the other side

You know, reflection...

You know, reflection...

Tunes: Fleetwood Mac – “Greatest Hits”

Booze: Negra Modello Especial (thanks to JoAnne for turning me back onto this stellar beer)

This is the first time I’ve opened up my laptop to write in almost a month. After those first few weeks of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, I realized that I needed to step away. My mind was going a million different directions and I was also being unnecessarily hard on myself. Friends and family joined me on the road for a solid three and a half weeks In August, too, and as I recall from my last rodeo, that always helps keep writing at bay.

The last time I sat down and wrote was while visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. I met a couple, Ronna and Mark, at the Butte Creek Campground and we shared some bourbon, mescal, and conversation over a fire one night. It ended up being one of the more thought-provoking conversations I’ve had on this trip and one where I was more candid than I’d yet been with “strangers.” We exchanged information and Ronna, a forensic psychologist, wrote me about a week later after reading through my blog. By the time I finally got around to looking at her email, I’d long since decided to put writing on hold for the foreseeable future, but her words, which were bold at times yet carefully navigated the right edge of appropriate, acted as permission to let it all go. Sometimes you can't quite give that to yourself.

Her observations strung together all of these disjointed thoughts I'd had about leaving Austin and the city-life routine I’d grooved out for myself, my forceful attempts at trying to get my head right about this trip, and dealing with the loneliness that I hadn't quite expected, all while trying to heal myself after a difficult breakup. For some reason, I felt like I had to jump back in time and make this adventure resemble 2015. I audibly laughed after typing this because it’s just so ridiculous. I’ll go ahead and save you the painstaking self-analysis and explore why that was in my own personal journal.

All of this is to say, it took some time, but my head is in a good place right now. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve felt truly happy and at peace since April. I have gotten my road rhythm down and am also on the other side of this heartbreak, which makes everything else brighter. I still have no idea what my voice on this blog is going to be, but I don’t care anymore. I’m gonna write what I write. I’m sure I’ll roll my eyes at it in a few years anyway, so what the hell.

my first hikes, or as I have renamed some of them “holy christ, where is this f**king lake?!”

Music: Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker // Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Drink: Deschutes Brewery Mirror Pond Pale Ale // Mellow Corn with a bit of ice

 

Eagle Lake in Mineral King Valley, Sequoia National Park

This was my first. The first is always the hardest, the one where you have to come to terms with how out of shape you are. Okay, okay, how out of shape I was. I hadn’t really worked out since about April and I knew that doing a 7.5-mile hike right off the bat would be foolish. Especially in new hiking shoes. And at a starting elevation of 7500 ft, which by the time I left for the hike, I’d only adjusted to for about 20 hours. This is why I decided to only go out for 3 miles or so of the hike to break myself in a little and then do the full hike the next day. That was the plan anyway. But it was a dumb plan. Because, really, going 1.5 of the 3.75 miles only to turn back and do it again the next day is a dumb plan and I realized this about 30 minutes in. So, I went for it.

The beginning of this hike through the Mineral King Valley was incredible. It was steep, but doable. Walt Disney tried his very best to turn this area into a ski resort back in the 1960s. He ultimately failed thanks (seriously, thank you!) to what had to be a tireless effort by some local conservationists to preserve the area. Walking through this valley truly felt like walking through a Disney movie. The wildflowers, the waterfalls, the birds, THE GODDAMN BAMBIS (yes, there were fawns everywhere).

Everything after that was mostly an exercise in not passing out. The switchbacks on this hike were killer. And, I have a tendency to really push through when a hike gets hard. I’m not one to take a break and contemplate the flowers for 15 minutes. Especially when you get started on a hike like this around noon. I was sweaty. I was red-faced. I was out of breath. I came across two women who I’m sure thought they were going to have a medevac case on their hands any moment.

As far as hikes go, the Eagle Lake trail was pretty diverse – gorgeous valleys, big sequoias, wildflower-filled meadows, lovely streams, impressive waterfalls, dirt switchbacks, slate switchbacks (oh how I longed for the dirt switchbacks at that point), snow-speckled meadows, colorfully intricate cliffs, marmots (!!!) and one hell of an alpine lake.

This trail had what felt like 27 summits. Each one I thought surely would bring me to this infamous Eagle Lake. Most did not. Halfway through, this trail was the first of many to be christened “Holy Christ, Where Is This Fucking Lake?!?”

I got up those 3.75 miles with a 2267 foot elevation gain in like two and a half hours. Not too bad, huh? This was the trail where I learned my new shoes were a no-go (thanks again REI, for being so awesome and letting me get some new kicks!). This was the trail where I learned I needed to get back to doing my physical therapy exercises religiously if my feet were going to make it on more of these kinds of challenging trails. More than that, this was the trail where I learned I could do this again. There hadn’t been much to practice on in Austin – only one really significant trail, which got boring once I did it seven times, not to mention that after May, there is no hiking for a good six months. And, man, had I missed challenging myself in this way.

Since my first hike to Eagle Lake, I’ve put in a lot of miles. Some were painful, some were easy walks. Most were gorgeous in one way or another. One led to me skinny dipping in an alpine lake that I had all to myself, a thing I’d never done before (why I waited so long to check this off my list is beyond me). Another helped me to learn the names of all these wildflowers I’d been seeing (thanks to some of my new camp friends for clueing me into the iNaturalist app). Still another was the buggiest I’d ever hiked where I must have murdered 45 skeeters and ingested 3. My most recent (at the time of writing this, at least) pushed me to summit Brokeoff Mountain, surprising me with a view of Mt. Shasta in neon white when I got to the top. And many of them have allowed me to meet new friends, some fleeting friendships, others which might last awhile.

With each hike, I’ve watched my body change. It’s exciting to see my quads come back, notice my core muscles working again, and feel my ass in knots the day after a long hike because my glutes put in so much work on the trail. Not that I care so much about how I look, but more because it tells me I am getting stronger and faster and can take on more.

Being out on the trail truly is where I am the happiest on this trip so far. The experience of being humbled by Mother Nature over and over again never gets old to me. You forget that when you’re in the city – you forget how insignificant you are. And that is an important reminder. I’m glad to be reminded frequently that there is so much out there than what is in my head.

this is "document10," aka, i can’t seem to finish a thought…

The Way to the Mountain

The Way to the Mountain

Music: Thelonius Monk – Live at the It Club

Drink: Deschutes Brewery Swivelhead Red

Two years and some months ago, my father and I were talking on the phone – me in Brooklyn, him in Los Angeles. He told me:

“You know, you don’t have to do the whole five months or whatever of this trip. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone and if you get out there and you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

I was mildly offended at the time. I was so excited about the unknown ahead of me. The adventure that awaited. The person I would discover. And, if you know me, you know I can be pretty stubborn – chalk that up to my Taurus nature. I was going to do this and I was going to do it to the fullest. It would be completed! Why did he think otherwise? Why was he trying to give me an out?

Cut to now. I finally get what he meant. This trip has been in the background of my life since November 8, 2015 when I made the decision to stay in Austin for the time being. I always knew, eventually, I would make the opportunity to finish exploring the West. Or at least, explore some of it. But, my heart hasn’t been in this like it was last time, when I was appalled at the idea of ever bowing out of something of this caliber. Something I’d spent MONTHS saving for. Something for which I’d spent hours diligently researching the eventual remodel of my car. But, I can see the potential out now. The possibility that I don’t complete what I say I want to.

When I was younger, I wanted to be this strong, independent woman, but never truly felt that way. To be honest, I’m not sure why – I had all the makings of one. But, I didn't feel it in my bones. It felt something closer to a “fake it 'til you make it” situation. When I traveled on the road in 2015, there was a point maybe in September or October, where I finally felt like the woman I’d always wanted to be. I’m not entirely sure why it took so long. Maybe it required stripping away all the outside distraction. Or taking care of myself in such a simple, but difficult way. But it was on the road where I felt the most settled into the idea of the woman I’d wanted to be since I was in my early 20s.

I think I’ve taken on that same “fake it ‘til you make it” behavior with this trip. If I say it out loud enough. If I tell strangers about my planned route, that it is an extension of my last trip, a completion, a coming home to this place I felt my most true, then I will start to believe it myself.

And that could very well still happen. It might be that I just need some time still to settle into this life again. But I think I'm also coming to terms with the potential that it might not be in the cards this time. I might bow out. I might not make it four months. Or five. Or whatever the hell I keep telling folks. This is not me saying that I’m planning to cut things short. It’s me saying that I understand where my dad was coming from those two years and some months ago.

 

PS, it feel good to, at least for tonight, get past this writer’s block.

the words won't come

Lupine Meadow at Yosemite by Glacier Point. I sat here in utter silence. listening to the drone of the bees and the songs of the birds. 

Lupine Meadow at Yosemite by Glacier Point. I sat here in utter silence. listening to the drone of the bees and the songs of the birds. 

I am having a much harder time with writing this time around. The reason I didn’t keep up with the blog last time was because I was too consumed with the “doing” and didn’t have as much time as I needed for the "writing." This time it is different. I have more time, but I am stuck. I believe they call it “writer’s block,” jyes?

Already, I have spent tens of hours on the trail and usually that is when I am with my thoughts and things start coming together. But, I am still at a loss for what I want to say. Or I will have something that seems like a solid idea at the time, but four hours later, I will have fallen out of love with it. Or worse, totally forgotten what I was going to say.

I’m out of sorts. And I’m waiting for this rhythm to kick in again. For the thoughts to start flowing, the observations to start coalescing. Perhaps this is a watched pot never boils situation.

I know there is so much inside of me that’s been waiting to pour out for some time now, but city life, or work life, or other life has offered distraction from forming those thoughts and stringing them together to make stories. To finally have the time to write and think and not have anything come from it is the first real frustration I’ve experienced on this trip. 

There is no gorgeous end to this entry. Just a hope that I'll be able to sit down at this laptop and have something come from it that I'm happy with.

everyone loves talking gear

The best camp purchase I've made so far!

The best camp purchase I've made so far!

I was a lot more thoughtful about what I brought on the road with me this time around. Having done this before,I knew what I used and what I didn’t; what were essential items and what was superfluous.

Having known what would have been helpful to have, I did buy some new stuff. Usually it takes a little while of living with your gear to know what are the standout items. So far, though, there have been four things I have lived with and used in these last four days that have made everything so much better. 

  • REI Camp Folding Cot – my favorite thing so far! This was an impulse purchase at the REI Garage Sale right before I left Austin. I found it later in the day, which meant it had been marked down to $37 and was in perfect condition. I had never considered a cot before, but it has changed tent camping for me. With my 3.5” sleeping pad on top, it’s basically like a real bed. And to not have to get up from the ground every morning makes a HUGE difference for this 37-year-old body.
  • Aeropress – I have no idea what I was thinking using a pour-over and thermos situation last time. This is absolutely the only way to make coffee for yourself in the outdoors.
  • New cooking gear – I bought a GSI Halulite 3.2L pot, GSI Bugaboo 10” frying pan (both on the recommendation of Fresh Off The Grid – thanks y’all!), and a GSI Pinnacle Soloist backpacking set-up. All of these are super easy to clean, which makes cooking not such a pain in the ass. My favorite of the bunch, though, is the Pinnacle pot, which I mainly use for boiling water for coffee and heating up quick, one-pot meals.
  • Bralettes from Target – it’s basically like not wearing anything and I will be living in these for the next four months.

As the weeks go on, I’m sure there will be more items that prove their utility, but these have made a significant impression in a short amount of time.

epistolary transformation

Among these trees, there is little you can do but feel humbled.

Among these trees, there is little you can do but feel humbled.

There were a few things I wanted to accomplish before I left that didn’t happen.

For one, I wanted a killer opening entry. Something that really got to the core of where I was and what had gone on in the last year and a half between my times on the road.

Maybe that was the previous post I wrote last night on Day 15. It didn’t turn out quite how I envisioned (not so "killer" really) and is about three weeks late, but it works.

Second, I wanted to give this blog a facelift. As I've perused posts (see below), I realized that all of this was created with tape and string and a few photos I had taken several years ago that "worked" for a road trip blog. I have so much more material now and I wanted to freshen 'er up. I'll eventually get to that, but it will take a day in a coffee shop now.

Last, and most important, I wanted to re-read my blog from the first go-around to familiarize myself with the voice (or voices as the case may be) I used, the things I felt important to share, how I changed over time, and to use that as a jumping off point. I spent one evening where I drank a few bourbons and got through about four posts.

I am still trying to get through them, though I am close to being done (thank god).

Part of this exercise has felt like an extremely long evening of “Mortified.”

Christ, I was VERBOSE. I am verbose. It’s made me think back to my dad trying to teach me the value of brevity as a child – “tell me about your day in 25 words or less.” He would count them. It was a very difficult exercise. It clearly did not help.

I’d like for these future entries to not be such lah-dee-dah posts where I go into incredible detail about the ratings of steakhouses in the Mississippi Delta, what I ate for dinner while camping, and how awesome or what a bummer some of the random roadside attractions were.

As I re-read these, though, I was more and more disappointed that I didn’t get to finish writing about my first trip. Everything after Colorado got better and better. Moab, where I spent 8 nights, after initially only planning to spend 2, and where I met some of the best people of that entire five months (hi Eric, hi Sarah and Zach, hi Valerie!) and saw some of the most gorgeous desert landscapes. Grand Teton National Park, where I found a free campsite situated on a bluff above the Snake River with a view of the Teton mountains in the background, and where I saw the most wildlife of any of the National Parks. Livingston, Montana, where I spent a day talking to all kinds of folks, learning about their little town and their struggles to get by, and had a hell of a burger at a fantastic little bar. Camping among the redwoods in Jedidiah Smith State Park, which felt more mystical than most anything else I'd experienced. There is more, a lot more, but not on here.

All of that is to say, I don’t want to repeat that mistake twice.

To be honest, I am trying to figure out how this blog will look and feel. I have been wildly bored by the day-to-day run down of my activities from last time. I can only imagine how y’all must feel. So, I want to change this up. I liked when I shared insights. I liked reading about all of the people I met, what their stories were, and what came of getting to know them. I liked remembering about my camping spots, what they looked like, and what made them special. And I noticed a change in me as the blog progressed. The more I was out in nature, the more I liked reading what I had to say.

Maybe this will end up being an amalgamation of all of those things I liked. Maybe not. But I hope to not bore myself as much when I re-read my account of this trip in a few years. And I look forward to getting my head to the place where I can make a semi-profound observation from time to time.

 

 

 

 

what is it all about, anyway

Eagle Lake, Sequoia National Park, California. Kate: 1, Crazy Switchbacks: 0.

Eagle Lake, Sequoia National Park, California. Kate: 1, Crazy Switchbacks: 0.

I am on Day 15 (July 14, 2017) of my trip so far, but honestly, it feels like Day 2. I left Austin and practically jetted to Los Angeles. It wasn’t until yesterday that I left LA and its luxuries of daily showers and comfortable beds to start on this trip for real and get out into the woods.

But, my actual first night on the road was spent outside of Las Cruces, NM in the middle of nowhere. It was a stopover situation, just really to sleep and get on the road in the morning and I scouted a spot ahead of time in the Organ Mountains on Free Campsites. I got to test out this whole sleeping in Rosie thing and it was NOT IDEAL.  My car was packed with a lot of stuff I was taking to LA to leave, which made getting my sleeping arrangement in order very difficult. I put up these Reflectix panels my mom and I painstakingly made for each of my window panels to insulate and provide privacy only to realize I couldn’t see out, which was real freaky and needed to be ameliorated as soon as possible. I was in the middle of nothing and I kept having these terrifying visions of someone rolling up on my car in the middle of the night and trying to break in. In retrospect, that is crazy. But this whole experience made me realize a few of things:

  • Holy hell, do I need to get my sea legs back. Like maybe I need to ease into regular ole camping again before I attempt this dispersed camping thing. My badass confidence from before is currently laying dormant.
  • Further to that, I need to remember that people are mostly good and not once during my last trip did I feel threatened or in danger. Quite the opposite, in fact. More times than not, I was blown away by people’s friendliness, kindness, and generosity.
  • Rosie needs to be ready to go when I need to sleep. That means, everything must have its place and, in particular, the entire back passenger side where I sleep needs to be kept free as a bed, or at least easily transformed.

Since this is “technically” Day 15, the last of those bullet points was accomplished. LA provided for a nice road trip limbo. It allowed for me to have a home base after I had been on the road for a few days. Not much happened between LA and Austin, but it did make me realize I needed to entirely rethink Rosie’s organization, which I did, and I am pretty happy with her now. She has curtains (so I can see out if I need to), stuff stored away in all kinds of nooks and crannies, motorcycle nets for more storage, the Oxalis (I am currently accepting suggestions for names – I am throwing around Xena, Warrior Princess, and Roxi) is planted and hung on the window, a makeshift bar for storage of my six (god help me) bottles of bourbon, and bungee cords and carabineers galore for hanging all kinds of things. There’s also WAY LESS STUFF. Christ, I think back to two years ago and all the crap I hauled around America with me and shiver. Being able to come to LA first and leave a few things behind that were unnecessary was helpful. I probably still have too much stuff, but at least this feels manageable.

::::::

When I left yesterday, I cried. I cried as I was leaving my folks’ place for obvious reasons. But then I really cried when I was driving over the Grapevine, listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland. There is a mixture of shit floating around in my head and I am having a hard time making heads or tails of it right now. My boyfriend and I broke up a few months back. It’s been hard and made even more difficult in the aftermath to move on and get my head right. That was a piece of it. But, honestly, I have really grappled with this trip and I think that played a larger role in the stream of tears that unleashed itself on the 5 at 94 degrees going 77 miles an hour.

