Archive: Nature

Pinnacles National Park (#28 out of 59) and the Florescent-Tinted Luxury of The Embassy Suites

When I was nine-years-old my dad had a lot of work in Washington D.C. and he would occasionally bring the family along on his trips. We would take a robber baron-dated Amtrak from New York to D.C. and stay at the pinnacle of luxury for a nine-year-old known as The Embassy Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. There were few things better in life as a nine-year-old than staying at the Embassy Suites.

When I stayed in the kind of tropical resort known as the Bethesda, Maryland Embassy Suites, there were few things I ever needed in life after that magical experience. I would say that Embassy Suites was a close second to Six Flags in terms of the potential for greatness that the human experience had to offer. Whether I was jumping on a bed covered in starchy sheets, revealing room service chicken tenders from beneath a metal saucer of a heat cover or sprinting laps around the perimeter hallways, I’m pretty sure it was the happiest I ever possible reached as a child. Forget about everything else, if I was nine and staying at an Embassy Suites I don’t think life got much better.

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Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country. When I realized that traveling to Northern California to see friends, family and Pinnacles National Park had the potential for an Embassy Suites stay, my life had gone full circle.

Pinnacles is located around two hours south of the San Jose airport and on first glance – like an Embassy Suites – it doesn’t seem all that special when you get your first glance from the parking lot. You have to really dive beneath the surface and explore both locations to find their truest majesty. Pinnacles looks like a bunch of really cool rock formations jutting out of a chaparral forest. The history behind the place has something to do with being the leftovers of an ancient volcano that moved a few hundred miles into the Central Valley because of the San Andreas Fault that will kill us all someday. But when you first look at the thing, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as special as it is. You might be misled by the bland glass exterior of the Embassy Suites, but you really have to step inside to see what you’re missing.

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There are two roads that lead to Pinnacles, one from the west off the 101 and one from the east that isn’t close to anything, except maybe San Jose, California, but I don’t think that counts. The roads don’t intersect within the park so you need a really trusty Uber driver who will go 60 miles out of his way if you want to do a one-way hike. The highlight on the drive was driving through Gilroy, California, which is the garlic capital of the country. In the same way that diabetics seize up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Gilroy’s garlic-scented air can proudly proclaim itself vampire-free. We entered Pinnacles from the east, parked at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and set out on the 5.3-mile loop along the High Peaks and Condor Gulch Trails.

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Pinnacles National Park was one of those trips that was excellent because of the day we saw it. We went on an empty Wednesday in March with 60-degree weather, no crowds, green hills and rare wildlife sightings. We could’ve gone to the exact same place at the height of the drought and been miserable. Instead, we climbed along staircases carved out of the Pinnacles with nothing but a thin railing separating us from a vertical drop-off hundreds of feet below. We had to duck our heads to squeeze between boulders on the trail. We switchbacked up the rocks and had expansive views of both sides of the park with the snowcapped Sierras in the extreme distance. And that would’ve been cool enough but then we saw the condors.

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We were at around 2700 feet of elevation when we crested another one of the staircase-carved boulders and saw four of the last-remaining California Condors in the world sitting sentry atop the mountain. Listed as extinct in 1987 (there were only 22 alive in the world at the time), the last handful were captured, nurtured and slowly reintroduced back into the wild. Today there are 128 California Condors flying over the state, each of them tagged and tracked like a kid with anxious parents, and we were lucky enough to see four of them. And then we got even more fortunate to see a glimpse into the future. We stumbled upon two soft-soften birdwatchers who were camped out all day to spot the birds. Basically, me in five years. They invited us to use their binoculars to see the birds up close.

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These things were huge and vulture-like. They looked like they were wearing giant trench coats and when they flew overhead their nine-foot wing span let you know you were in trouble. California Condors are the largest North American land-birds. They are scavengers without any fur on their faces making them some of the least-attractive creatures in the animal kingdom but also some of the coolest. Their appearance is the last thing on your mind when you see them circling and you’re low on water. Seeing Pinnacles National Park was good. Hiking across the park and spotting the four condors was amazing. Seeing Pinnacles, spotting condors and then two nights later traveling up to Northern California for a stay at the Embassy Suites was everything I could ever want in life.

