Kanab and North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Kanab is another one of those cool border towns for the National Parks.  A place people move to after having traveled through the area at some point or another.  It’s a fairly small, but there are quite a few awesome little restaurants that remind me of my beloved Coral Gables home in Florida.  Unfortunately, these are also places that charge $12 for a side of Brussel sprouts. 

For one evening, I pretended I was back in my hometown and enjoyed an expensive cocktail and dinner at one of these roadside eateries, Rocking V, sharing a conversation with a gentleman who was doing the same.  He was a retired doctor from Canada who sounded like he was going through a mid-life crisis, racing his crotch-rocket down to Mexico.  He made it clear he was interested in high speeds and didn’t have much fear of the road.  It was the kind of awkward conversation that I wouldn’t have stuck around for under normal circumstances, but it was the first time in quite a while that I enjoyed a nice dinner with someone else.  I would learn throughout this trip, that dinner with strangers can be exciting, informative little snapshots into other people’s realities.

My hosts at the Airbnb spent almost 45 minutes telling me about the interesting places I needed to visit nearby.  I mentioned I wanted to see the Grand Canyon so when I left they pointed me in the right direction and told me about two other places I must see along the way.  Looking at the timing I realized it would take too long to go to all of these spots because I still had no clue where I would be staying overnight; so I decided to skip these for now.  I have added Paria, Toadstools, Glen Canyon Dam and Buckskin Gulch to the list of places to come back to see and explore. 

It was hard to leave my Airbnb, where I felt so cozy and welcomed, but I said goodbye to their pet donkeys and set out on the next leg of my adventure.  They were some of the best hosts I have stayed with and I would definitely recommend their Airbnb home if you are in their neck of the woods – which you should be at some point in your life.  

The approach to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon started to look more and more forested as I got closer.  A stark contrast from the dust bowl appearance of Kanab and the surrounding areas.  It’s amazing how different the landscape can change in such a short distance. 

Inside the park, you travel for quite a distance before you approach the lodge.  It was very resortish with the Welcome Center seeming to be a last minute thought.  My first site of the Grand Canyon was through the rustic lodge’s window- large wooden beams highlighted the natural beauty of the place in a way that you imagine Roosevelt himself to be ushering you to view.  I wished I could join the other guests in lounging around the fireside, dining at the patio restaurant and not have to worry about finding a place to sleep for the night.  I searched one last time to see if there was a reasonably priced room but the lodge was by far out of my budget, even factoring in the sublime beauty and convenience.  I would love to come back on a better-planned adventure and stay or eve camp. 

The site from the lodge was such a striking view that I could have just sat on the couch for hours looking at it, but I decided to immerse myself on the short trail that went out to another overlook.  It was only a 15-minute walk round trip, but I took 45 minutes to explore and absorb the staggering view before heading back to my car.  The canyon itself provides an enormous amount of scientific data with exposed formations that were created 500 million years ago and having been carved in the last 70 million years.  If these numbers make you say, “Wha”, they definitely should and the sight itself will humble and render you speechless.  National Geographic Society(2016).  Guide To National Parks of the United States (8th Edition).  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

At this point, the only way to get anywhere was to do some serious backtracking.  There is no bridge over the Grand Canyon (thank God), so I headed out of the park the same way that I went in.  Fortunately, the drive was beautiful. 

From here I could have gone to Paige or Flagstaff for the night.  Being Labor Day weekend, I knew that Paige would be busy, and Flagstaff would seriously take me out of the way. It also wasn’t known for its beautiful outdoor features – however, it would be less time spent on the road.

The landscape turned into a dustbowl once again. I passed through a couple of teeny towns before I made it to the outskirts of Paige and traffic started to back-up.  My hosts from Kanab told me about Horseshoe Bend – it was about an hour hike and very crowded.  I decided to add it to my bucket list and moved on to find a campground at a large reservoir on Labor Day weekend…

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

I set a plan to wake up early at my Mesa Verde campground and take one or two of the ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings.  This cultural resource in the beautiful setting was the big draw of Mesa Verde. 

I still remember learning about the disappearing Anasazi people in grade school Social Studies and the wide range of theories on why they picked up and left.  As a kid, I remember being confident it had something to do with aliens or ghosts of their past.  Some popular and scientifically possible theories include drought and internal political strife.  Later, on my hike, I learned that the park now sticks with calling the people who lived here the Pueblo Indians to distance them from the stigmatism of the Anasazi disappearance.  It still sounds to me like no one knows what happened and there is a lot of room for other-worldly theories. 

Rainy view from an overlook at Mesa Verde National Park
Rainy view from an overlook at Mesa Verde National Park

Having studied Outdoor Recreation (yes, that is a real Bachelor of Science major) I was very interested in the interpretation by the Rangers, so I did not plan on doing any hiking other than the cliff dwellings.  The park is a beautiful natural wonder, but my main purpose for being there was to learn and see these ancient artifacts and dwellings. 

