I spent much of my 20s trying to figure out how to get back to Australia. I missed the excitement of being far from home from my days as a backpacker, being the foreigner, being the one with the weird accent.
I spent most of those years living in or around New York City, with the exception of a couple of years in Burlington, Vermont. I managed to have my share of fun on US soil, though, partying my way around New England and the Tri-State area for many years, being very social. I did make it back to Australia – the first time I spent 5 weeks there visiting the family I had worked for, going to the Melbourne Cup and traveling on the west coast, which I had missed the first time. The next time I was there for 5 months, with another work visa, lived in the northern beaches of Sydney with the family again, and worked in the city. That experience is a story for another time.
I want to bring you up to speed on how I decided to travel so much in the US and the decision to go to all 50 states when clearly it seemed I was hooked on international adventures.
I was 27, living in Vermont, and a friend and I were taking a trip to Los Angeles to visit a friend there. In anticipation of turning 30, and to pass time while we were flying, we wrote our “30 Before 30” lists with things we wanted to accomplish before (what we thought then was) the “Big Birthday”. She was 29, and with less time, her list was much more practical like, “buy a dresser”. Although “meet my husband” was on her list, too, and she did manage to check that one off, as well. Mine was a little more spirited and less likely to complete with items such as, “visit the Blue Grotto of Capri” (nope!); “go to an AC/DC concert” (check!); “go to a Jimmy Buffet concert” (nope!); “go back to Australia” (check!); “swim with dolphins” (check!); “drive a Zamboni” (heck, yah…check!).
I wanted #30 on my list to be something special but I couldn’t figure out what that was this far out. But don’t get me wrong, driving a Zamboni was pretty special!
Upon returning from working in Australia I landed back in New York City for a second time. As my 30th birthday approached I searched for where I would like to spend it. It was in summer and my friends and I often managed to make it a fun weekend getaway in various places over the years. I wanted this year to be more than a road trip, though. I looked at the frequent flier miles I had racked up with all those trips to Australia in my 20s, asked a couple of friends their availability and…. Boom! We had three free tickets to Alaska (#30, “Do something special for my 30th”…check!).
As I researched this trip and mapped out where we would go the eccentric, historic small town of Talkeetna, population less than 1000, piqued my interest as maybe a good place to see that iconic Alaskan mountain, Denali, as the town is the jumping off point to get there. But then I found the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival was happening while we were there. Now that sounded….different. I always look for the unique, memorable, off the beaten path things to do when I go somewhere, and this looked like it could be it. We toured around the Kenai Peninsula for a couple of days, adjusting to almost constant daylight, learning to use our black out shades everywhere we stayed while recovering from a pretty big arrival night out in Anchorage ringing in my actual birthday. We strategically traveled the day before I turned 30 to extend my 20’s an additional 5 hours with the time change. We headed to Talkeetna hopeful to see an actual moose, but all we saw were droppings, lots of them. The whole concept of the Moose Dropping Festival is that you can bet on these varnished moose droppings (let me just clarify that I am talking about moose poop!) with numbers on them then drop them from a helicopter onto a target. If your number hits the target you win, like, 1000 bucks. Yes, you read that correctly. It is about as exciting as it gets in Talkeetna when that helicopter is overhead getting ready to drop moose poop from the sky. Not only that, people WORE these varnished moose droppings, pinned to their clothing, to hats, to backpacks…as earrings. Moose droppings as accessories was new to us. We also agreed we had never heard the word “turd” spoken out loud so much before in our lives. This was serious business, this Moose Dropping Festival, and so memorable. Sadly the festival no longer exists, but we were some of the lucky ones to experience it back in the day.
While in Talkeetna we went for a walk late one night, but in broad daylight, and happened upon one of the coolest scenes I have ever experienced in my life. We had no idea where we were walking to. We came upon the Susitna River flowing thru town with people throwing a frisbee, playing with dogs, drinking beers, strumming guitars, the sun was attempting to set, but you know, it doesn’t there…. but, as we turned the corner from the path to the river, in clear view, and why all these people were there celebrating life that night, was that Denali was out in full view, a rare and awe-inspiring sight. This had turned into a trip of a lifetime,as I had hoped it would be.
Twice now on trips to Australia I had flown thru Hawaii and stopped for a couple of weeks each time on my way back to the US. Now I had been to Alaska. Wouldn’t this make going to all 50 states seem much easier? I mean, if you read a map of a country as you would a city map like I do, you would think that. So it was on this birthday trip that I decided that I was going to try to accomplish 50 Before 40.
I needed to establish some ground rules, however. First, all the states I had already been to would automatically be credited towards the 50. Second, to count the state I would need to step foot on the ground there. So layovers in airports didn’t count unless I went outside. And third, as my sister explained to me, I couldn’t count Michigan unless I went to the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.
A couple months later I went on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for 10 days by myself just needing to get out of the city. I was in love with what I saw and with how I felt there.
I went fly fishing for the first time. I went to Yellowstone. I finally saw my first moose! I couldn’t stop picturing myself there. I went back in winter by myself. I thought I wanted to move there. The following summer I bought a car and I drove out on vacation, this time with camping gear borrowed from my sister. I had driven to Colorado before, but with friends. This was the longest and the furthest road trip I had taken solo.
With the exception of stopping to visit a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan and again to attend a friend’s wedding at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota
(where a National Geographic film crew joined us for the day filming a documentary capturing the vows overlooking the line up of bikes on Main Street!), I camped by myself across the country for most of the 16 days I was gone. Life in the city was wearing me down and I knew I needed a healthy change at that stage in my life. The night before I was to return to the city I camped in Cook Forest in Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. I remember the smell of campfires and smoke hanging in the trees. I remember going to the nearby general store and buying a slice of pizza and ice cream they packed in a brown paper bag I brought back to my camp site to eat al fresco on that final night. I remember the sensory overload of that day and the 15 days before it and loving it. It was a different sensory overload than the city. The next day I returned to my job at an investment firm on Park Avenue and I quit. Two weeks later I drove one way back to Wyoming…. via the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I had just moved from New York City to Wyoming…where I didn’t know anyone.