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

Friday, June 4: Take Me Home, Country Roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asheville Road Trip: City Life

Wednesday, June 2: Exploring Asheville

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

brrrrunccchhhh

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

Beers by the French Broad River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hickory Nut Falls

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

Chimney Rock

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

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

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

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

Asheville Road Trip: Drink Local

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asheville Road Trip: Paddling Kentucky

Monday, May 31, 2021: Paddling the Cumberland River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly my concern!” I replied, grimacing.

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

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

Cumberland Falls

Asheville Road Trip: Hiking Kentucky

Sunday, May 30: Hiking the National Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movin’ Right Along Through Missouri and Illinois

Saturday, May 11: Carthage, MO > Sangchris Lake, IL

Soundtrack: “Movin’ Right Along,” The Muppets

Fueled up on caffeine from a local shop called Mother Road Coffee, we hit the road. I cue up the song “Movin’ Right Along” from the Muppet Movie. I’ve been quoting one of my favorite Fozzie lines during our trip, “A bear in his natural habitat: a Studebaker.” We stop at the World’s Largest Fork in Springfield, as well as a Steak ‘n Shake that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Movin’ right along, footloose and fancy free

We then try a classic tourist activity that I’ve never done before: an animal park safari. I have a lot of mixed feelings about private zoos and the sales of exotic animals. The first section of the wildlife park is exactly the kind of thing that bums me out: big mammals in cages. The tigers and lions on display look bored AF. A bobcat paces around its enclosure over and over. We move on to the  much more cheerful goats, which flock to the fence to greet us. After we finish the walking part of the tour, we get into the car to drive through the open range where animals run free, and this is where shit gets real.

With a bag of oat pellet treats between us in the front seat, we drive the van into the safari section of the park. It’s wild to me that places like this still exist, where you are trusted to drive through in your own vehicle and feed animals through your window. The animals in this free range part of the park are all either ungulates  or large birds, so there’s nothing that’s going to maul you, but it all feels a little surreal to me.

Immediately, a very outgoing wildebeest runs right up to my window and sticks his face through my open window, seeking treats. Saliva pours out of his mouth and pools onto my pants. I toss a few pellets out the window, and as soon as the wildebeest go after them, I roll my window up quickly. Kurt drives at a crawl along the road, and the view of the 350-acre park opens up in full display, dozens of llamas, donkeys, sheep, and goats all looking at us. A pack of alpacas crane their necks and walk towards the van in slow motion, and I feel like we’re in a really weird zombie movie. We watch the car in front of us get swarmed by zebras. Five ostriches prance by, fanning their fluffy wings.

I get the hang of keeping the window mostly rolled up until I’m ready to pass out pellets to the next animal, preventing further drool fiascos. It takes us nearly two hours to drive through the whole thing. The grounds are expansive, and the animals are free to approach the road or roam away from visitors into the valleys or wooded areas. I feel a lot better seeing this part of the park where the animals obviously have plenty of room to wander about. I never would have guessed I’d pet a camel during this trip, and yet, here we are.

We have a surprisingly fun and hilarious time on the safari. It makes me wish that parks like this would focus on the free ranging herbivores and not include large exotic animals like big cats and black bears, who will never be happy in caged enclosures. But at the same time, I know that when private zoos close down and their animals get sold off, they can end up in potentially worse circumstances, so I guess I am glad that at least the big cats we saw appeared healthy and looked after.

On to the next stop, which happens to be, uh, Uranus. It’s a tourist stop along Route 66 which seems to exist for the sole reason to run rampant with cheeky puns (see what I did there). There’s a Fudge Factory and a Creamery. The town newspaper is called the Examiner, and they have an escape room called Escape Uranus. The whole thing is basically heaven for 12-year-old boys (though I will add that the photos of Uranus in my Instagram stories got the most laughing emoji reactions from my 40-something-year-old friends).

What is a Route 66 trip without a stop at the World’s Largest Rocking Chair? We jumped off the highway to take a quick photo, and I was charmed by the two feral cats sitting in the grass at the foot of the chair.

The cats tho!

