Washington Road Trip: from the Peninsula to Mount Rainier

Lake Quinault

The morning is drizzly with rain, surprise. We make breakfast at camp, then head to the Rain Forest Nature trail right by our site, a short 0.5-mile trail along Willaby Creek. I hadn’t looked up anything about the trail and am blown away by the view of the Gorge and the old-growth forest flanking it on both sides. It feels like we’ve stepped into an ancient world and I almost expect a pterodactyl to swoop through the sky. The trail winds along high above creek level with a wooden railing hugging you to the side of the mountain, and I’ll continue my habit of making hyper-specific Chicagoland references by saying that it made me think of Tropic World Asia at Brookfield Zoo. Even more surprisingly, we barely see anyone else out on the trail, a stark difference from the packed parking lot at Hoh the previous day. Since the trail is so short, we join the Quinault River Trail for a bit to get a little more time in at this beautiful spot.

Rain Forest Nature Trail

Kurt and I both love a scenic drive, so we embark on the Quinault Rain Forest Loop, a 31-mile route around the entire lake. It takes about 2 hours to complete due to gravel roads and stopping to see all the waterfalls. It is also popular with bicyclists, and we see quite a few out and about. Kurt and I make a few stops at trailheads to stretch our legs on some easy hikes, including the Maple Glade Trail, which ends up being one of Kurt’s favorites. The mile-long trail takes us through a grove of ancient towering maples; I am in awe of trees and their resilience to survive centuries of extreme elements. I’ve always felt that nature is more than a little but supernatural.

Maple Glade Trail

Back in the van, the road takes us into a thick forest surrounding us on both side. This area seems prime for elk sighting, so Kurt slows the Kung Fu to a crawl and we scour the trees with our eyes. Within minutes, we spot the backs of two female elk grazing deep into the woods. The forest eventually opens up into the Quinault River valley, with a peek of snowcapped mountains in the distance. If you’re planning a trip to Olympic National Park, I’d recommend setting aside a full day for exploring the Quinault area; it’s pretty magical.

Kung Fu and the Quinault River

Once we’ve finished the Loop Drive, we say a wistful goodbye to the Olympic Peninsula. Our next destination is Mount Rainier National Park, and we have a three-hour drive ahead of us to reach Packwood, where we’ve reserved an Airbnb for the night. I’m eager for my first shower in days and a chance to wash our dirty laundry. Fueled by gas station corn dogs, we forge on to Packwood.

Packwood/ Mount Rainier/ Enumclaw

I wake up in our A-frame cabin in Packwood as the early sunlight streams into the loft sleeping area. Waking up in a real bed feels pretty great, and Kurt and I both have a pile of freshly cleaned and folded camping clothes sitting atop our bags, ready for the second half of our trip. The cabin is my dream house—rustic and cozy with a wooden deck overlooking a babbling stream. We’d sat outside the previous night eating carryout pizza and drinking canned white wine while our clothes tumbled clean in the washing machine.

Packwood cabin

This day should be interesting; as we spent last night researching trails in Mt. Rainier using the cabin’s wifi, we learned that most of the park is currently closed due to late-season snowpack. Out of our planned stops, there are only a few trailheads we can access right now. We’ll figure it out as we go. But first, coffee and breakfast tacos.

“You know of the closures?” the Ranger asks us as we enter the National Park. Yep, we tell her, we’re headed to Silver Falls, one of the few accessible trails. She nods and offers us a park map.

The Silver Falls Trail is a 4-mile loop with 705 ft of elevation gain—a moderate hike that would’ve been no big deal for me a few months ago, but more challenging than all of the short, flat hikes we’ve been doing all week. I’ve been feeling better lately, so we pack up a daypack with water, snacks, and rain jackets, and set out.

Silver Falls

Silver Falls turns out to be a pretty large, roaring waterfall, and the trail leads us across the river via footbridge twice before ascending up the ridge, into the woods, then back down. It takes about two hours for us to finish and end up back at the van. Where to next? The nearby Grove of the Patriarchs (ancient four-stories-tall Douglas firs, hemlocks, and red cedars) is temporarily closed due to the bridge being washed out. Both the route to Paradise and the road past the Sunrise entrances are closed. We get into the van and take the road up the eastern side of the park, hoping to at least catch some good views of Mount Rainier, but a thick fog settles in. As the road winds up into higher elevations, snowbanks appear, then grow in size up to what looks like over six feet high. From what locals have told us, this is highly unusual for June.

