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The bright lights of Las Vegas were long gone by the time I pulled over outside Beatty, NV. I’d managed to convince my father to fly into Las Vegas and meet me, setting aside several days for desert exploration. We’d traveled 120 miles northwest so far and were about to reach our first destination.

The town of Rhyolite played a prominent role in the mining history of the Death Valley area. Gold-laced quartz was discovered in Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills by Shorty Harris and E. L. Cross in 1904, setting off a hectic period of activity that lasted from approx. 1905 to 1911. Though brief in duration, it was long enough to build a bustling community that grew to estimates of 5,000-10,000 in population at its peak. Electric plants, lodging facilities, saloons and assorted mercantiles grew quickly to match the demands of the town. A hospital, school, ice cream parlor and opera house were just a few of the many establishments that Rhyolite boasted during its heyday.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1907 financial panic both played a role in the demise of Rhyolite. The Montgomery Shoshone Mine, purchased by Charles M. Schwab in 1906 and the largest of the area’s mines, closed in 1911. The post office soon followed and in 1916 the electrical power in the town was turned off, leaving little but partial ruins and memories of busier days.

Crumbled walls and vacant lots now remain for visitors to see. The Tom T. Kelly Bottle House, built in 1906 with 50,000 beer and liquor bottles, stands complete, having been restored by Paramount Pictures in 1925. The old Las Vegas and Tonapah Railroad Depot looks down over the now ghost town from high on the hill, privately owned and carefully fenced off for protection. Portions of the Porter Brothers Store, old jail and three story John S. Cook and Co. Bank building are also still standing.

Our drive from Las Vegas landed us in Rhyolite too late for ideal photography light. Still, we snapped the shutters a few times and braved a chilly wind while wandering up and down the deserted main street.

Before leaving, we paused at the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which displays sculptures by numerous artists, including several by Albert Szukalski. His ghostly rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, as well as his “Ghost Rider” made this a very worthwhile stop. It’s no coincidence these figures look eeirily real. To create them, he draped plaster-soaked fabric on live models, later coating the hardened shapes with fiberglass. Against the dramatic desert backdrop, they are breathtaking.

With 35 miles left to drive before we could settle in for the night, we returned to the car and headed back to the highway, watching the remnants of Rhyolite fade into the hillside. Before us, an entire desert filled with mining history and geological wonders stood waiting. We turned southwest and headed for the entrance to Death Valley National Park.

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As much as my travels usually land me in historic hotels and funky log cabins, I have a new Las Vegas favorite lodging: Motel 6 Tropicana. Yep, that’s right. Good old Motel 6 has now left the light on for me twice in Sin City, the second time a result of how impressed I was with my first stay.

I’ll admit that I have to place this second to The Venetian, which is a city unto itself. Given an ample budget and a few days to relax and wander without leaving a property, that has always been my choice. But in a financial pinch and with canine in tow on a recent visit, I took advantage of the very reasonable 30.59 Internet rate for a “remodeled/remarkable” room at Motel 6 Tropicana, located on the corner of Tropicana and Koval.

Convenient to both The Strip and McCarren International Airport, this Motel 6 – the largest in the chain – turned out to be all that it advertises and more. The ‘remodeled/remarkable” rooms are indeed remarkable, with contemporary decor, flat screen televisions and a clever sitting area with work table in one corner. The beds are super comfortable and the bathroom spacious and immaculately clean. True to Motel 6’s general formula, guests won’t find a lot of fancy extras in the rooms. But everything needed for a comfortable night’s stay is there. And for a whopping 2.99 fee, Internet access for 24 hrs. can be included, as well.

The property itself is massive, with a large pool area that also offers tables and chairs in a garden setting. A desire for a snack won’t necessitate walking to the nearest fast food establishment. There’s a convenience store across from the front lobby – not a typical corner hotel alcove, but a building the size of a small 7-11, with as much variety. If looking for a full meal, there’s a Coco’s restaurant on the property as well, though the MGM Grand and other Las Vegas resorts and casinos are within walking distance.

