This is a hard post to write. Firstly, a lot happened in this really short period of time. I graduated from Harvard University with my Masters degree, my parents and brother traveled halfway across the world to witness it and we also did some spectacular traveling together. It was very special for me to have them come to visit me in the US as it has been isolating living so far from home. I’ll try bring out the most interesting parts of this trip, but feel free to skip to the relevant parts (if any):
- The Big Apple, NYC - Welcome Mum, Dad and Doug
- Harvard University - Degree 2 in the bag
- Chicago - The windy city and bye to Doug
- Road tripping - Tetons, Yellowstone, Idaho, Oregon and Washington
1. The Big Apple, NYC - Welcome Mum, Dad and Doug
I rushed home from the airport on Friday night. 3 14ers in Colorado were still in my legs and I was trailing a 120L duffle bag behind me with my mountaineering gear but I had school friends to say goodbye to and a residence room to pack up and clean. The beers were fun but I crashed around midnight as Paul had been running a strict regime in Colorado and I was severely behind on sleep. I got up early, packed up my room and got on the bus to meet Doug in New York City.
This was now my third visit to the big city and it was easily my favorite. Traveling with friends and family really does improve things. I met Doug and we went for dinner at the excellent but severely overpriced Tacombi. Wait, who am I kidding?? This is NYC - these prices are normal!
Mum and Dad were due to land in the morning after a marathon 35+ hour flight across from Johannesburg. If that’s not dedication then I don’t know what is? Anyway, Doug spoiled me to a bottle of Big Table Pinot Noir, a boutique winery from Oregon, which was very impressive and we slept for about 10 hours: Doug was recovering from the jet lag and I was recovering from Colorado sleep deprivation. Mum and Dad arrived; we actually found them stranded on a random NYC street corner looking very confused and holding an elaborate set of directions to access our Airbnb. In their defence, these instructions resembled more of a treasure hunt than a useful set of directions. Anyway, we found my folks, bundled them into the Airbnb and (priorities first) found a pub to have an excellent but severely overpriced beer. Wait, who am I kidding?? This is NYC! Need to try and remember that.
So then we were off to see the city. First stop took us across to Brooklyn to see the bridge from the other side of the East river… and to find more beer. Doug had also located a little distillery that he wanted to visit. You may be getting a certain impression of South Africans and it isn’t too far from the truth ;). The distillery tour was good and the tasting afterwards was interesting. The tour guide was a highlight: keeping us entertained with a good sense of humor while giving us an informative history lesson of the story of hard liquor in America through the prohibition to today. King County happened to be the first distillery in NYC after the prohibition. It was started by some hardy Southerners who couldn’t stand to live without their precious whiskey - or more like moonshine back in those days.
Ryan, a friend from Harvard, suggested that we join him at a rooftop bar in the area but we were all respectively exhausted so we made the trip back to the BnB and stumbled across the famed Joes Pizza. Joes is an interesting little fast pizza joint that serves very tasty NYC style slices.
An early start, for the city at least, had us out on the streets and on the way to the financial district to see the Bull on Wall Street. I introduced Doug, Mum and Dad to the wonders of cold brew coffee. Somehow this product has not yet made it to South Africa and they are missing out BIG time. Doug made up an obligatory photo requirement with the Bull’s balls and insisted that we get the photo evidence. A tight schedule meant that we had to move off to work our way around to Ground Zero to make our scheduled tour for the Statue of Liberty cruise. This was impressive as always and the tour boat did a great job of explaining the history of immigration into the country. They dive into how the city was built on the backs of low paid immigrant (many Irish and Italian) workers looking to live the American dream - wow how things have changed with the Trump administration’s aversion to immigrants.
The tour to see the statue is a bonus as you then get spectacular views of the city skyline. This is definitely not something to miss when you are in the area:
Evening got us to meet up with Ryan, he suggested an excellent roof-top pub called The Heights. Wow! What a way to see the city and there is no ridiculous fee for being there. The drinks aren’t cheap but it is so worthwhile being up in the sky in the middle of the beautiful city. Thanks Ryan! What a great suggestion - it helps a lot to know some of the locals.