Mount Rainier National Park

The road eventually deposits us on the north side of the park, not far from our reserved campsite. We pull over and check our phones for options. Kurt finds a recommendation for a good view of Mount Rainier, sixteen miles up a forestry road. I’m antsy to do something so I say yes, but once we’ve begun rambling our way up the potholed, washboard-riddled gravel road, my anxiety spikes. I get pretty extreme acrophobia on any steep trails or roads with sheer drop-offs (see my previous blogs from the Smoky Mountains, Iceland, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, basically everywhere). We’re a few miles from the top when we come around a corner and see that the road ahead is covered with snow for the remainder of the way. At this point, I pretty much have a panic attack and ask Kurt to take us back down. He has to turn the van around carefully on the narrow road while I squeeze my eyes shut.

It’s now raining steadily and visibility is poor. We decide to hit up another trail, the Snoquera Falls Loop. It’s 3.9 miles with 975 feet of elevation gain, similar to our early hike but a little steeper. This is going to be a lot for me but I can always quit, as I just proved. Normalize quitting all the time!

We’ve barely gotten into the forest before we spot a big cat poo; there are signs warning of cougars in the area. So that’s exciting. The trail starts heading uphill pretty quickly, giving us a view of the forest floor. The ground is wet but thankfully not slippery, as the trail is on the narrow side, hugging the side of the ridge. I start feeling not great—lightheaded, tired. We stand in the middle of the trail as I chow down two chocolate almond butter bars and a bottle of water. I focus on breathing. After a few minutes, I tell Kurt I’m OK to keep going. The trail continues to climb via switchback, and I take a few more breaks to catch my breath. Finally, we can hear the sound of water. The initial view of Snoquera Falls after coming around the rocky corner is pretty stunning. There’s also an incredible outward-facing view of the mountains through the mist. I’m relieved to have made it.

thumbs up for not dying!

The online trail guide says you can either cross the falls and continue on the loop or turn back and come down the way you came. I’m in no mood for a scramble over wet rocks, so we turn around. Thankfully, the downhill trip is much easier for me than the uphill.

We pull into the Silver Springs campgrounds (yes, I had Fleetwood Mac in my head the whole time), which are half-empty, a stark difference from the fully booked sites in Olympic. Our site is directly next to the rushing White River. It’s a gorgeous view but unfortunately, we don’t get to sit outside and enjoy it very much, as it’s gushing rain. Kurt and I sit inside the Kung Fu at the table and have an indoor dinner and cocktail hour. We even figure out a way to convert the table to a bed without having to open the doors (mostly consisting of me tucking myself into the front seat hugging the cushions until handing them back to Kurt to put back onto the opened wood platform. We spend our last night of van camping listening to the rain and the river.

Washington Road Trip: the Pacific Coast

Forks/ Beach 4/ Kalaloch Beach

I’m so excited for this day; we basically built our entire route around the only availability to stay in the Kalaloch Beach campgrounds (advice: book your ONP campsites as early as possible!). We get started on our day after having a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared on the propane stove. The goal is to reach the Pacific coast early so we have plenty of time to make it to the beach just before low tide to see the tide pools.

On the way, we pass through the town of Forks, the setting of the Twilight books. I see a storefront or two full of Twilight merch and multiple Trump MAGA signs. For the Twihards out there, two versions of Bella’s truck (book version and movie version) are parked in front of the Forks visitors’ center.

Rain pelts us as we reach the coast. The first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean through the trees are slate gray, nearly indistinguishable from the cloudy skies. At the Kalaloch ranger station, the ranger on duty recommends either Ruby Beach or Beach 4 for tide pools, with the latter being less crowded, so we park at the Beach 4 trailhead and put on our rain jackets. 

Beach 4

There’s a mist hanging over the beach which makes the tall shoreline pines and rock formations look like distant ghosts. I love it. Moody misty ocean fog appeals to my Scandinavian side. Sunshine is overrated; gimme some melancholy atmosphere. Kurt and I walk across the rocky shore to join other visitors exploring the tide pools. I climb carefully over the barnacle-covered rocks, peering into entire ecosystems flourishing in hidden nooks of the rocks. It smells like saltwater, fish, and seaweed, and I wish I could somehow bottle it up and bring it home. As we explore and find starfish, crabs, and sea anemones, the light rain stops and the sun peeps out. I take off my rain jacket, then my fleece; it becomes a warm, bright day. I spot two bald eagles gliding slow and lazy by the tree line; one of them flies in low and it’s maybe the closest I’ve ever seen one in flight.

