I wake up thinking, yeah I definitely did too much yesterday. We sleep in the latest we have all week. I’m ready to be lazy and I’m still craving a view of Mount Rainier, and there’s a clear forecast until noon, so we decide to take the gondola from Crystal Mountain Resort. We arrive within minutes of it opening, and it’s just us and about a dozen or so snowboarders hanging around.
Have I ever mentioned I’m terrified of heights? Probably once or twice? The gondola is an enclosed glass cube with two bench seats, and I manage to stay pretty calm during our 2,400-ft vertical ascent. At the summit, we’re greeted by a view of Mount Rainier through some wispy cloud coverage. Victory! The wind is whipping our hair around and I am extremely sketched out by the lack of railings around the brick walkway, but we get our summit photos then boot-scoot-boogie over to the restaurant at the top of the mountain for breakfast. We’re seated at a window facing Mt. Rainier so I get to stare at it to my heart’s content as I have my coffee and BLT. I live in Illinois; I’m going to savor this moment.
With our first mission accomplished, we leave Enumclaw and drive for an hour towards Snoqualmie. I’m extremely excited for this part of our trip because I’ve been a massive fan of the David Lynch/Mark Frost-created TV show Twin Peaks since it first aired (I was in sixth grade and didn’t really know what I was watching but I was intrigued. I later binge-watched the series on VHS in high school, and multiple times since). First thing first, we go to Twede’s Diner (a.ka. The Double R) so I can order a damn fine cup of coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night, with a slice of cherry pie.
I have an internet-gleaned list of filming locations on my to-do list, so one by one, we check them off. Ronette’s bridge, check. The Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Station, now a rally driving school with a view of the Packard Sawmill, check. (The incredibly nice woman at the front entrance even let me sit at Lucy’s desk for a photo.) The Salish Lodge & Spa (a.k.a. The Great Northern Hotel) and Snoqualmie Falls, check. Oh Diane, I almost forgot, got to find out what kind of trees these are! They’re really something.
We are staying at a bed&breakfast in Snoqualmie for the night, and our room overlooks the river with a view of the forest and mountains. Also, there’s a gigantic boulder in our room, which feels appropriately Twin Peaksian (also doesn’t hurt that behind the boulder we have a private sauna room).
The b&b owners drop us off a hot breakfast in a wicker basket in the morning (this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a MacDowell residency experience). We eat our French toast bake, breakfast sausage, and berries and cream while drinking in the last of the view. It’s the last full day of our trip (sobs) but I’d like to live here in this exact spot forever if someone can please fly our dog and cat over for me.
The first task of the day is to return the van to the rental place. Goodbye, Kung Fu, you were a fantastic home for the past week. We take a Lyft to the Capitol Hill area of Seattle and drop our stuff off at our final Airbnb. I have one more pilgrimage I want to make; I want to visit the graves of Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee at Lake View Cemetery in the nearby-ish Volunteer Park. It’s gotten quite warm out, and I begin to get tired, sweaty, and grumpy. I kinda forgot until now that it’s summer. Whose idea was this? (Mine). Maybe we should quit (I shouldn’t quit, we’re almost there). My feet hurt and my back is sweaty. I’ve had a weird time managing my moods ever since I had covid. We reach the cemetery entrance and notice a steady stream of people headed in the same direction. The small crowd grows quiet and respectfully somber. From what I’ve read, Bruce Lee’s family chose Seattle as his resting place because it’s where he fell in love and spent the happiest years of his life. It’s moving to see and experience with strangers and fellow fans. I’m glad I didn’t give up just because my feet hurt.
For the rest of the day, Kurt and I take it easy sampling local beers, eating fresh poke, and topping everything off with a cocktail. My Gen X heart enjoys and appreciates Seattle. It gave us one of the best seasons of The Real World (“Kirrrraaa! I love you! It kills me!!! and you don’t even knowww!!!!”) Ironically, the first time I visited Seattle back in 2012 I was getting over whooping cough; hopefully someday I’ll come back here totally free of any sort of respiratory issues.
Every part of Olympic National Park is so different and worth seeing. If you can, build time into your itinerary to get each kind of experience: the lakes and mountains, the Pacific Coast, the rain forests, etc.
If you plan to stay at the Kalaloch Campgrounds (and you should!), book as early as possible for the best chance of getting one of the cliffside sites with a direct view of the ocean.
The National Park webcams for spots like Hurricane Ridge are a handy way to check if visibility is good or not before trekking over.
I’ve also found the NPS Instagram and Twitter accounts helpful for updates on parking lot wait times, road closures, and weather events.
I upgraded my rain jacket a year ago and was definitely glad to have a good one for this trip. Along with rain pants, weather didn’t stop us from exploring.
We used the app Tide Alert to check for low tide/negative tide for the day we explored tide pools.
The morning is drizzly with rain, surprise. We make breakfast at camp, then head to the Rain Forest Nature trail right by our site, a short 0.5-mile trail along Willaby Creek. I hadn’t looked up anything about the trail and am blown away by the view of the Gorge and the old-growth forest flanking it on both sides. It feels like we’ve stepped into an ancient world and I almost expect a pterodactyl to swoop through the sky. The trail winds along high above creek level with a wooden railing hugging you to the side of the mountain, and I’ll continue my habit of making hyper-specific Chicagoland references by saying that it made me think of Tropic World Asia at Brookfield Zoo. Even more surprisingly, we barely see anyone else out on the trail, a stark difference from the packed parking lot at Hoh the previous day. Since the trail is so short, we join the Quinault River Trail for a bit to get a little more time in at this beautiful spot.
Kurt and I both love a scenic drive, so we embark on the Quinault Rain Forest Loop, a 31-mile route around the entire lake. It takes about 2 hours to complete due to gravel roads and stopping to see all the waterfalls. It is also popular with bicyclists, and we see quite a few out and about. Kurt and I make a few stops at trailheads to stretch our legs on some easy hikes, including the Maple Glade Trail, which ends up being one of Kurt’s favorites. The mile-long trail takes us through a grove of ancient towering maples; I am in awe of trees and their resilience to survive centuries of extreme elements. I’ve always felt that nature is more than a little but supernatural.
Back in the van, the road takes us into a thick forest surrounding us on both side. This area seems prime for elk sighting, so Kurt slows the Kung Fu to a crawl and we scour the trees with our eyes. Within minutes, we spot the backs of two female elk grazing deep into the woods. The forest eventually opens up into the Quinault River valley, with a peek of snowcapped mountains in the distance. If you’re planning a trip to Olympic National Park, I’d recommend setting aside a full day for exploring the Quinault area; it’s pretty magical.
Once we’ve finished the Loop Drive, we say a wistful goodbye to the Olympic Peninsula. Our next destination is Mount Rainier National Park, and we have a three-hour drive ahead of us to reach Packwood, where we’ve reserved an Airbnb for the night. I’m eager for my first shower in days and a chance to wash our dirty laundry. Fueled by gas station corn dogs, we forge on to Packwood.