Admittedly, this lodging establishment is not for those looking for massive suites with sunken living rooms, marble bathrooms and premium-stocked honor bars. Guests won’t find hot stone massages and aromatherapy body wraps on the Motel 6 menu. But still, all those nifty luxuries are just a short meander down the road. And for what customers save in room charges, it’s not inconceivable to add a treat or two to a trip.

A final note: customer service is clearly a priority at my new favorite Las Vegas budget digs. On both of my visits the front desk was friendly, courteous and helpful. That’s a nice icing on a cake that already exceeds expectations.

This last visit won’t be my last stay at Motel 6 Tropicana. The place deserves a shout out for the job they do, so there it is.

Virginia City, NV

When opportunity knocks, I believe in grabbing it. This is how I found myself stashed away in a funky hotel room in Virginia City, Nevada. With my trusty corgi mix for a companion. I was eastbound on Interstate 80, heading once again to Wyoming. I’d have two weeks to experience Jackson Hole’s winter wonderland, my first non-summer visit. And yes, I packed both Uggs and toasty warm gloves, along with a multitude of additional cold weather paraphernalia.

A vigil over weather.com earned me a day of smooth sailing over Donner Pass, with clear, ice-free highways and chilly but bearable temperatures. Once in Nevada, twisting mountain roads carried us twenty-three miles southeast of Reno, boasting magnificent views along the way. Traffic was light, rest stops were plentiful and we – canine and human – pulled into Virginia City in the late afternoon, landing at the foot of “C” Street, the historic mining town’s main drag.

My desire to visit Virginia City had been based on photographic opportunities, as I knew the town was packed with possibilities. But once I arrived it didn’t take long to realize the history of Virginia City was rich and colorful and well worth a visit with or without a camera.

With about an hour of daylight left, I decided it would be best to check into lodging before exploring. A perfect situation awaited me at The Silver Queen Hotel, which was both pet-friendly and located right in the heart of town. To make the choice even more enticing, I knew the hotel was a favorite among ghost hunters. With numerous accounts of hauntings, we were bound to have an interesting stay.

The Silver Queen herself reigns over the 1870’s saloon with an aura of wealth. Part painting, part mosaic, she stands 16 feet tall and boasts 3261 silver dollars, as well as 28 gold twenty dollar coins, all embedded with sparkling finesse. With a wedding chapel behind her, a dance floor in front of her and a bar to her left, the eeiry look on her face seems smug with tales untold.

Had I felt adventurous, I would have taken up the front desk’s offer of Room 11, the “haunted room,” as it was described to me. Based more on economy than fear, I took Room 7, instead, which was smaller, less expensive and had a convenient street-level entrance from its “B Street” side, behind the hotel. As with the rest of the hotel, the room was authentically restored, furnished with an antique brass bed and oak dresser and peaceful without television or telephone. A private bath and shower were welcome modern additions.

With the car parked and bags unloaded, we set out on foot to learn a little bit about Virginia City’s history. Wandering along the wooden plank boardwalks, with awnings and balconies hovering above, we peered in windows and read historic plaques. It was not hard to imagine the activity of the former mining days.

Silver and gold were first discovered by prospectors Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Reilly in 1859 on the east side of Mount Davidson in Nevada’s Washoe Mountains. What came to be known as The Comstock Lode was named after Henry Comstock, who convinced the prospectors that he was entitled to a share of the claim. The Comstock Lode would become the richest known silver deposit in the U.S., also yielding a substantial amount of gold.

With the influx of fortune seekers, the area became a hub of activity. During the 1860’s and 70’s Virginia City’s population grew to approimately 30,000 and the town offered all the ingredients of an old western town, including churches, hotels, saloons, opium dens and a prospering red light district. The walls of the local boarding houses and bars would undoubtedly have more than a few stories to tell.

Noticed by President Abraham Lincoln, the activity of The Comstock Lode helped finance the end of the Civil War and led to Nevada becoming a state in 1864. It essentially ended the California Gold Rush, as propectors flocked to the area to lay claims.

Investment money was needed to finance the operation of the lucrative underground mines. Much of this came from San Francisco, rewarding those investors with millionaire status. Mansions built by those made rich from The Comstock Lode can be seen today on Nob Hill. San Francisco’s first stock exchange, the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board, was organized to handle the trading of shares of silver mining companies.

