Asheville Road Trip: Headed Home By Way of Cave City, KY

Friday, June 4: Take Me Home, Country Roads

On our last morning in Asheville, we said goodbye to the neighborhood cat that we had bonded with on the front porch. I loved the character of our little rental home, from the stained glass art, reclaimed church pew, and rocking chairs of the front porch to the woven hammock and ivy on the patio.

We had one last breakfast in town and made a final stop at a thrift store/bar/rock ‘n roll wedding chapel that I wanted to check out. Our plan was to roughly split the 10-hour drive home over the next two days, picking a place to spend our last night somewhere along the way. It was a hot, humid day, with the temperature creeping close to 90 degrees. Each time we got back into the car, I welcomed the blast of arctic AC on my face.

It’s always a little bittersweet to point the car towards home, knowing that this is the furthest you get to go, until next time. Goodbye, Asheville! You showed us a great time, one we sorely needed. The sun climbed higher in the sky as we crossed the North Carolina border back into Tennessee. Our proximity to Gatlinburg was measurable by the increased frequency of weird billboards–“World’s Biggest Knife Shop!” “Underground Zip-Lining!” “Some sort of Pirate Show with Sexy Russian Ladies!” (we were driving fast so I may have misread that one).

As we neared Kentucky, we stopped at a gas station to refuel and begin researching a place to stop for the night. Kurt found an USACE-run campground near a lake where all the sites looked to be waterfront, which sounded promising until we learned that it was in a dry county. I wasn’t thrilled about enduring a hot sweaty final night in the tent totally sober, so we kept searching. Nearly every campground close to Mammoth Cave was booked up. It started to look like we’d have to spend the last night of our trip in a dog-friendly Holiday Inn. We kept the booking.com listing on the proverbial back burner as we got closer to Cave City, Kentucky.

With sunset approaching, it was time to make a decision. I could tell Kurt preferred the campground over a chain hotel, but was willing to go with the Holiday Inn to make me happy. This put me into decision paralysis and I couldn’t bring myself to click the booking button on the app on my phone. “Maybe we’ll find something here,” Kurt said, suddenly optimistic as we reached the heart of Cave City and started spotting motels along the highway. All of a sudden, we spotted a semi-circle of teepee-shaped structures with a big neon sign in front. It was a classic motel right out of the last midcentury, reminiscent of old Route 66.

We pulled into the parking lot and I was googling the motel when the owner spotted us and walked over. He happened to have one remaining vacancy, and dogs were allowed as long as they were friendly. River of course took this perfect opportunity to begin barking her face off at the stranger offering us shelter for the night. Before she could blow our chances, we took her out of the car to do a proper meet-and-greet, and she finally calmed down. The owner returned with the registration form so we could get checked in. As part of the check-in process, he gave us a brief historical talk about the motel. He and his wife were its newest owners as of last winter, and they were restoring each private room one by one, keeping all of the original bed frames, dressers, and furniture from the year 1937 when the motel first opened.

I am such a fanatic for vintage motels (one of the reasons why our Route 66 trip will always be near and dear to my heart). I love the way they feel like a time capsule to another time and tell us so much about the way we used to travel before airplanes became prevalent. The teepee private rooms were such a throwback to a time when America embraced kitsch and created attention-grabbing roadside attractions designed to lure in families from their wood-paneled station wagons. It was also a throwback to a time when America hadn’t heard of the phrase cultural appropriation, which the owners acknowledge and address on their website. The tradition that they hope to keep alive is that of the American road trip, and the nightly gathering of travelers in the grassy semi-circle outside where people could meet up and share their adventure tales.

Kurt and I grabbed an easy dinner at a hot dog stand where we could sit outside with River. When we got back to the motel, we settled in on the pair of adirondack chairs outside our room and cracked open a few Asheville beers. We soon got to talking to the friendly couple staying next to us, sharing stories of our trips. As the sun fully set, the motel owner brought out some bundles of wood to the big fire pit in the middle of the semi-circle. Once the fire was going, people began to take a seat at one of the nearby benches to enjoy the warmth. It’s easy to strike up conversation with strangers around a crackling fire, and we began to introduce ourselves and share our travel itineraries.

As it grew later, the parents and grandparents headed off to put kids to bed, and two women wandered over with a few cans of Truly in hand. Almost immediately, we began talking to them about classic cars and trading stories. They were from southern Indiana and we barely caught their names, but over the next few hours, we proceeded to bond over hilarious workplace horror stories, a shared love of Halloween costumes, and a few shots of Fireball. We talked about the past year and its challenges, and how we’re all not OK but trying to find our way back to something resembling normal, and by the end of the night, we’d spent over 3 hours laughing together and having a fantastic time remembering what it’s like to befriend someone new. Though we’ll never see them again, I’ll never forget meeting them and how fun that night had been. It felt like the last piece of the trip we’d needed without realizing it–a spontaneous moment of connection with people from some other place, passing through the same place during the same moment in time. It also reminded me that sometimes we’re the boost that someone else needs, and we may never know, but they’ll be forever grateful for those shared laughs.

We drove home on Saturday, reaching Chicago in the early afternoon. I think my favorite view of Chicago will forever be approaching downtown from the south side, headed north on the Dan Ryan, with the skyline laid out in a full panorama view. It reminds me of sleeping in the backseat late on the Christmas Eve nights of my childhood, headed home from our cousins’ house filled with family and noise and celebration. This view fills me with so many warm memories of return trips home.

And then, home. Time to unpack, go through the mail, water the plants, and enjoy some bourbon.

