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.

Asheville Road Trip: Indiana and Kentucky

Friday, May 28, 2021: IL – IN

I can’t keep track of how many trips we’ve canceled or postponed since March 2020. Leading into the departure date of our Southern road trip, when friends asked me if I was excited, I typically responded “I still won’t believe we’re going until we cross our first state line.” As I started packing my clothes, I felt like I’d forgotten all of my usual techniques and was forgetting half of my necessities.

Kurt and I finished work on a Friday afternoon, then began packing the car, and that felt slow-going and strange as well. It took two hours to get our gear loaded, then strap the canoe and kayak to the rack, as we searched the house for a misplaced bag of ropes. We locked up the house, loaded our dog River then ourselves into the Subaru, got on the expressway…then sat in gridlock traffic in the pouring rain for two more hours. Vacation!!!

Then finally, the road opened up, the rain lightened, and we stretched our cramped and atrophied wanderlusting souls across the Indiana landscape as we flew through a field of wind turbines, their red lights blinking in unison at us like an affirmation. Believe me, no one has romanticized the state of Indiana more than I did in that moment.* This past year has been a LOT, on the global and personal level, and I needed to do something again that helped me remember my true self, and that thing was eating a Wendy’s chicken sandwich off my lap while traveling 75 miles per hour.

We reached our hotel in southern Indiana just before midnight. We had a pet-friendly room, and River was overwhelmed by all of the smells of her first hotel stay (she could not stop zig-zagging to new spots on the carpet, which only made me more suspect of how gross this place must be). The artwork in our room had an addendum left by a recent guest, who scribbled “Legalize it” in paint pen across the bottom of a pastel landscape. Ah, vacation. I’m so happy to finally be here.

*maybe John Cougar Mellencamp

Saturday, May 29, 2021: IN – KY

After we crossed the state border into Kentucky, a light rain returned and the temperature hovered in the high 40s. We sailed through Louisville early, making our way towards our planned destination for the next few days, Daniel Boone National Forest. But first, we needed to make at least one stop on the Bourbon Trail. As we traveled down a windy road lined by horse farms, I queued up Elvis Presley’s “In the Cold Kentucky Rain” on Spotify. Kurt and I took turns checking out the gift shop and exploring the picturesque grounds with River. We noticed that the tasting line died down, so we wandered over for a midday bourbon cocktail, as one does. The bartender provided River with some dog treats and a copper dog bowl to match our Kentucky Mule and Classic Old Fashioned.

A white dog with pointy ears sits in front a brown wood barrel on a wood porch. The name "Woodford Reserve" appears on the side of the barrel.

After putting some BBQ in our bellies, we continued southeast. Watching the landscape rush by my window, I loved how even the trees look different whenever I visit a region outside the Midwest. The road curved around mountains and across bridges spanning river gorges. When we reached our destination, the familiar ’60s-style brown and yellow National Forest sign greeted us. Vacation was really truly happening.

We drove up and down gravel forestry roads looking for a good spot to do some dispersed camping for the night, but as the sun grew low and the best-looking options had already been claimed, we pulled over to the side of the road to regroup. Not one, but two cars pulled up next to us to see if we needed any help; people are definitely friendly around here. I found a nearby primitive site on private land on HipCamp.com, so we booked it and headed over. We drove along winding country roads until we reached the Kentucky barn described in the listing. The property owner greeted us then led the way to the site on his John Deere, checking with us first to make sure we had all-wheel drive. He guided us to a forest clearing at the top of a hill at the end of a long private road, complete with a fire ring and picnic table, all we needed. Surrounded by thick trees and with the nearest site way down at the foot of the hill, we had total privacy.

I stepped into my usual job of setting up the tent and unrolling our bedding, while Kurt prepped his outdoor kitchen and started a campfire. After our dinner of chicken burritos, a light sprinkling of rain returned–not enough to send us into the tent, but just enough to block out the stars. We stayed by the campfire drinking wine for a while longer until eventually calling it a night. I cuddled into my sleeping bag, listening to the soft rain and the moo of nearby cows, looking forward to a week of adventures. I just hoped I got all the ticks off of River first.

A camping scene: In the foreground, there is a campfire with two folding chairs set up nearby. In the background, a gray and orange domed tent is set up in front of a Subaru with a kayak strapped to the roof rack. On the right, a man stands over a picnic table cooking on a portable stovetop.

