Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

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

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

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

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

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

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

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

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

the view from inside Alcove House

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

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

Success!

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

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

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

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

 

 

Route 66: IL > MO > OK > TX

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

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

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

our route

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

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

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

parked at Lake Thunderbird, Norman, OK

Saturday, April 27: Oklahoma > Texas

Soundtrack: “Juice,” Lizzo 

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

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

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

Slug Bug Ranch on Route 66

Conway, Texas

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

Fierce and Forty

Iceland Diaries: OMG! Ponies!

Friday, Feb. 17

Kurt woke up at 8 a.m. and quietly got dressed in our dark room before heading out. He and a few other of our friends had plans to rent a car and visit a geothermal plant (they are enginerds) and hike to the Hot River. I slept in a little bit longer, falling into the rhythm of the late Icelandic sunrise. I had my own itinerary for the day, and I was looking forward to a solo adventure.

First, I met Lauren and Charlie for coffee and croissants at Reykjavík Roasters. They had a little bit of time to hang out before catching their Flybus to the airport. The mugs at the coffee shop were some of the tiniest ones yet, but the servings were bottomless so I got a few refills. It took this trip for me to realize that my coffee addiction has reached Gilmore Girl levels. Lauren and Charlie told me a little more about their horseback riding excursion a few days earlier, as I had booked a ride at the same stable for the afternoon. They had done some galloping during their trail ride, and Lauren’s horse, Harpa, tripped while going down a river bed and tossed Lauren to the ground. “But don’t worry, it’s a fun time!” they both said. OK then.

I boarded the shuttle bus to the stables at the hotel near our Airbnb. I was the first one in the bus. The driver greeted me warmly and then asked me if I had any juicy gossip. Next, we picked up a man and woman from their hotel, who were best friends on vacation from Boston. They had arrived in Reykjavík at 6 a.m. that morning, got a few hours of sleep, and were heading out on their first excursion. The man got out his phone and started scrolling through news, saying “Ugh let’s see what Trump’s done since we left the States.”

OMG! Ponies!

We arrived at the stable, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and met the rest of our group. The stablehands sized us up with their eyes one by one, then handed us a one-piece rubber suit to put on over our clothes. The suits were bulky and cumbersome, but they would keep us warm and dry in the rain and through river crossings.

After putting on our suits, boots, gloves, and helmets, we watched the stablehands bring horses into the paddock. I had been looking forward to getting close to Icelandic horses the entire trip. They’re adorable with their shaggy coats and short, stout frames. The breed is incredibly pure; no other horses are allowed into Iceland, and once an Iceland horse leaves the country, it can never be brought back in. The animals in the paddock were feisty and spirited, whinnying, nipping at each other, and rearing up in small acts of dominance. The guy from Boston nudged his friend and said “That one horse looks really agitated. I want you to get that one.”

The trail leader, a thin blond woman with a no-nonsense demeanor, went down the line and asked each of us how much riding experience we had. Everyone said that they’d done a few trail rides before, “but not in a few years.” I took riding lessons through junior high and used to jump, but it’s been literally decades. After I replied to her question, she pointed to a brown horse by the fence and said “You take Harpa.” Of course.

Harpa and me, BFFs

We mounted up on our horses, then followed another young, blond woman who was the assistant guide (everyone in Iceland looks vaguely like Margot Robbie, and no, it doesn’t give you a complex, like, at all). The horses followed each other, nose to tail, out of the paddock and along the gravel road to the trail. Harpa liked to be right up front, behind or next to the leader. As we began our trail ride, muscle memory of my old riding lessons came back. I relaxed in the saddle, letting my hips swing with the horse’s movement. Our guide brought her horse to a trot, and the rest of us followed suit. I looked forward to doing some cantering in the rolling farmland hills.

Unfortunately, we never worked our way up to anything more than a trot. About 40 minutes into the 2-hour ride, Margot Robbie #2 paused the train, told us to wait, and then dismounted and walked towards the back of the group. Up at the front, I couldn’t see what was going on behind me. A few minutes later, she returned on her horse, leading a riderless horse by his reins. What happened his rider? I wondered. Then I recognized the horse as belonging to Margot Robbie #1. Our guide led us down the road a bit further, then told us to stop and dismount to give our horses a little break. Once I climbed down off Harpa, I saw Margot Robbie #1 walking on the ground while holding the bridle of another horse. The rider had apparently been having some control issues.