Many benefitted from the wealth The Comstock Lode produced, including Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University and George Hearst, father of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst. While some became millionaires, still others sold out early and died poor. Henry Comstock was one of the less fortunate. Though his name remained attached to the lode, he moved on to prospect in other areas and eventually took his own life in Montana.

The Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built in 1869 to transport ore to quartz reduction mills in nearby Silver City and along the Carson River. On return trips, the railway carried wood for fuel and other supplies necessary for the mining process.

The “Great Fire of 1875” burned approximately three-fourths of the structures, but the town managed to get back on its feet within the following year and a half. Many buildings date to 1876, as a result of the massive rebuilding efforts.

The numerous veins of The Comstock Lode intertwined far below the earth’s surface, sending mining activities to new depths underground. The work conditions were extremely dangerous, plagued with cave-ins, flooding and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. Out of necessity, Virginia City’s mines became instrumental in designing improved mining technology.

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, Virginia City was only a shadow of the bustling town it had been during its mining heydays. In a twist of fate during the 1960’s, the popularity of the TV series “Bonanza” brought attention to the town. Though the series was filmed primarily on the backlot at Paramount Studios in So. Calif., with a few secondary locations, it succeeded in bringing visitors to the real Virginia City.

Another character linked to Virginia City is known not for his mining investments, but for his literary shenanigans. Author Samuel Clemens took on his pen name of Mark Twain while doing a stint as a local reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. His life in the colorful mining town is documented at the Mark Twain Museum. The author tells of his reporting days in “Roughing It”.

We returned to the hotel, this time entering from the main street and climbing a steep stairway that could easily take away a fit person’s breath even without factoring in the local 6200 ft. altitude. At the end of the narrow, gold-hued hallway we found our room and settled in for the night.

Whether it was because I opted out of Room 11 or simply because the resident spirits were feeling peaceful, I slept soundly. There were no mysterious footsteps outside the door and no glowing apparitions at the foot of the bed. Still, I admit to a certain aura within the building that was difficult to define. Perhaps it was just the inevitable sense of history that old buildings with interesting pasts seem to evoke. Perhaps.

Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. This status helps maintain the historic structures much as they were over a century ago. Today the town is a popular tourist attraction with casinos, bed and breakfasts, museums and a variety of other businesses. True, that means visitors will find an assortment of souvenirs and T-shirts scattered up and down the main street. But it also means a visit can mix fun with education, relaxation with a glimpse into the past.

On this visit, I was juggling a new camera, old laptop, freezing temperatures, leashed canine and limited time. I missed out on much of what Virginia City has to offer: intriguing old churches and numerous cemeteries, educational museum exhibits and tours of old mines and mansions.

Before moving on, we stopped at the Virginia City Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Crystal Bar. Here, below original tin ceilings and chandeliers, a very helpful Diamond Jim gave us additional area information and kindly posed for a picture with my traveling companion. With the day approaching noon, we left Virginia City and The Comstock Lode behind and headed back to catch Interstate 80 eastbound.

The Carmel Wayfarer Inn, on the corner of 4th Ave. and Mission St, is just one of many charming inns to be found in the city of Carmel, CA. Elegantly decorated and encircling a lush garden courtyard, we had reserved a room with king bed, trundle bed, fireplace and kitchen. It was spacious and decorated with French Country style. It was perfect for our weekend needs – a home away from home for two humans and two dogs.

We checked in mid-afternoon, with time to enjoy both the cranberry muffins waiting for guests at the front desk and the wine and cheese reception held between 4PM and 6PM. Brie and crackers helped tide us over until dinner. The room gave us a great place to relax comfortable after a long drive.

Arranged by a family relative, we met for dinner at Nico Ristorante, where a pet-friendly back patio allowed both humans and canines. Under the warmth of a heat lamp that dispelled the chill of the Carmel night, we sat down to a feast, served in white linen tablecloths which were graced with trios of yellow roses in flutes and flickering votive candles. It was a perfect meal in many ways, from cuisine to service to family company.