A little buzzed from the heights (or booze - I’ll let you choose), we rushed off to catch our show at Broadway. This was the Chicago production and it was excellently staged. We enjoyed the risqué stage show and the combination of acting and singing was great. More iconic was the fact that we were literally able to attend a Broadway production! Great fun. Broadway spits you out into Time Square which is always impressive to a tourist at night - all lit-up and chaotic. However, we were tired and hungry so we made our way back and EMBARRASSINGLY settled for Joes again (I blame the fact that we were tired and overwhelmed and it was just SOOO easy being right around the corner).
Hmmm. So what is left to do? Well the answer is plenty. My folks and Doug went off to see the Ground Zero museum - this is a must if you are in the city but I had already done it on a previous trip and as it is a bit of a downer, I chose to not go back this time. We then walked the Brooklyn Bridge, also giving excellent views of the city and we made our way over to Central Park. Everyone else loved this but honestly I find the space overrated. The usual rhetoric is “wow, can you believe this piece of nature in the middle of such a big city” and I am rather like “this is the least one can expect in such a big city.” Nevertheless, the walk was good and we were working up an appetite.
Sadly, we had pre-purchased tickets to visit the Rockefeller tower and the cloud level was down and the view was poor. They do not give refunds on these tickets and we had no choice but to use the tickets to go up the lift - we were leaving NYC the next morning and it was unlikely that we would be back within the year. Honestly, I strongly recommend that you do not do this part of NYC. Go find a rooftop pub and buy a few drinks up there. This option is more enjoyable, more sociable and quite frankly a much better deal. Rockefeller’s customer service and accommodation for poor weather is bad and I am not convinced the view would significantly improve upon what we saw at The Heights. A bit depressed at the waste, we made our way back toward downtown to find some dinner. A little Mexican spot gave us what we wanted and we were soon to bed in preparation to catch the early train in the morning to Boston.
2. Harvard University - Degree 2 in the bag
So the graduation ceremony at Harvard is a memorable affair. They organize operations from 7am until about 4pm. It starts off with breakfast and some photos at 7am. They parade the entire Graduate School of Arts and Sciences down Oxford Street and across to Harvard Yard where the main ceremonies take place. The morning ‘exercises’ (I still haven’t worked out why they call them exercises) begin with the entire university packed into the yard with the guests who can squeeze themselves in as well - some 35,000 people. Lots of formalities ensue with my favorite being the Sheriff of Middlesex County slamming a wooden cane on the stage and calling order on the crowd. This act is steeped in history from the days when the Ph.D candidates where drunk, disorderly and celebrating and the university needed a law enforcement officer to call order on the chaotic crowd. Speeches… More speeches… Degrees conferred… Speeches… You get the idea. A noteworthy talk was by Pete Davis from the Law School who borrowed lessons from the indecision that we display when choosing a show on Netflix and applied that to making our minds up with what to pursue for the rest of our lives.
We finished the morning formalities and made our way over to Sanders Theatre - the largest lecture theatre on the GSAS Harvard campus which is best known for the dinning room that was inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall dining room. The ceremony was quite special but again it was tight to get all the graduates and their two guests into the theatre. I was lucky to pick up an extra ticket for Doug by virtue of being selected as a Commencement Marshall.
The rest of the afternoon went smoothly with a good lunch and an inspiring speech by John Lewis. While it was good to hear him talk and certainly his content was respectable, I found the speech generic and hardly tailored to the Commencement event. There was nothing particularly useful that was directed straight at the 2018 Harvard graduates. Doug disagreed with me and rated it one of the best talks he has seen (this is some high praise from my brother who has heard many great orators talk).
Pierre and Wendy, my family from the USA who live in Chelmsford, MA, joined in for the lunch and for the keynote by John Lewis and we all hit the traffic to get to the South End where I had booked at Sportello for dinner. The exact words that a colleague used when he recommended Sportello were: “the best Italian restaurant in Boston is not in the North End.” I was excited to try it and Sportello didn’t disappoint. The Crostini, 3 bean salad and Salumi kicked off the evening with some great starters and my basil roasted fish for main was out of this world (embarrassingly I can neither remember the name of the fish nor can I pronounce the name even if I could remember it). 5 stars! I introduced Mum to the wonders of Cannoli for desert and the Sportello ones were as good as any that I have had.