Packwood/ Mount Rainier/ Enumclaw
I wake up in our A-frame cabin in Packwood as the early sunlight streams into the loft sleeping area. Waking up in a real bed feels pretty great, and Kurt and I both have a pile of freshly cleaned and folded camping clothes sitting atop our bags, ready for the second half of our trip. The cabin is my dream house—rustic and cozy with a wooden deck overlooking a babbling stream. We’d sat outside the previous night eating carryout pizza and drinking canned white wine while our clothes tumbled clean in the washing machine.
This day should be interesting; as we spent last night researching trails in Mt. Rainier using the cabin’s wifi, we learned that most of the park is currently closed due to late-season snowpack. Out of our planned stops, there are only a few trailheads we can access right now. We’ll figure it out as we go. But first, coffee and breakfast tacos.
“You know of the closures?” the Ranger asks us as we enter the National Park. Yep, we tell her, we’re headed to Silver Falls, one of the few accessible trails. She nods and offers us a park map.
The Silver Falls Trail is a 4-mile loop with 705 ft of elevation gain—a moderate hike that would’ve been no big deal for me a few months ago, but more challenging than all of the short, flat hikes we’ve been doing all week. I’ve been feeling better lately, so we pack up a daypack with water, snacks, and rain jackets, and set out.
Silver Falls turns out to be a pretty large, roaring waterfall, and the trail leads us across the river via footbridge twice before ascending up the ridge, into the woods, then back down. It takes about two hours for us to finish and end up back at the van. Where to next? The nearby Grove of the Patriarchs (ancient four-stories-tall Douglas firs, hemlocks, and red cedars) is temporarily closed due to the bridge being washed out. Both the route to Paradise and the road past the Sunrise entrances are closed. We get into the van and take the road up the eastern side of the park, hoping to at least catch some good views of Mount Rainier, but a thick fog settles in. As the road winds up into higher elevations, snowbanks appear, then grow in size up to what looks like over six feet high. From what locals have told us, this is highly unusual for June.
The road eventually deposits us on the north side of the park, not far from our reserved campsite. We pull over and check our phones for options. Kurt finds a recommendation for a good view of Mount Rainier, sixteen miles up a forestry road. I’m antsy to do something so I say yes, but once we’ve begun rambling our way up the potholed, washboard-riddled gravel road, my anxiety spikes. I get pretty extreme acrophobia on any steep trails or roads with sheer drop-offs (see my previous blogs from the Smoky Mountains, Iceland, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, basically everywhere). We’re a few miles from the top when we come around a corner and see that the road ahead is covered with snow for the remainder of the way. At this point, I pretty much have a panic attack and ask Kurt to take us back down. He has to turn the van around carefully on the narrow road while I squeeze my eyes shut.
It’s now raining steadily and visibility is poor. We decide to hit up another trail, the Snoquera Falls Loop. It’s 3.9 miles with 975 feet of elevation gain, similar to our early hike but a little steeper. This is going to be a lot for me but I can always quit, as I just proved. Normalize quitting all the time!
We’ve barely gotten into the forest before we spot a big cat poo; there are signs warning of cougars in the area. So that’s exciting. The trail starts heading uphill pretty quickly, giving us a view of the forest floor. The ground is wet but thankfully not slippery, as the trail is on the narrow side, hugging the side of the ridge. I start feeling not great—lightheaded, tired. We stand in the middle of the trail as I chow down two chocolate almond butter bars and a bottle of water. I focus on breathing. After a few minutes, I tell Kurt I’m OK to keep going. The trail continues to climb via switchback, and I take a few more breaks to catch my breath. Finally, we can hear the sound of water. The initial view of Snoquera Falls after coming around the rocky corner is pretty stunning. There’s also an incredible outward-facing view of the mountains through the mist. I’m relieved to have made it.
The online trail guide says you can either cross the falls and continue on the loop or turn back and come down the way you came. I’m in no mood for a scramble over wet rocks, so we turn around. Thankfully, the downhill trip is much easier for me than the uphill.
We pull into the Silver Springs campgrounds (yes, I had Fleetwood Mac in my head the whole time), which are half-empty, a stark difference from the fully booked sites in Olympic. Our site is directly next to the rushing White River. It’s a gorgeous view but unfortunately, we don’t get to sit outside and enjoy it very much, as it’s gushing rain. Kurt and I sit inside the Kung Fu at the table and have an indoor dinner and cocktail hour. We even figure out a way to convert the table to a bed without having to open the doors (mostly consisting of me tucking myself into the front seat hugging the cushions until handing them back to Kurt to put back onto the opened wood platform. We spend our last night of van camping listening to the rain and the river.
This trip arrived exactly when I needed it and when I wasn’t yet ready for it. I planned the trip—a drive through some of the National Parks of Washington—back in February, for the purpose of using the last of our 2020 airline credits.
Six weeks before our departure, my covid-free streak and my Wordle streak broke in the same week (SO RUDE). A few weeks after recovering, some of my symptoms boomeranged back—chest tightness, shortness of breath, light-headedness, and a lingering cough. So I’m a little grumpy and a lot concerned about my stamina on this trip, planned to be full of hiking and roughing it in a camper van. But I’m doing my best to roll with it, toting my meds along with me and doing regular self-check-ins on how I’m feeling.
On Saturday morning, Kurt and I kill some time doing touristy things at Pike Place Market and grab a breakfast of eggs with fried oysters and salmon, then it’s time to pick up the van. We’d love to bring our van from home, but in the interest of time, we found a place to rent a conversion van in Seattle. To our delight, our assigned camper van is a Ford Econoline nicknamed Kung Fu, custom-painted with a dragon on each side and two Koi fish swimming in a yin yang on one of the rear doors. There’s bench seating and a table that convert into a bed, and a kitchen area in the rear with a fridge, pump-operated sink, gray water storage, and a Propane grill. After a quick grocery run, it’s time to hit the road in the direction of Olympic National Park.
We drive for a few hours in moderate rain until we cross the floating Hood Canal Bridge, officially entering the Peninsula. Our first campsite is at Sequim Bay State Park, an area known for elk turning up in peoples’ yards and a recent local political scandal involving their mayor’s vocal support of QAnon conspiracy theories (when our camper van rep told us to Google the Mayor, Kurt had hoped that the Mayor was a cat).
The campground is pretty, full of towering pine trees with a view of the bay visible through the foliage, but I’m feeling apprehensive about my first night camping while not feeling 100%. The upcoming forecast looks like a solid green mass of rain coming right at us. Kurt whips up a quick dinner of brats and green beans before the storm rolls in. After we eat, the storm still hasn’t arrived, so we walk down to the Bay and check out the view. I love the Pacific Northwest with its mix of mountains, water, coastal fog, and old-growth forests. We spot a group of seals hanging out not far from the pier. I relax a little; while I may not be myself these days, I need to remember to enjoy the little things.
