Sedona, Arizona – Arriving In The Desert

Rachel and I were a phone call away from moving to the southwestern United States in late 2019. The desert vibe really called to us and I love the heat. I enjoy when my face is melting off from the toasty warmth of the sun. When things fell through, we still kept talking about exploring more of the western half of the country. It was an area largely untapped by us except for a handful of trips in the past.

Overlook at a rest stop on I-17.
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My favorite hikes in Sedona

Sedona was chosen for a few reasons. The two biggest were that we’ve read so much about how beautiful of an area it was and it was a good spot for outdoor activities, which was a plus for COVID times. Here’s how our trip went:

Reagan National Airport (DCA) is not an airport we fly out of often in the DMV area. We usually find ourselves at BWI or IAD. The first thing we noticed was how ridiculously expensive parking was at DCA. The economy lot was $17/day and there were essentially no nearby lots available with better rates. Lesson learned from this: book parking well in advance or get a ride to the airport.

We flew with American Airlines for the relatively quick flight cross-country. There were two minor inconveniences that we ran into, however – first, I was unable to use the trip credit I received from switching our flights back in May. Since I couldn’t do that, I booked the tickets through the Hopper app which saved us a good chunk of change. When boarding passes became available, I was notified that my seat selections didn’t go through so we were randomly distributed into the cabin. No biggie, I was able to nod out for a good portion of the early morning flight.

Rental car Volkswagen Jetta from Hertz
Whip for the week.

We were picking up a car from Hertz which according to their website, “is prohibited from providing Pick Up and return Service if you arrive at an airport- either from the Hertz airport location or from any Hertz off airport location.” A quick Uber ride over, we were able to pick up our car for the next few days. I went with dealer’s choice netting us an early 2010s VW Jetta. A few dings and smoke stains, but an otherwise reliable vessel to get us from point-A to point-B.

We set off on our venture, an easy two and a half hour drive up I-17. The first thing we noticed was how green it was. We had expected it to be a barren desert all around with a few cacti poking up. It was really green however, with some rolling meadows and small tree forests blanketing the landscape. We passed the first two exits that our GPS had suggested, opting instead for the famous State Route 179, also known as the Red Rock Scenic Byway.

[To be continued in the next post…]

Highway 179, also known as the Red Rock Scenic Byway
Driving into Red Rock country

Two Of The Best Hiking Trails In Sedona, Arizona

Devil’s Bridge Trail and Doe Mountain Trail

Sedona, Arizona is a hotbed of outdoor excitement with fun excursions for every tier of adventurer. From fast mountain biking to a leisurely round of golf. Off road jeep tours to mind-blowing hot air balloons. In this post, I’m going to talk on hiking, specifically two trails that we did on our recent trip to the beautiful city.

Rachel had just broken one of the toes on her right foot one week before our flight left from Reagan National Airport (DCA) to Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), so despite her ability to manage the pain and keep it properly bandaged (remember, she had to nurse up an injury in Koh Tao, too), we wanted to keep the trails to beginner-to-intermediate in intensity. That turned out to be just fine, because the two that we did ended with rewarding treks and incredible vistas.

Devil’s Bridge Trail

One of the most popular hikes in Sedona is Devil’s Bridge Trail. We found three places to start from – if you have a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance, you can drive up to the parking lot for the trail and it’s a quick 1 mile hike to the viewpoint. If not, most people park in the Dry Creek Road parking lot and spend most of their hike walking along a dusty, dirt road until they reach the “official” lot. What I recommend is starting on Mescal Trail, which is just a few meters to the right from the end of Boynton Pass Rd. This will give you a more scenic walk.

We woke up at 4:00am for this hike, which is my usual wakeup time for work, but Rachel was surprisingly spry and ready. I made some energy giving breakfast in the form of eggs, tomatoes, and toast (I would later add onions and call it T.O.E. Toast.) I took 5 units of basal insulin and we set off for a twenty minute drive from our resort.

You start into the Mescal trail, which is an easy walk through some low trees, cacti, and yucca. As you pass by a shallow run and through the remainder of the trek, there are dozens and dozens of tiny little frogs hopping out of your way. I think I’ve figured them out to be Western Chorus Frogs because of their size, but I don’t recall them being particularly loud, nor does it fit the behavior section of their Wikipedia page. I will be sure to get a picture of the small amphibians the next time I’m there.