We pass through St. Louis, glimpsing the Arch, and cross the Mississippi River, back into Illinois. I look out my window through a splotch of dried bison saliva crusted onto the glass, and sigh. It’s a bittersweet mix of emotions–grateful to be almost home and reunited with our pets, but sad that our adventure is coming to a close. But first, we get to camp one more night. We reach Sangchris Lake State Park just outside of Springfield, find a campsite, and settle in. Apparently, Illinois has been getting drenched in rain while we were gone, and the ground is that kind of heavy mud that nearly sucks your boots off your feet. We make our last campfire of the trip, and drink the last few New Mexico beers from our cooler.

Sunday, May 12: Sangchris Lake > Chicago, IL

Soundtrack: “Pulaski at Night” Andrew Bird

It rains steadily all night. I love the sound of light rain on the roof of the van. I love sleeping in the van and the smell of campfire clinging to my hair. I’ve loved this trip, bursting with new memories and experiences. We have about 2 and a half hours left of driving to go, but it’s just a flat, uneventful burn through farmland in the misty rain.

Eventually, the Chicago skyline appears ahead. I love this view from the south side of the city, the way that the skyscrapers loom above the overpasses, the pinwheels atop Comiskey Field, the merging of red tail lights across the wide expressway. We’re home.

Over two weeks, we’ve driven a total of 3,871 miles through six states. We started at the low elevation of 594 feet in Chicago, and reached a high of 10,300 feet atop Sandia Peak. The hottest days reached 91 degrees, and the coldest nights plummeted to 35 degrees. I turned 40, and our marriage turned 5. It’s nearly impossible to capture the all of the feelings I have in my heart, so instead, I put on the last song from our road trip playlist, and let Andrew Bird sing it out:

“I paint you a picture
Of Pulaski at night
Come back to Chicago
City of, city of light”

 

 

 

Ohhhhhhklahoma!

Friday, May 10: Elk City, OK > Galena, KS > Carthage, MO

Soundtrack: “Astrovan” Mt. Joy

It’s our 5-year wedding anniversary, and I’m so happy to be spending it on the road together. This road trip was an idea that formed nearly a year ago when I decided that I wanted to do something special for both my 40th birthday and our 5-year anniversary. And here we are now, on Route 66 for a few more days, taking our time along winding roads and stopping whenever we see something worth exploring.

We kick off the day at a Route 66 museum, walking through various rooms dedicated to each decade since the “Mother Road” was built, and read about the people working to preserve its history and legacy. Afterwards, we spend a lot of the day driving on the historic road itself, past vintage gas stations and over wooden bridges.

Kurt is super into all of the road’s history, and keeps enthusiastically pointing out at any street sign that looks vintage or a building that’s been abandoned. At one point I tease him, “You don’t get this excited if you see an old Venture sign in the Chicagoland area.” I counter by putting the Oklahoma! soundtrack and belting out “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, which Kurt ignores as he continues to point at stuff. I share this anecdote in case you’re wondering what 5 years of marriage looks like.

Old 66

In Oklahoma City, we visit the National Memorial that honors the memory of the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It’s a solemn, beautiful monument. Two large black monoliths on either side of a long reflecting pool symbolize the minute before and the minute after the bomb exploded, taking 168 lives. Parts of the walls of the federal building still stand, enclosing the space. 168 stone chairs face the reflecting pool; the smaller chairs represent the children who were killed that day in the building’s daycare center. The other visitors around us move quietly, speaking in reverent whispers. I’m glad we stopped here to see this place; it’s one thing to remember an event but it’s a different experience to walk in the space where it happened and feel the gravity of it in person.

National Memorial

The rest of our day is less somber. Pops 66 is a gas station/diner with a gigantic metal sculpture shaped like a soda bottle out front, calling you with its  sugary siren song. The diner is shelf upon shelf of pops of all kinds, with an entire wall of fridges displaying brands and flavors I’ve never seen before. Also, talk about mixer heaven.

