Asheville Road Trip: Headed Home By Way of Cave City, KY

Friday, June 4: Take Me Home, Country Roads

On our last morning in Asheville, we said goodbye to the neighborhood cat that we had bonded with on the front porch. I loved the character of our little rental home, from the stained glass art, reclaimed church pew, and rocking chairs of the front porch to the woven hammock and ivy on the patio.

We had one last breakfast in town and made a final stop at a thrift store/bar/rock ‘n roll wedding chapel that I wanted to check out. Our plan was to roughly split the 10-hour drive home over the next two days, picking a place to spend our last night somewhere along the way. It was a hot, humid day, with the temperature creeping close to 90 degrees. Each time we got back into the car, I welcomed the blast of arctic AC on my face.

It’s always a little bittersweet to point the car towards home, knowing that this is the furthest you get to go, until next time. Goodbye, Asheville! You showed us a great time, one we sorely needed. The sun climbed higher in the sky as we crossed the North Carolina border back into Tennessee. Our proximity to Gatlinburg was measurable by the increased frequency of weird billboards–“World’s Biggest Knife Shop!” “Underground Zip-Lining!” “Some sort of Pirate Show with Sexy Russian Ladies!” (we were driving fast so I may have misread that one).

As we neared Kentucky, we stopped at a gas station to refuel and begin researching a place to stop for the night. Kurt found an USACE-run campground near a lake where all the sites looked to be waterfront, which sounded promising until we learned that it was in a dry county. I wasn’t thrilled about enduring a hot sweaty final night in the tent totally sober, so we kept searching. Nearly every campground close to Mammoth Cave was booked up. It started to look like we’d have to spend the last night of our trip in a dog-friendly Holiday Inn. We kept the booking.com listing on the proverbial back burner as we got closer to Cave City, Kentucky.

With sunset approaching, it was time to make a decision. I could tell Kurt preferred the campground over a chain hotel, but was willing to go with the Holiday Inn to make me happy. This put me into decision paralysis and I couldn’t bring myself to click the booking button on the app on my phone. “Maybe we’ll find something here,” Kurt said, suddenly optimistic as we reached the heart of Cave City and started spotting motels along the highway. All of a sudden, we spotted a semi-circle of teepee-shaped structures with a big neon sign in front. It was a classic motel right out of the last midcentury, reminiscent of old Route 66.

We pulled into the parking lot and I was googling the motel when the owner spotted us and walked over. He happened to have one remaining vacancy, and dogs were allowed as long as they were friendly. River of course took this perfect opportunity to begin barking her face off at the stranger offering us shelter for the night. Before she could blow our chances, we took her out of the car to do a proper meet-and-greet, and she finally calmed down. The owner returned with the registration form so we could get checked in. As part of the check-in process, he gave us a brief historical talk about the motel. He and his wife were its newest owners as of last winter, and they were restoring each private room one by one, keeping all of the original bed frames, dressers, and furniture from the year 1937 when the motel first opened.

I am such a fanatic for vintage motels (one of the reasons why our Route 66 trip will always be near and dear to my heart). I love the way they feel like a time capsule to another time and tell us so much about the way we used to travel before airplanes became prevalent. The teepee private rooms were such a throwback to a time when America embraced kitsch and created attention-grabbing roadside attractions designed to lure in families from their wood-paneled station wagons. It was also a throwback to a time when America hadn’t heard of the phrase cultural appropriation, which the owners acknowledge and address on their website. The tradition that they hope to keep alive is that of the American road trip, and the nightly gathering of travelers in the grassy semi-circle outside where people could meet up and share their adventure tales.

Kurt and I grabbed an easy dinner at a hot dog stand where we could sit outside with River. When we got back to the motel, we settled in on the pair of adirondack chairs outside our room and cracked open a few Asheville beers. We soon got to talking to the friendly couple staying next to us, sharing stories of our trips. As the sun fully set, the motel owner brought out some bundles of wood to the big fire pit in the middle of the semi-circle. Once the fire was going, people began to take a seat at one of the nearby benches to enjoy the warmth. It’s easy to strike up conversation with strangers around a crackling fire, and we began to introduce ourselves and share our travel itineraries.