Asheville Road Trip: City Life

Wednesday, June 2: Exploring Asheville

Among the things I craved the most during lockdown, chief among them traveling, karaoke bars, and lingering in coffee shops, I really missed brunch. I don’t care if that reveals my inner “rosé all day” basicness, but come on, who doesn’t love a big plate of fluffy eggs and biscuits and bacon that you didn’t have to make yourself, paired with alcohol before that noon in a judgement-free zone? With River tagging along, we went to Sunny Point Café, a dog-friendly brunch spot. Our outdoor table was situated next to the community garden, which was a charming spot in which to enjoy our delicious Southern breakfast. If you know me in real life, you know I that I am a Midwestern woodland creature who relishes the changing of seasons and thrives in winter, but I can admit that there a lot of advantages to year-round warm weather, including the abundance of beautiful outdoor patios and beer gardens that Asheville offers.

brrrrunccchhhh

Once we stuffed ourselves full of pimiento cheese, grits, and bacon, we headed closer to the city center with no real plans for the day other than to explore, window shop, and try some local beers. We had purposely planned a trip that would be predominantly outdoors, for the dual purpose of staying covid-safe and also being able to bring River everywhere with us. At the time of our trip, most Asheville businesses required workers to wear masks, and asked any non-vaccinated patrons to wear them as well. We stopped at the Dog Door, Asheville’s official Dog Welcome Center, and got some free treats, poop bags, and a map of dog-friendly businesses. If you love dogs, craft beer, and hiking, I highly recommend visiting Asheville. After about half a day I was ready to move there and open a dog t-shirt store. Over the afternoon, River got a new space dog-themed collar, treats, squeaky toy, and flotation device to replace her old moldy one. Between Kentucky and Asheville, it’s a toss-up whether we spent more money on bourbon or dog stuff.

Beers by the French Broad River

For a “rest” day, we still did a ton of walking as we meandered around town, wandered in and out of stores, and sought out breweries on our to-do list. After some Carolina BBQ for dinner, eaten on a dog-friendly outdoor patio, we ended up at a riverfront brewery called Zillocoah, where we had a few pints at a picnic table alongside the French Broad River.

Thursday, June 3: Inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Appreciation Day

As I mentioned earlier, I was obsessed with the movie The Last of the Mohicans at a formative age, so when I learned that the climactic chase scene was filmed at the nearby Chimney Rock State Park, it ended up my must-see list. Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows that this is what I’m like and I’ll go 40 minutes out of my way just to visit the donut shop from Boogie Nights, or even devote an entire day in Scotland to riding the Hogwarts Express.

We woke up early to start the 50-minute drive to Chimney Rock. I wished that we had longer than a week off, as there were so many beautiful spots and trails that we would’ve loved to check out. The area just outside the state park looked well-equipped to accommodate lots of tourists, as RV parks and souvenir stores lined the road. My personal favorite piece of art was the side of a building decorated with the silhouette of Big Foot holding up Baby from Dirty Dancing (nearby Lake Lure was the shooting location for the iconic lift practice scene).

There are 6 trails in Chimney Rock State Park, and the one on my list was the Hickory Nut Trails Fall, which took us to the base of the 404-ft-tall waterfall from The Last of the Mohicans. If you’ve seen the movie, this is where Uncas is killed and where Alice jumps off the cliffside in her grief/to escape Magua for good (sorry, no spoiler alerts for something we all read in high school). This is a very dramatic and emotional part of the film, heightened by the striking location. The trail was a quick ‘n easy 1.4 miles out and back, mostly through the woods until the view opens up to the stunning sight of the waterfall. This also marked the first warm and humid day of our trip, and my sunglasses began to fog up as I sweated through my t-shirt.

The view of the waterfall was well worth the trip. From the base, you could look up and see the sheer drop-off where the river cascades over the rock face over 28 stories above. A small traffic jam of hikers built up on the viewing platform, so we took our photos and then moved on.

Hickory Nut Falls

The state park gets its name from the 315-ft rock formation whose likeness is often used to promote North Carolina tourism. You can get to the top of Chimney Rock by either taking a 494-step staircase, or cheat and jump on an elevator built inside the mountain. Dogs were not allowed in the elevator, and River has an aversion to wood staircases (which we once learned the hard way at Starved Rock), so Kurt and I took turns waiting with her while the other rode the elevator to the top. I went first, and was delighted when the elevator doors opened to reveal a gift shop and concession stand at the 535-million-year-old rock formation (I love finding gift shops in unexpected places, with my ultimate fave being the one at the bottom of Carlsbad Cavern).

Chimney Rock

Since the Skyline Trail wasn’t going to be doable with River, we wrapped up our day at the state park and drove back towards Asheville. We decided to check out the Biltmore, the biggest house in America and former home of George Vanderbilt. I have general “eat the rich” feelings but I also love extravagant real estate porn, and the final scene of There Will be Blood was filmed in the Biltmore’s bowling alley. Hence, our day became an inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Acting Appreciation Day.

We bought the grounds pass to do an outdoor tour. The humidity had increased to the point that the sky felt pregnant with rain, and I started feeling a little cranky and regretful about the cost of two day passes as we joined the swarm of sweaty tourists. But then we reached the Conservatory, and my emotions did a total 180 as I discovered the Biltmore Gardens Railway. I adore model train sets, and a dream hobby of mine is to someday build my own miniature towns. The model train tracks traveled from room to room of the expansive conservatory, winding around hothouse flowers and succulents, stopping at miniature replicas of train stations and stables, and included a replica of the Biltmore itself. The elaborate display was immersive and charming and whimsical, and it gave me that kind of magical feeling of wonder that’s so hard to experience post-childhood as a cynical adult. I honestly could’ve spent an entire day in that Conservatory, watching that train go on its botanical journey.