The menu featured dishes from both Italy and Greece. Plates of bruschetta and baskets of fresh bread with an anchovy-pesto dip were the first to arrive on our table. These were followed by plentiful servings of spinach fettuccini with pesto and walnuts, pasta carbonara and a variety of other equally delicious entrees. Red wine flowed freely, as did conversation in the elegant yet comfortable patio setting. The meal ended with tiramisu, crème brulee and baklava, accompanied by espresso for some and decaf for others.

The inn offers a morning breakfast, with homemade granola, fresh fruit, juice, yogurt and hard boiled eggs, along with fresh brewed coffee and an assortment of teas. We opted instead for breakfast at a local café, Belle, were we ordered a morning specialty of polenta with sautéed mushrooms and roasted Roma tomatoes, poached eggs and creamy goat cheese. We followed this with a stroll between galleries and stores, many offering water dishes and dog biscuits to four-legged friends passing by.

Carmel Wayfarer Inn is not the most luxurious inn in Carmel, but neither is it the most basic. Sometimes in-between is just right – amenities that are upscale enough to make for a delightful stay with a price tag that doesn’t break the bank. The décor is warm and inviting and the rooms are immaculate. Having a kitchen as an option is a bonus, especially for guests staying for more than one night. The fireplace: yet another plus.

The inn’s location is excellent, an easy three block walk to Ocean Ave., the hubbub of shopping activity. A longer, downhill walk of about nine blocks leads to the beach, saving the hassle of parking, though necessitating a huffier and puffier uphill return to the inn. Not a bad way to work off spinach fettuccine, though.

I almost missed old town Truckee altogether. I hadn’t been there for decades and took a turn off the freeway that sent me past condominiums, luxury cabins, spiffy new office buildings and a few upscale shops and businesses I had remembered a mountain community with historic structures and was baffled by the modernization, as often happens when revisiting a small town after it’s had years of growth. Fortunately, I decided to take one last loop back in the opposite direction, where I found the old town I sought.

Built in 1873, The Truckee Hotel has worn the hat of many names – American Hotel, Whitney Hotel, The New Whitney Hotel (which it inherited after most of the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1909,) Hotel Blume, Riverside Hotel, Alpine Riverside and, since 1976, The Truckee Hotel. It won an award in 1994 for historical restoration and is easy walking distance from historic downtown Truckee’s shops and cafes.

Guests need to have an appreciation for the authentic historic ambiance, as opposed to the modernized historic hotel luxury of some older hotels. Heated by the original steam system, there’s always a chance it might go out during the night, which is what it did on my visit – on a twenty-four degree night, no less.

On the other hand, a hotel with central heat, air conditioning and other updated luxuries would not have cost a mere fifty-nine dollars for the night. This was a mountain town and I specifically chose The Truckee Hotel for the mountain experience. Expectation plays a big part in perceived experience. I simply donned a jacket and gloves and snuggled under the covers.

In spite of having a bath down the hall, I was delighted with my room. Where the in-room bath might have been – at twice the room price – I had a sitting area with couch, table and chairs. The bedroom section held an old brass bed, antique dresser and side table and a wash basin with a small mirror and light above. A wall rack and basket offered towels, washcloths, soaps and hand lotion.

I found dinner in an eatery just across the street, a former Bank of America now named the Bar of America. Serving the purpose of both bar and restaurant, I grabbed a table in the dining section which bore the name of Pacific Crest Grill. Though the menu featured elegant options such as Homemade Mushroom Ravioli with basil cream sauce and hazelnuts or Coriander Crusted Ahi with gingered carrot reduction, I went for a simple salad and small Margherita Pizza.

The salad – bibb lettuce with candied almonds, shaved parmesan and champagne vinaigrette, may have been the best salad I’ve ever tasted. The pizza was also excellent, with thick slices of Roma tomatoes and no skimping on the sauce or cheese. I ate two small slivers and saved the rest for the next day. Classy ambiance and decor, upbeat music that ranged from soft jazz to flamenco and excellent service all contributed to a great meal.

The hotel offers a basic continental breakfast, served in a common room on the second level of the four-floor hotel. I picked up a blueberry muffin, some orange juice and hot coffee and returned to my room for a bit before departing for the day’s drive.

