The morning is drizzly with rain, surprise. We make breakfast at camp, then head to the Rain Forest Nature trail right by our site, a short 0.5-mile trail along Willaby Creek. I hadn’t looked up anything about the trail and am blown away by the view of the Gorge and the old-growth forest flanking it on both sides. It feels like we’ve stepped into an ancient world and I almost expect a pterodactyl to swoop through the sky. The trail winds along high above creek level with a wooden railing hugging you to the side of the mountain, and I’ll continue my habit of making hyper-specific Chicagoland references by saying that it made me think of Tropic World Asia at Brookfield Zoo. Even more surprisingly, we barely see anyone else out on the trail, a stark difference from the packed parking lot at Hoh the previous day. Since the trail is so short, we join the Quinault River Trail for a bit to get a little more time in at this beautiful spot.
Kurt and I both love a scenic drive, so we embark on the Quinault Rain Forest Loop, a 31-mile route around the entire lake. It takes about 2 hours to complete due to gravel roads and stopping to see all the waterfalls. It is also popular with bicyclists, and we see quite a few out and about. Kurt and I make a few stops at trailheads to stretch our legs on some easy hikes, including the Maple Glade Trail, which ends up being one of Kurt’s favorites. The mile-long trail takes us through a grove of ancient towering maples; I am in awe of trees and their resilience to survive centuries of extreme elements. I’ve always felt that nature is more than a little but supernatural.
Back in the van, the road takes us into a thick forest surrounding us on both side. This area seems prime for elk sighting, so Kurt slows the Kung Fu to a crawl and we scour the trees with our eyes. Within minutes, we spot the backs of two female elk grazing deep into the woods. The forest eventually opens up into the Quinault River valley, with a peek of snowcapped mountains in the distance. If you’re planning a trip to Olympic National Park, I’d recommend setting aside a full day for exploring the Quinault area; it’s pretty magical.
Once we’ve finished the Loop Drive, we say a wistful goodbye to the Olympic Peninsula. Our next destination is Mount Rainier National Park, and we have a three-hour drive ahead of us to reach Packwood, where we’ve reserved an Airbnb for the night. I’m eager for my first shower in days and a chance to wash our dirty laundry. Fueled by gas station corn dogs, we forge on to Packwood.
Packwood/ Mount Rainier/ Enumclaw
I wake up in our A-frame cabin in Packwood as the early sunlight streams into the loft sleeping area. Waking up in a real bed feels pretty great, and Kurt and I both have a pile of freshly cleaned and folded camping clothes sitting atop our bags, ready for the second half of our trip. The cabin is my dream house—rustic and cozy with a wooden deck overlooking a babbling stream. We’d sat outside the previous night eating carryout pizza and drinking canned white wine while our clothes tumbled clean in the washing machine.
This day should be interesting; as we spent last night researching trails in Mt. Rainier using the cabin’s wifi, we learned that most of the park is currently closed due to late-season snowpack. Out of our planned stops, there are only a few trailheads we can access right now. We’ll figure it out as we go. But first, coffee and breakfast tacos.
“You know of the closures?” the Ranger asks us as we enter the National Park. Yep, we tell her, we’re headed to Silver Falls, one of the few accessible trails. She nods and offers us a park map.
The Silver Falls Trail is a 4-mile loop with 705 ft of elevation gain—a moderate hike that would’ve been no big deal for me a few months ago, but more challenging than all of the short, flat hikes we’ve been doing all week. I’ve been feeling better lately, so we pack up a daypack with water, snacks, and rain jackets, and set out.
Silver Falls turns out to be a pretty large, roaring waterfall, and the trail leads us across the river via footbridge twice before ascending up the ridge, into the woods, then back down. It takes about two hours for us to finish and end up back at the van. Where to next? The nearby Grove of the Patriarchs (ancient four-stories-tall Douglas firs, hemlocks, and red cedars) is temporarily closed due to the bridge being washed out. Both the route to Paradise and the road past the Sunrise entrances are closed. We get into the van and take the road up the eastern side of the park, hoping to at least catch some good views of Mount Rainier, but a thick fog settles in. As the road winds up into higher elevations, snowbanks appear, then grow in size up to what looks like over six feet high. From what locals have told us, this is highly unusual for June.
The road eventually deposits us on the north side of the park, not far from our reserved campsite. We pull over and check our phones for options. Kurt finds a recommendation for a good view of Mount Rainier, sixteen miles up a forestry road. I’m antsy to do something so I say yes, but once we’ve begun rambling our way up the potholed, washboard-riddled gravel road, my anxiety spikes. I get pretty extreme acrophobia on any steep trails or roads with sheer drop-offs (see my previous blogs from the Smoky Mountains, Iceland, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, basically everywhere). We’re a few miles from the top when we come around a corner and see that the road ahead is covered with snow for the remainder of the way. At this point, I pretty much have a panic attack and ask Kurt to take us back down. He has to turn the van around carefully on the narrow road while I squeeze my eyes shut.