We got through the rest of the grounds tour without getting rained on, and that same feeling of wonder continued as we walked around the outside of the estate and under the canopy made from real trees. From the back of the house, standing behind a legit turret, we took in an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I couldn’t imagine living on the precipice of that extraordinary view; it’s gotta be nice to be disgustingly wealthy.

We capped off our day with some really good BBQ from a food truck, then embarked on our final brewery crawl of our Asheville stay. Booo, why can’t vacation last forever? Our last two beer garden stops were my two favorites: the Funkatorium, followed by Burial Brewing. At the latter, I had the joy of going up to order a pint of a Symptom of Progeny and a Portrait of Discombobulated Sanctimony. Sitting outside at the picnic table, with River curled up under the patio lights, listening to the background chatter of other patrons, I thought about how grateful I was for the return to travel. In two days in Asheville, we had gone out more than in the entire previous 14 months combined, and it felt pretty amazing.

Asheville Road Trip: Drink Local

Monday, May 31 – Tuesday, June 1, 2021: We arrive at our final destination–North Carolina

After our day on the river, a three hour drive laid ahead. We had reserved a campsite on the far eastern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kurt did most of the driving, so I DJed our road trip tunes while we soared above gorges and disappeared into long mountain tunnels. We clapped for River at the border of Tennessee (a new state for her!) and for me at the border of North Carolina (a new state for me!).

Our reserved site was in the Cataloochee campground, one of two dog-friendly campgrounds within the national park. We stopped for USDA-stamped fire-treated firewood just outside the valley, per the strictly enforced park rules, then began the nerve-wracking (for me anyway) drive up into the mountains via a narrow gravel road made up of switchback after switchback and blind curves with steep drop-offs. I am as bad a passenger as I am a nervous driver (lucky Kurt!), so he had to deal with two whining creatures in the car until we finally reached smooth pavement with two distinct lanes.

Our night in Cataloochee was mostly quiet and relaxing, as we rested our muscles by the fire after our long day of paddling. In the morning, we woke up the sounds of the other campers around us rustling around their sites, making breakfast, getting their kids ready for the day. Nearly everyone staying in this campground had a dog with them, and I enjoyed watching others play with their pups and take them out for morning walks as I sipped my coffee.

a white dog lays on a light gray oval-shaped sleeping bag, in front of a beige and orange dome-style tent set up on a gravel pad.

My favorite types of trips blend camping and outdoor exploration with experiencing a new city, and after 3 nights in a tent post-hiking and kayaking, I was ready for a shower. We packed up camp and made our way back up the winding gravel road. We had reserved an Airbnb in Asheville, only an hour away, but the checkin time wasn’t until the late afternoon due to covid cleaning protocol, so we had lots of time to fill.

When there’s plenty of time on hand, it’s nice to take the scenic route. We jumped onto the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, a.k.a. heaven for motorcyclists. For a few leisurely hours, we drove along mountain roads that climbed up the Ridge and disappeared into dark mountain tunnels that opened up to blue sky. We pulled over at multiple scenic vistas to take photos and take in the gorgeous views, including a glimpse of the Devil’s Courthouse, a new personal fave when it comes to names of rock formations.

OK so I should mention that an ongoing part of our North Carolina trip was my constant referencing of the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Michael Mann. For some reason, my friend and I were obsessed with this movie when we were in eighth grade. Though the film was set in the region that would become upstate New York, it was actually filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I revisited the movie and treated Kurt to countless impressions of Daniel Day-Lewis saying to Madeleine Stowe “I’m looking at you, miss.” Kurt patiently indulged me as I played the film score via Spotify multiple times over the course of the week. (If this hasn’t been enough mentions of this random 1992 movie for you, don’t worry! There’s going to be more once we get to Chimney Rock.)

After our scenic detour, we still had some time to kill so we jumped right into checking out Asheville’s brewery scene. This was the first time on our trip that we were truly rejoining civilization in a post-lockdown world, but Asheville has so many outdoor dog-friendly patios, it was a nice way to dip my toe back into going out. We started at Bhramari Brewing Company before getting our next pint and eats at Wicked Weed. Each place we went, our servers offered a fresh bowl of water for River, who lazed under our table in the shade. Asheville’s craft beer scene includes a lot of breweries specializing sour beers, a personal favorite of Kurt’s and mine.

We stocked up at the Wicked Weed bottle shop then checked into our rental house on the northern side of the city. The outdoor patio featured a hammock, where Kurt hung out to enjoy a beer while making friends with a neighborhood cat. I caught up on Mare of Easttown on the iPad while running a load of laundry so we wouldn’t smell like campfire for the city life portion of our trip.

Asheville Road Trip: Paddling Kentucky

Monday, May 31, 2021: Paddling the Cumberland River

The owner of the campground we stayed at recommended a 14-mile stretch of the Cumberland River as a perfect day trip. “I can tell you guys are experienced, so you’ll really enjoy it,” he said as he sized up the kayak and solo canoe strapped to our car. These words always make me a little nervous. What does any given person consider “experienced”? Our annual canoe trip is on a river so slow and placid that if you lost your boat, you could walk back to camp along the sandy river bottom.

We prepared our boats at the launch right on the campground, while the owner led Kurt 14 miles down the river to the takeout spot where he could park the car. I kept hearing the takeout spot referred to as Cumberland Falls Resort. Apparently the resort included a lodge so big, it would be impossible to miss.

