After Pittsburgh, I drove to Chicago to spend the night at my cousin's house.
The most important factoid from that drive that I can share with all of you future roadtrippers is that there are a ton of tolls. A truly astonishing amount of tolls. Bring CASH*!
Seriously. Bring a ton of cash.
(*To be clear, you can pay with a credit card at the major tolls on the tollways, I believe, but it takes extra time and the lines are longer. Bring cash. Of course if you have an i-PASS the whole thing is infinitely quicker, but what out-of-towner has an i-PASS?! An i-PASS is a different system than an EZ-PASS.)
Also, bring a ton of coins.
When you get to Illinois, there are a bunch of small tolls when exiting highways that require coins only. The issue is that the toll is not 25 cents or something, it's between $1-2. Which can burn through a lot of change if you didn't come prepared. I did not come prepared.
They do offer the possibility of paying online afterwards. The way it works is if you come to a toll and do not have the required coinage, continue on through. You then have 7 days to go online to illinoistollway.com and pay your toll. It's a huge pain in the butt, since you have to remember/figure out what street you exited in order to know what toll to pay. Let me clarify this annoying situation: The system expects YOU to tell IT which toll you missed.
For a roadtripper from elsewhere, this was confusing as crap since I did not expect this. So helpful hint: make note of the exact highway exit toll you missed.
Once I actually got to my cousin's house, I had a lovely time relaxing with some food and wine while watching the World Cup.
My cousin is incredibly sweet and even created a travel bag of goodies for me, including a CD with some excellent road trip tunes.
After leaving Chicago, I got back on the tollway (through a coins-only entrance, of course) and continued on to Denver, CO.
In Denver, I picked up my bestie Carmella from the airport, who had flown in from Cali to accompany me and share in the road trip fun.
A word about Denver International Airport: it is crazy large and as such, ridiculously confusing. I ended up having to do four (4!) loops out and around through the pick up area before Carmella and I managed to be on the same level at the same time. Before you think that we are idiots, the levels are not labeled and the same airlines are listed on multiple levels. The whole thing is bonkers.
Once we finally made contact, we drove out to meet my good friends from Maryland, Sarah and Dave, who just so happened to be in town for a wedding and housesitting the same weekend that I was passing through! They asked their friends, whom they were housesitting for, if it would be alright if Carmella and I crashed at their house for 2 nights, and they kindly said, "Sure!"
So once again, I was treated to free lodging!
Fun factoid about Denver: it is nicknamed MENver for its abundance of single, manly mountain men. Supposedly, the ratio of Men:Women is the highest in Denver at 3:1. I'm not sure if the latest statistics still support this, but there sure seems to be an abundance of fine-lookin' lads in Denver.
Denver is a cute city, but it is not the mountainous landscape I was expecting. Therefore, we ventured out to Boulder where we were promised to find the classic mountain beauty I was looking for.
The canyon drive was spectacular and definitely the highlight from our Denver/Boulder time. I highly recommend driving the canyon and getting the opportunity to stare in wonderment at Mother Earth.
Denver also has a pretty good food scene and Dave, being a fellow foodie, knew where to go.
One of the food highlights was brunch at Snooze, where we were treated to truly amazing pancakes.
Snooze has an assortment of different types of pancakes- I got one Sweet Potato, Pineapple Upside-Down and Banana-Nutella. So. Frickin'. Good.
After departing Denver, we headed west to Grand Junction, CO to stay with Laken, my good friend from my time in New Zealand.
Before arriving in Grand Junction we stopped off in Vail. Vail in summer, of course, is in its off season, but since Vail is such a famous location it seemed like as good a place as any to make a rest stop. We didn't spend much time in the ski town, but we did walk around and grab some coffee. It is clearly a very charming town and I can easily picture the well-to-do inhabitants filling the streets sporting fashionable winter-wear and high-end ski equipment.
After departing Vail, we continued on to Grand Junction.
Grand Junction is a quaint small town, located in the high dessert at the very western side of Colorado. GJ has a charming main street that is reminiscent of most typical small, sweet townships: strips of one-story boutiques and shops that are pedestrian friendly and safe.
Laken's house is incredibly cute with a huge cherry tree in the back yard, of which we availed ourselves of its fruit.
Catching up with Laken, whom I hadn't seen in several years, was an absolute joy. We laughed and recounted old stories from trekking around New Zealand and the various shenanigans we got into.
There are few things that I enjoy more than sharing laughter, stories and ideas with friends all over the globe.
The next morning, Carmella and I packed up our things and headed towards Arizona to begin the desert adventure part of our expedition.