It’s a relatively easy walk without much elevation change as the glow from the sun has finally started to peak above the mountains, giving you just enough light to illuminate the path. By this time, you may start to see some of the nearby hot air balloons being inflated for a sunrise takeoff.

Devil's Bridge Trail, Sedona, Arizona
Panorama from just below the bridge. You’re almost there!

You’ll soon cross over a wide, dusty road into the actual parking lot and onto a wide, smooth path. It’s only about a mile to the finish from here, with a brief section of steep rock scrambling. Here is where your work pays off, as the view is more incredible than any picture can give it justice for. We got to the bridge at 6:35am and there were three parties of people in front of us, waiting to get pictures. Everyone was super nice, however, and swapped photography jobs while the others got to pose. A couple of girls were doing some intense acroyoga poses when we arrived!

My glucose levels had fallen to the mid-60s during this hike, but we had picked up some vegan oatmeal bites from Whole Foods on the way that provided a high-fiber source of carbs for me. In hindsight, I should have stopped to have one every half hour, instead of waiting to get to the top.

Devil's Bridge Trail, Sedona, Arizona
The views are spectacular!

The way back is just the same trail reversed and when you get back to the trailhead, you’ll now have the entire day ahead of you and an incredible hike already notched in your belt.

Doe Mountain Trail

While Devil’s Bridge is one of the most popular trails in Sedona, Doe Mountain Trail is arguably one of the most underrated hikes in the area. We took the same approach to this hike, waking up at 4:00, but we really wanted to get to the peak before sunrise, so we got ready and scarfed down some breakfast much quicker, reaching the parking lot at 5:00am. This lot has a public restroom and requires a $5 parking pass, which is payable with card via a kiosk at the trailhead. I scaled back to 4 units of basal to avoid a low, which kept me at a much steadier blood glucose level.

We started into the path, which was essentially just a series of switchbacks and moderate rock scrambles until you reached the final climb. We were here to beat the sun, so we didn’t stop to take much in. On the way down, however, we were slower and able to appreciate the trail a bit more, including a view of Bear Mountain to the north.

The final ascent is a climb through a narrow cut in the rock. It’s easy, but you’ll need to use your hands.

Rock scramble at Doe Mountain, Sedona, Arizona
The final rock scramble.

Once at the top, a series of markers will lead you to the other side of the mesa and reward you with an amazing view of the valley. We beat the sun to the mountain top and were able to set up on a perch while we watched it climb over the mountains in the east.

I call this trail severely underrated, because it offers 360° views of the area and we shared the top with only one other guy who raced up the trail with the same, sunrise-beating intention.

There is a loop around the top which is fairly easy to stray off of, which we managed to do. The cell reception is actually pretty good, so we used the AllTrails app and followed the perimeter of the mesa until we found the trail again. Going as early in the morning as we did, granted us plenty of time to explore around the top; however, in the later parts of the morning, you’ll want to be aware of the sun and how much its beating down on you in the limited cover.

Hugging the edge of the mesa, we followed a group of hot air balloons as they ascended around the mountain, getting so close that we could hear the whoosh of the flame and the chatter of the ballooneers.

Unparalleled.

The trek back down is fine and when you turn around and see the scale of the mountain you just climbed, you feel really proud. We even got to see one of the hot air balloons land which is much more impressive feat than I had thought – they worked in tandem with a van on the road to land on a trailer it was pulling!

These were two of my favorite hikes I’ve done, and I cannot wait to get back to Sedona to see more of its beautiful scenes.

Have you been to Sedona? What are your favorite trails?

QUICK READ: Where To Find Your American Airlines’ Trip Credit

If you remember back to early May, 2021, I had to make the hard decision of cancelling our trip to Costa Rica and reroute to Tulum. I was fairly happy at the time, as we were getting a few hundred dollars back in trip credits because American Airlines (AA) was offering no-change fees at the time due to COVID-19.

American Airlines
I haven’t flown with American much, but I have enjoyed my limited flights with them.

Here we are, nearly four months later, and I can’t seem to find out exactly how much I have or how to redeem them. In an effort to save you some time, I’m currently typing this as I sit on hold. Before I share with you the end result, let me take you through the process that may end up saving you time in the future.