As it grew later, the parents and grandparents headed off to put kids to bed, and two women wandered over with a few cans of Truly in hand. Almost immediately, we began talking to them about classic cars and trading stories. They were from southern Indiana and we barely caught their names, but over the next few hours, we proceeded to bond over hilarious workplace horror stories, a shared love of Halloween costumes, and a few shots of Fireball. We talked about the past year and its challenges, and how we’re all not OK but trying to find our way back to something resembling normal, and by the end of the night, we’d spent over 3 hours laughing together and having a fantastic time remembering what it’s like to befriend someone new. Though we’ll never see them again, I’ll never forget meeting them and how fun that night had been. It felt like the last piece of the trip we’d needed without realizing it–a spontaneous moment of connection with people from some other place, passing through the same place during the same moment in time. It also reminded me that sometimes we’re the boost that someone else needs, and we may never know, but they’ll be forever grateful for those shared laughs.

We drove home on Saturday, reaching Chicago in the early afternoon. I think my favorite view of Chicago will forever be approaching downtown from the south side, headed north on the Dan Ryan, with the skyline laid out in a full panorama view. It reminds me of sleeping in the backseat late on the Christmas Eve nights of my childhood, headed home from our cousins’ house filled with family and noise and celebration. This view fills me with so many warm memories of return trips home.

And then, home. Time to unpack, go through the mail, water the plants, and enjoy some bourbon.

Asheville Road Trip: City Life

Wednesday, June 2: Exploring Asheville

Among the things I craved the most during lockdown, chief among them traveling, karaoke bars, and lingering in coffee shops, I really missed brunch. I don’t care if that reveals my inner “rosé all day” basicness, but come on, who doesn’t love a big plate of fluffy eggs and biscuits and bacon that you didn’t have to make yourself, paired with alcohol before that noon in a judgement-free zone? With River tagging along, we went to Sunny Point Café, a dog-friendly brunch spot. Our outdoor table was situated next to the community garden, which was a charming spot in which to enjoy our delicious Southern breakfast. If you know me in real life, you know I that I am a Midwestern woodland creature who relishes the changing of seasons and thrives in winter, but I can admit that there a lot of advantages to year-round warm weather, including the abundance of beautiful outdoor patios and beer gardens that Asheville offers.

brrrrunccchhhh

Once we stuffed ourselves full of pimiento cheese, grits, and bacon, we headed closer to the city center with no real plans for the day other than to explore, window shop, and try some local beers. We had purposely planned a trip that would be predominantly outdoors, for the dual purpose of staying covid-safe and also being able to bring River everywhere with us. At the time of our trip, most Asheville businesses required workers to wear masks, and asked any non-vaccinated patrons to wear them as well. We stopped at the Dog Door, Asheville’s official Dog Welcome Center, and got some free treats, poop bags, and a map of dog-friendly businesses. If you love dogs, craft beer, and hiking, I highly recommend visiting Asheville. After about half a day I was ready to move there and open a dog t-shirt store. Over the afternoon, River got a new space dog-themed collar, treats, squeaky toy, and flotation device to replace her old moldy one. Between Kentucky and Asheville, it’s a toss-up whether we spent more money on bourbon or dog stuff.

Beers by the French Broad River

For a “rest” day, we still did a ton of walking as we meandered around town, wandered in and out of stores, and sought out breweries on our to-do list. After some Carolina BBQ for dinner, eaten on a dog-friendly outdoor patio, we ended up at a riverfront brewery called Zillocoah, where we had a few pints at a picnic table alongside the French Broad River.