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We extended the trip a couple extra days to see family and friends in the area. This involved a day trip to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods a little further north. The views were amazing and redwoods spectacular but both of them paled in comparison to coming full-circle in life with our stay at the Embassy Suites.

I was happy to report that nothing has changed since my residency as a nine-year-old connoisseur of the Embassy Suites. You still walk inside and get hit with the overpowering odor of chlorine from the swimming pool and fountains. The depressing koi still call the atrium pools home. The diluted sunlight filters through the greenhouse ceiling. The breakfast buffet is still all-you-can eat with a line of sticky children pushing their way to the hot chocolate machine. You can get the signature Embassy Suites headache from forgetting what actual sunlight feels like. Annoying kids continue sprinting laps around the atrium while the hum of the ice machine keeps you up all night.

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If that sounds like a miserable night in a hotel, you’d be sorely mistaken. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was the anti-AirBnB. It was the absolute peak of mediocrity and you can’t manufacture that kind of comfort. It was like drinking the perfect glass of milk. Just like their counterpart – the California Condor – there are only hundreds of Embassy Suites left in the world. They were added to the endangered species list only a few years ago but we all have to do our part to nurture them back to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, nacho cheese plate happy hour and fax machine business center greatness that we all know they can be. And that is what makes the National Park Service the bastion of protection that we are all thankful to have, both as Americans and as Ambassadors to the Embassy Suites and California Condors in the world. It was truly a majestic trip.

Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks (#26 and #27 out of 59)

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Part of what makes Yosemite and Sequoia so beautiful is that you have to drive through Fresno on the way. It turns out the exact opposite holds true for the national parks of Hawaii. Both Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks are less beautiful in context because they are surrounded by the most gorgeous place on Earth. So when you actually drive to the main attractions you’re underwhelmed because you’ve seen and explored nothing but spectacular scenery along the way. After driving two hours to get to the national parks you calculate the obligatory time to show interest in geology until you can get back to the beach.

While my career and job prospects appear to be nonexistent, I take a little bit of solace in the fact that I’ve poured all my energy, time and money into traveling the world with a girl I somehow tricked into marrying me. By last count I’ve been to five continents, 20 countries (more if you go by FIFA’s count), 27 national parks and 40-something states depending on how much you count drive-throughs. It’s possible that Hawaii could be the best trip I’ve ever taken anywhere, which I hate to admit because so many people have been to Hawaii. There is nothing pretentious about my favorite vacation which sucks because I’m a very pretentious person.

I’m going to have the same favorite place as Barb in accounting who went to Honolulu on her honeymoon 20 years ago, which is such a waste of all the other trips I’ve taken. I could’ve saved a boatload of cash from the Australia trip if I knew I could go half the distance without exchanging currency or having to deal with all the spiders that will murder you. Yeah, Thailand was beautiful but they also have plenty of Thai food in Hawaii without the underage prostitutes (this might be a minus for some). Food costs a lot more money in Hawaii but you can choose any country’s cuisine and it usually includes American-sized portions.


Every beach I’ve visited in Hawaii has been the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. I snorkeled with enormous green sea turtles that looked at me and threw me a head nods like we’re old buddies. I swam with an aquarium’s amount of fish, laid out in the softest sand in front of the most picturesque palm trees and snuck into the bathrooms of the fanciest hotels in the country. And it’s all the little things make Hawaii incredible. All the free parking next to these perfect beaches, the fact that – somehow – this is still part of the United States even though you’re half an ocean away. The food, people, weather, rainforests, sea turtles, laid back vibe and abundance of banana bread, and I really, really, really enjoy banana bread to the point where my last blood work showed a spike in potassium. And Hawaii is like the capital of banana bread.