The first time that I tried calling was around 10:15pm. The department is open 24 hours and I felt like that would be a time when they weren’t busy. I sat on hold for 30 minutes before hanging up to try again the next day (I have to be up at 4am for work, so I wanted to salvage a little bit of sleep.)

Two days later, I was off so I got through my morning routine, called at 11:51am and was fully prepared to lounge around for a while waiting for my call to get answered. A short while into the menu, I was offered a callback option that promises that you won’t lose your spot in line. “Okay,” I thought, “I have off the next day too, just incase this call back doesn’t happen.”

The recording did say that the call would likely happen after 4 hours. Around 5:30, I had started to suspect that the call-back thing was a hoax, so Rachel and I went to the movies. We saw Stillwater at a recently renovated cinema that has a really cool, warehouse aesthetic to it. Matt Damon did a great job in the flick and its setting of Marseille seemed very authentic, rather than an overly romanticized Euro destination.

The film came and went, we got home and I got settled in for the evening. 9:23pm hits and my phone rings. It’s the American Airlines Reservations number.

I got to speak with a great associate on the other end who was able to get me the solution I needed, the ticket number from my original return and the amount they could be redeemed for. I have also created my AAdvantage account so that any future credits can be automatically added to my wallet.

Now, I’m running into my next question – what is the difference between a flight credit and a trip credit? I purchased some cross-country tickets but wasn’t allowed to

I had assumed that it was domestic vs international flights, but I’m not positive after looking through their site. As I have titled this post a Quick Read, I’ll save the results of my search for my next post.

Can I Travel With An Expiring Passport In 2021?

Finally. As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out and infection rates plateau or drop (we’re not here to talk about the Delta variant today), borders are opening and countries are starting to allow U.S. tourists in again. We spent over a year off of planes and trains, waiting… waiting… waiting for travel to become a thing again. Now we’re ready to dust off our favorite backpack, purchase some round-trip tickets, and uh oh – your passport expires this year.

My passport expires after my trip, that doesn’t matter, right?

Actually, it does. Depending on where you’re going, the destination country may require your passport to be valid for a specific amount of time after your departure date. Take for instance, the Schengen Area which requires a U.S. passport to be valid for 3-months after your ticket home. For a country like Mexico, it’s recommended that your passport be valid for at least 6-months to avoid the potential for not being allowed in, although their immigration officers may let you through with proof of a short stay and a return ticket (ie. vacation).

Okay, fine. How long does it take to renew?

According to the U.S. State Department website, the current timeframe for a routine renewal is 18-weeks from day of submission. This doesn’t include the time for the original passport to be delivered through the notoriously backed up U.S. Postal Service.

For an additional $60 (don’t forget to write “Expedite” on your envelope), you can get that quickened to a 12-week timeframe. This accounts for 6-weeks of processing and 6-weeks of mailing. One to two day shipping is also available for about $18. If you forget to do this or want to add it later, you can call a dedicated phone number and they’ll email you a form to send back with what services you want and your credit card information. Unfortunately, this could take 4-weeks to process.

Wow, that’s a long time, but it shouldn’t take that long (or worse).

There are currently (as of late-July 2021) over 2 million passport applications – both new and renewal – that are sitting in limbo waiting for processing. To make matters worse, due to COVID, the State Department has had severe staff shortages across the country, which are thankfully being addressed.

With the considerable backlog and slow staffing response, it could take every minute of those 12 and 18-week timeframes to get your passport back (if not longer).

Is Somebody Doing Something About This?

People around the country have been voicing their concerns and criticisms to their legislators about the delay that is keeping people from going on vacation, arranging business trips, or seeing loved ones. Bipartisan legislation was introduced to solve this problem. The hiccup? It gives the current administration 30-days to present a plan and another 30-days to implement it. Not much help for the people currently in the long queue asking themselves “will it, or won’t it.”

What Can I Do?

The simplest thing you can do is be patient and hopeful. The State Department website offers a tracking service that will tell you if your passport is still being processed or if it’s been approved.

If you still haven’t received your passport and you’re supposed to be traveling internationally within 72-business hours, you can try to schedule an in-person appointment, though these are severely limited and you have to play the dreaded “hold” game since appointments are offered only over the phone. To clarify, you can start calling for an appointment with 2-weeks to go until your trip, but the appointment has to be within 3-business days.