Thursday, June 3: Inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Appreciation Day

As I mentioned earlier, I was obsessed with the movie The Last of the Mohicans at a formative age, so when I learned that the climactic chase scene was filmed at the nearby Chimney Rock State Park, it ended up my must-see list. Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows that this is what I’m like and I’ll go 40 minutes out of my way just to visit the donut shop from Boogie Nights, or even devote an entire day in Scotland to riding the Hogwarts Express.

We woke up early to start the 50-minute drive to Chimney Rock. I wished that we had longer than a week off, as there were so many beautiful spots and trails that we would’ve loved to check out. The area just outside the state park looked well-equipped to accommodate lots of tourists, as RV parks and souvenir stores lined the road. My personal favorite piece of art was the side of a building decorated with the silhouette of Big Foot holding up Baby from Dirty Dancing (nearby Lake Lure was the shooting location for the iconic lift practice scene).

There are 6 trails in Chimney Rock State Park, and the one on my list was the Hickory Nut Trails Fall, which took us to the base of the 404-ft-tall waterfall from The Last of the Mohicans. If you’ve seen the movie, this is where Uncas is killed and where Alice jumps off the cliffside in her grief/to escape Magua for good (sorry, no spoiler alerts for something we all read in high school). This is a very dramatic and emotional part of the film, heightened by the striking location. The trail was a quick ‘n easy 1.4 miles out and back, mostly through the woods until the view opens up to the stunning sight of the waterfall. This also marked the first warm and humid day of our trip, and my sunglasses began to fog up as I sweated through my t-shirt.

The view of the waterfall was well worth the trip. From the base, you could look up and see the sheer drop-off where the river cascades over the rock face over 28 stories above. A small traffic jam of hikers built up on the viewing platform, so we took our photos and then moved on.

Hickory Nut Falls

The state park gets its name from the 315-ft rock formation whose likeness is often used to promote North Carolina tourism. You can get to the top of Chimney Rock by either taking a 494-step staircase, or cheat and jump on an elevator built inside the mountain. Dogs were not allowed in the elevator, and River has an aversion to wood staircases (which we once learned the hard way at Starved Rock), so Kurt and I took turns waiting with her while the other rode the elevator to the top. I went first, and was delighted when the elevator doors opened to reveal a gift shop and concession stand at the 535-million-year-old rock formation (I love finding gift shops in unexpected places, with my ultimate fave being the one at the bottom of Carlsbad Cavern).

Chimney Rock

Since the Skyline Trail wasn’t going to be doable with River, we wrapped up our day at the state park and drove back towards Asheville. We decided to check out the Biltmore, the biggest house in America and former home of George Vanderbilt. I have general “eat the rich” feelings but I also love extravagant real estate porn, and the final scene of There Will be Blood was filmed in the Biltmore’s bowling alley. Hence, our day became an inadvertent Daniel Day-Lewis Acting Appreciation Day.

We bought the grounds pass to do an outdoor tour. The humidity had increased to the point that the sky felt pregnant with rain, and I started feeling a little cranky and regretful about the cost of two day passes as we joined the swarm of sweaty tourists. But then we reached the Conservatory, and my emotions did a total 180 as I discovered the Biltmore Gardens Railway. I adore model train sets, and a dream hobby of mine is to someday build my own miniature towns. The model train tracks traveled from room to room of the expansive conservatory, winding around hothouse flowers and succulents, stopping at miniature replicas of train stations and stables, and included a replica of the Biltmore itself. The elaborate display was immersive and charming and whimsical, and it gave me that kind of magical feeling of wonder that’s so hard to experience post-childhood as a cynical adult. I honestly could’ve spent an entire day in that Conservatory, watching that train go on its botanical journey.

We got through the rest of the grounds tour without getting rained on, and that same feeling of wonder continued as we walked around the outside of the estate and under the canopy made from real trees. From the back of the house, standing behind a legit turret, we took in an expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I couldn’t imagine living on the precipice of that extraordinary view; it’s gotta be nice to be disgustingly wealthy.

