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.

Asheville Road Trip: Paddling Kentucky

Monday, May 31, 2021: Paddling the Cumberland River

The owner of the campground we stayed at recommended a 14-mile stretch of the Cumberland River as a perfect day trip. “I can tell you guys are experienced, so you’ll really enjoy it,” he said as he sized up the kayak and solo canoe strapped to our car. These words always make me a little nervous. What does any given person consider “experienced”? Our annual canoe trip is on a river so slow and placid that if you lost your boat, you could walk back to camp along the sandy river bottom.

We prepared our boats at the launch right on the campground, while the owner led Kurt 14 miles down the river to the takeout spot where he could park the car. I kept hearing the takeout spot referred to as Cumberland Falls Resort. Apparently the resort included a lodge so big, it would be impossible to miss.

“So, are we on the bottom of the falls?” I asked Kurt right before we pushed off. “No, we’re at the top,” he said.

“By the way,” the campground owner told us before he drove off, “when you hit that first patch of white water, keep to the left. But you guys will be fine; you’re experienced!”

“What?!” My mind immediately jumped to the image of the Great Northern Hotel located right next to the giant Snoqualmie Falls from the opening credits of Twin Peaks. “So if we miss our takeout point, we die in a giant waterfall?!” Sometimes I think I should name my travel blog The Anxious Adventurer because my mind is always calculating all the possible chances of death. I like to think that I just have a strong sense of self-preservation, but in comparison to Kurt, I am a natural worrier.

a red canoe on a green river in front of a green forest on a sunny day with a blue sky. A long-haired man wearing a purple t-shirt sits in the canoe, looking back over his shoulder at the camera. A white dog with pointy ears wearing a life vest follows his gaze.
Cumberland River trip

We started our trip, with Kurt in the solo canoe with River, and me in the kayak. The sun was out, the sky clear and blue, and the weather warmed quickly. It was a perfect day to be out on the water.

I had my waterproof speaker bungeed to the top of my kayak, and I played my favorite summer playlist of AM Gold as we floated along. The scenery was gorgeous; both sides of the river are flanked by the National Forest. The campground owner had told us that he spotted a black bear and her two cubs on the river bank the last time he went canoeing. I relaxed into the day, drinking in the sun and landscape.

The first white water appeared early on, and we remembered the instructions to stay left. As I paddled my way over, even the left side of the river looked dotted by rocks. I did my best to navigate around the largest boulders, pointing the nose of my boat towards the smoother spots between riffles where the water broke over underwater rocks. Still, I felt the sides of the boat come into contact with rocks that shifted me sideways. I straightened out just in time to see the water level drop about a foot over a ridge. I rode over it, then looked backwards for Kurt.

“That was fun!” said Kurt, while River looked skeptical in her doggie life vest.

And so went the rest of the 14 miles, alternating stretches of serene water, occasionally broken up by light white water. As I got more confident navigating the boulders, it became a lot more fun. Still, the low key anxiety in the back of my mind lingered as we got closer to the falls. I pumped Kurt for more information, asking about the accessibility of the boat launch and the speed of the current near the resort. He assured me that it was calm water and an easy takeout compared to other spots we’d paddled in the past where we’d blown past our exit. There have to be warning signs posted, I thought to myself.

I noticed as we paddled along that hardly anyone else was out on the river. We’d only seen two other groups of boaters all day, on a holiday weekend, no less. In Wisconsin, we were used to sharing the water with dozens of groups and tubing party brigades. Having the place to ourselves was awesome and just a tiny bit concerning, because again, I worry a lot. During a serene stretch of river, I heard a strange noise coming from the forest. I turned off my my music to listen, and heard it again. A loud staccato burst of noise reverberated from the woods, followed by quiet. It sounded like a woodpecker the size of a T-rex.