Kurt’s haul

We’re enjoying taking our time so much that the late hour creeps up on us. Our goal is to reach Missouri tonight. It’s nearly 9 p.m. by the time we reach Galena, Kansas (a new state for me!), and thankfully, we find one restaurant still open, a Mexican place right off the main road. By the time we finish eating and drive the remaining 45 minutes to Carthage Missouri, it’s nearly 11 p.m. We check into another historic Route 66 motel, Boots Court. It has been restored to its vintage splendor, and as the owner tells me while she checks us in, Clark Gable stayed here multiple times. She is friendly and chatty, and we talk a bit about Chicago before she tells me of the multiple cities and countries she’s lived in. The night before, we had met a Tucumcari motel owner at the motel in Elk City, and we learn that all of the Route 66 motel owners know each other, all a part of a unique club of sorts. “We’re a linear community,” as she puts it. I can see that Route 66 calls to a certain type of person, an adventurous spirit with incurable wanderlust. I think I want to own a Route 66 themed motel someday.

Our room has wood floors and a bed covered with a white chenille bedspread; it’s so gorgeous that I’m almost taken aback that someone would trust strangers with it. There’s red plush pillows, and a vintage radio on the vanity is turned on, playing music from the 40’s. I truly feel like we stepped back in time and I’m waiting for Captain America to show up for a slow dance.

At this point it’s super late and it’s been a long day, so we fall asleep quickly. Two sleeps ’til home…

Route 66, Eastward Bound

Thursday, May 9: Santa Fe, NM > Tucumcari, NM > Amarillo, TX > Elk City, OK

Soundtrack: “Route 66” Nat King Cole

We wake up in a foggy, misty, snowy rain. It’s not worth hanging around and making breakfast, so we pack up and drive down to a lower elevation. After fueling up on PB&J English muffins and gas station coffee, we are on our way back East for the return leg of our trip.

Since we booked it out to New Mexico so quickly at the start of our trip, we’re taking our time on our way home and stopping at all of the Route 66 sights and landmarks. Right around lunchtime, we arrive in Tucumcari, a city noted for its devotion to preserving the vintage aesthetic of Route 66. As we drive down the main drag, I recognize iconic kitschy images like the sombrero above the entrance of La Cita Restaurant, the sculpted concrete entrance of Tee Pee Curios, and the neon sign of the Blue Swallow Motel. Every building has some sort of reference to Route 66 painted in eye-catching splashy murals. “Get your kicks!”, the signs tells us.

We  eat sopaipillas swimming in green sauce for lunch and take tons of pictures of all of the 50’s era shops and motels.

The ghost town of Glenrio straddles the border of New Mexico and Texas. It’s considered a casualty of I-40, the interstate that replaced Route 66 as the main American byway, swerving tourism away. It feels eerie and haunting to peek into the ruins of rundown gas stations and motels, long abandoned and semi-reabsorbed into the landscape as weeds run rampant. Having visited sacred ancient places like Chaco Canyon so recently, it’s interesting to view neglected, modern day ruins like Glenrio and think about what chapter they add to the story of American history. Parts of the film The Grape of Wrath were filmed here, and I think about the waves of migration that have moved through these places over centuries–who was running towards something vs. away from something, by force or by choice, for adventure or for survival. And then at one point, we started retracing it all in wood-paneled station wagons, then RVs and conversion vans. What a wild, weird world.

We continue along, jumping on and off the historic route and I-40 alternately, putting New Mexico in our review mirror. Just west of Amarillo, we stop at Cadillac Ranch. The sky is gray, rainclouds swirling threateningly yet holding back. We walk around the art installation that is 10 Cadillacs buried nose first into the dirt. It’s definitely an inventive way to draw people to a place. The bodies of the cars are thick with layers upon layers of spray paint, and several aerosol cans lay in the mud, inviting us to leave our own mark on this roadside attraction.

“I was here”

The sun is starting to get low in the sky right around the time we reach the vintage gas stations of Shamrock, Texas, and do another driver switch. We decide to make Elk City, Oklahoma, our final stop. I call ahead to the Flamingo Inn, one of many motels listed as an historic Route 66 stop, and confirm they have a vacancy. By the time we get checked in, it’s nearly 9 p.m., just a few hours away from our 5-year wedding anniversary. We celebrate properly and order from Pizza Hut. Kurt tried to surprise me with a heart-shaped pizza, but the teenagers on shift didn’t know how to make one, so we get regular pan plus a tray of gooey brownies instead. In our room, we lay on the bed eating pizza and brownies and drinking boxed wine while watching a Steve Carrell movie on cable, and it’s a pretty perfect night.