As we stretched and let our horses nibble at grass, the Margots conferred with each other for a moment, then asked us in their usual brief, all-business manner: “Everyone OK with going fast?” We weren’t sure what they meant: more trotting? or would we move up into a canter? Would we get to try the famous Icelandic fifth gate, the tölt? We never did find out, as a few of the beginner level riders quickly said that they didn’t want go any faster than the trot. Margot #1 nodded crisply, and we mounted back up. Almost immediately, a horse named Sparkles decided that she was over it and took off the wrong way down the trail, despite the panicked shouting of her rider. Two other horses decided to follow for funsies, adding to the rebellion. Margot #1 had to shoot down the road after Sparkles and grab the reins. We got back on the trail. About 20 minutes later, we stopped again because someone fell off while walking. For the rest of the ride, the Margots had to run a tight ship to compensate for our group’s lack of horsemanship skills.

Next time, I’ll sign up for the intermediate group.

I do want to thank Harpa, who was nothing but a dream for me. She did have a tendency to try to kick any other horse who got too close to her rear, but I get that. We reached the horse farm, ending our leisurely afternoon ride. I dismounted, gave Harpa lots of pets and neck rubs, and hung up her bridle, then changed out of my rubber suit. The group of us clambered back into the shuttle bus, smelling horsey, and got dropped off back in the city.

Back at the Airbnb, I showered and dressed. With our group reassembled after everyone got back from their day’s activities, we walked into the city center and ate dinner at Frederiksen Ale House, then stopped into Pablo Discobar solely because of the name. Their signature cocktail involved Cocoa Puffs. We ended up not staying, and decided that the wise decision would be to make it an early night. The next morning, we needed to be up bright and early for our final excursion: the Game of Thrones Tour.

Iceland Diaries: Fire and Ice

Wednesday, Feb. 15

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I woke up like this

We fell asleep in total darkness, and woke up to desolate beauty. In the distance, wisps of fog floated alongside the ridge, and the glacier sprawled across the horizon. I was so glad that after my scare the previous night, I had told Kurt we could go back and camp in this spot.

On our way to Jökulsárlón, we got our mini coffees at a gas station filled with Japanese tourists putting on crampons and harnesses for a glacier expedition. I had some FOMO since Kurt and I hadn’t signed up for an ice caving expedition, but on the other hand, leaving our schedule open and flexible was allowing us to get all the way to Jökulsárlón and back in 3 days while making plenty of stops along the way.

Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Out of everywhere we’d been so far, Jökulsárlón, or Glacier Lagoon, and Diamond Beach felt the most otherworldly, closer to a Star Wars set than anything we’d seen on any of our North American camping trips. As icebergs calve from the glacier, they float downriver and gather in the lagoon before drifting off into the ocean. While we took in the scene, we spotted a few small heads bobbing in the water. A trio of seals swam among the icebergs, occasionally diving into the water searching for food. On Diamond Beach, the black sand is covered with a collection of grounded ice boulders, some so pure and clear that you can see right through them.

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Glacier Lagoon marked the turning point for our drive back to Reykjavík. I was sad that our little road trip was already coming to an end, but at least there was another stop to look forward to.

Around mid-afternoon, we arrived in a small town just off the Ring Road and began looking for Seljavallalaug. A friend who has traveled to Iceland several times recommended the spot to me; she had me at the word “Instagrammable.” There were no signs prompting us where to go but we knew we had a 20-minute walk ahead of us, so we parked the Land Rover in an area where we saw a handful of other cars and campers. A group of twenty-somethings had just arrived back at their car holding bags of towels. A girl leaned against the bumper and dumped a liter of water out of one of her Doc Martens. We were pretty confident we found our spot.

After tossing our towels and suits into a backpack, we started walking into the valley. Ahead, a few other hikers in brightly colored rain jackets helped lead the way. The trail was made from the bootprints of every swimmer who proceeded us. We came to a river that was probably flowing more heavily that usual at this time of year due to the warm weather and consistent rain. Kurt easily hopped from rock to rock with his long legs, but it took me a little more maneuvering to get across; the last thing I wanted to do was slip on a wet rock and crash into the river. As we got further down the trail, the telltale sign of rising steam led us straight to the spot. “Instagrammable” was right.

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug is a pool nestled against a rock wall; hot water tumbles down the rock face into the pool, warming the cool water into temperatures pleasant enough to swim in. The pool is unguarded, with no entrance fee or anyone attending it. There’s three changing rooms available for getting in and out of your clothes, with some hooks on which to hang your things. As more people made their way to the pool, it took some knocking on doors and inquiring if each room was in use by men, women, or a group of both.

When we first got there, only one other couple was in the pool. We arrived at the same time as a pair of women, and we climbed in together, exclaiming over the gorgeous scenery. It was tranquil and perfect. As we soaked and swam, more and more hikers appeared. Two girls emerged from a changing room wearing bikini bottoms and posed in the water for pictures while flashing the peace sign. All of a sudden, a large group of dudes showed up, outnumbering us all, and the atmosphere changed from peaceful to rowdy as it quickly became a German sausage party. We and the other couple decided it was time to hike on out.

