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

 

Hello 40!

Hi, I turn 40 today! I’m actually pretty excited about it. Sometimes, this surprises people and they ask me why. For me, it boils down to a few things: 1). You can either let yourself feel bummed out about aging, or you can choose to embrace it.  2).  Every single one of us ages. It’s the most universal human experience I can think of. Natasha Lyonne, Kate Hudson, and Rosario Dawson all turn 40 the same month as me, so I feel like I’m in pretty damn good company, and 3). Getting older is far better than the alternative. Over the past year, I’ve had several loved ones go through various health issues, and it has only driven home how very lucky we are to get the amount of days we have on this planet. Life may seem mundane and downright tedious at times, but it’s also so, so very fragile. I have a lot more I want to accomplish during however many more trips around the sun I’ve got coming, so Imma carpe the f outta this diem.

There’s a David Bowie quote that I love, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” I’ve actually been spending the past year thinking about how I want to celebrate this milestone birthday. I decided early on that I want to be on some sort of epic trip while I cross over into my next decade. My favorite type of travel blends outdoor adventure with city culture, long stretches of road trip driving into the horizon and also immersing myself into the landscape, sleeping under open skies. So at this very moment, Kurt and I are taking a long road trip along Route 66 into the American southwest, a place neither of us have explored much at all before. Travel blogs to come soon!

And this is my brand, but honestly, look at the many gifts the pop culture is giving us this month. Game of Thrones is back for its final season. We got a new Star Wars episode IX trailer AND a Veronica Mars teaser in the same day. Beyoncé blessed us with a Netflix concert doc. Fosse/Verdon is recreating musical numbers I grew up obsessed with. And Avengers: Endgame released just before my birthday. This life is an embarrassment of riches. When this post publishes as scheduled, I will have probably spent about 4 straight hours crying over the steering wheel still getting over Endgame. What a time to be alive! I can’t wait to see what happens next, whether it’s an encounter with the World’s Largest Rocking Chair AND the World’s Second Largest Rocking Chair in the same day, or seeing who ends up on the Iron Throne in the next few weeks.

I’m just very, very thankful to be here and be lucky enough to see it all.

 

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”

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!)

Waupaca, Wisconsin

I arrive at the lakehouse on a Sunday, where the rest of my family has already checked in and spent a night. The rental house sits on the easternmost part of a chain of lakes, with calm blue water. Each inlet is lined with lakeside cottages nestled amongst tall, lush trees. I look forward to this week all through the harsh Chicago winter, waiting for these blissful mornings on the back deck overlooking the lake with a fresh mug of coffee in hand, listening to birdsong and the soft breeze rustling the treetops.

woman kayak on a lake during sunset

On Sunday afternoon, my sister and I kayak across the lake to the local bar where people tie up their pontoon boats along the dock and a server brings drinks and fish baskets straight to your boat. We order a few New Glarus Moon Mans (Moon Men?) and watch a cover band perform from a boat while people dance in knee-deep water, living that #lakelife.

My sister brought along her 7-week old baby on the trip, and we take countless photos of him–wearing tiny baby sun hats, smiling in front of the lake, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms in front of a Wisconsin sunset. Through him, I see the beginnings of another childhood of summers spent in canoes, catching frogs, learning to fish off a pier, and splashing in midwestern lakes.

I brought my laptop to the lakehouse to work remotely, logging on right after my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. so I can finish my days early and jump directly into the water the second I shut my Macbook Air.  The dining room table serves as my makeshift desk for the week, giving me a view of the water and a wooded island just above my monitor crammed with spreadsheets and emails. I could easily live this life forever, beginning my day with sun salutations on the back deck looking out on lake still thick with morning fog, then changing into a swimsuit the moment I finish my final afternoon conference call. One morning, the local camp holds a canoeing relay race past our house, and we hear the sound of kids’ voices bouncing off the water as they chase each other. In the evenings, live music from the bar across the lake drifts to our back lawn where we crack open bottles of Spotted Cow by the fire pit.

We take the pontoon boat out into various lakes, waving hello to the various kayakers, speedboats, water skiers, and stand up paddle boarders that we pass. In true Midwestern Nice form, one girl even waves to us while tubing. Once we find a quiet spot, we throw in the anchors and do cannonballs into the blue water. The lakes are pleasantly cool, their depths warmed from a summer’s worth of sunshine. I have a high tolerance for cold water and no one trusts my opinion as the first one jumping in. But after a few minutes of watching me swim and float, one or two of my siblings usually end up joining me in the water. When the sun is out, it feels like pure heaven to view the sky and the treetops from the water’s surface.

woman floating on pizza-shaped floatie on a lake

One day mid-week, it rains, so my siblings and I go to the local bowling alley. It’s still happy hour and it’s $3 per game. When we walk inside, the TVs are blaring Fox News so we load up the jukebox with Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, and RuPaul, and dance around our score counsel. There’s a few other local stops in town that have become tradition over the years–plates of biscuits and gravy from Little Fat Gretchen’s Restaurant, beers and pull tabs at Paca Pub, family dinners at the Wheelhouse, late night stumbles to and from the Harbor Bar.

Near the end of the week, Kurt drives up and brings our dog River. We spend a day on the water with her, getting her to brave the kayak and learn how to balance on the stand up paddle board. From the shore, we can hear squeals of delight as people spot a cute little dog on the board. Kurt plays fetch with her off the dock, and when she catches the ball, a passing boat gives a celebratory honk and the passengers cheer for her.

man petting a dog while they both stand on a paddleboard

At the end of the week, I take a full day off of work. Before coffee, I sit on the edge of the dock to meditate. I wish I could somehow capture and save these sounds and take them home with me, to begin every day listening to the lake breeze ripple through the trees, the geese calling to each other, the water lapping against the rocks. And once again feel the sun warming my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, the scent of water and pine.

end of a dock facing a lake and a wooded island