Volcanic Forest Camping

Wednesday, May 8: Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Mountain Song” Jane’s Addiction

It’s a chilly morning. We pack up camp, making sure to leave no trace, and head to nearby Jemez Springs, a historic town along the Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway. One of the first places we see is a delightful looking cafe with an outdoor pen full of goats and chickens, so we stop there for breakfast. Now that we’re off the high mountaintop, it’s already warmer in the sunshine, and we sit outside on the patio and listen to the goats bleat at each other. I order blue corn blueberry pancakes and coffee, and they are heavenly.

if you are ever in Jemez Springs, go to Stage Stop Cafe

Today is our last full day in New Mexico (*sobs*) and we don’t have any plans other than to leisurely explore the national forest.  On our drive back into the wilderness, we stop at Soda Dam, a spot where water from underground hot springs bubbles up over a mineral deposit rock formation. The Jemez River meanders along the road, and this little nook of land is astoundingly beautiful with the mountains and sky as backdrop. I love exploring it and climbing over the rocks and sticking our heads into little caves; how can we do this every day for the rest of our lives?

Soda Dam, Jemez River

We drive up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The road winds around a large grassy bowl that’s actually the 15-mile-wide crater left behind from a dormant volcano. There’s a small visitors center, so we stop inside and chat a bit with the ranger. We’re planning to do dispersed camping a second night, and he confirms that the spot on the map we’re looking at is a popular site in the summer. He mentions the black bears in the area, and shows us some photos taken by recent hikers. “How can you tell bear scat?” he asks us, then delivers the punchline “It smells peppery and has bells in it.” I love a sassy park ranger.

We do one more short hike, leaving the van at a picnic area to walk the trail to Jemez Falls. A light rain sprinkles down on us, and the strong scent of pine reminds me of being in Yosemite. At the falls, Kurt of course wants to scramble up and down some rocks to get closer. I feel my anxiety kick in, but I tell myself, it’s OK. He will be fine; he’s not dumb. Eventually, I work up the bravery to climb closer also, and get a better vantage point. I guess this is the key to dealing with phobias–trying to think rationally instead of imagining every possible worst case scenario, taking things one slow step at a time, and remembering to breathe.

Jemez Falls

Kurt is a Gryffindor

It’s time to find a place to make camp, so we drive back up the rambling forestry roads, up into the mountains. Among the thick pines, we find a nice large clearing with the remnants of a few fire pits; it’s obviously a party spot in the summer. This early in the season, however, there’s not many other campers out and about, so we park and begin to settle in. We’re just in time; a heavier rain rolls through. We hang out in the van, eating snacks and drinking wine with the van door rolled open so we can enjoy the smell of the rain.

It’s-a me!

After the weather passes through, Kurt starts to work on building a fire. I’m standing next to the van with my pink sparkly “I’m 40, bitches” wine cup. For the first time, a vehicle ambles up our road. Instead of continuing on, the Jeep makes a sharp turn into our clearing and drives all the way up to our campsite, about 100 yards off the road. The driver rolls down his window and calls out a greeting. He and the woman sitting in the passenger seat chat with us a bit; they are locals and they’re camping further down the mountain. It strikes me as a little odd that he drove all the way up to a stranger’s site so aggressively like that. He asks Kurt’s name; he doesn’t ask me for mine. Finally, he and the woman wave and tell us to have a good time, and they drive away.

“That was weird,” I say. Kurt’s guess is that they spotted the van and thought that they might know us, or that maybe we were friends of a friend. I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts, so MY thought is that they were scoping out our van and plan to come back in the middle of the night and axe murder us.

Kurt goes back to working on the fire, and I stroll around the area with my wine cup. In the grass, I notice a bunch of shotgun shells not far from where we’re parked. A little further into the woods, I see a pile of bear poo (no bells in it). Still, I’m convinced that we’re more likely to be killed by a Jeep-driving axe murderer than a black bear.

As the sun sets, it turns into a beautifully starry night. We enjoy the warm fire and the wine, and eventually climb into the cozy van. Nobody gets murdered overnight.

 

 

 

Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

After this stretch of city stays, we’re going to be camping again. I shower in the Earthship, taking advantage of running water plus enjoying the experience of bathing next to a flower garden. Once we’re packed up, we get coffee to go and say goodbye to Taos, headed back towards the large national forest that surrounds Santa Fe.