Your last option is to purchase travel insurance that will cover some of the money you may need to recoup. Unfortunately, most insurances won’t cover a missing passport as part of its base plan, so you’ll have to find a company that offers (and opt in) for a Cancel For Any Reason policy. This usually adds on about 40% to the cost of the base insurance plan and pays back anywhere between 50-75% of the trip cost (you have to purchase 2-3 weeks after your first trip purchase) but that’s better than losing everything!

In the past, I’ve used World Nomads for my travel insurance company; however, they don’t offer a Cancel For Any Reason policy, so I have since switched over to Trawick International – the same company that I had gone with for our failed Costa Rica trip due to their great COVID coverage. You must purchase the travel insurance no more than 21 days after your first trip deposit; anything older than that will not be covered. Other companies that offer the policy include AIG and Travel Safe, but feel free to check with your normal travel insurance provider.

Thanks for reading and safe travels!

Unexpected News

I was going to post this either on my birthday (end of June) or as my 50th post, but sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Case in point…

I was diagnosed as diabetic at the end of April, 2021 and confirmed as Type-1 at the beginning of June. This, obviously, puts a new obstacle in between me and my ever-developing passion for travel and learning what the world can offer.

You will see my posts shift in the future to focus more on how I plan to overcome this setback and continue to see new places and people. I realized that not a lot of information exists for those traveling carb-consciously and I am determined to learn to live with this disease in a positive manner and provide help to others who may be in a similar situation.

Just wanted to keep you in the loop and I look forward to more safe travels in the near future. *hint, hint, it’s on a peninsula known for great food and dance*

Understanding The Pyramid of Positive Thinking

How I Completely Missed The Purpose Of This Art Piece

Along our trek back from Aldea Zama, I wanted to stop by an art installation that I had read about, the Pyramid of Positive thinking. It was right along our path back to the resort.

The start of the path.

The structure starts with a path that winds through the trees, ducking beneath red arches that represent a snake that leads to a small opening and a large pyramid. 12 meters wide and 12 meters tall, the Pyramid of Positive thinking was constructed by Xavier de Maria y Campos to commemorate the year 2012, which coincided with the end of the Mayan calendar cycle – an event that signals the transition into a new Baktun.

The Pyramid of Positive Thoughts

Upon approaching the installation, I ignored the detailed signage that was posted to instruct visitors about the purpose of the art piece and how they can contribute to it. Instead, I walked straight for a set of very steep stairs on the side of the pyramid and climbed to the top. I peered inside of the pyramid and was immediately disgusted; it was full of plastic bottles. I had thought people turned what could have been a really nice work of art in the middle of a nice neighborhood into an oversized trash bin.

I was wrong.

Inside the pyramid.

When I got home, I did some more research on the pyramid and found that the bottles were fully intentional. Xavier had encouraged visitors to write down one positive thought on a piece of paper, insert it into a PET bottle (Polyethylene terephthalate – a 100% recyclable plastic material), and layered within soil containing regional plant seeds. Over time, the structure will decompose and leave a pyramid of green that has been imbued with the positive energy of the visitor’s thoughts.

Reflecting back, I wish I had taken the time to read the signage and learn about the art piece before passing swift judgement and leaving the area with a poor taste that it didn’t deserve. Nearly a decade later, I do think the artist may have leaned towards a more environmentally-safe method of building the structure (a biodegradable substance rather than plastic) if he had created it today, but I am encouraged by the mission behind the art piece and look forward to slowing down the next time I see a piece of art that has been designed to spread positivity.

Relaxing At An Oasis In Tulum

The sun was hot, beating straight down on us. The trees that flanked the dusty road did nothing to shade us from the heat. We were walking from our AirBnb from the previous night to our resort that we would stay at for the remainder of the trip. As we passed a semi-busy looking resort called Mystiq, we paused for a second to make sure we were heading the correct direction. Yep – shouldn’t be much farther. Our resort had only opened earlier this year so a lot of online maps weren’t quite updated enough to show an exact location.