It gets dark out and the rain still never arrives, so we make our first campfire of the trip. I go to bed early, snuggled into the surprisingly comfortable converted bed with my book.
Port Angeles/Lake Crescent/Sol Duc
From Sequim, it’s on to Port Angeles; you may know this as the city in Twilight where Bella and her friends go for dress shopping and Italian dinner dates. We find a place called Lola’s Cafe and I am delighted to see a Filipino breakfast on the menu. I’m in heaven with my longanisa, spam, garlic rice, and giant coffee. We also get some donuts for the road from a place called Sasquatch Donuts. While walking off our breakfast, we wander over to the pier and get a brief glimpse through the fog of Canada across the Salish Sea. Kurt checks the webcam for Hurricane Ridge, one of our potential stops for the day. The visibility is close to zero, which makes going forty-five minutes out of our way to check out the mountain view a futile exercise.
Lucky for us, there’s tons of things to do instead, so we enter Olympic National Park and take a scenic drive around Lake Crescent. The hike to Marymere Falls is easy and family-friendly, which sounds good to my lungs, so we pack up a daypack and set out.
I immediately love this National Park. Every direction you turn in looks like a Bob Ross painting come to life. The early summer light that filters through the clouds and tree canopy makes everything look a little more magical. No wonder the vampires sparkle here! We make it to the viewing platform and feel the spray of the waterfall on our skin. Kurt was smart to buy those donuts and pack them into our daypack, so we choose a spot next to a babbling stream to enjoy them. My grumpiness is melting away; I love it here. I love hiking, even if I need to take it easy. We can stop for as many breaks as I need. I’ll figure out how to adapt.
There’s another waterfall nearby our reserved campsite, so we tackle that next, but as we pull into the trailhead parking lot the light drizzle has grown into heavy rain. We see a few hikers run to their vehicle in sopping wet jeans, the absolute worst. Kurt and I grab our rain pants from our bags to pair with our rain jackets. I also opt to take along a hiking pole in case the trail gets slippery. The Sol Duc Falls Trail is another easy 1.6 mile out-and-back, and judging from the parking lot, the rain has thinned out the usual crowds. We reach the falls quickly, and admire the view from the wood bridge straddling the dramatic drop-off. “This is serving Six Flags Splashwater Falls vibes,” I say to Kurt (and will say again roughly 1,000 times before the end of the trip).
We get back to the van and it’s still pouring rain. We could go to our campsite and sit in the rain, or we could go to the nearby hot springs resort (obviously a no-brainer). “You know what would be amazing in a camper van? A mud room,” I saw to Kurt as we attempt to hang up our wet rain jackets and rain pants somewhere they can air dry while not dripping all over the seats and bedding. We do a decent enough job, but this is the kind of trip where you must make peace with the fact that everything’s always going to be at least a little bit damp, from the blackout curtains to the comforter and pillows to your fleece jacket that you wear beneath your rain jacket. During the day there’s intermittent rain, and at night, condensation clings to everything inside the van.
The hot springs feel amazing. The resort consists of four pools—three of them naturally heated at temps ranging from 99 to 109 degrees, and one lap-sized pool filled with children apparently immune to freezing water. The resort is egalitarian compared to the bougie hot springs we visited near Taos earlier this year. Kids kick around in water wings in the 107-degree pool, and the concrete ground is covered with some sort of brown goopy mildew extremely slippery beneath wet feet. But still, it’s blissful to sit neck-deep in the sulphuric hot water, gazing at the misty mountain ridge in the distance; the steam feels soothing on my messed-up lungs. We strike up conversation with a woman sitting nearby who is visiting from Alaska, and have a pleasant conversation about Copper River and what it’s like to live somewhere where a bald eagle may drop a still-alive salmon into your backyard for dinner.
Back to camp and the rain has stopped, so we attempt to make a fire, but the wet wood slows down the process. After a meager little fire, we retire to the van to sleep amidst damp curtains and the sound of the Sol Duc River.
I thought of the idea for the trip last fall, one of dozens of adventures I’d dreamed up and noted for “whenever things get back to normal.” My list got stupid long. I floated the idea to a friend: “I want to visit the three Meow Wolf locations in Denver, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas in one week.” He responded immediately with “Let’s do it.” Kurt was in too.
This trip ended up having a theme, which was seeing the world cracked open. It’s fitting considering we’re living through this time in history in which the landscape shifts constantly; a new dangerous variant emerged and circled the globe within the brief window of time between buying our plane tickets and embarking on our trip. We move forward, thrice Pfizered, twice shy.
And so we arrive in Denver in late January, a Ziploc full of fresh KN95s in my purse, and a box of rapid tests in my carry-on in case of the worst. We spend two nights in an AirBnB in Boulder, the broad expanse of the Rockies visible even from the windows of the garden unit. As a Midwesterner, I can never get over seeing the mountains from one’s house. You can just, like, walk outside and see the Rocky Mountains while still wearing your house slippers? And while getting in and out of your car in the CVS parking lot? It’s wild.
On our one full day in Boulder, we hike the Mt. Sanitas trail, a 3.2 mile loop to the summit at 1,256 feet. The first half of the trail to the summit is steep, with a good amount of rock scrambling close to the top. There’s fresh white powder on the ground, dusting the pine trees, and cool drops of condensation drip onto my head. I work up a sweat, stepping up logs and boulders as high as my hips. I’ve got flatlander’s lungs and I’m breathing hard in this high elevation. Meanwhile, locals trail run past me in light athleisure wear, barely breaking a sweat. I even see a dog with corgi legs scramble over the rocks like it’s no big deal. My hair is a damp mop on my head and I’ve peeled off my sweaty gloves, shoving them into the pockets of my puffy jacket now tied around my waist. But we make it to the top, and bask in the view of the city of Boulder laid out around us. I can never get over a good view. A change in perspective. Man, I’ve missed traveling during this damn pandemic.
On Sunday morning, we arrive at the first of our Meow Wolf stops in Denver, Convergence Station. None of us have been here before. Kurt and I visited the original Meow Wolf in Santa Fe in 2019, and I loved the trippy art fever dream experience of it. The Denver installation is over three times bigger, located in an industrial area where the highways converge, lending inspiration to the intergalactic travel theme. The last real-world moment is when we are told of their mask policy (must stay on, fully covering one’s nose and mouth at all times, removing the mask even for a quick photo could result in being asked to leave). With our KN95s on tight, we enter the elevator and are whisked away to another world.
Here are my tips for visiting Convergence Station:
If possible, plan your visit on a weekday or early in the day to avoid crowds.
For $3, you can pick up a QPass card for an interactive ‘game’ within the installation. If you’re exploring with a group, you only need one card (but keep in mind you’ll need to stick together). When you boop your card at a reader, you accumulate ‘mems’ which piece together to tell the story within the world.
