Midwestern Autumnal Realness

Autumn is my favorite season. Much of the reason for this is my undying love of Halloween, but I also embrace the crisp weather and watching the leaves change color. This time of year makes me crave walks in the woods, campfires, and red wine. At home, I light candles on the window sills and curl up under wool blankets and watch movies all day. I am ready to hunker down and enjoy the harvest season. Pretty much since early October and on, I’ve been crafting costumes, listening to Bon Iver, burning forest-scented candles, and rewatching that one Harry Potter movie that’s two hours of our heroes camping while being tortured by existential dread. I’ve been compiling slow cooker recipes and even signed up for a weaving class so I could learn how to use a loom for maximum hygge skills. Autumn is basically prep time for hibernation season a.k.a. winter and I am 1000% here for it.

I do well in the cold. Maybe it’s my quarter-Swedish blood, or my Midwestern roots, but I like to think I approach winter with the stoic attitude of a Viking warrior. Like Lyra Belacqua or Jon Snow, I’m drawn to the North. I prefer camping in the crisp, quiet serenity of fall over the sweaty, sunburnt heat of summer. As the temperature drops, I simply add more layers–wool socks, wool leggings, stocking cap. Wool is magical, and I like anything that allows me to keep staying outside, watching the moon disappear and reappear from behind wispy November clouds. I love the smells of autumn–pine needles, fresh snowfall, campfire, whisky–all enjoyed while wallowing in cozy knit sweaters like I’m damn Felicity. Currently, I’m reading a book set in Kamchatka and reveling in the descriptions of desolate, icy tundra. Earlier today,  I shoveled snow from our sidewalk and wore my favorite winter boots that make me look like a 70’s-era Star Wars extra.

I think what it all boils down to is my love of the changing seasons. I can’t imagine living in a place where the weather doesn’t drastically change every several months. Seasons create rituals, and I fully lean into them. I make playlists for every time of year (currently queueing up “Cozy Winter Cabin” on Spotify to accompany Chicago’s current snowfall). For the next several months, I’ll embrace my favorite knit caps, pumpkin bourbon-scented candles, fluffy slippers, and Pendleton blanket. I’ll enjoy the sound of ice crunching beneath my boots and watching my dog frolic in powdery snow. I’ll go to hot yoga class for that Swedish sauna moment. I’ll spend decadent Saturdays watching an entire season of a television show while drinking a lot of pinot noir.

But most of all, cold weather gives me the gift of time to work on projects. It’s usually when I do the most writing, and when I most enjoy losing myself in an engrossing novel. I’ve said before that winter pushes hibernation upon me and forces me to give up the non-stop social and travel schedule I keep during the spring and summer. I’ve got my cozy home office prepped and ready to go, with plenty of candles waiting for me on the window sill.

 

Volcanic Forest Camping

Wednesday, May 8: Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Mountain Song” Jane’s Addiction

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

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

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

Soda Dam, Jemez River

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

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

Jemez Falls

Kurt is a Gryffindor

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

It’s-a me!

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

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

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

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

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

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

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

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

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

the view from inside Alcove House

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

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

Success!

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ancient Ruins and Acrophobia

Thursday, May 2: Chaco Canyon to Albuquerque

Soundtrack: “Ruins” First Aid Kit

There’s a ton to see in Chaco Canyon, so we get an early start and drive to the visitors center to pick up some maps. Thousands of Puebloan people lived in the canyon between the years 850 to 1250 A.D. until they eventually left the area during a 50-year drought. Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with structures and petroglyphs over a thousand years old. These ancestral homelands are considered sacred ground to Hopi and Pueblo people today, and it’s important for us to remember this as visitors. Or, as I put it to Kurt, “Let’s not do anything dumb that Justin Bieber would do.”

We start at Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in the canyon. The scope of it is incredible to see in person. It is estimated that close to 800 people lived in Pueblo Bonito at one point. Each of the houses has multiple kivas, where rituals were practiced, and from the beams visible in the remaining standing walls you can see that some parts of the structure were once 4 or 5 floors high.