The first hike to “Balcony House” was quite impressive.  Even though it was the smaller of the two I visited, there were fewer people as it was the first tour of the day, and was labeled adventurous – there was a 32-foot ladder we had to climb and a small passageway we had to crawl through to see the dwelling. 

The interpreter was excellent, providing a perfect combination of knowledge and personality to take us back in time.  Once we reached the top of the ladder we got to see the religious subterranean room called a Kiva, rooms got an up close and personal view. There were some places with evidence of wear and tear, but for an 800-year old home, it was very well preserved.  To imagine what conditions caused people to scale this cliffside and build a home here makes me feel a bit wimpy when I complain about having to sleep through cold rain storms in my nice warm, dry car. 

The second cliff dwelling was called, “Cliff Palace” and was the largest and most impressive in scale. But, with 50 or so new friends now along for the journey, it wasn’t quite as personal.

We were right on the tail of one group and soon followed by yet another of the same size.  I learned when handing my ticket to the Ranger on this tour that single individuals do not often come to the park.  The first Ranger had looked at me sideways when taking my ticket and said, “Niiiiice,” but I had no clue why.  I obviously assumed this bearded hotty was hitting on me.  The second Ranger looked at me, pointed to the “Group: 1” on my ticket and said, “Oh, you are by yourself!”.  He then went on to explain to me, and everyone within earshot, that the last time he had said that a woman almost slapped him.  Kind of made me wonder why he thought to say it again, but I clearly had no issues seeing a beautiful piece of history and outdoor wonder on my own – or any of the other things I have done alone over my lifetime.  Do I do it alone because I prefer my company to that of others? No, I do it alone because I happen to be by myself and want to see it.  I am cautiously friendly when traveling alone in some situations, but in places like this, I meet lots of cool people.  I was almost adopted by yet another family while chatting before the tour until I admitted that I didn’t watch Nascar racing.  

The Ranger at the Cliff Palace was a little less scientific and little more passionate about his subject matter.  While I preferred the former, this guy gave me a pretty good takeaway.  He read a poem from a book of the Pueblos (I wish I had written down the name) and part of its message was about putting your energy out into the world and letting it be.  It doesn’t have to be big and loud, just positive.

This message reminded me of a moment in the STAX Museum in Memphis where one of the movie interviewees talked about letting the talent ooze out of you and letting the world either accept it or reject it.  For someone who has always been very concerned with making others happy and taken the first 28 years of her life overcoming self-confidence issues, these were both messages that were very meaningful.  And hearing such different worlds proclaiming it resonated particularly to me at this time in my life.

After my hike, my plans were still unknown.  I had every intention of planning my next couple of weeks, but this was the first time I didn’t have anyone waiting for me to visit somewhere nearby.  To most people, who don’t know the details of my actual day to day routine, it seemed odd that I couldn’t have put together a full schedule by now.  After all, my former job relied heavily upon my ability to plan travel schedules.  Driving, hiking, writing down notes so I could later compile these posts, finding the best place to stay whether that be a campground, hotel, or Airbnb; all of these things take time.  

I considered going north to the next spot in Colorado (Telluride or Gunnison).  But after my brief chat with the couple from Arkansas along the roadside in New Mexico, the seed was planted, and I decided to keep going west to a bucket-list of impressive National Parks.  I got out my trusty, and extremely outdated, National Geographic Guide to National Parks my mother had given to me when me when I first moved away from home, and reviewed my options.  I also found an awesome map of the Colorado Plateau that included the parks.  That seemed like a good place to start.

So at the end of my tours in Mesa Verde, I hit the road heading further West.  In a parking lot of a grocery store in the next town over I compiled my plan to temporarily abandon the trip north through Colorado and spend the next 4 or 5 days exploring some of the most distinct and other-worldly lands in our country.   

Adventure this way...
Adventure this way…

Taos, Pagosa Springs, Durango

Upon leaving Taos, I forgot one of them major suggestions that a friend gave to me, which was to stop and see the Rio Grande.  Fortunately for me, there was no way to miss it, and I was able to pull over while I scraped my jaw off of the floor of my car.  I may be repeating myself on this, but the pictures do not do the place any justice – and these are particularly bad pictures with the lighting the time of day I stopped. 

Part of my amazement with the beauty was how flat and vast the land appears to be on upper rim and then the degree it plummets to the riverbed below; 800 feet according to Wikipedia.  

The river is a result of plates shifting some twenty-nine million years ago.  It is also designated as a Wild and Scenic River.  For my South Florida people, the Loxahatchee River also holds this distinction.  It is easy to take for granted what lies in own backyards sometimes. If I had to pinpoint one of the first and biggest lessons I learned while working in tourism industry these past ten years, it is to let explorations of new places renew an appreciation and sense of awe in the things that we see on a regular basis. 