Now somewhere along this paradise, the national park service designated a couple stretches to officially join the ranks of the 59 United States National Parks. And they do this because – like all national parks – these two places offer one feature better than anywhere else in the country. Driving up the Jagger Museum of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (even though all of Hawaii are volcanoes) we saw real, bubbling, red hot lava belching out of a crater into a huge undulating sea of magma. That was amazing. You know what else was amazing? Walking out of the hotel in flip flops to the Corona-quality beach while we were handed cold pineapple slices. Nothing against the national park but we didn’t have to drive several hours away from the beach for the latter and the rangers were short on pineapple.


Haleakala National Park suffered from the same problem as Hawaii Volcanoes, which is that it’s a really strong team in the league’s best division. They might be in first place if they played in the Midwest Division, but because they’re in the Pacific League they’re mired in fourth. We drove the entire Road to Hana to scope out the park’s Seven Sacred Pools and hike through a bamboo forest. We switchbacked up 10,000 feet to overlook the island’s crater and see the Big Island popping out of the clouds. But national park standards are so overwhelmed by the beauty along the way. They could have said any slice of the Road to Hana was a national park or any coral reef filled with sea turtles and you’d get the same beauty while remaining much closer to the minibar.


It’s not just that you’re driving past gorgeous viewpoints, it’s that you also get to be a part of it along the way. You can hop into hidden pools beneath thunderous waterfalls, you can hike through rainforests and swim with turtles. I tried as hard as possible to care about volcanoes when I was standing on a crater. But I could continue caring about the geology while charging a piña colada to a random room at the Grand Wailea because, technically, that’s on a volcano as well.


If Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks were located in Oklahoma, they would be the greatest gems in the national park system. Because they comprised two out of 10 of my favorite days of travel in my life, they were memorable stops on a perfect vacation. They might have been victims of the weather as well. Haleakala will join the ranks of Machu Picchu and Denali as places I traveled very far only to see them on cloudy days. Hawaii Volcanoes required an eight-mile hike to get a closer view of the lava that we opted against. If it had been raining at the shore and the parks saved the trip, maybe it would be another story. I just really liked snorkeling and I feel guilty reporting that to the National Park Service.


Even though this sounds like a critique of the parks themselves, in truth it’s nothing but a rave for the state in which they’re located. And if I’m focusing on the negative it’s only out of my own bitterness that I have to leave. All those previously mentioned lack of job, career and financial prospects are waiting for me back home. Hawaii is a place you can just disappear. You can swim, snorkel and surf every day. You are a world away from news and politics and rather than facing reality, you can stuff your face with mahimahi fish and chips and enough banana bread to induce kidney issues. And I have the national parks and this crazy, stupid adventure of visiting every single one of them to thank for taking me to the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And if that sounds like a roller coaster of emotions it’s only due to the sudden drop in blood sugar until my next slice of banana bread.


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Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: On the Pressure of Being Camp Dad

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Three years ago, on the cusp of starting my first grown-up, full-time, real, corporate adult job, we threw a bunch of friends in a car and camped near Big Bear for two nights. It was billed The End of Freedom Camping Party, and has since become an annual tradition whether the other campers know it or not. This year had the even better occasion of an imminent lay-off, and got to mark The Return to Freedom Party. I booked a mid-sized group campground five hours north of L.A. and invited people who will be beneficial to job hunting.

 

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are on the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, about an hour south of Yosemite. They were founded 126 years ago in order to protect a bunch of really big trees. Basically, a bunch of loggers and prospectors chopped down some of the oldest and largest sequoias in the world to prove to East Coasters that they were real. This is what it took before Instagram. Everyone thought the enormous trunks were a hoax, so the loggers got back on the Oregon Trail, battled dysentery, chopped down a few more barks and lugged them back across the country. The cycle continued until the government asked people to knock it off with the tree chopping and proving that they were real so that I could celebrate my unemployment.

 

We booked a group campsite near General Grant Grove, home to the world’s second-largest tree, and hosted varying degrees of first-timers and seasoned campers to spend the weekend. After going through all the options for food, cooking, activities and attractions, Jen and I reasoned the easiest choice would be if we bought and cooked everything and planned the full weekend for the entire group. The other options with a group of eight people were to assign meals, have everyone fend for themselves, or open up the park to hunting. Seeing as deer traps are forbidden in the national park system, we opted to become the camp parents for all our friends.