We capped off our day with some really good BBQ from a food truck, then embarked on our final brewery crawl of our Asheville stay. Booo, why can’t vacation last forever? Our last two beer garden stops were my two favorites: the Funkatorium, followed by Burial Brewing. At the latter, I had the joy of going up to order a pint of a Symptom of Progeny and a Portrait of Discombobulated Sanctimony. Sitting outside at the picnic table, with River curled up under the patio lights, listening to the background chatter of other patrons, I thought about how grateful I was for the return to travel. In two days in Asheville, we had gone out more than in the entire previous 14 months combined, and it felt pretty amazing.

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

Celebrating a Birthday While on Pause

I turn 41 today. Exactly one year ago, I woke up next to Lake Thunderbird on a beautiful sunny morning in Oklahoma, had a wonderful brunch, then drove to Amarillo, Texas while dancing in my seat to Lizzo, my birthday twin. That day overflowed with joy and sunshine and roadtrip tunes, capped up with a night of ice-cold Shiner Bock and jukebox deejaying at a zombie-themed bar. Late into the night, Kurt and I sat on the front porch of our Airbnb, drinking local beers and watching heat lightning zig-zap across the vast Texas sky. The next day, we’d be back on the road to Roswell, New Mexico. This year, I’m  grounded.

Cheers!

We always travel in the spring, due to the convergence of my birthday and our anniversary. It feels strange to be sitting at home right now, scrolling past Facebook memories and knowing exactly what place we were visiting on this day last year, two years ago, five years ago.

I’m someone that likes living in the shoulder seasons. I’m trying to appreciate the quiet, lean into the pause. I find a lot of contentment in burrowing into my home life and surrounding myself with books and hot coffee and dog nuzzles. Days turn into nights, nights turn into a wine blur. All time feels like airplane time, when you’re passing through time zones, warping ahead or falling behind, and you watch dumb movies during this weird slippery gap in time because it’s not really real life. It feels especially strange to celebrate a concrete mile marker like a birthday right now. Sometimes I daydream about catching a wormhole out of this weird, seemingly never-ending flight and traveling back in time to the beginning of 40, waking up the camper and peeking beneath the window shade to see the sunlight glittering on the surface of the lake.

I got to experience so many incredible things in my 40th year. I visited three new states and a new country. I stood inside the ruins of an ancient village that was last inhabited in 1000 A.D., and in the last few months, I witnessed the rapid escalation of a global pandemic that has affected the daily lives of nearly every person on this planet. If there’s one thing I feel confident in saying, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what to expect in my 41st year. I am so grateful for every moment, every place I visited, every person with whom I shared every minute of my year of 40. I feel grateful and lucky to be here now, however weird and precarious this stretch of time may be.

 

Doing the Most in Orlando, FL

Orlando, Florida is a place you go to for a reason–a sporting event, a theme park visit, a conference. It’s NOT a place you go just to check out the culture. Listen, I once lived in Las Vegas by choice so I am not against mass marketed entertainment. I LOVE me an entertainment complex where I can ride a mechanical bull, see Britney Spears perform live, and eat a steak for less than $10 all in the same night.

Orlando is a lot like Las Vegas, but instead of gambling and debauchery, they have theme parks galore. Both destinations encourage nonstop spending, have strip malls full of every chain restaurant you can think of, and attract the kind of tourist that likes to drink Jager bombs all night while still wearing their American flag swim trunks. On our first day in town, we ate back-to-back meals at chain restaurants, the second of which had a menu that included two full pages of Guy Fieri dishes.  But. But! I had a fantastic weekend, side trip to Flavor Town and all.