It’s a perfect day for hiking; the air temperatures are cooler now that we’re in a higher elevation, but the bright sun keeps us warm. I start the day in a tank top and long-sleeved shirt, but I quickly stuff the outer layer into our daypack. The trail takes us through the ruins, and we are even able to walk into various rooms, ducking through the doorways and peering down into the many kivas. I’m glad we bought a few trail guides at the visitors center so we can follow along and read the in-depth history as we pass each historical marker.

Kurt wants to take the Overlook Trail so we can see the aerial view of Pueblo Bonito. it’s a 2-mile trek that travels 177 feet up the canyon wall, hugging the ledge. I am terrified of heights, but I also want to see the view, so we forge ahead. The initial climb is steep and requires you to scramble up boulders then into a narrow crack. By the time we reach the top, I’m shaking and need to sit down to collect myself. I hate being acrophobic; I don’t want to miss out on experiences like this.

Kurt climbing up the Overlook Trail

A man passes by us on hiking poles and notices my hesitance to join Kurt closer to the  cliff edge. “You must be afraid of heights,” he says, and when I reply in the affirmative, he kindly says “It’s OK. We all have a fear of something.” He then goes on to tell us all about his plantar fasciitis, then we exchange pleasant goodbyes. The exchange makes me chuckle; it’s so purely American to be outwardly gregarious and kind then totally overshare. We continue our hike to  the overlook, and the view is absolutely worth it.

view of Pueblo Bonito from the Overlook Trail

After we climb back down to sweet sweet solid earth, we drive a little deeper into the canyon to reach the trailhead of the Peñasco Blanco Trail. We do the 4-mile version which takes us along the bluffs to a section covered with petroglyphs. Kurt and I scan the cliffs for drawings carved into the rocks. The Pueblo people tended to place their petroglyphs 10-15 feet off the ground, which helps us to differentiate authentic carvings from the fake ones and graffiti left by visitors at standing level (the fact that anyone would do this infuriates me). Historical markers also help us find the petroglyphs located higher up the cliffs, some eroded by the passage of a thousand years.

The trail continues several more miles further into the wash, to what the park calls the Supernova pictograph. While petroglyphs are carved into rock, pictographs also include the element of painting with natural pigments, so it’s more rare for them to stand the test of time outside in the elements. It’s theorized that the pictograph found in Chaco depicts a supernova that occurred in 1054. The Anasazi people who lived in Chaco left evidence that they were early students of astronomy, and the Sun Dagger petroglyph on Fajada Butte might have been used as a solar calendar.

After the Petroglyph trail, we need to hike back to the van. We could have easily spent several more days exploring the rest of the Canyon loop, but our schedule has us leaving today. 2 weeks is a generous, luxurious amount of time off of work, but no amount of time is ever enough when there’s so much amazing stuff to see. We take the rough road back out of the park, then make our way towards Albuquerque. On our way, we pass Cabezon Peak, a 7,785-ft tall volcanic plug jutting dramatically in the horizon.

Cabezon Peak

We reach our Airbnb around 8 pm, shower off all of the sweat and dirt from our long day of hiking, and then walk to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner. The next several days of our trip will be spent in towns, immersed in modern civilization, which feels a little jarring after so much camping. For now, I sit back and enjoy this easy access to chips, salsa, and handcrafted margaritas.

 

 

The Radio Waves of the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

Very Large Array

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

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

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

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

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

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais

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

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

the road to Chaco Canyon

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

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

Going Off-Route: Roswell, New Mexico

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

Soundtrack: “Motorway to Roswell” Pixies

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

Roswell

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

I want to beliebe

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

Kurt in front of Lea Lake

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

our campsite in Bottomless Lakes State park

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

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

FOR THE THRONE

 

Route 66: IL > MO > OK > TX

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

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

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

our route

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

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

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

parked at Lake Thunderbird, Norman, OK

Saturday, April 27: Oklahoma > Texas

Soundtrack: “Juice,” Lizzo 

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

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

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

Slug Bug Ranch on Route 66

Conway, Texas

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

Fierce and Forty

Lake Michigan Circle Tour

How amazing is it, to leave work on a Wednesday night in a van full of your stuff and your dog, and live on the road for a week? I love our van-centric vacations because everything is simple and flexible. We explore all day, finding a new spot to sleep each night.