As we got closer to the resort, we heard more people in the woods. A friendly man setting up camping chairs on the bank with his wife shouted an entire conversation at us, politely inquiring about our day before asking if we were going to the Falls. He didn’t seem concerned or warn us about a potential death plunge, so I chalked that up to a positive. At another point, we heard a group of young people racing four-wheelers just beyond the trees, while a girl screamed her friend’s name.

“If we lived here, I’d be doing that,” said Kurt.

“I’d be the girl screaming,” I replied.

As we reached the final 180 curve that Kurt had noted as a landmark, we started keeping an eye out for the resort. It loomed ahead, just beyond a bridge. Kurt told me that the landing would be directly past the bridge on the right, so we attempted to paddle over, but things suddenly got a bit dicey. A patch of swirling water started spinning us out and away to the left. I watched Kurt and the canoe get pushed closer to the left bank, so I gave in to the inevitable and literally went with the flow. The water pushed me onto a large flat boulder and I was grounded for a brief moment, but I was able to scooch myself off and back into enough water to float me over. We got passed the eddies, and the water smoothed out all the way to the bridge. We hugged the right river bank, searching for the takeout point. From what Kurt had seen when he dropped off the car earlier, it was a clear and easy ramp, but we couldn’t see it from the vantage point of the water.

“Maybe we need to go a little bit farther?” Kurt asked, and my heart started to speed up.

“I thought you said it was right next to the bridge.” The resort was situated up the high river bank, and tons of people sauntered along the sidewalk just beyond a wooden fence. “Maybe we should ask someone.”

“Hey!” Kurt shouted to a man nearby. “Do you know if the boat ramp is nearby, or is it further down?”

“I have no idea!” he shouted back. “But you know there’s a waterfall coming up?”

“Exactly my concern!” I replied, grimacing.

A group of ducks floated just ahead of us, and we noticed that they disappeared behind some tall grass along the bank. Aha! We paddled closer, and finally spotted the gradual dirt ramp emerging from the water that had been hidden behind the grass. I sped up, paddling my way to solid ground with relief.

Once we’d dealt with strapping both boats back onto the car, we took a walk further downriver to check out the waters. A Memorial Day crowd packed the parking lot and sidewalks, and dozens of motorcycles slow-rolled past while looking for spots. We passed the gift shop and concessions to make our way to the viewing platform, and finally saw the Cumberland Falls–all 70 feet of it, just under 200 yards away from where we took out our boats. My anxiety rests its case.

Cumberland Falls

Asheville Road Trip: Hiking Kentucky

Sunday, May 30: Hiking the National Forest

A plate of bacon, potatoes, and eggs sitting on a lap, while a white dog stands next to it begging for a bite.
“Are you gonna finish that?”

The weather forecast for the day topped out in the low 60s, a little on the chilly side for paddling but perfect for hiking. Kurt and the campground owner had talked about some trail recommendations the previous night, so we opted for one that sounded good despite its name, the Dog Slaughter Falls Trail. I do not know the history of this waterfall’s name, but by the end of our week of traveling through the rural South, I grew accustomed to places named after various creatures, varmints, and their untimely demise. There’s two trailheads, locally referred to as the old one and the new one, and we went with the latter in order to maximize our hike further onto the adjoining Sheltowee Trail (the older trailhead adds a few more miles of walking alongside the road and Dog Slaughter Creek).

The National Forest was busy on Memorial Day weekend, and we passed lots of families and couples, many of them out with their dogs. Dog Slaughter Trail is rated easy to moderate, with just enough climbing to keep the views interesting. There were enough thick roots and large boulders that I was glad I had my hiking poles, and I can imagine that on a muddy day, some areas would get especially dicey, but we lucked out with perfect hiking weather conditions. River was a hit on the trail, with every passing child asking if they could pet her. When she went into dog Parkour mode over some of the larger boulders, passersby cheered for her.

