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.

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

Going Off-Route: Roswell, New Mexico

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

Soundtrack: “Motorway to Roswell” Pixies

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

Roswell

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

I want to beliebe

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

Kurt in front of Lea Lake

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

our campsite in Bottomless Lakes State park

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

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

FOR THE THRONE

 

Route 66: IL > MO > OK > TX

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

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

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

our route

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

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

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

parked at Lake Thunderbird, Norman, OK

Saturday, April 27: Oklahoma > Texas

Soundtrack: “Juice,” Lizzo 

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

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

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

Slug Bug Ranch on Route 66

Conway, Texas

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

Fierce and Forty

Nashville-eoke

This might be my greatest life advice: find yourselves some friends who are just as ridiculous as you are. In March 2015, a good friend and I created a ragtag team of karaoke enthusiasts for monthly outings to a revolving assortment of bars all over Chicago. 4 years later, Karaoke Club is still going strong, and for the second year in a row, we planned a destination outing. In 2018, we went to New Orleans, and this year, we picked Nashville, Tennessee.

Since the first time since I first visited Nashville back in 2007, there’s been a “bachelorette-ization” of Music City.  Our Airbnb was located in a neighborhood that barely existed 10 years ago, now a hub of development, high-priced boutiques, and cookie cutter houses used exclusively as Airbnbs. While eating brunch in the Gulch, 4 or 5 party buses rolled by, piercing our hangovers with rampant “WOO!”ing. But thankfully, Karaoke Club is fantastic at finding our own good time, and this trip did not disappoint.

a woman sings karaoke in a karaoke bar inside a double-wide trailer.

karaoke at Santa’s Pub

Our group of 12 arrived in Nashville at various points throughout the day, by car or plane. We had barely been in town for a few hours before we found ourselves in a private karaoke room singing along with cosplayers, handing over the microphone to a dude in a full mascot suit who grunted along the chorus to “Beauty and the Beast.” After getting warmed up amongst superheroes, we headed to our next destination, Santa’s Pub, a double-wide trailer turned dive bar where the bartenders will sell beers by the six-pack from a kitchen fridge.

From that point on, the night becomes a beautiful blur.  We watched a woman wail and slay “Whole Lotta Love.” I sang “Wrecking Ball” and a drunk woman on the front porch later complimented me by telling me she had a “spiritual experience.” We laughed at so, so many hilarious moments, and inside jokes were born. Our hair and clothes absorbed the smell of beer sweat and cigarette smoke and we danced and applauded and stayed til the end when the (very patient and friendly) bartenders turned on the lights and we skedaddled outta there to our waiting Lyfts.

I nearly barfed during brunch the next day, but it was totally worth it.

The next night we ate BBQ then explored Broadway, wandering in and out of packed bars where live music poured through every open storefront window. Tourists, bachelorette parties, and stumbling twenty-somethings jammed the sidewalks. The gutters emitted that Vegas-y, Bourbon Street-ish smell of bleach covering up beer and vomit. Somehow amidst this mess, we found a great time. A guitarist mouthed “thank you” at us when we sang the chorus to “Dead or Alive.” We danced to the Spice Girls. And then we got the hell out of there and found a karaoke bar in Printers Alley. Jell-O shots happened. We sang a few songs, then moved on to a gay bar where we danced to Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, and Jonas Brothers before calling it a night.

Broadway at night, a street filled with neon signs and sidewalks full of pedestrians

Broadway, a.k.a. Honky Tonk Highway

Oh, but our last night… You know those nights that start like any old Saturday evening, then end up taking you in completely unexpected directions? From the first round of drinks at a bar packed with pub crawlers decked out as superheroes, to the weird phenomena of the song “Mambo No. 5” following us everywhere, Saturday grew increasingly hilarious. We escaped downtown and took a taxi to East Nashville, where we had heard about a talent show fundraiser happening in a small music venue. Almost everyone in the bar was roughly 15 years younger than us, with arty haircuts and hipster thrift lewks.

The talent show was silly and amusing, obviously thrown together last minute, but it was a lead-up into a set by a local band, Molly Rocket. The lead singer could really wail, the drummer rocked it out in pink pajamas, and modern dancers performed on a makeshift side stage. I instantly loved it all. We were already buzzy from music and drinks and the thrill of stumbling into this place when the band beckoned us to lay down on the floor for the next song, and we all complied. A net released from the ceiling, and dozens of balloons spilled onto the crowd, which we batted around like kittens rolling on our backs while the lead singer filled the room with her voice and writhed onstage.

a balloon drop in a small rock venue

Balloon drop!

Every time I caught one of my friends’ eyes, we’d shout at each other “This is the best!!” It was the perfect blend of music and art and giddy drunkenness creating a boundless feeling where you’re totally in the moment in a way you’ll never forget.