When I left Brooklyn a little over two years ago, I can honestly say that I was the most excited for the unknown that I’d ever been. I was ready to go out and do it. My head was in the right place. I felt like a badass taking on an adventure not many women (hell, not many men) have. I was inquisitive. I was curious. I wanted to explore and adventure and see all the things you only get to see by car. It had been too long since I’d traveled through America this way, and I was ready.

When I left Austin a few weeks ago, none of that resonated with me. And, man, did I ever try to reconnect with it, shine it up, and put it out there for the world to see. But, it’s just not there like it was before. I do think some of it has to do with the breakup – so much has been clouded by sadness and anger and genuine “what the fuck,” that it’s been difficult to psych myself up for adventures and exploration in the way I needed to ahead of a big road trip. But, I also think I’ve been a different person since I made my way to Austin. A person that I liked in some ways, but really didn’t connect to in others, and who probably isn’t the kind of person who packs her life into a car and heads out for the great unknown. Austin this time around signified a growth in my professional self, and a huge growth at that. But, what I found was the person I was on the road didn’t fit in with the person I had to be for my job. And, probably, also my road self didn’t fit in with the person I was in my last relationship. It wasn’t until I was in New York in May, surrounded by all of my best Brooklyn people where I was reminded of who I am at my core; a person I hadn’t fully recognized in months and a part of myself with whom I'd lost touch. .

That is a hell of a realization.

So, this trip doesn’t feel the same as it did last time. I am not the same. But I am trying to find my North again. And I’m starting to think that’s what this trip might just be about, after all. Getting back to the woman I was and the woman I like the most.

PS, I’m in Sequoia National Park (I decided to ease in on the camping thing). I did a 7.6-mile hike today that had a 2200-foot ascent in roughly 3.5 miles after not doing any significant exercise since April and severely slacking off in recent weeks on my PT exercises to help with my feet. I did it in new hiking shoes. After coming from just above sea level to a 7500-foot elevation campground yesterday. Sometimes I don’t make the smartest choices. Tomorrow, if I can walk with any semblance of grace, it will be a miracle. But, goddamn it, I did it and the top was magnificent and so was the feeling of accomplishment.

I just re-read this post from when I did my first major hike on my last trip and so many of those feelings resonated with me.

Maybe that badass from two years ago is starting to wake up a bit.

oh hey, i'm back

Cheers from the woods!

Cheers from the woods!

Holy hell, what a couple of years can do. I had a stopover in Austin for the last year and some change working at the University of Texas, doing things and saving money to get back to traveling. It feels weird to be sitting down and typing out my thoughts again, but I have been really looking forward to this outlet for some months now.

There’s a lot that’s changed since I last left off. Some I’ll write about explicitly, other things I might allude to, and still others just won’t get mentioned at all. But, all in all, I am back to documenting life on the road again. Things will be different this time. I probably will not swear as much, which I’m sure will be much to the delight of my father. I will also try to do a better job of staying on top of this. I fell so behind on posting a few years ago and by the time I got settled in Austin, thinking I’d be able to finally catch up, I started my job and was working too much to have brain cells capable of creativity at the end of the day.

I’m a little rusty at this, so bear with me a bit as I try to find my voice again and clear off some of the fuzz that’s built up from living in the real world again for the last little bit. I’m looking forward to sharing with y’all.

colorado, the land of everything - part 2

Oh, hi!  Right!  I have a blog.  I bet as you've been checking back here in the last two months, only to continually see "colorado, the land of everything - part 1," that the Rocky Mountain state had been it for me (or really only the first part) and I just chose to leave things at that.  Or you haven't been checking all that often because, well, I'm pretty sure you folks have better things to do than constantly update yourselves on my travel missives.   

The truth is that the West took a hold of me and didn't really let go.  I was already behind on my writing by about a month or so, but as I really started exploring out there, writing took a back seat.  There was so much to do and see and experience that it was hard to muster up the motivation to sit down with my laptop in the evening and bang it all out.  Though, more than anything, I kept meeting people and the usual time I'd spend around a campfire with my laptop, I spent with new friends instead.  There's not an ounce of me that could allow a scenario in which I meet new people, get to chatting and sharing adventure stories, am invited to hang out, and I politely decline so that I can sit alone 50 feet away with a laptop.

So, here we are.  It's December, goddamnit!  How in the hell did that happen?  I am settled for a bit (more on that at a later date) and I plan to be a little more present here so I can recount the West for you (and also for me) for perpetuity.  I had a few posts I'd been working on, though, so they'll finally start seeing the light of day.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, is "colorado, the land of everything - part 2." 


Rosie unloaded.

I had one of those shitty travel days when I left Rocky Mountain NP.  They happen and you get through them, but not without a little exasperation.  I’d noticed the morning before that some of my food had been eaten into.  I thought maybe that when I was reorganizing my car and the food bags were out that a chipmunk had possibly taken advantage.  Later in the day, though, I found nibbled into food in a different part of the car and then I was sure something was living in there.  That night, when I went to put everything away before bed, I opened the door and, sure enough, heard a critter rustling around.  The next morning, I stopped a ranger and she said it was probably a mouse that had found its way in through the engine, was buffeting on my goods at night, and then heading home before dawn.  Like some sort of shitty teenager.  So, I unloaded everything, wiped my whole car down with disinfectant wipes (thouse guys are not clean to say the least) and repacked it all.  It took three hours before I was done, just in time for the storm to roll in.  

Up until this point, I was planning to camp at a free site down by Colorado Springs so I could check out the Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak on my way south to met friends in Pagosa Springs.  But, when I called the Forest Service to check on availability and whatnot, they warned me it was a spot a lot of homeless folks stayed in since it was so close to the city and that on the weekends, it was party central.  They’d had a lot of problems and there's a good chance she likely had a lower threshold for bullshit than me, but I decided not to chance it.  I was again without a place to go and had to figure that out at the last minute.  Situations like these are probably the most stressful thing I have to deal with.  Like I mentioned before, they always work out in the end, but the stretch of time between not knowing where you’re headed and finally figuring it out can be a little overwhelming.  I found another free campsite at a town park in Hot Sulphur Springs and decided to forego Colorado Springs and stay in the mountains. 

When my dad was in his twenties, he worked a few summers and also one winter in Grand Lake, which is at the west entrance to RMNP.  He and his buddies used to head to Hot Sulphur Springs to soak after a long week of running trails (he worked for a ranch that took tourists out on horseback rides).  After that epic hike, he suggested I check this place out and the free camping solidified the choice.  Along the drive there, though, the storm that was passing through got pretty bad and the idea of camping in the rain kind of bummed me out.  My folks are pretty amazing and they offered to put me up in a local motel for the night.  Obviously, I didn’t turn this down.  This was the first motel I stayed in alone on my trip and after having such a shit day, being able to sleep on a bed, take a hot shower (albeit in a shower the size of a telephone booth, which was a challenge for a tall girl like me), watch the Goonies on TV, and just kind of veg out, well, it was absolutely incredible. 

105 degrees the color of glaciers.

The next morning, I woke up early, ate breakfast at The Glory Hole (highly recommended despite ignorance to their chosen name’s meaning), and went to the hot springs.  This was my first of many in Colorado and, goddamn goddamn.  It was chilly outside so it was the perfect weather.  I dipped between hot and hotter pools, my favorite being the one that was ice blue and about 105 degrees.  It was there that I met an older couple from New York City, Sophia and her husband whose name I’ve forgotten.  We had a great conversation about how they met (which is WILD and romantic and involved meeting over a phone call her friend arranged - he was in NYC and she was in Romania - and ended in her staying permanently in New York after she came to visit for the first time) and their travels around the country.  It got weird when he asked me about politics (I guess he never learned that you don’t touch money, religion, and politics in polite conversation).  He might be one of the very few people living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan planning to vote for Donald Trump.  At that point, I kind of let him talk at me since I was relaxed as hell and wasn’t interested in getting into a heated political debate in 105 degree water.  

Rainbow Lakes Campground

After soaking all the dirt off of me I’d acquired in the last few weeks (my feet were SO clean!), I made my way west through the mountains to Rainbow Lakes Campground outside of Nederland.  I’d tipped Michael and Erica off to this place when they were looking for a new spot to camp - it was first come, first served and it was the holiday weekend so anything requiring reservations was full up.  I was excited to be meeting up with my buds to camp again.  They’d taken in a two friends who were from outside of Price, Utah and traveling through Colorado, only to show up to a full campground.  We all hung out together and was real great to see my buds again - it’d only been maybe a week, but it felt like a strange sense of home to show up to a campground with them in it.  

From our hike to Rainbow Lakes.

Some water and a couple of faces I miss terribly.

Rainbow Lakes was a great little spot - the scenery was beautiful, the campground host was colorful, and the company was, as always, just the best.  We hiked up to the lakes on our only full day there, saw some of the trees that were starting to succumb to Fall’s rapid entry, and went into town to check out what Nederland was all about. 

 

 

"Uh...hello!?"

This is a hippie mountain town if there ever was one.  We had a late lunch, saw lot of white dudes with dreads and bad fashion choices, and checked out a local brewery.  It was there that I met Geno Kennedy.  We were about halfway finished with our beers and he came in with his dog, Barker.  Barker is a Malamute mix who strolled in and perched his front legs up on a bar stool like he was a regular expecting his normal beer order.  A few minutes later, the bartender mentioned that Geno's book had been defaced, took it out of the periodicals holder that was next to me, and that’s how we got to talking.  He wrote a little book called "Welcome to the Mountains, Now Behave!" about his observations of mountain life to help “flatlanders” (his term - or maybe a well-known term - for folks who live below a certain altitude) better understand.  One of my favorite parts was his advice for women women who come to the mountains to find a man. He wrote, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” Obviously, I bought a copy from him.  He signed it, we talked a bit about his life and how he ended up in the mountains of Colorado (he's originally from Poughkeepsie, NY), and then mentioned that Barker might like to give me a hug.  After a little coaxing, that big pup wrapped his front leg around my calf and I pretty much fell in love. 

The author and me.

Barker hugs, y'all.

We headed back to camp, had a few s’mores, and hit the rack.  I was up early the next morning to pack it all in again and head down to Pagosa Springs.  This goodbye with Michael and Erica was sadder than in the past.  I guess I’d known in previous goodbyes that we’d hook up again along the way, but our parting at Rainbow Lakes Campground seemed more final.  I was going on my disjointed path in Colorado and they were going on theirs.  I wasn’t sure when we’d meet up again, so this felt different than the goodbyes that came before.  That’s kind of the nature of these friendships, though.  Everyone has their own path and it’s real amazing when they collide for a bit, but, eventually, you have to move on.  I was really happy I got to share another campsite with them, though, and we were able to put a few more communal experiences under our belts.  

clean enough

I'd to talk a bit here about what it’s like living out of a tent. I’m writing this a bit out of synch since I’m sitting at a campfire with the Snake River about 100 yards off and the Teton mountains to my back.  Tonight is my first night in a free camp spot care of the National Forest Service.  I’m alone, though there is a tent set up across the way with a box sign with “Occupado” written on it.  The folks that were here before me said they hadn’t seen anyone come back yet so I’m gonna guess I’ll be alone for at least a night or two.  

The first time I camped alone like this was just a few days back outside of Moab on my way to Grand Teton National Park.  Well, I was alone until about 30 minutes before I went to bed when a family showed up and camped a little down the way.  That place was surreal in that it was by a geyser that was an out of the way attraction and sat on the Green River.  It was desert, though, so pretty open and hot.  But silent.  So silent.  I heard everything that was happening around me and, really, there wasn’t much going on.  But to camp like that was both equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.  When a car drove by, I was a little on edge, wondering who was in it and if they might be a threat.  But everything was always kosher - they either stopped to check out the geyser for a bit or drove on past.  Like I mentioned before in regards to bears, experience breeds confidence, so having one almost entirely alone camping experience led me to this place here, which, let me tell you, is by far, one of the best campsites I’ve stayed in.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the Snake River and there are mountains and forests on all sides.  And it's free.  After paying an ungodly amount to be out in the open with everyone at Gros Ventre Campground in Grand Teton NP, this seems almost too good to be true.  

Now that I’ve spent the last six weeks of mostly camping with a smattering of staying with friends here and there, I have a decent handle on this life.  And now that I’m about 2/3 or so through the trip, it’s becoming difficult to picture what it will be like to not be on the road.  Being settled in one place seems so foreign right now.  Having a daily routine seems odd.  As weird as this might sound, not being able to spot the Big Dipper in different parts of the sky as I go from place to place is a bit discomforting.  

Up until this adventure, I was fairly predictable.  I’ve never been a spontaneous one per se, though I also wasn’t averse to adventure.  But I had a steady office job and, while I had far more vacation days than I’d ever had before and put them to good use, I never did anything “crazy” like this.  I never abandoned life for an extended amount of time for experience.  And maybe that’s how this trip came about.  Maybe I’d had it inside of me all along, but life’s responsibilities kept it at bay until eventually it couldn’t be sequestered any longer and I had to act.  Something was missing and it seemed like I had to go out and find what it was.  Sometimes you need a complete departure from your world to silence all of the extraneous bullshit and finally hear the dark matter of your life.  

Having come from New York City, arguably the hardest place to find quiet in America, to being alone almost all the time has not been as hard as I thought it might be.  I figured I'd get lonely at some point, but that’s not a feeling I’ve yet experienced.  It’s fairly easy to stay connected nowadays, even when you’re camping.  I had a conversation at a trailhead in Arches National Park with a new friend, Valerie, about that.  She was on the road for a month and we talked about how surprising it was that there was so much cell service availability while we’ve been camping.  It’s a double-edged sword because, on one hand, we both had a desire to be forced into disconnection.  There’s a richness that occurs when you have to be with your mind and that was something I expected to have a lot more of.  On the other hand, though, when you are out by yourself, especially for me since I’m out for so long, it’s been nice to stay tethered to the world in some way.  It’s helped sustain a very new long-distance relationship that I started with my boyfriend, Isaac, just before I left Brooklyn - something that I clearly was not expecting at all (life has a great sense of humor sometimes).  It’s been fun to share my experiences with family and friends along the way and gain encouragement when I’ve had a tough time here and there.  Maybe more than anything, it’s allowed an ease of referencing the Internet and other helpful travel apps when I’ve literally had no idea what the next move was.  Tent camping doesn’t allow you the same freedoms of living in a van or converted SUV - you have to work a little harder to figure out where you’ll sleep at night.  That’s definitely not allowed me to be as spontaneous sometimes as I would have liked, but I’m also okay with that.  

But still, when you are forced into introspection, that is when it gets good.  Perhaps there is a sadness to that - the forcing part - because it’s so difficult to just turn your mind off nowadays.  Or to switch it to a different channel, so to speak, and that is so new to us as a society…as a people.  Up until about 10 years ago, we had no other choice most of the time.  When you were away from your home and computer, you had to make do.  While I have absolutely benefited from the internet in my hand and apps to help guide me along my path, I also realize that it’s harder to put your phone down now.  I’ve found at times, especially in the beginning, having to make a deal with myself - put your phone down for this amount of minutes.  I think it’s become easier as I’ve gone along, partly because this part of the world I’m in now inspires so much reflection and quiet gazing, so I'm feeling more pulled to focus on that than I am social media connection.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten a bit off track.  I guess that everything above does tend to fall under the umbrella of “what it’s like to live out of a tent,” but I was planning on this being more and a tangible post and not quite as philosophical.  

I’ve really started to realize how little you actually need when you live this life.  When I packed up my car back at the end of May, I had no idea what to expect so I brought a lot of shit with me.  A lot of supplies for contingency plans - if it rains, if it’s sunny, if I want to get real fancy for dinner, if I won’t have a shower for several days and need to use dry shampoo, if I get bored and need to take up a hobby.  I just didn’t have any idea what to expect and, though I did limit myself by whittling down what I brought through a few decision rounds, I still ended up with way too much. For example, I hate reading on a Kindle.  I only read actual books.  So, thinking I would have a lot of time on my hands, I brought probably 30.  When I look back on it now, it’s so ridiculous.  But, I just didn’t know what to expect, so packed for a worse case scenario type of situation.  

There is something kind of freeing about realizing how little you actually need.  For some people, there’s a real drive to acquire.  I wouldn’t say I’m the worst at that, but before this, I definitely wasn’t the best either.  Living in New York for me was funny in that you don’t have a ton of space to, say, fill up a typical American-sized home, but you’re also surrounded by a lot of “cool,” too.  Everyone is stylish as fuck and gadgets abound so the extraneous is in your face often.  But, when you get out here, you realize how little you need to get by.  A camp stove, a pot, a spatula or two, a cast iron skillet, a few knives, stuff to make coffee, a few cups, paper plates and plastic cutlery, your sleeping gear, water, a backpack for day hikes, tools to make fire, a camp chair, a head light, some clothes, general hygiene stuff.  These are the things I use daily.  I have a lot more with me and some days I access those things, but I could really do without them if I needed.  Obviously when you make a home for yourself, there are things you’ll need or want that you don’t when you’re living out of your car.  But, I would be hard-pressed to think this life of little I’ve lived for the last four months won’t impact my future in a dramatic way.  I think it’s re-jiggered my approach to acquisition.  I imagine I will be much more thoughtful with buying things going forward and the question of “do I REALLY need this” will come into play more often.  

