The Milwaukee Domes

The Milwaukee Domes are totally rad. We went on an overcast, rain off-and-on sort of day. Christa and I were trying to get through my list of things to see and do, so we crisscrossed town, popping into one place after another. We took a breather at the Domes (the formal name is Mitchell Park Conservatory) and got a personal tour from our friend, Paula. She loves the Domes, the plants, and the birds that live there (they all have names, which I've unfortunately forgotten by now). It was a pleasure to spend an afternoon with a person who is excited about teaching you what they know. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good cactus garden any day of the week.

Is there anything more sinister looking than the tail of a bunch of bananas? I first noticed one at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and it freaked me out. There was one at the Domes too, but this time I was brave enough to take a photo of it. Sssssnakey. By this point in the trip, my camera was about as filthy as it's possibly for one to get without dropping it straight into a puddle, so the focus is oddly dappled. The whole enterprise felt more like using a film camera; I could see the shot when I took it, but no detail until I had a bigger screen. Sometimes the effect was good, sometimes not, but I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. 

The Circus and the Silence

While I was staying in Madison, I took a day to visit Baraboo, a small town within an hour's drive. I took back roads as usual, soaking in the rolling green fields, passing tiny farms nestled against tall trees. The sun was bright and hot, and the sky was very blue. I drove up an actual hill, which is a significant enough event in that part of the world that I proudly reported it to Christa a couple of days later. It was, in short, a perfect day for a visit to Circus World.

After my health insurance freakout, money was feeling a little dear, so I balked internally at the ticket price, but handed over my $19.95 with a smile. Tickets are less expensive in the Spring and Fall, so I'd recommend those times if you're thinking of visiting.

Circus World is a museum built in the former summer home of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The first room is full of beautifully done exhibits that detail the lives of each of the Ringling brothers and their contribution to the circus they ran for many, many years. My favorite part was the poster exhibit, which showcased some of the beautiful, clever, and over-the-top illustrations in the museum's collection.

I wandered through several old barns, peering into circus wagons, marveling at a purple-carpeted clown car (smaller than a VW bug and they got 20+ clowns in it if I recall correctly), laughing at myself in a funhouse mirror, and checking out the big top, where there are daily shows.

After a couple of hours of rambling around, I went into town and checked out the Al. Ringling Theatre before beating a retreat to the cool shade of the woods at Parfrey's Glen.

A wide gravel trail pushes into the woods, slowly becoming narrower as tree roots and rocks become more prevalent. The trail makes no apology for going right through the middle of a rocky creek for about 25 feet, but the scramble is well worth the effort. Huge walls of black rock and soft, pebble-filled sediment tower above, seemingly held in place by moss and gnarled tree roots alone. Ferns are jammed into every conceivable nook and cranny, waving gently in the humid, cool air. There's a small waterfall at the end and there were several loud, shouty types, so I took a few photos and turned around after a short while. 

It was a day with the best of both worlds: the dusty, colorful, endless optimism of the circus, and the cool, green, mossy quiet of the woods. I was lucky to visit.


I went to Madison to house sit for a very cool woman who is a scientist, and an artist, and a food blogger. Check out her miotic cell division cake, you won't be sorry. We spent a few hours talking about everything under the sun and connecting really easily, so I was sad that she was leaving, but happy to spend a few days with her sweet cats, Bonzai and Charlie.

On the first day I sat in a complete stupor, recovering from our whirlwind trip to the Apostle Islands. I headed up to Baraboo and went for a long walk in the woods (more on that later), spent a day working on this space, and then discovered that my health insurance premiums hadn't been paid for months.

I had a tantrum, but then Christa came to stay for a night, and we did all of the things in Madtown in 24 hours: hoofed it to the top of the capitol building to see the view and then took the fossil tour inside (there were later comments by locals on Facebook regarding the human fossils and invertebrates that currently inhabit the building, but that's another story), antiques shopping, the weird and wonderful Ella's Deli, the massive farmer's market, the Wisconsin Union for waterfront music on the terrace and a picnic dinner, the free and amazing Chazen Museum, and Colectivo Coffee (pretty much every time we walked by).

I spent one more day on my own and then joined Christa and Ted back in Milwaukee for a few days, soaking up all Milwaukee had to offer. 