It’s now raining steadily and visibility is poor. We decide to hit up another trail, the Snoquera Falls Loop. It’s 3.9 miles with 975 feet of elevation gain, similar to our early hike but a little steeper. This is going to be a lot for me but I can always quit, as I just proved. Normalize quitting all the time!
We’ve barely gotten into the forest before we spot a big cat poo; there are signs warning of cougars in the area. So that’s exciting. The trail starts heading uphill pretty quickly, giving us a view of the forest floor. The ground is wet but thankfully not slippery, as the trail is on the narrow side, hugging the side of the ridge. I start feeling not great—lightheaded, tired. We stand in the middle of the trail as I chow down two chocolate almond butter bars and a bottle of water. I focus on breathing. After a few minutes, I tell Kurt I’m OK to keep going. The trail continues to climb via switchback, and I take a few more breaks to catch my breath. Finally, we can hear the sound of water. The initial view of Snoquera Falls after coming around the rocky corner is pretty stunning. There’s also an incredible outward-facing view of the mountains through the mist. I’m relieved to have made it.
The online trail guide says you can either cross the falls and continue on the loop or turn back and come down the way you came. I’m in no mood for a scramble over wet rocks, so we turn around. Thankfully, the downhill trip is much easier for me than the uphill.
We pull into the Silver Springs campgrounds (yes, I had Fleetwood Mac in my head the whole time), which are half-empty, a stark difference from the fully booked sites in Olympic. Our site is directly next to the rushing White River. It’s a gorgeous view but unfortunately, we don’t get to sit outside and enjoy it very much, as it’s gushing rain. Kurt and I sit inside the Kung Fu at the table and have an indoor dinner and cocktail hour. We even figure out a way to convert the table to a bed without having to open the doors (mostly consisting of me tucking myself into the front seat hugging the cushions until handing them back to Kurt to put back onto the opened wood platform. We spend our last night of van camping listening to the rain and the river.
We wake up early and do a quick breakfast of oatmeal and pour-over coffee. Our plan is to get to Hoh Rain Forest early to beat the crowds. It’s a long drive through the park to get to the entrance, and the small parking lot for Hoh fills up fast, resulting in wait times several hours long during the busy summer season. I’ve had Hoh on my wish list for a long time and the anticipation builds. From Kalaloch, we get to the ranger station a little after 9 a.m. and find a spot easily in the half-filled lot.
It turns out to be a surprisingly bright, sunny morning, especially considering that this region gets as much as fourteen FEET of rain annually. Kurt and I start with the most popular trail, Hall of Mosses, a 0.8-mile loop. It’s early enough that we can hang back a bit and give ourselves space between us and other groups.
Hoh is deemed a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO due to being the most carefully preserved rain forest in the northern hemisphere. As we become immersed in the forest, it feels like being transported to a primordial planet or a fantasy novel. Every inch of surface area is covered in green: old-growth trees drip with muppet-like shaggy green moss, the forest floor is bursting with ferns, and the rocks are covered with velvety moss. A girl in a group ahead of us compares an especially shaggy tree to Mr. Snuffleupagus. Kurt and I read about nurse logs, dead fallen trees that become a source of microbes and nutrients for seedling trees, and begin to notice them everywhere. It’s mind-boggling to think of how old some of the nurse logs are when we see how big their child trees have gotten. Some of the Sitka Spruce in this forest are as tall as 300 feet and as much as 600 years old.
After the Hall of Mosses, we set out to hike a section of the 33-mile out-and-back Hoh River Trail, but I ask Kurt to turn back at just under a mile. I’m listening to my body a lot and it is asking for a ham sandwich. It feels weird tapping out so early on a flat trail when just five months ago I hiked 2,350 feet of elevation over 3.5 miles into and out of the Grand Canyon. Life is a wild ride lately.
Back to the parking lot, where I make my sandwich and we take a break in our folding chairs next to the Kung Fu. The parking lot is now totally full, with multiple cars doing the slow circle around in hopes of catching someone leaving. A few friendly hikers approach us and ask if they can check out the Kung Fu’s setup. We chat with a few retirees who have set out to see every National Park over the next year, exchanging trip stories and favorites.
After I’m sufficiently rested and fed, we do one more trail, the 1.2-mile Spruce Nature Trail. This trail takes us to the Hoh River bed, with a wide-open view of the river valley. I say to Kurt “Washington is like a low-key Alaska.” The silvery gray color of the silty river reminds me of the glacier run-off rivers in Denali. When we eventually leave Hoh, we catch a glimpse of a Roosevelt’s elk’s butt disappearing into the forest.