We settled into our hiking rhythm, and it felt amazing to be stretching our legs on the trail. After a year spent confined to the Midwest, I relished the change of scenery. There’s something so elemental and uncomplicated about experiencing a place via hiking. At a walking pace, you notice the tiniest details, the scent of different kinds of forests, even the feeling of the air, from the dry high altitudes of New Mexico to the salty mist of Maine. In Kentucky, there was a light scent of hemlock and hickory. The air temperatures lingered on the edge of spring dipping into early summer.

As we grew closer to the waterfall, we noticed the sound of rushing water drifted through the trees. The trail takes you up a ridge high above the creek before descending down some meandering switchbacks to the base of the falls. Nestled into a woodsy cove, the waterfall is much more pleasant than its name suggests. Hikers rested on the rocks, eating snacks and snapping photos. Some kids crawled along the rocks behind the falls to stand hidden by the spray. We witnessed a girl show up with a photographer and an outfit change to take a sweet 16 photo shoot in the scenic spot.

a 20-foot-tall waterfall cascades from a sheer drop into a small pool.
Dog Slaughter Falls
A female hiker poses in front a large rock formation multiple stories tall.
Hiking the trail

After a snack break, Kurt, River, and I continued past the waterfall towards the Sheltowee Trail, and found ourselves alone in the forest. It seemed to be the popular choice for over 90% of hikers to turn around at the waterfall instead of doing the entire 2.4 mile in-and-out trail. Once we merged onto the Sheltowee, the trail runs alongside the much wider Cumberland River. I could tell we were the first ones on the trail that day as I walked through a LOT of spiderwebs. Since we planned to paddle the Cumberland River the following day, we looked for gaps in the trees to get a better view. Eventually, we found a sandy path down the ridge that took us right to the water’s edge. The current turned into light white water as it broke up over scattered boulders. We found a nice spot along the water to chill out for a while and play stick fetch with River. The spot had the remains of a fire pit and some sitting logs, so it must have been recently used by backpackers. I’d absolutely come back to this National Forest for a backpacking trip someday.

A wide river flanked by green trees and boulders. In the foreground, a long-haired man in a long-sleeved shirt and pants sits on the rocks, smiling, next to a white medium-sized dog.
Kurt and River alongside the Cumberland River

We turned around to make the return trip back to our car. Once again, we were alone on the Sheltowee (besides a trail runner talking to his GoPro), and the crowds returned when we reached the falls. River scrambled over the boulders like a champ. Part of the reason we really wanted to bring River on this trip is because she turned 9 years old last winter, but she still has great energy and drive to explore. We want to get in as many adventure trips as we can with her while she’s still up for it. Despite the dog-unfriendly name, the waterfall and trail were the perfect difficulty level for a senior adventure dog.

After leaving the forest, we took a longer route back to our campsite, detouring through a small town for treats. At a Dairy Queen drive-in, River was given her own pup-cup of soft serve ice cream. We ate our ice cream on the patio while watching a pack of bikers pass through, likely on their way to the Smokies. Whenever we travel, I always get a little wistful over the idea of living somewhere so close to the mountains.

After one final stop for treats (a.k.a. the Bourbon Barn), we headed back to camp. Kurt cooked burgers for dinner, which we paired with a 6-pack of local beers. We rested our legs by the fire before bundling up for a chilly night in the tent.

Asheville Road Trip: Indiana and Kentucky

Friday, May 28, 2021: IL – IN

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

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

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

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

*maybe John Cougar Mellencamp

Saturday, May 29, 2021: IN – KY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movin’ Right Along Through Missouri and Illinois

Saturday, May 11: Carthage, MO > Sangchris Lake, IL

Soundtrack: “Movin’ Right Along,” The Muppets

Fueled up on caffeine from a local shop called Mother Road Coffee, we hit the road. I cue up the song “Movin’ Right Along” from the Muppet Movie. I’ve been quoting one of my favorite Fozzie lines during our trip, “A bear in his natural habitat: a Studebaker.” We stop at the World’s Largest Fork in Springfield, as well as a Steak ‘n Shake that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Movin’ right along, footloose and fancy free

We then try a classic tourist activity that I’ve never done before: an animal park safari. I have a lot of mixed feelings about private zoos and the sales of exotic animals. The first section of the wildlife park is exactly the kind of thing that bums me out: big mammals in cages. The tigers and lions on display look bored AF. A bobcat paces around its enclosure over and over. We move on to the  much more cheerful goats, which flock to the fence to greet us. After we finish the walking part of the tour, we get into the car to drive through the open range where animals run free, and this is where shit gets real.