Tide pools

From Beach 4, we head down the road to Kalaloch Beach, where our campground is located. Our camper van associate told us this was her favorite camping spot, and upon arrival, I understand why. The outermost loop of sites look out onto a cliff with a panoramic view of the ocean. Below on the dog-friendly beach, people play with their dogs in the sand. From the campground, there’s a short inclined path straight to the beach. It deposits us onto the sand not far from the Tree of Life, or Tree Root Cave, a popular spot on Kalaloch. An ancient Sitka Spruce hangs between a gap in the cliff nearly in midair, its roots exposed after erosion washed the soil away, and somehow manages to continue thriving. It’s a living metaphor, a miracle of nature, an Instagram moment, all of the above. We watch a large family swarm around the cave, multiple kids dangling from the spruce’s exposed roots, and two adults climb up the trunk all the way into the branches as I wince (the Park system discourages visitors from hanging onto the delicate roots, given the tree’s fragility). The more I travel, the more I am struck by the difference in people who see the world as their personal property or jungle gym, vs. those who lead with respect and err on the side of preservation.

Tree of Life

It’s turned into a gorgeous sunny day, so Kurt and I bring our lunch down to the beach. We spend the afternoon walking along the water looking for sand dollars and wading shin-deep. There’s a few brave souls full-on swimming in the cold water. Further down the beach, the shore turns into what Kurt calls a mass crab graveyard, the sand covered in thousands of pieces of washed-up crab legs and shells. 

At sunset, we return to the beach to watch the sun disappear into the Pacific Ocean. A small crowd has gathered, some of them camped out on chairs. I’m grateful for the clear sky and the amazing view. I think about the other sunsets we watched earlier this year in two other National Parks, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon, and reflect on how grateful I am to have accumulated these experiences. I just want to sit in this moment and enjoy it before it slips away as all moments do.

Kalaloch Beach

Washington Road Trip: Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula

Seattle

This trip arrived exactly when I needed it and when I wasn’t yet ready for it. I planned the trip—a drive through some of the National Parks of Washington—back in February, for the purpose of using the last of our 2020 airline credits.

Six weeks before our departure, my covid-free streak and my Wordle streak broke in the same week (SO RUDE). A few weeks after recovering, some of my symptoms boomeranged back—chest tightness, shortness of breath, light-headedness, and a lingering cough. So I’m a little grumpy and a lot concerned about my stamina on this trip, planned to be full of hiking and roughing it in a camper van. But I’m doing my best to roll with it, toting my meds along with me and doing regular self-check-ins on how I’m feeling.

On Saturday morning, Kurt and I kill some time doing touristy things at Pike Place Market and grab a breakfast of eggs with fried oysters and salmon, then it’s time to pick up the van. We’d love to bring our van from home, but in the interest of time, we found a place to rent a conversion van in Seattle. To our delight, our assigned camper van is a Ford Econoline nicknamed Kung Fu, custom-painted with a dragon on each side and two Koi fish swimming in a yin yang on one of the rear doors. There’s bench seating and a table that convert into a bed, and a kitchen area in the rear with a fridge, pump-operated sink, gray water storage, and a Propane grill. After a quick grocery run, it’s time to hit the road in the direction of Olympic National Park.

Sequim

We drive for a few hours in moderate rain until we cross the floating Hood Canal Bridge, officially entering the Peninsula. Our first campsite is at Sequim Bay State Park, an area known for elk turning up in peoples’ yards and a recent local political scandal involving their mayor’s vocal support of QAnon conspiracy theories (when our camper van rep told us to Google the Mayor, Kurt had hoped that the Mayor was a cat).

The campground is pretty, full of towering pine trees with a view of the bay visible through the foliage, but I’m feeling apprehensive about my first night camping while not feeling 100%. The upcoming forecast looks like a solid green mass of rain coming right at us. Kurt whips up a quick dinner of brats and green beans before the storm rolls in. After we eat, the storm still hasn’t arrived, so we walk down to the Bay and check out the view. I love the Pacific Northwest with its mix of mountains, water, coastal fog, and old-growth forests. We spot a group of seals hanging out not far from the pier. I relax a little; while I may not be myself these days, I need to remember to enjoy the little things.