There were two very good reasons we ventured to Orlando, and they are Peak Kim Nelson:

  • attend the 2019 College Cheerleading National Championships, where Kurt’s niece’s squad was competing.
  • visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/Universal Studios
We had one day to see it all, so we bought the single day park-to-park ticket and planned for an early arrival. Obviously, spreading the Harry Potter-themed attractions across two parks is all a big scam to force you to buy tickets to both, but as soon we reached Hogsmeade, I no longer cared. I didn’t anticipate the wave of emotion I’d feel upon entering Hogwarts Castle, and I don’t care how nerdy this sounds, but I teared up a bit. My rational adult brain knew that I was walking through a fake castle replicating a made-up fantasy franchise, designed by engineers to push the right nostalgia buttons, all in the armpit of America. But in the moment, I had entered the memories of a beloved book that has given me escape and comfort and catharsis many times, over through multiple re-reads and movie viewing.

a cup of butterbeer in front of the rooftops of Hogsmeade

butterbeers in Hogsmeade

Though we never had to wait in line for longer than 40 minutes, the queues for the Harry Potter-themed rides in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were actually enjoyable to stand in because of the level of detail in the surroundings. Dumbledore’s pensieve! The Fat Lady portrait! Professor Sprout’s greenhouse! We wandered through the shops of Hogsmeade, drank butterbeer, and took the Hogwarts Express to King’s Cross. In “London,” we saw Kreacher glare through the window of 12 Grimmauld Place. I bought a Ravenclaw jersey with Cho Chang’s number and a Deathly Hallows enamel pin.

a dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank

the dragon atop Gringotts Bank

A few quick ‘n dirty Universal Studios travel tips:

  • Seeing both halves of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in one day is definitely doable. Plan to get to the park as soon as it opens and stay til close, and make sure to end your night back in Hogsmeade for the castle light show, which occurs every 20 minutes once the sun has set.
  • You can purchase an interactive wand which allows you to ‘cast spells’ in various parts of the park notated by a silver plaque on the ground. OR, you can save $60 and stand behind people who bought the wand to see what they do.
  • MUST DO’s: ride the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade and Escape from Gringott’s in Diagon Alley. Look for Kreacher in the window at 12 Grimmauld Place. Go to the wand fitting presentation (it’s pretty cute). Wear a costume if you feel inclined to do so. There were tons of people decked out in cloaks on a high 70’s day in Florida, and they were among their people. Get a butterbeer.
  • Non-Harry-Potter-related Must Do’s: since we only had one day, we prioritized the Wizarding World stuff, but the park wasn’t overly packed so we had lots of time to do other things as well. The Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster allows you to select a song that plays in speakers on your seat (I recommend going with Beastie Boys “Sabotage”). The Simpsons section of the park is a lot of fun; get a Duff beer and buy a Bort keychain.  Don’t bother waiting in line for the Fast & Furious Supercharged ride; it’s not worth your time (unless there’s no line and you have 20 minutes to kill). That makes me sad to say, as a franchise fan (“Family”), but it’s pretty dumb.

the light show at Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle during the light show

College Cheerleading Championships
When Kurt asked me if I wanted to go to Orlando to see his niece compete in the College Cheerleading and Dance Championships, that was one of the fastest YESes that ever came out of my mouth. I LOVE competitive cheerleading for reasons I can’t articulate. I wasn’t a high school or college cheerleader (though, ahem, my eighth grade squad was regionally famous on the north suburban  Chicago Catholic school circuit for our choreographed pom routines to Erasure songs) but I love watching cheer competitions on ESPN. They’re a highly entertaining mix of gymnastics, dance, and Jock Jams–I mean, what’s not to love here?? OF COURSE I WANT TO SEE BRING IT ON IRL.

2019 College Cheerleading Championships

Go University of Wisconsin – Osh Kosh!!

As we walked up to the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the grounds were packed with hundreds of cheerleaders in various bold-colored uniforms. Squads warmed up and practiced moves on every available open stretch of grass. I heard a man say as he walked past, “I don’t see any football players” and I immediately wanted to punch him in the mouth on behalf of all of the incredible athletes WHO DON’T NEED TO CHEER FOR NO MAN.