In this picture, you can see another cow on the road and a car in front of me.  The couple in the car were also visiting the Rio Grande, and we ended up following each other for most of the next 100 miles, often passing each other at different pull offs. After the second stop, we struck up a conversation.  They were from Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place I had stopped several states ago during my first couple of camping nights on this trip. I was going to Mesa Verde next, and they were going to check out the Grand Canyon.  Having seen Mesa Verde before, they suggested that I also make time to visit Chaco Canyon, a place very different but rumored to be related to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.  Despite the short conversation, they would influence my travel direction over the next week.  Part of the joy of traveling is being okay with being a tourist and talking to others who may have experiences or knowledge of a place.  And since I had no schedule what-so-ever, I welcomed suggestions with open arms.

The drive from Taos, New Mexico to Pagosa Springs, Colorado was a beautiful one through the most desert-like conditions I had ever seen.  I passed the Earthship Biotecture community, a place that makes you say, “Wha?!”, and a lot more cows in the road.  I traveled through my first of many areas with no cell reception and from the look of the ranches and their signs threatening to shoot without question, I crossed my fingers that my car wouldn’t have a breakdown.  It would be a long walk in a place I would not want to have to ask for a ride from the locals.  On US-64 between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarillo, the roads were steep, the private property signs somewhat frightening, but the vistas of mountains were awe-inspiring… and the first like it for me.

As I crossed the state line into Colorado, I passed trucks with paddleboards on their roof racks and began to wonder just where I was and if I could just stay there forever.  I am a water girl and a big fan of paddleboarding in my Miami world.  I soon entered the town of Pagosa Springs and immediately fell in love.  Back in January of this year, I came to Colorado for the first time with some friends on a ski trip but kept to the snow and mountains between Denver and the ski areas of Keystone and Breckenridge.  So, Pagosa Springs was a nice introduction to summer in Colorado.  It was a tourist town filled with cute restaurants, breweries, a beautiful little river and an active-in-the-outdoors type of community.

 I loaded up on brochures of Colorado towns and information on the Hot Springs in Pagosa Springs and said goodbye; it was too soon on my drive to stop overnight.  I believe I was afraid I would stay forever if I had decided to spend the night.    

I pushed on to Durango, another cute town that was on my list. This town was bigger than Pagosa Springs, and I could see the river and rafts filled with adventurers as soon as I entered the city limits.   I looked at a couple of campsites around town so that I could check out the community and Mesa Verde National Park which wasn’t too far away.  The first campsite was in the middle of nowhere just northwest of town. It was beautiful but did not have hot showers, let alone running water.  After contemplating my last couple of nights of waking up to 40-degree weather and a pretty rustic shower with poor internet service, I decided to move on to search for a place with more creature comforts for a change.  I did a couple of drive-bys of downtown and looked through Airbnb options, but it was not a cheap town, so I decided against it.  The downtown of Durango reminded me of an old western movie with the look and feel of the architecture, but the people were more like a Patagonia catalog.  Add it to the list of places to look into moving.

I decided to go straight to Mesa Verde and check out the campsites inside the National Park.  If I were going to spend money, I would rather at this point, spend it there.  As I pulled into the campground to check out conditions I was flanked by some scruffy looking deer I later learned were mule deer.  They were not shy and blocked my car from leaving while they wandered from one abandoned campsite to the next.  I had called ahead the night before to check with the park service to find out about the threat of bears.  I knew that some National Parks have major issues with bears preying upon recklessly discarded waste and wanted to find out if keeping food in my car was safe enough or if this was a place where bear lockers were a necessity.  After a long time on hold, the nice lady (nowhere near or familiar with this park) informed me that bears aren’t an issue at all.    

As soon as I paid at the general store and came back to grab my campsite, the skies opened up, and the biggest rain storm I had seen since I was in Florida passed through.  I stayed in my car for a few hours and got some writing done, all the while wondering if that would be the picture of my next 12 hours. 

Fortunately, the rain did stop, and it turned into a beautiful evening.  The campground was in a small canyon which blocked part of my view, but what was visible was full of stars. I shared the campground with what appeared to be a load of Germans in RVs, all running their generators while the deer grazed between us.  I say that with loving memories of not only my German co-workers but of those tourists to South Florida who seemed to storm the parks with more numbers than most other nationalities.  I would soon find out that in this part of the country, the sheer amount of National Parks and international tourists would rival what I had already imaged to be a crowded place.

The campsite was close to an amphitheater where a ranger was to do a night sky presentation, but the rain canceled the program.  I regret the times on this trip that I didn’t get out of my tent at night and explore but often the cold, loneliness, and pile of reading material for my next day’s plan kept me from fully letting go and enjoying all of my surroundings.  Though I saw a lot while traveling through these places, my list of things to do when I return continues to grow.