Our campsite for the night is on Lake Quinault, so we take the long drive back to the 101 on the coast, then make our way to the southwest side of Olympic where it butts up against the Quinault Reservation. On our way, we stop to see three significant trees: The Duncan Cedar (World’s Largest Western Red Cedar, 178 feet tall and 19.4-ft diameter), the Big Cedar Tree of Kalaloch (175 feet tall and estimated to be 1,000 years old), and the Quinault Giant Sitka Spruce (a whopping 58’11” circumference). If you love giant record-breaking trees, this is the place for you.
We stop at the Lake Quinault Lodge to have dinner, and as we’re led into the dining room, I gape at the view of the sprawling green lawn that leads to Lake Quinault. It’s like Pacific Northwest Dirty Dancing. There’s also a gigantic drawing room with a Game of Thrones-sized fireplace surrounded by forest green leather couches. I get a little self-conscious of my unwashed hair and campfire-scented clothing. Kurt and I eat dinner next to the window, watching hummingbirds hover and dive between enormous pink and purple rhododendrons. After dinner, we sit on the patio and have a cocktail; I’ve become accustomed to stretching out one glass of white wine for the evening.
When we get back to our campsite on the southern shore of the lake, the rain has returned. I sit underneath a tree while Kurt gets a fire going. We hang out with the hoods of our rain jackets pulled up and make s’mores. When I’m ready to call it a night, I follow the routine I’ve created and mastered over the last few nights: one last stop to the pit toilet, get into the front passenger seat to remove muddy boots and socks, hang my wet rain jacket over the headrest, slide out of rain pants while shimmying into the main cabin through the blackout curtains, and voila, the bed stays clean and dry. Fingers crossed I don’t have to pee in the middle of the night.
I’m so excited for this day; we basically built our entire route around the only availability to stay in the Kalaloch Beach campgrounds (advice: book your ONP campsites as early as possible!). We get started on our day after having a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared on the propane stove. The goal is to reach the Pacific coast early so we have plenty of time to make it to the beach just before low tide to see the tide pools.
On the way, we pass through the town of Forks, the setting of the Twilight books. I see a storefront or two full of Twilight merch and multiple Trump MAGA signs. For the Twihards out there, two versions of Bella’s truck (book version and movie version) are parked in front of the Forks visitors’ center.
Rain pelts us as we reach the coast. The first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean through the trees are slate gray, nearly indistinguishable from the cloudy skies. At the Kalaloch ranger station, the ranger on duty recommends either Ruby Beach or Beach 4 for tide pools, with the latter being less crowded, so we park at the Beach 4 trailhead and put on our rain jackets.
There’s a mist hanging over the beach which makes the tall shoreline pines and rock formations look like distant ghosts. I love it. Moody misty ocean fog appeals to my Scandinavian side. Sunshine is overrated; gimme some melancholy atmosphere. Kurt and I walk across the rocky shore to join other visitors exploring the tide pools. I climb carefully over the barnacle-covered rocks, peering into entire ecosystems flourishing in hidden nooks of the rocks. It smells like saltwater, fish, and seaweed, and I wish I could somehow bottle it up and bring it home. As we explore and find starfish, crabs, and sea anemones, the light rain stops and the sun peeps out. I take off my rain jacket, then my fleece; it becomes a warm, bright day. I spot two bald eagles gliding slow and lazy by the tree line; one of them flies in low and it’s maybe the closest I’ve ever seen one in flight.
From Beach 4, we head down the road to Kalaloch Beach, where our campground is located. Our camper van associate told us this was her favorite camping spot, and upon arrival, I understand why. The outermost loop of sites look out onto a cliff with a panoramic view of the ocean. Below on the dog-friendly beach, people play with their dogs in the sand. From the campground, there’s a short inclined path straight to the beach. It deposits us onto the sand not far from the Tree of Life, or Tree Root Cave, a popular spot on Kalaloch. An ancient Sitka Spruce hangs between a gap in the cliff nearly in midair, its roots exposed after erosion washed the soil away, and somehow manages to continue thriving. It’s a living metaphor, a miracle of nature, an Instagram moment, all of the above. We watch a large family swarm around the cave, multiple kids dangling from the spruce’s exposed roots, and two adults climb up the trunk all the way into the branches as I wince (the Park system discourages visitors from hanging onto the delicate roots, given the tree’s fragility). The more I travel, the more I am struck by the difference in people who see the world as their personal property or jungle gym, vs. those who lead with respect and err on the side of preservation.
It’s turned into a gorgeous sunny day, so Kurt and I bring our lunch down to the beach. We spend the afternoon walking along the water looking for sand dollars and wading shin-deep. There’s a few brave souls full-on swimming in the cold water. Further down the beach, the shore turns into what Kurt calls a mass crab graveyard, the sand covered in thousands of pieces of washed-up crab legs and shells.