I Will Never Recover from the Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was by far one of my favorite places on this trip. Top 3, for sure. I'd go back in a heartbeat, and I would even live there, despite knowing that the winters are at least as tough as home. Maybe it's because it was so much like Maine with its ferries, big water, small cottages, lupines, and quiet, small towns, but I just fell right over in a faceplant of complete love, pretty much immediately. Add to that the apparent hall pass I got for dairy while in Wisconsin (I have celiac and, related, I'm not supposed to have dairy either, blah, blah, blah, boring, boring, boring, because it makes me feel terrible) and you have a cheese-fog-filled dream of a great trip to northern Wisconsin.

Christa came back from a long, hot trip to Washington, D.C. with her students early in the morning. The plan was to get some sleep, but instead we ended up grocery shopping, going to Chill on the Hill, and then getting up early the next morning and starting in on the long drive to Bayfield. Thankfully, there are cheese stores all along the way, so we had plentiful, fresh cheese curds available at all times, because we have our priorities in order.

It's possible to camp in many places in the islands; some sites are accessible by car ferry, while others are primitive and involve paddling a boat. We opted for Little Sand Bay campground on the mainland, where we set up for 2 nights on a large lawn overlooking the water and right in the perfect spot for sunset views.

Outside of that one time in Texas, I haven't bothered to build campfires during this trip, partly because I am too lazy, and partly because it seems like so much for just one person, never mind the price gouging for firewood bundles in most places. Traveling with Christa made the effort worth it, so we built a fire, got it roaring, let it go out, got it going again, and then Christa made dinner: 2 coal-roasted potatoes and a can of coal-roasted vegetarian chili, with slow melted s'mores for dessert. It was pretty spectacular. Also, my campfire skills have really taken a beating with lack of use. Time to get back to it!

The next morning we discovered Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield and took advantage their electrical sockets while mowing through gluten free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and coffee. We basked in the sun for a bit, then took a leisurely stroll around town, poking into a bookshop and some galleries before eventually heading over to Trek & Trail to get fitted for wetsuits.

After the fitting we made our way to Meyers Beach, ate some lunch, and met our group for a 3-hour sea kayak tour of the cliffs and sandstone caves along Lake Superior. We had a tandem kayak, so Christa steered while I took a photos. Our guides were really well-informed about the area, very enthusiastic about kayaking, and provided us with a quick geology lesson as we bobbed around in the lake. We got to go into several caves, one of which was more like a canyon; it got so skinny at the end that we were pushing forward with our hands on the cold walls. The range of color was staggering - some of the cliffs looked like rainbows, set in stark contrast to the aqua blue and bright green of the lake. We popped through several tiny tunnels by bending over the deck of the kayak and pushing through. The beauty of this place cannot be understated.

The next day we took the ferry out to Madeline Island, arriving late enough that  a startlingly large inline skate marathon was just finishing up. We walked down a long road before cutting into the woods, and snaked our way back to town on a winding, wooded trail. We stopped for a cool drink at Farmhouse, a lovely little house that serves things like foraged mushroom grilled cheese. I had kombucha with Tulsi (Holy Basil) in it, which I was fully prepared to dislike, but ended up loving, especially because it was unexpectedly sweet. We visited several shops in town, waited out a crazy rainstorm, and searched for agate in the freezing cold lake before catching the ferry back. 

We left early the next morning, just barely ahead of a huge rainstorm, and headed for Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest for one last night of camping. The women in the spot across from us were headed to a hotel after dire warnings from the camp host, but we opted to brave the weather, which turned out to be pretty tame. The next morning we hit Angie's for breakfast on the way to Green Bay, where I had my first ever photo in front of a stadium (sportsing not being my thing).

More coffee was procured, and then we headed for Cedar Creek to taste moonshine before heading back to Milwaukee and a very long nap before heading out to see Wilco that night.

MKE is the Place to Be

Wisconsin was home for something like 3 weeks. I stayed with my friends Christa and Ted (you may remember Christa from my Atlanta adventures last Fall) off and on as I completed a house sit in Madison, explored the Apostle Islands with Christa, and did a lot of sleeping.

Christa is the sort of person who is never fazed by even the most ambitious list of things to see and do. She has the most insane schedule, but seems to have time for it all. She's really good at saying yes and knowing that she actually has bandwidth, not just saying yes to be nice and then regretting it. She's always up for trying something new and asks a ton of questions because she's insatiably curious and completely unafraid to ask for directions or clarification. She says hello to almost everyone she passes on the street, no matter what. She is always trying to make a connection with another person, however brief. She's a great role model for me in all of those respects, and it makes her a very good travel partner.