After the band finished their show, DJ Ponywine played an hour-long set that consisted entirely of remixes and covers of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” We danced the entire time, and if you think it would ever get old hearing those familiar opening bass synth kick in every 4 minutes, you are dead wrong. Afterwards, the venue slowly cleared out, and we got invited to the after party at a bar up the street. If there was anything we’d learned so far that night, it was to say yes to everything, so we went.

I can barely remember the conversations I had there, but I do recall standing outside under a nearly full moon, meeting new people, exchanging stories, and having an overall fantastic night. I randomly found Einstok, a beer I loved from Iceland. We talked to Nashville locals about Chicago and then, for a final time, the house lights turned on, and we boot-scoot-boogied outside with the horde of giggly, stumbling twenty-somethings and scattered to our various Lyfts and Ubers.

Listen, I’m nearly 40 years old and I am not a person who closes down the bar on the reg, let alone twice in three nights. I nearly keeled over onto a plate of Nashville hot chicken one morning because this body-ody-ody is now more accustomed to yoga and a high fiber diet than 3 a.m. pizzas and Yuenglings purchased by the six-pack. And though this trip probably took 3 years off my total lifespan, every second was worth it. Days later, I’m still remembering all of the jokes that were made during our trip, and the adrenaline rush of singing onstage with friends and strangers (and sometimes, a dude in a Beast suit), and rolling around on the dirty-ass floor of a gritty rock club batting balloons while shouting “This is the best night ever!!”

Travel Pairings

Book: this one was tough for me because for some reason most books set in Nashville seem to be mystery thrillers (the John Grisham effect, I guess?) and I wanted to read something set in the music world, so I brought Daisy Jones & the Six
Film: Nashville, duh
Music: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”

Maine Diaries: Living that #VanLife

Saturday, September 16

Kurt and I, plus our dog River, packed up our Chevy Astrovan for a week-long road trip to Maine. We spent 12 hours on the road, ending up in the Finger Lakes National Forest in New York to spend our first night in the van. The sky had already grown dark as we reached the campground, and since the only available site was a walk-in, we ended up sleeping in the parking lot. It was a warm night, 80 degrees and sticky. We pulled down our window shades and slept on top of our sleeping bags with the roof fan cranking.

River ready to go

Sunday, September 17

We got on the road early. I entered two new states for the first time–Vermont! (where I ate a turkey sandwich with cranberries and stuffing on it) New Hampshire! (where I bought a box of wine), and then, finally, we crossed the bridge into Maine while passing through a misty rain. We traveled down dark roads lined by forests, and I told Kurt to slow down (“You’re gonna Stephen-King someone!”).  We pulled into Bradbury Mountain State Park just before nightfall, and enjoyed the quiet solitude of nature and “got away from it all” by watching the Packer game on the iPad using the campground wifi.

entering Maine

Monday, September 18

Now that we had reached Maine, we could spend less time driving and more time wandering and exploring various coastal towns. Our first stop was in Boothbay, where we found a restaurant on the water with dog-friendly outdoor seating. I had my first Maine lobster roll with a Bloody Mary. After lunch, we walked through town and checked out a few stores; every single one allowed dogs inside, so Maine is definitely a dog-friend travel destination. That night, we stayed at Camden Hills State Park in a secluded site at the end of the loop, far from any neighbors. The sky was misty with intermittent drizzling rain, creating an otherworldly backdrop of trees that could pass for Dagobah. We cooked burgers on our camp stove and tucked into our box of wine. When I walked to the restrooms near the main road,  the forest was still and quiet, with no sign of any other humans. I held my breath as I darted back to our site, expecting to see Pennywise lurking just beyond the reach of the beam of light coming from my headlamp.

#vanlife

Tuesday, September 19

We drove from Camden to Acadia National Park, stopping in Bucksport to buy groceries and check out John Buck’s Memorial in an old local cemetery. Legend has it that Colonel Buck had sentenced a witch to death by burning at the stake, and after his own passing, a black mark in the shape of a woman’s leg appeared on his monument. When we arrived in Acadia National Park, we stopped near Thunder Hole to see our first views of the ocean. A thick fog hung in the air, obscuring most of our view but creating an autumnal ambiance. We took a drive to the quiet side to see the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and when the skies cleared, I had to quote The Little Mermaid– “A fine strong wind and a following sea; King Triton must be in a friendly-type mood.” We settled in at the Blackwoods Campground where a steady rain kept us inside the van most of the night. We stretched out on the unfolded bench-turned-bed, and I read my book (Pet Sematary) while drinking boxed wine from our camping cups. River curled up on her doggie bed on the shag rug, sleeping peacefully while I read about pets being resurrected and coming back “not quite right.”

no one was forced to be in this photo. nope.