The other thing I’ve really started to notice is the concept of “clean enough.”  This is an umbrella term for several aspects of life right now - cooking, clothing, hygiene.  I know to some folks this might seem gross and that’s okay.  The concept might have seemed gross to me before I got out on the road, too, but, it's a motto I've come to live by.  When you don’t have easy access to a kitchen sink a few feet away from you, the idea of thoroughly washing all of your dishes is one of the bigger pains in the ass you can imagine.  There have been campgrounds that have a place to wash dishes, but those are few and far between.  And they might be a few minutes walk away, which also doesn’t seem crazy to someone reading this at home.  But when you have to pile all of your dirty dishes up, make sure you have all your cleaning supplies, wash and then precariously balance your cleaned and dried stuff on a sink edge or sometimes the floor while you get the rest done, well, it really makes you reevaluate what is dirty enough to need a wash.  “I used that knife to cut vegetables and if I wipe it off, that seems clean enough to me.”  This is a sentence I’ve said to myself several times.  If it looks clean, that pretty much meets my standard at this point.  This is also where the concept of not needing much really shines through.  I’ve found ways to make all kinds of stuff work just to cut out dirtying another dish, utensil or pan.  It’s also why my cast iron skillet is probably the most useful tool in my kitchen bin.  It’s gotten enough use now that I can pretty much wipe it out after I finish cooking and it’s good to go.  When it reached that point, I can’t tell you what an accomplishment it was.  

Clothing is another area.  When I lived in an apartment, had an endless supply of clothes, and did laundry on the regular, I’d throw a shirt in the hamper after wearing it for a day.  Out here, though, my threshold for dirty has increased exponentially.  I’ve easily worn shirts four days in a row.  Pants?  Forget about it - they can go forever.  Especially when hiking comes into play.  Why put on a clean shirt and leggings I haven’t worn before just to get out and sweat in them?  It doesn’t make sense.  So, really, you don’t need much.  When I’ve done a batch of laundry, it’s been kind of a reset and that feels great.  But I have way too many clothes with me for as many times as I’ll wear things over again.  

Then there’s hygiene.  I’ve touched on this before with showering, but it extends elsewhere.  I can’t tell you how religious I was about washing my face before living on the road.  I can probably count on two hands how many times I’ve gone to bed without washing my face and, usually, that was the cause of alcohol consumption.  There have been long stretches here where that just hasn’t been an option, though, so you make do.  You clean yourself when you can.  I’ve brushed my teeth pretty often, but sometimes that gets skipped, too.  You just don’t have access to things on the regular that make being clean a necessity and that hasn’t been much of a problem.  I’m not saying this will change my hygiene habits when I live in a home again, but I think it’s made me appreciate it more for sure.  It’s okay to go a few days or a week without a shower if you don’t have access to one.  I’ve figured out how to make it work.  And when I do finally get the opportunity to get clean?  Well, it’s made me feel like a million bucks and I don’t think I had that feeling before - it was just part of my routine and I didn’t think about it.  I’m sure that will happen again, but I think I’ll always have this experience to call upon and that will probably change how I think about it going forward.  There will be a little bit more gratitude.  

This life has stripped away the excess and allowed me to focus on the necessity, both philosophically and in the day to day.  I think it’s given me a greater insight into what all you actually need in this world and I’d be surprised if it hasn’t produced a forever change.  

colorado, the land of everything - part 1

To say that Colorado changed everything for me is probably pretty apt.  The Badlands were the beginning of a different feel of this trip, but Colorado altered my chemistry, so to speak.  I traveled through this state for three weeks, which is longer than any other place I’ve explored.  And really, I could have traveled for another month and been perfectly happy.  It’s one of the most varied environments I’ve come across so far - flat plains, incredible mountains, arid deserts, sand dunes, red rocks, canyons - I feel like there were so many different times that I’d turn a bend and be gobsmacked by what was in front of me.  It was a state of a lot of firsts for me, some in life and some on this trip.  But, yea, basically, my time in Colorado transformed me.  I can’t tell if it was because, by this point, I’d been on the road for three months and that was long enough for everything from my life before traveling to fall away or if it was having the opportunity for my mind to really be quieted by nature that lent itself to this change.  Perhaps it was a combination of the two, but if I had to guess, I think it was more the landscape that I took in almost everyday that played the biggest role.  

With my friend Elizabeth

My new friends Amanda and Eloise (who is definitely one of my favorite kids ever).  Ben took this picture, so his spirit is included, as well.  Eloise was the only one dressed and ready for the day.

The beginning of my time in Colorado was spent with friends - some old and some brand new.  I spent time in Denver with my boyfriend’s best friend from high school and his girlfriend, a few days in Littleton with a former work colleague and her family, and a night in Boulder with one of my closest girlfriend’s college friends and her family.  I will never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers.  The fact that people whom I don’t know have opened up their homes to me, engaged in conversations where we’ve gotten to know each other, shown me their beloved towns and cities, allowed me to shower, let me clean my clothes, and offered me anything I could possibly need is almost something that brings on teary eyes.  Because I used to be kind of shy when I was younger, I still always have a slight apprehension about meeting strangers in this way.  It’s not that I think anything terribly bad will happen, but it’s more that I feel like I’m asking a lot to be taken into their home and be their guest.  I’ve never been one to put people out and I’m always afraid that taking a stranger into your home for a night or two can be likened to that. I guess that I’m also a little nervous that there might be a personality clash or something.  But, it never ends up that way.  Every family who has offered up their couch, blow-up mattress or spare bedroom has overwhelmed me with their graciousness and hospitality.  And I will never be able to say thank you enough to make them know what it’s meant to me.  Not only has it allowed me to visit cities I might not have the chance to otherwise, but it’s left a path of new friends that have contributed to the feel of this trip exponentially.  

It was fantastic to be able to spend some time in Denver and it’s surrounding communities - to get a feel for what it’s like to live in a big city that offers so much outdoor recreation and natural splendor.  I seriously couldn’t believe people get to live in a place that is enveloped by some of the most gorgeous mountains I’ve seen and be able to drive a few minutes to hike through red-rocked landscapes or climb a few miles up to impossibly gorgeous overlooks.  

Red Rock Workout - after sitting on my ass pretty consistently for three months, this was the first place I got to really sweat it out.  It was the beginning of me getting active again - Colorado was good for that.

So, thank you to Brian Collins and Michelle Osborn, Elizabeth, Joe and baby AJ Marzocco, and Amanda, Ben and Eloise Berg Wilson.  

One of New Belgium's bottling warehouses.

Erica taking a ride down the slide

Before I go into the nature shit, though, I want to take a moment to talk about a booze highlight.  I started drinking New Belgium’s Fat Tire beer in probably something like 2002.  After the first one, it was all over and that’s pretty much what I drank for the rest of my time in Texas.  When I moved to LA, I searched for it high and low, but they were still a small brewery at that point and hadn’t started distributing there yet.  Just about the time I got ready to move to NYC, LA started carrying their bomber bottles, which I drank at home all the time.  My search began again in NYC, but I never had the same luck as in LA.  Each time I went back to Austin or Los Angeles, though, I drank the shit out of it.  My best friend, JoAnne, checked a 12-pack of Fat Tire on a plane from LA one year for my birthday.  It truly was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  So, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d stop by the New Belgium Brewery when I came through Colorado and that’s just what I did on my way to Denver.  Erica and Michael were in Fort Collins and Erica was able to join me for a tour while Michael worked (sorry bud).  This place was pretty much everything I could have imagined.  Our tour guide was a hilarious and knowledgeable guy who truly loved what he did.  And it seems like everyone who worked there loved their jobs.  New Belgium is employee-owned and I can tell that makes a huge difference to the quality of workplace life.  The brewery runs on sustainable practices as much as it can and I was impressed by how important it is to them without shoving it down people’s throats.  It’s who they are, not something they do because of the popularity of the trend.  We saw several parts of their brewery, drank a lot of beer (I needed a burger after to get right), slid down their “fun slide,” and I bought a t-shirt.  It was amazing.  I’m pretty much ready to move to Fort Collins and start working for them.

We were drunkish

So, on to the other stuff.

Rocky Mountain tundra views

Marmots!

The real change that transpired in Colorado began in Rocky Mountain National Park.  That’s not surprising, though, right?  Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s great parks.  I think the base of the Western part of the park sits at around 8,000 feet and Trail Ridge Road, the byway that runs through the park, reaches the highest elevation of any continuous road in this country.  It tops out somewhere above 12,000 feet, and that drive is one of the more incredible ones you can take.  As you climb, you’re able to see the changing topography, eventually reaching above the treeline to the tundra.  Honestly, I was fascinated by this area of the park because it only sees about 6-8 weeks of summer a year.  That means the animals who live there have only that amount of time to fatten up and prepare for an insanely long winter hibernation.  The plants and flowers that inhabit that area are all marked by evolutionary function - they are small, low to the ground, and not at all lush because they’ve adapted to how to survive hurricane-force winter winds and snowfalls of epic proportions.  All of the life up there is very determined and, when you stop and consider that, it makes you really understand how beautifully efficiently this planet can work.  Especially given that it has been millions of years in the making.  

Meese!

Buck in the side mirror

The wildlife in RMNP was abundant and I saw animals I’d never before seen.  Moose (or as I like to call them, meese), huge herds of elk, including one enormous bull with a spectacular set of antlers, marmots, gorgeous birds, lots of bunnies (which is definitely not new, but always adorable).  The preservation of these animals’ habitat is beyond important - the more national parks and open expanses of space I'm in , the more I understand that.  Our country has been encroaching on their homes for over a hundred years and it’s really crazy to consider how much harm we’ve done to their survival in such a short amount of time, especially given how old this planet is.  As this trip has progressed, I’ve found myself able to sit and watch animals for much longer than in the beginning.  It’s given me a sense of peace for some reason.  Their actions are so calculated and purposeful.  I think it’s given me a deeper feel for how all actions should be - purposeful - and that is something that is more and more rare in our society.  It’s something that requires effort.

Sky Pond

Probably the most fulfilling experience of my time at RMNP was hiking to Sky Pond.  A ranger told me it was her favorite hike in the area and that’s what I committed to on my last full day in the park.  Up until this point, I’d done a little hiking at the beginning and some minor fun hikes with friends in the Denver area.  The trail to Sky Pond, though, was the first major hike I attempted.  It was 10 miles out and back with an elevation climb of 1650 feet, topping out somewhere over 11,000 feet.  I felt everyone of those feet, too, especially since it probably took me at least two weeks to finally acclimate to the elevation change in Colorado.  I was also not in the greatest of shape since I’d been doing a lot of sitting in my car.  The hike was the beginning of many in Colorado, though, and each one I’ve done has given me more confidence to push myself further and instilled a greater sense of strength and inner-peace.  For that reason, Sky Pond was special.

At Glacier Lake looking up to the area I was just a short hike away from

Mills Lake looking up to the glaciers

As I hiked, I stopped for a snack at Mills Lake.  This was a gorgeous body of water nestled between the mountain range.  I sat down on a crop of rocks and looked up at the mountain peaks ahead of me.  It wasn’t until I reached the top of the trail that I realized what I had been looking up at was where I would eventually end.  This has been an ongoing theme in my hiking - stops along the way to look up, only to realize later that I was admiring where I’d be.  The accompanying sense of accomplishment is one I have yet to find replicated in other aspects of life.  Maybe that’s because I am relatively new to challenging myself in this way, but people who push themselves physically, especially in the outdoors, to see what they can accomplish, well, I think I finally get it.  It’s so much more rewarding than the gym.  

And, solo hiking, well, that is altogether a different beast.  I feel differently now that I have more hikes under my belt, but at the beginning, there were a lot of factors I considered.  They never stopped me from doing the hike, but I guess you could say it made me a little nervous.  The primary one being if something happened to me out on the trail.  Most times, I’ve come across other hikers, so there’s kind of a sense of safety knowing that if I were to hurt myself and not be able to walk, eventually someone would probably come along and call for help.  But that’s not a guarantee.  The other factor, especially being in bear country, is that you’ll come across a bear.  When you’re alone, you have a greater chance of startling one since you’re not usually talking out loud.  I have yet to know how I’ll react when I see a bear and that alone kind of makes me wish that I’d come across one already.  At this point, it’s the unknown and it makes me unsure as to how it will go down.  Experience breeds confidence, so for that fact alone, I’d like a little experience.  Just a little.  I’m not trying to get greedy here.

There is the other side of solo hiking, though, that far outweighs any trepidations I might have.  When you get to a place and are allowed to be alone with nature, the feeling is something I can’t quite describe.  There are several factors that determine that feeling, too.  The scenery, how hard the hike was, what has been going on in your head, etc.  What that lends itself to is a unique experience on every hike.  None are the same.  Some have made me awe-struck.  Some have made me cry with happiness.  Some have made me pissed off.  And some have given me a greater sense of calm than I’ve ever had.  I’m sure that it’s different for everyone, which is part of the beauty.  Everyone should get the opportunity to know what that feels like for them.  

At the top with a wild sense of accomplishment

Anyway, Sky Pond was magnificent.  It was challenging for sure and by the time I got back to my car, my feet were in a bad way.  But it was beautiful at the top.  There were glaciers up there people.  Glaciers!  At the beginning of September!  And I could see for miles.  It was cool as hell.  

I was hoping to stick around RMNP for another night so I could do the ranger’s second favorite hike out to a few other lakes, but the weather dictated my departure.  Hiking in the rain seems like not a lot of fun.  This place was pretty magical.  Honestly, I feel like most of the places I’ll be writing about for a little while will use that same adjective, so forgive me.  But this was the first mountain range I’d been in where I was blown away into silence.  Other places had been beautiful, sure, but this was truly majestic.  This was humbling.  It made me feel small and unimportant and that felt wonderful.  At the same time, I left RMNP feeling stronger than I had in a long time and it just built from there.  Rocky Mountain National Park was my foundation of sorts and it was a solid one at that.  

Mother Nature gave me an unexpectedly beautiful gift for my last evening in RMNP - Moraine Park Campground, Site A125

wyoming’s first tourist attraction

One night when I was pouring over my atlas with new friends in South Dakota, they pointed out Ayers Natural Bridge Park and I circled it on the map for when I got into Wyoming.  Floyd and Shirley mentioned this place was gorgeous and the camping was free.  

Ayers Bridge is apparently just a mile south of the Oregon Trail and many emigrants would visit it as they passed through (hence one of Wyoming’s first tourist attractions).  It was the homestead of the Ayers family for decades.  I believe the story goes that the Native Americans in this area were fearful of this place because a young brave was struck by lightening and killed at the arch, which led to a legend of an evil spirit, “King of Beasts,” who lived under the bridge.  Since the Native tribes stayed away, it was a protected place for settlers who came through the area and, eventually, for the Ayers family to settle.  Andrew Ayers donated the land to the county back in 1920, making it a public space.

Michael and Erica joined me for two of the three nights I was there before we finally decided to break up our camping love affair and part ways.  Much like Cheyenne Campground, Ayers Natural Bridge Park was a respite - a place where we got to explore some of the incredible beauty of this park, but didn’t have this nagging feeling that there was a lot to check off our to-do lists.

We met a couple who was from the area and we spent our second night with them, listening to recounts of crazy life experiences, tutorials on nature’s medicinal plants and how varied they are, and stories of love through World of Warcraft.

Much like a few posts before this, it is also a collection of photographs of my time there.

The golden road to Wyoming

Campsite 6, Ayers Natural Bridge Park

Over yonder with Polar sleeping bag dresses

Morning light under the bridge

Roads of Wyoming, number 4 in a series of 17,965

Glowing rocks

Group selfies on the bridge

Obligatory sunset panorama

This is Naomi and Charles.  They met about four or five years ago through World of Warcraft.  She was living in Eastern Washington at the time and, after spending seven months on the phone every night, Charles eventually came to visit Naomi for a week.  He was miserable after getting home and moved to live with her a month later.  They moved back to Douglas, Wyoming a few years ago after having a hard time finding work in Washington.  Naomi took us on a weed walk where she pointed out different plants and weeds and their medicinal uses, which was fascinating.  That was a true highlight of this camping spot and Naomi really did have a healer quality about her.  Our second night, Charles told us a lot of stories from his life...and has he ever lived a life.  He's traveled all over, been homeless at times, had two of his teeth kicked out in a bar fight outside of Houston - when the cops showed up to reassemble the peace, he had nine teeth in his hand and knew two were his.  The were a colorful couple who were very much in love and had each other's backs.  I was glad to get to know them.

Still life with ukelele

Our last group picture before our time together came to an end.  Sometimes it's amazing to me how strangers can come together and, in a matter of just a few days, form a friendship that sometimes takes others years to accomplish.

The sun shone down in the most gorgeous of ways on my journey out

casted off

When Michael, Erica, and I left the Badlands, it felt a little like a banishment.  It was violent and unplanned and I really didn’t know what I was going to do next.  Though we’d not openly discussed it, I had this feeling that we’d all continue to camp together for a little bit and that kind of made me feel safe.  It’s a weird thing being out on your own when you have to weather the elements.  It’s not that I feel like I can’t do it, but having a few other people along to help out or offer support or whatever, just feels better.  It’s kind of a “we’re all in this together” kind of thing.  

We got into Rapid City, South Dakota at 8:30 in the morning.  I’d already felt like I’d been up for hours and could use a nap.  We found a Starbucks where we could get some coffee, a little pre-made breakfast, and, most importantly, free wifi.  I also got the opportunity to wash my face, brush my teeth, and feel a little bit more human again in their bathroom.  I spent the morning trying to find us a campground (shout out to www.hipcamp.com y’all), figuring out the weather situation, and taking care of some blog posting.  Michael banged out some work and Erica helped me with campground discovery.  By noonish, we’d secured a campground in Hot Springs, South Dakota (which, actually has no goddamn hot springs, by the way) and after grabbing a quick bite to eat, were on our way.  

Our camp cove

We arrived into Cheyenne Campground and found that we’d gotten maybe the best site in the campground.  The Angostura Recreation Area (where the campground was located) sits on a lake and we, by chance, reserved the last spot available, overlooking a little cove that fed into the lake.  There were tall pines, way less wind, and a buck across the way that greeted us upon arrival.  After having such a shitty morning with the outdoors, I think it’s safe to say we were all put at ease after we settled into such a gorgeous place.  