Here's a partial list of the fun stuff we did in Milwaukee:

  • Walked over 8 bridges on the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park on Lake Michigan
  • Cleared 4 schools of old science curriculum and scored a giant collection of chemistry glassware. Christa's a science teacher and picked up some extra work this summer, which turned out to be a little bit of a bear, so I helped
  • Visited Foundation Tiki Bar for some excellent fruity drinks
  • Listened to a new friend, Caitlin Scarano, recite her excellent poetry and won a chapbook of hers because I was the only person in the room willing to yell to get it for free; the polite Midwesterners all shuffled their feet and looked at the floor
  • Finished the whole shebang off with an Old Fashioned at Boone & Crockett because we never made it to a supper club, which is now on my list for a future trip.

I freaking love Milwaukee. I'm sure that Christa and Ted's enthusiasm for the place, the people, and the nightlife there had a lot to do with it, but I also liked the Bay View neighborhood vibe, the huge number of parks, how very nice everyone was, and the close proximity to the lake and the city. I'll be back here for sure.

It's been awhile since I cried my way onto the highway, but I did after a very long hug goodbye. Thank goodness I suffered through that first year of college in the wrong place; I couldn't imagine my life without the friends I made there.

Silence Cure

Silence was the cure, if only temporarily, silence and geography. But of what was I being cured? I do not know, have never known. I only know the cure. Silence, and no connections except to landscape.
— Mary Cantwell, Manhattan, When I Was Young

Camping in Chicago

I never expected to camp in Chicago, but I'm so glad I had the chance. I met my friend Jess at Alt Summit in January, and gratefully accepted an invitation to stay when other plans in the area fell through. The only catch? Camping in the park. The parks system offers a couple of camp outs for families during the year, hosted by the local nature center. Families show up with a tent and help with food prep. There was fishing, a movie, cooking over a fire, and games. It was so fun and such a good way to get to know a new place in a completely different way. Definitely not something I would have managed on my own.

The next morning we hung around for a touch-the-big-trucks event for kids that was set up right down the street, then headed home for a bit before going downtown to an annual art festival and drinks on a friend's porch. 

All in all, it was a whirlwind visit and a whole lot of fun. 

Kansas City Gratitude

I went to Kansas City to meet this beautiful woman, Jess. We've been friends online for a few years, after being matched up as gratitude buddies by a photographer from whom I'd taken an online class; Jess just happened to stumble on her blog post about the project. We traded daily emails containing 3 things for which we were grateful for a little over a year. Our practice eventually fell by the wayside, but it supported both of us during some dark personal times. Sometimes Jess's email was the lightest part of my day, a thing to be grateful for all by itself. We've remained connected since, and she was on my early list of must-sees for this adventure.

I'm grateful for:

  1. Jess and Stuart, two kind, intelligent, thoughtful, funny people who welcomed me into their home and spent a long day introducing me to their city, their life, and their family.
  2.  Joe's Kansas City - the best barbecue I've ever had in my life
  3. This photo, taken super early in the morning, in between hugs as I was leaving. Jess was still asleep when I left, but came running across her front lawn as I was pulling into the street. I'm so glad I got to say goodbye.

By the way, if you're in Kansas City and are searching for a doula, consider using Jess's growing labor of love, Black Rabbit Doula

Iowa Surprise

I fell in love with Iowa, which I never expected. It wasn't that new-romance-can't-sleep-sick-to-your-stomach-roller-coaster love, more like I met a new friend with whom I instantly clicked and couldn't wait to see again. The landscape is rolling hills with trees and creeks, and yes, plenty of corn, cows, and hay bales. The sky is enormous, laced with delicate clouds that did nothing to insulate me from the sun. Wildflowers spilled from every culvert, while grain silos perched on the edge of vast fields, dwarfing the homes nearby. I stayed with my friends Tina and Jeff, had dinner with my friend Chad (all former colleagues from my previous job, and one of the great takeaways from that time in my life), drank a fig-infused cocktail that actually came with a slice of maple bacon happily bathing in it, got two tours of Des Moines, and explored the Bridges of Madison County on the way south the next day. My time in Iowa was a sweet pause in the midst of my crazy, looping traverse of the prairie; I'll be back sometime to apply proper time and attention to that place. 

The Other Shoe Dropped

Well, the thing I feared the most finally happened: I owe a big chunk of money to someone all of a sudden. On Wednesday, I bought a ticket to Altitude Summit for next February, dipping into savings, knowing it was an important thing for me to do again and that I could work hard at home to replenish my savings account. On Thursday, I learned that my health insurance premiums have not been paid since February, despite receipts from Anthem letting me know that payment was received. I owe the insurance company nearly exactly what I spent on the Alt ticket.