With a bag of oat pellet treats between us in the front seat, we drive the van into the safari section of the park. It’s wild to me that places like this still exist, where you are trusted to drive through in your own vehicle and feed animals through your window. The animals in this free range part of the park are all either ungulates  or large birds, so there’s nothing that’s going to maul you, but it all feels a little surreal to me.

Immediately, a very outgoing wildebeest runs right up to my window and sticks his face through my open window, seeking treats. Saliva pours out of his mouth and pools onto my pants. I toss a few pellets out the window, and as soon as the wildebeest go after them, I roll my window up quickly. Kurt drives at a crawl along the road, and the view of the 350-acre park opens up in full display, dozens of llamas, donkeys, sheep, and goats all looking at us. A pack of alpacas crane their necks and walk towards the van in slow motion, and I feel like we’re in a really weird zombie movie. We watch the car in front of us get swarmed by zebras. Five ostriches prance by, fanning their fluffy wings.

I get the hang of keeping the window mostly rolled up until I’m ready to pass out pellets to the next animal, preventing further drool fiascos. It takes us nearly two hours to drive through the whole thing. The grounds are expansive, and the animals are free to approach the road or roam away from visitors into the valleys or wooded areas. I feel a lot better seeing this part of the park where the animals obviously have plenty of room to wander about. I never would have guessed I’d pet a camel during this trip, and yet, here we are.

We have a surprisingly fun and hilarious time on the safari. It makes me wish that parks like this would focus on the free ranging herbivores and not include large exotic animals like big cats and black bears, who will never be happy in caged enclosures. But at the same time, I know that when private zoos close down and their animals get sold off, they can end up in potentially worse circumstances, so I guess I am glad that at least the big cats we saw appeared healthy and looked after.

On to the next stop, which happens to be, uh, Uranus. It’s a tourist stop along Route 66 which seems to exist for the sole reason to run rampant with cheeky puns (see what I did there). There’s a Fudge Factory and a Creamery. The town newspaper is called the Examiner, and they have an escape room called Escape Uranus. The whole thing is basically heaven for 12-year-old boys (though I will add that the photos of Uranus in my Instagram stories got the most laughing emoji reactions from my 40-something-year-old friends).

What is a Route 66 trip without a stop at the World’s Largest Rocking Chair? We jumped off the highway to take a quick photo, and I was charmed by the two feral cats sitting in the grass at the foot of the chair.

The cats tho!

We pass through St. Louis, glimpsing the Arch, and cross the Mississippi River, back into Illinois. I look out my window through a splotch of dried bison saliva crusted onto the glass, and sigh. It’s a bittersweet mix of emotions–grateful to be almost home and reunited with our pets, but sad that our adventure is coming to a close. But first, we get to camp one more night. We reach Sangchris Lake State Park just outside of Springfield, find a campsite, and settle in. Apparently, Illinois has been getting drenched in rain while we were gone, and the ground is that kind of heavy mud that nearly sucks your boots off your feet. We make our last campfire of the trip, and drink the last few New Mexico beers from our cooler.

Sunday, May 12: Sangchris Lake > Chicago, IL

Soundtrack: “Pulaski at Night” Andrew Bird

It rains steadily all night. I love the sound of light rain on the roof of the van. I love sleeping in the van and the smell of campfire clinging to my hair. I’ve loved this trip, bursting with new memories and experiences. We have about 2 and a half hours left of driving to go, but it’s just a flat, uneventful burn through farmland in the misty rain.