I put my car back together since it was a hot mess after throwing things in from the morning in a frantic fashion and then took a shower.  A fucking shower y’all.  This was the longest I’d gone so far - five, almost six days - and after getting beaten down by a hurricane force sand storm that morning, this was the sweetest reward.  I washed my hair, exfoliated my skin with a wash cloth, shaved my legs, moisturized every inch of me - I basically felt like a woman again.  I’m writing this in retrospect and since, I’ve had several more moments like this, but I have really come to be grateful for the chance to get clean.  This is something I’ve taken for granted most of my life.  When you live in a home and have a access to a place to bathe, it’s something that becomes part of your daily routine.  And, up until this point, it was mostly part of mine, as well.  I’d had a few stretches while camping at the beginning where I didn’t shower for a good bit of time.  But, once I reached the West, knew less folks with whom to stay, and wanted to take advantage of all the amazing camping opportunities, being clean became a luxury.  And it is something I’ve come to cherish.  I’ll expand more as I go along with these Western posts, but this was the first shower that was the beginning of gratitude for warm, running water that flows over my head and the smell of my own freshly washed hair.  

Lake sunsets

Our first night in Cheyenne Campground was cold.  We made a fire and, goddamn, it was so nice to finally have a fire again.  I’d camped for a few nights on my way to the Badlands, but hadn’t made fires because it was too warm and I kind of didn’t want to spend the money on firewood.  So, this was the first fire I’d had in about a month and a half.  When folks are around, the campfire is a gathering space.  It’s a place where bourbon and beer is drunk, stories are told, and friendships are solidified.  It’s a quiet place where you congregate for warmth and discuss life’s paths, shared beliefs, and where you really get to know your fellow campfiremates.  By that point, I already knew that Erica and Michael would be friends for life, but sitting around a campfire with them those first couple of nights cemented it.  

I went to sleep in my tent that night with a few layers on.  We got cell reception at this campground, so when I woke up colder than I had been so far, I checked the weather to see the temperature.  It was 43 degrees.  I know it might sound weird, but it was kind of a victory - I thought to myself, “I could definitely do 10 degrees colder” and that solidified my ability to journey into the North (Wyoming and Montana) during late September and October.  Originally, I’d decided to head into Wyoming and Montana after the Badlands and then swoop down into Colorado to meet my friends Susan and Ben in Pagosa Springs, Colorado over Labor Day weekend.  Then, when things got kind of close, I realized that it seemed ridiculous to hang in Montana and drive a crazy number of miles out of my way to Southern Colorado.  So, I thought I’d just be up in the Northern part of the West for an undetermined amount of time…until I heard about the smoke from the fires.  Instagram clued me into the smoke pollution in Montana and that ended up changing my course.  I decided instead to head into Colorado eventually and then make my way North from there.  I was worried about the changing weather, though, and this night of a 43 degree low gave me a little more confidence in my decision. 

South Dakota's state bird

I woke up a few hours before Michael and Erica did to the frigid air.  After giving myself a pep-talk, I finally got out of my sleeping bag and headed to make coffee.  As I was getting things situated, a car drove by on our little loop and I heard a scrambling of sorts.  I looked up and saw a flock of pheasants just prancing around a couple hundred feet away.  There must have been 20 of them and I just sat and watched for awhile.  That morning light again, man, just touching over the hill and backlighting them as they walked around, eating whatever the hell pheasants eat.  It made getting up in the cold worth it.  

We had only talked about staying at this campground for a night.  It was supposed to just be a place to take a hot shower, regroup, and figure out what was next.  But, after we arrived at such a peaceful spot, we decided to make it a two night stay.  We didn’t really do very much that day.  There was a little exploring around the lake, a massive effort to collect firewood, some hammock hanging (Michael and Erica bought an ENO hammock before their trip that we hung between a few trees that overlooked the cove.  I then purchased one a few weeks later - this was an incredibly powerful word-of-mouth marketing campaign), and a real serious afternoon nap.  We also spent a good bit of time pouring over our atlases, trying to figure out the next spot.  Since I wasn’t quite yet ready to head south to Colorado, I decided to check out Ayers Natural Bridge Park in Wyoming on the recommendation of my friends, Floyd and Shirley, from Marion, South Dakota.  I was hoping Michael and Erica would join me and they decided to.

Campsite 21, Cheyenne Campground in Angostura Recreation Area

Cheyenne Campground was an incredible little respite and a great place to regroup.  Having a little time to do not much of anything was welcomed.  The idea of “taking days off” is kind of a difficult thing to reconcile.  On one hand, I’m on this trip with limited time and funds, so I want to get the most out of it.  There is SO much to see in this country and, though I’ll never be able to do it all in just six months, I’d like to be able to experience as much as I can.  On the other hand, being on the go this much can really take it out of you.  I am not trying to make this into a “oh woe is me, I am on an extended vacation and boo hoo, it’s just so hard” because, well I’m not dumb - that’s a ridiculous stance.  But, regardless, a day or two here and there to do nothing helps to rejuvenate your mind and recharge you.  It is very hard to actually make the conscious decision to take a few days off, though.  So, when it just kind of happens, in retrospect, it is so very much appreciated.  This was one of those instances where, essentially, the universe was telling me to just sit my ass down and be still for a bit.  And, I listened.

the moon

I can’t remember when the Badlands first crossed my radar.  I’m sure it was from Instagram and one of the many travelers I’ve been following for the last couple of years.  Regardless, this National Park was a must visit for me.  I was planning on staying at Sage Creek Campground, a free campground in the park.  It was my first place, though, without the regular “luxuries” of previous campgrounds - no running water, no fires, no camp host (which isn’t necessarily a luxury, but it was a change).  The no water thing, that’s what scared me a bit.  In retrospect, I don’t know why.  It really wasn’t that big of a deal.  But there was something about having water provided that tethered me to civilization in a way.  This campground seemed like a challenge, but one that I wanted to take on.  Mostly because as I headed West, there were a lot more Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camping opportunities available, which meant free and secluded, but without most amenities.  Sage Creek seemed like a good intro into this since there were still picnic tables, pit toilets, and trash collection.

A blur of yellow

My drive to the Badlands was rough.  It was basically five or six hours in and out of rain and a constant, heavy wind.  I guess that’s the Plains for ya.  It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized my upstairs (aka, my Thule cargo box) had shifted dramatically on the roof rack.  But, about three or so hours in, out of nowhere, these magnificent fields of sunflowers started popping up.  Personally, I think sunflowers are kind of a weak flower.  They always make me think of that shitty Elizabeth Arden perfume everyone wore back in middle school and they’ve just never been particularly spectacular to me.  I’m more of a peony girl.  But, seeing acres of bright yellow amongst the grey sky backdrop was really exciting.  

Sage Creek Campground pre-storm

I arrived into the park as the storm was starting to let up.  My drive west onto the muddy washboard road absolutely annihilated the car wash I’d opted for as I was leaving Chicago, but the vast prairies with subtle rock formations made it all worth it.  Little did I know that this was nothing compared to what I would see the next day.  Sage Creek was pretty empty when I arrived.  It was kind of a mud field after the storms from the previous night and day of.  Again, I was so thankful to have brought my rain boots.  Since I was there at an optimal time, I was able to grab a pretty choice picnic table area (those, I learned, are prized) and set up my tent just in time for it to rain again.  While I was setting up, a guy shaking out his tent footprint asked if I knew what the forecast would be.  He’d apparently been there the night before and it was a rough one.  The storm pummeled the campground and he didn’t get much sleep between the lightening, the heavy rain, and the wind.  This was Danny, my first traveler friend.  Danny is from Oakland, had been on the road for about five months, and was making his way back home.  

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally meet someone of the same ilk as me.  I’d been on the road for about two and a half months, but because I’d been either traveling with friends/family or staying with people for the grand majority of my time, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to meet any travelers.  We must have talked for a good 30 minutes as he was letting his tent dry out about what he had seen, what I had seen, what our thoughts and experiences had been, and it felt so incredible to talk to someone who had so many shared ideas and impressions of this country as me.  We parted ways as the storm started to approach, I took a nap under the sound of the raindrops, and then ended up kind of making it an early night - sleep apparently was a necessity.  

My first morning in Sage Creek offered up one of those storied experiences of the West.  I woke up about 5:30, got a quick glimpse of the sunrise over the Plains, and promptly fell back asleep.  An hour later, I woke to whispers around my tent and then clearly heard the word “buffalo.”  I unzipped my window and saw this enormous bison 50 feet away.  I grabbed my phone, put on my wellies, and quietly walked over to watch him.  There was a circle of folks doing the same.  The morning light was incredible and made the grasslands behind him glow.  

Here’s the thing about bison in this campground - they’re there most all the time. I can’t say that I ever got tired of seeing them, but the novelty began to wear off some as the days went on.  Like, I’d still watch them because I truly have never seen such a majestic creature before and it’s hard to avert your eyes when something that large is standing yards away from you.  But, they graze through the field every morning and evening so they’re kind of like your neighbors.  Sometimes they’d stop and scratch themselves on the picnic tables’ canopies.  A few times they got pretty close to people’s tents - I can’t decide if that would have freaked me out or if I would have sat and watched out of my window in awe.  Every time one came through the campground, though, they’d command quite an audience.  I’m pretty sure these bison were looking around, watching all of these folks stare at them as they ate their breakfast or dinner, and wonder, “what the fuck are THEY looking at?”  

After my initial introduction to the campground bison, I got to my morning ritual of making coffee and breakfast.  After awhile, Danny came over to my picnic table to bring me a gift.  He’d taken his vintage Polaroid 250 Land Camera out to document the bison and brought me a picture as a souvenir.  This really touched me.  Not only was it just so goddamn cool, but it was the first gift I’d received on the road from a stranger.  To this day, that photograph is placed in my driver’s side visor and every time I pull it down to shade my eyes from the glaring sun, I am reminded of him.  We sat for awhile, drank coffee, and further discussed our experiences, feelings, and observations from our travels.  

Chris and his wife, L.  I've forgotten her name because I didn't write it down and was unusual, so I'm calling her L.

We chatted with a few other travelers who were near - a couple who’d been married a few weeks prior and had just left Chicago for a month-long road trip honeymoon and another couple who had also just left Columbus, Ohio for life on the road for an undetermined amount of time.   

 

 

Rock climbing bighorn sheep

After breakfast, I decided to drive through the park and check out what it was all about.  The storms from the previous few days had finally passed, leaving the sky an absolutely brilliant cerulean blue with huge, bright white, fluffy clouds.  It was the most perfect day of my time there.  As I drove along the washboarded dirt road that eventually led to a much smoother paved road through the park, the landscape changed dramatically.  It was so unexpected.  I’d stop to get out, observe and take pictures, and then drive along some more to see another formation or landscape that was so much more breathtaking that what I’d seen previously.  The Badlands just kept one upping itself.  And there was wildlife everywhere - in addition to the bison, there were fields of prairie dogs (ps, they have the plague apparently - there are signs warning park goers of this at each entrance, but without any explanation of how to deal with this information), bighorn sheep, WILD HORSES.  Lots of cars just pull over to the side of the road and watch them go about their business.  

Watching the bison was probably my favorite, but as far as entertainment value goes, the prairie dogs take the cake.  That first day, I pulled over after seeing these beautiful, tall flowered plants (which I later found out were mullein).  When I got out to try and capture them, I heard all of these chirps.  I turned around and saw a vast field full of prairie dogs.  These guys don’t stand still much - they’re running around from hole to hole, getting up on their hind legs (this is a protective behavior to make themselves appear larger to predators), sometimes they do this backflip-like thing that never ceased to be hilarious.  The chirping is loud as shit, especially if there are a few hundred of them all together.  And, really, it’s pretty damn adorable.  

After I had my mind blown by Mother Nature, I went back to the campground.  It was about 4pm and it was totally dead.  It wasn’t until the next day, I guess, that I realized how transient Sage Creek is.  I was there for four nights (it would have been five, but I’ll save that story for later) and that seemed like an eternity compared to most everyone else.  I observed that usually around 5 or 6pm, cars, trucks, RVs, vans, etc drive into the campground, find a spot to stake their tent or park their home on wheels, hang out for the night, and then usually by 9 or 10am the following morning, most of those folks packed up and left to continue on their way.  So, by nature of this, Sage Creek was where I met a lot of folks on the road.  Some had short road trips planned, sometimes with a new final destination, sometimes just back from where they came.  Others were planning to be on the road for a few months or longer.  But, I got to talk to all kinds of people, make new friends, and share stories and travel experiences from the road.  Danny helped a lot with this.  He’d talk to anyone and I benefited from this as it also made me more comfortable to approach folks - sometimes with him and sometimes on my own.  That afternoon, I met a couple of dudes who were meeting up with each other as one headed back to New York and the other was on his way to his new home of Seattle.  The couple from Ohio ended up coming back to camp for the night after spending too long driving through the park to make it to their next destination in daylight.  And, I also met Michael and Erica.  

Erica, Michael, and their van, Sigfried

Michael and Erica showed up in their awesome VW Vanagon sometime in the early evening.  I noticed their New York plates and went over to see where they were from.  Turns out, like five miles from me.  They left Greenpoint the day before I did and over the next few days, we discovered that we’d been in some of the same campgrounds, sometimes within days of one another.  Michael is a designer, mostly working on creating logos, and switched his work over to freelance a few months before they took off so he could work from the road.  As such, they plan to travel for a year (if I could only figure out how to make money on the road, I’d damn well do it for as long as I could, too).  

That night, there ended up being a guy with a fancy telescope set up in the campground.  There also happened to be an astronomer.  Chris, of the Ohio couple, also knew a thing or two about the sky and it made for a spectacular star party.  I saw my first satellite, the Andromeda Galaxy through this sweet telescope, the light pollution across the plains of nearby Wall (the closest town to the Badlands), which looked like a beam of light shooting into space, and really just millions of stars.  The Milky Way was so clear and spanned a huge swath of the sky.  Being able to see the night sky so clearly has always been humbling.  When I was in middle school, I’d sleep over at my best friend’s house and we’d sneak out after her mom went to bed.  Usually we’d just go to the park that was close by to hang out and, every time we did, I’d lie on a picnic table, stare up at the sky, and think about all that was out there.  I still do this every time I’m presented with stars of epic proportion (not that they were all that epic in the San Fernando Valley, but you know…you work with what you’ve got sometimes).  This was the most epic night sky I’d ever seen in my adult life.  Plus one yet again for the Badlands.

Danny and his Polaroid

Danny left the next morning.  So did the couple from Ohio.  I was sad to see Danny go, but he had just a few weeks to get back to to the Bay Area and still had a lot of ground to cover.  Before he left, he took everyone’s picture in front of our cars/vans as a momento.  He also took me through his Polaroid camera to show me what to look for when I came across one - I was dead set on acquiring one of these to have an analog way of capturing the rest of America I had yet to see.

Erica amongst the Badlands

That day, Michael had to do some work. Usually, that means Erica has to hang out and bide her time until he’s done with things.  So, I invited her to come drive around the park with me again.  And this was how we became buds.  I’d planned on doing a hike, but this was her first time seeing the park, so we did a lot of stopping to check out overlooks and walk around.  By the time we eventually got to the visitor’s center, we’d talked about all kinds of life shit, compared notes on travels and living in NYC.  Our friendship was solidified on that drive, but the hike never happened because it had become uncomfortably hot.  Instead, we ended up driving into Wall to get some ice cream because, by this point, I’d realized how much I’d fucked up by not eating more ice cream on the road and was on a mission to remedy that. 

Wall is weird.  It is the home of Wall Drugs, which, from what I can tell, is just some enormous tourist trap.  There are signs on the highway for it in like Minnesota.  Essentially, it’s a huge block with all kinds of crap made in China for sale.  You want a magnet with your name on it?  Done.  What about a bison shot glass?  Done.  You want a Stetson hat?  Done.  Oh, you’re not that classy and you want some ugly ass straw cowboy hat that’s been bedazzled to hell instead?  No problem - Wall Drugs has you covered.  This place goes on forever.  I also noticed after awhile that there are all kinds of foreign kids working there.  They must have some sort of work exchange program for the summer.  All I could think is, damn, can you imagine if you finally get to check out America and you end up in Wall, South Dakota working in some weird tourist place for the summer?  I hope they at least had a few killer parties where they had the opportunity to get white girl wasted.  Oh, and the ice cream was just ok. 

Climbin' rocks

That night, Michael, Erica and I made a plan for the next day over burritos and, boy, was it a big one.  We woke up at 5am and loaded into their van to drive around the park at sunrise.  One of the more magical things about this park and, I realized later, also the Plains in general, is that the look of the landscape changes hour by hour.  In the morning light, the grass glows a deep yellow.  The greens are more vibrant.  The hills have a softness to them.  As the day progresses and the light of the sun becomes sharper, the richness in color starts to fade, leading to a kind of bleakness, a hardness.  It’s still pretty in its own right, just different.  As the sunlight starts to wane, the richness returns, but there are more pinks this time.  They’re subtle, but they’re woven into the grasslands.  I know a thing or two about photography so this concept of magic hours isn’t new.  But, I guess that I’d never had the opportunity to really observe it before over a landscape where it was so apparent.  And this was one of my favorite things about the Badlands.  The play of light was magnificent.  