“So, are we on the bottom of the falls?” I asked Kurt right before we pushed off. “No, we’re at the top,” he said.

“By the way,” the campground owner told us before he drove off, “when you hit that first patch of white water, keep to the left. But you guys will be fine; you’re experienced!”

“What?!” My mind immediately jumped to the image of the Great Northern Hotel located right next to the giant Snoqualmie Falls from the opening credits of Twin Peaks. “So if we miss our takeout point, we die in a giant waterfall?!” Sometimes I think I should name my travel blog The Anxious Adventurer because my mind is always calculating all the possible chances of death. I like to think that I just have a strong sense of self-preservation, but in comparison to Kurt, I am a natural worrier.

a red canoe on a green river in front of a green forest on a sunny day with a blue sky. A long-haired man wearing a purple t-shirt sits in the canoe, looking back over his shoulder at the camera. A white dog with pointy ears wearing a life vest follows his gaze.
Cumberland River trip

We started our trip, with Kurt in the solo canoe with River, and me in the kayak. The sun was out, the sky clear and blue, and the weather warmed quickly. It was a perfect day to be out on the water.

I had my waterproof speaker bungeed to the top of my kayak, and I played my favorite summer playlist of AM Gold as we floated along. The scenery was gorgeous; both sides of the river are flanked by the National Forest. The campground owner had told us that he spotted a black bear and her two cubs on the river bank the last time he went canoeing. I relaxed into the day, drinking in the sun and landscape.

The first white water appeared early on, and we remembered the instructions to stay left. As I paddled my way over, even the left side of the river looked dotted by rocks. I did my best to navigate around the largest boulders, pointing the nose of my boat towards the smoother spots between riffles where the water broke over underwater rocks. Still, I felt the sides of the boat come into contact with rocks that shifted me sideways. I straightened out just in time to see the water level drop about a foot over a ridge. I rode over it, then looked backwards for Kurt.

“That was fun!” said Kurt, while River looked skeptical in her doggie life vest.

And so went the rest of the 14 miles, alternating stretches of serene water, occasionally broken up by light white water. As I got more confident navigating the boulders, it became a lot more fun. Still, the low key anxiety in the back of my mind lingered as we got closer to the falls. I pumped Kurt for more information, asking about the accessibility of the boat launch and the speed of the current near the resort. He assured me that it was calm water and an easy takeout compared to other spots we’d paddled in the past where we’d blown past our exit. There have to be warning signs posted, I thought to myself.

I noticed as we paddled along that hardly anyone else was out on the river. We’d only seen two other groups of boaters all day, on a holiday weekend, no less. In Wisconsin, we were used to sharing the water with dozens of groups and tubing party brigades. Having the place to ourselves was awesome and just a tiny bit concerning, because again, I worry a lot. During a serene stretch of river, I heard a strange noise coming from the forest. I turned off my my music to listen, and heard it again. A loud staccato burst of noise reverberated from the woods, followed by quiet. It sounded like a woodpecker the size of a T-rex.

As we got closer to the resort, we heard more people in the woods. A friendly man setting up camping chairs on the bank with his wife shouted an entire conversation at us, politely inquiring about our day before asking if we were going to the Falls. He didn’t seem concerned or warn us about a potential death plunge, so I chalked that up to a positive. At another point, we heard a group of young people racing four-wheelers just beyond the trees, while a girl screamed her friend’s name.

“If we lived here, I’d be doing that,” said Kurt.

“I’d be the girl screaming,” I replied.

As we reached the final 180 curve that Kurt had noted as a landmark, we started keeping an eye out for the resort. It loomed ahead, just beyond a bridge. Kurt told me that the landing would be directly past the bridge on the right, so we attempted to paddle over, but things suddenly got a bit dicey. A patch of swirling water started spinning us out and away to the left. I watched Kurt and the canoe get pushed closer to the left bank, so I gave in to the inevitable and literally went with the flow. The water pushed me onto a large flat boulder and I was grounded for a brief moment, but I was able to scooch myself off and back into enough water to float me over. We got passed the eddies, and the water smoothed out all the way to the bridge. We hugged the right river bank, searching for the takeout point. From what Kurt had seen when he dropped off the car earlier, it was a clear and easy ramp, but we couldn’t see it from the vantage point of the water.

“Maybe we need to go a little bit farther?” Kurt asked, and my heart started to speed up.

“I thought you said it was right next to the bridge.” The resort was situated up the high river bank, and tons of people sauntered along the sidewalk just beyond a wooden fence. “Maybe we should ask someone.”

“Hey!” Kurt shouted to a man nearby. “Do you know if the boat ramp is nearby, or is it further down?”

“I have no idea!” he shouted back. “But you know there’s a waterfall coming up?”

“Exactly my concern!” I replied, grimacing.

A group of ducks floated just ahead of us, and we noticed that they disappeared behind some tall grass along the bank. Aha! We paddled closer, and finally spotted the gradual dirt ramp emerging from the water that had been hidden behind the grass. I sped up, paddling my way to solid ground with relief.

Once we’d dealt with strapping both boats back onto the car, we took a walk further downriver to check out the waters. A Memorial Day crowd packed the parking lot and sidewalks, and dozens of motorcycles slow-rolled past while looking for spots. We passed the gift shop and concessions to make our way to the viewing platform, and finally saw the Cumberland Falls–all 70 feet of it, just under 200 yards away from where we took out our boats. My anxiety rests its case.

Cumberland Falls

Asheville Road Trip: Hiking Kentucky

Sunday, May 30: Hiking the National Forest

A plate of bacon, potatoes, and eggs sitting on a lap, while a white dog stands next to it begging for a bite.
“Are you gonna finish that?”

