The Radio Waves of the Galaxy

Wednesday, May 1: Truth or Consequences to Chaco Canyon via Socorro and Pie Town

Soundtrack: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” Lucinda Williams

Before leaving Truth or Consequences, we stop at Black Cat Coffee & Books to caffeinate. Cats, coffee, and books are three of my favorite things. Today is another big driving day as we head north, and we have a few stops along the way.

Our first stop of the day is in Socorro at Very Large Array, one of the world’s premiere radio astronomy observatories.  27 gigantic radio antennae operate together to create a telescope that spans miles. Kurt is a science nerd, and I’m a sci fi nerd, so he is totally geeked out about the function of the array while I’m like “Wait, Contact was filmed here?! Awesome!” We buy tickets to the self-guided tour, and from the moment you reach the visitors center, you are asked to turn off your cell phones (not even airplane mode suffices) because of the incredible sensitivity of the equipment.

Very Large Array

I’m terrible at explaining what exactly happens at this research facility, despite having watched a 20-minute documentary narrated by Jodie Foster as part of the tour, so I will direct you over to the official website. But basically, these 27 antennae are constantly reading the radio waves of the galaxy. A series of railroad tracks criss cross the ground, which is how they move the 82-foot tall dishes into various formations. It’s pretty cool to see the antennae lined up across the desert, against the backdrop of infinite blue sky.

We drive for just under another hour to hit up our next stop along the way. Pie Town, population 186, is situated along the Continental Divide and plays host to the annual Pie Festival. We roll up to a cafe where several hikers sit outside, taking advantage of the first cell service we’ve had in a while. It’s the perfect timing for a lunch stop, so Kurt and I go into the cafe and I order green chili stew. As we eat, another couple who we had seen at our last stop walk in. The waitress asks “So you went to the Very Large Array?”

“Why? Are we glowing?” the woman replied, and we all chuckled as the server pointed out the tour sticker still attached to her shirt.

We order two mini pies to go, and I can’t wait to dig into them. I can’t help but think of Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, proclaiming “This must be where pies go when they die” as he digs into a slice at the Double R Diner.

Back on the road, we see more and more hikers, and then it dawns on me that they’re probably doing the Continental Divide Trail. Our route takes us through El Malpais, which means “the badlands,” and the scenery is dramatic and stunning. We pull over when we spot La Ventana Natural Arch from the road. I can’t get over how beautiful New Mexico is. Why do we live in Illinois again??

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais

It’s hours of driving to our final stop for the day, Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The last 20 miles to Chaco Canyon are notoriously rough, unpaved road. All over the internet, there are warnings about attempting to drive it in a low profile vehicle. We reach the dirt road and slowly begin making our way along; it’s just as bumpy as advertised, miles of uneven grade and cattle guard miles from any town,  without a single bar of cell service.

It takes us close to an hour to go 20 miles. The van feels like it’s shaking apart, and I hear our stuff rattling around in the back, falling off shelves or rolling around in their bins. We’ll have to remember before we crack open any canned beverages. Out my window, I see a jackrabbit sitting on the side of the road, then go hopping away, its large white ears visible above the brush. Fajada Butte emerges into our view.

the road to Chaco Canyon

There’s one campground within the park, Gallo, which is first come, first served. We drive around looking for an open site; the place is packed. We find a find a spot in the middle of the RV area, but after we pay the camping fee, a better spot opens up on the outskirts of the grounds after another vehicle leaves, so we quickly move the van. “It’s like house hunting all over again!” our new neighbor jokes to us.

Our new spot gives us an incredible view of the canyon and the butte in the distance. I relax by the fire with my book and cup of wine. We eat ribs for dinner, which we carried from Chicago in our cooler, and mini pies from Pie Town for dessert. As the sun sets, the temperature drops; it’s our first cold night. I put on my hoodie and my fleece to stay outside a little longer and watch the sky fill with stars.

Sand Dunes and a Spa Day in Southern New Mexico

Tuesday, April 30: Lincoln National Forest to White Sands to Las Cruces to Truth or Consequences

Soundtrack: “Las Cruces Jail” Two Gallants

From our campsite, it’s an hour-long drive to White Sands National Monument. We eat a light breakfast of yogurt and granola and drink piñon coffee, then hit the road.