3. Chicago - The windy city and bye to Doug
We were getting used to the hungover 4am wake-ups to catch the early travel. Chicago was no exception. Doug, who had purchased his flight later than the rest of us, found that an American Airlines flight, when purchased with baggage, was the same cost as a first-class flight that came with free baggage. Genius! And thankfully he did do this as I was horribly overweight - not only because of all the eating that I had been doing but so too because of the fact that I had all of my worldly goods packed into two suitcases. What started as smirks of contempt changed into helpful smiles when the baggage attendant realized that Doug was a first-class citizen.
Chicago was good to us. True to form, the sun was out, the city was very pretty and the hot-dogs and beers were on the menus. I had insisted that we do the architecture tour of the city - if you go to Chicago, this is one of the things that you cannot miss out on. So we planned that in for our very limited 24 hour stop over. Other highlights include walking around the city’s pretty parks and enjoying the sunshine with great waterfront beer spots. All too soon it was over and I had to say goodbye to Doug. I am never good at doing that and it is always miserable saying bye to a sibling when you are unlikely see one another for 6 months or more. But Doug was off to Ireland and England to cut some new business deals and sell some product visions. Duty called and we went our separate ways.
4. Road tripping in the Tetons, Yellowstone, Idaho, Oregon and Washington
Chicago → Denver → Jackson Hole. We were on our way to the Tetons! #excitement.
The Grand Teton was lurking in the clouds but the aura that the mountain range gave off was jaw dropping. I loved it. I had booked a car that we were going to take through Yellowstone and across the country, eventually ending in Seattle, but I had drastically under estimated the amount of luggage that I would have. They gave us one of those tiny Jeep Wranglers and while I would have been super stoked to have driven that across Idaho, trying to fit Mum in the boot as another piece of baggage just wasn’t working out. I went back to the rental counter ‘tail between my legs’ to ask for a bigger car.
Round 2 was more successful and Mum didn’t have to go in the boot. We were still a little tight on space so in the end it was a good thing that it was only the three of us. Between being packed into the Wrangler and moving to the new car, Mum had misplaced Dad’s passport. Whoops… Panic. Bags got unpacked, cars were searched, the BnB we were at was overhauled. Nothing. Panic.
Thankfully, a phone call to the airport, a search of the Wrangler and a quick drive back to the airport and we were back in possession of the important document. Wow, in this day and age, I cannot believe how reliant we are on a stupid little book with some stamps in it. Madness.
Our original plan was to get up for sunrise and watch the morning light catch the Tetons but this was thwarted by some obstinate cloud. Oh well. We really needed the sleep-in. We got on our way and started the spectacular drive North through the Teton National Park. South African game spotter eyes were out and we were searching for a bear, a moose, a wolf, anything really. Nothing :(. Oh well, the vista that the Tetons provide still made the drive well worth it and we were all in a great mood when Yellowstone came around.
Not that I have driven through Mars but I can imagine that if Elon Musk get’s his way and we colonize the area, the closest thing on earth is Yellowstone National Park. It is bizarre. Hot volcanic rock extends as far as the eye can see and the lingering smell of hydrogen sulphide gas invades your nasal passages. My dad thought this was an excellent opportunity to get rid of some personal gas guilt-free.
It is surreal driving around Yellowstone, seeing the colours in some of the geysers, seeing the beautiful, wide open plains and the rolling hills that are now so contrasted to the dramatic cliffs of the Tetons. It had been a long day by the time evening came around and we found that a bottle of wine by a peacefully bubbling geyser was exactly what the doctor ordered. We sat there for sundowners accompanied by the steady bubble, bubble, fart, of the hydrogen sulphide gas coming to the surface. We stayed in West Yellowstone for the night and I had a buffalo burger at the Buffalo Bar. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from beef but it was a good burger ¯\(ツ)/¯. An early start and we were back into Yellowstone in search of a bear, a moose, a wolf, anything really. Nothing :(. Oh well…
We went on a pass that took us through some snowy hilltops and we got caught behind three very obstinate, very confused and very grumpy bison! The traffic grew and we could not pass. Luckily we were close to the front of the queue and after about an hour of staring at the hairy behind of a buffalo, we made it past. With that, our time in Yellowstone was expiring and we needed to make our way over to Twin Falls - the next stop in our road trip.