Morning light

Michael and the Formations

The smoke from the fires to the West had settled in again on the park, so the sunrise that morning wasn’t as dramatic as it had been in days previous.  But, regardless, it was still amazing to drive around in that time of the morning.  There was hardly anyone there, so it felt like we had the road to ourselves.  In that light, the formations took on a softness just like the hills by the campground and the layered colors were more vibrant.  This was Michael’s first time driving through the park.  It was kind of cool to witness two different people’s reactions to seeing the Badlands on separate days.  It brought a newness to the experience each time.  We did finally do a hike for a bit where we walked out onto a new part of the park I’d not yet been and it looked like what I imagine the moon to look like.  It was a vast expanse of these formations with jutting rocks and deep canyons.  The trail was marked by numbers so that you didn’t get lost in the abyss.  

Crusts and yellow flowers

Crazy Horse Memorial

We drove back to a relatively empty campground (it was noon so folks had moved on), ate some lunch real quick, and then headed out in my car toward the Black Hills.  Michael had been counseled to see the Crazy Horse Memorial by a friend who’d described it as can’t miss.  Mount Rushmore was also close by so we were going to tick off a few must-sees in one fell swoop.  When we arrived, we paid our admission at the entry gate and could see the Crazy Horse Memorial a bit away.  Since we were all under the impression based on Michael’s friend’s recommendation that we’d see the stone carving up close, we joked that we’d get into the visitor center and not get to see it much closer than we did at the gate, negating spending the admission fee.  Well, that was in fact the case.  This memorial was weird, man.  We felt got.  

It was started back in 1948 by this crazy dude named Korczak Ziolkowski.  He’d worked on Mount Rushmore as Gutzon Borglum's assistant and was fired for some reason.  I’m guessing it was because he was crazy.  He was then hired by some of the local Native American tribe leaders to carve an even more impressive stone memorial to Crazy Horse.  It’s supposed to be something like five times as large as Rushmore when it’s all said and done.  But here’s the deal.  It was supposed to be completed 30 years after they began.  They’ve now been working on this thing for almost 70 years and they really don’t look like they’ve made much progress.  Crazy Horse’s face is done, and you can see some progress over the years, but nothing that’s definite in the way of what the memorial is supposed to look like aside from the face.  From the get-go, they’ve been very adamant about not taking any federal funding, which I can appreciate.  But, basically this guy’s family has taken ownership of this, run the non-profit that funds the construction, and something just doesn’t sit right with me.  I couldn’t help but feel like they’re taking advantage of this in some way.  There’s this whole cut-rate video they show you about the history, the construction, the Ziolkowski family, and they have a heavy hand with the “look at all the good we’re doing for the Native American tribespeople,” which feels a little too “me doth think he protest too much” to me.  I’d be very curious to know what the Native American tribes who were originally a part of this think about it now.  We didn’t see the stone carving really any closer than we did at the entrance gate.  However, I did neglect to mention that if we wanted to pay $125 ($105 of it that would be tax-deductible), we could take a van up to the memorial and see it just a few feet away. 

Mount Rushmore

We left feeling deflated and went to a nearby mountain town to get some ice cream (this was much better than Wall Drugs, if you were wondering).  We drove over to Mount Rushmore and made the decision that if we could see it from the road, we weren’t going to pay the admission fee to go into the park.  Clearly, we’d been burned.  We did see it from the road and, in retrospect, we probably should have gone in because I later found out that you can actually get really close to the monument there.  Maybe there’ll be another time.  It was getting late anyway and we had to make a stop in Rapid City on the way back to the Badlands to get a few things for dinner.   

That night we concocted what has proven to be one of our favorite meals - two boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese (one regular “cheddar” and the other white “cheddar”), sautéed kale and tomatoes, and cut up rotisserie chicken.  Michael, Erica and I have met up several times to camp together since the Badlands and we’ve made this meal at least once every time.  It is only getting better.  Seriously, this was the first camp meal I made where I was like, goddamn goddamn.  Rotisserie chicken has become my new staple.

We hit the rack on the early side that night since we’d had such a long day.  I was sleeping soundly until about 4:30am when a wind storm hit the campground.  It woke up me and I tried to ignore it for what seemed like 30 minutes, but it was probably like 3.  I hadn’t staked the guylines down on my tent so it was twisting and bending in all kinds of ways.  I got up, staked it down in hopes that would do the trick and allow me to head back to sleep.  Well, it didn’t.  The wind only got more violent and there were times where I was like the meat in a tent sandwich.   I started to worry that it might do some serious damage to my tent, so at 5:30, I finally gave in, got up and started packing everything up.  Everyone in the camp was doing the same.  Not one tent stood a chance except for some Eureka situation at the far corner of the field - those folks waited it out until probably 7:30 before calling it quits.  I have never experienced wind like I have at the campground that morning.  It was violent.  The sand and dirt pummeled your face like some sort of microdermabrasion procedure.  I’m sure it took a year off my skin.  Taking my tent down solo was kind of a harrowing experience in that I was lucid enough now to be really worried that something might tear and that was the last thing I needed - a broken home.  Thankfully, it came down okay and Michael got out to help me when he woke up and realized what was going on.  I haphazardly threw everything into my car and joined Erica and Michael in their van to figure out a plan - the original idea of staying in the Badlands for one more night was definitely out of the question now.  I was super thankful for their shelter and the damn fine coffee they made me.  Ultimately, we decided to head back to Grand Rapids, find a coffee shop with wifi, and figure out where to go from there.

Last ones standing

So, that was the end of the Badlands for me.  Mother Nature decided that four nights was enough and it was time for me to move on.  This National Park was the beginning of something new for me.  Sure, I’d been blown away by nature before that point, but nothing like I was here.  This place is special.  The formations were a process of millions of years of the Earth’s work and it’s pretty incredible to just stare off into them and consider what all they’ve seen.  More than that, I guess you could say this is where a different chapter of my trip began.  It was the first place where I was solo for an undetermined amount of time, living out of my tent, figuring out how to cook for myself on my camp stove, and also being able to be present with the incredible gift this Earth gives to us.  It was the beginning of a very humbling experience.  It was the beginning of a different experience altogether.  So, for that reason and many others, the Badlands was a really significant and awe-inspiring place.  By far and away, up until that point, it was my favorite stop so far.

all the in between

I covered a lot of ground between Nashville and the Badlands.  But here’s the thing - to some extent, I really felt that this trip took on a whole different feel once I headed West.  The landscape is so vastly different from anything I’ve seen in so long that it’s left an incredible impression on me.  So, I’ve decided to kind of gloss over a good chunk of time - about two weeks, so that I can try and start writing from the present and have the time to put all of these thoughts down on paper - real or electronic.  That isn't to say that those two weeks weren't amazing: I got to see my man in Pittsburgh. I got to see my girl Erika, her husband, Nate, and meet her new babies in Michigan and Chicago. I got to have dinner with my best friend, Amy, from high school and hang out with her husband, Fred. and cute ass toddler. I got to see my old friends, Toy and Merrick, and finally meet their son Maurizio in Chicago. I was surprised by one of my closest friends, Kamau, in Chicago, being able to spend a night hanging around the city with him.  And got to see all kinds of nature and beauty and architecture and...well, you get the point.  

So, this is a post of a million photos of my time between Nashville and the Badlands - camping in Ohio on the way to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, camping in Ohio on the way to Lake Michigan, Lake Michigan, Chicago, camping in Minnesota and South Dakota on the way to the Badlands.  This will be the visual storytelling of those few weeks.

Sunset over Caldwell Lake - Scioto Trail Campground - Chillicothe, Ohio

My campsite at Scioto Trail Campground-  Chillicothe, Ohio

My campsite at Scioto Trail Campground- Chillicothe, Ohio

And then the morning view over the lake - Scioto Trail Campground - Chillicothe, Ohio

This guy rode a bus for 8 hours to meet me in Pittsburgh and I was real happy to see him

The room yarn weavings of Chiharu Shiota at The Mattress Factory.  This was probably my third favorite installation at these row houses that have been repurposed into a contemporary art museum.  My favorite was two of the three James Turrell light installations, which don't translate to film.  The other favorite is below.  

More of Chiharu Shiota

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Dots Mirrored Room - this was my second favorite.  Isaac clearly knew what he was doing with his light sources.

Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mill Run, Pennsylvania - I was really looking forward to seeing this, but balked a little at the $25 admission fee.  I'm glad my good sense took over and we went.  Whatever you do, see this if you are in the area.  It has made me a huge FLW fan.  It was stunning to see his creative thought process put to life.

Another view of Falling Water

Shirt dichotomy.

Campsite in Findley State Park Campground - Wellington, Ohio 

Oh the road to Lake Michigan

This is a lake.  Lake Michigan to be exact.  Like, there are several cities on the other side of this, which one cannot see - Grand Beach, Michigan

Erika and Nate took me to Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan.  It was a super cute little destination spot where they serve up some good little food to keep you from getting too drunk while they make you cocktails.

The war room at Journeyman

This is Hadley (left) and Parker (right), the (not so much anymore) brand new twins of Erika and Nate.  It was really pretty incredible to be able to meet them at such a young age and see them as tiny babies.  I'm sure I'll obnoxiously remind them of this as they get older.

I got to finally see my best friend from high school, Amy's, Chicago digs and spend some quality time with her and her family.  That's Harper (her baby girl) and Fred (her husband).  And this was a terribly blown out family photo because I didn't think about taking a photo of them until it was dark outside.

Harper showing me how she takes off her shoes

One of Jaume Plensa's gigantic sculptures in Millenium Park, Chicago

Me in Cloud Gate (aka, "The Bean") - Millenium Park, Chicago

Frank Gehry's Jay Pritzker Pavilion - Millenium Park, Chicago

More of Juame Plensa - this time at Crown Fountain, where projected video of different Chicago residents' faces occasionally spit water at excited children - Millenium Park, Chicago

This is Maurizio Brown, my friends, Toy and Merrick's, kiddo.  I've known the Browns for god knows how long and I have watched him grow up on social media into a curious, inquisitive, and all around rad kid.  I was so excited to finally get to meet him and he proved just as awesome as I anticipated - Millenium Park, Chicago

Toy clued me onto the Move Your Body: The Evolution of House Music exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center.  Chicago is a place where they have a goddamn exhibition on house music.  Chicago is fantastic.

"What does house mean to you?" - Chicago Cultural Center

I got to finally see my first live show on my trip in Chicago - Nikki Lane.  This is a real shit picture, but I felt I had to document it for the people.

Chicago street art

It's not where you're from, it's where you art.

On my way out of Chicago, I stopped by Oak Park on the recommendation of our family friend, Laura, who knew how much I'd enjoyed Falling Water.  Oak Park is the neighborhood where Frank Lloyd Wright began his career.  There are 25 structures in this suburb of Chicago that he designed either at his first architecture firm, Adler & Sullivan, or after he left them and went out on his own.  This is 318 Forest Avenue.

210 Forest Avenue - Oak Park, Chicago

333 Forest Avenue - Oak Park, Chicago

Campsite at Great River Bluffs State Park Campground - Winona, Minnesota.  I was only supposed to camp here one night, but once I arrived at this gorgeous state park, I ended up making it two.

Pollination Station - Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

Mom requested more selfies - Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

Panorama action along the Great Mississipp - Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

Flowers and the River - Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

When I finally left this amazing first campground on my journey West, I was ushered out through a cloud - Great River Bluffs State Park - Winona, Minnesota

This is Shirley and Floyd.  After leaving Great Bluffs State Park, I drove in a storm pretty much for five hours, finally stopping in Sioux Falls, South Dakota just on the other side of the Minnesota border.  I hung out in a Barnes and Noble and waited for the storm to pass.  Knowing that the rain would pick up again in a fierce way overnight, I was reluctant to pay $20 to set up my tent in a campground just to take it down in the soaking rain in the early morning.  One of my best resources on this trip has been www.freecampsites.net, which is where I found out about Hieb Memorial Park in Marion, South Dakota, a small town park that offered free camping.  I decided to give it a shot and drove up to two redneck-y looking dudes from Mississippi who'd set up camp and were hitting golf balls.  I was a little nervous, but figured it'd be a quick night and I had a big knife and bear spray to sleep with anyway.  And then, as I was cutting up fixins' for a salad on the hood of my car, Floyd came out of his RV to take out the trash and we struck up a conversation.  I told him my story, he told me his - he and his wife, Shirley, had lived on 15 acres close by for years that they sold last year (on craigslist!) to move down to Lubbock, Texas to help his daughter and her family out.  He was real homesick, though, and they kept a travel trailer up at Shirley's sister's home nearby so they could come and assuage some of his longings for home.  After he took out the trash and I fixed up my salad, he and Shirley came out, sat at the picnic table with me, made me a warm cup of coffee, and we went over my atlas so they could point out some can't-miss spots in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.  They also clued me into some great free camping sites and shared a secret free shower place not too far away so I could clean up before heading to the Badlands.  We exchanged information the next morning when I went to say good morning and visit with them before I left.  I think about these folks often and I hope to get to see them when I head through Texas later in the year.  They've been some of my favorite new friends along the way.

Campsite at Hieb Memorial Park = Maron, South Dakota

...And now onto the West.

music city, usa

Everyone has heard about Nashville in the last few years.  It’s been referred to as the next Austin, which, at this point, is probably the kiss of death.  I went last year with my dad on a much smaller road trip when I wanted to check out a few cities I thought I might jive with.  I loved it.  Seriously, like, I was looking at real estate after I got back and I’ve never looked at real estate online before in my life (maybe that’s a bigger issue at 35…or just a side effect of living in New York).  It seemed like the right size, with lots of great stuff - bars, restaurants, coffee shops, friendly people, a GORGEOUS landscape, plenty of outdoor stuff to do close by, and music.  The music, man.  Sure there is country - obviously.  But, what’s great about Nashville now is that their music scene has become much more varied and there are all kinds of great bands from there.  And if they’re not from there, well there’s a good chance they’ll stop through on their tour.  

When I left Nashville last Fall, I pretty much was ready to just go ahead and commit to moving there.  But then a million different people started letting everyone in on the secret.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that happened before I visited for the first time, but I guess that’s when I started noticing it.  In roughly the year between my visits to Nashville, my thoughts changed.  Mostly because I see Nashville going the way of Austin and the way Austin is now truly kind of breaks my heart.  There have been an insane influx of folks and it’s changed the bones of that city.  I have real trepidations about being one of those people to Nashville.  

That being said, Nashville is a hell of a fun city and I was excited to introduce my mom to it since my dad had pretty much already fallen in love last year.  The other best part about going to Nashville was that my friend, Scott, was going to be there at the same time.  He’d planned this trip for his birthday months ago, but I thought I’d be in town a week earlier and would miss him.  Since I had to push my trip back with my mom, though, the planets aligned and I got to hang out a bunch with Scott.  

I reached out to Dianne, the woman whose Airbnb my dad and I stayed at last year, to see if it was available again and we were in luck.  It was great to be in East Nashville again.  This absolutely is the hipster enclave of Nashville now, but it’s a gorgeous neighborhood and really well located to lots of stuff.    

Basically, my mom and I (and for the most part, Scott, too) ate and drank our way around Nashville.  I am not going to make this into a play by play of all that we consumed and where because nobody really probably cares too much about that.  I will point out four things, though.  

We look sweaty as hell here - this was post Rolf and Daughters, so the itis might have started to settle in

Arnold's - chicken and dumplings, mac and cheese, collards, fried green tomatoes, squash and watermelon salad, and a slice of lemon chess pie for good measure.

  1. Rolf and Daughters was hands down my favorite dining experience so far.  If y’all are ever in Nashville, bite the bullet, make a reservation, and spend the cash.   
  2. Union Common is a damn fine place to drink.  Well, and eat, too.  They have an incredible happy hour with delicious cocktails, delicious food, and all that shit is half off.  
  3. Eat at Arnold’s.  If you go to Nashville and miss this place, you ought to be shot.  Arnold’s is a meat and three spot, which means just that - you get a choice of meats they provide that day and three sides.  Or really as many as you want, you just have to pay a little extra.  And I did that because I couldn’t narrow it down to just three.  Yes, you will wait in line.  It will be hot if you’re there in the summer.  But, just trust me, it’s beyond worth it.  It’s the best Southern food you’ll eat.  They won a James Beard award for Christ’s sake.  
  4. So, Scott and I went to Prince’s.  This is THE original hot chicken place in Nashville.  I skipped it last time in favor of Hattie B’s.  On this trip, though, I had time to do both.  I wanted to like this authentic hot chicken situation, but I just didn’t.  I was hungry and hungover and this did anything but hit the spot.  So, if you roll through Nashville and you want hot chicken, just go to Hattie B’s.  Everything is perfect and they make a banana pudding that will throw you on the floor.

We took a selfie.  My mom likes selfies.  Scott looks skeptical.

Nighttime at Robert's

The nightlife scene in Nashville is pretty much the tits if you want it to be.  That is one of the things that I really like about that city - there are a lot of choices.  As far as honky tonks go, the only one that seems to matter much is Robert’s Western World.  I’m sure there are more hole in the wall spots you could find if you lived there and met the right folks to tell you their secrets, but Robert’s has done me right every time.  This trip I ended up going three times and that probably wasn’t enough.  Scott patroned that joint every single night he was in town.  Robert’s has been around forever and, from what I can tell, it’s the only honky tonk on the main strip that still caters to the good ‘ole country set.  They have some of the best players in town come get on stage to entertain folks with classic country covers and their new original songs that sound old.  The other great thing about Robert’s is that you’d be hard-pressed to find an age group that isn’t represented and, to me, that says something.  The three nights I was there, I drank cheap beers, listened to some great country music, and watched couples dance - some really knew what they were doing and others gave it their best go.  You can’t ask for much more than that.  

We cute.

The other great part about going to Nashville was being able to see Eva and Luke.  Eva is an old friend from New York - we both overlapped in the city for a few years until she decided to enter the Teach for America program and go do some good elsewhere in the country.  She and Luke met in Nashville about four years ago when they both worked for the summer on the "Transition Team" at the Tennessee Department of Education.  She went back to San Antonio, they continued dating long distance, and then she moved to Nashville a year later.  They got married last year (awwwww).   