If you don’t feel like solving the game, don’t worry about it. It’s a blast just to explore and interact with the art and the space itself (especially if it’s your first Meow Wolf visit).
If you’ve previously been to House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, prepare yourself for an experience three times bigger (60,000 square ft of exhibition space compared to 20,000). We spent about 3 hours in Convergence Station, and could have stayed longer if we didn’t have tight schedule.
I love Meow Wolf because it feels like everything I longed for as a kid–a gigantic, fantastical funhouse full of secret passages and portals and wormholes to the next spot. One world is ethereal and melancholy, with a reclining mermaid tucked high on a ridge, her luminescent hair draping down the wall. Another looks like a futuristic street out of Blade Runner, with neon graffiti, an intergalactic bus, and a story about a rat antihero. The next looks like an ice planet with a show-stopping glass cathedral nearly touching the light show sky.
I’m starting to settle into the rhythm of traveling again. With so many new landscapes and experiences to explore, I push my anxieties to the back of my brain, trying not to worry about things until they are a reality.
We drive south through Colorado towards our next stop, Taos in northern New Mexico. It’s about a 5-hour drive, and I love watching the geological scenery change outside the car window. Gradually, the snow-capped Rockies disappear from view, and the rock formations of northern New Mexico dominate the horizon. We pass over the Rio Grande River Gorge Bridge, 600 feet above the river bed, one of the highest bridges in the country. From the vantage point of the bridge, the landscape looks cracked into two halves, like something caused by a pissed-off sorcerer.
Outside of Taos, I soak in mineral hot springs. In one pool with a natural pebble floor, you can see the bubbles come up from the earth and rise to the surface. The night air is crisp, somewhere around 30 degrees, but it’s toasty in the water, heated by geothermal activity deep in the earth. I think that my love of fantasy/sci-fi and my love of nature go hand in hand, because nature really is wild to wrap your head around.
The next day, we make the quick trip to Santa Fe, one of my favorite cities. I get my fix of tamales with green chile and a spicy margarita with a slice of jalapeno floating on the rocks. Next stop: the original location of Meow Wolf, House of Eternal Return.
Kurt and I first visited Meow Wolf in spring 2019. Even after the awesome display that is the 4-story Convergence Station, I am still blown away by the original space. There’s something about the storyline–a family disappears when they begin traveling inter-dimensionally in an effort to find a deceased loved one–that feels more intimate and prescient. I love the juxtaposition of a typical house and another dimension: a washing machine reveals an intergalactic portal, a closet in a child’s bedroom reveals a secret passage to a space wormhole. I love the story of the origins of Meow Wolf as a DIY art collective, creating a space for artists outside of the bougie Santa Fe gallery scene. If you’re new to Meow Wolf, I recommend starting with a visit to the Santa Fe location and also viewing their origin story.
One quick night in Santa Fe, and we fill it with Frito pie. I also swear that our Airbnb is haunted and I dream that a man from the boiler room walks through the room at night while we sleep.
It’s a 4-hour drive to Petrified Forest National Park, so we get an early start to maximize our day before the park closes at 5 p.m. After making a few stops along the historic Route 66, we arrive at the park in the early afternoon. Starting at the Rainbow Forest Museum, we get the lay of the land and read up on the history of the park. With a few hours to go before closing, we pick a few short trails to hike: Crystal Forest, a 0.75 mile loop around a field of countless crystallized petrified logs; Blue Mesa, a 1-mile loop on a steeply graded trail that takes you into and out of the badland hills; Newspaper Rock, an overlook where you can view an array of nearly 650 petroglyphs created by ancestral Puebloan people as long as 2,000 years ago. This is a very accessible park for families with young children or seniors, as the trails are short but scenic and it’s easy to drive and park at each trailhead.
Being the group of science and nature-minded nerds that we are, we marvel at the striations and variations in the rock formations, piecing together what was once underwater back when Arizona was under an ocean. How wild that a log can still look like wood on the outside, the patterns of bark still intact, while the inside has turned into quartz after being buried in sediment and compressed by pressure then being revealed again by wind and erosion. These elements exist on an entirely different timeline than us humans in our meat bodies.
We breeze through our itinerary and realize it’s a few minutes past 5 as we squeeze in one last stop at Pintado Point. A strong wind whips across the badlands, chilling straight through my nano-puff jacket. I spot a ranger pull into the parking lot and we scramble for the car, but before we can promise we’re leaving, she tells us that we can stay for 30 more minutes to watch the sunset. “It’s going to be a nice one,” she says before driving away. We’re elated over the gift of additional time, and bundle up so we can stand at the overlook in the cold until the sun disappears into the horizon. The sky intensifies into a fiery orange as the low winter sun sets behind the badlands. As the colors cool into a soft, deep blue, we get back into the car and drive to the northern exit.
Another day, another few giant holes in the ground. We grab breakfast then make our way to Meteor Crater National Landmark. The entire drive there, I’m positive that this is where Thor landed in his MCU origin film, but once I look it up I realize that I’m wrong. Starman (1984), however, was filmed at the national landmark.
Once you walk outside, the sight of the crater is mind-blogging. Free binoculars are staged at various viewing platforms alongside the crater. The crater is roughly 560 feet deep and 0.737 miles in diameter. The sky is bright blue all around us, and I imagine what it would be like to standing around in the desert when all of a sudden a meteor traveling around 30,000 mph suddenly arrived out of nowhere and smashed into the ground, creating this gigantic hole. Some of the original drilling equipment is set up on the ground level to show where excavations were dug for meteor remnants in the early 1900s.
Another few hours in the car, to the next destination. We pass through Flagstaff, then drive north towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I spot pronghorns along the side of the road briefly. It’s a little before sunset when we finally arrive in the National Park. Before even checking in, we park the car and dash to the nearest viewing area. Somehow everyone in our group made it to our forties without ever visiting the Grand Canyon before, so when we reach the overlook, we’re all pretty awestruck. You can look at a million photos of it (and you’re American, you probably have by sheer cultural osmosis) but it’s nothing like being there in person–the scale, the depth of shadow, the way the colors change in real time as the sun moves through the sky, revealing new angles. We walk along the Rim Trail, checking out a few different scenic overlooks.
My acrophobia is mostly OK as long as there’s a substantial fence higher than my waist. A few waves of panic wash over me as I spot people venturing past the railing to stand on a rocky outcrop and take photos. People are out of their minds. Along other parts of the trail, there’s no barrier at all. When I start freaking out, I move further inland away from the rim. I can barely watch the small children and dogs who dart around on the sidewalk.
The next morning, we fuel up on coffee, water, and breakfast burritos. The plan is to hike a portion of the Bright Angel Trail. As soon as I see the start of the trail, panic rises. The path is covered in snow and ice and descends into a narrow curve, then out of sight. I’m honestly not sure if I can do this trail at first; every time I look out over the edge I want to barf. But my group scouts out the trail beyond the curve and reassures me; it’s wider than it looks (4-6 feet across) and full of switchbacks, so even if I fell off the edge, I’d only go as far as the next ledge down. I don’t want to miss out on the views from below the rim, so I tighten the crampons on my boots, grip my hiking poles, and go for it.