Idaho Potato Museum

I scrounged through my glove compartment for my secret stash of coins. The small Tupperware container wasn’t hard to find. I was pleased to see I’d also stashed a couple dollar bills in there. It’s something I always recommend – keeping a small can or tin of change available. It comes in handy at some point, for coffee, or a soda, or a parking meter. This time it would get me into an unusual attraction that I’d spotted along I-15 as I approached Blackfoot, ID. Nestled in the city’s 1912 train depot was my unexpected find – the Idaho Potato Museum.

I admit I was skeptical at first, so much so that I blinked a couple times when I first saw the “Potato Museum” sign. Blasting across Idaho en route to Nevada, I hadn’t planned to make any stops. But my curiosity was too much to bear. What on earth could be in a potato museum? I had to find out.

A kind receptionist greeted me at the desk of the combined museum-gift shop. The entry fee was 3.00, discounted to 2.50 for AAA members. I paid my fee and stepped through the doors into an agricultural world of wonder.

With topics ranging from the history of the potato to harvesting techniques to the development of farming equipment, the multi-room exhibit held more than I could have imagined. One glass display case held the world’s largest potato “crisp,” measuring 25 by 14 inches, recorded in the Guiness Book of World Records. Another boasted a colorful collection of potato head dolls, sporting styles that ranged from a Spiderman outfit to a Philadelphia Phillies batting helmet. Other museum cases displayed potato mashers – hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes.

On the less whimsical side, a variety of potato-oriented antique farm equipment made it clear that the spuds that grace our American tables don’t arrive there without hard work on the part of the growers. Long, wooden potato sorters and a hefty burlap sack stitching machine were just two of the many pieces of machinery on display.

Side exhibits included buckets, baskets, crates and even special shoes designed for preparing the ground for planting. Murals depicted laborers at work in the fields. Burlap sacks were plentiful, many with unique designs and all proudly labeling the prized contents.

One educational – and amusing – wall presented cutouts of potatoes with tidbits of potato trivia, giving visitors a few facts to tuck away in cranial corners for future knowledge – or to enjoy for the moment. After all, who hasn’t ever wondered how many 4” French Fries it would take to circle the Equator? The answer, per the display at the Idaho Potato Museum, is 393,779,549.

I couldn’t help spotting a large reproduction of a Marilyn Monroe poster, featuring her posed in the middle of a potato field, wearing a remarkably attractive burlap outfit. Spurred on by a comment a reporter had made that the actress would look good even in a potato sack, her publicity agent devised a clever marketing promotion that featured her in a bag-turned-fashion-outfit from Long Produce in Twin Falls, ID.

A video presentation ran continuously in a center room, giving guests a glimpse into the potato industry from a historical perspective. Noted botanist Luther Burbank is credited with developing Idaho’s most popular potato, known as the Russet Burbank, which dates back to a single “seed ball” he discovered in New England in 1872.

Several wall-length layouts of photos and captions offered information on various aspects of potato production. One detailed the grading of potatoes for commercial distribution. Another described optimal climate, soil and irrigation factors.

I took a second walk through the museum before leaving, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Sure enough, I had managed to overlook an early twentieth century rodeo queen’s burlap outfit, as well as a potato autographed by Dan Quayle, complete with its own glass display case.

A bonus for visitors is a complimentary box of hash-browns, handed out in a clever sack-style bag. I tucked this gift away in my car and hit the road, taking with me a little newfound insight into Idaho’s top agricultural industry.

Lamoille, NV

I drove into Nevada from the north, leaving Twin Falls, ID and traveling a highway dotted only by sagebrush and an occasional miniscule town. I reached Wells, NV, early enough in the afternoon that it made sense to keep driving, so I checked my notes and headed for Nevada’s claim to non-desert: the Ruby Mountains.

After an odd response from an upscale ranch in the area (“We really only take guests we already know, or who know someone we already know…”) I stumbled across the Pine Lodge and Hotel Lamoille. Here hospitality was abundant, both from Pine Lodge, the restaurant, and Hotel Lamoille, a three room lodging establishment. And it was located just an easy twenty minute drive down State Route 227, south of Elko.

Formerly one business and now owned by two separate owners, the two sit side by side and make a convenient and comfortable stop for visitors to the strikingly scenic area. And with the soothing greenery of Lamoille and the hideaway ambiance of a very small town, it’s a good place to escape from the standard casino-studded cities along Interstate 80.