The weather forecast for the day topped out in the low 60s, a little on the chilly side for paddling but perfect for hiking. Kurt and the campground owner had talked about some trail recommendations the previous night, so we opted for one that sounded good despite its name, the Dog Slaughter Falls Trail. I do not know the history of this waterfall’s name, but by the end of our week of traveling through the rural South, I grew accustomed to places named after various creatures, varmints, and their untimely demise. There’s two trailheads, locally referred to as the old one and the new one, and we went with the latter in order to maximize our hike further onto the adjoining Sheltowee Trail (the older trailhead adds a few more miles of walking alongside the road and Dog Slaughter Creek).

The National Forest was busy on Memorial Day weekend, and we passed lots of families and couples, many of them out with their dogs. Dog Slaughter Trail is rated easy to moderate, with just enough climbing to keep the views interesting. There were enough thick roots and large boulders that I was glad I had my hiking poles, and I can imagine that on a muddy day, some areas would get especially dicey, but we lucked out with perfect hiking weather conditions. River was a hit on the trail, with every passing child asking if they could pet her. When she went into dog Parkour mode over some of the larger boulders, passersby cheered for her.

We settled into our hiking rhythm, and it felt amazing to be stretching our legs on the trail. After a year spent confined to the Midwest, I relished the change of scenery. There’s something so elemental and uncomplicated about experiencing a place via hiking. At a walking pace, you notice the tiniest details, the scent of different kinds of forests, even the feeling of the air, from the dry high altitudes of New Mexico to the salty mist of Maine. In Kentucky, there was a light scent of hemlock and hickory. The air temperatures lingered on the edge of spring dipping into early summer.

As we grew closer to the waterfall, we noticed the sound of rushing water drifted through the trees. The trail takes you up a ridge high above the creek before descending down some meandering switchbacks to the base of the falls. Nestled into a woodsy cove, the waterfall is much more pleasant than its name suggests. Hikers rested on the rocks, eating snacks and snapping photos. Some kids crawled along the rocks behind the falls to stand hidden by the spray. We witnessed a girl show up with a photographer and an outfit change to take a sweet 16 photo shoot in the scenic spot.

a 20-foot-tall waterfall cascades from a sheer drop into a small pool.
Dog Slaughter Falls
A female hiker poses in front a large rock formation multiple stories tall.
Hiking the trail

After a snack break, Kurt, River, and I continued past the waterfall towards the Sheltowee Trail, and found ourselves alone in the forest. It seemed to be the popular choice for over 90% of hikers to turn around at the waterfall instead of doing the entire 2.4 mile in-and-out trail. Once we merged onto the Sheltowee, the trail runs alongside the much wider Cumberland River. I could tell we were the first ones on the trail that day as I walked through a LOT of spiderwebs. Since we planned to paddle the Cumberland River the following day, we looked for gaps in the trees to get a better view. Eventually, we found a sandy path down the ridge that took us right to the water’s edge. The current turned into light white water as it broke up over scattered boulders. We found a nice spot along the water to chill out for a while and play stick fetch with River. The spot had the remains of a fire pit and some sitting logs, so it must have been recently used by backpackers. I’d absolutely come back to this National Forest for a backpacking trip someday.

A wide river flanked by green trees and boulders. In the foreground, a long-haired man in a long-sleeved shirt and pants sits on the rocks, smiling, next to a white medium-sized dog.
Kurt and River alongside the Cumberland River

We turned around to make the return trip back to our car. Once again, we were alone on the Sheltowee (besides a trail runner talking to his GoPro), and the crowds returned when we reached the falls. River scrambled over the boulders like a champ. Part of the reason we really wanted to bring River on this trip is because she turned 9 years old last winter, but she still has great energy and drive to explore. We want to get in as many adventure trips as we can with her while she’s still up for it. Despite the dog-unfriendly name, the waterfall and trail were the perfect difficulty level for a senior adventure dog.

After leaving the forest, we took a longer route back to our campsite, detouring through a small town for treats. At a Dairy Queen drive-in, River was given her own pup-cup of soft serve ice cream. We ate our ice cream on the patio while watching a pack of bikers pass through, likely on their way to the Smokies. Whenever we travel, I always get a little wistful over the idea of living somewhere so close to the mountains.

After one final stop for treats (a.k.a. the Bourbon Barn), we headed back to camp. Kurt cooked burgers for dinner, which we paired with a 6-pack of local beers. We rested our legs by the fire before bundling up for a chilly night in the tent.

Asheville Road Trip: Indiana and Kentucky

Friday, May 28, 2021: IL – IN

I can’t keep track of how many trips we’ve canceled or postponed since March 2020. Leading into the departure date of our Southern road trip, when friends asked me if I was excited, I typically responded “I still won’t believe we’re going until we cross our first state line.” As I started packing my clothes, I felt like I’d forgotten all of my usual techniques and was forgetting half of my necessities.

Kurt and I finished work on a Friday afternoon, then began packing the car, and that felt slow-going and strange as well. It took two hours to get our gear loaded, then strap the canoe and kayak to the rack, as we searched the house for a misplaced bag of ropes. We locked up the house, loaded our dog River then ourselves into the Subaru, got on the expressway…then sat in gridlock traffic in the pouring rain for two more hours. Vacation!!!

