Lake Michigan Circle Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waupaca, Wisconsin

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

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

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

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

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

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

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

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

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

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

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

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island

Maine Diaries: Living that #VanLife

Saturday, September 16

Kurt and I, plus our dog River, packed up our Chevy Astrovan for a week-long road trip to Maine. We spent 12 hours on the road, ending up in the Finger Lakes National Forest in New York to spend our first night in the van. The sky had already grown dark as we reached the campground, and since the only available site was a walk-in, we ended up sleeping in the parking lot. It was a warm night, 80 degrees and sticky. We pulled down our window shades and slept on top of our sleeping bags with the roof fan cranking.

River ready to go

Sunday, September 17

We got on the road early. I entered two new states for the first time–Vermont! (where I ate a turkey sandwich with cranberries and stuffing on it) New Hampshire! (where I bought a box of wine), and then, finally, we crossed the bridge into Maine while passing through a misty rain. We traveled down dark roads lined by forests, and I told Kurt to slow down (“You’re gonna Stephen-King someone!”).  We pulled into Bradbury Mountain State Park just before nightfall, and enjoyed the quiet solitude of nature and “got away from it all” by watching the Packer game on the iPad using the campground wifi.

entering Maine

Monday, September 18

Now that we had reached Maine, we could spend less time driving and more time wandering and exploring various coastal towns. Our first stop was in Boothbay, where we found a restaurant on the water with dog-friendly outdoor seating. I had my first Maine lobster roll with a Bloody Mary. After lunch, we walked through town and checked out a few stores; every single one allowed dogs inside, so Maine is definitely a dog-friend travel destination. That night, we stayed at Camden Hills State Park in a secluded site at the end of the loop, far from any neighbors. The sky was misty with intermittent drizzling rain, creating an otherworldly backdrop of trees that could pass for Dagobah. We cooked burgers on our camp stove and tucked into our box of wine. When I walked to the restrooms near the main road,  the forest was still and quiet, with no sign of any other humans. I held my breath as I darted back to our site, expecting to see Pennywise lurking just beyond the reach of the beam of light coming from my headlamp.

#vanlife

Tuesday, September 19

We drove from Camden to Acadia National Park, stopping in Bucksport to buy groceries and check out John Buck’s Memorial in an old local cemetery. Legend has it that Colonel Buck had sentenced a witch to death by burning at the stake, and after his own passing, a black mark in the shape of a woman’s leg appeared on his monument. When we arrived in Acadia National Park, we stopped near Thunder Hole to see our first views of the ocean. A thick fog hung in the air, obscuring most of our view but creating an autumnal ambiance. We took a drive to the quiet side to see the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and when the skies cleared, I had to quote The Little Mermaid– “A fine strong wind and a following sea; King Triton must be in a friendly-type mood.” We settled in at the Blackwoods Campground where a steady rain kept us inside the van most of the night. We stretched out on the unfolded bench-turned-bed, and I read my book (Pet Sematary) while drinking boxed wine from our camping cups. River curled up on her doggie bed on the shag rug, sleeping peacefully while I read about pets being resurrected and coming back “not quite right.”

no one was forced to be in this photo. nope.

Wednesday, September 20

We spent the morning in Bar Harbor, eating breakfast in the dog-friendly patio area of That Way Cafe. As the sky cleared up, we drove back into the park for an easy first hike, going 3.2 miles around Jordan Pond and getting a nice view of North and South Bubble Mountains. The first half of the trail was an easy dirt path, but coming around the other side of the pond (which is actually a 150-feet-deep lake), the trail traveled over large rocks and boulders, and included a series of planks lifted off the ground to protect vegetation. River scrambled easily over the rocks but it was a little tricky to keep her on the planks when she would rather jump onto the forest floor.  That night, we drove back to Bar Harbor (we did lots of back-and-forth between the town and the campground since it was only 6 miles away) and had a lobster dinner–my first! River snoozed under the table as I learned how crack the shell and slurp out all the inner buttery goodness. She *might* have been given a little sample so she could brag about it upon her return to the dog park back home.