Bandelier National Monument is our first stop. The canyons within the 33,000-acre park are an ancestral home of the Pueblo people. In 1150 to 1550 CE, people carved homes into the soft rock formations created from volcanic tuff, creating cliffside dwellings.

In the parking lot, we pack a daypack with snacks, water bottles, and jackets, then begin our day of hiking. The park trails take us right up to some ancient dwellings where we can climb wood ladders and explore cave-like spaces, their ceilings blackened with soot from campfires.

Once we finish the easy Main Loop Trail, we head deeper into Frijoles Canyon towards Alcove House. Set high in the mountain ridge, Alcove House is a sacred ancestral site where historians believe up to 25 Pueblo people lived at one time. I’ve seen photos of the steep trail leading to Alcove House, so I mentally prepare myself during the 2-mile walk to get there. Along the way, two signs warn us that the final .5 mile of trail is a 140 ft. vertical climb involving ladders, and those with health problems or a fear of heights should not attempt it. Awesome.

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

When we reach the first ladder, I want to give it a shot. I can always turn around if it gets too scary. Kurt goes first, and I catch up to him on the initial rock landing. The trail is incredibly narrow, at points barely wider than one of my boots. At the base of the longest ladder of the trail, we reach a traffic jam as obviously, only one hiker can climb at a time. I stay on the rocky landing as a woman watches her 11-year-old daughter make her way down. The girl had gone all the way to the top, and after she climbs down, I tell her that she did an awesome job and she’s much braver than me. “Thanks!” she says, before adding “You can do it too!”

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

Well now, I HAVE to climb all the way to the top because a kid believes in me. The next wooden ladder is about 30 feet tall, flat against the rock face, and there’s nothing but air to the right of it. I take a deep breath, then go up at a steady pace, focusing on the next rung up and not looking down or over the cliffside. As I near the top, I see Kurt above me taking photos. I grip the last metal handle in relief. There’s some trail, some stairs, and a few more short ladders, and the next thing I know, we’re at the top.

the view from inside Alcove House

The view is spectacular. For a few minutes, Kurt and I are alone in the Alcove House, so we are able to take photos free of any other hikers. An ancient kiva sits within the dwelling, and I try to imagine what it would be like to live all the way up here and look out at this beautiful view of the canyon first thing every morning. Eventually, more people make their way up, so Kurt and I begin our downward descent so that they can take their own photos. I have a feeling the return trip is going to be scarier, because you HAVE to look down as you go.

Focusing on my breath, I take it one step at a time. My heart is pounding, not just from nerves but also from the high altitude, which always affects my dumb sea level-accustomed lungs. Slowly, the forest floor gets closer and closer, and my boots land on earth with a final thud.

Success!

We rest on a bench, eating our snacks and watching hikers move up and down the trail above us. The trail back to the visitors center is an easy stroll through the forest, and I spot a young elk resting beneath a Ponderosa pine. We take photos from a safe distance. When we pass an elderly woman holding binoculars, Kurt tells her about the elk, and she replies “Oh I’m from Idaho, elk are a dime a dozen to me!” I guess us Illinoisans are easily impressed.

As it gets later in the day, the temperature feels cooler. I pull my fleece jacket on over my tank top. We drive towards Santa Fe National Forest. While stopping for gas in Los Alamos, we take a weird exit off the main road and accidentally get into a lane that takes us up to the security gate for some large sprawling building complex, so we do a quick u-turn. Oops, we almost tried to enter the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Awkward.

In the national forest, we use a forestry map to find a stretch of roads designated for dispersed camping. There’s a good spot on the ridge, set in a bit from the dramatic cliff (I’ve had my fill of heights for today). I’m happy to be outside again after 5 straight nights in towns and Airbnbs. The fresh air smells so good. Also, at 8,300 feet, this is the highest elevation we’ve ever camped at. A cold drizzle starts to fall, so Kurt gets out the grill to finish cooking dinner–bratwurst and chopped veggies.

I add more layers as the cold sets in.  The rain turns into snow. This puts me strangely at ease. Camping high on a mountain range is unfamiliar territory to me, but camping in the middle of a random snowfall is just like home.