Then finally, the road opened up, the rain lightened, and we stretched our cramped and atrophied wanderlusting souls across the Indiana landscape as we flew through a field of wind turbines, their red lights blinking in unison at us like an affirmation. Believe me, no one has romanticized the state of Indiana more than I did in that moment.* This past year has been a LOT, on the global and personal level, and I needed to do something again that helped me remember my true self, and that thing was eating a Wendy’s chicken sandwich off my lap while traveling 75 miles per hour.

We reached our hotel in southern Indiana just before midnight. We had a pet-friendly room, and River was overwhelmed by all of the smells of her first hotel stay (she could not stop zig-zagging to new spots on the carpet, which only made me more suspect of how gross this place must be). The artwork in our room had an addendum left by a recent guest, who scribbled “Legalize it” in paint pen across the bottom of a pastel landscape. Ah, vacation. I’m so happy to finally be here.

*maybe John Cougar Mellencamp

Saturday, May 29, 2021: IN – KY

After we crossed the state border into Kentucky, a light rain returned and the temperature hovered in the high 40s. We sailed through Louisville early, making our way towards our planned destination for the next few days, Daniel Boone National Forest. But first, we needed to make at least one stop on the Bourbon Trail. As we traveled down a windy road lined by horse farms, I queued up Elvis Presley’s “In the Cold Kentucky Rain” on Spotify. Kurt and I took turns checking out the gift shop and exploring the picturesque grounds with River. We noticed that the tasting line died down, so we wandered over for a midday bourbon cocktail, as one does. The bartender provided River with some dog treats and a copper dog bowl to match our Kentucky Mule and Classic Old Fashioned.

A white dog with pointy ears sits in front a brown wood barrel on a wood porch. The name "Woodford Reserve" appears on the side of the barrel.

After putting some BBQ in our bellies, we continued southeast. Watching the landscape rush by my window, I loved how even the trees look different whenever I visit a region outside the Midwest. The road curved around mountains and across bridges spanning river gorges. When we reached our destination, the familiar ’60s-style brown and yellow National Forest sign greeted us. Vacation was really truly happening.

We drove up and down gravel forestry roads looking for a good spot to do some dispersed camping for the night, but as the sun grew low and the best-looking options had already been claimed, we pulled over to the side of the road to regroup. Not one, but two cars pulled up next to us to see if we needed any help; people are definitely friendly around here. I found a nearby primitive site on private land on HipCamp.com, so we booked it and headed over. We drove along winding country roads until we reached the Kentucky barn described in the listing. The property owner greeted us then led the way to the site on his John Deere, checking with us first to make sure we had all-wheel drive. He guided us to a forest clearing at the top of a hill at the end of a long private road, complete with a fire ring and picnic table, all we needed. Surrounded by thick trees and with the nearest site way down at the foot of the hill, we had total privacy.

I stepped into my usual job of setting up the tent and unrolling our bedding, while Kurt prepped his outdoor kitchen and started a campfire. After our dinner of chicken burritos, a light sprinkling of rain returned–not enough to send us into the tent, but just enough to block out the stars. We stayed by the campfire drinking wine for a while longer until eventually calling it a night. I cuddled into my sleeping bag, listening to the soft rain and the moo of nearby cows, looking forward to a week of adventures. I just hoped I got all the ticks off of River first.

A camping scene: In the foreground, there is a campfire with two folding chairs set up nearby. In the background, a gray and orange domed tent is set up in front of a Subaru with a kayak strapped to the roof rack. On the right, a man stands over a picnic table cooking on a portable stovetop.

I’m Pretty Sure We Partied

There’s a 15-second snippet of a song that I think about often, its melody entangled with a memory that gives me joy. I only know the brief sample, which I captured in an Instagram video back in March 2019 during a night out in Nashville. It was a Saturday night in a hipster bar in where my friends and I were roughly 15 years older than everyone else. A local band was performing, and instructed the crowd to lie on the floor and wait for a surprise, which turned out to be a balloon drop. We laid on the floor of a divey club watching balloons float down onto us, then batted them while the lead singer crawled across the stage, singing her heart out. It was one of those magical nights when you’re so fully in the moment, feeling pure joy and life in every cell of your body, you want to live in that happy space forever, and all I know of that song is the 15 seconds. I’ve searched the internet for a track or even a title, but with no luck; for now, I only have what lives in my head and my IG video.

This same scenario played out in an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete from 1994. In “Hard Day’s Pete,” Little Pete encounters a garage band playing a song that instantly gets its hooks in him, living in his head for days afterwards. He goes back to the same house later to try and find the band again, but the garage is empty. As time passes, the memory of the song in his head begins to fade, and Little Pete becomes desperate to find out the title before he loses it completely.

I’m experiencing a similar feeling as Little Pete, but what I’m trying to keep a tenuous hold on is the memory of spontaneous joy. Don’t get me wrong, I am abundantly grateful for everything Kurt and I have been lucky to have throughout this pandemic– each other’s company, employment, a cozy house, good health. I’ve even relished my weekends with zero plans beyond eating a big pancake breakfast, reading books while curled up on the couch, and getting some quality time on my yoga mat. Although I’ve basically turned into a pair of sentient sweatpants, my life has been quiet but full of stability.

But there’s something I miss desperately, along with seeing my family and friends, and travel and karaoke bars and movie theaters and airport bookstores and coffee shops and pedicures and music fests. I miss those spontaneous moments like in that bar in Nashville, when the night takes you somewhere unexpected, and suddenly you are having so much fun that you and your friends are all doubled over with the same belly laughs, tears in the corners of your eyes, experiencing that joy together, completely present in that moment. It’s hard to muster up that level of emotional connection during a Zoom call.