Sequim Bay State Park

It gets dark out and the rain still never arrives, so we make our first campfire of the trip. I go to bed early, snuggled into the surprisingly comfortable converted bed with my book.

Port Angeles/Lake Crescent/Sol Duc

From Sequim, it’s on to Port Angeles; you may know this as the city in Twilight where Bella and her friends go for dress shopping and Italian dinner dates. We find a place called Lola’s Cafe and I am delighted to see a Filipino breakfast on the menu. I’m in heaven with my longanisa, spam, garlic rice, and giant coffee. We also get some donuts for the road from a place called Sasquatch Donuts. While walking off our breakfast, we wander over to the pier and get a brief glimpse through the fog of Canada across the Salish Sea. Kurt checks the webcam for Hurricane Ridge, one of our potential stops for the day. The visibility is close to zero, which makes going forty-five minutes out of our way to check out the mountain view a futile exercise.

Lucky for us, there’s tons of things to do instead, so we enter Olympic National Park and take a scenic drive around Lake Crescent. The hike to Marymere Falls is easy and family-friendly, which sounds good to my lungs, so we pack up a daypack and set out.

I immediately love this National Park. Every direction you turn in looks like a Bob Ross painting come to life. The early summer light that filters through the clouds and tree canopy makes everything look a little more magical. No wonder the vampires sparkle here! We make it to the viewing platform and feel the spray of the waterfall on our skin. Kurt was smart to buy those donuts and pack them into our daypack, so we choose a spot next to a babbling stream to enjoy them. My grumpiness is melting away; I love it here. I love hiking, even if I need to take it easy. We can stop for as many breaks as I need. I’ll figure out how to adapt.

Olympic National Park

There’s another waterfall nearby our reserved campsite, so we tackle that next, but as we pull into the trailhead parking lot the light drizzle has grown into heavy rain. We see a few hikers run to their vehicle in sopping wet jeans, the absolute worst. Kurt and I grab our rain pants from our bags to pair with our rain jackets. I also opt to take along a hiking pole in case the trail gets slippery. The Sol Duc Falls Trail is another easy 1.6 mile out-and-back, and judging from the parking lot, the rain has thinned out the usual crowds. We reach the falls quickly, and admire the view from the wood bridge straddling the dramatic drop-off. “This is serving Six Flags Splashwater Falls vibes,” I say to Kurt (and will say again roughly 1,000 times before the end of the trip).

We get back to the van and it’s still pouring rain. We could go to our campsite and sit in the rain, or we could go to the nearby hot springs resort (obviously a no-brainer). “You know what would be amazing in a camper van? A mud room,” I saw to Kurt as we attempt to hang up our wet rain jackets and rain pants somewhere they can air dry while not dripping all over the seats and bedding. We do a decent enough job, but this is the kind of trip where you must make peace with the fact that everything’s always going to be at least a little bit damp, from the blackout curtains to the comforter and pillows to your fleece jacket that you wear beneath your rain jacket. During the day there’s intermittent rain, and at night, condensation clings to everything inside the van.

The hot springs feel amazing. The resort consists of four pools—three of them naturally heated at temps ranging from 99 to 109 degrees, and one lap-sized pool filled with children apparently immune to freezing water. The resort is egalitarian compared to the bougie hot springs we visited near Taos earlier this year. Kids kick around in water wings in the 107-degree pool, and the concrete ground is covered with some sort of brown goopy mildew extremely slippery beneath wet feet. But still, it’s blissful to sit neck-deep in the sulphuric hot water, gazing at the misty mountain ridge in the distance; the steam feels soothing on my messed-up lungs. We strike up conversation with a woman sitting nearby who is visiting from Alaska, and have a pleasant conversation about Copper River and what it’s like to live somewhere where a bald eagle may drop a still-alive salmon into your backyard for dinner.

Back to camp and the rain has stopped, so we attempt to make a fire, but the wet wood slows down the process. After a meager little fire, we retire to the van to sleep amidst damp curtains and the sound of the Sol Duc River.

Sol Duc Falls

Asheville Road Trip: Drink Local

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohhhhhhklahoma!