You can see the gleaming white sand dunes in the distance as you approach the national monument. After we stop in the visitor center and pay our admission fees, we drive the van along the road that skims between waves of sand dunes. The white sand is gypsum, and it feels softer and silkier than regular beach sand. Kurt parks the van in a picnic area, and we get out and explore. White sand dunes sprawl in every direction around us. We take off our shoes and run up and down the dunes. There’s a school bus parked nearby, and a gaggle of kids running and laughing, using sleds to ride down the dunes. We head in another direction, up onto a higher dune far away from other visitors. The sky is clear and blue, and sun beats down at us and bounces off the white sand. On a day like this, you need to apply sunscreen on every inch of your body.

White Sands National Monument

It’s fun to play in the sand. I attempt a cartwheel and flop onto the sand. Kurt and I try running up a steeper dune to see how far we can go, then surf our way back down, running sideways to keep our balance. A strong wind creates rippling patterns in the gypsum that immediately bury footprints; it would be very easy to get lost out here if you wander off too far. I can almost imagine I’m on another planet out here, somewhere Star Wars-y like Tatooine or Jakku.

Surfin’ USA

Back on the road, our route takes us through Las Cruces, so we stop at a restaurant called Chachi’s that our friend recommended. At this point of the trip, I begin in earnest a pattern of eating green chile as part of every meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My green chile burrito and gigantic margarita are incredible. My margarita is also practically the size of a movie theater bucket of soda, so Kurt is stuck driving us the rest of the way to our final stop for the day, Truth or Consequences.

Literally for years, I’ve been wanting to visit Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, if for no other reason than its name is awesome. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard of it, but after doing an initial bit of research, I learned that the city sits on the Rio Grande and is known for its natural hot springs.

The Rio Grande

For our stay in T&C, I booked us a room at Riverbend Hot Springs Resort. After camping for most of our trip up to this point, we both crave showers and a real bed, so the resort is a nice treat. We check into our room, change into swimsuits, then go scope out the pool area. Multiple mineral hot springs pools are built into the ledge hanging over the banks of the Rio Grande. Underneath a large wooden pergola, there’s various lounge chairs, wicker basket seats, and hammocks for relaxing out of the sun. The pool area has a key rule, which is that only whispering is allowed, so it’s very quiet and serene. It’s exactly the New Agey moment I’d wanted.

Kurt tests the waters

Kurt and I soak in the mineral pools for a while. It’s super hot out, so sitting in a naturally heated 106-degree stone tub isn’t exactly refreshing, but the water is supposed to have healing elements and the scenery is gorgeous. I bring out my Kindle and read in the pool for a while. Kurt moves to a hammock for a nap. Once the heat gets to me, I sit on a lounge chair to dry and do a bit of writing in my travel notebook. I love the quiet aspect of the resort, with the only sounds coming from the light breeze, the lapping of the river, and soft windchimes. After so much constant movement and activity this week, we both enjoy being still.

spa day

At dinnertime, we walk to the nearby brewery and sample a few local beers, then get chicken wings from an Asian fusion restaurant. The sun has set, and I am eager to revisit the pools and see what the outdoor garden looks like at night. It does not disappoint. The greenery is dotted with tiny little green and blue lights, and lights are projected onto the trees across the river, giving the entire pool area a fairy-like magical appearance. Kurt returns to his favorite hammock, and I get back into the springs. Now that the air temps have cooled, it feels amazing to sit in the hot water. I lean back against the edge of the stone tub to gaze at the night sky and absorb all the healing.

 

 

 

 

Carlsbad Caverns and Camping

Monday, April 29: Roswell to Carlsbad to Lincoln National Forest

Soundtrack: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie

The shades on the van do a surprisingly good job on keeping out the bright sun. From my time living in Nevada in college, I remember how cool it gets in the desert overnight, and how quickly it heats up when the sun rises. Kurt makes us an amazing breakfast–egg and sausage burritos with green and red peppers, onions, and hot sauce. We eat at the picnic table, soaking in the sunshine now, because we’ll be spending most of this day underground. Back on the road, the landscape gets more and more desert-y. Tumbleweeds! Pronghorn! We see two roadrunners dart across the pavement.

In Carlsbad, we stop at a coffee shop to meet up with a friend (Hi Zane!). It’s nice to chat with a familiar face who is also a local, and she gives us lots of great restaurant recommendations for our trip, as well as shares some of her personal stories of the Caverns. I’ve barely been inside any cave systems besides a smallish one in southeastern Wisconsin, back in high school. I tend to get claustrophobic, but I know that the Carlsbad Caverns are gigantic, nothing like the midwestern cave where I had to crawl on my belly to get through some of the narrow passageways.