Finally, after what seemed like a while, we came upon a very large, wooden sign that read KAN Tulum. Beyond the sign, a dirt path stretched into the jungle. I didn’t even mind the extra walk, because at least it was in the shade. We passed some signs on the trees that definitely fed to the younger-generation lifestyle. “#GreenVibesOnly.”

Once we approached the security gate, we were let in and WOW! I couldn’t believe this lush, green oasis was just a stone’s throw away from the hot, dusty road on which we were just walking. We were guided to the reception desk where Edith welcomed us and gave us a tour of the property. It was absolutely beautiful. The paths intertwine through large, vibrant plant life, passing a hanging tear drop chair, a hammock, then to the pool which was fairly well centered and gave us a good visual of the property. A large building on the far side of the pool was where they offered massages and a really neat, bamboo-covered bridge led you to their breakfast/drink bar and the resort eventually plans on opening a vegetarian restaurant once they’ve expanded.

We were allowed to roam the property until our room was ready (check-out from our AirBNB was 4 hours prior to our check-in at KAN Tulum) but right when we went to get our swimsuits from our bags, they told us it was ready. Sweet!

We were shown to our room, which I guarantee had the best view on the property (seriously, we could see everything while still maintaining a little privacy on our terrace.)

According to their website, there are five room floorplans (which I think only two currently exist, the rest are part of the expansion. I could be wrong.) and it was very well thought out. The room we stayed in wraps around from the bedroom/kitchenette to the bathroom with a large, beautiful, two-sided mirror acting as the barrier between the king-size bed and a big, Instagram-worthy tub.

They used a breathable concrete made from a local root

I’d like to take the next couple sections to talk about 3 amazing highlights from our stay:

The Bar

Now this isn’t at all for the obvious reason. We did get one drink from the bar here – a really tasty passionfruit, mezcal cocktail – but it was $15 and we had other options. Mystiq, from up the road, had a mini-mart on its property where you can find bottles of wine for reasonable prices.

What the bar offered that really made our trip fantastic was its breakfast and coffee. Every morning, Saoul and his team presented a buffet style breakfast of vegetarian options from oats to fruit to beans to eggs and the styles varied each day. There were pitchers of fruit-infused water that I’ve been super exited to replicate at home in the new goblets I got in Charlotte. The meal was so good and we felt very healthy enjoying it.

Breakast views.

The staff was also always available to present us with coffee all the time. There was always someone around to brew together an Americano or Almond Latte. We really appreciated sitting at the pool and being handed a “cold coffee” which was really set off by coconut flakes.

The Pool

Despite seeing other people staying at the resort, we essentially had the pool to ourselves whenever we wanted. The water was comfortably warm like a bath and the sun fluttered in and out from behind the shade of the trees giving you an alternating warm shine and a cool escape from the heat. It was the perfect recipe for a nice tan.

The Cenote
View from the walkway.

One of the absolute best things to do on the Yucatán peninsula is to visit and swim in cenotes, underground water wells that are created by the collapse of limestone caves. KAN Tulum just happens to have one on the property, a few strides from the pool and overlooked by the bar.

A pump-fed waterfall creates a really nice look to the cenote, but once it turns off, you can see all the way through the calm, cool water to the bottom. We jumped in, splashed around, and floated above the water surrounded by cavern walls.

I cannot wait to come back to Tulum and explore the ruins and area around here and I will undoubtably stay at KAN Tulum again.

There are a couple nests above the rooms with great views; we just couldn’t think of a pose.

QUICK READ: Getting Through TSA During Covid

We woke up to the second delay of our flight, bumping it back now to two hours after our initial takeoff time. That’s no big deal, as we had a long enough layover between flight legs to accommodate, but it would have been nice to get those two extra hours of sleep.

Flying out of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airport (BWI), we arrived to a much busier airport than we expected. Our shuttle from long-term parking was full and when we arrived, the line for security was seemingly endless.

The line was long, but it moved pretty quickly and the TSA agents were pretty friendly this morning. The only holdup was the three people in front of me set off the metal detector which bottlenecked the process. The first guy was an older gentlemen who left several accessories on before being instructed to remove them one at a time until he passed through successfully. The second lady left her watch on which set it off. The last guy left his phone and keys in his pocket that set it off. No need to remove your shoes, either, as you’re required to walk in tandem with a partner past a K-9 unit that sniffs behind you.