We three had a really great night out with Scott that included a lot of drinks and culminated in Eva singing Wynona Judd’s "No One Else on Earth" at a lesbian karaoke bar.  Eva and Luke also put me up for a few nights after my mom left.  It was chill and amazing.  We ordered in, watched tv, and got just about the opposite of wild, which I really needed.  

This is maybe my favorite picture of Eva ever

That’s about what I have to say on Nashville.  Don’t get me wrong, I had an incredible time there, but I’d also been there before, so it felt familiar in a sense.  I did get two massages while I was there, which absolutely put me back in the black as far as my body was concerned.  Elizabeth at Donnelson Massage, you pretty much got me right again and ready for the road.  

Nashville was also where I said goodbye to my mom.  That was bittersweet.  On one hand, I was really looking forward to being back on my own - the last month and a half I’d been traveling with people and, while that was really fun and I wouldn’t change it for the world, I was ready to drive solo again and quietly be with my thoughts (or WTF podcasts, whatever).  On the other hand, I had a really fun time with my mom.  We had one of those times together that we’ll always be able to look back on and remember with a unique fondness.  I can’t tell you how lucky I was to have her along for a bit of this journey.  I know a lot of people say this, but my mom is cool as hell.  Not many mothers would be up for something like this and she couldn’t wait to join me.  My mom is partially responsible for this trip - she instilled an adventurous spirit in me and gave me the confidence to not be afraid of doing things alone.  When we were kids and my dad was working and couldn’t join us, the woman used to pile my brother and me in the car and drive us wherever by herself.  And, she still does that - she often takes solo road trips to Austin and back.  Anyway, I love her a whole lot and I’m real glad we were able to do this together.

Oh, btw, this is Peanut, Eva and Luke's dog.  I've never been one for smaller dogs, but I am absolutely in love with him.  We had several moments.

we all will be received in graceland

The last little leg of my trip with my mom was in Tennessee - Memphis and Nashville.  My mom offered to drive the hour and a half from Oxford to Memphis.  The road had finally taken it’s toll on my body and I’d had some sort of muscle something or other that prevented me from turning my neck without a severe shooting pain.  Basically, grandma here needed a rest from the driver’s seat.

I didn’t research Memphis as much as I should have and we ended up staying at a hotel downtown.  I didn’t realize there were cooler neighborhoods where we could have spent our time until our last day there, so we were pretty much in the tourist mecca of Memphis.  It wasn’t terrible, though - definitely within walking distance of several things.  

Hernando de Soto Bridge in orange

Ain't she just so cute?

Our first evening, I left my mom for a bit to walk around the Memphis Park and watched the sun set over the Mississippi River.  After that, my mom and I got out into the thick of it (literally - it was so goddamn hot in Memphis, I must have lost 5 pounds in water weight just standing still) and made our way to Beale Street.  This place has a history, arguably one of the more famous streets in American music really, but, as are most storied things nowadays, it’s been turned into a tourist trap.  It actually reminded me a lot of Sixth Street in Austin - lots of neon, the street was closed off so drunk tourists wouldn’t get hit by cars and sue the city, lots of folks yelling out music and shot specials, and some decent, but not mind-blowing music.  There aren’t very many places that charge a cover, but they’ll instead charge a pretty penny for a beer.  We listened to a few acts here and there, drank a few NYC-priced beers, and then decided to move on.  We walked our way on down Main Street.  At night, it looks like a pretty deserted place.  It wasn’t until we drove by the next day when I realized that it’s actually a pretty up and coming business area.  But at 9:30pm on a Monday, it was just dead.  We walked the length of it a good bit, appreciating the old buildings, until we arrived at Earnestine and Hazel’s.  This dive bar used to be a brothel back in the day (if these walls could moan) and reopened in 1992 to serve up cold beers, a sweet jukebox, and incredible Soul Burgers.  Being that it was a Monday night, the place was pretty dead, but it had good bones.  Just like with The Manhattan Cafe in Athens, Georgia, I was able to walk in here and know that it was a great dive bar without really being able to describe why.  We had a couple of Miller High Lifes, played some choice tunes on the jukebox (shout out to mom for putting Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” on in the number one slot), and shared one of their famed burgers. 

Main Street after dark

Earnestine and Hazel's in a red glow

The Lorraine 

On the way back to the hotel, we made a slight detour to see The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  It is now the site of the Civil Rights Museum, which I desperately wanted to visit, but it just didn’t happen on this trip because of timing.  It was surreal to be standing across the street from this place that played such an important role in America’s history and in the Civil Rights movement, especially having just come from the Delta and having a really difficult time grappling with the region.  

I tried to be cute with this...it didn't work too well, but it is dumb and makes me laugh nonetheless

Alright.  Okay.  Rad ride, Elvis

I imagine this headshot is also autographed and up on a few restaurant walls around Los Angeles.

For our only full day in Memphis, we made a terrible mistake.  After a lot of debate, my mom and I went to Graceland.  Despite being on the fence about going, Facebook damn near ex-communicated me for balking so we were guilted into making our way to The King’s mansion.  I was hoping we could make it a quick trip and still get to Sun or Stax before we needing to be at The Peabody.  That didn’t end up being the case, though, and we spent most of the day there.  Even though it was a Tuesday, EVERY GODDAMN PERSON IN AMERICA decided to check out Graceland and we didn’t get a tour of the house until 2pm.  While we waited, we ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich (okay, that was good…real good), strolled through the museum dedicated to Elvis’ cars, and another area where photos of him were displayed along with some of his stage wear.  The cars were cool, sure, and so were his costumes.  The fine details of incredibly over-the-top jumpsuits were pretty neat to see up close.  But, let’s be real.  The most entertaining thing we saw while we were waiting for our tour to start were the people.  I mean, all walks of life, y’all.  Plenty of bikers, lots of families with six or seven kids, the retiree set, foreigners, all different ethnicities, sometimes a combination of a few of the above.  That was the one thing I thought was pretty fascinating - people of all kinds come from all over to worship at the altar of Elvis Presley.  Personally, I’ve never been an Elvis fan.  His music never struck me much, though I respect him for the mark he made on the history of music.  Perhaps that’s why I just didn’t get Graceland.  Is it weird?  Sure.  And is it interesting to walk through the hallways where the Presley family lived, trying to imagine what it was like to live a life so inundated with exposure?  Yea, I guess you could say that, too.  And, was the juxtaposition of John Stamos’ voice narration of the tour against this crazy house kind of hilarious?  Well, of course it was.  To me, though, Graceland looked like it was created out of the need to fill some kind of void, probably fueled to some extent by pills and booze.  So, in all honesty, I left feeling kind of sad.  I mean, the man died at 42 from a heart attack that was spurred by his terrible prescription pill addiction and that house of excess seemed like a component of that.  I guess you could say I’m glad we went so that it’s checked off the list, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have definitely rather spent my time and money at the Stax and Sun museums (for the record, if the Civil Rights museum had been open that day, I would have been beyond pissed to have missed that in lieu of Graceland).  

Now, here are several photos of Graceland because I feel like maybe this will give some of you joy and/or save others of you some cash.

Graceland

The Living Room

The TV Room

The Pool Room - please notice the extensive upholstery job

The Jungle Room

This looks like the E! red carpet team should be on hand for interview

Once we left, we didn’t have much time before needing to be at The Peabody hotel for the famed parade of the ducks.  But, we did have enough time to stop by Gus’s Fried Chicken to grab a late lunch to go and eat it in the car.  Our fingers were greasy from the chicken and fried green tomatoes, but that quick meal stood out as one of the best of the South.  My mom grabbed us a spot in the hotel lobby while I went back to change into not an atrocious tourist outfit (shorts and Nikes - mea culpa) and I met her back at The Peabody just in time to watch the spectacle.  The story goes that in the 30s,, the manager of The Peabody brought his three live call ducks back to the hotel after a weekend of hunting.  He and his buddy got liquored up pretty good and forgot about them until the next morning when he awoke to find them swimming in the lobby fountain under the gawking gaze of the rich hotel guests.  He was terribly embarrassed and quickly rushed to get them out, but the guests objected and loved watching them bathe in the fountain.  And so they stayed.  In the 1940s, Edward Pembroke, who had been an animal trainer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in a previous life, was working as a bellman at the hotel and asked if he might be able to train them to march to and from the fountain every morning and afternoon.  He was successful and ever since this has been a pretty notable thing to see in Memphis.  Man, talk about job security.  Pembroke worked as “Duckmaster” at The Peabody until 1991 and since there have been just four other Duckmasters.  It was a real scene for the walking of the ducks, even on a Tuesday.  My mom barely got us a decent viewing spot.  But we were able to watch the pomp and circumstance, hear the story of how the duck situation came to be, and then watch these five mallards waddle single file along the red carpet and into the hotel’s elevator amongst a million flashing camera bulbs and excited children.  It was cool to see and the bourbon I had after at the hotel bar was a real nice bookend.  

Jackson girls high in the clouds

That evening my mom went back to the hotel to recuperate from the day and I went over to my friends Sue and Degal’s place for dinner.  Sue and Degal are friends from New York who moved down to the area about three years ago when Degal got an academic position at the University of Mississippi’s political science department.  It was great to catch up for a bit, hang out with their son and meet their daughter, see their place in Memphis, and sample some of Degal’s newly acquired cooking skills (the homemade blueberry marscapone ice cream was the stuff of dreams).  

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and decided to stop by this vintage/vintage-inspired clothing store we saw on South Main Street a few nights before.  This was where I found out about the good stuff of Memphis.  The manager, Vera Stanfield, and I chatted for a bit about the city.  She is originally from Mobile and moved to Memphis about seven years ago with her husband who was from the area.  She told me how the city was really trying to do some great stuff to revitalize itself and that the cool areas in town were on the eastern side of things.  We talked a bit about Nashville and how there's a real division amongst folks who love Nashville and those for Memphis.  I liked what she had to say and was frustrated that we didn’t have more time in the city to really check out the cool stuff they were doing.  From what she told me, Memphis seemed like it was more on the come up, which is what I’m interested in finding in a city - a place that isn’t overly done up and where there is still some grit and a room for folks to come in to help it along.  A place where folks can do things and be a part of the community.  My mom and I drove around in the neighborhoods she mentioned and I saw what she meant.  But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but recognize parts of Brooklyn - the cupcake shop, the cocktail bars, the gentrification.  It made me wonder if that is where this country is headed.  The great stuff about a city is a copy of what Brooklyn dictates as cool.  

I was recently listening to “Death, Sex, and Money,” my favorite podcast of late, where they interviewed five people about Katrina, their stories of the storm, and the rebuilding of New Orleans.  The first episode was with a woman by the name of Terri Coleman.  She was just 19 when Katrina hit and since then she’s moved back, gotten married, had three children, and teaches at Dillard University.  She made a really valid point about the hipsters that have moved into New Orleans since Katrina.  She likes what they bring - fancy taco trucks, access to kale (“I like kale”), dogs, cool pants, bike lanes.  But what she’s afraid will be lost with this influx of cool to the city is the tiny parts of culture that make New Orleans what it is.  Essentially, what gentrification does to any neighborhood or city.  It brings in things that folks might not have had access to before and enjoy, but it also pushes out the idiosyncrasies that make a neighborhood what it is and what it has been for years.  Once that is lost, it just becomes a vanillafication, so to speak.  

When I was in Park Slope, I lived in a building with a woman who’d been there for 26 years.  She remembers what the neighborhood used to be like, when there was crime galore and prostitutes who’d hang out across Fourth Avenue awaiting lonely truck drivers who’d come along looking for 15 minutes of connection.  When our building was abruptly sold last Fall and the new landlord increased her rent three times what she’d been paying, she was forced to leave with her teenage son, regroup, and figure out a new plan. She had to leave her home and the only place her son knew.  Perhaps it was for the best as she had been vacillating back and forth about leaving to find a new apartment so they could get a dog and have a more comfortable living situation.  But regardless, she was forced out.  And with that, a part of the old neighborhood, one of its idiosyncrasies, was also gone.

I am not naive in thinking I am not a part of gentrification.  I like kale. I like tacos.  I’m into a good coffee shop from time to time.  Organic shit is nice to eat.  And, really, if we’re being honest, I’d probably prefer to live in a neighborhood like that than one where the amenities are scarce.  But, I am cognizant of what the cost of those amenities are and so many people are not.  What I want more than anything is to be a part of a community, to make a difference and an impact in some way.  I realize, though, that my idea of what an impact on a community is might be different from those who have actually been a part of that community for years, sometimes their whole life.  And maybe that’s where the difference between gentrification and being a part of a community comes in - it’s about listening, being respectful, and not trying to erase what so many people have spent years building. 

Memphis was the sweatiest place I’d been so far, but I liked its character.  Much like many of my favorite bars, it had good bones.  Two nights was not enough time at all and I have it in my mind’s eye to come back and learn more about what’s going on there. 

“little did we know our storyteller belonged to the world”

Our trip in Mississippi was roughly planned, but we had wiggle room. The only reservations we made before we got on the road were at the Shack Up Inn because of their difficult availability on weekends.  Other than that, we got up and kind of decided where we’d go and what we’d do that day. That was kind of how Oxford, Mississippi got rolled into the equation.  

We were either heading to or out of Vicksburg when my mom remembered that our family friend, Julie, was from Oxford and her mother, Kaye, still lived there.  She and my dad had been in touch recently regarding timber sales (she also has acreage where she maintains a tree farm, so to speak) and that’s how we eventually got in touch with Kaye.  She invited us up to Oxford to stay with her and that’s just what we did after Clarksdale.  Though we were only there for one night, little did we know that Kaye had our time efficiently scheduled so that we could see all the sights. 

We met her for Sunday brunch at City Grocery, one of the more well-known restaurants in the area.  Oxford has been getting a lot of shine lately for their food scene and John Currence, the owner and chef at City Grocery, has been mentioned in all kinds of articles about top Southern food gems.  We showed up close to the end of brunch, but got in just in time and were able to leisurely catch up over bloody marys and damn good brunch food.  Currence was around the restaurant, helping out with the re-tiling of the upstairs bar and Kaye called him over to introduce my mom and me.  He was a soft-spoken and very unassuming guy who chatted with us about the undertaking of this upstairs tile job, his recent trip to Israel and his impression of the Israeli-Palenstinian conflict, and asked curiously about my mom and me and our trip together.  If y’all are ever in the area, check this place out - the food will not disappoint, the ambiance is warm and inviting, and the chef absolutely deserves your business.  

Rowan Oak through the trees

The Faulkner den

After brunch, Kaye drove us over to Rowan Oak.  I was looking forward to seeing William Faulkner’s home, not because I’d ever read any of Faulkner’s work, but because it seemed like a quintessential Oxford experience.  When we walked up on the property, Kaye casually started telling a story about how there was a young girl, Judith,  who first lived in the house during the Civil War with her family and fell in love with a Union soldier.  Her father forbade the relationship and she jumped from the second story balcony, fell to her death, and was buried under a magnolia tree.  When Kaye was little, she would come to the house to play and Pappy would instruct them to write Judith notes and put them in the tree to communicate with her ghost.  It took me a second to realize she was talking about William Faulkner.  Kaye went to school with his wife’s granddaughter, Vicki, and would come over to play as a girl.  She grew up coming by the house and has very fond memories of the Faulkner family.  So as we visited Rowan Oak, Kaye walked us through the house and told us stories from her childhood - the kitchen where she ate tapioca pudding for the first and only time (she said it was like eating eyeballs), the tricks Faulkner’s daughter and niece, Jill and Dean respectively, would play on Vicki and her (a door would slam somewhere in the house and they’d say Judith must be about), how Mammy Callie, who raised Faulkner and then worked for him in his home for years, was part of the family and how much he loved and cherished her, how there was never air conditioning in the home and the day after his funeral, Miss Estelle, Faulkner’s wife, immediately put in an AC unit.  

Vicki's bedroom where she and Kaye used to play as girls

Mammy Callie's home behind the house

Judith's Magnolia

My favorite of Kaye’s stories goes as such: Every New Year’s Eve, when they were older, she and some of Vicki’s other childhood friends would come to the house.  Pappy would pour a little champagne into all of the their glasses and they’d file out to the magnolia tree where Judith was buried.   He would make a toast to Judith and they would pour their champagne on the grave.  They’d go back into the house, Pappy would fill up their glasses again and then make a longer toast to what fine boys and girls they’d grown up to be.  Soon after, they’d all gather in the den and sit around to tell ghost stories.  As Southerners, the gift of storytelling was in their DNA and they all couldn’t wait to tell their best ghost story to the room, never realizing that they were “sitting at the foot of the master.”  After his death, there was a story that was circulated where Estelle said to him at some point, “shouldn’t you let the children know that those stories were not true?” And he supposedly said, “let them have their imagination while they can.”  Faulkner’s love of children was well known.  In fact, Kaye mentioned that he loved children, old people, and black folks and the rest of them he could give a flying flip about.  

I can’t tell you how magical it was to have someone with first-hand experience walk us around this storied property.  It gave me the most intimate glimpse into the mythical figure of William Faulkner and painted a 3-D picture of him as a writer and a person.

After we left Rowan Oak, Kaye took us over to the University of Mississippi Museum where she showed us the paintings of Theora Hamblett (http://museum.olemiss.edu/collections/theora-hamblett/), who was a local folk artist.  Kaye grew up taking piano lessons next to her home and got to know her over the years.  Well enough, in fact, that she painted a picture of little Kaye Hooker (her maiden name) under a tree that is showcased on her wall among all of her other really incredible artwork.  Hamblett’s paintings are done with a dot-like style.  I’m sure there’s a technical name for this that I just don’t know so I sound real uneducated, but you can click on the link above and discover it for yourself.  She painted a lot of landscapes of children playing games, biblical scenes, and also visions she had, which were the most interesting because of their mystical nature.   