The drive to the National Park’s visitor’s center takes us through miles of sprawling desert hillside. It’s now hot outside, about 90 degrees, but we know it will be a cool, clammy 50 inside the caverns, so I bring my fleece jacket to throw on over my Captain America tank top (worn to boost my bravery points). To take the natural cave entrance, we leave the visitor’s center and walk back outside down a trail which eventually descends into a dark, gaping hole in the ground. The trail snakes into switchbacks for a gradual decline. As we reach the mouth of the craggy rock, dozens (hundreds?) of tiny swallows whoosh in and out over our heads. I try to get a good look in case they are bats, even though I know it’s the wrong time of day for them. I love bats; they are like goth mammal-birds. The chirping of the swallows echoes through the mouth of the cave, and we go past the last rays of sunshines that disappear into the caverns, then we are enveloped in cool darkness.

“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”

The entrance chamber is gigantic, and as we descend deeper into the cave, I make a lot of Bane references.  Finally, we reach the point where we can no longer see the opening, and if all of the lights went out, we’d be in complete and total darkness. The park system has strategically placed lights throughout the caverns to highlight interesting rock formations and guide visitors along the trail, but it’s still quite dim and Kurt is just a shadow in front of me. It’s a Monday in late April, so there aren’t many other visitors, and at times it feels like Kurt and I are the only ones in the cave with no other people in sight.

It takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire trail. Many of the features were named by a teenager, Jim White, who first explored the caves in 1898, and they have ominous, descriptive names: the Boneyard, Witch’s Finger, and the Bottomless Pit (seriously, why are so many things Bottomless in New Mexico? I am acrophobic and it freaks me out).

The Queen’s Chamber, Carlsbad Caverns

We weave through the caverns on the trail past limestone formations that look like Cthulhu, and stalagmites twice as tall as we are. 250 million years ago, this area was an inland sea. It is a bit mind-blowing to be in a place like this, somewhere untouched by the progress of humanity while paradoxically created by the passage of centuries. It feels primal and eerie, and I half expect some sort of prehistoric creature to emerge from the cracks and drag me screaming into the bottomless pits. I get nervous and hang onto Kurt’s arm to ground me. The deep crevasses make me think of Superman II when Zod falls to his death.

We eventually reach the Big Room, the largest chamber in the caverns, nearly 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. It’s impossible to capture the immensity, depth, and otherworldliness in a photo. I feel like we could emerge from this place and return to an Earth full of dinosaurs. But then we reach the underground gift shop, because of course there is, so we take a break and eat a snack while sitting on a bench. Imagine being the cashier at this concession stand, taking an elevator 800 feet down into the ground to get to work every day.

underground concession stand

When we finish exploring, we take the elevator back to the visitors center, to 90-degree temperatures and blazing sunlight. It’s time to find a campsite for the night, and we have lots of ground to cover to keep on schedule. We drive for nearly 3 hours to Lincoln National Forest. The terrain changes, and rolling hills morph into tree-covered mountains. Grassy valleys are dotted with white and brown cattle; BLM land alternates with private ranches. We turn off onto a forestry road, using a pdf map on our iPad. After rambling along rough gravel, we find a turn-off into a clearing that makes for a perfect campsite. There’s a previously used fire ring and enough trees to give us some privacy from the road. The air smells like Ponderosa pine and sagebrush.

We settle into our usual routine; Kurt gathers firewood while I get assemble our folding chairs and travel table. At the edge of the clearing, Kurt finds a hunk of animal fur and a few cleaned bones that look like they were once a small deer. I begin thinking about what predators live here, maybe mountain lions or black bears. We make tacos for dinner, and watch the sun set behind the tree line.

Lincoln National Forest

Going Off-Route: Roswell, New Mexico

Sunday, April 28: Amarillo, Texas > Roswell, New Mexico

Soundtrack: “Motorway to Roswell” Pixies

After Amarillo, we break off from Route 66 and veer south. The Texas landscape is expansive, and our van zooms past wind farms and cattle ranches. At one point, we drive through a town called Bovina, where we see stockyards packed with cows. Finally, we reach New Mexico, the state we will travel around for the next 10 or 11 days. We pass through Portales and chuckle at their town sign “Home of 17,000 friendly people (and three or four old grouches).”

Roswell

Our first stop is in Roswell. Everywhere we look, we see aliens. The street lamps have alien eyes painted on them. The McDonald’s has a big flying saucer in front. The Dunkin’ Donuts has a 22-foot-tall alien statue holding its store sign. I immediately love it. We walk around a bit, checking out the visitor center and a few souvenir stores, then buy admission to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, a.k.a. a big collection of rubber alien dummies, news clippings from the alleged crash in 1947, and interview videos with key witnesses. In our relationship, we often joke that I am the Mulder and Kurt is the Scully, so after watching the first few videos, I turn to Kurt and said “Well I’m convinced.” It’s exactly as kitschy as we expected and we take some fun photos and videos. The ‘live show’ with talking aliens, a fog machine, and light-up flying saucer are a highlight.