Inside the arena, I had flashbacks to my days of roller derby weekend-long tournaments. Young athletes huddled in corners, mentally preparing for competition while tuning out the world with their headphones. Teammates on crutches followed their squads, visibly heartbroken over not being able to participate. After finishing the first round, cheerleaders stood in the concession line with ice packs saran-wrapped to their legs. I dodged team prayer circles to get to the bathroom (OK, that never happened at derby tourneys, more like “Thong Song” dance circles).

a coed squad performs at the college cheerleadiing national championships

Division I competition

With our day passes, we were able to move around the grounds to check out various parts of the competition. We watched Division I and II Girls and Coed Cheerleading, Dance (jazz, hip hop, classical), and even a Mascot contest. Chip the Buffalo won my heart by twerking then lying down and refusing to leave the stage.

college mascot competition

Look I went to art school for college so I barely know what’s happening here

The whole day was a blast and I highly recommend going to a live cheerleading competition if you ever get the chance, especially if you enjoy Cardi B, because we sure heard a lot of her music that day.

All in all, Orlando, I enjoyed you! There was one morning we saw a theme park worker in full costume in line at Starbucks, and it struck me how strange it must be to live there full time. Those are the stories I’m always interested in–I want to see the dive bar where all the theme park mascots get loaded together after their shift ends. I want to hear what the chipper cashier in Hogsmeade who spoke to me as if I were the new Seeker on Ravenclaw’s Quidditch team actually thinks about tourists. How many times does the live actor in the Fast & Furious preshow have the same scripted, pre-recorded conversation with a videotape of Ludacris before she slowly loses her mind? I would read a full scientific study about the symbiosis of the Orlando theme park ecosystem.

Travel Pairings
I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting. For all of my future travel-related blog posts, I’m going to share a book, film, and music recommendation to pair with my destination.

Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Film: The Florida Project
Music: The Go! Team (cheerleader rock!)

New York, Loss, and Life

I arrive in New York City on a Wednesday morning. I’m traveling for a work conference, then staying through the weekend. Chicagoans tend to have mixed opinions about NYC; maybe it’s the chip on our shoulder from being labeled the “Second City” or “Third Coast.” For better or worse, much like the ubiquitous souvenir t-shirt, I heart NY. I’m staying in an Airbnb advertised as a ‘shoebox’ in Chelsea, and after work when I check in and look out the sole window in this apartment, I see the top of the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, all red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple against a night sky. My heart fills and I’m happy to be here. I heart NY.

Each morning, I take a 15-minute walk to the conference. I watch NY residents walk their dogs, which pee on the cement because there’s no grass for them to squat upon. I dodge rivulets of garbage juice leaking from overstuffed, leaking plastic bags left on the curb for pickup, and internally thank the universe for Chicago’s alleys. I wonder how anyone in New York makes the decision to wear any sort of open footwear. In my summery dress on an 84-degree sunny day, I get bombarded by catcalls (I had forgotten that NY is a whole other level of catcalling). And still, I heart NY. I heart the stream of different languages I hear around me at all times. I heart the Pride flag that hangs outside of the Episcopal church I walk past each morning. I heart the beardos on bicycles, the cop taking a smoke break outside his precinct shooting the shit with a passerby, the rumble of the subway rising up through the sidewalk grate, the late night tacos, the impeccably dressed woman on the corner who didn’t bat at an eye at the rat scurrying through the gutter. It’s all beautiful and gross and exhilarating and I’m glad to be here.