We descend slowly, one switchback at a time. I’m a slower hiker on the descent, thanks to my knee injury history, but my hiking buddies are relaxed and no big rush. As we get beneath the rim, the views are stunning. We are up close to the rock face and can see the layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale in detail. The first mile and a half or so are icy, but it’s manageable with my crampons and poles. I’m comfortable in my base layer and nano-puff in the cool 40-something-degree shade. My boots begin to expose red earth beneath the white snow, and soon we’re hiking on sun-dried dirt again.
We rest briefly at the 1.5 mile rest stop, then continue to another 1.5 miles to the next one. My knee is yelling at me that every step down I take, I’ll need to take back up on the return trip. After descending 2,100 feet, I decide I’m good for the day. I wish I could keep going all the way to the riverbed and rest my legs at camp, but we’re only here for the day, and what goes down needs to come back up. The views of the river valley are a dream; I get why people become obsessed with this place and come back year after year. One can only imagine how much time could be spent hiking every trail, exploring every formation and never becoming bored. Caverns and valleys and portals and wormholes, what a theme for a trip. I feel blessed, as the kids say, to have experienced this week’s worth of adventure.
I’m pleasantly surprised by our swift uphill pace; the ascent is easier on my rickety knee joints and it feels good to put my muscles to the test (I’m basically a pack animal). We get off the trail around early afternoon and have a hot shower and a Santa Fe beer in our fridge to look forward to.
On our last evening in the national park, we go to Mohave Point to watch the sunset. The Colorado River is visible, and even from this distance, I can see the silvery water moving through the canyon. I stand back, just far enough from the minimal railing to keep my heart from racing. The temperature drops along with the sun, and I burrow into my coat, but I stand to watch as the winter sun descends lower and lower, washing the canyon in cool blues as a ribbon of tangerine lingers above the canyon walls, then fades away. Finally, I run back to the warmth of the car.
12 hours later, I pull my jeans on over long underwear and my puffy over my wool sweater, hide my bedhead under a knit cap, and run back outside to watch the sunrise. This time, the cool blues warm into soft pink. A rock formation in the distance catches the light first, and the yellow rays dance across its surface.
Is this traveling in middle age? I’m into this vibe of waking up early, hangover-free, to quietly watch a sunrise, then head back to bed to do my daily word puzzle.
We’re at the point in the trip where my packing cubes of dirty clothes start to outnumber clean clothes. Only one more state to go, and I get that wistful feeling where I don’t want vacation to end, even though I’m excited for the remaining plans that lay ahead. Onward.
We cruise through rural western Arizona. The desert gets more sparse and brown, far from the thickly wooded landscape in the northern end of the state. We make a stop at the Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs. I first heard of this place on Atlas Obscura, with its grotto and hotel suite located 200 feet below ground. We go on the guided tour, which features the rentable open-air hotel room, a mummified bobcat, and a cache of emergency supplies that’s been sitting there since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I haven’t driven to Las Vegas from Arizona since college, and I reminisce over the familiar scenery of Lake Mead Recreation Area. Good ol’ Las Vegas, my home in 1999. This final destination calls for a big-ass beer and a fresh KN95 up for a challenge.
The grand finale of our trip is our final Meow Wolf destination, Omega Mart. It’s located in Area 15, an immersive arts district inside a giant warehouse. The theme of this location is a grocery store where something went cosmically sideways. As with the other locations, wormholes and secret passageways abound. It’s easy to spend a ton of time in the grocery store entrance, where the attention to detail is extraordinary. Everything from the signage to the products to the tiniest details on their labels has an otherworldly, often hilarious twist. And you can buy many of the products; we purchased a snack pack of Dragon Arteries (red licorice bites) and a soda can of Gender Fluid (lemon-flavored sparkling water). As with the other installations, there’s a large main “world” that the passageways take you in and out of. Omega Mart also features three large metal slides, in case you’re looking for a quick getaway from the third level. Some of the rooms here, such as the Infinitizer, are a prime example of how Meow Wolf has grown in leaps in terms of merging technology with experience. I also discover my favorite room out of any Meow Wolf installation, a piece called “Pulse.”
Similar to Denver, there is a (free) card you can pick up to play the interactive game, which unlocks pieces of the storyline. And occasionally the story breaks through to the public; while we shop around the grocery store, the lights cut out and the television monitors are taken over by a group of insurgents looking to take down DramCorp, the evil family-owned conglomerate within this universe.
Omega Mart fills 52,000 square feet of exhibition space, closer in size to Convergence Station than House of Eternal Return. Once we’re satiated on our fill of parallel universes and trippy groceries (and I’ve spent enough at the two gift shops), we check out the rest of Area 15. A highlight is Birdly, a VR experience where you can get strapped into wings and soar through a virtual Chicago as a pigeon, or my personal choice, put on a wingsuit like in the Point Break remake and race through mountains trying to collect rings.
We’ve reached the end of our trip. I couldn’t have asked for a better time exploring alternate dimensions via immersive art and awe-inspiring wonders of nature. From Denver to Vegas, we’ve traveled up to 7,490 feet above sea level, down to 200 feet below ground. I’ve hiked on sacred lands as a grateful visitor, and enjoyed a collective vision of hundreds of artists’ rendition of an altered reality. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to travel, one that I do not take for granted, and I can’t wait to do more, as safely and responsibly as one can.
If you’ve never been to a Meow Wolf, I recommend visiting in chronological order (Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Denver) so you can see the scale increase with each installation. But also, time is precious and life is wild, so go in any order if that’s what it takes to get out there.
I spent days after our trip reading more about each exhibit, and learning the stories of the individual artists enhances the whole experience for me. For example, I loved learning about how Arapaho translations are incorporated into Convergence Station, and Erika T. Wurth’s vision for incorporating Native imagery into the story behind the room “Help Save My World.” And also learning that the room “Wheelchair Space Kitchen Time Portal” pays homage to the disability rights movement. You can visit each location dozens of times and still discover new meaning and insight.
The world is chaos. Stop and watch as many sunrises and sunsets as you can.
On our last morning in Asheville, we said goodbye to the neighborhood cat that we had bonded with on the front porch. I loved the character of our little rental home, from the stained glass art, reclaimed church pew, and rocking chairs of the front porch to the woven hammock and ivy on the patio.
We had one last breakfast in town and made a final stop at a thrift store/bar/rock ‘n roll wedding chapel that I wanted to check out. Our plan was to roughly split the 10-hour drive home over the next two days, picking a place to spend our last night somewhere along the way. It was a hot, humid day, with the temperature creeping close to 90 degrees. Each time we got back into the car, I welcomed the blast of arctic AC on my face.