The other awesome thing at the Ole Miss Museum was this "blink and you'll miss it" display someone had put up ages ago of fleas dressed up as people.  I somehow missed taking any pictures of Theora's work, but I did manage to get a close up shot through the magnifying glass of these fancy fleas.

Dressed up fleas

In the evening, we went to dinner with one of Kaye’s friends, Sue, at this little place out in the country a bit called Ravine.  Sue moved to Oxford about 15 years prior from Texas with her husband before he passed away.  She and Kaye met when Sue moved into the same small subdivision they both live in off the square and have since become close friends and traveling partners, touring the world together.  Ravine was a lovely restaurant and we had a fantastic Sunday supper, eating great food and sharing life stories.  

The Basil Hayden is the best of the bunch here

 When we left Kaye's home, we did two last quintessential Oxford things - visit Faulkner’s grave, which was lined with liquor bottles as an ode to the writer and his love of good whiskey, and checked out Square Books.  This bookstore is one of the best independent bookstores in the country.  For as long as I can remember, my folks have been collecting books - signed copies, first editions, rare finds - and my mom was anxious to visit this place as she’d bought several things from them over the phone through the years.  It was a great little store with lots to choose from, a gorgeous little balcony that overlooked the square, and, as one would expect, a complete Faulkner section.

Me, my mom, and Kaye

Before we set out to Oxford, I couldn’t have imagined all of the incredible things Kaye had in store for us.   She was an amazing tour guide for her city and offered us an an experience of a lifetime along with a far deeper understanding of Oxford and it’s rich history.  

the jackson girls do the delta

The Mississippi Delta is a storied region.  It is the birthplace of the blues, yes, but also one of the  areas in the country susceptible to extreme flooding, extreme racism, and extreme poverty.  I can’t say why exactly I’d wanted to go check that area out.  Perhaps it was because it’s ground zero for the only American-born music, but claiming that doesn’t quite feel right because I am not a well-versed or even well-listened blues fan.  There was something in my mind that was haunting about the region.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it, but I felt the need to explore.  

My folks were supposed to meet me in New Orleans and go up through the Delta with me.  What I think drew them to Mississippi was the music.  I grew up with blues being played on our family stereo, so they have been fans for decades.  Unfortunately, my dad couldn’t make it, so this ended up being a girls road trip.  

Our first stop was Vicksburg.  This was my mom’s request - she felt compelled to see this Civil War battlefield since we were going to be so close.  I obliged because, why the hell not.  I know just about nothing regarding the Civil War, but I guess this was an integral battle that the Union soldiers eventually won.  We got there kind of late in the day and were wholly unprepared.  Probably some sort of tour would have been cool, but this National Park is something like 18,000 acres and to explore it all would probably take a day.  Hell, it’d probably take a week. It’s an impressive park - the preservation, statues commemorating those who died during the six month battle, and just the sheer size of it are something to see - and maybe if we’d done some sort of walking tour it would have left more of an impression on me.

We considered staying the night in Vicksburg, but ultimately decided to push on to Greenville.  

So, a little about my mom.  For years, decades, really, she has been clipping articles out of newspapers and magazines that pertain to travel that she might possibly be interested in at some point in her life.  What that translates to is several manila file folders in her office filing cabinet organized in some way that probably only makes sense to her.  She’d been clipping out articles on the Mississippi Delta and Blues Trail for awhile now, much before we’d talked about doing this leg of the trip together.  For the record, this is not a criticism.  It is more of a “isn’t my mom adorable?”  The woman is old school and God love her for it.

It was because of her avid Garden and Gun research on the area that she knew we had to go to Doe’s Eat Place for dinner that night.  It had been talked about in all the articles on the Mississippi Delta.  Entering in, I was psyched.  It’s some totally rundown little shack house with the kitchen spread out into two rooms and a lot of happy, fat people.  Doe’s has been around since like 1941 or something.  There’s a real history here and if you’re interested, google it, because it’s kind of cool.  The people are known for their steaks, namely their bone-in rib eyes.  They’re served at 32 oz and come with fries.  I can’t tell you how stoked we were to eat one of these steaks (very), but I will tell you how disappointed we were in the steak we got (very).  I’m not going to yammer on about our sub-par meal because who the shit cares about that, but basically, by the look of this place, it was going to be a real local experience and we left pretty underwhelmed.  

She's also probably gonna kill me for putting this up, too

That night, we stayed in the finest Greenville accommodations - Harlow’s Casino.  My mom will probably shoot me for telling you that we stayed here, but whatever - this is real life.  This place was weird.  Weird in a way you expect a small town Mississippi casino to be.  Everything you’re envisioning is exactly what we experienced.  It was also a Wednesday, so there was an extra special air of desperation about the place.  I wrote some thank you letters in the casino bar, my mom gambled at the video blackjack next to me until she got too frustrated and moved on to video poker on the floor.  She got a hot machine and was more tickled than I’ve seen here in awhile.  The lady does really love a good casino situation.  

Harlow's, Vegas, same same

The next morning we drank some weak ass casino coffee and went in search of the storied Mississippi hot tamales.  We decided on South Main Market and Deli, which is owned by the same folks who run Doe’s.  We chose this spot because of the tamales - “Signa” tamales - the secret recipe of the family that started Doe’s and supposedly one of the best in the state.  I’ve gotta say, y’all can skip these.  The salad I had was much needed and far more enjoyable.  

We drove around Greenville a bit and from the looks of it, it’s got a history, but like many of the little towns we came across in Mississippi, it’s fallen into disrepair and there isn’t much industry in the area to bring it back to life.  It’s a shame, too, because the old buildings were really gorgeous.  I’ve realized I have a real thing for old limestone brick buildings.  

One of the three memorabilia display cases - not pictured, one entirely dedicated to The Muppet Babies

We stopped off in Leland, Mississippi, another cool, old town without much life, and followed the signs to the Jim Henson Museum, which was essentially the visitor’s bureau with a ton of Henson memorabilia.  Jim Henson grew up in the area until he was about 10 and apparently Kermit the Frog came from Deer Creek, the creek that runs through town.  Y’all, even though this was a pretty tiny exhibit - really just a few small rooms of stuff - it was rad.  Most notably because there was stuff about Henson’s weirdo puppetry like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth in this little tiny deep southern town’s visitor center.  Seeing a photo of David Bowie dressed up as the Goblin King prominently displayed in Leland, Mississippi’s visitor center was a sight to behold.  The Muppets memorabilia room was also cool as hell - there were tons of glass display cases with all kinds of collectibles spanning from the 70s until the present.  Everything had been donated over the years, some items sent from as far away as Europe.

B.B. King's home studio

Our next stop along US-82 was Indianola, Mississippi to check out the B.B. King Museum.  I was pretty blown away by this museum.  I will admit, my expectations were low, but I was proven wrong and this is an excellent place to visit.  Not only is it an incredibly in-depth history of B.B. King, who is probably the most famous blues man to come out of the Delta, but also a really incredible history of the area, the time period in which he grew up, and the blues scene itself.  It traces his entire career up until a few years ago and, now that he’s passed, they will be adding on another piece that chronicles the end of his life.  He’s also buried there and they plan to build a remembrance garden around his gravesite.  I learned a lot and have a far deeper appreciation of him as a musician and a man.  

We drove around Indianola a bit, saw some of the fabled juke joints in the area (though it was still the afternoon, so they weren’t poppin’ off yet), and checked out another cool ass old town that’s fallen down.

I wasn't lyin' - I am real happy here. Photo credit and aggressive flash usage by Jana Jackson

That night, we stayed in Greenwood, Mississippi, which I think was our most favorite place of the Delta haunts, though I’m not sure if it was because of the town itself or the luxurious accommodations my mom graciously put us up in.  We had dinner at Lusco’s, which is another famous steakhouse in the Delta, and this place made up for our mediocre dinner the night before in spades.  We sat in this cute little private dining room, ate some incredible fried Gulf shrimps and went to town on one of the best rib eye steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life.  It was goddamn magical.  

Private dining at Lusco's

Greenwood is the home of Fred Carl, Jr., who founded Viking Range.  The company is headquartered there and Carl has done a lot for his hometown to make it a spot for tourism.  In 2003, he opened what I expect to be the only fancy boutique hotel in the area, The Alluvian, and then a few years later, built up a spa and the Viking cooking school.  We stayed at The Alluvian while we were there and it was a highlight of the trip with my mom.  I’ve been sleeping on dirt grounds, pebbles, the sand, in spare bedrooms, on air mattresses, in casino hotel rooms, etc, so staying in a swanky hotel, complete with a bar with and excellent bourbon selection was a dream.  

Greenwood, Mississippi

Greenwood is, by far, the most revitalized town of the area, which isn’t saying too much really, but, with the Alluvian Hotel and the Viking influences, it’s become somewhat of a destination spot for folks.  There’s a great bookstore, TurnRow Books, just a few blocks from the hotel, several home stores that cater to the monied Southern set, and a few higher quality restaurants in the area.  As far as a hot shit spendy restaurant, I can’t imagine you get any better than Lusco’s, but for a more casual atmosphere, we checked out Crystal Cafe on our way out of town for lunch the next day.  This place was the business.  The night before, we’d stopped by after gorging ourselves on steak to see if we could pick up a piece of their pie for dessert later on.  They were out of coconut, though, so we decided to wait until the next day.  On our way out of the restaurant, there was a woman and her older mother who were visiting from Mobile and having their picture taken in front.  They asked us to join in (goddamn, The South and your friendly people, I love you).  We got to chatting with them and they were both from Chicago.  The daughter had moved down to Mobile at some point several years back and her mother moved down not long ago after she’d reached the age where she needed family close by.  While we were talking about living in the South, the daughter said that “people down here feel human.”  That made an impression on both my mother and me.  And it’s true.  

The South has always held an enchanted quality in my heart.  I’m not exactly sure where that is rooted, but I imagine that growing up in Los Angeles with two Texans who hated every second of the City of Angels for at least the first decade probably had something to do with it.  It’s likely half the reason L.A. never made an imprint on my soul and why I still, to this day, consider Austin more home than anything else.  And I felt that human quality while I was in the South.  Everyone is lovely.  Everyone is friendly.  Folks give a shit about you and they genuinely want to know how your day is going.  They’ll chat with you about whatever and will listen, even if it’s a story they’ve heard a hundred times.  So, yes, in a lot of ways, it does feel more human down there.  Though, this is solely the experience of a white woman and I recognize that. 

Cut back to the conversation with the mother and daughter in front of Crystal Cafe - an older woman walked by, interrupted us and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you, but I love your dress.”  

…Friendly people.

The Courtyard at the Shack Up Inn

After our luxurious night at the Alluvian, we drove north on 49 East to Clarksdale.  This was the town my mom was looking forward to the most as it was supposed to be the music hotspot.  We stayed at the Shack Up Inn (http://www.shackupinn.com/), which was a cool concept - old shacks from around the area were transported to this piece of land and then converted into small bungalows.  There’s all kinds of stuff to look at - random odds and ends , but I will have to admit it wasn’t as rad as the Airbnb Lesley and I stayed at in Opelousas.  The AC was cold, though, and I was a big fan of their little screened-in porch.  

Legendary selfies

Evidence

Our first night in town, we headed to Red’s Lounge, one of the last original juke joints of the area.  It’s been around for decades and is known as THE place in Clarksdale for an authentic blues experience.  My mom and I showed up a little after 9, which, in retrospect, was a rookie mistake.  Showing up at the time of the show is never a good look, but for some reason, not knowing how these things work in places that aren’t New York or Austin or any big city, I lost my feel for the appropriate time to arrive at a show.  We walked into a relatively empty room with about seven white people sitting nervously along the bar. Foreign tourists.  I think I correctly guessed there were at least two or three Germans, two Australians, and another group of unknown origin.  This should have been my first clue.  There was also another older hippie couple with a tiny bottle of Crown Royal in it’s precious velvet purple sack sitting on their table.  We sat down.  I’m sure we looked nervous, too.  I mean, it was weird.  Nothing was happening.  Red, the owner, was sitting alone by himself just kind of waiting.  On what, I’m not really sure.  Maybe for the band to show up, maybe for more folks he recognized to come in.  But basically, we were in this ancient spot with God knows what kind of storied history (if these walls could talk…), Red, and a bunch of tourists.  It just felt off.  It felt like we were all there because it was written in some tourist manifesto and we were just hungrily awaiting our authentic blues experience.  It was kind of a gross feeling.  Like back in the day, Red was really doing something and then blues fell out of favor, the powers that be recognized they could monetize the history of the area, and now what was presented to us was a shambled version of their blood, sweat, and tears.  I don’t blame Red or what he’s doing.  Not in the least.  It seems that it’s something that is out of his control.  Honestly, since I was there, I felt partially responsible.  I felt like I was part of the machine.  And that's not a feeling that sits well with me.  When the band did show up, they ended up being more of a cover band of sorts and not really very bluesy.  More folks streamed in through the night and it diversified some, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that we’d all just paid $10 to try and be a part of something that has been capitalized.  

Red

I really struggle with this concept.  

Clarksdale arguably is the epicenter of blues, or at least was back in the day.  For a time, it was a decently-sized town.  There was an industry of some kind.  I won’t go into the particulars of it only because I don’t want to go down the Google rabbit hole to find the hard facts, but one of the women I spoke to mentioned that her father used to work at a Wonderbread factory that closed down several years back.  I got the impression that there were at least a few factories in the area back in the day that provided some economic stimulus to the area, but that Clarksdale has really struggled since those jobs have been moved elsewhere.  I understand the need to bring in money of some kind to help the community.  Morgan Freeman is from Clarksdale and he, along with the mayor, Bill Luckett, have definitely done a few things over the last 15 years or so to help revitalize the local economy, the most well-known being their blues club, Ground Zero.  So, there is that side of things - the side where folks are trying to keep a once-somewhat thriving community afloat by bringing in a few new streams of revenue.  The other side of the coin, though, is that it almost feels like a zoo.  Tourists come and pay their “admission fee” to gawk at local culture.  This is not a new concept by any stretch - hell, I had this same sentiment when I was traveling around India and tourists of all kinds have been doing this for decades.  But, I guess it just feels disingenuous.  I felt wrong for coming to look.  

After some debate, my mom and I did end up going to Freeman’s blues club the next night.  It feels like a small town version of a House of Blues with all kinds of “funky” shit on the walls as decoration and a proper stage set up.  It’s definitely the glossy club in the area; a more white-washed experience.  The band was much tighter and the music was better for sure.  But, it’s still not the original.  It’s a distorted xerox.  And that really only furthered my original sentiments about the region.

Zelena Ratliff, Proprietor 

The highlight for me of our time in Clarksdale was happenstance.  My mom and I drove south one day to check out some more of the famed Highway 61.  After getting back into Clarksdale, we stopped by the Riverside Hotel, which is probably one of the more famous destinations in town.  It used to be a black hospital back in the day and when Bessie Smith was involved in a serious car accident on Highway 61 in 1937, she was brought there and that is where she died.  When we arrived to check out the historical plaque, there was a Japanese film crew finishing up with a woman outside.  I heard a commotion, turned around, and saw that she had taken a bad fall trying to get in the door.  I ran over to help her out and sat with her a bit while she got her bearings.  She introduced herself as Zee Ratliff, the owner and manager of the hotel.  After she was able to walk again, she offered to show my mom and I around.  Back in the day, when her father ran the hotel, it served as the place to stay, and sometimes boarding quarters, for several famous black musicians who came through the area - Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters.  JFK Jr. stayed there back in 1991.  I mean, this place is the real deal.  You can stay in these folks rooms, like THE room that Bessie Smith died in.  That’s cool, but also, whoa man.  Weird.  They still have boarders who stay in the hotel, but it’s mostly a place tourists come to stay while they’re in town.  We really should have stayed there instead of the Shack Up Inn, but whatever - you live and learn.  Zee couldn’t have been more of a sweetheart, either.  These are her roots, her family heritage, and she believes strongly in continuing its legacy.  It is instances such as these where I am very much in favor of the area’s tourism.  It keeps families like these alive, doing what is in their blood.  The same could be said for Red and his juke joint, so unless he has a problem with it, then why should I?

Josh "Razorblade" Stewart stopped by the Riverside Hotel as we were about to leave.  He's a local bluesman and my mom bought his CD.  Here he is explaining the meaning of life with a sharpie and a dollar sign.

The Delta was by far the most thought-provoking and challenging area I’ve yet visited and, to date, this was probably the most difficult post to write.  It's an area that was once prosperous and full of life, though partially at the cost of those folks who worked that land either as slaves or later, as sharecroppers who were usually taken advantage of. Truthfully, I had a lot of white guilt surface while I was traveling through this area.  And, really, you should.  Some fucked up shit went down in the Delta over the course of hundreds of years and still does.  We’ve progressed as a people since, but you can’t shake such rooted behaviors in a generation and the disparity between white and black neighborhoods in these towns is drastic.  It was hard to see that, but I am glad I did.  This isn’t a disparity that is unique to the Delta - this stuff plays out everywhere.  In other places, though, it might not be as in your face and sometimes you need a very real experience to be reminded of where we still are.  