On our trip to upper peninsula Michigan, we were joined by some friends and their dogs, creating a van/camper caravan. The first night, we camped out on the banks of Green Bay at Wells State Park in Cedar River. It was warm enough outside that I didn’t need more than a hoodie while sitting by the campfire. From there, we drove through Escanaba (stopping for a pasty breakfast) and then wove along the scenic roads of Hiawatha National Forest.

a white chevy astrovan with its sliding door open to reveal a large stack of firewood inside

For the next few nights, we holed up on Indian Lake in Manistique. Parked next to the lake, we could see the stretch of bordering forest. In Fayette Historic State Park, we walked through the abandoned and preserved buildings of an 1800’s industrial town, then hiked through a forest bursting with fall colors.

partial brick wall of an abandoned building, with three open windows facing Big Bay De Noc

The weather turned on us on Saturday night, freezing winds blowing over the lake pummeling us at our campsite. The first snow flurries of the season blew in sideways. Using one of the vans behind our backs as a windbreak, we made dinner–camping stew, smoked salmon, chicken wings. The dogs alternated between begging to stay in the vehicles, then wanting to come back outside as their FOMO kicked in. We layered up in our warmest clothes, drank hot toddies, and had a fantastic night.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to our friends who were headed back home or further south. Kurt and I had additional days off, and we decided to turn our trip into a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. Over the next few days, we visited Tahquamenon Falls, Hiawatha, Mackinaw City, Traverse City, and Manistee National Forest. We drove over the (5-mile long!!) Mackinac Bridge, visited microbreweries, hiked by waterfalls, and drank wine by campfires. But there’s one moment in particular that really stands out for me.

a white dog wearing a red coat stands among trees whose leaves have turned gold

We were searching for a camping spot in the northern part of Manistee after the sun had gone down. As Kurt drove down a secluded road in the darkness, I watched the yellow stripes race by in our headlights, like the credits to a David Lynch film. Following a downloaded forestry service map, Kurt turned onto a dirt road into the thick of the forest. We found a driveway that traveled into the woods another 20 yards or so into a designated rustic camping spot. The site sat atop a semi-steep bank, and the Upper Manistee River gleamed in the moonlight, just beyond the treeline. After turning off the engine, the night fell silent around us–at least until coyotes began howling in the distance.

While I set up the sleeping bags in the van, Kurt explored the site. I could hear him and River’s footsteps crunching in the leaves along the river bank. “You’ve gotta check this out!” he called me, then told me there was a trail down the river bank, straight to the water’s edge.

“I’m not walking down a steep dirt trail above a river in the dark!” I told him. Using his headlight, he showed me where I could find footing, and promised that after the initial steep part, the path began to level out. Hesitantly, I followed Kurt down the path using his voice and our headlamps as my only guide. River moved ahead confidently, sniffing her way down. Just before reaching the water level, the trail opened up into a small sandy beach. We sat on the beach and turned off our headlamps.

The wide river stretched beyond in both directions, its surface velvety midnight blue, reflecting the sky. Wispy white clouds drifted around the waxing Gibbous moon. We sat in silence, in the moment. River settled quietly in the sand, her ears pricked as the sounds of coyote song traveled across the water. I didn’t feel cold, or nervous. Instead, a sense of serenity around us like a warm blanket, three little mammals in a big forest, simply being. I wanted to stay there forever.

I was so grateful for our trip, during a time when I very much needed to get away and escape stress and anxiety. In these recent months, whenever I look into the eyes of my friends, all of the other women in my life, I see exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty reflected back at me. What a time to exist in this world, when it feels like an arduous task to get through every day with what feels like a non-stop assault of horrific news stories and events.  I’m beyond lucky to have the life that I have, which allows me a week here and there when I can escape to the woods, to get away and move freely through wild spaces, where the only thing I fear is losing my footing and falling into a river. I am grateful to have had that moment, and to now have that memory to retreat to whenever I need to find some semblance of serenity.

Get out there and vote. And do something good to help other people, no matter how big or small. This world is too damn beautiful to give up the fight.