Under gray skies, I pulled into the driveway of Hotel Lamoille, a small structure with a western façade hiding a basic house in back, converted to hold three guest rooms. There was no response when I knocked on the front door, but a quick call to the hotel’s posted phone number brought a quick response. I was soon checked into Room 3, tucked around the back of the building. Cows grazed in a pasture behind the building and a field to the side stood ready for visits by local deer.

More a suite than just a room, I had a living room with couch and DirectTV, a bedroom with a quaint antique dresser and very comfortable bed and a private, newly-remodeled bath – all for a reasonable fee. Freshly painted and immaculately clean, it defied the somewhat funky image of the building from the outside. As an added plus, Pine Lodge was just next door, offering easy access to a hot meal. After a day on the road nibbling on snacks, I was ready for some real food.

Pine Lodge is housed in a cabin-style building with an interior resembling an old hunting lodge. Tables fill a room with an impressive stone fireplace, while booths line the back wall, each offering a large window view of a wildlife diorama, complete with aspens branches, brush and an assortment of taxidermy guests who would clearly not be stealing any bites of my dinner.

The restaurant offers a wide variety of steak and seafood entrees, but I chose an off-the-menu option of pasta with tomato and basil, served with a green salad and warm French bread. Entrees all come with a potato choice and vegetables – more than I needed. It was no surprise that I turned down dessert.

I slept well and, as promised, morning arrived with deer just outside. I startled a young buck by opening my door too quickly, but he soon returned to continue his morning munching on the nearby foliage. A light rain during the night had left the air crystal clear.

As for my own morning meal, I was graciously treated to breakfast by Marsha, Mike’s wife and co-owner of the Hotel Lamoille, at the other local eatery – there are just two in town and only one serves breakfast. The Bitter End Tavern – formerly, and still called, O’Carroll’s by locals – was clearly the center of town activity, with most customers sitting around the bar exchanging local tidbits of news. Marsha and I took a table and shared an omelette while she gave me printed historical and geological material on the area. Like Mike, she was a good ambassador for the area. I left breakfast ready to explore.

I made a couple stops before leaving the town of Lamoille. The first was to photograph the Little Church of the Crossroads, a century-old Presbyterian church at the end of the main street. Built in 1905, the impressive prairie style structure stood out amidst the more subdued buildings in town, resting against the area’s dramatic mountain backdrop.

A second stop took me inside The Gallery, an antique store and framing company owned and run by Marsha and Mike, my hosts from Hotel Lamoille. The fascinating shop held an eclectic assortment of refinished furniture, antique dolls, weathered western gear, old-fashioned prints, patchwork quilts and kitchen goods. A few minutes in front of Mike’s wood stove warmed my hands before I said my goodbyes and headed for the hills – literally.

Nestled in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the draw of the Ruby Mountains – known locally as “The Rubies” – is reason alone to visit Lamoille. The 13.5 mile drive into Lamoille Canyon offers up close views of granite cliffs, glacial formations, lush green vistas and stunning mountain peaks, all of which defy the standard notions of Nevada scenery.

I hit the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway under almost mystical conditions. Fall foliage painted the lush, green landscape with splashes of bright yellow and gold, yet the twenty-three degree temperature I found as I climbed in altitude sent soft, white snowflakes down from the skies. Winds whipped through the canyon with frenzied force and I had to work a little to keep the car firmly on the road.

Easy access to the hiking makes Lamoille Canyon a popular destination for mountain enthusiasts. Hikes vary in length from the relatively easy round trip jaunt of around 3.5 miles to Island Lake, to journeying along the entire 42 mile Ruby Crest Trail. Regardless of the length and duration, any hike in the Ruby Mountains leads to breathtaking scenery.

Nevada doesn’t get much in the way of praise for scenic travel, creating a stereotyped image of the state as one vast, flat desert. Thankfully, my visit to Lamoille changed that image for me. When I think of mountain vistas in the future, I’ll still think of Taos, NM and Jackson Hole, WY, of Eureka Springs, AR and Gatlinburg, TN. But I’ll also think of Lamoille, NV. It’s just proof that there’s always something new to learn on the road.