Wednesday, September 20

We spent the morning in Bar Harbor, eating breakfast in the dog-friendly patio area of That Way Cafe. As the sky cleared up, we drove back into the park for an easy first hike, going 3.2 miles around Jordan Pond and getting a nice view of North and South Bubble Mountains. The first half of the trail was an easy dirt path, but coming around the other side of the pond (which is actually a 150-feet-deep lake), the trail traveled over large rocks and boulders, and included a series of planks lifted off the ground to protect vegetation. River scrambled easily over the rocks but it was a little tricky to keep her on the planks when she would rather jump onto the forest floor.  That night, we drove back to Bar Harbor (we did lots of back-and-forth between the town and the campground since it was only 6 miles away) and had a lobster dinner–my first! River snoozed under the table as I learned how crack the shell and slurp out all the inner buttery goodness. She *might* have been given a little sample so she could brag about it upon her return to the dog park back home.

les poissons les poissons

Thursday, September 21

In the morning, we had breakfast at the campsite–eggs scrambled with hamburger and hashbrowns, and instant coffee. After, we packed up a daypack with water, snacks, and dog bowls, put River’s little doggo backpack on her, and set out from Blackwoods to the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail.  Roundtrip from our campground to the summit of the tallest mountain on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the hike is roughly 9 miles total over 1,500 feet of elevation gain–a nice, moderate day hike with nothing too crazy thrown at us. At the beginning of the trail, we wound through forest, hopping over tree routes, then started a gradual climb over rocks and boulders. River acted like she was half mountain goat, gamely jumping up rocks with a big doggo grin. As an acrophobic, the south ridge of Cadillac is my kind of mountain—no steep drop-offs that make my heart pound in fear, just gentle slopes where, even if I tripped and fell, I’d slide to a safe and easy stop instead of plummeting to my death. Once we climbed over the tree line, the views were incredible, giving us an 180-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean. When we reached the summit, we entered a swarm of tourist who either drove to the top or arrived by tour bus. We bought blueberry soda and ice cream bars in the gift shop and sat on a bench, resting our feet and refueling with sugar. My past knee injuries make descents tougher than ascents, so I was a little nervous about the return trip over the rockier parts of the trail, but we got back to camp without incident. River was equally adept hopping down giant rocks as she was going up. Once we got back to camp, we made a stop at the coin-operated showers down the road to wash up, and then had a final meal in Bar Harbor while River snoozed under the table, dreaming of adventure. That night at camp, through the windows of the van, we could hear the crash of the ocean, the waves dictated by the moon.

mountain goat doggo

Friday, September 22

I always get a little sad whenever we leave a National Park. Even when I’m eager for strong wifi, strong running water, and strong coffee, a part of me still wishes we were sleeping in the forest like little woodland creatures. We made a quick stop at the visitors center at the park entrance to get a sticker for the van, and got back on the road towards Portland. On the return trip, we took a small detour through Bangor, in small part so we could drive past Stephen King’s house. It was obvious when we found it; besides the handful of other tourists who had stopped to take a picture of his wrought-iron gate designed to look like a spider web, a large red balloon hovered just above the fence in homage to IT. We stopped to take a quick photo and walk River on the parkway; as we stood outside, we saw a car pull into the driveway and it was obviously Stephen King himself! So that was cool, though at that point we felt like obvious gawkers so we quickly got back into the van and on our way. In Portland, we had booked an Airbnb for two nights in town. We checked in, napped and cleaned up a bit, then went out for a night of dinner and drinking with a local friend, David (and Drinker with a Writing Problem!) who showed us around to some fun bars including the Thirsty Pig and the Great Lost Bear. We had plenty of good local beers and one impressive platter of nachos before we stumbled home and slept in a real bed for the first time in a week.

camping hair don’t care

Saturday, September 23

We slept in at the Airbnb, with no sounds of camping neighbors packing up cars in the early a.m.  For brunch, we checked out a recommendation from our friend, Hot Suppa, and I had one of my top-five-all-time-favorite Bloody Marys. It was a perfectly sunny, surprisingly warm afternoon, so we took River to the beach and played fetch in the water. We wrapped up the day by having some flights at Shipyard Brewing (their Pumpkinhead is an especially good pumpkin beer), dinner at Liquid Riot, and a few nightcap beers on the back porch of our Airbnb.

boat crazy!