 

There is a huge amount of responsibility that comes with being camp parents. It means that the entire weekend falls on your shoulders. The whole three days of rest and relaxation comes with the looming pressure that any mistake is entirely your fault. Burned the corn on the cobb? That’s on you. Three hours of driving for nothing? There’s only Camp Dad to blame. Any crankiness, screw-up and disappointment feels like it’s your burden that needs to be fixed. Like a defender in soccer, you can have a perfect match, but one giant mistake is your responsibility.

 

On top of being camp parents, we also had to deal with Camp Aunt and Uncle on our trip to apply some pressure as well. While we had to be the killjoys in the name of logistics, they got to load up their car with cornhole, a hammock, gadgets, devices, solar powered phone chargers, a football and booze so that they got to be the fun ones. And then when the other campers got hungry and tired after all the fun games, it was our responsibility again. And Camp Aunt and Uncle got to be like, “Not our problem, we were just kicking back,” while we’re stirring chili with one hand and yanking out splinters with the other while keeping temper tantrums at bay.

 

Being Camp Parents also means learning and embracing a tremendous amount of patience that doesn’t exist on solo trips. When you’re backpacking alone, you can do exactly what you want at any time of day. But being camp dad means you have to be perfectly fine with being ready to leave and then having someone say, “I have to go to the bathroom.” Then when that person gets back, someone else says, “Y’know what? I have to go to the bathroom too.” And so on, until everyone in the group has individually gone to the bathroom. By this point, you really have to go as well, but you need to hold it in the name of a fictional schedule on which you triangulated coordinates with your Garmin watch.

 

Day two was a two-mile drive down a dirt road to Redwood Mountain Grove. We made it a mile or so up the Sugar Bowl Trail, which was one of the best finds in the park. The trees in this part of Kings Canyon didn’t have the same reverence as their larger brethren, but the hidden turn-off and dirt road kept the tour buses away. If I’ve learned anything from this aimless goal of seeing every national park it’s that I’ll sacrifice beauty in the name of avoiding crowds. One foot of a giant sequoia is worth ten selfie sticks.

 

Any fantasies I had of being on the trail by eight to complete the six-mile loop before lunch were altered in the name of being the stupid, happy-go-lucky camp dad. One person has to stop at a tree to take a picture, and then everyone wants the same picture, and then, yeah, I kind of want the picture too. So eight pictures on eight cameras later, it was time to turn around because I wanted to show everyone Kings Canyon.

 

What I thought was a 30 minute drive to a beautiful and lush meadow stretched into a 90-minute winding slog through the barren and drought-stricken Sierras. With everyone ready for lunch, a more lenient camp dad would’ve stopped at the idyllic Hume Lake. Families were playing in the water, there was a well-stocked store and tables that overlooked the reflecting water on a warm mountain day. Instead I gunned it past the beautiful water because we had a schedule that needed adhering. I watched the temperature climb into the triple-digits as we descended the inferno of Kings Canyon and heard stomachs rumble as it ticked into the afternoon.

 

And as much as it looked like it was going to be a disaster, the best part about being camp dad is the stuff that doesn’t get planned. The meadow was too far away and the trails were too hot to hike, so we made our way into the river that runs through Kings Canyon and that was the afternoon. That was it. No plans, itinerary, schedule, maps. It was throw everyone in the water, and it was absolutely perfect. Obviously I’ll take all the credit for how well it went even though I never would’ve just sat in a river for two hours if it were a solo trip. And the best part was that it tuckered everyone out so that, being the camp parents, we could get some sleep that night.

 

We loaded back into cars and climbed three thousand feet of elevation back to the campground. We then tore each other to shreds and undid any feelings of goodwill by playing a round of a game called Avalon. This mafia-type exercise in lying and accusations generates all the nice feelings of a witch hunt, while also allowing you to destroy all your friendships. We declared a truce in a two-mile evening walk to the General Grant tree. A family of deer pranced along our route to pose for a couple of pictures before camp mom knocked some chili out of the park. Everyone passed out because I dragged them up and down some mountains in order to snap some pictures.

