoises (dolphins?) swam alongside the boat — almost as if on cue, though I didn’t see the crew offer any snacks as bribes. After docking, we stretched our legs a bit and then drove to old town Seward to find some grub. Yelp didn’t offer any immediate suggestions, so we went with serendipity and discovered an appealing looking establishment named Woody’s that offered… Thai?! A quick Google search confirmed that the restaurant was a pretty reasonable find and we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal which we took as carryout to our sleeping quarters, the Nauti Otter hostel. (The location was a few miles outside of Seward and essentially consisted of an eclectic collection of cobbled together drafty dwellings with wanton Alaska kitsch.) But it was fun, especially after we jury-rigged the tiny TV to pickup Sunday night football.

On Monday morning we feasted on a hearty breakfast from the Smokehouse restaurant in Seward, a tiny establishment squeezed into an old railroad car. Service was great and the mountain views couldn’t be beat. After fueling up, we took a short drive out of town to Exit Glacier, trekked up to the glacier’s edge and then into its washout basin, all the while nodding grimly at yet more bear warning signs. Exit Glacier has been receding rapidly: along the long drive up to the park, we noticed several signs with 20-25 year intervals that  marked where the glacier used to be. Despite its vanishing stature, Exit Glacier was still a remarkable sight to behold. We didn’t have enough time or inclination to go on a slightly longer hike to the edge of the Harding Ice Field, though I love the name of that uniquely gigantic stretch of glacial ice! Something I loved less: our afternoon hike along Resurrection River trail, aborted just a few minutes after we started because Megan heard some suspicious rustling just off the trail. She couldn’t say for certain what might’ve caused the noise but the likeliest culprit? Bear. At least this time I was wielding a fearsome spiked staff left by a previous thoughtful hiker at the trailhead. Next time, dear bear, next time (or not). 

After speeding back to Palmer, we packed, snacked, and wrote some final postcards home. Megan took us to the ANC airport, where we breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t seen the gigantic stuffed snarling grizzly when we first landed. It was hard to say goodbye to our northern most friend, and hard to face the end of our domestic northwestern honeymoon. Yet it wasn’t difficult to get excited about a couple weeks of restful downtime in Indiana…

Alaska Part 5: While the captain discussed the difficulty of spotting whales so late in the season, I noticed that it was rather easy to spot the fabled New iPad User, mostly identified by their clumsy selfie-taking skills that screamed “PLEASE ROB ME.” Two such specimens are documented above.

Even more entertaining were the cute puffins and other assorted avian creatures flying and whizzing around. The captain mentioned that concentrations of birds like that were actually a good indication of possible whale activity: the birds congregate around the same clumps of fish that also attract whales. Sweet. Suddenly the captain’s whale-y sense kicked in and his voice dropped to a hush: we slowly coasted closer and then everyone exclaimed at once as we witnessed the burst of spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. The crew timed this particular whale at about 7 minutes per breath, so our boat loitered around for a few more breaths, expulsions and dives of its tail, or fluke. The technical term for the whale’s behavior was “logging,” like a giant floating log might do, though we’d hoped for a more visible “breach” or “crest.” Perhaps next time!

Also, note how gigantic the Aialik glacier is — the boat pictured above is the same size as ours and it’s simply dwarfed by the ice.

To come: the last installment of Alaska pics, including a few more shots from Seward, Exit Glacier and our speediest hike yet.

Alaska Part 4: Early Sunday morning we hopped into the car and headed south to Seward, Alaska. From Palmer, it took us just a few hours to reach Seward, a popular docking location for Alaskan cruises and otherwise sleepy fishing town. We checked in with the friendly and efficient Kenai Fjords Tour staff and our boat left promptly at 11:15am. The first couple hours were spent cruising into Resurrection Bay, listening to the knowledgeable captain’s whispered explanations of local geology and fauna, and marveling at the striking views all around us. We were eager to see marine wildlife but cognizant that the mid-September timeframe was relatively late in the season. The first signs of activity? A lonely harbor seal, followed by a dozen or so lazy sea lions sunning themselves on a rock, and then two ridiculously cute sea otters who seemed to be performing for everyone on the boat. The tour paused for an hour or so at Aialik Glacier, where the captain cut the motor and positioned the boat for maximum appreciation of the enormous glacier. Occasional calving shards sent ice crashing into the water - and booms audible to us from a quarter of a mile away!