I’m Pretty Sure We Partied

There’s a 15-second snippet of a song that I think about often, its melody entangled with a memory that gives me joy. I only know the brief sample, which I captured in an Instagram video back in March 2019 during a night out in Nashville. It was a Saturday night in a hipster bar in where my friends and I were roughly 15 years older than everyone else. A local band was performing, and instructed the crowd to lie on the floor and wait for a surprise, which turned out to be a balloon drop. We laid on the floor of a divey club watching balloons float down onto us, then batted them while the lead singer crawled across the stage, singing her heart out. It was one of those magical nights when you’re so fully in the moment, feeling pure joy and life in every cell of your body, you want to live in that happy space forever, and all I know of that song is the 15 seconds. I’ve searched the internet for a track or even a title, but with no luck; for now, I only have what lives in my head and my IG video.

This same scenario played out in an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete from 1994. In “Hard Day’s Pete,” Little Pete encounters a garage band playing a song that instantly gets its hooks in him, living in his head for days afterwards. He goes back to the same house later to try and find the band again, but the garage is empty. As time passes, the memory of the song in his head begins to fade, and Little Pete becomes desperate to find out the title before he loses it completely.

I’m experiencing a similar feeling as Little Pete, but what I’m trying to keep a tenuous hold on is the memory of spontaneous joy. Don’t get me wrong, I am abundantly grateful for everything Kurt and I have been lucky to have throughout this pandemic– each other’s company, employment, a cozy house, good health. I’ve even relished my weekends with zero plans beyond eating a big pancake breakfast, reading books while curled up on the couch, and getting some quality time on my yoga mat. Although I’ve basically turned into a pair of sentient sweatpants, my life has been quiet but full of stability.

But there’s something I miss desperately, along with seeing my family and friends, and travel and karaoke bars and movie theaters and airport bookstores and coffee shops and pedicures and music fests. I miss those spontaneous moments like in that bar in Nashville, when the night takes you somewhere unexpected, and suddenly you are having so much fun that you and your friends are all doubled over with the same belly laughs, tears in the corners of your eyes, experiencing that joy together, completely present in that moment. It’s hard to muster up that level of emotional connection during a Zoom call.

Even as an INFJ/ Enneagram 9/ Ravenclaw well-equipped to embrace a stay-at-home life of books and blankets and watching the snow fall, I’m clawing at the seams at the smallness of pandemic life. Sure I can cope, and continue eating big pancake breakfasts on Saturday mornings and taking my dog for long walks, but to quote the Disney princess I get most often matched with in Buzzfeed quizzes, there must be more than this provincial life.

For the time being, I keep going back to music and the memory of hearing it live, lost in the crowd with a beer in one hand, the speaker towers pulsing with sound, and the floors sticky beneath the soles of my shoes (shoes!! I remember those). I yearn to get sweaty from dancing in place, bumping into the elbows of strangers. Oh, to scream “woo!” at the top of one’s lungs! I want to live inside a Hold Steady song. I want to sing-shout the words to “Killer Parties” back at the band. “If she says we partied, then I’m pretty sure we partied. I really don’t remember. I remember we departed from our bodies. We woke up in Ybor City...”

It’s a New Year, Hold My Caboodles

I started the New Year in a cabin next to a frozen lake. After spending two major holidays at home, just Kurt and me, I wanted a change of scenery for New Year’s Eve. I found a private pet-friendly lakeside cabin with covid-safe protocols on Airbnb, so we packed an overnight bag and brought River and spent two days and nights relaxing, soaking in an outdoor hot tub while snowflakes melted on our heads, and watching the lake freeze over while flocks of geese came and went. We hiked on frozen ice and through calf-deep snow, enjoying the quiet serenity, living our best Elsa-living-in-self-imposed-wintry-solitude life.

A lake on a wintry day. The foreground is a snow-covered layer of ice over the water. In the background, the water is gray-blue, mirroring the sky. In the distance, a flock of geese float near the edge of ice.

It was a blissful break from the ramped-up chaos that was the end of 2020. Between the most hectic time of year at work and cumulative months of pandemic fatigue, my soul was a wrung-out dishrag by the time Christmas arrived. I was grateful for a moment of peace.