I have always joked about getting a van or mobile home, and this was about the time that I kicked myself for not having taken a closer look at getting one instead of a car.  If I had, my trek might have been slower, and I may have increased the number of roadside breakdowns buuuuutttt……….It would be so much more convenient to live out of my vehicle and not worry about setting up a tent, or spending money on a hotel room, or carting my necessities in and out of the car.  There is always tomorrow, I suppose. 

 

Taos, New Mexico

When I think of Taos, I think of mysticism.  The few times in my life when I looked to astrology to provide some profound answers to life’s questions, I seemed to find some connection to this area of New Mexico.

 Before I left Miami, upon the advice of a friend, I had a natal birth chart read to determine exactly where the planets and stars were the very moment I entered this world.  I did not take the next couple of hundred ($) steps further to have it interpreted, so unfortunately, I don’t know what any of that means.  A physical journey trumped a spiritual journey at this point in my life.  I wonder if I had gotten the report if I would have come on this same adventure?…  Yeah, I think I probably would have. 

An important lesson learned on this camping trip was the relativity between temperature and altitude.  It’s obvious to me that temperature changes with altitude, but when you are looking up the forecast for a particular town and your campsite ends up being 15 miles outside of town, this can mean a 20-degree temperature change.  The campsite was around 8,000 feet of elevation.  I went from expecting lower 60’s to 40!  I was chatting with my mom and brother on the phone, my tent was set up, the fire started, and the steak (from my awesome friends and Texas Tech) was on the grill when the sun began to dip, and I could see my breath for the first time. 

The next morning as I got into town, I quickly made my way to the nearest thrift shop and stockpiled fleece.  The campsite hosts and I had a good laugh later that day over the couple camping next to me that cold night. Apparently they went to their car and turned on the heat around 3 am. They did not stay the second night.  I was proud – and thankful for my 30-degree sleeping bag!  To me, it was almost like a rite of passage to be on my own (even in a tent in a secluded section of the RV park), slightly uncomfortable but thrilled to be alive. 

The campsite hosts warned me about the elk and coyotes in the area when I asked if I should be worried about any bears.  I saw lots of cute little prairie dogs (especially along the roadside) but no large animals.  However, I heard one of the most startling sounds one night laying in my tent.  I awoke from the howling of a coyote, and I soon heard them in surround sound as they talked, pack to pack, along our little mountainside.  It was magical.

For my hike, I decided to originate from Taos Village ski mountain because it seemed the most challenging and I hadn’t been doing much as far as exercise for a few days. It was the Williams Lake Trail which is in Carson National Forest (this 1.5 million acre forest also surrounded my campsite just East of Taos).  It is also home to the highest peak in New Mexico, according to the Forest Service http://www.fs.usda.gov/carson/.  Fortunately, I had a couple of maps because each slightly contradicted the next on where the trail would start. I used AllTrails, an app on my phone, but the local Forest Service map described the parking area in more detail.  Unfortunately, it did not explain it clearly enough. But after contemplating it in the lower lot and then wisely ignoring the comically large sign that said “NON-FOUR WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLES PROHIBITED,” I eventually found the upper parking lot.  Don’t worry mom(s), as I passed I could see the sign also said from “November-May” in small lettering underneath.  Regardless, the road even without snow was terrifying.  Loose gravel, switchbacks, potholes, and what I would deem to be unwise inclines all made me question every second of it.  When I got to the parking lot, there were a couple of other adventurous sedan-driving folks parked there too.  YOLO (you only live once).

The hike was challenging.  AllTrails claims it to be 3.8 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 1,013 feet.  Taostrails.com http://www.taostrails.com/williams_lake.html says the top lot starts at 10,191 feet above sea level.  For my non-active friends and family reading this, all of this stands to mean a very out of breath and tired girl from sea level.  Once again, it was all worth the effort and stressful drive.  The trail was a spectacular start for my first “out West” hike.  For the difficulty, I was surprised at how many people were on the trail.  It was B-U-S-Y.  And, as an animal lover I feel kind of bad for even saying this, but there were too many off-leash dogs.  At the top of the trail, as I sat snapping my pictures and eating my PB&J, two dog owners got in a fight over leashes, and one threatened to pull out his gun.  I was a little bit frightened for the other guy, and it detracted from the serenity of a beautiful alpine lake I worked my ass off to have the pleasure to enjoy.

Taos itself was an interesting town and a unique landscape compared to my previous journeys.  Alas, I didn’t have amazing artwork or jewelry alongside the local jerky and coffee on my shopping list, so I decided to skip the stroll downtown.  I also didn’t want to get stuck driving back to my campsite in the dark.  There was a lot of talk about Elk in the area and a story of a couple of locals who recently took a turn too fast and flew off the road.   One couple I met at a bar in town while having dinner told me that the tow trucks don’t even bother to retrieve you or your car from the ditches in many of those cases.  I have no idea if they were telling the truth, but it seemed like a logical story… and interesting enough for me to share.  They may have just been enjoying too many prickly pear mojitos! 