les poissons les poissons

Thursday, September 21

In the morning, we had breakfast at the campsite–eggs scrambled with hamburger and hashbrowns, and instant coffee. After, we packed up a daypack with water, snacks, and dog bowls, put River’s little doggo backpack on her, and set out from Blackwoods to the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail.  Roundtrip from our campground to the summit of the tallest mountain on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the hike is roughly 9 miles total over 1,500 feet of elevation gain–a nice, moderate day hike with nothing too crazy thrown at us. At the beginning of the trail, we wound through forest, hopping over tree routes, then started a gradual climb over rocks and boulders. River acted like she was half mountain goat, gamely jumping up rocks with a big doggo grin. As an acrophobic, the south ridge of Cadillac is my kind of mountain—no steep drop-offs that make my heart pound in fear, just gentle slopes where, even if I tripped and fell, I’d slide to a safe and easy stop instead of plummeting to my death. Once we climbed over the tree line, the views were incredible, giving us an 180-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean. When we reached the summit, we entered a swarm of tourist who either drove to the top or arrived by tour bus. We bought blueberry soda and ice cream bars in the gift shop and sat on a bench, resting our feet and refueling with sugar. My past knee injuries make descents tougher than ascents, so I was a little nervous about the return trip over the rockier parts of the trail, but we got back to camp without incident. River was equally adept hopping down giant rocks as she was going up. Once we got back to camp, we made a stop at the coin-operated showers down the road to wash up, and then had a final meal in Bar Harbor while River snoozed under the table, dreaming of adventure. That night at camp, through the windows of the van, we could hear the crash of the ocean, the waves dictated by the moon.

mountain goat doggo

Friday, September 22

I always get a little sad whenever we leave a National Park. Even when I’m eager for strong wifi, strong running water, and strong coffee, a part of me still wishes we were sleeping in the forest like little woodland creatures. We made a quick stop at the visitors center at the park entrance to get a sticker for the van, and got back on the road towards Portland. On the return trip, we took a small detour through Bangor, in small part so we could drive past Stephen King’s house. It was obvious when we found it; besides the handful of other tourists who had stopped to take a picture of his wrought-iron gate designed to look like a spider web, a large red balloon hovered just above the fence in homage to IT. We stopped to take a quick photo and walk River on the parkway; as we stood outside, we saw a car pull into the driveway and it was obviously Stephen King himself! So that was cool, though at that point we felt like obvious gawkers so we quickly got back into the van and on our way. In Portland, we had booked an Airbnb for two nights in town. We checked in, napped and cleaned up a bit, then went out for a night of dinner and drinking with a local friend, David (and Drinker with a Writing Problem!) who showed us around to some fun bars including the Thirsty Pig and the Great Lost Bear. We had plenty of good local beers and one impressive platter of nachos before we stumbled home and slept in a real bed for the first time in a week.

camping hair don’t care

Saturday, September 23

We slept in at the Airbnb, with no sounds of camping neighbors packing up cars in the early a.m.  For brunch, we checked out a recommendation from our friend, Hot Suppa, and I had one of my top-five-all-time-favorite Bloody Marys. It was a perfectly sunny, surprisingly warm afternoon, so we took River to the beach and played fetch in the water. We wrapped up the day by having some flights at Shipyard Brewing (their Pumpkinhead is an especially good pumpkin beer), dinner at Liquid Riot, and a few nightcap beers on the back porch of our Airbnb.

boat crazy!

Sunday, Sept. 24 – Monday, Sept. 25

We got an early start for our drive home, leaving the Airbnb at 7 a.m., flying through Maine and New Hampshire, then making a quick lunch stop in Massachusetts. Another state first for me! A friend of mine and I once tried to define what counts as having been to a state–my personal rule is that layovers don’t count unless you leave the airport, and driving through counts as long as you stop at some point and your feet hit the ground. We reached Cleveland around 7 p.m., where we spent the night with our good friend Becky at her house and hung out with her adorable son, dogs, and foster cat. On Monday, we drove the final stretch back to Chicago and it was pretty uneventful except for one magical moment. The backstory: in 2009, I drove to New York City with my sister to help her make a cross-country move. We left Chicago in a rental car packed to the brim at around midnight. By the time we reached Ohio, we were cracked out on coffee and energy drinks, and made a rest stop at a gas station. We were both shocked and delighted to find a very random poster of Romeo + Juliet-era Leonardo DiCaprio mounted on the wall in the women’s restroom. Because we were so tired, the memory of it seemed surreal, like perhaps our dreams were incepted by the same Tiger Beat editor. Years passed; I’ve made the Chicago-to-East-Coast drive multiple times since, and never came across that poster again….UNTIL NOW. When I walked into the women’s restroom and locked eyes with Leo’s baby blues, I died. I had stumbled across the same mirage in the desert, that magical Brigadoon.  I texted my sister immediately and her reaction was as expected: “OMG!!!!!!!!” I asked Kurt if there was a matching Claire Danes-as-Juliet poster in the men’s room, but he said no. Must’ve been sold separately.