At sunset, we return to the beach to watch the sun disappear into the Pacific Ocean. A small crowd has gathered, some of them camped out on chairs. I’m grateful for the clear sky and the amazing view. I think about the other sunsets we watched earlier this year in two other National Parks, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon, and reflect on how grateful I am to have accumulated these experiences. I just want to sit in this moment and enjoy it before it slips away as all moments do.
This trip arrived exactly when I needed it and when I wasn’t yet ready for it. I planned the trip—a drive through some of the National Parks of Washington—back in February, for the purpose of using the last of our 2020 airline credits.
Six weeks before our departure, my covid-free streak and my Wordle streak broke in the same week (SO RUDE). A few weeks after recovering, some of my symptoms boomeranged back—chest tightness, shortness of breath, light-headedness, and a lingering cough. So I’m a little grumpy and a lot concerned about my stamina on this trip, planned to be full of hiking and roughing it in a camper van. But I’m doing my best to roll with it, toting my meds along with me and doing regular self-check-ins on how I’m feeling.
On Saturday morning, Kurt and I kill some time doing touristy things at Pike Place Market and grab a breakfast of eggs with fried oysters and salmon, then it’s time to pick up the van. We’d love to bring our van from home, but in the interest of time, we found a place to rent a conversion van in Seattle. To our delight, our assigned camper van is a Ford Econoline nicknamed Kung Fu, custom-painted with a dragon on each side and two Koi fish swimming in a yin yang on one of the rear doors. There’s bench seating and a table that convert into a bed, and a kitchen area in the rear with a fridge, pump-operated sink, gray water storage, and a Propane grill. After a quick grocery run, it’s time to hit the road in the direction of Olympic National Park.
We drive for a few hours in moderate rain until we cross the floating Hood Canal Bridge, officially entering the Peninsula. Our first campsite is at Sequim Bay State Park, an area known for elk turning up in peoples’ yards and a recent local political scandal involving their mayor’s vocal support of QAnon conspiracy theories (when our camper van rep told us to Google the Mayor, Kurt had hoped that the Mayor was a cat).
The campground is pretty, full of towering pine trees with a view of the bay visible through the foliage, but I’m feeling apprehensive about my first night camping while not feeling 100%. The upcoming forecast looks like a solid green mass of rain coming right at us. Kurt whips up a quick dinner of brats and green beans before the storm rolls in. After we eat, the storm still hasn’t arrived, so we walk down to the Bay and check out the view. I love the Pacific Northwest with its mix of mountains, water, coastal fog, and old-growth forests. We spot a group of seals hanging out not far from the pier. I relax a little; while I may not be myself these days, I need to remember to enjoy the little things.
It gets dark out and the rain still never arrives, so we make our first campfire of the trip. I go to bed early, snuggled into the surprisingly comfortable converted bed with my book.
Port Angeles/Lake Crescent/Sol Duc
From Sequim, it’s on to Port Angeles; you may know this as the city in Twilight where Bella and her friends go for dress shopping and Italian dinner dates. We find a place called Lola’s Cafe and I am delighted to see a Filipino breakfast on the menu. I’m in heaven with my longanisa, spam, garlic rice, and giant coffee. We also get some donuts for the road from a place called Sasquatch Donuts. While walking off our breakfast, we wander over to the pier and get a brief glimpse through the fog of Canada across the Salish Sea. Kurt checks the webcam for Hurricane Ridge, one of our potential stops for the day. The visibility is close to zero, which makes going forty-five minutes out of our way to check out the mountain view a futile exercise.
Lucky for us, there’s tons of things to do instead, so we enter Olympic National Park and take a scenic drive around Lake Crescent. The hike to Marymere Falls is easy and family-friendly, which sounds good to my lungs, so we pack up a daypack and set out.
I immediately love this National Park. Every direction you turn in looks like a Bob Ross painting come to life. The early summer light that filters through the clouds and tree canopy makes everything look a little more magical. No wonder the vampires sparkle here! We make it to the viewing platform and feel the spray of the waterfall on our skin. Kurt was smart to buy those donuts and pack them into our daypack, so we choose a spot next to a babbling stream to enjoy them. My grumpiness is melting away; I love it here. I love hiking, even if I need to take it easy. We can stop for as many breaks as I need. I’ll figure out how to adapt.
There’s another waterfall nearby our reserved campsite, so we tackle that next, but as we pull into the trailhead parking lot the light drizzle has grown into heavy rain. We see a few hikers run to their vehicle in sopping wet jeans, the absolute worst. Kurt and I grab our rain pants from our bags to pair with our rain jackets. I also opt to take along a hiking pole in case the trail gets slippery. The Sol Duc Falls Trail is another easy 1.6 mile out-and-back, and judging from the parking lot, the rain has thinned out the usual crowds. We reach the falls quickly, and admire the view from the wood bridge straddling the dramatic drop-off. “This is serving Six Flags Splashwater Falls vibes,” I say to Kurt (and will say again roughly 1,000 times before the end of the trip).