On Friday morning, I wake up and stretch out in bed while glancing at my phone and see the news that Anthony Bourdain is dead by suicide. My heart breaks into a million pieces. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I quickly see that I’m not the only one devastated by this loss. So many of my friends had similar reactions, have held similar appreciation and fandom for him. As a writer, I’ve always appreciated his wit, his intelligence, his curiosity about other peoples’ lives and cultures and customs. As a person desperate to live a life well traveled, I’ve been a longtime fan of his many TV programs, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. I’ve seen every episode of every season, many of them binge-watched in day-long chunks when I’ve been stranded to the couch by illness or hangover, wanting escape and yearning for adventure. Whenever Kurt and I need background television as we knock around in the kitchen or are pounding out work emails after hours on a weeknight evening, we put on an episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain helped fueled the wanderlust that drives me to live my own life the way I do.

I wrap up the final day of the conference, then head back to my Airbnb and hammer out some work emails. Once I’m done, I go back outside and walk to the High Line Trail. Alone, I merge into the steady stream of people. Up above the busy streets, on a path lined by greenery and beauty and life, I move among the skyscrapers. Up ahead, the path curves and I can see the summer sunshine glinting on the Hudson River and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I feel heavy with emotion because the world is so messy and dirty and convoluted and intriguing and explorable, and in this moment I am totally alone yet also surrounded by teeming, breathing, sweaty humanity. I get annoyed by the tourists who stop dead in their tracks right in front of me to take a photo and yet simultaneously feel like one of them because Holy Shit, this sunlight is beautiful and this place is amazing and this city is alive all around me.

High Line Trail, New York

I move through the crowds at Chelsea Market, and  duck into a bookstore for solace. The titles aren’t registering in my mind at the moment; instead, I walk through the aisles and run my fingers over the glossy covers, searching for comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore, a wave of emotion overtakes me and I want to cry for a man I never met. I want to cry because I know people in my life who have felt this pain and I have no idea how to help or to appease or to comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore amongst millions of words and miles of ink and countless stories that have awakened or inspired or incited, I stand and I breathe. The moment passes. I leave the store, walk outside, and merge back into the moving stream of people.

I still heart New York, and I heart you.

sidewalk graffiti that says "Protect Yo Heart"

Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.

 

 

 

Denmark Diaries: The Word of the Day is “Beer”

Monday, April 16, 2018

We woke up feeling the effects of our impromptu bar crawl, and a hefty breakfast was in order. Luckily, a delicious brunch place, Sokkelund, was in easy walking distance–and even better, they served coffee refills. I had scrambled eggs with salmon and avocado.

After fueling up properly, we were ready to start our day. The Carlsberg Brewery was a 20-minute walk away, most of it through a scenic park. One of the many things I loved about Copenhagen was the amount of green public spaces. The path wound its way past ponds filled with swans and a tree onto which dozens of people had tied handwritten cards and pacifiers with ribbons. In Scandinavian traditional folklore, once a baby gave up their pacifier  they would write a note thanking it for its service and tie to a tree in remembrance.

tree covered in handwritten notes with pacifiers tied to branches on ribbons

pacifier tree

The area where the Carlsberg brewery is located is currently being developed into a whole village complete with apartments, restaurants, and shops. We arrived at the brewery just in time to miss the tour, so instead, we bellied up to the bar for some samples. Our bartender told us that Chicago was his favorite U.S. city (second time in two days!) and it reminded him a lot of his hometown Glasgow.

plate of oysters

We ate most of these oysters before we took a photo

For dinner, we went to an area called Kødbyen Meatpacking District, or “Meat City.” As the sun slowly set, we sat outside and ate oysters from Kødbyens Fiskebar, then crossed the plaza to check out Warpigs  Brewpub and their BBQ selection. As soon as we walked into Warpigs, I felt like I was in a Chicago bar (which makes sense, given Mikkeller’s partnership with Three Floyds). We got a few different beers, the pork shoulder, pork and beans, and pecan pie, and everything was fantastic.

plate of BBQ pork and beans

We also ate most of this pork before we took a photo

After two back-to-back meals (don’t judge, we’re on vacay), walking to our next destination sounded heavenly. Too bad we stumbled onto the next place we wanted to check out within 400 meters: Fermentoren Beer Bar. We descended the steps into the small, packed bar and knew that we’d struck gold yet again. The bar had an excellent selection of craft beers on tap, so we found an open table where we could squeeze ourselves and camp out for a while.