Leo 4-eva

Anyways, a few hours later, we finally reached home. Maine’s lovely and you should check it out.

Spring Green, Wisconsin

img_9219October is my favorite month, and every year I love to revel in it as much as I can. Shockingly, we haven’t done fall camping in Wisconsin before, so we recently righted this wrong and visited the Spring Green area for a beautiful weekend outdoors with friends.


We arrived at Friday night at our favorite campground, which is nestled against the Wisconsin River. After setting up our tents, we stopped by the local bar for some Spotted Cows and burgers, then spent the rest of the night enjoying the crisp coolness and crackling campfire. The temperature hovered in the 50’s,  and a mist lingered on the surface of the water, like ghosts rising from graves.

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On Saturday, Kurt and I had booked a double-header of local, spooky exploration. First, we went on a tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green. The home was originally completed in 1911, and was designed and built for Wright’s mistress, Mamah Borthwick. Horrifically, she was murdered in the home along with her children and several workers; the killer was a disgruntled servant who set the house on fire and attacked the victims with an axe as they tried to flee for their lives. Before booking the tour, I had no idea about the home’s tragic history. This added cast another dimension to the tour, as we imagined Wright’s grief and the weight of his loss as we walked the halls and looked out the windows that framed landscapes of the hills and valleys.

img_9212After the tour, we joined up with our friends for the next destination: the House on the Rock. The original house was built by Alex Jordan, an architect who had a tense rivalry with Frank Lloyd Wright. The Japanese-inspired design was a direct nod to Wright’s personal aesthetic. As Jordan grew older, he turned into an eccentric recluse. He had his friends who traveled the world bring back trinkets and oddities to add to his growing collections. The tour includes the original house plus the grounds that hold (among other items): a dollhouse collection, a warehouse-sized replica of a squid fighting a whale, rows of suits of armor, music machines that take up entire rooms, and the world’s largest carousel. More of a museum than a house, the attraction is dimly lit and random music played by mechanical violins and horns drifts down the halls. Some of the older machines aren’t quite in tune, making everything seem even more surreal and slightly askew.  A friend once perfectly described the house as “like being inside somebody else’s nightmare.”

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And yet, this wasn’t even the main event of our trip; that came a few hours later. We went back to the campsite to make dinner over the fire, have a few beers, and rest after spending the day on our feet. Once the sun set, a few of us who sought more thrills drove back to the House on the Rock for The Dark Side experience. In the few hours between closing the main attraction and reopening, parts of the grounds were turned into a haunted house. We started down an outdoor path lit solely by torches, turning into a human knot as we clung to each other, seeking protection. None of us had been to the Dark Side version of the house before, and we had no idea what to expect. To add to the horror, we seemed to be the onlyimg_9261people there… until a clown leapt out of the shadows and spooked the shit out of us. We dissolved into the nervous laughter that immediately follows a jump scare. The clown silently gestured us toward a path back into the house. Inside, the lights were now completely turned off, and occasional strobe lights burst through the space like lightning. We walked into the carousel room, which was (even more) eerily lit, making the wooden animals appear nightmarish and leering. For the next 40 minutes, we wound our way back past dollhouses, empty suits of armor, and through the Organ Room. Along the way, other ghouls and zombies leapt out at us from the shadows, startling us into more screams.

We drove back to camp on an unlit country road, through the darkness of the trees. A cheery campfire greeted us, and we joined our friends for beers and boxed wine under a harvest moon.