We get back to the van and it’s still pouring rain. We could go to our campsite and sit in the rain, or we could go to the nearby hot springs resort (obviously a no-brainer). “You know what would be amazing in a camper van? A mud room,” I saw to Kurt as we attempt to hang up our wet rain jackets and rain pants somewhere they can air dry while not dripping all over the seats and bedding. We do a decent enough job, but this is the kind of trip where you must make peace with the fact that everything’s always going to be at least a little bit damp, from the blackout curtains to the comforter and pillows to your fleece jacket that you wear beneath your rain jacket. During the day there’s intermittent rain, and at night, condensation clings to everything inside the van.
The hot springs feel amazing. The resort consists of four pools—three of them naturally heated at temps ranging from 99 to 109 degrees, and one lap-sized pool filled with children apparently immune to freezing water. The resort is egalitarian compared to the bougie hot springs we visited near Taos earlier this year. Kids kick around in water wings in the 107-degree pool, and the concrete ground is covered with some sort of brown goopy mildew extremely slippery beneath wet feet. But still, it’s blissful to sit neck-deep in the sulphuric hot water, gazing at the misty mountain ridge in the distance; the steam feels soothing on my messed-up lungs. We strike up conversation with a woman sitting nearby who is visiting from Alaska, and have a pleasant conversation about Copper River and what it’s like to live somewhere where a bald eagle may drop a still-alive salmon into your backyard for dinner.
Back to camp and the rain has stopped, so we attempt to make a fire, but the wet wood slows down the process. After a meager little fire, we retire to the van to sleep amidst damp curtains and the sound of the Sol Duc River.
I thought of the idea for the trip last fall, one of dozens of adventures I’d dreamed up and noted for “whenever things get back to normal.” My list got stupid long. I floated the idea to a friend: “I want to visit the three Meow Wolf locations in Denver, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas in one week.” He responded immediately with “Let’s do it.” Kurt was in too.
This trip ended up having a theme, which was seeing the world cracked open. It’s fitting considering we’re living through this time in history in which the landscape shifts constantly; a new dangerous variant emerged and circled the globe within the brief window of time between buying our plane tickets and embarking on our trip. We move forward, thrice Pfizered, twice shy.
And so we arrive in Denver in late January, a Ziploc full of fresh KN95s in my purse, and a box of rapid tests in my carry-on in case of the worst. We spend two nights in an AirBnB in Boulder, the broad expanse of the Rockies visible even from the windows of the garden unit. As a Midwesterner, I can never get over seeing the mountains from one’s house. You can just, like, walk outside and see the Rocky Mountains while still wearing your house slippers? And while getting in and out of your car in the CVS parking lot? It’s wild.
On our one full day in Boulder, we hike the Mt. Sanitas trail, a 3.2 mile loop to the summit at 1,256 feet. The first half of the trail to the summit is steep, with a good amount of rock scrambling close to the top. There’s fresh white powder on the ground, dusting the pine trees, and cool drops of condensation drip onto my head. I work up a sweat, stepping up logs and boulders as high as my hips. I’ve got flatlander’s lungs and I’m breathing hard in this high elevation. Meanwhile, locals trail run past me in light athleisure wear, barely breaking a sweat. I even see a dog with corgi legs scramble over the rocks like it’s no big deal. My hair is a damp mop on my head and I’ve peeled off my sweaty gloves, shoving them into the pockets of my puffy jacket now tied around my waist. But we make it to the top, and bask in the view of the city of Boulder laid out around us. I can never get over a good view. A change in perspective. Man, I’ve missed traveling during this damn pandemic.
On Sunday morning, we arrive at the first of our Meow Wolf stops in Denver, Convergence Station. None of us have been here before. Kurt and I visited the original Meow Wolf in Santa Fe in 2019, and I loved the trippy art fever dream experience of it. The Denver installation is over three times bigger, located in an industrial area where the highways converge, lending inspiration to the intergalactic travel theme. The last real-world moment is when we are told of their mask policy (must stay on, fully covering one’s nose and mouth at all times, removing the mask even for a quick photo could result in being asked to leave). With our KN95s on tight, we enter the elevator and are whisked away to another world.
Here are my tips for visiting Convergence Station:
If possible, plan your visit on a weekday or early in the day to avoid crowds.
For $3, you can pick up a QPass card for an interactive ‘game’ within the installation. If you’re exploring with a group, you only need one card (but keep in mind you’ll need to stick together). When you boop your card at a reader, you accumulate ‘mems’ which piece together to tell the story within the world.
If you don’t feel like solving the game, don’t worry about it. It’s a blast just to explore and interact with the art and the space itself (especially if it’s your first Meow Wolf visit).
If you’ve previously been to House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, prepare yourself for an experience three times bigger (60,000 square ft of exhibition space compared to 20,000). We spent about 3 hours in Convergence Station, and could have stayed longer if we didn’t have tight schedule.