As we all know, that fresh New Year’s smell wore off super fast, 6 days into 2021. A sickening feeling washed over me as I watched the events unfold live on CNN. I felt disgusted to my core as insurrectionists strolled right into the Capitol, the polar opposite of the brute force and militarized presence unleashed upon Black Live Matter protestors all of last summer. While scanning social media days later, I feel like we’re simultaneously living on two different planets as I cannot fathom how anyone can stand by the events of Jan. 6. It makes me simultaneously furious and deeply sad, mortified and terrified. I had approached the new year with cautiously optimistic hopes that things would get better, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. But this first week just ended up being a reminder that, like with 2020, I cannot possibly begin to fathom what the future holds.

I typically love making a list of New Years resolutions (“In 2020, try a new restaurant every month,” lol sweet summer child me from 1/1/2020). This year, I’m holding onto a single concept–focus on my energy. When I am mentally exhausted, how am I depleting my energy–endless doomscrolling?–and how can I redirect it in a way that replenishes me. When does my energy become dark and small, and when does it become joyful and boundless? When does it feel most at peace? Lately, it’s been when I’m making soy wax candles while wearing a cozy fishermen’s sweater and listening to “Folklore” as covid-era life has made me go full cottagecore. When does it feel strong and healthy? I worked out 221 days in 2020, and obtaining the lower body strength of a cartoon centaur is one of my few accomplishments for the year.

These times are so chaotic, and there’s so little control I have over anything outside of myself, but I can at least make sure I’m focusing my energy in directions that give me sense of purpose and don’t leave me deflated. My natural tendency when things get stressful is to retreat into my personal Fortress of Solitude with my pets and a mugful of coffee and a doorstopper fantasy novel. (Good friends know that I must be especially stressed when I’m doing a rewatch of any fantasy series or movie that features dragons). I’ve become adept at compartmentalizing my fear, anger, and frustrations in the Caboodles of my soul, but as was inevitable, each drawer filled up quickly in late 2020 and carrying this thing with me will make the sleepover party a real bummer for everyone.

So I’ll keep reading 900-page novels about kings, queens, pirates, and dragons. I’ll keep exercising, practicing yoga, taking care of my health, and reflecting on the many things in my life I’m grateful for. I’ll definitely keep going on long winter walks. The cold never bothered me anyway.

Under the Table

We’re back in hibernation, due to both a terrifying covid spike across the country and to winter weather in general. I’m half Wildling and full Chicagoan which means that not only do I typically thrive in winter weather, I also love to boast about it. But this year is obviously quite different–no football games and tailgate parties, no cozy game nights with friends, no weekend matinees at the movie theater while a snowstorm rages outside. A slow creeping dread overwhelms me when I think of not being able to see my family for the holidays. I have roughly 1,000 family members, and I am heartbroken over the thought of a Christmas without a table stacked with turkey, lechon, lumpia, all the sides, five different desserts including a chocolate cake that a real American hero picked up from Portillo’s, while dozens of people cluster around the table to jockey for a good spot and fill the house with voices. 

I’ve been leaning into familiar habits, favorite movies, and hygge culture for comfort, exhausting every Nordic folk rock playlist on Spotify, becoming an emerging pro at differentiating Icelandic blues from Norwegicana. Also, I started making hand poured soy wax candles, which is the coziest of pandemic hobbies (if this is something you’d like to follow along on, my candlemaker Insta handle is @byriverandroads).

My mind feels scattered and random: should I go back to school and study Medieval History, or do I just secretly want to rewatch The Witcher? Should I learn the dance from the Britney “Slave 4 U” video or Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”? Can my knee even handle the “Body” dance? A ghost definitely finished that box of wine, right?