I enjoyed my time in Taos, but it didn’t seem like a place I needed to linger.  So after two nights, getting reacquainted with car camping and some awesome time enjoying the outdoors, I headed toward Colorado.

Lubbock, Texas to Taos, New Mexico

When I arrived in Lubbock, Texas, I had no clue where I would head next.  I had already made the decision to skip the North Central states.  I had a lot of friends in Colorado I wanted to see but not many that were easy to get a hold of.  Yet, the travel advice I had been receiving from every friend and stranger all pointed to Colorado towns and included almost every major city or road.  A former Aspen resident advised me to get through Independence Pass before the snow arrived, which can be as early as September or October.  I would have to hit Boundary Waters, Mt Rushmore, and the Badlands on another trip.

My general rule – since the car accident – was not to travel more than 3 hours without stopping and no more than 6 hours total in a day.  Stopping any less would mean I would miss too much.  And the whole point of this part of my trip was to see the places out West that I had never seen before.  The fact that I had not traveled west of Illinois until recent years was not something I told people with pride, though it was something I told them as a personal challenge to overcome.

I deliberated with my Texan friends and they gave me some good advice on roads, towns, restaurants, margaritas, and other points of interest between their town and Colorado.  I wanted to see the whole state but it would take a while no matter how I did it.  I used their suggestions, took a look at what was interesting on the map and set a course with Durango, CO in my sites.  Half way there was Taos, New Mexico.  And it was from this point on that low-tech strategy combined with a bit of spontaneity became my traveling plan.   

I couldn’t pass through Fort Sumner without a trip to the kitschy Billy the Kid Museum, complete with a stuffed Siamese twin buffalo(s).  Regardless of that, the antiques and old newspaper articles provided some interesting history at this roadside attraction. I would recommend to anyone that they stop and take a quick tour through to support the museum– though don’t look too closely at the buffalo….it’s creepy. 

From here, I wish I would have taken the more visually interesting route that actually went a little further west through the towns of South Carmen to check out the canyons along the roadside. I didn’t know about it until after I had already passed through. The landscape remained fairly flat on this portion but at least it was not interstate – a nice change from most of my driving the last couple of weeks.  My next stop was Santa Rosa, New Mexico to check out part of Route 66 and the famous Blue Hole Margarita at Joseph’s Mexican-American diner.

As I headed north through Mora I had to make a choice of taking the eastern or western route to get to my campsite. The western route would have led me through Taos, and I had hoped to hike the first day and stay and check out town the second day. So I chose the alternative eastern route through Angel Fire since I wasn’t likely to head that way afterward.  This is where a map with elevation would have probably come in handy, or even one with a little more detail about the condition of roads.  Fortunately, it was still daylight and this road was one that I actually made it thru (stay tuned for the Telluride story).  This road was one lane, BUT at several points I had to share and squeeze by a large extended cab truck.  I had driven on what were relatively steep paths (at least to me) in Tennessee, but these were sheer mountainsides and very scary compared to what I had been on thus far.  This was probably the kind of road that gets closed in the winter.  It was absolutely beautiful and totally worth the stress though.  Sorry, no pictures.  Imagine crisp cool air, beautiful yellow and purple flowers along the roadside and every turn of the mountainside presenting a new view.  People were taking advantage of the beautiful clear skies, warm sun, and cool breezes, fishing in the roadside streams, or pulled over to enjoy the panorama.

The road ended and ran into Angel Fire, a cute little ski town.  There was quite a bit going on with a summer concert series in the park but I wanted to get to my campsite.  If I had stopped everywhere I really wanted to, I might be on the road for a year or more.  Though this trip was designed an exploration I also had a budget and a purpose to sort a few things out.  Seeing as much as I possibly could and only stopping at what really spoke to me was a necessity.  So I headed up one mountain pass only to drop down it on the other side. What goes up, must come down….the bear went over the mountain…  The thought of this is logical but frustrating when you have been driving on straight, flat roads and highways for 10 years. 

drive through New Mexico
drive through New Mexico

I found a couple of campsites online that had good reviews and websites that showed someone had taken care and interest in the place.  I wanted options in case I got a bad feeling about the place or it was right next to a road.  My first stop was a place just outside of town called Enchanted Moon.  The camp hosts were very nice and the price was right, so I took the hillside spot and a campsite far away from the RVs. I spent two nights freezing at this site but don’t regret it one bit.  Read more about why that is so on my next post about Taos, New Mexico. 

Morning view from my campsite
Morning view from my campsite

Lubbock, Texas

After I left my friends in Oklahoma, I headed slightly southwest to Lubbock, Texas to visit another couple of friends from my former work life. I may not get to see these folks on the work trips any more but that won’t keep us from meeting up whenever possible!  Along my drive to their neck of the woods, the landscape flattened out again compared to that of my last few weeks in Tennessee and Arkansas, and more like the farm lands through Indiana.  I saw my first of many cows wandering the road and wind turbines towering over the landscape.   