I love Meow Wolf because it feels like everything I longed for as a kid–a gigantic, fantastical funhouse full of secret passages and portals and wormholes to the next spot. One world is ethereal and melancholy, with a reclining mermaid tucked high on a ridge, her luminescent hair draping down the wall. Another looks like a futuristic street out of Blade Runner, with neon graffiti, an intergalactic bus, and a story about a rat antihero. The next looks like an ice planet with a show-stopping glass cathedral nearly touching the light show sky.
I’m starting to settle into the rhythm of traveling again. With so many new landscapes and experiences to explore, I push my anxieties to the back of my brain, trying not to worry about things until they are a reality.
We drive south through Colorado towards our next stop, Taos in northern New Mexico. It’s about a 5-hour drive, and I love watching the geological scenery change outside the car window. Gradually, the snow-capped Rockies disappear from view, and the rock formations of northern New Mexico dominate the horizon. We pass over the Rio Grande River Gorge Bridge, 600 feet above the river bed, one of the highest bridges in the country. From the vantage point of the bridge, the landscape looks cracked into two halves, like something caused by a pissed-off sorcerer.
Outside of Taos, I soak in mineral hot springs. In one pool with a natural pebble floor, you can see the bubbles come up from the earth and rise to the surface. The night air is crisp, somewhere around 30 degrees, but it’s toasty in the water, heated by geothermal activity deep in the earth. I think that my love of fantasy/sci-fi and my love of nature go hand in hand, because nature really is wild to wrap your head around.
The next day, we make the quick trip to Santa Fe, one of my favorite cities. I get my fix of tamales with green chile and a spicy margarita with a slice of jalapeno floating on the rocks. Next stop: the original location of Meow Wolf, House of Eternal Return.
Kurt and I first visited Meow Wolf in spring 2019. Even after the awesome display that is the 4-story Convergence Station, I am still blown away by the original space. There’s something about the storyline–a family disappears when they begin traveling inter-dimensionally in an effort to find a deceased loved one–that feels more intimate and prescient. I love the juxtaposition of a typical house and another dimension: a washing machine reveals an intergalactic portal, a closet in a child’s bedroom reveals a secret passage to a space wormhole. I love the story of the origins of Meow Wolf as a DIY art collective, creating a space for artists outside of the bougie Santa Fe gallery scene. If you’re new to Meow Wolf, I recommend starting with a visit to the Santa Fe location and also viewing their origin story.
One quick night in Santa Fe, and we fill it with Frito pie. I also swear that our Airbnb is haunted and I dream that a man from the boiler room walks through the room at night while we sleep.
It’s a 4-hour drive to Petrified Forest National Park, so we get an early start to maximize our day before the park closes at 5 p.m. After making a few stops along the historic Route 66, we arrive at the park in the early afternoon. Starting at the Rainbow Forest Museum, we get the lay of the land and read up on the history of the park. With a few hours to go before closing, we pick a few short trails to hike: Crystal Forest, a 0.75 mile loop around a field of countless crystallized petrified logs; Blue Mesa, a 1-mile loop on a steeply graded trail that takes you into and out of the badland hills; Newspaper Rock, an overlook where you can view an array of nearly 650 petroglyphs created by ancestral Puebloan people as long as 2,000 years ago. This is a very accessible park for families with young children or seniors, as the trails are short but scenic and it’s easy to drive and park at each trailhead.
Being the group of science and nature-minded nerds that we are, we marvel at the striations and variations in the rock formations, piecing together what was once underwater back when Arizona was under an ocean. How wild that a log can still look like wood on the outside, the patterns of bark still intact, while the inside has turned into quartz after being buried in sediment and compressed by pressure then being revealed again by wind and erosion. These elements exist on an entirely different timeline than us humans in our meat bodies.
We breeze through our itinerary and realize it’s a few minutes past 5 as we squeeze in one last stop at Pintado Point. A strong wind whips across the badlands, chilling straight through my nano-puff jacket. I spot a ranger pull into the parking lot and we scramble for the car, but before we can promise we’re leaving, she tells us that we can stay for 30 more minutes to watch the sunset. “It’s going to be a nice one,” she says before driving away. We’re elated over the gift of additional time, and bundle up so we can stand at the overlook in the cold until the sun disappears into the horizon. The sky intensifies into a fiery orange as the low winter sun sets behind the badlands. As the colors cool into a soft, deep blue, we get back into the car and drive to the northern exit.
Another day, another few giant holes in the ground. We grab breakfast then make our way to Meteor Crater National Landmark. The entire drive there, I’m positive that this is where Thor landed in his MCU origin film, but once I look it up I realize that I’m wrong. Starman (1984), however, was filmed at the national landmark.