 

 

Camp Colorado

I’ve been pretty sporadic about blogging on this page, but it’s funny looking back to see that that the times I jumpstart activity again are right around the changing of the seasons. Nature has always been one of my biggest inspirations, along with pop culture, which makes it a little tricky to figure out my ‘brand’ for this blog. Do I write about hiking or TV, my favorite campsite or my opinions on Kanye? Obviously, it doesn’t matter. This blog is really just a place where I post rambling stories, observations, and lists in order to keep myself writing regularly. Come for the pretty pictures of mountains, stay for the geekery.

IMG_7861On to my most recent camping experience! Over Memorial Day weekend, Kurt and I went on our first outdoor adventure of 2016. It was a destination trip to Boulder, Colorado, where we visited some good friends who moved out west. We arrived minutes before a hailstorm, which pounded onto the tented roof of the Denver International Airport like experimental noise rock. Dodging pebble-sized ice balls, we hopped into the shuttle to the care rental place which gave us a Nissan Altima instead of the Kia Rio we booked online, so sadly, we did not get to drive into Boulder like cool hamsters.

After hanging out in Boulder for a night, we drove to Golden Gate Canyon State Park for a few days of camping. In typical high-altitude Colorado fashion, the weather alternated between 70 degrees in the sun to 55 and raining when the clouds rolled in, then back again in minutes. We learned upon arrival that the state park does not allow anything to be attached to trees (#hammockfail) and we did not bring a free-standing canopy, so the guys erected a makeshift shelter using fallen branches, rope, and water jugs as anchors, after an amusing tarp-measuring contest. The next few days were heaven: cool mornings with delicious coffee from our friends’ café in Boulder, days spent climbing rocks and hanging out near lakes, afternoons and evenings relaxing around the campfire, cooking cans of chili, playing card games, drinking local craft beers, and watching the stars come out.

On Sunday, Kurt and I packed up our tents, said goodbye to our friends who were camping another night, and drove into Golden to shower because we had tickets to see My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks. I’ve been dying to see a show there, and it lived up to my expectations (though I’m glad I received the pro-tip beforehand to pee right when you enter because climbing the stairs over and over is brutal). The view of the stage is breathtaking (literally, I was dying after all of those stairs), with a backdrop of Denver’s lights in the distance.

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Stop! Pano time

MMJ put on a memorable show, playing for three hours and covering Prince, Creedence, and the Commodores’ Easy Like Sunday Morning, my weekend coffee-and-donuts anthem. The one misstep for the entire trip was the fact that we booked our return flight home at 6 a.m. Monday morning, which meant that after getting back to the hotel from Red Rocks around half past midnight, I had to set our alarm clock to go off in two hours. Oh well, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right Bon Jovi?

It was a fantastic little trip, and it was great spending time with our friends who had pulled up city stakes and moved west. May all our future hangs have equally pretty backdrops.

Winter Adventurers

“You know what’s happening this weekend, right? You’ve seen the weather forecast?” the park ranger asked the first of our friends to arrive at the campgrounds early on Friday afternoon.

“We know,” they replied.

“Are you here for the start of hunting season?”

“No, just here to camp.”

The ranger shook his head in disbelief. A winter storm was rolling into the area, expected to drop up to 10 inches on much of the Midwest. And we were driving up north, headed the opposite direction of the geese flying south for the winter overhead, to spend the weekend outdoors.
IMG_6684Winter camping is one of my favorites. Though the days are short and our beer freezes overnight, there’s something about the quiet stillness that makes the forest otherworldly. The world hibernates around us, but in our small circle around the campfire, we stay warm and pass the whiskey. Overhead, stark branches criss-cross against the silver sky. The snow falls steadily, piling up on our tents, our boxes of beer (no need for a cooler), our fur-trimmed hoods pulled up over our heads. Beyond the circle, whiteness obliterates the landscape; we could be in Wisconsin or Westeros. Coyotes yip in the night. Or direwolves.

We’ve camped in snow before. We’ve camped in 1-degree temperatures before. But this was our first time camping in a legitimate winter storm, one big enough to get a name: Bella. We were undaunted by this news; we are not the type to be scared off, especially by a storm named after a damn Twilight character. We may be crazy, but we’re tough, and this wasn’t our first rodeo. There’s a Norwegian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We were prepared with insulated sleeping pads, bags rated for 15 degrees, waterproof layers, a coat and Musher’s Secret for our dog.