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

Soundtrack: “Astrovan” Mt. Joy

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

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

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

Old 66

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

National Memorial

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

Kurt’s haul

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

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

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

Sand Dunes and a Spa Day in Southern New Mexico

Tuesday, April 30: Lincoln National Forest to White Sands to Las Cruces to Truth or Consequences

Soundtrack: “Las Cruces Jail” Two Gallants

From our campsite, it’s an hour-long drive to White Sands National Monument. We eat a light breakfast of yogurt and granola and drink piñon coffee, then hit the road.

You can see the gleaming white sand dunes in the distance as you approach the national monument. After we stop in the visitor center and pay our admission fees, we drive the van along the road that skims between waves of sand dunes. The white sand is gypsum, and it feels softer and silkier than regular beach sand. Kurt parks the van in a picnic area, and we get out and explore. White sand dunes sprawl in every direction around us. We take off our shoes and run up and down the dunes. There’s a school bus parked nearby, and a gaggle of kids running and laughing, using sleds to ride down the dunes. We head in another direction, up onto a higher dune far away from other visitors. The sky is clear and blue, and sun beats down at us and bounces off the white sand. On a day like this, you need to apply sunscreen on every inch of your body.

White Sands National Monument

It’s fun to play in the sand. I attempt a cartwheel and flop onto the sand. Kurt and I try running up a steeper dune to see how far we can go, then surf our way back down, running sideways to keep our balance. A strong wind creates rippling patterns in the gypsum that immediately bury footprints; it would be very easy to get lost out here if you wander off too far. I can almost imagine I’m on another planet out here, somewhere Star Wars-y like Tatooine or Jakku.

Surfin’ USA

Back on the road, our route takes us through Las Cruces, so we stop at a restaurant called Chachi’s that our friend recommended. At this point of the trip, I begin in earnest a pattern of eating green chile as part of every meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My green chile burrito and gigantic margarita are incredible. My margarita is also practically the size of a movie theater bucket of soda, so Kurt is stuck driving us the rest of the way to our final stop for the day, Truth or Consequences.

Literally for years, I’ve been wanting to visit Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, if for no other reason than its name is awesome. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard of it, but after doing an initial bit of research, I learned that the city sits on the Rio Grande and is known for its natural hot springs.

The Rio Grande

For our stay in T&C, I booked us a room at Riverbend Hot Springs Resort. After camping for most of our trip up to this point, we both crave showers and a real bed, so the resort is a nice treat. We check into our room, change into swimsuits, then go scope out the pool area. Multiple mineral hot springs pools are built into the ledge hanging over the banks of the Rio Grande. Underneath a large wooden pergola, there’s various lounge chairs, wicker basket seats, and hammocks for relaxing out of the sun. The pool area has a key rule, which is that only whispering is allowed, so it’s very quiet and serene. It’s exactly the New Agey moment I’d wanted.

Kurt tests the waters

Kurt and I soak in the mineral pools for a while. It’s super hot out, so sitting in a naturally heated 106-degree stone tub isn’t exactly refreshing, but the water is supposed to have healing elements and the scenery is gorgeous. I bring out my Kindle and read in the pool for a while. Kurt moves to a hammock for a nap. Once the heat gets to me, I sit on a lounge chair to dry and do a bit of writing in my travel notebook. I love the quiet aspect of the resort, with the only sounds coming from the light breeze, the lapping of the river, and soft windchimes. After so much constant movement and activity this week, we both enjoy being still.

spa day

At dinnertime, we walk to the nearby brewery and sample a few local beers, then get chicken wings from an Asian fusion restaurant. The sun has set, and I am eager to revisit the pools and see what the outdoor garden looks like at night. It does not disappoint. The greenery is dotted with tiny little green and blue lights, and lights are projected onto the trees across the river, giving the entire pool area a fairy-like magical appearance. Kurt returns to his favorite hammock, and I get back into the springs. Now that the air temps have cooled, it feels amazing to sit in the hot water. I lean back against the edge of the stone tub to gaze at the night sky and absorb all the healing.

 

 

 

 

Carlsbad Caverns and Camping

Monday, April 29: Roswell to Carlsbad to Lincoln National Forest

Soundtrack: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie

The shades on the van do a surprisingly good job on keeping out the bright sun. From my time living in Nevada in college, I remember how cool it gets in the desert overnight, and how quickly it heats up when the sun rises. Kurt makes us an amazing breakfast–egg and sausage burritos with green and red peppers, onions, and hot sauce. We eat at the picnic table, soaking in the sunshine now, because we’ll be spending most of this day underground. Back on the road, the landscape gets more and more desert-y. Tumbleweeds! Pronghorn! We see two roadrunners dart across the pavement.