Eventually, the Chicago skyline appears ahead. I love this view from the south side of the city, the way that the skyscrapers loom above the overpasses, the pinwheels atop Comiskey Field, the merging of red tail lights across the wide expressway. We’re home.

Over two weeks, we’ve driven a total of 3,871 miles through six states. We started at the low elevation of 594 feet in Chicago, and reached a high of 10,300 feet atop Sandia Peak. The hottest days reached 91 degrees, and the coldest nights plummeted to 35 degrees. I turned 40, and our marriage turned 5. It’s nearly impossible to capture the all of the feelings I have in my heart, so instead, I put on the last song from our road trip playlist, and let Andrew Bird sing it out:

“I paint you a picture
Of Pulaski at night
Come back to Chicago
City of, city of light”

 

 

 

Route 66, Eastward Bound

Thursday, May 9: Santa Fe, NM > Tucumcari, NM > Amarillo, TX > Elk City, OK

Soundtrack: “Route 66” Nat King Cole

We wake up in a foggy, misty, snowy rain. It’s not worth hanging around and making breakfast, so we pack up and drive down to a lower elevation. After fueling up on PB&J English muffins and gas station coffee, we are on our way back East for the return leg of our trip.

Since we booked it out to New Mexico so quickly at the start of our trip, we’re taking our time on our way home and stopping at all of the Route 66 sights and landmarks. Right around lunchtime, we arrive in Tucumcari, a city noted for its devotion to preserving the vintage aesthetic of Route 66. As we drive down the main drag, I recognize iconic kitschy images like the sombrero above the entrance of La Cita Restaurant, the sculpted concrete entrance of Tee Pee Curios, and the neon sign of the Blue Swallow Motel. Every building has some sort of reference to Route 66 painted in eye-catching splashy murals. “Get your kicks!”, the signs tells us.

We  eat sopaipillas swimming in green sauce for lunch and take tons of pictures of all of the 50’s era shops and motels.

The ghost town of Glenrio straddles the border of New Mexico and Texas. It’s considered a casualty of I-40, the interstate that replaced Route 66 as the main American byway, swerving tourism away. It feels eerie and haunting to peek into the ruins of rundown gas stations and motels, long abandoned and semi-reabsorbed into the landscape as weeds run rampant. Having visited sacred ancient places like Chaco Canyon so recently, it’s interesting to view neglected, modern day ruins like Glenrio and think about what chapter they add to the story of American history. Parts of the film The Grape of Wrath were filmed here, and I think about the waves of migration that have moved through these places over centuries–who was running towards something vs. away from something, by force or by choice, for adventure or for survival. And then at one point, we started retracing it all in wood-paneled station wagons, then RVs and conversion vans. What a wild, weird world.

We continue along, jumping on and off the historic route and I-40 alternately, putting New Mexico in our review mirror. Just west of Amarillo, we stop at Cadillac Ranch. The sky is gray, rainclouds swirling threateningly yet holding back. We walk around the art installation that is 10 Cadillacs buried nose first into the dirt. It’s definitely an inventive way to draw people to a place. The bodies of the cars are thick with layers upon layers of spray paint, and several aerosol cans lay in the mud, inviting us to leave our own mark on this roadside attraction.

“I was here”

The sun is starting to get low in the sky right around the time we reach the vintage gas stations of Shamrock, Texas, and do another driver switch. We decide to make Elk City, Oklahoma, our final stop. I call ahead to the Flamingo Inn, one of many motels listed as an historic Route 66 stop, and confirm they have a vacancy. By the time we get checked in, it’s nearly 9 p.m., just a few hours away from our 5-year wedding anniversary. We celebrate properly and order from Pizza Hut. Kurt tried to surprise me with a heart-shaped pizza, but the teenagers on shift didn’t know how to make one, so we get regular pan plus a tray of gooey brownies instead. In our room, we lay on the bed eating pizza and brownies and drinking boxed wine while watching a Steve Carrell movie on cable, and it’s a pretty perfect night.

