Traveling the U.S., in Bursts

This past winter and spring, I traveled to four different American destinations, Taos, New Mexico; Vail, Colorado; Asheville, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas, each for pretty brief spurts of time. The clustering of trips was unplanned. I am someone who likes to spread out travel to have more time away for one vacation rather than less time for more vacations. I think this makes sense both from a financial standpoint—you spend less money on flights, which are one of the most expensive costs of travel— and because you get more out of a place and can actually feel like you’re on vacation. Traveling for only a few days at a time means that a greater proportion of your time is eaten up by traveling to and from airports. If you live in New York City, you know that traveling to the airport, whether by train, bus, or cab, will take a good chunk of time. 

Two of these trips were for bachelorette weekends, and a third was for a film festival that my my friends got into. Since I was in these spots for a short time, I don’t have a lot to offer, but that doesn’t stop me from writing about it!

Taos, New Mexico 

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In New Mexico, I went skiing for two days with friends, went to some nice restaurants in Taos, and spent a day in the town of Taos and another in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as at a winery and vineyard between Taos and Santa Fe. My friends and I stayed at an Airbnb about 25 minutes of a drive from skiing. It had a nice long dining table and a comfortable main room with a big window looking out onto the parched valley as well as, of course, a hot tub. It’s worth visiting a winery in New Mexico, if only to see what a small operation it is. I went to La Chiripada Winery in Dixon, New Mexico, which felt more like someone’s house than a winery.

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Recommendation Definitely go skiing at Taos. It’s much more reasonably priced than Vail (see below) and just as good of an experience, if not better. The restaurants and bars have a nicer ambience and are less expensive, and the skiing is great. Also check out Taos Pueblo, perhaps the oldest housing in the U.S. 

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At Taos Pueblo

Skip Santa Fe unless you’re doing a spa weekend with lady friends or have enough money to splash out on art. I was underwhelmed by this small city. It felt old and staid. I also went on a Monday which didn’t help. Read more about my travels in the Land of Enchantment.

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The barren landscape of Taos

Vail, Colorado 

I went to Vail because my friends’ movie was chosen to show at city’s annual film festival and spent one day skiing the large mountain. We stayed at a surprisingly inexpensive condo that was about a 25 minute walk from the center of Vail and 15 minutes from Lionshead, The condo had TVs in every room, including a huge TV in the main room, generic but comfortable overstuffed furniture, and a small balcony. Our complex had not one but two very nice, clear blue hot tubs. We were across the street from a stop for the city’s free bus, which is a nice service, albeit a bit confusing.

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Going up the lift on Vail’s large mountain

Recommendation If your goal is to go skiing in Colorado, I’d suggest looking somewhere a little cheaper and more memorable than Vail, which felt a bit like  Disneyworld’s version of a Swiss ski town. It’s posh, expensive, and yet not that memorable. That said, I had a great experience with one of the staff at Vail, who helped me deal with a treacherous morning freeze and get up the energy to stay on the mountain rather than quitting early. When my friend and I were at a bar in Lionshead, the bartender told us that O.J. Simpson used to come there a lot. What as he like? We asked. Oh, he was nice, the bartender said. Did a lot of coke. 

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Christina Ricci and Julie Delpy on a panel at the Vail Film Festival

The Vail Film Festival was a lot of fun. It was small enough to not feel like it was overrun with industry types (not that I know what I’m talking about) but large enough to have a good variety of films. We even got to see a panel with Christina Ricci and Julie Delpy talking about the challenges of being female in Hollywood. 

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My friend Keith and I enjoying the good life of the Vail Film Festival hospitality lounge

Asheville, North Carolina

I have long heard that Asheville is a beautiful, hilly area in the western part of North Carolina with a reputation for breweries and hippie-ish liberalism. But like many cities that were possibly once weird (see Austin), Asheville felt to me pretty yuppy. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It had a nice downtown with good shopping and the countryside is very close. We went to a salt cave that was part of a spa, which is a manmade room of salt where you lie down for 45 minutes and absorb the atmosphere. I’m skeptical of its claims to health benefits, but lying down uninterrupted for 45 minutes with nothing to do but think or sleep is so rare that it was if nothing else a relaxing experience. 