Even as an INFJ/ Enneagram 9/ Ravenclaw well-equipped to embrace a stay-at-home life of books and blankets and watching the snow fall, I’m clawing at the seams at the smallness of pandemic life. Sure I can cope, and continue eating big pancake breakfasts on Saturday mornings and taking my dog for long walks, but to quote the Disney princess I get most often matched with in Buzzfeed quizzes, there must be more than this provincial life.

For the time being, I keep going back to music and the memory of hearing it live, lost in the crowd with a beer in one hand, the speaker towers pulsing with sound, and the floors sticky beneath the soles of my shoes (shoes!! I remember those). I yearn to get sweaty from dancing in place, bumping into the elbows of strangers. Oh, to scream “woo!” at the top of one’s lungs! I want to live inside a Hold Steady song. I want to sing-shout the words to “Killer Parties” back at the band. “If she says we partied, then I’m pretty sure we partied. I really don’t remember. I remember we departed from our bodies. We woke up in Ybor City...”

It’s a New Year, Hold My Caboodles

I started the New Year in a cabin next to a frozen lake. After spending two major holidays at home, just Kurt and me, I wanted a change of scenery for New Year’s Eve. I found a private pet-friendly lakeside cabin with covid-safe protocols on Airbnb, so we packed an overnight bag and brought River and spent two days and nights relaxing, soaking in an outdoor hot tub while snowflakes melted on our heads, and watching the lake freeze over while flocks of geese came and went. We hiked on frozen ice and through calf-deep snow, enjoying the quiet serenity, living our best Elsa-living-in-self-imposed-wintry-solitude life.

A lake on a wintry day. The foreground is a snow-covered layer of ice over the water. In the background, the water is gray-blue, mirroring the sky. In the distance, a flock of geese float near the edge of ice.

It was a blissful break from the ramped-up chaos that was the end of 2020. Between the most hectic time of year at work and cumulative months of pandemic fatigue, my soul was a wrung-out dishrag by the time Christmas arrived. I was grateful for a moment of peace.

As we all know, that fresh New Year’s smell wore off super fast, 6 days into 2021. A sickening feeling washed over me as I watched the events unfold live on CNN. I felt disgusted to my core as insurrectionists strolled right into the Capitol, the polar opposite of the brute force and militarized presence unleashed upon Black Live Matter protestors all of last summer. While scanning social media days later, I feel like we’re simultaneously living on two different planets as I cannot fathom how anyone can stand by the events of Jan. 6. It makes me simultaneously furious and deeply sad, mortified and terrified. I had approached the new year with cautiously optimistic hopes that things would get better, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. But this first week just ended up being a reminder that, like with 2020, I cannot possibly begin to fathom what the future holds.

I typically love making a list of New Years resolutions (“In 2020, try a new restaurant every month,” lol sweet summer child me from 1/1/2020). This year, I’m holding onto a single concept–focus on my energy. When I am mentally exhausted, how am I depleting my energy–endless doomscrolling?–and how can I redirect it in a way that replenishes me. When does my energy become dark and small, and when does it become joyful and boundless? When does it feel most at peace? Lately, it’s been when I’m making soy wax candles while wearing a cozy fishermen’s sweater and listening to “Folklore” as covid-era life has made me go full cottagecore. When does it feel strong and healthy? I worked out 221 days in 2020, and obtaining the lower body strength of a cartoon centaur is one of my few accomplishments for the year.

These times are so chaotic, and there’s so little control I have over anything outside of myself, but I can at least make sure I’m focusing my energy in directions that give me sense of purpose and don’t leave me deflated. My natural tendency when things get stressful is to retreat into my personal Fortress of Solitude with my pets and a mugful of coffee and a doorstopper fantasy novel. (Good friends know that I must be especially stressed when I’m doing a rewatch of any fantasy series or movie that features dragons). I’ve become adept at compartmentalizing my fear, anger, and frustrations in the Caboodles of my soul, but as was inevitable, each drawer filled up quickly in late 2020 and carrying this thing with me will make the sleepover party a real bummer for everyone.

So I’ll keep reading 900-page novels about kings, queens, pirates, and dragons. I’ll keep exercising, practicing yoga, taking care of my health, and reflecting on the many things in my life I’m grateful for. I’ll definitely keep going on long winter walks. The cold never bothered me anyway.

Under the Table

We’re back in hibernation, due to both a terrifying covid spike across the country and to winter weather in general. I’m half Wildling and full Chicagoan which means that not only do I typically thrive in winter weather, I also love to boast about it. But this year is obviously quite different–no football games and tailgate parties, no cozy game nights with friends, no weekend matinees at the movie theater while a snowstorm rages outside. A slow creeping dread overwhelms me when I think of not being able to see my family for the holidays. I have roughly 1,000 family members, and I am heartbroken over the thought of a Christmas without a table stacked with turkey, lechon, lumpia, all the sides, five different desserts including a chocolate cake that a real American hero picked up from Portillo’s, while dozens of people cluster around the table to jockey for a good spot and fill the house with voices. 

I’ve been leaning into familiar habits, favorite movies, and hygge culture for comfort, exhausting every Nordic folk rock playlist on Spotify, becoming an emerging pro at differentiating Icelandic blues from Norwegicana. Also, I started making hand poured soy wax candles, which is the coziest of pandemic hobbies (if this is something you’d like to follow along on, my candlemaker Insta handle is @byriverandroads).

My mind feels scattered and random: should I go back to school and study Medieval History, or do I just secretly want to rewatch The Witcher? Should I learn the dance from the Britney “Slave 4 U” video or Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”? Can my knee even handle the “Body” dance? A ghost definitely finished that box of wine, right?