Back on the road, I wanted something hot to eat and a beer sounded pretty good too. We had ventured off the Ring Road onto some of the smaller local routes, and the GPS wasn’t helpful in finding much in the area. We almost gave up and stopped at a rest stop for another night of cold cut sandwiches, but suddenly spotted some lights in the distance and decided to investigate. It turned out to be a small hotel with an all-you-can-eat buffet and cold Gull on tap, everything we wanted in that moment. The dining area was mostly overtaken by a gaggle of high schoolers and their teachers on a school trip. We ate as much salad, lamb, fish cakes, potatoes, and pudding as we could fit in our stomachs. Gotta get our 4300 ISK worth.

Satiated, we found a rest stop in, of all places, a wooded area. Iceland is fairly devoid of forests, so parking among tall trees and pines almost made me feel like we were back in Wisconsin. A dark, overcast sky above us didn’t look promising for Northern Lights, and soft rain pattered on the roof of the Land Rover. Settling in for the night with the rest of the boxed wine, we drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain falling on the trees.

Iceland Diaries: Chasing Waterfalls

Tuesday, Feb. 14

Sleeping in the back of the Land Rover is what I imagine it’s like to sleep in a Japanese capsule hotel. There’s not quite enough room to sit up so you are stuck sort of propping yourself up on an elbow. In order to change your clothes, a complicated process ensued that included lying on one’s back to shimmy into pants, then sliding through the window into the front seat to put on one’s boots.

The night had been too overcast for any potential Northern Lights viewing, and the morning greeted us with soft rain. We snacked on granola bars for breakfast and got teeny cups of coffee from a gas station. I’m all for downsizing ridiculously gigantic American portions when it comes to pretty much everything except coffee. I could easily go through 3 Icelandic-sized coffees each morning, but that would cost me over $12 so I savored each sip of my little cup.

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“Where’s my precious??”

Tuesday was a day full of waterfalls, which made for a lovely scenic backdrop for Valentine’s Day. The first stop was Seljalandfoss, which is one of a series of waterfalls along a rocky ridge. We wandered up and down the road, getting closer glimpses of each set of falls. Plenty of people were out in their rain gear, taking group photos and selfies. I saw a tourist climb up a small hill to pop into a tiny cave-like opening in the rocks for a photo. Since I like to think that I am half woodland creature, I clambered up the muddy slope so Kurt could take a photo of me in the same cave. As I tried to make my way down, I lost my footing on the slippery mud and skidded the rest of the way down on my bum, sentencing myself to wearing my other (snow)pants for the rest of the road trip. In his rain jacket and waterproof pants, Kurt ventured into one of the cavernous openings and got right beneath Gljúfrafross. Changing in the Land Rover promised to be even more interesting after this outing.

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

After a brief drive, we arrived at Skógafoss, a gigantic waterfall which now also has the dubious distinction of being featured in a Justin Bieber video. We climbed the giant set of stairs to see the falls from the top to get some photos, then spent a little more time at the base of the falls. In the parking lot, Kurt was slowly backing the Land Rover out of our spot when another car suddenly honked at us. It was our friends, who had left the Airbnb a day after us for a road trip to Höfn and coincidentally pulled into the parking spot right next to us. Small world! We chatted for a bit before we continued back on our separate journeys.

By the time we reached Vík, the town at the edge of the black sand beach, visibility was practically nonexistent. A thick fog hung over the area, preventing us from being able to see much of anything. We followed another car up a steep series of switchbacks to arrive at a scenic viewpoint, but the detour was worthless as we could see nothing from what was probably a scenic vantage point (later, we deduced that we were atop the Dyrhólaey peninsula). We white-knuckled it back down the switchbacks and found another place to park and view the black sands beach and a few of the rock formations in the water.

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We had a late lunch at the Black Sand Restaurant, giving ourselves time to dry off and warm up while utilizing their wifi. The sky was already growing dark when we got back on the road, but we wanted to get some more miles in before we stopped to camp. Our plan for the next day included Glacier Lagoon, which is in southeast Iceland. Stuck as a perpetual passenger due to my lack of manual driving skills, I played DJ while Kurt navigated the wet roads in the dark. Just west of Skaftafell, we pulled over at a rest stop. According to our map, we were on a small unmarked road that led straight to Skaftafell National Park (there’s a funny story about this which I wrote about in detail for Drinkers with Writing Problems and I will entice you to click the link by mentioning it’s about a brush with death, sorta). Parked out on the open road, we got a taste for the legendary Icelandic wind that the car rental place had warned us about–the kind of gust that can damage a car door if you don’t open it cautiously with two hands. We ate sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover, drank boxed wine, and watched some Netflix shows Kurt had cached on his iPhone while the wind howled outside. Not a bad way to spend Valentine’s Day, not bad at all.

Valentine's Day dinner

Valentine’s Day dinner