It’s always a little bittersweet to point the car towards home, knowing that this is the furthest you get to go, until next time. Goodbye, Asheville! You showed us a great time, one we sorely needed. The sun climbed higher in the sky as we crossed the North Carolina border back into Tennessee. Our proximity to Gatlinburg was measurable by the increased frequency of weird billboards–“World’s Biggest Knife Shop!” “Underground Zip-Lining!” “Some sort of Pirate Show with Sexy Russian Ladies!” (we were driving fast so I may have misread that one).
As we neared Kentucky, we stopped at a gas station to refuel and begin researching a place to stop for the night. Kurt found an USACE-run campground near a lake where all the sites looked to be waterfront, which sounded promising until we learned that it was in a dry county. I wasn’t thrilled about enduring a hot sweaty final night in the tent totally sober, so we kept searching. Nearly every campground close to Mammoth Cave was booked up. It started to look like we’d have to spend the last night of our trip in a dog-friendly Holiday Inn. We kept the booking.com listing on the proverbial back burner as we got closer to Cave City, Kentucky.
With sunset approaching, it was time to make a decision. I could tell Kurt preferred the campground over a chain hotel, but was willing to go with the Holiday Inn to make me happy. This put me into decision paralysis and I couldn’t bring myself to click the booking button on the app on my phone. “Maybe we’ll find something here,” Kurt said, suddenly optimistic as we reached the heart of Cave City and started spotting motels along the highway. All of a sudden, we spotted a semi-circle of teepee-shaped structures with a big neon sign in front. It was a classic motel right out of the last midcentury, reminiscent of old Route 66.
We pulled into the parking lot and I was googling the motel when the owner spotted us and walked over. He happened to have one remaining vacancy, and dogs were allowed as long as they were friendly. River of course took this perfect opportunity to begin barking her face off at the stranger offering us shelter for the night. Before she could blow our chances, we took her out of the car to do a proper meet-and-greet, and she finally calmed down. The owner returned with the registration form so we could get checked in. As part of the check-in process, he gave us a brief historical talk about the motel. He and his wife were its newest owners as of last winter, and they were restoring each private room one by one, keeping all of the original bed frames, dressers, and furniture from the year 1937 when the motel first opened.
I am such a fanatic for vintage motels (one of the reasons why our Route 66 trip will always be near and dear to my heart). I love the way they feel like a time capsule to another time and tell us so much about the way we used to travel before airplanes became prevalent. The teepee private rooms were such a throwback to a time when America embraced kitsch and created attention-grabbing roadside attractions designed to lure in families from their wood-paneled station wagons. It was also a throwback to a time when America hadn’t heard of the phrase cultural appropriation, which the owners acknowledge and address on their website. The tradition that they hope to keep alive is that of the American road trip, and the nightly gathering of travelers in the grassy semi-circle outside where people could meet up and share their adventure tales.
Kurt and I grabbed an easy dinner at a hot dog stand where we could sit outside with River. When we got back to the motel, we settled in on the pair of adirondack chairs outside our room and cracked open a few Asheville beers. We soon got to talking to the friendly couple staying next to us, sharing stories of our trips. As the sun fully set, the motel owner brought out some bundles of wood to the big fire pit in the middle of the semi-circle. Once the fire was going, people began to take a seat at one of the nearby benches to enjoy the warmth. It’s easy to strike up conversation with strangers around a crackling fire, and we began to introduce ourselves and share our travel itineraries.
As it grew later, the parents and grandparents headed off to put kids to bed, and two women wandered over with a few cans of Truly in hand. Almost immediately, we began talking to them about classic cars and trading stories. They were from southern Indiana and we barely caught their names, but over the next few hours, we proceeded to bond over hilarious workplace horror stories, a shared love of Halloween costumes, and a few shots of Fireball. We talked about the past year and its challenges, and how we’re all not OK but trying to find our way back to something resembling normal, and by the end of the night, we’d spent over 3 hours laughing together and having a fantastic time remembering what it’s like to befriend someone new. Though we’ll never see them again, I’ll never forget meeting them and how fun that night had been. It felt like the last piece of the trip we’d needed without realizing it–a spontaneous moment of connection with people from some other place, passing through the same place during the same moment in time. It also reminded me that sometimes we’re the boost that someone else needs, and we may never know, but they’ll be forever grateful for those shared laughs.
We drove home on Saturday, reaching Chicago in the early afternoon. I think my favorite view of Chicago will forever be approaching downtown from the south side, headed north on the Dan Ryan, with the skyline laid out in a full panorama view. It reminds me of sleeping in the backseat late on the Christmas Eve nights of my childhood, headed home from our cousins’ house filled with family and noise and celebration. This view fills me with so many warm memories of return trips home.
And then, home. Time to unpack, go through the mail, water the plants, and enjoy some bourbon.
Among the things I craved the most during lockdown, chief among them traveling, karaoke bars, and lingering in coffee shops, I really missed brunch. I don’t care if that reveals my inner “rosé all day” basicness, but come on, who doesn’t love a big plate of fluffy eggs and biscuits and bacon that you didn’t have to make yourself, paired with alcohol before that noon in a judgement-free zone? With River tagging along, we went to Sunny Point Café, a dog-friendly brunch spot. Our outdoor table was situated next to the community garden, which was a charming spot in which to enjoy our delicious Southern breakfast. If you know me in real life, you know I that I am a Midwestern woodland creature who relishes the changing of seasons and thrives in winter, but I can admit that there a lot of advantages to year-round warm weather, including the abundance of beautiful outdoor patios and beer gardens that Asheville offers.
Once we stuffed ourselves full of pimiento cheese, grits, and bacon, we headed closer to the city center with no real plans for the day other than to explore, window shop, and try some local beers. We had purposely planned a trip that would be predominantly outdoors, for the dual purpose of staying covid-safe and also being able to bring River everywhere with us. At the time of our trip, most Asheville businesses required workers to wear masks, and asked any non-vaccinated patrons to wear them as well. We stopped at the Dog Door, Asheville’s official Dog Welcome Center, and got some free treats, poop bags, and a map of dog-friendly businesses. If you love dogs, craft beer, and hiking, I highly recommend visiting Asheville. After about half a day I was ready to move there and open a dog t-shirt store. Over the afternoon, River got a new space dog-themed collar, treats, squeaky toy, and flotation device to replace her old moldy one. Between Kentucky and Asheville, it’s a toss-up whether we spent more money on bourbon or dog stuff.
For a “rest” day, we still did a ton of walking as we meandered around town, wandered in and out of stores, and sought out breweries on our to-do list. After some Carolina BBQ for dinner, eaten on a dog-friendly outdoor patio, we ended up at a riverfront brewery called Zillocoah, where we had a few pints at a picnic table alongside the French Broad River.