Through work, I have spent quite a few amazing weeks with these friends from Lubbock so I knew that a PHun time was ahead.   We went to their favorite local bar and then had a wonderful steak the first night.  They had some work to do and I had a pile of laundry so I stayed a couple of days and spread out the good times eating, drinking, and chatting about life. 

Before I left, I helped them with a little Facebooking for their non-profit page and they loaded me up with cookies, wine and some excellent steak and jerky straight from Texas Tech’s agricultural store.  My departure from Texas signified the beginning of a long stretch of unknown.  The next person I planned to visit was in Seattle and I did not take the direct route.

Norman, Cow Town, Oklahoma City

From Hot Springs, Arkansas I went directly to Norman, Oklahoma.  I actually only went to Hot Springs because it was on the way to this Oklahoma where my favorite person to share food porn pictures with resides.  

I met him and his wife several years ago on “The Lost Shaker of Salt Adventure”, one of the trips of my former work-life and we instantly became partners in crime. Over dinner on the first night of that trip to the Florida Keys, we were sharing stories of chili cook-offs – I was explaining how I became a judge for a chili cook-off in Islamorada (that is an entirely different, longer story) and he had entered as a contestant in his region.  After some time he looked at me with a very serious expression and said, “Are you into food porn?”- I had never heard that expression before and looked at his wife for an explanation.  We’ve been exchanging food porn and recipes to each other for several years since.

 

So, needless to say, during my visit to Oklahoma, we had some good food in cow town; the best (and my first) Rocky Mountain oysters; and the tastiest country fried steak EVER.  I even got a personal tour of this up and coming city, along with the Bombing Memorial and the Boathouse District which hosts an array of outdoor adventure and watersport activities.  

I’ve looked over A LOT of “best cities” lists in the past couple of months and wasn’t too surprised to see Norman, Oklahoma listed especially after visiting and hearing the local perspective.  I may agree with them considering the nearby airport, arts and culture, food, and a cost of living that this Miami girl finds remarkable.    

Stockyards in Cow Town OKC
Stockyards in Cow Town OKC
Parrothead friends showing me around OKC
Parrothead friends showing me around OKC
Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial...eerily beautiful
Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial…eerily beautiful
small town murals
small town murals

Hot Springs, Arkansas

I decided to go to Hot Springs, Arkansas because it is home to a National Park and it seemed to be the most interesting thing between Memphis and the people I wanted to visit in Oklahoma and Texas.  I was also planning to camp for the first time on my trip and knew that there should be some campsites around the park.  I had never heard of this park before, but to be honest, may have heard things about Arkansas in general, I just hadn’t made the effort to try and remember them.  It didn’t seem like a place I would have on my “to visit” list but I am very happy to have gone there. 

Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas.  One of the many resorts that once lined the streets of this healing minded town. In the mid 19th century, Hot Springs, Arkansas was known for its health spas, diverting the natural hot springs to the spas for therapeutic relief.
Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas.  One of the many resorts that once lined the streets of this healing minded town. In the mid 19th century, Hot Springs, Arkansas was known for its health spas, diverting the natural hot springs to the spas for therapeutic relief.

Finding a campsite wasn’t hard.  I looked online ahead of time and made a few calls the day I was to arrive.  I chose a place from online reviews, pictures, and amenities for the price.  I settled for a place that seemed to be “in-town”, had hot water showers and was fairly cheap.  After all, I am tent camping so the electric and water hook-ups aren’t that important to choosing a location.

A pretty water view but not the ideal campsite.  While eating my leftovers for breakfast at the picnic table, a mother duck chased a water moccasin away from her ducklings in the water right next to me.  This was my first night camping on this road trip.
A pretty water view but not the ideal campsite.  While eating my leftovers for breakfast at the picnic table, a mother duck chased a water moccasin away from her ducklings in the water right next to me.  This was my first night camping on this road trip.

The campsite I chose once arriving in Hot Springs seemed to be more of a permanent location for the current occupants.   Many trailers had wooden front porches built onto them and didn’t seem to be hitting the road again anytime soon.  The campsite host I had made the reservations with took quite a few reminders that I was just a tent camper, and after a couple of phone calls told me he had some errands to run and wouldn’t be there when I arrived.  My instructions were to “drive beyond the cabin, down the hill, and look for the orange cone” he would leave to mark the spot he was saving for me. 

The location looked ideal at first but was less than in the end.  It sat on a little peninsula of land on a creek leading to the Ouachita River.  Thankfully, I didn’t see the water moccasin being chased in this water by a mother duck until after a night of rest.  It was also not a very quiet place with the interstate being a short distance away; even though it was hidden from sight, I could hear trucks passing all night long.  I was across the water from several houses and at a couple of points felt like I was camping in someone’s backyard.  Because it was a place for mostly RVs they also had no restrictions on generators running.  It was still slightly warm, though nice in a tent, but everyone ran their generators all night long to avoid the humidity of all that fresh air.