In Carlsbad, we stop at a coffee shop to meet up with a friend (Hi Zane!). It’s nice to chat with a familiar face who is also a local, and she gives us lots of great restaurant recommendations for our trip, as well as shares some of her personal stories of the Caverns. I’ve barely been inside any cave systems besides a smallish one in southeastern Wisconsin, back in high school. I tend to get claustrophobic, but I know that the Carlsbad Caverns are gigantic, nothing like the midwestern cave where I had to crawl on my belly to get through some of the narrow passageways.

The drive to the National Park’s visitor’s center takes us through miles of sprawling desert hillside. It’s now hot outside, about 90 degrees, but we know it will be a cool, clammy 50 inside the caverns, so I bring my fleece jacket to throw on over my Captain America tank top (worn to boost my bravery points). To take the natural cave entrance, we leave the visitor’s center and walk back outside down a trail which eventually descends into a dark, gaping hole in the ground. The trail snakes into switchbacks for a gradual decline. As we reach the mouth of the craggy rock, dozens (hundreds?) of tiny swallows whoosh in and out over our heads. I try to get a good look in case they are bats, even though I know it’s the wrong time of day for them. I love bats; they are like goth mammal-birds. The chirping of the swallows echoes through the mouth of the cave, and we go past the last rays of sunshines that disappear into the caverns, then we are enveloped in cool darkness.

“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”

The entrance chamber is gigantic, and as we descend deeper into the cave, I make a lot of Bane references.  Finally, we reach the point where we can no longer see the opening, and if all of the lights went out, we’d be in complete and total darkness. The park system has strategically placed lights throughout the caverns to highlight interesting rock formations and guide visitors along the trail, but it’s still quite dim and Kurt is just a shadow in front of me. It’s a Monday in late April, so there aren’t many other visitors, and at times it feels like Kurt and I are the only ones in the cave with no other people in sight.

It takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire trail. Many of the features were named by a teenager, Jim White, who first explored the caves in 1898, and they have ominous, descriptive names: the Boneyard, Witch’s Finger, and the Bottomless Pit (seriously, why are so many things Bottomless in New Mexico? I am acrophobic and it freaks me out).

The Queen’s Chamber, Carlsbad Caverns

We weave through the caverns on the trail past limestone formations that look like Cthulhu, and stalagmites twice as tall as we are. 250 million years ago, this area was an inland sea. It is a bit mind-blowing to be in a place like this, somewhere untouched by the progress of humanity while paradoxically created by the passage of centuries. It feels primal and eerie, and I half expect some sort of prehistoric creature to emerge from the cracks and drag me screaming into the bottomless pits. I get nervous and hang onto Kurt’s arm to ground me. The deep crevasses make me think of Superman II when Zod falls to his death.

We eventually reach the Big Room, the largest chamber in the caverns, nearly 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. It’s impossible to capture the immensity, depth, and otherworldliness in a photo. I feel like we could emerge from this place and return to an Earth full of dinosaurs. But then we reach the underground gift shop, because of course there is, so we take a break and eat a snack while sitting on a bench. Imagine being the cashier at this concession stand, taking an elevator 800 feet down into the ground to get to work every day.

underground concession stand

When we finish exploring, we take the elevator back to the visitors center, to 90-degree temperatures and blazing sunlight. It’s time to find a campsite for the night, and we have lots of ground to cover to keep on schedule. We drive for nearly 3 hours to Lincoln National Forest. The terrain changes, and rolling hills morph into tree-covered mountains. Grassy valleys are dotted with white and brown cattle; BLM land alternates with private ranches. We turn off onto a forestry road, using a pdf map on our iPad. After rambling along rough gravel, we find a turn-off into a clearing that makes for a perfect campsite. There’s a previously used fire ring and enough trees to give us some privacy from the road. The air smells like Ponderosa pine and sagebrush.

We settle into our usual routine; Kurt gathers firewood while I get assemble our folding chairs and travel table. At the edge of the clearing, Kurt finds a hunk of animal fur and a few cleaned bones that look like they were once a small deer. I begin thinking about what predators live here, maybe mountain lions or black bears. We make tacos for dinner, and watch the sun set behind the tree line.