Once you walk outside, the sight of the crater is mind-blogging. Free binoculars are staged at various viewing platforms alongside the crater. The crater is roughly 560 feet deep and 0.737 miles in diameter. The sky is bright blue all around us, and I imagine what it would be like to standing around in the desert when all of a sudden a meteor traveling around 30,000 mph suddenly arrived out of nowhere and smashed into the ground, creating this gigantic hole. Some of the original drilling equipment is set up on the ground level to show where excavations were dug for meteor remnants in the early 1900s.
Another few hours in the car, to the next destination. We pass through Flagstaff, then drive north towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I spot pronghorns along the side of the road briefly. It’s a little before sunset when we finally arrive in the National Park. Before even checking in, we park the car and dash to the nearest viewing area. Somehow everyone in our group made it to our forties without ever visiting the Grand Canyon before, so when we reach the overlook, we’re all pretty awestruck. You can look at a million photos of it (and you’re American, you probably have by sheer cultural osmosis) but it’s nothing like being there in person–the scale, the depth of shadow, the way the colors change in real time as the sun moves through the sky, revealing new angles. We walk along the Rim Trail, checking out a few different scenic overlooks.
My acrophobia is mostly OK as long as there’s a substantial fence higher than my waist. A few waves of panic wash over me as I spot people venturing past the railing to stand on a rocky outcrop and take photos. People are out of their minds. Along other parts of the trail, there’s no barrier at all. When I start freaking out, I move further inland away from the rim. I can barely watch the small children and dogs who dart around on the sidewalk.
The next morning, we fuel up on coffee, water, and breakfast burritos. The plan is to hike a portion of the Bright Angel Trail. As soon as I see the start of the trail, panic rises. The path is covered in snow and ice and descends into a narrow curve, then out of sight. I’m honestly not sure if I can do this trail at first; every time I look out over the edge I want to barf. But my group scouts out the trail beyond the curve and reassures me; it’s wider than it looks (4-6 feet across) and full of switchbacks, so even if I fell off the edge, I’d only go as far as the next ledge down. I don’t want to miss out on the views from below the rim, so I tighten the crampons on my boots, grip my hiking poles, and go for it.
We descend slowly, one switchback at a time. I’m a slower hiker on the descent, thanks to my knee injury history, but my hiking buddies are relaxed and no big rush. As we get beneath the rim, the views are stunning. We are up close to the rock face and can see the layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale in detail. The first mile and a half or so are icy, but it’s manageable with my crampons and poles. I’m comfortable in my base layer and nano-puff in the cool 40-something-degree shade. My boots begin to expose red earth beneath the white snow, and soon we’re hiking on sun-dried dirt again.
We rest briefly at the 1.5 mile rest stop, then continue to another 1.5 miles to the next one. My knee is yelling at me that every step down I take, I’ll need to take back up on the return trip. After descending 2,100 feet, I decide I’m good for the day. I wish I could keep going all the way to the riverbed and rest my legs at camp, but we’re only here for the day, and what goes down needs to come back up. The views of the river valley are a dream; I get why people become obsessed with this place and come back year after year. One can only imagine how much time could be spent hiking every trail, exploring every formation and never becoming bored. Caverns and valleys and portals and wormholes, what a theme for a trip. I feel blessed, as the kids say, to have experienced this week’s worth of adventure.
I’m pleasantly surprised by our swift uphill pace; the ascent is easier on my rickety knee joints and it feels good to put my muscles to the test (I’m basically a pack animal). We get off the trail around early afternoon and have a hot shower and a Santa Fe beer in our fridge to look forward to.
On our last evening in the national park, we go to Mohave Point to watch the sunset. The Colorado River is visible, and even from this distance, I can see the silvery water moving through the canyon. I stand back, just far enough from the minimal railing to keep my heart from racing. The temperature drops along with the sun, and I burrow into my coat, but I stand to watch as the winter sun descends lower and lower, washing the canyon in cool blues as a ribbon of tangerine lingers above the canyon walls, then fades away. Finally, I run back to the warmth of the car.
12 hours later, I pull my jeans on over long underwear and my puffy over my wool sweater, hide my bedhead under a knit cap, and run back outside to watch the sunrise. This time, the cool blues warm into soft pink. A rock formation in the distance catches the light first, and the yellow rays dance across its surface.
Is this traveling in middle age? I’m into this vibe of waking up early, hangover-free, to quietly watch a sunrise, then head back to bed to do my daily word puzzle.
We’re at the point in the trip where my packing cubes of dirty clothes start to outnumber clean clothes. Only one more state to go, and I get that wistful feeling where I don’t want vacation to end, even though I’m excited for the remaining plans that lay ahead. Onward.
We cruise through rural western Arizona. The desert gets more sparse and brown, far from the thickly wooded landscape in the northern end of the state. We make a stop at the Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs. I first heard of this place on Atlas Obscura, with its grotto and hotel suite located 200 feet below ground. We go on the guided tour, which features the rentable open-air hotel room, a mummified bobcat, and a cache of emergency supplies that’s been sitting there since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I haven’t driven to Las Vegas from Arizona since college, and I reminisce over the familiar scenery of Lake Mead Recreation Area. Good ol’ Las Vegas, my home in 1999. This final destination calls for a big-ass beer and a fresh KN95 up for a challenge.