 

Our way out of the park took us along all the touristy sites through Sequoia National Park, which are great for a first visit and should be avoided thereafter. The General Sherman tree (largest in the world), Giant Forest and Moro Rock were swarmed with crowds who were shuttled along the excellent and free bus system the park set up. It’s a little surprising to find that one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever seen is in Sequoia National Park. Everyone held their lunch together as we drove down the switchbacks from 7,000 feet of elevation down to the 108-degree foothills that are going to go up in flames any minute now. Four hours later, we were back in Los Angeles doing everything we could to remember the idyllic river from the previous day.

 

As terrified as I am about being an actual camp dad to real-life, tiny human beings at some point in the future, it’s nice to know that all I have to do is constantly worry about an army of people having a good time while dealing with any issue, injury, problem or surprise that’s going to spring up at any second. There is little reward, satisfaction and payoff that comes with the job. And compared to the freedom that comes with grabbing a backpack and heading off on a giant trail on your own schedule, it’s a completely different trip. So enjoy that leisurely bathroom break, refill the water bottle a few more times, sleep in a little late, and snap as many extra pictures as you want. But if I hear one more word of complaint, I am turning this car right around. Thanks for a great trip, everyone, and get off my lawn.

 

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Carlsbad, Guadalupe and Big Bend National Parks

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Telling people about our road trip across West Texas and New Mexico earned the most, “Why are you going there?” responses of all our adventures. This isn’t the kind of place you go by choice. You’re usually stuck traveling through West Texas on your way to someplace better. Or you’re stationed in the military. Or you got on the mob’s bad side. No one really chooses to spend a long weekend in the Chihuahuan Desert. But that just meant we’d have more space to ourselves!

 

Sure enough, there was really nothing there except for three very dry national parks, a bunch of suicidal rabbits and a Prada (I’ll get to all that later). I also might have insisted we do this trip instead of spending four days at a condo on Lake Tahoe. On top of that, the first day was the kind of disaster that made me rethink this whole see every national park life plan in the first place.

 

El Paso is closer to the California border than it is to Austin, Texas, but that didn’t stop me from having that be the jumping off point for a romantic vacation that started with a supply run to Walmart. They didn’t have the gas canister our camping stove required, so we found the city’s largest outdoors store, which was also out of stock on the fuel we needed. Our nature adventure took us into an El Paso Target to buy a new camping stove with fuel included before we peeled out into the desert three hours behind schedule where we got pulled over by our first border patrol officer. So far we were off to a roaring start.

 

The drug-sniffing dog cleared the rear tires of the rental and the officer was satisfied with our answer when he asked, “Are you American citizens?” This didn’t seem the time to discuss Jen’s Canadian heritage, so we continued east into Texas backcountry. A few hours later and with the sun starting to set, we got to our first national park, Guadalupe Mountains, which would be great if you’re assembling a fossil record of West Texas, and a major disappointment if you could’ve been at Tahoe. It’s home to the largest peak in Texas and a post office from the 1800s that is now a pile of rocks. The first-come camp site was full, so we drove another hour to an RV park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town that made El Paso look like Vail.

 

I can’t think of a lot of scenic places with “Bad” in the name. Islamabad isn’t near the top of my list, and Carlsbad was populated with a highway of chain hotels serving the Caverns (to the South) and alien-seeking conspiracy theorists in Roswell (to the North). We expected the worst from the RV park, but it turned out to be a great find and the trip took a turn for the better. Like every camping trip, Jen soon picked up the gossip of every female camper drama from the ladies’ room, and then we downed a pan-fried Walmart steak deep in the heart of a Roswell, New Mexico K.O.A.