I was driving home from an appointment recently on an unseasonably warm, sunny day, when a Dave Matthews Band song came onto the radio. DMB is one of those bands I stopped caring about the second the ink dried on my high school diploma, but in that moment, the sun felt warm on my skin, the air smelled crisp and fresh, and I was in a suddenly joyful mood. So I cranked that shit, singing along, remembering every word from senior year, mimicking every idiosyncratic inflection of Dave’s voice. “Goes to visit his mommy/ feeds him well, his concerns, he forgets them/ and remembers bein’ small/ playing under the table and dreamin’.” Nostalgia is a hell of a drug these days, and I’m not sure if it’s because of my age or this pandemic or the double whammy of both, but I can be absolutely floored by the opening notes to a Sheryl Crow song I totally forgot ever existed. I’m at the point where I’ve lived a long time, but I’m not quite old yet. I’m older, for sure, but I hope to still have a good stretch left laying out ahead of me. I have taken it for granted that for the most part, during my little ants-marching sized life, I’ve expected a certain level of consistency. I never once thought that there would be a time I couldn’t get on an airplane and go somewhere that I wanted to go. I didn’t think I’d have to view my newborn niece for the first time through the glass window of my sister’s back porch. I never thought that I’d be terrified of the thought of a crowded restaurant. No wonder a Dave Matthews Band song from 1994 was such a comfort to me for those four minutes of driving in surprise sunshine. I sang along with the radio with my whole body, nodding my head along to the drumbeat, shimmying my shoulders to the fiddle solo. For a few minutes, I could be 17 years old riding around in my best friend’s Geo metro, wandering without a destination, playing under the table and dreaming.

Seasons

It’s officially fall. The air smells like a new season, the sun sets earlier, and our bedroom is a shade darker each morning  when our alarm clock goes off. I love this time of year, but I’m scared of this particular fall. With the cooler nights and the darker mornings, a tinge of malaise has settled over me. We all have pandemic fatigue. We were promised at the beginning that this would pass–that the strict lockdown in March and April would curb the spread, allowing for a normal summer. Then summer passed, its golden glow creeping further away into the horizon, leaving me here.

I felt like I was able to carve out a semblance of a summer despite the pandemic, mostly because so many of my typical summer plans involve getting away from people. We went camping, sleeping in thick forests swarming with more mosquitos than mammals, and kayaked on lazy rolling rivers. Thanks to some coordinated covid testing and a lot of planning flexibility, we were able to spend part of our usual annual week at the lake house with my family. The lake house is one of my favorite annual traditions, and though Kurt and I only got to stay there for 3 nights instead of the usual 7 due to the testing waiting period, it was well worth it. We  sat by campfires, cracking open cold beers while gazing over the flames at the sun setting over the lake, and I felt a semblance of peace. I can get through this year, as long as these moments can still exist, whenever I can make them happen. I hold them close, savoring their fleeting sense of beautiful normalcy, like capturing fireflies in mason jars and watching them glow before setting them free.

Fall has an uncanny ability to make me feel wistfully lonely. Maybe it’s the muscle memory of returning to school, all of those awkward adolescent years when I craved a John Hughes vision of what high school was supposed to look like while forever feeling outside of it all. Maybe it’s the sense memory of my recovery from knee surgery 8 years ago, when I went through one of the deepest depressions of my adult life, spending every day and night on the same corner of the couch while watching the leaves fall outside, grieving my temporary ‘new normal.’ That was the season we adopted River, who became my buddy in anxiety and isolation. She would curl her furry little body around my knee brace, tucked between me and the CPM machine (my daily therapeutic torture device) on the couch. The sight of changing leaves immediately brings back the memory of the CPM machine as it flexed my knee for me, its creaky pneumatic wheeze creeping into the background soundtrack of my Twin Peaks rewatch. 

This winter is going to be hard. We’re going to feel isolated, and alone, and anxious. It will end, at some point. The days will grow long again; the sun will return. The changing of the seasons will cycle through, as they always do, marking time in a physical, visible, immersive way that feels so familiar and vital. 

This fall, we have a second dog. It’s funny how it happened this way–we adopted Winnie in mid-August, one day after River’s 8th adoption anniversary. Winnie is floppy and goofy, somewhere between 8 months to 1.5 years old, mostly pit bull but has a snore that sounds like a manatee. We drove home with her on a late summer evening, Kurt at the wheel while I sat in the backseat holding Winnie, because we didn’t know if she’d try to climb over the seat or not. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a puppy in the house, the need to constantly watch her, the mystery of not knowing how she’ll react to all her firsts–the first visitor at the door, the first car trip, the first run-in with another leashed dog. I worried about how River and our cat Esteban would react as the days went by. I worried that I had blown up our peaceful routine, introducing 44 pounds of chaos in an adorably cute, velvet-furred package. Quickly, we had to restructure our lives into a schedule that involved obedience training, solo walks for River, playtime for Winnie, crate training, socialization, puppy-level exercise. I had some meltdowns. At times, I feared it wouldn’t work out. Days passed, and it got a little easier. A little bit better. Summer melted into fall.