Sunday, Sept. 24 – Monday, Sept. 25

We got an early start for our drive home, leaving the Airbnb at 7 a.m., flying through Maine and New Hampshire, then making a quick lunch stop in Massachusetts. Another state first for me! A friend of mine and I once tried to define what counts as having been to a state–my personal rule is that layovers don’t count unless you leave the airport, and driving through counts as long as you stop at some point and your feet hit the ground. We reached Cleveland around 7 p.m., where we spent the night with our good friend Becky at her house and hung out with her adorable son, dogs, and foster cat. On Monday, we drove the final stretch back to Chicago and it was pretty uneventful except for one magical moment. The backstory: in 2009, I drove to New York City with my sister to help her make a cross-country move. We left Chicago in a rental car packed to the brim at around midnight. By the time we reached Ohio, we were cracked out on coffee and energy drinks, and made a rest stop at a gas station. We were both shocked and delighted to find a very random poster of Romeo + Juliet-era Leonardo DiCaprio mounted on the wall in the women’s restroom. Because we were so tired, the memory of it seemed surreal, like perhaps our dreams were incepted by the same Tiger Beat editor. Years passed; I’ve made the Chicago-to-East-Coast drive multiple times since, and never came across that poster again….UNTIL NOW. When I walked into the women’s restroom and locked eyes with Leo’s baby blues, I died. I had stumbled across the same mirage in the desert, that magical Brigadoon.  I texted my sister immediately and her reaction was as expected: “OMG!!!!!!!!” I asked Kurt if there was a matching Claire Danes-as-Juliet poster in the men’s room, but he said no. Must’ve been sold separately.

Leo 4-eva

Anyways, a few hours later, we finally reached home. Maine’s lovely and you should check it out.

Iceland Diaries: Karaoke North of the Wall

Thursday, Feb. 16

The alarm went off at 7 a.m. Outside of the Land Rover, the sky was still dark. We’d never fully see the forested area where we spent our last night on the road. I got dressed, put my clothes in my backpack, and then tucked myself as small as I could into a corner of the Rover so Kurt would have room to change and pack. We set the GPS for Reykjavík and began the 2-hour drive back to town.

family reunion!

family reunion!

After dropping off the Land Rover at Kúkú Campers, we took a taxi to our Airbnb. Our friends wouldn’t get back from their Höfn road trip until that evening, so we had the place to ourselves. Thursday was also the only day that our trip overlapped with my sister Lauren and her husband Charlie’s Iceland trip; they had flown out a few days earlier than us and went on a 3-day ice caving expedition. We met up with them and exchanged vacation stories. Most excitingly, Lauren and Charlie had seen the Northern Lights the night before! A lucky combination of a clear night sky and a 4 on the Aurora forecast had allowed them to view the lights from the courtyard of their hotel. Lauren showed us some of the amazing photos she took on her camera; they got a light show for a solid hour.

our most frequent Icelandic lunch: hot dogs

our most frequent Icelandic lunch: hot dogs

We walked downtown to get lunch at a hot dog stand and do a little shopping. We discussed checking out the Icelandic Phallological Museum, but it a long walk away, and I said “I feel like the whole world is a penis museum.” Instead, we had a few pints at an Irish pub called Drunk Rabbit.

Back in Chicago, my friend Ray (part of the Höfn crew) and I have a monthly get-together with friends called Karaoke Club, where we visit a new karaoke bar every third Thursday of the month. Since February’s third Thursday fell during our Iceland trip, we made a plan to hold a club outing in Reykjavík. During our vacation preparations, Ray did some research and found a hostel on the west side of town that has a private karaoke room. Before leaving for Höfn, Ray left a note in the kitchen for us with the name of the hostel and a start time of 9 p.m.

Karaoke Club: Reykjavík edition

Karaoke Club: Reykjavík edition

It was Lauren and Charlie’s last night in Iceland, so we splurged on a really nice dinner at Lobster & Stuff, a restaurant on the water, then walked over to Oddsson Hostel to meet our friends for karaoke. Oddsson is the swankiest hostel I’ve ever seen, more of a hotel hybrid. The karaoke room is a soundproof mirrored cube in the middle of the restaurant/bar of the hostel, so people can watch you but can’t hear. It’s pretty much the greatest thing anyone’s ever invented. We loaded up our song choices in the self-service karaoke machine, and proceeded to drink, sing, and have a blast for the next few hours. My song choices: “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk (I had to), “Break Free” by Arian Grande, “A Whole New World” duet, “Love on Top” by Beyoncé. There may have been some Carly Rae Jepsen too; it’s hard to remember after we were a few Einstoks in.

The karaoke machine shut off promptly at the end of our rental period (fittingly during Ray’s rendition of “We Gotta Get out of this Place”), so we met up with the rest of our friends and walked back to the downtown area, hit up one more bar for a round, and went back to our Airbnb to finish off our remaining Duty Free alcohol while keeping an eye on the Aurora forecast. The website didn’t look promising, but we didn’t want to give up hope just yet.

Iceland Diaries: Fire and Ice

Wednesday, Feb. 15

img_0362

I woke up like this

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

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

Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

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

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Lounging on Diamond Beach

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

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

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

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug

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

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

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

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