Lake Michigan Circle Tour

How amazing is it, to leave work on a Wednesday night in a van full of your stuff and your dog, and live on the road for a week? I love our van-centric vacations because everything is simple and flexible. We explore all day, finding a new spot to sleep each night.

On our trip to upper peninsula Michigan, we were joined by some friends and their dogs, creating a van/camper caravan. The first night, we camped out on the banks of Green Bay at Wells State Park in Cedar River. It was warm enough outside that I didn’t need more than a hoodie while sitting by the campfire. From there, we drove through Escanaba (stopping for a pasty breakfast) and then wove along the scenic roads of Hiawatha National Forest.

a white chevy astrovan with its sliding door open to reveal a large stack of firewood inside

For the next few nights, we holed up on Indian Lake in Manistique. Parked next to the lake, we could see the stretch of bordering forest. In Fayette Historic State Park, we walked through the abandoned and preserved buildings of an 1800’s industrial town, then hiked through a forest bursting with fall colors.

partial brick wall of an abandoned building, with three open windows facing Big Bay De Noc

The weather turned on us on Saturday night, freezing winds blowing over the lake pummeling us at our campsite. The first snow flurries of the season blew in sideways. Using one of the vans behind our backs as a windbreak, we made dinner–camping stew, smoked salmon, chicken wings. The dogs alternated between begging to stay in the vehicles, then wanting to come back outside as their FOMO kicked in. We layered up in our warmest clothes, drank hot toddies, and had a fantastic night.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to our friends who were headed back home or further south. Kurt and I had additional days off, and we decided to turn our trip into a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. Over the next few days, we visited Tahquamenon Falls, Hiawatha, Mackinaw City, Traverse City, and Manistee National Forest. We drove over the (5-mile long!!) Mackinac Bridge, visited microbreweries, hiked by waterfalls, and drank wine by campfires. But there’s one moment in particular that really stands out for me.

a white dog wearing a red coat stands among trees whose leaves have turned gold

We were searching for a camping spot in the northern part of Manistee after the sun had gone down. As Kurt drove down a secluded road in the darkness, I watched the yellow stripes race by in our headlights, like the credits to a David Lynch film. Following a downloaded forestry service map, Kurt turned onto a dirt road into the thick of the forest. We found a driveway that traveled into the woods another 20 yards or so into a designated rustic camping spot. The site sat atop a semi-steep bank, and the Upper Manistee River gleamed in the moonlight, just beyond the treeline. After turning off the engine, the night fell silent around us–at least until coyotes began howling in the distance.

While I set up the sleeping bags in the van, Kurt explored the site. I could hear him and River’s footsteps crunching in the leaves along the river bank. “You’ve gotta check this out!” he called me, then told me there was a trail down the river bank, straight to the water’s edge.

“I’m not walking down a steep dirt trail above a river in the dark!” I told him. Using his headlight, he showed me where I could find footing, and promised that after the initial steep part, the path began to level out. Hesitantly, I followed Kurt down the path using his voice and our headlamps as my only guide. River moved ahead confidently, sniffing her way down. Just before reaching the water level, the trail opened up into a small sandy beach. We sat on the beach and turned off our headlamps.

The wide river stretched beyond in both directions, its surface velvety midnight blue, reflecting the sky. Wispy white clouds drifted around the waxing Gibbous moon. We sat in silence, in the moment. River settled quietly in the sand, her ears pricked as the sounds of coyote song traveled across the water. I didn’t feel cold, or nervous. Instead, a sense of serenity around us like a warm blanket, three little mammals in a big forest, simply being. I wanted to stay there forever.

I was so grateful for our trip, during a time when I very much needed to get away and escape stress and anxiety. In these recent months, whenever I look into the eyes of my friends, all of the other women in my life, I see exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty reflected back at me. What a time to exist in this world, when it feels like an arduous task to get through every day with what feels like a non-stop assault of horrific news stories and events.  I’m beyond lucky to have the life that I have, which allows me a week here and there when I can escape to the woods, to get away and move freely through wild spaces, where the only thing I fear is losing my footing and falling into a river. I am grateful to have had that moment, and to now have that memory to retreat to whenever I need to find some semblance of serenity.

Get out there and vote. And do something good to help other people, no matter how big or small. This world is too damn beautiful to give up the fight.

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Chicago, Friday Night Trouble Bound

Neither of us had been to this bar in years, but as soon as we walk through the front door, hazy memories rush back like the swill at the bottom of a pint glass.  I sidle up to the cash-only bar and order two beers; the bartender hands me back my change,  a fistful of soggy singles that I shove into my wallet.

It takes two hours for the headlining band to take the stage. Before then, we stake out a spot in the crowd, bathing in neon light and the aural accompaniment of drunken banter. We’ve seen this band at least a dozen times before, but their shows make me feel like I never slowed down on all those killer parties. These kinds of nights feel like pure Chicago to me. How many times since I first turned 21 have I danced on this sticky floor, how many cheap PBRs have I crushed, how many times have I used the women’s bathroom where there’s never a functioning lock and I have to hook my foot around the bottom of the stall door so no one walks in on me. How many bands have I seen, and how many of them skyrocketed to fame or disappeared into oblivion.