I want to beliebe

After Roswell, it’s time to find a campsite. We drive to Bottomless Lakes State Park and luck out with a perfect, private spot off the road in a primitive camping area. There’s pit toilets nearby, a metal roof for shade, and a grill–everything we need. After settling in, we take an easy mile-long hike along the trail to Lea Lake, which is not actually a lake but a cenote. At 90 feet deep, it’s the biggest and deepest cenote in the park, and local legend has it that items that get lost in the ‘bottomless’ lake eventually reappear underground in the Carlsbad Caverns. I am mildly obsessed with sea monsters–I have a Loch Ness monster tramp stamp, or as I like to call it, Triassic stamp–so deep bodies of water give me fun haunted-house-type thrills. (Again, I’m the Mulder). We go for a swim in the shallow beach area. The water is shockingly cold, especially given that the air temperature is pushing 90 degrees. Must be that whole bottomless factor.

Kurt in front of Lea Lake

Back at camp, Kurt grills us steaks for dinner. I walk around a bit, exploring the small canyon just beyond our site.

our campsite in Bottomless Lakes State park

Desert camping is totally new to me, so my ears are perked for rattlesnakes. How does one spot a scorpion? Do I need to worry about it? Each time we camp out in a different type of landscape, I need to quell the anxieties that arise with a brand new environment. The sunset helps, though. It’s incredible, a blending of sherbet pink and creamsicle orange that melts into the sandy horizon.

It’s Sunday night, and the start of our trip coincides with the biggest pop culture weekend of the year: the opening of Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell episode. I am usually all for putting away screens while camping, but I NEED to watch Game of Thrones on its airing night. Luckily, we get some cell reception in the state park, so we tether our iPad to our phone’s hotspot, then prop it up in front of the stunning backdrop that is our campsite while I pour us generous Cersei-sized cups of wine. It’s not an ideal way to watch the notoriously dark episode, and yet I love it. It reminds me of the first time I read A Storm of Swords, over eight years ago, while waiting out a summer thunderstorm in our small tent on a sandbar in the Wisconsin River. I huddled with my headlamp over a paperback as rains beat down on our nylon roof while Kurt made us a cheese plate and poured boxed wine, and it was one of my favorite camping moments ever. So to watch one of the last episodes ever while in Bottomless Lakes, with the real-life howl of coyotes and hooting owls contributing to the soundtrack, all feels like coming full circle for me.

FOR THE THRONE

 

Route 66: IL > MO > OK > TX

Friday, April 26, 2019: Illinois > Missouri > Oklahoma

Soundtrack: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” Blue Oyster Cult

On the morning of our departure, Kurt and I wake up earlier than we usually do for work. Most of our stuff is already packed, but it’s a process to load it all into the van. In the months leading up to our trip, Kurt tore out the van’s convertible bench and built a new one from scratch that would allow for more space (as well as leg room while sleeping). We shove our duffel bags beneath the bench, along with bins full of kitchen stuff (plastic dishes, the Jetboil, tinfoil, a frying pan, a pot), a cardboard box full of nonperishables (ramen, mash potato mix, canned chili, boxed wine), and our large cooler that serves as our fridge (eggs, meats, milk, butter).

our route

We are on the road by 7:30 a.m. The first day of a long road trip is always a slow burn, especially when driving south through Illinois. It’s hours upon hours of flatness, cornfields, and manure smells. We burn through miles and Spotify playlists. I chatter about Avengers: Endgame, which we saw the night before.

We cross our first state line–hello Missouri!–and the St. Louis Arch looms against a bright blue sky.  We’re taking Route 66, but really, it’s more the idea of Route 66–we’re actually on 53, or 44, or 40 most of the time. Historic Route 66 only exists in patchwork pieces, which we’ll explore more closely on our return trip. But for now, we want to get to New Mexico as quickly as possible. We drive and drive, stopping occasionally for fast food meals. I’m loaded with iced tea and sodium and getting giddy with excitement as we cross another state line–Oklahoma! It’s my first time setting foot in the state.