I’ve been so focused on my little corner of chaos, so much of what is going on the world has faded into the background. But once I leave my house, I emerge into an altered reality. The other pedestrians wear masks, and we make wide circles as we pass each other. Businesses have boards over their windows. More and more homes in our neighborhood display Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, many of them homemade. And these early days of October have already been so jam-packed with major news events, this post will be outdated within minutes of me clicking Publish. I can only imagine that the coming months will continue to be some of the wildest, most unpredictable times we’ve ever witnessed. And eventually, the season will change again. 

 

photo by Kurt Matsen

Celebrating a Birthday While on Pause

I turn 41 today. Exactly one year ago, I woke up next to Lake Thunderbird on a beautiful sunny morning in Oklahoma, had a wonderful brunch, then drove to Amarillo, Texas while dancing in my seat to Lizzo, my birthday twin. That day overflowed with joy and sunshine and roadtrip tunes, capped up with a night of ice-cold Shiner Bock and jukebox deejaying at a zombie-themed bar. Late into the night, Kurt and I sat on the front porch of our Airbnb, drinking local beers and watching heat lightning zig-zap across the vast Texas sky. The next day, we’d be back on the road to Roswell, New Mexico. This year, I’m  grounded.

Cheers!

We always travel in the spring, due to the convergence of my birthday and our anniversary. It feels strange to be sitting at home right now, scrolling past Facebook memories and knowing exactly what place we were visiting on this day last year, two years ago, five years ago.

I’m someone that likes living in the shoulder seasons. I’m trying to appreciate the quiet, lean into the pause. I find a lot of contentment in burrowing into my home life and surrounding myself with books and hot coffee and dog nuzzles. Days turn into nights, nights turn into a wine blur. All time feels like airplane time, when you’re passing through time zones, warping ahead or falling behind, and you watch dumb movies during this weird slippery gap in time because it’s not really real life. It feels especially strange to celebrate a concrete mile marker like a birthday right now. Sometimes I daydream about catching a wormhole out of this weird, seemingly never-ending flight and traveling back in time to the beginning of 40, waking up the camper and peeking beneath the window shade to see the sunlight glittering on the surface of the lake.

I got to experience so many incredible things in my 40th year. I visited three new states and a new country. I stood inside the ruins of an ancient village that was last inhabited in 1000 A.D., and in the last few months, I witnessed the rapid escalation of a global pandemic that has affected the daily lives of nearly every person on this planet. If there’s one thing I feel confident in saying, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what to expect in my 41st year. I am so grateful for every moment, every place I visited, every person with whom I shared every minute of my year of 40. I feel grateful and lucky to be here now, however weird and precarious this stretch of time may be.

 

Shelter in Place Diaries

When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my family took our first big vacation to Los Angeles, which is also my birthplace. The trip was two weeks of sun-drenched recreation: Disneyland, ice cream cones, face paint, and poolside dance parties to the Chipmunk Adventure soundtrack. When we returned home, I remember laying in my darkened bedroom in suburban Chicagoland, the light pouring through the crack of the door from the hallway, and feeling my heart hurt. I was homesick for another place, invisible strings tugging at my soul, telling me I belonged out west. It was my first ever post-vacation depression. I longed so badly to be back in California that the pain manifested physically, a dull ache filling my chest.

In early March, I woke up one Sunday morning in a listless, melancholy mood. It was still the Before Times, but not for much longer–in a few short days, the NBA season would get cancelled and the dominos of normal daily life would start falling. Though I had no idea of just how much the world was about to change, I had the oddest sense of homesickness for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It reminded me so much of that childhood emotion of being overwhelmed with longing for a perfect memory.