I was driving home from an appointment recently on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, when a Dave Matthews Band song came onto the radio. DMB is one of those bands I stopped caring about the second the ink dried on my high school diploma, but in that moment, the sun felt warm on my skin, the air smelled crisp and fresh, and I was in a suddenly joyful mood. So I cranked that shit, singing along, remembering every word from senior year, mimicking every idiosyncratic inflection of Dave’s voice. “Goes to visit his mommy/ feeds him well, his concerns, he forgets them/ and remembers bein’ small/ playing under the table and dreamin’.” Nostalgia is a hell of a drug these days, and I’m not sure if it’s because of my age or this pandemic or the double whammy of both, but I can be absolutely floored by the opening notes to a Sheryl Crow song I totally forgot ever existed. I’m at the point where I’ve lived a long time, but I’m not quite old yet. I’m older, for sure, but I hope to still have a good stretch left laying out ahead of me. I have taken it for granted that for the most part, during my little ants-marching sized life, I’ve expected a certain level of consistency. I never once thought that there would be a time I couldn’t get on an airplane and go somewhere that I wanted to go. I didn’t think I’d have to view my newborn niece for the first time through the glass window of my sister’s back porch. I never thought that I’d be terrified of the thought of a crowded restaurant. No wonder a Dave Matthews Band song from 1994 was such a comfort to me for those four minutes of driving in surprise sunshine. I sang along with the radio with my whole body, nodding my head along to the drumbeat, shimmying my shoulders to the fiddle solo. For a few minutes, I could be 17 years old riding around in my best friend’s Geo metro, wandering without a destination, playing under the table and dreaming.

Seasons

It’s officially fall. The air smells like a new season, the sun sets earlier, and our bedroom is a shade darker each morning  when our alarm clock goes off. I love this time of year, but I’m scared of this particular fall. With the cooler nights and the darker mornings, a tinge of malaise has settled over me. We all have pandemic fatigue. We were promised at the beginning that this would pass–that the strict lockdown in March and April would curb the spread, allowing for a normal summer. Then summer passed, its golden glow creeping further away into the horizon, leaving me here.

I felt like I was able to carve out a semblance of a summer despite the pandemic, mostly because so many of my typical summer plans involve getting away from people. We went camping, sleeping in thick forests swarming with more mosquitos than mammals, and kayaked on lazy rolling rivers. Thanks to some coordinated covid testing and a lot of planning flexibility, we were able to spend part of our usual annual week at the lake house with my family. The lake house is one of my favorite annual traditions, and though Kurt and I only got to stay there for 3 nights instead of the usual 7 due to the testing waiting period, it was well worth it. We  sat by campfires, cracking open cold beers while gazing over the flames at the sun setting over the lake, and I felt a semblance of peace. I can get through this year, as long as these moments can still exist, whenever I can make them happen. I hold them close, savoring their fleeting sense of beautiful normalcy, like capturing fireflies in mason jars and watching them glow before setting them free.

Fall has an uncanny ability to make me feel wistfully lonely. Maybe it’s the muscle memory of returning to school, all of those awkward adolescent years when I craved a John Hughes vision of what high school was supposed to look like while forever feeling outside of it all. Maybe it’s the sense memory of my recovery from knee surgery 8 years ago, when I went through one of the deepest depressions of my adult life, spending every day and night on the same corner of the couch while watching the leaves fall outside, grieving my temporary ‘new normal.’ That was the season we adopted River, who became my buddy in anxiety and isolation. She would curl her furry little body around my knee brace, tucked between me and the CPM machine (my daily therapeutic torture device) on the couch. The sight of changing leaves immediately brings back the memory of the CPM machine as it flexed my knee for me, its creaky pneumatic wheeze creeping into the background soundtrack of my Twin Peaks rewatch. 

This winter is going to be hard. We’re going to feel isolated, and alone, and anxious. It will end, at some point. The days will grow long again; the sun will return. The changing of the seasons will cycle through, as they always do, marking time in a physical, visible, immersive way that feels so familiar and vital. 

This fall, we have a second dog. It’s funny how it happened this way–we adopted Winnie in mid-August, one day after River’s 8th adoption anniversary. Winnie is floppy and goofy, somewhere between 8 months to 1.5 years old, mostly pit bull but has a snore that sounds like a manatee. We drove home with her on a late summer evening, Kurt at the wheel while I sat in the backseat holding Winnie, because we didn’t know if she’d try to climb over the seat or not. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a puppy in the house, the need to constantly watch her, the mystery of not knowing how she’ll react to all her firsts–the first visitor at the door, the first car trip, the first run-in with another leashed dog. I worried about how River and our cat Esteban would react as the days went by. I worried that I had blown up our peaceful routine, introducing 44 pounds of chaos in an adorably cute, velvet-furred package. Quickly, we had to restructure our lives into a schedule that involved obedience training, solo walks for River, playtime for Winnie, crate training, socialization, puppy-level exercise. I had some meltdowns. At times, I feared it wouldn’t work out. Days passed, and it got a little easier. A little bit better. Summer melted into fall.

I’ve been so focused on my little corner of chaos, so much of what is going on the world has faded into the background. But once I leave my house, I emerge into an altered reality. The other pedestrians wear masks, and we make wide circles as we pass each other. Businesses have boards over their windows. More and more homes in our neighborhood display Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, many of them homemade. And these early days of October have already been so jam-packed with major news events, this post will be outdated within minutes of me clicking Publish. I can only imagine that the coming months will continue to be some of the wildest, most unpredictable times we’ve ever witnessed. And eventually, the season will change again. 

 

photo by Kurt Matsen