All in all, it only took 20 minutes to get through, but I’m very surprised at how busy this airport is.

Purchasing Travel Insurance For Costa Rica In 2021

We have an upcoming trip to Costa Rica – our first international trip since the start of the pandemic. The country opened its borders to U.S. citizens last November with no quarantine, negative test, or vaccination requirements.

We’re covered.

That gave me pause for a long while before inevitably deciding to purchase our plane tickets and prep for this trip. A few key reasons I felt safe to do so are that Costa Rica was one of the first Latin American countries to start vaccinating their citizens and there is a good culture of social distancing, sanitization, and mask-wearing in the country. With no standing army to fund, the country’s budget goes toward a very good healthcare system here. I also work in an environment that puts me in close contact with a lot of people on a daily basis. This trip may just limit my exposure to other people for a week or so. We won’t be entering any areas that are deemed “Orange Zones” where cases have increased. Flying into the smaller Liberia airport (rather than the usual San Jose airport) and driving around the north-west portion of the country, we’re avoiding all of the areas that have had any kind of problems.

While there are no quarantine, negative test, or vaccination requirements, there are a few things that Costa Rica does require before you can enter the country:

  • Fill out an online Health Pass with basic info and stating that you’re not experiencing any COVID-related symptoms.
  • Must have Travel Insurance that covers a minimum of $50,000 in COVID-related cases and $2,000 in extended lodging expenses.
  • The U.S. does require a negative test within 72 hours of your returning flight.

In the past, I’ve traveled with World Nomads insurance, however the verbiage on their policies led me to believe they wouldn’t cover COVID-related medical expenses. Without the 100% certainty and some recommendations from a few vlogs and blogs, I went with Trawick International who has an insurance policy, called the Safe Travels Voyager, designed specifically for Costa Rica’s requirements. For about $55/person, we’re covered for more than the country’s minimums.

This will be my first flight since pre-COVID, so I’m interested to see how different the travel process may feel. If the journey is what we remember, this whole atmosphere is definitely one not to forget.

QUICK READ: Driving from Maryland to Charlotte, NC.

For a quick weekend trip, we went down to visit some friends in Charlotte – it’s about a 6.5 hour drive from west-central Maryland where we live. The drive is mostly along one of my least favorite highways, I-81, but it wasn’t too bad for the way down.

Starting from Frederick, MD, I can either drive all the way back up towards the MD/PA border to get onto 81 or I can take some backroads through the boonies to merge onto it in West Virginia. I chose the latter.

Slight majority of the drive is open like this.

The first half of the trip offers plenty of stops and sights. Some of my favorite being:

  1. Harper’s Ferry – a historical beauty of a town where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet at the crossroads of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. I really enjoy stopping here for the Maryland Heights hiking trail then grabbing some well-deserved ice cream or a beer on the way out.
  2. Hollywood Casino at Charles Town – I went a few times over the stretch of two years in my younger 20’s. I made the mistake of winning a little bit on my first couple trips which boosted my confidence enough to lose all of those winnings in subsequent trips. Nevertheless, it’s a fun place to give away your money until 3am.
  3. The next couple hours are home to some pretty vies of farms and tons of farm animals. Seriously, I have never seen that many cows in one span of time.
  4. Natural Bridge and Virginia Safari Park – I have been to the second one and it’s a great time that I highly recommend. I’ll write about it here in the near future. The first stop, however, I have not been to, but would love to see the 215-ft tall limestone gorge.
  5. Luray and the surrounding caverns – I can’t say I have a big interest in cave systems or the underground (read my post about the Parisian Catacombs for my thoughts on naked mole rats), but it would be neat to see the largest and most popular cave systems on the U.S. east coast.
  6. Asheville, NC. – Okay, so this isn’t exactly on the way. It’s at least 1.5 to 2 hours out of the way, but it’s a badass town that I only got to explore once and have plenty more to see.

There’s a beautiful vista along the highway just before you get to the VA/NC border that makes you say “wow” when you pass, and if you’re lucky enough to get on the road without a bunch of tractor trailers, the drive isn’t too bad.

Pop on a playlist or podcast of your choosing and enjoy the drive.

Have you been down 81 in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, or North Carolina? What stops do you like to make or do you just drive straight through/