About a four and a half hour’s drive from Yellowstone lies the little town of Twin Falls. To put ‘little’ into context, NOTHING in America is little. I had imagined something the size of Dullstroom but was rather confronted with something the size of Pietermaritzburg. I was fairly disappointed when we were making the approach to Twin Falls as the name suggests there should be some waterfall nearby. However, the land was as flat as a pancake and with no mountains in sight, how could there possibly be a waterfall? My disappointment was short lived. For water to fall, it either has to come from above or, I realized, it has to go down below. We drove up to this enormous canyon and crossed the Perrine Bridge on the way into the city. The views were spectacular. Perched on the lip of the canyon was the hotel where we had booked to stay the night. A short unpack, a short walk and we had found a lovely spot overlooking the canyon for a beer and some dinner at Elevation486.
Dinner was quite an experience. The waitress was totally dumbfounded that three South Africans would find their way to some random town in Idaho. She took the opportunity to lecture us about the thriving potato and huckleberry industries. To your average American, the South African accent sounds either British or Australian and so she proceeded to inform us of her impending move to Australia. Because they are really close right? Anyway, she was sweet :). The waitress finally concluded that we must have come to Twin Falls to jump off the bridge because that is what “all the tourists do”. I replied by telling her that I had already bungee jumped off some of the highest bridges in the world and didn’t feel the need to repeat the exercise. She looked back confused and said, “no no honey, here people jump with no rope!” Wait what the hell? No rope? So this is a suicide town? It turns out that Twin Falls is a particularly well known BASE jumping spot and a number of people come here to hone (or learn) to BASE jump. We even saw a number of jumpers the next morning. It all happens so fast! I am not sure I could ever bring myself to try this particular extreme sport.
A relaxed start in the morning took us to the viewing point to have a look at the falls. We should have brought our breakfast to this spot as it is a spectacular park that overlooks some impressive waterfalls (don’t shoot me for saying this but I’d say it is almost prettier than Niagara). And with that, we were back on the road! What an epic ‘little’ layover.
Our push onward took us to Hood River. We had debated what to do for a while and this seemed like a sensible stopover given the large amount of driving that we were doing. By this stage, we had made some serious progress on an audio book “Digital Gold”. The book details the history of Bitcoin from Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2009 paper on the blockchain to the preset; the author does actually spend some time describing the technology progression and ideological thinking that led to the 2009 paper as well. This book is excellent and I can highly recommend the read. The drive from Twin Falls essentially follows the winding Snake River and then eventually joins the impressive Columbia River before taking you into the Columbia River gorge. It was beautiful. We had become well acquainted with the Snake River as it also flows through the Tetons and is responsible for the waterfall at Twin Falls. But Columbia was simply majestic. With renewable energy wind turbines on the go on many of the hills, wine growing land extending into the distance and a huge blue and white body of angry water below, the drive was invigorating.
We knew that we were getting close when Mt Hood began to dominate the skyline. What a treat to see one of the Pacific Northwest’s big volcanos up close. Honestly, apart from the generally impressive views, there wasn’t much to write home about in Hood River. We saw some kitesurfing going on, apparently this is one of the top kiting destinations in the USA, but with the lack of waves you’ll have a hard time convincing me that it is truly iconic (maybe Cape Town really does set the bar too high). We had beers and a brätwurst, in a little German inspired brewery while overlooking the kitesurfing spot and generally had a good evening. We were all tired from the long day’s drive though and so some rest this evening was in order.