The grand finale of our trip is our final Meow Wolf destination, Omega Mart. It’s located in Area 15, an immersive arts district inside a giant warehouse. The theme of this location is a grocery store where something went cosmically sideways. As with the other locations, wormholes and secret passageways abound. It’s easy to spend a ton of time in the grocery store entrance, where the attention to detail is extraordinary. Everything from the signage to the products to the tiniest details on their labels has an otherworldly, often hilarious twist. And you can buy many of the products; we purchased a snack pack of Dragon Arteries (red licorice bites) and a soda can of Gender Fluid (lemon-flavored sparkling water). As with the other installations, there’s a large main “world” that the passageways take you in and out of. Omega Mart also features three large metal slides, in case you’re looking for a quick getaway from the third level. Some of the rooms here, such as the Infinitizer, are a prime example of how Meow Wolf has grown in leaps in terms of merging technology with experience. I also discover my favorite room out of any Meow Wolf installation, a piece called “Pulse.”
Similar to Denver, there is a (free) card you can pick up to play the interactive game, which unlocks pieces of the storyline. And occasionally the story breaks through to the public; while we shop around the grocery store, the lights cut out and the television monitors are taken over by a group of insurgents looking to take down DramCorp, the evil family-owned conglomerate within this universe.
Omega Mart fills 52,000 square feet of exhibition space, closer in size to Convergence Station than House of Eternal Return. Once we’re satiated on our fill of parallel universes and trippy groceries (and I’ve spent enough at the two gift shops), we check out the rest of Area 15. A highlight is Birdly, a VR experience where you can get strapped into wings and soar through a virtual Chicago as a pigeon, or my personal choice, put on a wingsuit like in the Point Break remake and race through mountains trying to collect rings.
We’ve reached the end of our trip. I couldn’t have asked for a better time exploring alternate dimensions via immersive art and awe-inspiring wonders of nature. From Denver to Vegas, we’ve traveled up to 7,490 feet above sea level, down to 200 feet below ground. I’ve hiked on sacred lands as a grateful visitor, and enjoyed a collective vision of hundreds of artists’ rendition of an altered reality. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to travel, one that I do not take for granted, and I can’t wait to do more, as safely and responsibly as one can.
If you’ve never been to a Meow Wolf, I recommend visiting in chronological order (Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Denver) so you can see the scale increase with each installation. But also, time is precious and life is wild, so go in any order if that’s what it takes to get out there.
I spent days after our trip reading more about each exhibit, and learning the stories of the individual artists enhances the whole experience for me. For example, I loved learning about how Arapaho translations are incorporated into Convergence Station, and Erika T. Wurth’s vision for incorporating Native imagery into the story behind the room “Help Save My World.” And also learning that the room “Wheelchair Space Kitchen Time Portal” pays homage to the disability rights movement. You can visit each location dozens of times and still discover new meaning and insight.
The world is chaos. Stop and watch as many sunrises and sunsets as you can.
It’s 2022 and I still have this blog. I like having a space to articulate my thoughts at the start of a new year. I love the new year for similar reasons that I love winter–the changing of the season, the purifying cold, the fresh coat of snow that turns the world into a blank white canvas.
2021 was a hard year for all of us. Kurt and I spent much of the lead-up to the holidays hunkered down on the couch in front of the TV, much like last year. While watching the docuseries The Beatles: Get Back, tucked under the blankets while covered in sleeping pets, I teared up as a young, alive John Lennon sang “Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a good time, everybody had a wet dream, everybody saw the sunshine, oh yeah.”
This new year feels different. 2021 was a very hard year for many people I love, and there were some difficult, harrowing stretches. Last January, I felt hopeful and optimistic for a better year. This time around, I am just grateful to have gotten this far.
I usually have a list of New Year resolutions and goals to tackle, but this year, I wrote a brief phrase down instead: “in spite of…” Whatever I accomplish this year, will be in spite of the challenges of this historic time.
I hope to carve out new adventures, in spite of this pandemic.
I want to take care of my mental and physical health, in spite of the pressures and decision fatigue and uncertainty we’ve all been dealing with for the last few years.
I aim to finish the manuscript I am writing, in spite of this challenging time.
When I find myself blocked, wrestling with a piece that feels like it’s never going to come out of my brain the way I want it to, I rely on another phrase: write your way through it. I came across this quote at a time when it was exactly what I needed to hear:
“What I have learned: No matter what I’m writing, it’s never a waste of time. I’m always working through something. I’m always trying to arrive at a new location.” – Jami Attenberg
May we all find that thing we need to hear this year, exactly when we need it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.