beer

beer

On the last leg of our walk home, we made one final stop at a bar that totally intrigued us from the outside with its Western-themed motifs and obscured windows, a place called HH Ranch. As we stepped inside, I could swear we just transported to rural kitschy America. The bar was decked out in wood paneling and log cabin decor, and the barstools were made out of western saddles. There was even a Johnny Mnemonic-themed pinball machine(!!).  The place was a total trip. We had one final lager and then called it a night; we had big plans for the next day.

 

Denmark Diaries: Towers, Roller Coasters, and Beer

Sunday, April 14, 2018

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. local time to the sound of chirping birds (apparently, the title of Happiest Country on Earth includes wildlife because those birds sounded chipper all night long). After tossing and turning for a bit, I managed to fall back asleep until…11:30 a.m. Oops! Kurt and I didn’t want to sleep away half of our first full day, but so it goes. We rose and showered, then met up with our friends. The kids were ready for lunch and Kurt and I for breakfast, so we took the Metro two stops over to Nørreport, in the heart of the city. Right by the train stop, we went to Torvehallerne, which is a large market with indoor and outdoor vendors and tons of food stalls, booths, and wares. I went for a traditional porridge breakfast made with fresh organic ingredients from Grød along with my morning (noon) coffee, and Kurt got a Danish sandwich, coffee, and a beer (a.k.a. vacation mode). After lunch, we said goodbye to our friends who had family errands to take care of, and Kurt I headed out to sightsee on our own.

Our first stop was Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, an architectural project of Christian IV built in the 17th century. The tower consists of a 209-meter long spiral ramp, built because the King wanted to be able to ride his horse all the way to the top. I love horses and tales of extreme hubris, so we needed to check it out. About halfway up the tower there’s a coffee shop and art exhibit, and then on the observation deck, you get a fantastic 360-degree view of Copenhagen. Selfies were taken.

skyline view of Copenhagen

Not a selfie.

We wandered around the shops of Strøget for a bit, then found a sidewalk cafe to rest and enjoy a beer. The table seated next to us consisted of two British men around our age, so we ended up chatting with them for a bit, commiserating on the rough state of our countries. When we told them where we were from, they got really excited and told us that Chicago is their favorite U.S. city, which is always nice to hear.

We did a bit more walking until we saw the top of the swing ride at Tivoli Gardens, so we headed in that direction. Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and our friends mentioned that it was a ‘must’ for our trip. We bought entrance tickets, then strolled the grounds and checked out the incredible gardens and classic rides and games. We saw the swing ride that lured us to the park like a beacon, and I couldn’t get over how high up it went. Definitely put the dinky swings at Six Flags to shame.

swing ride at amusement park

a hard nope for me as an acrophobic

There’s an extensive food court adjacent to the fairgrounds, so we got some desserts and hung out inside until a light rain passed through. As the evening grew later, the lights throughout the park turned on, revealing colorful lanterns. I tried getting a picture of Kurt under the lights using his fancy camera, but struggled with the shutter for so long that a random passerby approached and said to me “I can’t take it anymore; go stand next to him and I’ll take the photo.”

couple stands on walkway under colorful lanterns

photo taken by a man tortured by witnessing my ineptness

After leaving Tivoli, we continued our walking streak, burning off the calories from the schnitzel and chocolate mousse I’d consumed. We realized two key facts: we were less than 2 miles from our friends’ house, and there was a Mikkeller bar located on our direct route home. Wins all around! Our nighttime stroll turned into a lowkey pub crawl as we stopped for pints at Mikkeller, followed by a German bar, and ending at a neighborhood bistro.

man sits at small bar table attached to wall

Table for two

We returned home by midnight, the pints helping lull us to sleep (and onto a closer proximation to local time).