Shortly before sunset, we reach a campground and park for the night at Lake Thunderbird, about 45 minutes outside of Oklahoma City. I rummage through the box of kitchen stuff, looking for my travel wine cup. “Oh, hold on,” Kurt says, disappearing into the back of the van. He emerges with a gift–a pink stemless travel goblet that says “I’m 40, bitches!” and I instantly adore it. We build a fire and drink wine and watch the sun go down over the lake as I say goodbye to the final hours of my thirties.

parked at Lake Thunderbird, Norman, OK

Saturday, April 27: Oklahoma > Texas

Soundtrack: “Juice,” Lizzo 

I wake up in the van, and lower the blind on the nearest window. Outside, the morning sunlight dances on the blue lake. It’s beautiful, and I am so happy to be here, surrounded by trees and water and expansive sky, on our new comfy foam van mattress next to my love. It’s my birthday!

We pack up then drive into the town of Norman for breakfast, and then we’re back on the road. Kurt pulls more novelty gifts out of the back of the van: a black and pink sash that says “Fierce, Fabulous, & 40” and a pink tiara. I crack up and put everything on, then blast a Lizzo playlist, dancing in my seat. I’m happy and excited to be 40, so grateful for this life and the people in it, for everything I’ve accomplished so far, and everything I still want to do.

On this stretch of Route 66, we start hitting some of the kitschy landmarks that the road is known for: first, the “Leaning Tower” of Texas, then, the Slug Bug Ranch. A row of graffiti-covered VW Bugs jut into the ground outside of an abandoned building and gas station. Both structures are in ruins, their windowpanes smashed out, every surface covered in spray paint and empty bottles. We walk around, taking pictures and wondering about the story of these places. There’s going to be a lot of ghost towns on this road, many of which we marked with a pin on our Google map.

Slug Bug Ranch on Route 66

Conway, Texas

We cross into Texas, then check into an Airbnb in Amarillo. At a wine bar, I order my first birthday cocktail, something with prosecco and fruit and it is delicious. It is 80 degrees and sunny; back home in Chicago, it’s snowing. For the rest of the day, we celebrate Texas-style, with heaping plates of BBQ then rounds of Lone Stars in a zombie-themed bar. I try to take pictures of a chihuahua which arrived in its owner’s arms wearing pink goggles (doggles!) and a tiny pink helmet. Eventually, we go back to the Airbnb and sit outside on the covered second-floor balcony, watching heat lightning in the distance. The sky is so big out here.

Fierce and Forty

Hello 40!

Hi, I turn 40 today! I’m actually pretty excited about it. Sometimes, this surprises people and they ask me why. For me, it boils down to a few things: 1). You can either let yourself feel bummed out about aging, or you can choose to embrace it.  2).  Every single one of us ages. It’s the most universal human experience I can think of. Natasha Lyonne, Kate Hudson, and Rosario Dawson all turn 40 the same month as me, so I feel like I’m in pretty damn good company, and 3). Getting older is far better than the alternative. Over the past year, I’ve had several loved ones go through various health issues, and it has only driven home how very lucky we are to get the amount of days we have on this planet. Life may seem mundane and downright tedious at times, but it’s also so, so very fragile. I have a lot more I want to accomplish during however many more trips around the sun I’ve got coming, so Imma carpe the f outta this diem.

There’s a David Bowie quote that I love, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” I’ve actually been spending the past year thinking about how I want to celebrate this milestone birthday. I decided early on that I want to be on some sort of epic trip while I cross over into my next decade. My favorite type of travel blends outdoor adventure with city culture, long stretches of road trip driving into the horizon and also immersing myself into the landscape, sleeping under open skies. So at this very moment, Kurt and I are taking a long road trip along Route 66 into the American southwest, a place neither of us have explored much at all before. Travel blogs to come soon!

And this is my brand, but honestly, look at the many gifts the pop culture is giving us this month. Game of Thrones is back for its final season. We got a new Star Wars episode IX trailer AND a Veronica Mars teaser in the same day. Beyoncé blessed us with a Netflix concert doc. Fosse/Verdon is recreating musical numbers I grew up obsessed with. And Avengers: Endgame released just before my birthday. This life is an embarrassment of riches. When this post publishes as scheduled, I will have probably spent about 4 straight hours crying over the steering wheel still getting over Endgame. What a time to be alive! I can’t wait to see what happens next, whether it’s an encounter with the World’s Largest Rocking Chair AND the World’s Second Largest Rocking Chair in the same day, or seeing who ends up on the Iron Throne in the next few weeks.

I’m just very, very thankful to be here and be lucky enough to see it all.

 

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.

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.

img_9258

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.”

img_9200

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.