 

Carlsbad Caverns elbowed its way into the top ten places I’ve ever seen. It was a huge relief that the trip was justified the minute we descended the thousand-foot-deep cave (roughly the height of the Empire State Building, or 12,000 Empire State Building souvenirs). The first thing you hear is a soundtrack of a few thousand bats reminding us that the elevator was out of service, along with an additional thousand children shouting, “Stalagmites,” and “Stalactites.” We get it. You know which one is which. Our exhaustion scurrying to the bottom of the cave, taking a tour and hiking out was relieved by judging whether other people would be able to make it out.

 

There isn’t much to check out between Carlsbad and Big Bend – McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, and a lot more nothing – but we stopped in Marfa, Texas, which is sort of like a Texas Ojai. It’s an artist outpost in the middle of nowhere part of the middle of nowhere where Matthew McConnonaughey and a few other celebs call their second home. It has 20+ art galleries and the kind of stores where you can drop a few hundred bucks on astrologically-embroidered denim jackets while you pregame for Burning Man and get your photo taken at the Marfa Prada (not a real Prada – art is tough to explain). It was a perfectly fine place to eat a falafel for lunch.

 

We didn’t know what to expect in Big Bend National Park. We knew it’s where the Rio Grande curves to the north and there’s a border crossing where you can take a boat and ride a donkey to a Mexican village. We drove out of the desert up into some mountains where we saw trees for the first time in four days. We dropped into a grove where our campsite was surrounded by a forest and mountains being hit by the sunset. We were also instantly befriended by the camp host, who raised her glass of wine and said things have been great with her since she had gallbladder surgery.

 

An astronomy professor from U.T. hosted a stargazing session that night with two high-powered telescopes. We got a good look at Jupiter’s moons and the Milky Way ripped across the Texas sky. But the best part was his love for astronomy was only matched by his disdain for astrology. He’d show some green neutron gas around a cluster of young star formations, but when someone asked him to point out Gemini, he shrugged them off with a, “That’s not really my thing,” to which another person asked, “What about Sagittarius?”

 

The next day we hiked three trails and around nine miles, the best was Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. It’s a 1,500-foot rock face dropping straight into the water. If anyone descends that cliff from the Mexican border and crosses the river, they deserve to stay. Immigration debate over. Although it was nice to visit a national park that wasn’t overrun by Germans for once. This was the first national park trip that didn’t have a slew of Berliners telling me they haven’t met any Americans in the national parks yet.

 

Our final morning we woke up at 3am Central Time. All the road kill we saw during the day was explained by hundreds, maybe thousands of jackrabbits lining the highway in the middle of the night. These bastards did everything possible to try and get hit. They darted into the road, jumped back in, darted in front again, and hopped away. If I were Elmer Fudd, I’d drop the gun and just do 80 through Big Bend. I’m proud to say that no rabbits were harmed in the making of this trip, but any time I saw road kill after that, I was like, “They were asking for it.”

 

Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns were two of the best parks we’ve seen so far. You can skip Guadalupe and just eat rabbit stew instead. As much as we were warned of gun-totin’ Jew haters who want to make America great again, everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. It seemed like an annual pilgrimage for people from Austin and we could’ve spent a week in the park with ease. Sure, one family’s picnic basket was emblazoned in red, white and blue with, “Faith, family, freedom,” which are three things I’m not big on (too much anxiety with freedom), but they wished us a great day when we saw them later on a hike, and thanked us when part of their picnic blew away (the dishes were gunning for freedom).

 

My biggest moment of being a total idiot was walking into a donut shop in Van Horn, Texas at 7am after dodging rabbits. Jen and I combined were less than a third shorter and smaller than the next person in there. I was going on zero sleep and video game driving when I asked for four donut holes. “Four?” She yelled at me. “It’s a dozen for a dollar.” My palm-to-forehead morning only continued when I asked if they had soy milk for my coffee. “No,” she stared at me.

 

And I only share that super-embarrassing story because I hope I could fulfill their stereotype of pompous city boys walking into their Texas donut shop and ordering four donut holes and asking about soy milk. And I hope I made their day because it’s the least I could offer in return after such a great trip to Texas.

 

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