KOA campground I moved to the second night.  Less generator and road noise and I had other tent campers to chat with about the area and our travels.
KOA campground I moved to the second night.  Less generator and road noise and I had other tent campers to chat with about the area and our travels.

I had told the campsite host I may stay one extra night but decided to pack up very early and head to another site.  I found a KOA and took a drive to check it out in person before calling and arranging my stay.  It didn’t seem like anything was booked up so I had that luxury.  I found it to be a nice location, although it was also close to the interstate and a little further from town. I booked it after picking out the site farthest from the road.  There were other tent campers and my neighbors were a nice couple from Ohio traveling on their motorcycle.

Things to consider when car camping:  get as far away from the highway as possible; make sure you have some privacy; choose generator-free neighbors or tent-only areas; an electric outlet is a plus; make sure the sun and wind are on your side; you’ll need stakes or rocks; know what kind of wildlife like bears or raccoons might be in the area and know how to store food; showers with hot water (paid showers are okay but free is better) and of course, laundry.

I took the time to read up on the area and discovered that there was quite an interesting history to the park, the town and why it became a National Park.  I will let the pictures and captions tell you the story of Hot Springs National Park and the town of Hot Springs Arkansas.

Dogwood Trail, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Dogwood Trail, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Dogwood Trail, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Dogwood Trail, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

The most beautiful room I could find in the historic Spas of Hot Springs.  At the time of which they stopped running the spas, the spas had all been shifted from the plush comfortable spas to a more sterile and sanitary hospital-like decor.  Most of the rest of the rooms looked to me like Hollywood's version of a scary mental institution.  
The most beautiful room I could find in the historic Spas of Hot Springs.  At the time of which they stopped running the spas, the spas had all been shifted from the plush comfortable spas to a more sterile and sanitary hospital-like decor.  Most of the rest of the rooms looked to me like Hollywood’s version of a scary mental institution.  
The spas along main street have been re-purposed; this one is now a brewery.  Cheers!
The spas along main street have been re-purposed; this one is now a brewery.  Cheers!

Overlook of Hot Springs, Arkansas
Overlook of Hot Springs, Arkansas

Memphis and Crossroads

I am frequently reminded that my friends are all very different people.  The inherent quality of being a good person and adding some interest and excitement to my life is all I require in my friends.  Jen is just such a person and her super -secret -friend talent, among a lot of other stellar qualities, is her music knowledge. 

In my family, we grew up loving and listening to a wide variety of music.  My Dad could be described as the oldies guru, which in the 80’s seemed to mean classic rock.  My mom valued the oldies but also embraced and loved newer pop hits, alternative, and even Metallica.  The only thing I don’t recall hearing much of at home was country. 

Downtown Nashville
Downtown Nashville

My friend Jen lives in Nashville, a magical place where we decide to go out last minute and find an empty bar and a wonderful sounding band easier than finding a CVS across from a Walgreens.  South Florida is a little short on original music and live music in general, so when I first visited her I was amazed at the talent playing at most regular bars.  We went to two shows at the Ryman and both had amazing mainstream musicians show and play that were even on the ticket.

Jen’s love of music and the Nashville scene means she is constantly mentioning “this person” and “that song” which leaves me not really having any idea of what she is talking about half the time.  Her enthusiasm and legit taste make it impossible not to go along with what she gets excited about, and so far her taste hasn’t let me down.  When Jen mentioned going to Memphis as a road trip it seemed like a great way to continue my own journey accompanied by a friend for a little while.  I’m in!

We both drove since it was along the path of my westward journey, got an Airbnb, and made a plan for what we wanted to see.  My interests were mostly internet researched, along with a couple of suggestions from another music aficionado in my life; Beale Street (of course), A. Schwab Trading Co., The Peabody (and their ducks), and the Stax recording studio museum.  A. Schwab is the last original store of Beale Street (according to their website http://a-schwab.com/) and filled with all the souvenirs you could want from Memphis along with some really unique gifts, and an old soda and malt bar.  The malt bar stopped us and we had a little peanut butter, banana, chocolate malt (with Southern Comfort) in honor of Elvis.  They also served grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches and these beautiful looking sodas made the old way with phosphate and homemade syrups. 

The Peabody ducks were a site to see swimming in an upscale hotel lobby; the hotel and the view from the roof weren’t that bad either.  We missed the procession but apparently there is a “duck wrangler” (not sure if that is his official title but if not it should be) who walks the ducks from their rooftop home, ushers them down the elevator, and then walks them red-carpet style to their tiny little pool around a fountain where they eat and swim around all day.  We were too busy at brunch sharing a bottle of mimosas to make it in time to see that happen, but I wouldn’t want to have all the fun on one trip.  I’m finding that most places I visit I am creating lists of things I want to do when I go back.

