CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It all began years ago with a pact with my best friend since kindergarten and college roommate, Patty Johnston. We both love to travel, and we set out on a joint quest after college to visit all 50 states.
Combining "independent study" with group efforts, we also included our husbands, John and Larry. Toward the end, we even had them stopping with us to read historic monument placards aloud -- in unison. The rules were relatively lax, although it was a must to actually spend time in each state. Touching down at an airport didn't count. We're talking boots on the ground.
Both of us had a couple dozen states under our belts by our 30s, and then busy careers and lives intervened. We definitely got serious in the next decade as Patty's daughter, Caity, made us branded sweatshirts with a "Fifty by Fifty Tour" logo. OK, the pressure was definitely on! And I'm glad to say we made it (although John and I crossed off our last state, Oklahoma, just a week shy of the deadline -- and loved closing out our national tour with the Will Rogers Museum).
Lots of surprises greeted us along the way. I've come up with some awards below -- some predictable, some maybe not so much.
Strangest nature phenomenon: New Mexico
The "fly out" of thousands of bats at dusk from Carlsbad Caverns was the most dramatic (and quickest) nature change I've ever seen. Within moments, the Southwest sunset hues of lavender, pink and aqua faded to total blackness as the bats from this region made their daily nocturnal appearance.
Most stunning scenery: Alaska
No surprise here, although it's not really a fair comparison. This state ought to be in a category unto itself. It's hard to compete with the blue tint on magnificent ice sculptures that have been in place for hundreds of thousands of years. Approaching them was like being on a movie set: "Cue the glaciers." When we actually got to hike on them, it was surreal.
Honorable mentions in this category go to Arizona and Utah. You just can't stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, contemplating its vastness and the multiple hues, carved out by centuries of nature's workings, without being wonderstruck. I was similarly awestruck by the red rock formations in Sedona -- one of my favorite places on the planet -- and Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley in Utah. The formations are so magnificent they appear as if they've been carved intentionally, with names like Coffee Pot, Lizard Head and Cathedral Rock.
State most similar to West Virginia
Because of its remoteness at the top of our mainland United States, I'd long held a fascination about Maine. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised, though, that it was so similar to our native state with its lush green vegetation and many lakes and rivers.
John and I sailed a great bit of this state. One huge contrast with West Virginia is in the ubiquity of lobster pots that dot the waters around Bar Harbor and Mount Desert. Rather than idyllic cruising, the helmsman had to be ever vigilant about dodging those lobster pots.
"There's one at 2 o'clock," our fellow crew members would shout. "Watch out at 10" was another refrain. It's a wonder there are any lobsters left! That didn't deter us, though, from availing ourselves of this local delicacy when we anchored or docked for the evening.
Most-needed state merchandise: Wisconsin
Hello? When one crosses the border into Wisconsin, you'd think there would be cheese hats galore. After all, Idaho didn't let us down by not having any baked potatoes when we crossed its border at 2 a.m. Not so with Wisconsin. Patty and I drove from place to place in search of the indigenous headgear -- incredulous to find them nowhere in sight. Thank goodness for the Green Bay Packers' website!
Favorite regional delicacy: Vermont
Thanks to our tours of Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry's, new favorites in our household are Vermont white cheddar cheese and Chunky Monkey ice cream.
Most diverse states: California and North Carolina
From cacti and balmy temps in the south to fog, chill and vineyards in the north, California is a land of contrasts. And then there's North Carolina's hundreds of miles of coastal regions and beaches on its eastern border, contrasted with the Great Smoky Mountains on the western side.