In closing this out, I’d just like to note that I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ as I’ve finished writing this.  It was not on purpose, but when I realized the coincidence, I can’t help but think maybe there was a subconscious motivation.

my first road buddy

I drove out of Atlanta on I-75 and switched over to I-16 in Macon, Georgia on my way to Savannah to meet up with my first road trip partner, the incomparable Ms. Lesley Marie Stockton.  We’d planned her leg of the trip back in March (Savannah, Ocala National Forest, St. Joseph Island, Cajun Country, and undetermined Fourth of July plans at the time), which seems like a million years ago now, but I was so excited to see one of my dearest NYC girls.  She brought a feeling of home along with her.  

The Antebellum South on Steroids (aka, Savannah)

Lesley and her grand martini

The Food.  We ate well in Savannah.  Real well.  Our first night there, Lesley took me out to a belated birthday dinner at Local 11 Ten and we had an incredible meal.  From the food to the drinks to the way badass service, this was a hell of a great spot.  The next day, we had lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room.  This was life-changing.  It was hot.  Like, real fucking hot.  I purposely didn’t want to eat breakfast so as to save my appetite for this epic meal.  This is how it goes.  You wait in line for however long it takes - in our case, about an hour.  It’s akin to waiting in line at Franklin’s in Austin - you kind of chat it up with folks around you, drink cold water to keep your body temperature at a decent level, and talk about how fucking starving you are.  Then, you’re waved in.  At that point, you’re so hungry that it feels a bit like being brought into the gates of heaven.  The air is cool inside and permeated with the smells of Southern cooking.  We were seated at a table with six other folks - a rather obnoxious young woman with her poor, beaten down fiancee and four older women from New Jersey who were in town on vacation at a nearby beach house rental.  They were amazing.  We could tell they’d been friends forever and had that familiarity you only get after putting in 20+ years.  Then the food starts coming out.  It’s like a cascade of serving bowls being set down on the table.  Any Southern delicacy you could possibly want is placed no more than four feet from your face.  Black eyed peas and three different kinds of squash and okra and THE BEST GODDAMN FRIED CHICKEN I HAVE EVER HAD and biscuits and mac and cheese and potatoes a million ways and dumplings and pork chops and some sort of roast and…well, whatever.  You get the point here.  There was so much food.  And every single dish was incredible.  

I already posted this on Instagram, but it was too significant of a photo not to throw up on the blog post, too - Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

Along Forsyth Park

The Squares and Parks.  Savannah is undoubtedly beautiful.  Spanish moss is hanging from all the trees and the gas lamps are out in force. It’s a gorgeous Southern town that clearly takes pride in its manicured parks and Antebellum homes.  I enjoyed walking around exploring the neighborhoods, even though it was a million degrees.

Honestly, that’s kind of it.  Lesley and I only had two nights in Savannah and that kind of seemed like enough for me (and her, too).  There are a lot of really great restaurants and we only were able to sample a few of them, but I’m at a loss as to what else we really would have done if we’d stayed an extra night to check out a few more.  Savannah is a huge tourist town and I think, in general, I’m just a little gun shy with those.  We did a little over half of a hop on/hop off tour that was informative, but also pretty hokey.  We’d probably have stayed on if it wasn’t for our need to get over to Mrs. Wilke’s by 1:30pm coupled with my intense need to find a bathroom.  But, I can’t say that looking back, I am devastated that we missed the last five tour sites.

Lesley getting in good with that magnolia flower

The Florida Tropics (aka, Ocala National Forest)

Central Florida Walmart.  You have seen that People of Walmart blog, right?  That’s what we walked into.  It was incredible.

Juniper Springs - also already up on Instagram, but y'all needed a visual accompaniment with these words

The Springs.  After Lesley and I set up camp, we were drenched.  It felt like a million percent humidity down there and elevating your heart rate just a few ticks would produce sheets of sweat.  Once we had the tent up, we went to check out Juniper Springs, the namesake of our campground.  It couldn’t have been more perfect - the temperature was icy, the water was a gorgeous shade of blue, most of the families had gone for the day so it was somewhat mellow, and the little fishies were nibbling at our feet.  The next day, we continued our Central Florida Springs excursion.  We returned back to Juniper Springs around 10am to find a much more bustling environment than when we’d left.  It was a Saturday and this was clearly a popular spot for family hangouts on the weekend.  We’re talking pop-up tent set-up, barbecues, big ass coolers, 36 packs of Mountain Dew, and all kinds of kids running around.  The people watching, though.  Well, the people watching was superb.  Think of “People of Walmart” and then put them in bathing suits so that they’re particularly incredible tattoos are exposed and that will help paint a picture for y’all.  We also decided to explore Salt Springs, another springs in the National Forest.  This one was much bigger than Juniper and had a slight salinity to it based on the water’s composition  Also, this was THE PARTY.  There must have been 40 boats on the other side of the swimming-only area - there was loud music, dogs swimming in the water, koozied Bud Lights, more bad tattoos, leathery skin (seriously, if this wasn’t a PSA for sunscreen, I don’t know what is), a few mullets, 64-oz soda cups.  The folks at this spot did not disappoint.  But, even more than that, these springs were pretty gorgeous.  The recreation area was huge and there were several trees to shade the grassy hangout areas.  The swimming area itself was three times the size of Juniper Springs and ranged from wading to diving depth.  The springs in Ocala were the highlight.  It was really a little too hot to do much exploring (we really were hoping to spot a raccoon riding on the back of a gator, but no dice) and being able to access the water to keep cool was pretty key.

Salt Springs - missing from this picture are all the party boats out in the lake

Juniper Springs Campground, Site 79 - I clearly forgot to snap a photo before we'd packed everything up

Juniper Springs Campground. Camping in Florida was TROPICAL.  We slept on sand, were surrounded by a lush forest full of ferns and palm trees, and saw more bugs than we could count.  We were also eaten alive.  I can’t remember ever having itched so bad - I basically looked like the poster child for adult chicken pox.  That being said, Lesley, bless her heart, got the brunt of it.  A few days later, I was putting sunscreen on her back and had a flash of a thought “holy hell, when did Lesley develop adult-onset backne?”  She had not.  One or two mosquitos had attacked her back that badly. One of our more memorable moments was standing in Costco on our way to St. Joseph Peninsula, looking at an OFF! display, trying to decide if we should buy it or not, all the while mindlessly scratching ourselves until we realized the hilarity of the situation.  We were applying Afterbite like it had traces of heroin in it.  

Lesley’s Chef Skills.  Lesley can cook you under the table.  I’d put her up against most anyone.  And she answered my “what the hell do I cook in the campground” cry.  That girl cooked one of the most perfect chickens I’ve ever eaten in my cast iron skillet, roasted a bunch of veggies in foil packets on a hot fire rock, roasted corn in the fire, chopped it all off the cob and turned it into an insanely delicious salad that was perfectly refreshing for the weather.  I picked up some pointers that I’ve probably forgotten by now, but hopefully I can refresh my memory when I get to camp cooking again.

Panhandle Camping (aka, St. Joseph Peninsula)

The Ford Graveyard (May They Rust in Peace).  This wasn’t actually at the campsite, but on the drive there.  We were on a little byway along the Apalachicola National Forest and saw an open space with like thirty or forty old rusted out trucks and cars.  We turned around, pulled over, and explored for a bit.  It was rad.  The story goes that they were all used on the Harvey family farm at one time or another and had just been laying around the property until Pat Harvey decided to put them all together in one place along this road.  I don’t know much at all about old cars, but some of them looked to be from as far back as the early 1900s.

Lesley's Message in a Bottle.  On our first stroll along the beach at St. Joseph Peninsula, Lesley came across an empty handle of Jim Beam with barnacles around the cap.  Inside was a rolled up piece of paper.  She managed to get it open with some elbow grease, only to find that the paper had gotten wet and barely anything was legible...except "THIS IS RUSSIAN LANGUAGE."  We have no idea how long this thing was actually out at sea (we seem to think it doesn't take long for barnacles to grow on something) or where it had been put into the water, though a friend of mine looked up currents and determined if it had been placed in the water at a beach, it likely would have been in Iceland in order for it to make it to this part of the Florida coastline.  It also could have been chucked off a boat.  Or thrown from a plane.  Hell, who knows.  But, now it's a great story.

The First Sunset.  I am sure I’ve seen sunsets like this before, but I can’t remember the last one that came close to this.  The sky was neon pink.  The Mother did us good that first night.  

The Storm.  And then she brought her fury.  Thankfully, the rain didn’t start until we had turned in for the night, but holy hell.  The storm that first night of camping was definitely the most violent of the trip so far.  Wild cracks of thunder, spotlight-like lightening, 40-mph winds.  Lesley told me the next day that she had dreams throughout the night that were storm-infused.  I feel like one involved drowning.  Or maybe I’m just making that up.  But, yea, the night did not lend itself to restful sleep. 

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park Campground, Site 29 - getting a little better at remembering to photograph the site while we're still set up, but still not at 100%

The Set-Ups.  We quickly learned that St. Joseph Peninsula is mostly an RV campsite.  I think all the sites had electrical hook ups and that’s totally fine.  I get that entirely.  What a gorgeous place to come hang out for a week or however long.  We marveled at the camp set-ups, though.  Folks brought all kinds of stuff - huge shop fans (which, frankly, bravo dudes - you know how to keep those mosquitos at bay), flags introducing the family (The Smiths) with cutsie sayings like “What happens at camp, stays at camp,” stringed lights, tiki torches, too many golf carts to count, a slow cooker (!).  I’m surprised I didn’t see a recliner.  It was impressive.  These people took glamping to the next level.  

The Beach.  This was my first beach visit of the trip.  And probably only one of two for the summer.  The day we were there was after the storm so the waves were fierce.  It didn’t allow for a whole lot of swimming, but it was pretty great to get in the water down in Florida, which was bathtub warm, though not that usual shade of gorgeous blue because of the weather.  The sand was as storied white and soft as I had heard.  Later that evening, we came back to the beach to watch the sunset again and were hypnotized by the sand crabs.  We watched them dig their little holes for the night (or until the tide washed them away again).  There were two in particular we watched for several minutes, analyzing their sand throwing techniques and evaluating the effectiveness of each style.  One had a pretty powerful arm (claw maybe?) and was able to send the sand much further from the opening than the other.  It's been a crazy long time since I've just sat and observed the repetitive behaviors of such determined creatures and it really got my mind to thinking about animals, evolution, and their place in this world.  That’s for a later entry, though.

The Raw Bar.  Lesley and I had been looking forward to gulf coast seafood for days.  However, unbeknownst to us, most restaurants in the area are closed on Mondays.  Thank the lord for Shipwreck Raw Bar, though, because that joint is the only one open seven days a week.  We went in at happy hour, drank some wildly cold beers, and got down on some oysters on the half shell (with a sleeve of saltines thrown down upon delivery).  We foolishly only ordered a dozen to start, plowed through those, and had them shuck another that were brought to us along with some peel and eat shrimp.  It was glorious.  

Morning beach self-portrait

Cajun Country

We had a real long drive to Louisiana.  I think all said and done, it was close to nine hours, which was the longest I’d driven on the trip by that time.  I was thankful for Lesley to help break up the drive.  I drove the most hours that day of the two of us, but right when she got behind the wheel, we hit a nasty storm that lasted for most of the rest of the way to Opelousas and I know it was crazy stressful for her to be driving through all that.  We were both wiped by the time we finally made it to our Airbnb.  

The stage at the Whirlybird Honky Tonk

Jim and Christy

Jim and Christy’s Airbnb - The Barn Behind The Whirlybird Honky Tonk.  Lesley did a real good job of finding us a sweet spot to stay (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2617349).  Jim and Christy are from the Bay Area and had been fans of zydeco, the culture, and the food, hitting up festivals throughout the country and visiting the Lafayette area for years.  They finally made the move down to Opelousas almost a decade ago and are living on this great old plantation property that they’re trying to turn into a farm and educational center for the area’s culture.  When we arrived, they showed us our room in the barn, which we shared with Cheryl (more on her later), that was behind their honky tonk.  The Whirlybird has quite a story.  They’d bought and moved this building from a piece of land to their old fish camp, built it out into a honky tonk where they’d have dance parties with local musicians, and then left it behind when they sold the whole property.  Somehow the guy who’d bought it couldn’t handle the property (that part of the story was a little unclear) and their friend who’d moved the building the first time had contacted them about its availability.  They paid to have it moved once more to their plantation home and there it now sits, hosting those same dance parties in the cooler months (there is currently no AC) and also people who rent it on Airbnb.  You could probably spend at least a few hours looking at all the stuff they have in there - these folks clearly love to hit up a good flea market and seem to have been doing so for decades.  The barn was also just as fun to explore - we had a great living room and kitchen where Lesley and I both wrote and drank coffee in the morning, a cool room where we both slept comfortably, and a lovely patio to hang out on at night - all for like $85 a night.  If any of y’all ever head through Cajun Country, give me a holler and I will make all your dreams come true.

A partial of our sweet digs

The Barn 

Jim and Christy and Lesley and some clocks

A super out of focus and dimly lit photo of Cheryl - mea culpa

Sidenote: Cheryl.  Cheryl was our roommate of sorts at Jim and Christy’s.  We only had the opportunity to chat with her a few times, but she was beyond engaging and so interesting to speak with.  She used to be a reporter, most notably with NPR, and lived all over, most recently in Los Angeles.  She worked her ass off for years and didn’t leave much room for fun.  Somehow, she got into zydeco music and started attending festivals, which is where she eventually met Jim and Christy.  A few years ago, she completely changed up her life by taking a chance and moving down to Opelousas, giving herself a few months to see if something came of it.  She rented a room at Jim and Christy’s, found a temporary job at the local paper, and that turned into a full-time position as the editor.  I have a lot of respect for her - she took a huge risk by giving everything up to make a move for her happiness and you can tell it really paid off.  She’s one of the smartest people I’ve encountered on this trip so far - very well versed in politics, foreign and domestic affairs, and the nuance of the region in which she now lives.  Lesley and I loved getting to know her.  

The Food.  I really should have made this the first bullet point, but whatever.  I guess if I don’t put it first, it doesn’t make me seem like such a glutton.  Lesley had been wanting to come to Cajun Country for a while to check out its culinary offerings and I was happy to be along for the ride.  I was mostly interested in the Acadian region to get a better feel for the culture as a whole and the food is its life blood.  We went hard our first day there, basically eating our way through the area - gumbo, fried catfish, boudin balls, boudin, crackling, fried chicken, fried okra - we ate it all.  Now that I’m writing this after the fact, I will have to say that I’d thought the best gumbo I’d ever had was at Prejean’s (where we ate twice).  But, my mom later spent a few days in the region before meeting me in New Orleans and brought me back some gumbo from another spot that was 1/4 the price of Prejean’s and twice as good, so I was proven wrong.  The whole area is full of little convenience stores that sell all kinds of cajun delicacies.  If I lived there for any length of time, I’d probably gain 50 lbs and develop some kind of low-level, obesity-related health problem.  Regardless, I was more than happy to have had the chance to experience what they had to offer.  

Cypress Swamp at Chicot 

Chicot State Park. On our second day in the region, we decided to get out and see some nature.  We’d been told of a cool state park that was about an hour’s drive, so we took a bunch of back roads and found ourselves outside of Ville Platte at Chicot.  As you might imagine, the nature in Southwestern Louisiana is much different than what I’d encountered in the Eastern part of the country.  There weren’t many hills to climb, nor any incredible overlooks.  But this park really showcased all of the indigenous nature of the area.  We came across a swamp that was full of shades of green and Cypress trees growing out of it like tentacles.  The nature trail itself was so well done and took us through the forest, over water via wooden causeways, and had all kinds of information on the local vegetation and animals.  My favorite part of this trail, though, were all the tiny frogs.  Like, itty bitty tiny.  As we’d walk along, they’d hop out of the way, sometimes in huge groups of 15 or 20, which looked like some sort of mass frog exodus.  They were real cute.  Lesley and I were sweating our asses off during this very moderate walk, but it was nice to get out and do a little moving after eating so heartily.

Cajun country was a real highlight of my time with Lesley.  This is a region that I’d love to get back to, especially on the weekends when I could go listen to some music.  I can’t say that zydeco is really my all time favorite, but my mom used to bring me to zydeco festivals when I was a kid, so there’s some nostalgia there.  Plus, I hear those dance parties are some of the most insanely good times you can have.  I guess I’d probably be okay to come back and eat more gumbo, too.  

The Fourth at the Fish Camp

The Bayou

The last leg of my time with Lesley fell over the Fourth of July.  We left Opelousas and headed to New Orleans for just a few hours to meet up with our friends Ben and Susan and then drove out to a fish camp in Mississippi.  This was our friends, Britta and Chris’, family place and Chris grew up going here as a kid.  Some other friends - Joe, his wife, Robin, and Matt - were also out there with us over the weekend, so the house was full up.  I was only with them for about 36 hours, but we packed it in:

  • Two nights of fireworks over the bayou
  • FINALLY getting to see two gators (albeit little babies) in that bayou water
  • A beach trip to the Mississippi Gulf, which was so goddamn weird - it was like everyone from the Florida Springs headed west to meet us at the beach.  Confederate flags were all the rage and the I saw more huge pick-up trucks that seemed to compensate for deficiencies in other areas than I cared to count.  It was nice to be back at the beach again, even though we got rained out just a few hours in.
  • Terribly bad movie watching - y’all seriously need to check out Gleam the Cube.  
  • Lots of porch swing time
  • Bourbon chats - my favorite kind of chats.

That place was pretty rad and a great end to my first friend visit on the road.  

 

It was goddamn amazing to have Lesley join me for a week and a half.  We had some hilarious times, some incredibly unique experiences, some significant conversations, some challenging conversations, and an even deeper love for one another.  I'm real happy she was my first companion. 

 

No, this doesn't have anything to do with anything, but when you stop at Cabela's outside of Baton Rouge, see a camo bikini and your friend offers to pose with it on, it MUST be put up on the internets