The wonders of the Pacific Northwest continued to impress us as we circumnavigated Mt Hood and made our way through Portland and into the Willamette Valley. Portland was underwhelming. I think we just didn’t give it enough of a chance though so sadly my opinion might be more my fault than Portland’s. I’ll have to return at some point in the future. The important things to highlight from Willamette Valley were the wines that we tasted. First stop was the renowned Argyle Winery. We had their “The POP Flight” tasting and thoroughly enjoyed the MCC (this is a reference to the South African name for the Méthode Champenoise) wines that they had on offer. Although the prices in dollars would almost have been comparable to a good Simonsig bottle in rands, we ignored the price tags and enjoyed our stop. Luckily, my time at the UCT Wine Society taught me to ask all of the right questions and the friendly tasting manager felt that we should taste the “2007 Extended Tirage Brut”. The heavy lees and brioche flavors made this wine mind blowing - 5 stars!
A quick bite to eat at the Red Hills Market (it is worth the stop only if you happen to be in the area) and we were on our way south. We took up a recommendation to visit a small family owned vineyard called Benton-Lane Winery. It gets a solid OKAY in my books. The Pinot Noirs were good but would have no chance on a stage up against the goods from Hemel en Aarde. Hmmm. We also realized that we were seriously in the sticks and were limiting our dinner options as the kilometers went by. But there was still more drinking to be done before this became too pressing so let’s head off to find our over night spot. So far there was nothing past Argyle that I’d recommend the specific trip down south for. Well, that was until we came across the Bluebird guesthouse that we had booked in for the evening.
We certainly did not expect the experience that Sue had in store for us. Can I also just note that Bluebird’s URL is “.wine”. Holy crap! That’s awesome :)! Back to the point. We arrived and muttered something about us being on a wine tour of Willamette. This set Sue off busily preparing our private tasting at Bluebird. Wait a moment. We thought we were just at our BnB for the evening but we had unwittingly stumbled across a BnB that also happened to be a micro-winery. Sue and her husband Neil started a garagiste winery as a hobby but quickly realized that they were damned good at it and so converted this to a full scale micro-winery. And they certainly were good! We tasted their range and were particularly impressed with their estate Pinot Noir and their Pinot Gris. The BnB part of the stay was charming, with a gorgeous outlook over the rolling hills. Sue’s continental breakfast in the morning was to die for. All in all, this spot is far south on the map but if you can find the excuse to head down there for the weekend then I can highly recommend it.
When you do make this trip down, then don’t forget you have to drive back up again. I have a habit of under estimating the length of time that is required to drive miles and this was no exception. America is so big that sections look really small on a map - let me assure you that they are anything but small. We chose to follow the costal route up all the way to the Olympic National Forest and while the drive was very scenic, it was a crazy long end to our road trip and the 10 hours in the car was more than any of us had bargained for. Nevertheless, we made it to the Rain Forest Resort Village and hauled in for the evening. The cabins are bare but they do the job. In all honesty we really screwed this one up by not spending longer and using this spot to base some hikes in the forest. Anyway, some salmon was on the menu for dinner at “The Salmon House Restaurant” - I mean how could you not? And we were satisfied and comfortable in our little cabin.
With the trip drawing to a close, we began to lose some of the energy and enthusiasm that had us screeching around the East Coast at shockingly early times. However, we were happy to have made it to Seattle and to enjoy some of the craft beer that they are so well known for. We found The Pike Place Brewing and settled down for a ‘hoppy’ hour. What was supposed to be one round before we missioned off into the market became four and multiple plates of their “Cheese Curds”. Don’t judge us until you have tried those Cheese Curds! Oh my goodness. It was nice to sit here and reminisce about the amazing travels that we had achieved in such a short amount of time. Dinner had us at the Steelhead Diner which produced a mean “Pike Place Cioppino” - it is the first time that a spicy tomato broth in America was actually spicy. It was glorious!
We toured Seattle, and with nothing particularly out of the ordinary I won’t dwell on the details. But it was really special to simply spend this time with Mum and Dad and I will cherish the memories of driving, walking and sightseeing over those two weeks. It was also so special that Doug was able to join in for the stint at Harvard, NYC and Chicago. I really consider myself lucky that my family doesn’t even think twice about flying halfway across the world just to support me through this milestone! What an amazing memory.