To come: my Japanese tourist nonstop photography is upstaged by iPads, everyone oohs and ahhs at puffins, and a larger creature is spotted lurking in the depths…

Alaska Part 3: After a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast of pour-over coffee, eggs, moose sausage and toast, we set out northwest for Peterson Road. I can’t find much info about the road on Google, but essentially it’s a dirt spur from the main George Parks Highway that takes a winding path up and down hills, around numerous curves and bends and eventually provides gorgeous views of the epic mountain known locally as Denali — or Mount McKinley to those of us from the CONUS. We traipsed around soggy marshes, picked some more blueberries and posed for gobs of photos (some more awkwardly self-timed than others) before making our way to Talkeetna, the largest town near Denali. Megan used to spend a lot of time in the town and knew it quite well: which tasty spot to go to for lunch (hint: Denali Brewing Company), which cool art galleries to wander through, which wild tourist was going to fashion a hat out of paper napkins (see above!). Talkeetna was a nice oasis of art and tasty beer amidst the endless trees but we had to leave eventually so we could make our way back to Palmer and then Anchorage for an evening of tunes of dancing at Megan’s favorite bar, Taproot. We thought the $10 cover was a bit steep initially but band after band kept taking turns on stage — and they were all excellent! The Jack River Kings are pictured above, though the Young Fangs from Fairbanks were our collective favorite. Megan kindly drove us home; someone who shall not be named may have fallen asleep on the drive…

To come: we venture south to Seward, Alaska, and take a marvelous boat tour to the Kenai Fjords!

Alaska Part 2: Friday saw us explore the lovely Matanuska Lake, where we hiked for a bit, retreated from a terrifying dog (especially because it initially appeared to be a stray, though we later spotted it with owners), tiptoed our way across floating boards to a marshy island, sipped Big Sky beers contentedly, and then erroneously decided to take the long way back to our car… which led us through huge tangled thickets and nearly onto a very large and surly fellow’s property (we may have thought the first NO TRESSPASSING signs didn’t apply to us, but it was difficult to continue feigning ignorance after the third or fourth one). Luckily Vicious Dog #1 was chained up and could only bark furiously at us, just like Vicious Dog #2. The Man himself revealed only a glimpse of his portly stature but his angry stance and arm waving convinced us that we were on the right path: away from his house as quickly as possible. On the long roundabout way along the highway back to the trail parking lot, we spotted the “ANTLERS WANTED” sign pointing to his property. If only I had tried to bribe him with an offer of antlers…

Megan got off work a little early and drove us to Sheep Mountain Lodge in Sutton, one of her favorite spots. The drive from Palmer was lovely as the setting sun gradually illuminated the cloudy sky. We made it to the lodge in time to go for a quick loop hike that took us by patch after patch of wild blueberries. We’d joked about collecting enough to take home and make a pie but our spoils were devoured almost immediately after picking. The lodge’s dinner service stopped at 9pm and we made it back with just a minute to spare. Liz ordered a first for both of us, salmon quesadilla, while I enjoyed a grilled cheese and homemade chili. Megan rocked a bacon cheeseburger that vanished almost as soon as it arrived. (My Alaskan Porter beer was tasty but a tad too cold when combined with a frosted mug: porters are best enjoyed at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.)

To come: road tripping on the Peterson Road (hint: the Alaskan definition of a road is a little more flexible than in the lower 48), dazzling views of Denali, snacking and drinking in Talkeetna, and a music showcase in downtown Anchorage.