The opening act is the frontman of another well-known band in town for the weekend, appearing solo, singing covers of 60’s and 70’s AM Gold radio hits. Catering to the local crowd, he launches into the rolling opening chords of “Lakeshore Drive.” I sing along, Friday night trouble bound.

When the headlining band takes the stage, the air is electric in that way that only happens when everyone there is a diehard fan who knows every lyric by heart. We scream in unison, hands punching the air like Mario raining coins from the sky. I can use this reference because everyone in this dive bar is my age. The room vibrates with body heat and joy. I feel the bass reverberate up through the soles of my feet and I wonder if my pulse matches the beat of the drums .

We pour out of the bar at 1 a.m., exhausted and exhilarated. As we walk down Western Ave, I feel the concrete sidewalk beneath my Chucks, rooting me to this city. Driving up Milwaukee Ave, we pass through my old neighborhood and I’m struck again by how much has changed–old laundromats and empty storefronts replaced with hipster bars, yoga studios, and breweries. I’m glad some time capsules still remain.

 

Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island

New York, Loss, and Life

I arrive in New York City on a Wednesday morning. I’m traveling for a work conference, then staying through the weekend. Chicagoans tend to have mixed opinions about NYC; maybe it’s the chip on our shoulder from being labeled the “Second City” or “Third Coast.” For better or worse, much like the ubiquitous souvenir t-shirt, I heart NY. I’m staying in an Airbnb advertised as a ‘shoebox’ in Chelsea, and after work when I check in and look out the sole window in this apartment, I see the top of the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, all red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple against a night sky. My heart fills and I’m happy to be here. I heart NY.

Each morning, I take a 15-minute walk to the conference. I watch NY residents walk their dogs, which pee on the cement because there’s no grass for them to squat upon. I dodge rivulets of garbage juice leaking from overstuffed, leaking plastic bags left on the curb for pickup, and internally thank the universe for Chicago’s alleys. I wonder how anyone in New York makes the decision to wear any sort of open footwear. In my summery dress on an 84-degree sunny day, I get bombarded by catcalls (I had forgotten that NY is a whole other level of catcalling). And still, I heart NY. I heart the stream of different languages I hear around me at all times. I heart the Pride flag that hangs outside of the Episcopal church I walk past each morning. I heart the beardos on bicycles, the cop taking a smoke break outside his precinct shooting the shit with a passerby, the rumble of the subway rising up through the sidewalk grate, the late night tacos, the impeccably dressed woman on the corner who didn’t bat at an eye at the rat scurrying through the gutter. It’s all beautiful and gross and exhilarating and I’m glad to be here.

On Friday morning, I wake up and stretch out in bed while glancing at my phone and see the news that Anthony Bourdain is dead by suicide. My heart breaks into a million pieces. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I quickly see that I’m not the only one devastated by this loss. So many of my friends had similar reactions, have held similar appreciation and fandom for him. As a writer, I’ve always appreciated his wit, his intelligence, his curiosity about other peoples’ lives and cultures and customs. As a person desperate to live a life well traveled, I’ve been a longtime fan of his many TV programs, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. I’ve seen every episode of every season, many of them binge-watched in day-long chunks when I’ve been stranded to the couch by illness or hangover, wanting escape and yearning for adventure. Whenever Kurt and I need background television as we knock around in the kitchen or are pounding out work emails after hours on a weeknight evening, we put on an episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain helped fueled the wanderlust that drives me to live my own life the way I do.

I wrap up the final day of the conference, then head back to my Airbnb and hammer out some work emails. Once I’m done, I go back outside and walk to the High Line Trail. Alone, I merge into the steady stream of people. Up above the busy streets, on a path lined by greenery and beauty and life, I move among the skyscrapers. Up ahead, the path curves and I can see the summer sunshine glinting on the Hudson River and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I feel heavy with emotion because the world is so messy and dirty and convoluted and intriguing and explorable, and in this moment I am totally alone yet also surrounded by teeming, breathing, sweaty humanity. I get annoyed by the tourists who stop dead in their tracks right in front of me to take a photo and yet simultaneously feel like one of them because Holy Shit, this sunlight is beautiful and this place is amazing and this city is alive all around me.

High Line Trail, New York

I move through the crowds at Chelsea Market, and  duck into a bookstore for solace. The titles aren’t registering in my mind at the moment; instead, I walk through the aisles and run my fingers over the glossy covers, searching for comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore, a wave of emotion overtakes me and I want to cry for a man I never met. I want to cry because I know people in my life who have felt this pain and I have no idea how to help or to appease or to comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore amongst millions of words and miles of ink and countless stories that have awakened or inspired or incited, I stand and I breathe. The moment passes. I leave the store, walk outside, and merge back into the moving stream of people.