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.

 

 

 

Santa Fe

Saturday, May 5: Albuquerque to Santa Fe

Soundtrack: “Santa Fe” Beirut

In the morning, I am feeling the effects of all those pints and my 40 years of age. We pack up our stuff, check out of the Airbnb, and stop over at a cafe. I order a crepe burrito with bacon, eggs, and green chile that literally gives me life. It’s a quick 45-minute drive and we reach our next stop, Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, a city of just under 84,000 people, is the third largest art market in the country behind New York and Los Angeles, which is pretty astounding to this typically snobby Chicagoan. We start our explorations in the Old Town area, which is similar to Albuquerque in that it’s filled with shops, artisans, and traditional architecture. Santa Fe also seems to draw in a lot of rich people. Kurt and I go into a clothing store filled with leather goods and fur coats with $$$$ price tags. I notice a display of elegant “Conceal and Carry” purses.

After kicking around for a bit and eating ice cream cones in the historic town square, we drive a few minutes over to the Railyard area. We stop by Jean Cocteau Cinema, a local theater and bookshop owned by George R.R. Martin.

mural by John Pugh

We go to a vintage cowboy clothing store for Kurt, and a witch store for me. I  buy a candle and a quartz crystal, because when in New Mexico…

Kurt insists on a break from New Mexican food, so we try out an African restaurant called Jambo Cafe, which has excellent reviews and won the “Souper Bowl” multiple times. Our food is so delicious that I continue eating even past the point that I am so full I’m in physical pain. (And I would do it again!)

Our Airbnb sits up in the hills above a panoramic view of the city. Kurt and I sit outside, enjoying a local beer while watching the sun set.

Sunday, May 5: Meow Wolf

Soundtrack: “Space Oddity” David Bowie

There’s something in Santa Fe that I’ve been dying to see for years, ever since I first heard about it. Meow Wolf is the brainchild of a collective of DIY artists, tired of being shut out of the traditional art scene that dominates Santa Fe. In 2016, thanks to an investment from George R.R. Martin, the collective opened a fully immersive, interactive art installation inside a 75,000 sq. ft. former bowling alley. I highly recommend watching the documentary Origin Story, which does an excellent job of capturing the arduous journey of Meow Wolf’s creation from DIY punk shows to Public Benefit corporation with new locations soon to open in multiple cities. I first heard about Meow Wolf years ago, from a good college friend (Hi R!) whose brother has been involved since the beginning. And finally, Kurt and I get to see it in person!

Outside the building, several metal sculptures–a wolf, a robot, a gigantic spider–loom over the parking lot, setting the mood for what we’ll find inside. When you first enter the exhibit, titled The House of Eternal Return, you encounter a fully recreated Victorian home. There’s a storyline involved, and as you make your way through the installation, you search for clues to uncover what happened to the Selig family, the house’s occupants who mysteriously disappeared. Shortly after we enter the house, I open the kitchen fridge and see a blinding white tunnel that leads to an intergalactic travel agency. Kurt follows me inside, and for the next few hours, we explore the many dimensions of Meow Wolf.

I cannot express in words how trippy and wild this place is, nor do I truly want to–I don’t want to spoil all the surprises. I just want to urge you to go check out the House of Eternal Return, or one of the upcoming Meow Wolf installations in Denver or Las Vegas. To give you a taste of what to expect, I will say that I crawled into a glowing fireplace that led to a pink ice cave full of stalactites, slid down a light-up slide inside a washing machine, and received a fortune from a fortune-telling machine that told me to wear socks with Tevas.