Lincoln National Forest

Iceland Diaries: Nerding Out on the Game of Thrones Tour

Saturday, Feb. 18

We had only booked one tour bus day trip excursion for the duration of our Iceland trip, and because we are who we are, it was a Game of Thrones shooting location tour. Almost all of the regulars from our yearly GoT Marathon were on the Iceland trip, so it made perfect sense. We took a quick shuttle ride to the bus terminal, where we boarded a giant touring bus. Having no idea of what to expect, we were surprised by the amount of people who had signed up; the bus was nearly filled to capacity with people of all nationalities, ranging in ages from twenty-somethings to an unexpected amount of elderly Thrones fans. “Winter is coming” t-shirts were spotted throughout the crowd.

Our tour guide reminded me of an Icelandic Simon Pegg. He kicked off the tour by introducing his two young sons, who were tagging along for the day. All three family members wore Star Wars t-shirts. The bus ventured out of the city and rumbled along gravel country roads until we arrived at… the exact same horse farm I had visited the day before, ha. One of the stablehands had a black Iceland horse waiting for us in the paddock, which we could pet and take photos with. The horse had been featured in an episode, so we were meeting our first GoT celeb. We learned that the scenes at Castle Black are filmed in Ireland, but scenes North of the Wall are in Iceland. Keep an eye on the horses while watching the show; Irish horses are taller than Icelandic horses, so if Jon Snow’s horse seems to experience shrinkage issues, it’s because they switched up shooting locations.

Kurt in front of Þórufoss

The next stop and first shooting location was a waterfall called Þórufoss. As our guide explained, it was the site for a scene from season 4 wherein one of Daenerys’s dragons attacks a herd of goats while a horrified farmer looks on. Since we forked over 92 for a narrated tour, we got to learn fun facts like the name of the goat that Drogon set aflame, which is Casanova. Casanova is not only famous for being featured on Game of Thrones; he is also a local celebrity because he fell deathly ill and was saved by wearing custom woollen sweaters. Thanks to Icelandic handmade goods, Casanova can continue to go and have a thriving acting career. After our tour guide told this story, I turned to my friends and said “This is EXACTLY what I signed up for.”

Þingvellir

Þingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and a popular tourist stop for the excellent reason that it is majestically, stunningly beautiful. It’s also the location for the path to the Eyrie and the Bloody Gate. IRL, the canyon between opposing walls of mossy rocks is the spot where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate. There’s also random waterfalls because Iceland. We spent a lot of time in this gorgeous spot, taking photos and enjoying a rare February moment of bright sunshine.

screenshot of the Bloody Gate

actual location minus the CGI

After boarding the bus again, we traveled a winding road through the park and saw other spots where some wildling camp scenes were filmed. The trails had been closed off to preserve the natural landscape, so we had to view it from the road. The next stop was an hour’s drive away, but first we had a lunch break at a small diner attached to a convenience store, where I had one of the best burgers of my life (no joke) (also, I might have just been really, really hungry).

those bloody Thenns

The final stop of the tour was a settlement-era Viking lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley. In the show, the location doubled as a village ravaged by Thenns. You will recall this as the scene in which Ollie’s parents are killed by the tribe of cannibals. I love a tour where the guide says “This is the location of the human sacrifice.” He carried along laminated stills from the show at each stop, and I took a photo of one in front of the location to compare. He also was excited to tell us that his good friend appeared as an extra on the show, and brought along a screenshot of his buddy in full costume alongside Tormund Giantsbane.

After the tour wrapped up, we had an hour-long bus ride back to the city. My only wish was for more behind-the-scenes tidbits and juicy gossip, though I did appreciate the tour guide’s local observations, such as when he ripped on the town of Selfoss for being “famous for dairy production and their love of cheesy techno.” He also waxed rhapsodic about the romance between the actors who play Jon Snow and Ygritte, offering up their relationship as consolation for the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (the couple famously split up right after Katie visited Tom on the Icelandic set of his movie Oblivion).

That evening back in Reykjavík, we had our last dinner together as a group at Sægreifinn, which I had heard about from the Iceland episode of a now-canceled travel show that our group used to love called Three Sheets. The lobster soup lived up to our expectations.The night ended with a few rounds of beer at Bryggjan Brugghús, Iceland’s first microbrewery, then it was back to the Airbnb for one final night (insert all the crying face emoji).