I still heart New York, and I heart you.

sidewalk graffiti that says "Protect Yo Heart"

Denmark Diaries: Flying Home and Final Thoughts

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Our morning consisted of getting coffee and breakfast, packing our suitcases, saying goodbye to our friends, then taking the Metro to the airport. After a brief layover in Reykjavík (and a skyr for the road), we chased the daylight home and landed in Chicago at 6 p.m. local time and  1 a.m. Denmark time, blergh. It was sad to reach the end of our adventure–and have to return to work–but I was grateful for two things: my own bed and cuddles from our dog and cat.

Goodbye Copenhagen, you were lovely

A lot of people have since asked me what our favorite part of the trip was, and it’s impossible to pick one thing. Overall, Kurt and I both really enjoyed the experience of spending most of the week in one city, fully immersing ourselves in the various neighborhoods, culture, food, and scenery.  We had plenty of time to see everything on our to-do list and also explore, wander, and make our own little discoveries. The only thing that we ended up skipping was the Little Mermaid statue, mostly because a). our friend Zsolt told us that there’s not much else in the same area to make it worthwhile, and b) we saw exact replicas of it all over the place anways.

woman next to Little Mermaid statue

Little Mermaid replica at Carlsberg Brewery

Copenhagen had been on my wish list for years before we made this trip. I tend to be drawn to northern places over warm beach destinations for some reason I can’t quite explain, other than I must be half Wildling. Besides Denmark and Sweden, Kurt and I have been to Alaska and Iceland in recent years, and I am itching to travel to Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Svalbard (Kurt thinks I’m crazy re: that last one). But I owe Kurt a few tropical vacations next, and I definitely want to someday visit the third country of my heritage, the Philippines, now that I’ve seen Ireland and Sweden. After being home for a few weeks, I find myself already looking at maps, daydreaming about our next adventure.

Denmark Diaries: Red Pandas and Hot Dogs By the Meter

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Is there anything sadder than being on the last day of an amazing vacation and getting an email saying that your flight is ready for checkin? All of the crying emoji.

In the morning, we got coffee and a breakfast sandwich from a nearby cafe and noticed that there was a large flea market going on in the parking lot right by our friends’ apartment, so we went to check it out. Kurt picked up a few various odds and ends, including some Scandinavian candlestick holders and a wall hanging. Since it was such a nice, sunny day, we decided to go to the nearby Copenhagen Zoo. I will fully admit that one of the reasons I was interested was because my friend Dani had a Game of Thrones celeb-sighting there once; she saw the actor who plays Euron Greyjoy while he was there with his kids. While we didn’t end up spotting any Danish actors, we saw something I was possibly even more excited about.

red panda on a log

red panda!!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a zoo and the red pandas are hiding in the indoor part of the exhibit, out of sight from the crowds. I’d never seen one in person before. When we reached the exhibit, we were super lucky to see two red pandas actively exploring their habitat, climbing logs and using the fenced-in walkways that went over the paths like a habitrail. The up-close red panda viewing made my day.

Denmark is big on protecting personal freedoms, and as I joked to Kurt, this carries over into how close they let you get to kangaroos in the zoo. To our shock, people can actually walk into the kangaroo enclosure where  you’re kept on the trail by an ankle-high fence that the kangaroos obviously cross all the time. In the picture below, that’s me in the green shirt.

woman standing in kangaroo zoo exhibit

Me hanging out in the kangaroo exhibit, no big whoop

As an American who struggles with conversion to the metric system, I now have a new guideline: a half-meter-long hot dog is roughly equal to one-and-a-half feet of hot dog.

a man eating a half-meter-long hot dog

half-meter-long hot dog

After exploring the zoo, we took a leisurely last walk through the Frederiksberg Gardens. Plenty of people were spending the day outside, laying on blankets enjoying picnics while their kids ran around and played by the ponds or on the rolling grassy hills. Copenhagen is an idyllic place to raise a family, a fact that our friends can attest to.

For dinner, Kurt and I returned to Torvehallerne and ordered a charcuterie plate and a bottle of wine. Dani was able to meet up with us for our last night, and we had a nice evening out.

woman standing at Torvehallerne

last night in Copenhagen

As the night grew later and we said goodbye to Dani, Kurt and I wanted to make one final stop. We used our 24-hour Metro pass to return to Nyhavn to see the row houses lit up at night. The colorful buildings reflected onto the surface of the canal, and people sat along the banks, drinking and socializing.  Boats rocked idly on the water. Kurt and I found some open chairs in an outdoor seating area just outside the bar (I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet one of my favorite things about Copenhagen, which is the blankets laying on all outdoor seating in case of cold weather). Live music poured out from the nearby bar, and we had a last round of beer as we took in the sounds of people laughing and dancing to a cover of “Purple Rain.”

From the perfect weather to the amazing scenery, fantastic company, and fun music, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect final night.

Nyhavn sign

❤ Copenhagen

 

 

Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.