The beach I was enjoying around the time everything went off the rails...

I had a credit card number stolen early on in this trip and replaced it, but didn't realize that this payment was attached to that card. Never mind that I can't use the HMO I'm part of outside of Maine, I have been doing my deed as a good citizen and making sure I'm covered. Sort of. Actually, not really at all.

It turns out that the intersection between Anthem's "I'm sorry, but it's required to be a paper notice, ma'am"  antiquated communication systems related to payment issues and my travel are just deeply, irreconcilably incompatible. The people I spoke with kindly suggested that I update my address, but that would not help since I am not there. 

A good friend has made sure I received mail periodically for the last 10 months, but the notices Anthem sends are as illuminating as their entirely confusing member website, which is to say, they are as clear as mud. I don't doubt that I received them, but how did I, a person who always, always, always reviews and pays bills on time, miss this?

I have other automatic payments scheduled every month. Amazon won't send dog food if there's even a question about my credit card. Anthem sends me a "thanks for your payment" email even when I haven't actually paid in 5 months. Lesson learned: insurance companies really are completely inflexible and I am not their priority.

I had a good, long cry after getting off the phone with the company this morning. I'm furious with Anthem and their giant shoulder shrug/deep sigh response. I'm annoyed with my bank for not having a notification system that some company keeps pinging an old, stolen card. Mostly though, I'm intensely frustrated with myself for not catching this error, for not making sure that payments were going through, and for relying on a giant company to make sure things were running smoothly. 

It's almost a relief to have this fear realized. I'll move through this, shake it off, and figure out what to do next. By the time you read this I'll have 4 weeks to go on this adventure. I'll be back on the East Coast, and headed for home. Over time this will become one of the parts of the trip that I can laugh about, the Great Insurance Screw-up of 2017. 

C'est la vie!

Update: I wrote this a week ago, just after it happened, and decided to let it marinate for a few days. I rarely have a chance to do that, so this post reflects an in-the-momentness that I am rarely able to achieve. Writing it helped me jettison just about all of my frustration, and howling to my friend Christa, who patiently heard me out on our way to Madison later that morning, got rid of the rest. It's nowhere near the end of the world and is entirely fixable. This was the worst thing that's happened to me on this adventure, so in the end, the real lesson is to keep moving forward - an appropriate thing to be reminded of in Wisconsin in particular, where "Forward" is the state motto.

Green Grass & Running Water

Another long day of driving got me to Fargo, ND. First impression? Cigarettes. The whole place smelled like them and it was really weird. Other than that, though, it was a neat place to spend an afternoon. I had lunch at HoDo and then headed to Atomic Coffee for some gifts for my upcoming hosts. I went to the Hjemkomst Center to see the Viking ship and the Hopperstad Stave Church behind it. Both were super interesting, but the entrance fee felt really steep.

I ended the day at Buffalo River State Park, which was gloriously green and full of trees. The tent site was perfectly situated and quiet. I woke up early the next morning and made my way down to the river, walking along the small gravel path out onto a sandbar and then around to a big bridge that spanned the water. The park was exactly what I needed after days of feeling sunblasted and parched. The landscape was finally starting to feel like home!

I made my way to Minneapolis for the night, stopping to stay with an acquaintance who kindly offered me a couch in his shared house. The next morning I was up with the birds (so, earlier than early) and left for Des Moines and the home of my friend, Tina. 

North Dakota

I was up with the sun and longing to spend the day in air conditioning, coasting along the highway, and listening to the quiet. Unfortunately, I was completely cranky after a disjointed night of what felt like more dreams than sleep. I also decided to skip coffee, but that's never a good plan when I'm tired because I hate going into gas stations or coffee shops, or really stopping at all, when I'm tired and cranky.

I stuck to my plan to make a fairly long detour to Mt. Rushmore, arriving there around 8:00 in the morning, along with busloads of tourists, all chattering and clicking away. The monument was stunningly beautiful in its detail and simplicity. I managed a few photos before I started losing my cool. The tourists grated on my raw nerves, as did the "this is a free park, but parking is $10 and it's good for 364 more days!" part. Clearly, I needed to leave; no sense in raining on anyone else's parade.

I ended up in Dickinson, ND after a very long day of either no traffic for miles or 20-minute lines to get through road construction. Eventually, I settled into the pace of the ride, waiting for things to even out. At some point, I managed to buy coffee, which helped. I landed in a fairly sketchy hotel, comforted only by the fact that the woman who ran the place lived onsite and that the bathroom was really clean. I'm getting close to the end of this trip, so money is getting tight, and I can't afford to be choosy. In any case, it was nice to sleep in a bed again.