IMG_6714We arrived, car by car, at our large group site. As Friday slipped into Saturday, the snow fell. It melted onto our coats, warmed by the fire. It piled onto our tents, causing rainflies to droop under its wintry weight. It buried bottles left out on picnic tables, turning them into ambiguous white blobs. It blanketed us from the rest of the world, silencing the sounds of civilization, leaving only our laughter, our breath as we blew into our mittens, the crackle of the fire.

On Saturday morning, the snow still fell. We stayed in our warm sleeping bags, our tents transformed into igloos. Finally lured out by the promises of coffee, campfire, and Bloody Marys, we emerged from our brief hibernation. Before we could eat or drink, we had to shovel inches of snow off the tables. The dogs frolicked in the fresh powder, losing tennis balls and frisbees. We posted photos to social media with Winter Storm Bella hashtags, declaring ourselves Team Jacob. Our friends back home called us crazy.

The snow eventually stopped; blue sky peeked out through the bare tree branches. We began to cook our Thanksgiving meal. Potatoes boiled over the campfire. Vegetarian curry stewed on a camp stove. A turducken dripped savory juices in the smoker. Just before sunset, we set up our spread over the picnic table, salivating before our feast.

“I wish the ranger would come by and see this,” my friend said. We ate our meal together, friends bonded by our breaking of bread under the most snowy extreme circumstances. Call us crazy; we don’t mind. We’re adventurers.

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Emigrant Diaries: Coming off the Trail

Oct. 1, 2015: from Grouse Lake to San Francisco

Mileage: 4 trail miles, 4 city miles

We woke up to the morning light and the sound of light rain. Our last campsite at Grouse Lake was a short 4 miles to the trailhead, so we decided to get there quickly. Skipping breakfast, we put some trail mix and snacks into our pockets and packed up camp for the last time. The trail proceeded up a steady climb, then back down the ridge we had traversed a week ago. As we walked, the rain slowly grew heavier, and we put on our rain jackets for the first time on the trip. I quickly grew sweaty in my jacket with all of the uphill walking. Puddles began to gather on the trail and our boots were caked in mud. My trekking poles accumulated leaves on their tips; it was definitely autumn.

21957145412_88e5a02063_oEventually, the parking lot came into view through the trees. Our hike had reached its end. We were wet, muddy, and hungry, so the rental car waiting for us was a welcome sight. The first thing I did after resting my backpack near the parked Nissan was pull out the Ziploc of packed-out toilet paper and triumphantly toss it in the trash bins.

The drive to San Francisco was about 4 hours. We stopped in Sonora to get hot tea, coffee, and pastries, and I used my cell phone to find a hotel room in the city. Upon arriving and walking into the hotel lobby, I was very conscious of how terrible we must smell to the other people waiting in line to check in. We were wet, dirty, and our large backpacks felt cumbersome compared to all of the little suitcases on wheels. Upon receiving our room keys, we quickly retreated to our room (I made a quick stop to the gift shop to buy overpriced deodorant).

There is nothing like the first shower after a long camping trip. I relished the  hot water and scented shampoo, and watched the stream of dirty water disappear down the drain. Once we both felt clean and refreshed, we hand-washed items we’d need (underwear, sports bras), hung up coats that needed to be aired out, emptied the water bladder and cleaned the filter. We decided to go across the street and buy some new clothes than pay the insane prices for downtown hotel laundry service. It felt a little jarring to be buying 4 pairs of socks for $12 at an H&M when just that morning, I was sleeping on the ground near a lake.
21943118366_92b80d232b_oFor the next two days, we ate hot food, drank cold beers, and walked around the city. Kurt had never been to San Francisco before, so we went sight-seeing: Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Bridge. With some lucky timing, we ended up in town during the weekend of Strictly Hardly Bluegrass, a free music festival in Golden Gate Park, so we checked that out with a daypack full of boxed wine and snacks. Nearly two weeks earlier, we had camped and hiked along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and now we were staying in the city that got its water supply from that very place. Talk about full circle.

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On Oct. 3, we flew home to Chicago. It’s always good to be back at home, to sleep in your own bed again. I was excited to see my dog and our friends, to share the stories from our trip and post photos and blog updates. Quickly, we fell back into our normal daily routines. Until the next adventure…