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The old Woolworth Co. in downtown Asheville

Recommendation Definitely check out a brewery or two. We went to one of the most well-known in the area, Wicked Weed, and although it was busy and very much on the beaten path, the beer was excellent and interesting. I ordered two fruity beers—one with grapefruit, the other raspberry—and both were subtle enough to be enjoyable, and I’m not generally a big fan of sweet or fruity beers. Since I was in Asheville for a quick weekend bachelorette party, I didn’t get a full taste of the city or its lovely surroundings, but I would definitely recommend taking advantage of the bucolic surroundings. 

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Battery Park Bookstore and Champagne Bar in Grove Arcade, downtown Asheville

Austin, Texas 

I had never been to Texas, besides a layover in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport several years ago, so it was exciting just to be able finally set foot in the Lonestar State–again, for a bachelorette party. There are few other states that have cultivated such a strong identity as Texas, and yet, I didn’t find Austin to be as memorable as I’d hoped. 

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The lovely neighborhood where we stayed

That’s not to say I didn’t like it, nor is it to say I saw everything that was to be seen. People in Austin were friendly, and we met a lot of fellow out-of-towners, as we seemed to be on the bachelorette party circuit, since we went to Rainey Street and 6th Street in the evenings and water tubing during the day. On a Sunday morning I went on a run to the University of Texas, Austin, which was about 1.5 miles from our Airbnb house. Austin reminded me more of Los Angeles than any other U.S. city I have been to. It feels a bit sprawled and has a lot of outdoor restaurants and bars as well as beautiful people. As you’ll see pretty soon, Austin’s motto is “keep Austin weird.” If where I visited was any indication, Austin will have to work pretty hard against the yuppification to stay weird.

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I did not go here but this spot, near UT-Austin, looked cool

Recommendation Austin was more urban than I expected, so I’d recommend deciding if you want to stay in the downtown area, which is closer to the nightlife, or out in a more residential part, as we did. We had to take an Uber-style car service just about everywhere, and it would have been fun to walk or cheaper to take public transit, but the latter is pretty limited. 

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We went tubing for $75 per person with a local company that bused us out to the San Marcos River and provided tubes for beer coolers–which is pretty much essential for tubing in Austin (or anywhere?). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to Barton Springs, Lady Bird Lake, South Congress. If I go back, I’d probably try to stay in the South Congress area to be near these sites. The nightlife I experienced in Austin on Rainey Street and 6th Street was pretty intense, and I don’t think it’s necessary to a good time in Austin, though Rainey Street by day is a nice collection of houses turned bars and restaurants.

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UnBARlievable on Rainey Street

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Austin is paddling upstream against yuppification to stay weird

Generalizations about America

It’s not worth traveling America if you can’t come away with a few generalizations, de Tocqueville-style, and here is what I observed in my bursts of American travel: 

  • America has a ton of sprawl. From every highway it seems like the same collection: big box stores, Macaroni Grills and Applebee’s, outlet malls, and subdivisions that seem like they have sprung up over night. 
  • There are still regional differences in our nation despite the uniformity of the sprawl. For one, the sprawl was much worse outside of Austin Texas than Albuquerque, New Mexico. People are more likely to wear cowboy hats in Texas and black in New York City.
  • Affluent parts of this country seem pretty similar to other affluent parts of the country, and do not have as much of a regional tinge to them. Vail, Colorado, reminded me for instance of Greenwich, Connecticut, just with fewer financial institutions. 
  • Despite America’s great influence around the world, it does not feel like Americans have a strong American identity the way other countries like France or Germany do. I’m sure are size has a lot to do with it, but I think it also has a lot to do with this country’s historic individualism, which is reflected in many of our towns and cities, many of which lack a nice center. More than other countries, our aspirations are for things that isolate us from one another : cars, houses, and private schools. Plus we have such high wealth inequality, meaning that Americans are living drastically different lives from one another.
  • Living in New York City means you get used to life without large grocery stores, dishwashers and washing machines in your apartment, and spacious restaurants and bars that have multiple bathroom stalls. So traveling just about anywhere outside of our fair city is somewhat like going to a foreign country. It’s a nice vacation from the tight quarters we maintain around here.