The Stax Museum was AMAZING.  I am not really a soul music fan but this museum is much more about the history of civil rights and how music played such an important role in that.  The introductory video (which, in most museums, does not hold my attention) was spot on and provided a thorough backdrop of the history.  The museum itself displayed a jaw-dropping collection of memorabilia, and interpretation was at times overwhelming yet engaging.  I had planned to spend an hour, but it was 2.5 hours later before we got back to the parking lot.

Jen’s main interest in going to Memphis was not the city itself; she wanted to check out the Crossroads.  I wasn’t sure what this meant so to get the best definitions we Googled it and learned all about Robert Johnson, Blues Great, selling his soul to the devil so he could play the Blues. 

There are two “suspected” locations of the Crossroads in Alabama and we went to both.  The first was in Rosedale which we circled three times before we were certain of the location.  Not too much fanfare but Jen still got an amazing shot with a broken guitar hanging from the street sign (both Crossroads signs below are hers).  The second in Clarksdale, AL, is the most well known and has a large Crossroads marker.  Clarksdale is also the home of Ground Zero Blues Club, owned partly by Morgan Freeman.  We got there early enough to try the fried grits and catfish along with a couple of beers before the band went on and we got to hear a little bit of the Blues. 

We also found a dive bar, Po Monkey, listed between the two towns, that sounded like an interesting place. So, we stopped in the middle of the cotton fields to check it out.  I also almost bottomed out my new car (again).  It wasn’t open so we will never know if it is the diviest of dive bars, but it sure looked like it from the outside. 

Memphis was a great end to my musical trip to the South and a great fun-filled last couple of days with Jen.  

Nashville

I knew that I was leaving Miami long before I announced my intentions.  I took quite a few vacations to plan and prepare for the possibility of a new city, without the benefit of knowing where I would actually end up.  Austin, Nashville, Southern California and Colorado were all places I traveled to, expecting to fall in love immediately.  I did love all of these places, but not the-heart-skip-a-beat kind of love that made it impossible to look any further. 

Nashville provided an amazing time with the right combo of food, music, weather and outdoor activities, and as an added bonus, I knew a few people that lived there and they could easily help me ease into calling it my new home.  I had planned to return even before I left on that first trip, so after doing the rounds in Indiana I shot back down to Nashville for a week.

Broadway, Nashville
Broadway, Nashville

I arrived a week or two later than expected because of my trip to Indiana…oh yeah, and the car wreck that occurred outside of Lexington. 

The day that I arrived my friend asked would I be interested in going to a rescheduled Tennessee Titans practice game at Nissan Stadium.   Ummm….yes!  We also went to a pre-season game a few nights later.

Titans, Nissan Stadium
Titans, Nissan Stadium

Jen is great at coming up with things to do, whether it is something she has been planning for a while or a last minute word-on-the-street event.  While I was there I also got to tag along on another trip to the Ryman Auditorium, this time for a memorial concert for Guy Clark, which included performances by Vince Gil, Emmy Lou Harris, and Lyle Lovett. PHENOMENAL. 

I also had my first week of not being employed by someone else.  This was a weird experience.  I already had so many things I was working on personally that I had to pull myself away from the computer and go out hiking and exploring the third day, in more of what would be described as a workout rather than a hike, but it was a nice intro back into the woods. Regardless, reminding myself to actually get away from my projects and explore my surroundings has been a repetitive task along this trip.

Jen and I went to the Tomato Festival in East Nashville, a hip[ster], and upcoming neighborhood.  I am still not sure what their interest is with tomatoes but it extends beyond this wonderful multi-block party of food, music, and of course, tomatoes.  Their street signs even proudly display a vibrant red tomato.

Tomato Festival, East Nashville
Tomato Festival, East Nashville

I had the chance to meet up with one couple and their young daughter whom I knew back in Miami.  It was wonderful to hear their take on the town and the last couple years of living in Nashville.  They don’t know Jen and her world so it was like having multiple viewpoints on the same place.  Valentina is an amazing artist and told me the news of opening her own store in downtown Nashville.  I have always loved her artwork and have a couple of pieces.  Check her out at http://www.valentinadesign.com/.    

I eventually got to visit with another of my mother’s nursing friends, although I had to postpone the visit due to the fact that I got sicker than I have ever been before.  But when I finally made it to their home, I was met with multiple generations of the family and for a hearty dinner of home cooked chicken and dumplings.  Yummmm.

I spent a little more time in Nashville than anywhere else thus far, mostly due to a backlog of mail and car paperwork I had to wait on.  Wrecking a car far from home, buying a new car in one state and having it registered and tagged in another are organizational challenges I excel at, but this instance was not necessarily the best timing.  I had planned to spend time in Nashville anyway so it seemed like a wonderful place to relax for a few days.  I got to pet sit the most adorable Princess Fiona and even made friends with Milo the reclusive cat.

I couldn’t have asked for a better place to feel at home through sickness and postal delivery.  Although staying would have been nice, I really felt like my adventure had yet to actually begin.