Several weeks into Chicago’s shelter-in-place directive, the shock has worn off and I am now feeling the mundanity of day to day life in the time of COVID. There are so many things I miss, and I can’t wait until the day that I can once again go to a bar and sing karaoke with all of my friends and whoop it up with strangers while losing our minds over a Miley Cyrus song. My anxiety has dissipated into a yearning restlessness, a homesickness for my old life. I want to jump into the van and drive and drive with the windows rolled down and 70s rock pouring out of the speakers. I want to keep going until we land somewhere beautiful, at the foothills of a mountain range or alongside an alpine lake.

Of course, I can’t do those things right now, so I’m leaning into this quiet little life at home. As I remember from my housebound days post-knee surgery several years ago, a good key to batting back the sadness is to find little pleasures throughout the day that give you joy. Or as Agent Dale Cooper once wisely said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan for it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

I am pretty excellent at giving myself little presents, many of them mementos from past trips. Big, leisurely pancake breakfasts on weekends. Playing records and enjoying the crackle of vinyl and swatches of album art. The corner of the couch that has the perfect natural light for reading while the dog naps on my lap. Hot, black coffee poured into a rotation of mugs I brought home from New York, or Copenhagen, or Orlando, or Edinburgh. The postcard of Glenfinnan and a kilted yoga calendar that accessorize my home workspace. Mailing pretty postcards to friends. Wearing my Ariana Grande hypercolor t-shirt on a workday. I am VERY good at enjoying gifts of red wine, way more often than I should (lay off me man, this is a crisis).

Local and world news is going to continue to get worse for a while, then it will start to get better. I can’t control any of it except for within the 4 walls of my home, where I am content to stay and wait this out. It’s literally the least I can do.

 

 

Hello From the Other Side

I’m writing this post from a totally different world than the last one from just a few months ago. I don’t need to fill you in on the coronavirus pandemic as I’m sure you’re well up to speed, and if you’re like me, have already spent countless hours panic-scrolling and refreshing news sites. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are safe and well and hunkered down at home. I send my strongest positive vibes to those who are sick or who have loved ones who are sick, those working in the frontlines of healthcare and other essential roles, and those whose livelihoods have been profoundly impacted by city and state lockdowns.

I look back on the resolutions in the post I made a few months ago and they’re shot to hell. Taper back on social media? LOL, my screen time reports are effed. Visit a new place every month? I’m laughing until it turns into ugly crying. Travel as much as possible, including that big bucket list-worthy destination? We canceled our big springtime trip to Japan. It all blows, folks. But I’m lucky so far. Kurt and I are both still healthy and employed, with the flexibility to work from home. We have a house with enough space for either of us to be on a conference call and not worry about the other accidentally wandering into the background in their underwear. We have a YARD.

Like everyone, I’m anxious and sad, grieving the loss of normalcy, and worried for everyone I love. I’ve seen a lot of memes calling this current lockdown heaven for introverts, but as an INFJ, I can tell you that this is not the case. Sure, I get anxious at big parties and I dread a networking event full of strangers, but I still love my people. I desperately miss intimate dinner parties and playing board games with my dearest friends. I miss passing plates around a table filled with chatter and conversation. And I do miss crowds!! I miss going to concerts and losing myself in the music, or seeing a play and feeling the energy emanating from the performers. The last place I traveled before the pandemic was New York City, and thinking back to that trip feels like another lifetime, but it was only mid-January. I saw live theater and went to a crowded bar where we sang show tunes, and we talked and laughed with strangers and didn’t think twice about being so close to each other. I wonder how long it will be until that feels possible once again.

I remind myself often that this is just temporary. We have Netflix and the internet and a giant stack of books I’ve been looking forward to on my bedside table. All of those dream travel destinations will still be there, waiting for us when all of this is over.

I keep returning to the memory of nearly 8 years ago, when I was homebound post-knee surgery. More than anything, I grieved the loss of my freedom to move about and ability to live my life as normal. During my 3 months of recovery, I spent increasingly identical days laid out on the couch, watching the summer fade and the leaves change through the glass windows. For a long stretch of time, it got harder, until it finally started to get easier. I used to leave the back porch door open, so I could see the tops of the trees from where I laid on the couch, and feel the breeze from outside reach me indoors. And finally over time, I was able to walk out that door on my own and resume my normal life.

On our second week of sheltering in place at home, I started leaving the porch door open again. 

Whenever we come out on the other side of this, we’re all going to be changed. I can’t wait until the day when it’s safe to find all of our people, all of us waiting for each other with open arms.