Thursday, June 3: Inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Appreciation Day
As I mentioned earlier, I was obsessed with the movie The Last of the Mohicans at a formative age, so when I learned that the climactic chase scene was filmed at the nearby Chimney Rock State Park, it ended up my must-see list. Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows that this is what I’m like and I’ll go 40 minutes out of my way just to visit the donut shop from Boogie Nights, or even devote an entire day in Scotland to riding the Hogwarts Express.
We woke up early to start the 50-minute drive to Chimney Rock. I wished that we had longer than a week off, as there were so many beautiful spots and trails that we would’ve loved to check out. The area just outside the state park looked well-equipped to accommodate lots of tourists, as RV parks and souvenir stores lined the road. My personal favorite piece of art was the side of a building decorated with the silhouette of Big Foot holding up Baby from Dirty Dancing (nearby Lake Lure was the shooting location for the iconic lift practice scene).
There are 6 trails in Chimney Rock State Park, and the one on my list was the Hickory Nut Trails Fall, which took us to the base of the 404-ft-tall waterfall from The Last of the Mohicans. If you’ve seen the movie, this is where Uncas is killed and where Alice jumps off the cliffside in her grief/to escape Magua for good (sorry, no spoiler alerts for something we all read in high school). This is a very dramatic and emotional part of the film, heightened by the striking location. The trail was a quick ‘n easy 1.4 miles out and back, mostly through the woods until the view opens up to the stunning sight of the waterfall. This also marked the first warm and humid day of our trip, and my sunglasses began to fog up as I sweated through my t-shirt.
The view of the waterfall was well worth the trip. From the base, you could look up and see the sheer drop-off where the river cascades over the rock face over 28 stories above. A small traffic jam of hikers built up on the viewing platform, so we took our photos and then moved on.
The state park gets its name from the 315-ft rock formation whose likeness is often used to promote North Carolina tourism. You can get to the top of Chimney Rock by either taking a 494-step staircase, or cheat and jump on an elevator built inside the mountain. Dogs were not allowed in the elevator, and River has an aversion to wood staircases (which we once learned the hard way at Starved Rock), so Kurt and I took turns waiting with her while the other rode the elevator to the top. I went first, and was delighted when the elevator doors opened to reveal a gift shop and concession stand at the 535-million-year-old rock formation (I love finding gift shops in unexpected places, with my ultimate fave being the one at the bottom of Carlsbad Cavern).
Since the Skyline Trail wasn’t going to be doable with River, we wrapped up our day at the state park and drove back towards Asheville. We decided to check out the Biltmore, the biggest house in America and former home of George Vanderbilt. I have general “eat the rich” feelings but I also love extravagant real estate porn, and the final scene of There Will be Blood was filmed in the Biltmore’s bowling alley. Hence, our day became an inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Acting Appreciation Day.
We bought the grounds pass to do an outdoor tour. The humidity had increased to the point that the sky felt pregnant with rain, and I started feeling a little cranky and regretful about the cost of two day passes as we joined the swarm of sweaty tourists. But then we reached the Conservatory, and my emotions did a total 180 as I discovered the Biltmore Gardens Railway. I adore model train sets, and a dream hobby of mine is to someday build my own miniature towns. The model train tracks traveled from room to room of the expansive conservatory, winding around hothouse flowers and succulents, stopping at miniature replicas of train stations and stables, and included a replica of the Biltmore itself. The elaborate display was immersive and charming and whimsical, and it gave me that kind of magical feeling of wonder that’s so hard to experience post-childhood as a cynical adult. I honestly could’ve spent an entire day in that Conservatory, watching that train go on its botanical journey.
We got through the rest of the grounds tour without getting rained on, and that same feeling of wonder continued as we walked around the outside of the estate and under the canopy made from real trees. From the back of the house, standing behind a legit turret, we took in an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I couldn’t imagine living on the precipice of that extraordinary view; it’s gotta be nice to be disgustingly wealthy.
We capped off our day with some really good BBQ from a food truck, then embarked on our final brewery crawl of our Asheville stay. Booo, why can’t vacation last forever? Our last two beer garden stops were my two favorites: the Funkatorium, followed by Burial Brewing. At the latter, I had the joy of going up to order a pint of a Symptom of Progeny and a Portrait of Discombobulated Sanctimony. Sitting outside at the picnic table, with River curled up under the patio lights, listening to the background chatter of other patrons, I thought about how grateful I was for the return to travel. In two days in Asheville, we had gone out more than in the entire previous 14 months combined, and it felt pretty amazing.
Monday, May 31 – Tuesday, June 1, 2021: We arrive at our final destination–North Carolina
After our day on the river, a three hour drive laid ahead. We had reserved a campsite on the far eastern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kurt did most of the driving, so I DJed our road trip tunes while we soared above gorges and disappeared into long mountain tunnels. We clapped for River at the border of Tennessee (a new state for her!) and for me at the border of North Carolina (a new state for me!).
Our reserved site was in the Cataloochee campground, one of two dog-friendly campgrounds within the national park. We stopped for USDA-stamped fire-treated firewood just outside the valley, per the strictly enforced park rules, then began the nerve-wracking (for me anyway) drive up into the mountains via a narrow gravel road made up of switchback after switchback and blind curves with steep drop-offs. I am as bad a passenger as I am a nervous driver (lucky Kurt!), so he had to deal with two whining creatures in the car until we finally reached smooth pavement with two distinct lanes.
Our night in Cataloochee was mostly quiet and relaxing, as we rested our muscles by the fire after our long day of paddling. In the morning, we woke up the sounds of the other campers around us rustling around their sites, making breakfast, getting their kids ready for the day. Nearly everyone staying in this campground had a dog with them, and I enjoyed watching others play with their pups and take them out for morning walks as I sipped my coffee.
My favorite types of trips blend camping and outdoor exploration with experiencing a new city, and after 3 nights in a tent post-hiking and kayaking, I was ready for a shower. We packed up camp and made our way back up the winding gravel road. We had reserved an Airbnb in Asheville, only an hour away, but the checkin time wasn’t until the late afternoon due to covid cleaning protocol, so we had lots of time to fill.
When there’s plenty of time on hand, it’s nice to take the scenic route. We jumped onto the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, a.k.a. heaven for motorcyclists. For a few leisurely hours, we drove along mountain roads that climbed up the Ridge and disappeared into dark mountain tunnels that opened up to blue sky. We pulled over at multiple scenic vistas to take photos and take in the gorgeous views, including a glimpse of the Devil’s Courthouse, a new personal fave when it comes to names of rock formations.
OK so I should mention that an ongoing part of our North Carolina trip was my constant referencing of the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Michael Mann. For some reason, my friend and I were obsessed with this movie when we were in eighth grade. Though the film was set in the region that would become upstate New York, it was actually filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I revisited the movie and treated Kurt to countless impressions of Daniel Day-Lewis saying to Madeleine Stowe “I’m looking at you, miss.” Kurt patiently indulged me as I played the film score via Spotify multiple times over the course of the week. (If this hasn’t been enough mentions of this random 1992 movie for you, don’t worry! There’s going to be more once we get to Chimney Rock.)