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

Iceland Diaries: On the Road

Monday, Feb. 13

Kurt and I woke up at 8 a.m. and repacked our backpacks, leaving our city clothes behind in the Airbnb which our friends and I had rented for the full week. We only brought along stuff we’d need for our 3-day camping road trip. Iceland was having an unseasonably warm winter, much like Chicago, with temperatures for our entire trip staying in the 40’s during the day. I left my winter coat back at home and wore my nano-puff jacket, which I layered over a wool hoodie and t-shirt. I packed my rain jacket, which could fit over all of my layers. I also brought a pair of camping pants and waterproof snow pants. For pajamas, I packed long underwear and a Thermawool base layer.

We took a cab to Kúkú Campers, the company through which we booked our rental. The cab driver was a friendly local who, upon hearing our American accents, proceeded to grill us on our thoughts on President Trump. He chuckled while listening to our moans of outrage and disbelief over what was going on back home. “I have a friend from Oakland who wants to move to Iceland,” he told us. “I told him to wait 2 years and come here as a political refugee.”

At Kúkú Campers, we checked in and got the keys to a rental Land Rover, our home for the next few nights. The team at Kúkú has an irreverent sense of humor; their business card reads “In case of emergency, use this card to wipe your ass.” Along with your camper, you can rent items both practical (sleeping bags, pillows, GPS) and recreational (guitars, surf boards), and purchase the unexpected (an ‘outdoor sex mat’ along with a map of good locations for doin’ it, with a disclaimer “P.S. This map is not intended for gingers”). The Land Rover’s back cab consisted of a folded-up bed, a seat that could be turned into a bench with storage underneath, a small cooler and butane stove, and a wall of cubbies to keep kitchen items from rolling around.

Our first stop was at a local grocery store so we could save money on meals, and picked up bread, lunch meat, plenty of Skyr, burgers, hot dogs, and snacks.  After that, our journey officially began. Instead of doing the classic Golden Circle loop, we skipped Pingvellir National Park (knowing we’d get there near the end of the trip as part of our Game of Thrones tour, but more on that later) and drove to Geysir, with a quick stop at Keriô, a volcanic crater lake.

Strokkur

Strokkur

Geysir is the inspiration for the word we use in English, ‘geyser,’ so you can say it’s OG. It’s located in an area with high geothermal activity by a few other hot springs, including Strokkur, which erupts roughly every 10 minutes and has a pretty metal name. A walkway circles each of the hot springs, and the whole area is flanked by a restaurant, parking lot, and souvenir store. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone, both for the scenic wonder, sulfuric smell, and hordes of tourists buying overpriced sweatshirts and shot glasses.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

From Geysir, it was a quick drive to Gulfoss, another incredibly popular tourist attraction and one of the waterfalls you’d most likely recognize from photos. The Hvítá River widens and drops dramatically into a giant waterfall which from certain views, looks like it vanishes into a crack in the earth. Some legends say that Gullfoss (‘gold’ and ‘falls’ in Icelandic) got its name because of a farmer who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else taking his gold after he died, so he locked it up in a chest and threw it down the waterfall. This would not be the first time on our trip that we’d hear an old tale of someone not wanting anyone to touch their stuff so they threw it down a waterfall, hence, many waterfalls being named after gold or discarded mistresses.

Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon

During our last few hours of daylight, we visited Secret Lagoon in Hvammsvegur. Secret Lagoon is a natural pool with a much more local vibe than the sprawling Blue Lagoon (though there’s still tourists aplenty). The steamy hot water was a welcome treat at the end of the day. Kurt and I waded through the pool, walking across the pebble-covered bottom to make our way closer to the bubbling hot spring just beyond that was the obvious source of heat. A few tourists in parkas stood on a path by the spring, taking photos. Light chatter in an assortment of languages filled the pool area. We soaked and watched the sunlight slowly fade, but not before creating a double rainbow in the distance.

With the last of our light, we found Airhus Restaurant in Hella, which offers a winter campground. The facilities (bathrooms, rec hall and dish cleaning station) were closed for the season, but we were allowed to park the Land Rover for free in a small grove hidden by a row of trees, creating a nice private space. After cooking burgers on our butane grill, we went inside the restaurant for a drink and to use the wifi for a bit. Right before close, we used our headlamps to find our way back to the Land Rover in the darkness. We folded down the seat to make our bed and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the tree-lined grove far from any main roads, we had our first night of outdoor solitude under the stars, just on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.