Kurt and I wander around on our own, eventually running to find each other whenever we discover something rad. There are countless interactive elements; we come across a row of red laser beams, and realize that if we “pluck” the beams, they play like harp strings. A recumbent bench is revealed to be from an old school bus sliced in half and pointed upright, and hitting the control buttons creates a psychedelic light show in the windshield. I am blown away by the ingenuity and also the playful sense of humor that permeates the entire exhibit.

Eventually, finally, we must leave, even though I don’t really want to. I want to stay in this weird art fever dream forever.

We spend the rest of the day hanging out around Santa Fe–pints and live mariachi music at Santa Fe Brewing Co., dinner and craft beer flights at Rowley Farmhouse Ales, and end the night at the Airbnb, watching Game of Thrones together on the iPad.

I’m so grateful I finally got to visit Meow Wolf, after years of hearing about it from idea to inception. I feel so renewed with inspiration, and as always, that desire to explore, to hear stories, and to keep telling stories.

A woman crawls into a blue tunnel inside a washing machine.

Albuquerque

Friday, May 3: Hanging out in Albuquerque

Soundtrack: “Albuquerque” Weird Al

We’re now a full week into our trip. I love a 2-week-long vacation. It gives you enough time to unplug from routine then have a lovely amount of time to revel in that feeling before you need to start thinking about the return to real life. Kurt and I are both so lucky that we have the ability to enjoy this amount of time off together. I will never take that for granted.

We grab breakfast at Cecilia’s Cafe, a few blocks from our Airbnb, and I get eggs doused in green chile. Afterwards, we drive to Old Town and walk around, checking out the stores. In the town square, we see an RV functioning as a Breaking Bad tour.

It’s my idea to ride the Sandia Peak Tramway, which is surprising given my terrible fear of heights. The cable cars carry you up to the top of Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest, and I want to see the view from safely behind enclosed glass. Kurt and I buy our tickets and board the cable car, and as soon as we clear the tree line, I realize that being inside a glass box doesn’t make me feel any less anxious. In fact, as I look ahead and see how high the first tower is, I start to panic sweat. I’m not the only nervous person in the tram; I hear a few others whimper as we pass through the first tower, causing the cable car to swing back and forth a bit. I try to talk myself rationally through my fear and look out the window–after all, I paid to get this view. It really is incredible. We watch the city of Albuquerque drift into the background. The forest beneath is lush, verdant, and full of wildlife, so I keep my eyes peeled for black bears or mountain lions.

We finally reach the top at 10,378 feet elevation, which is the highest we have ever been outside of an airplane. The view is worth it.

Albuquerque from the top of Sandia Peak

I tell Kurt, “You aren’t afraid of heights, so coming up here isn’t a big deal for you. And because I AM scared, and did this anyways, I’m actually braver than you are. I’m pretty sure that’s the main lesson of Harry Potter.”

We walk around the chalet for a bit, checking out the nearby trails and the ski lifts in rest mode, then eventually catch a ride back down. Our cable car on the return trip is packed more tightly, so it’s harder for me to see out the window (and therefore, a little less nerve-racking). I overhear a woman say to her husband “I don’t think anyone could really hold on with one hand and pull someone back up with the other” and I want to shout “You watched the Point Break remake too!!” but I do not.

It’s early afternoon and we have nothing but time on our hands, so we start checking out some local breweries, hopping from Bow and Arrow Brewing (they have several saisons, which greatly pleases Kurt), to Dialogue Brewing (as a writer I obviously had to pick up their t-shirt), then Sidetrack Brewing, which is having some sort of big First Friday party called Adobe Disco, with a DJ playing on the outdoor patio. After camping for so long, we totally forgot about weekends.

Kurt

In fact, there’s an art walk going on all evening, which is an recurring monthly event. We keep ordering pints as the music grows louder and the beer garden gets more crowded. I’m having a fantastic time. “I think I love Albuquerque!” I text to like three people. Amidst all the drinking, we forgot to eat dinner, always a winning combo. Thankfully, as we stumble the few blocks home to our Airbnb, we pass a food truck selling frito pie, and place some orders to go.

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.