After our scenic detour, we still had some time to kill so we jumped right into checking out Asheville’s brewery scene. This was the first time on our trip that we were truly rejoining civilization in a post-lockdown world, but Asheville has so many outdoor dog-friendly patios, it was a nice way to dip my toe back into going out. We started at Bhramari Brewing Company before getting our next pint and eats at Wicked Weed. Each place we went, our servers offered a fresh bowl of water for River, who lazed under our table in the shade. Asheville’s craft beer scene includes a lot of breweries specializing sour beers, a personal favorite of Kurt’s and mine.
We stocked up at the Wicked Weed bottle shop then checked into our rental house on the northern side of the city. The outdoor patio featured a hammock, where Kurt hung out to enjoy a beer while making friends with a neighborhood cat. I caught up on Mare of Easttown on the iPad while running a load of laundry so we wouldn’t smell like campfire for the city life portion of our trip.
Monday, May 31, 2021: Paddling the Cumberland River
The owner of the campground we stayed at recommended a 14-mile stretch of the Cumberland River as a perfect day trip. “I can tell you guys are experienced, so you’ll really enjoy it,” he said as he sized up the kayak and solo canoe strapped to our car. These words always make me a little nervous. What does any given person consider “experienced”? Our annual canoe trip is on a river so slow and placid that if you lost your boat, you could walk back to camp along the sandy river bottom.
We prepared our boats at the launch right on the campground, while the owner led Kurt 14 miles down the river to the takeout spot where he could park the car. I kept hearing the takeout spot referred to as Cumberland Falls Resort. Apparently the resort included a lodge so big, it would be impossible to miss.
“So, are we on the bottom of the falls?” I asked Kurt right before we pushed off. “No, we’re at the top,” he said.
“By the way,” the campground owner told us before he drove off, “when you hit that first patch of white water, keep to the left. But you guys will be fine; you’re experienced!”
“What?!” My mind immediately jumped to the image of the Great Northern Hotel located right next to the giant Snoqualmie Falls from the opening credits of Twin Peaks. “So if we miss our takeout point, we die in a giant waterfall?!” Sometimes I think I should name my travel blog The Anxious Adventurer because my mind is always calculating all the possible chances of death. I like to think that I just have a strong sense of self-preservation, but in comparison to Kurt, I am a natural worrier.
We started our trip, with Kurt in the solo canoe with River, and me in the kayak. The sun was out, the sky clear and blue, and the weather warmed quickly. It was a perfect day to be out on the water.
I had my waterproof speaker bungeed to the top of my kayak, and I played my favorite summer playlist of AM Gold as we floated along. The scenery was gorgeous; both sides of the river are flanked by the National Forest. The campground owner had told us that he spotted a black bear and her two cubs on the river bank the last time he went canoeing. I relaxed into the day, drinking in the sun and landscape.
The first white water appeared early on, and we remembered the instructions to stay left. As I paddled my way over, even the left side of the river looked dotted by rocks. I did my best to navigate around the largest boulders, pointing the nose of my boat towards the smoother spots between riffles where the water broke over underwater rocks. Still, I felt the sides of the boat come into contact with rocks that shifted me sideways. I straightened out just in time to see the water level drop about a foot over a ridge. I rode over it, then looked backwards for Kurt.
“That was fun!” said Kurt, while River looked skeptical in her doggie life vest.
And so went the rest of the 14 miles, alternating stretches of serene water, occasionally broken up by light white water. As I got more confident navigating the boulders, it became a lot more fun. Still, the low key anxiety in the back of my mind lingered as we got closer to the falls. I pumped Kurt for more information, asking about the accessibility of the boat launch and the speed of the current near the resort. He assured me that it was calm water and an easy takeout compared to other spots we’d paddled in the past where we’d blown past our exit. There have to be warning signs posted, I thought to myself.
I noticed as we paddled along that hardly anyone else was out on the river. We’d only seen two other groups of boaters all day, on a holiday weekend, no less. In Wisconsin, we were used to sharing the water with dozens of groups and tubing party brigades. Having the place to ourselves was awesome and just a tiny bit concerning, because again, I worry a lot. During a serene stretch of river, I heard a strange noise coming from the forest. I turned off my my music to listen, and heard it again. A loud staccato burst of noise reverberated from the woods, followed by quiet. It sounded like a woodpecker the size of a T-rex.
As we got closer to the resort, we heard more people in the woods. A friendly man setting up camping chairs on the bank with his wife shouted an entire conversation at us, politely inquiring about our day before asking if we were going to the Falls. He didn’t seem concerned or warn us about a potential death plunge, so I chalked that up to a positive. At another point, we heard a group of young people racing four-wheelers just beyond the trees, while a girl screamed her friend’s name.
“If we lived here, I’d be doing that,” said Kurt.
“I’d be the girl screaming,” I replied.
As we reached the final 180 curve that Kurt had noted as a landmark, we started keeping an eye out for the resort. It loomed ahead, just beyond a bridge. Kurt told me that the landing would be directly past the bridge on the right, so we attempted to paddle over, but things suddenly got a bit dicey. A patch of swirling water started spinning us out and away to the left. I watched Kurt and the canoe get pushed closer to the left bank, so I gave in to the inevitable and literally went with the flow. The water pushed me onto a large flat boulder and I was grounded for a brief moment, but I was able to scooch myself off and back into enough water to float me over. We got passed the eddies, and the water smoothed out all the way to the bridge. We hugged the right river bank, searching for the takeout point. From what Kurt had seen when he dropped off the car earlier, it was a clear and easy ramp, but we couldn’t see it from the vantage point of the water.
“Maybe we need to go a little bit farther?” Kurt asked, and my heart started to speed up.
“I thought you said it was right next to the bridge.” The resort was situated up the high river bank, and tons of people sauntered along the sidewalk just beyond a wooden fence. “Maybe we should ask someone.”
“Hey!” Kurt shouted to a man nearby. “Do you know if the boat ramp is nearby, or is it further down?”
“I have no idea!” he shouted back. “But you know there’s a waterfall coming up?”
“Exactly my concern!” I replied, grimacing.
A group of ducks floated just ahead of us, and we noticed that they disappeared behind some tall grass along the bank. Aha! We paddled closer, and finally spotted the gradual dirt ramp emerging from the water that had been hidden behind the grass. I sped up, paddling my way to solid ground with relief.
Once we’d dealt with strapping both boats back onto the car, we took a walk further downriver to check out the waters. A Memorial Day crowd packed the parking lot and sidewalks, and dozens of motorcycles slow-rolled past while looking for spots. We passed the gift shop and concessions to make our way to the viewing platform, and finally saw the Cumberland Falls–all 70 feet of it, just under 200 yards away from where we took out our boats. My anxiety rests its case.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”