The next morning I set out for Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora. The park is a lot smaller than others I've visited and there weren't many people on the roads, so it was a nice, leisurely drive with easy stops to scramble up paths and look at the spectacular view or some of the crazy short, squat hoodoos that are all over the place. These are also Badlands, but they're the warmer, fuzzier version, if that's possible. There are trees and prairie wherever there is space and enough soil. Wildflowers blossom everywhere; juniper and sagebrush cover the ground, while cottonwoods coat the small creeks that meander through the valley.

If my 8th grade history classes had focused on how each president was interesting instead of rote memorization of their terms, I would have known that Theodore Roosevelt was known as the conservationist president. I'm sure I learned it somewhere along the way, but that early introduction spoiled me for having any interest in later years. I'm developing one now as I see the places that inspired so much the energy behind the movement to set up our national park system. Roosevelt was a rancher on this land in his 20s; wild horses still roam the park today and his tiny cabin is open to the public.

I felt peaceful here. The sun was still bright, and it was pretty hot, but the wind was softer, and there were trees to shelter under. I was also alone for the most part, outside in that softly rolling landscape, soaking in the color, smell, and sound.

I ate lunch in Medora at a cowboy bar that seemed to largely run off of tourist dollars these days, but had hats tacked all over the ceiling, some dating back to the 1960s. They had gluten free pizza, so I indulged, smiling to myself and thinking as I ordered that no real cowboy would ever order such a thing. The heat got into my bones after that, so I headed back to my hotel to work on some photos and bask in the air conditioning. One more night and then I was Fargo-bound.

The Badlands

I'd only ever been to the Badlands in December 20+ years ago, camping in a parking lot in my VW Vanagon on a whistle-stop tour of the US, dropping off and picking up friends around the country in the college break between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Somewhere I have a pile of black and white film negatives and contact sheets patiently waiting for the scanner I plan to buy someday. In the winter everything was white, grey, and black, with streaks of red pushing through the snow in spots. It was beautiful then, and it was beautiful on this visit, though utterly different.

I pushed north from Cheyenne across miles of rolling farmland, forced to cross Nebraska, but only a tiny corner of it, thereby avoiding the time warps I'm certain are spaced at even intervals across its highways, making every trip 17 days longer than necessary. I rolled through tiny towns on secondary roads, quickly learning that a water tower meant gas stations, but that a grain elevator did not necessarily promise the same.

Janet (my Google Maps voice) took me down a 20-mile dirt road, a "shortcut" that rattled the nerves of my faithful car. I found Carhenge along the side of the road, a place I knew of, but wasn't about to go out of my way to see. It was pretty impressive, especially when I learned that the place is as exact a replica of Stonehenge as possible. The circle is built on the site of an old family farm and was eventually donated to the town of Alliance, NE.

I arrived at Badlands National Park with plenty of time to check into the campground, pitch Yoda, and head out for a preliminary driving tour. I made my way up one side of the park loop, and then took my time returning, stopping to watch Bighorn Sheep graze along the side of the road.

The sun blasted down, relentless in its heat and light, burning everything into pale submission. I was surprised and happy to see so much green grass and scrub, and wildflowers pouring over the sides of the roads. There were prairie and pronghorns everywhere, sometimes in the road. Either I've gotten used to seeing animals everywhere, or most people don't get a chance to have that experience very often, because as I was watching some sheep graze, a man and his boys came screeching through the parking lot, hopped out of their car, pointed wildly and yelled "There's WILDLIFE over there!!!!" I said thanks and that I saw them. The family then screamed off to their next destination, quite possibly not hearing me.

After a simple dinner back at my campsite, I spent an hour or two sheltering from the sun under the wooden roof of my picnic table. Between the truly never-ending wind and the energy I spent on avoiding the sun, I came to quickly understand how people lost their minds as homesteaders in this part of the world.

There is no quiet, no shade, no darkness; there is only the incessant wind and the pressure of the sun. This is a part of the world where you learn immediately to always travel with water on your person, where you always cover your skin, and where you always have a Plan B. It is forbidding and alluring all at once. 

I visited a prairie homestead just outside the park. The yard was riddled with prairie dog holes, their watchful eyes clocking my every move as their strange chatter filled the air. The buildings were tiny and though I was dripping sweat and drinking water like it was my job, all I could think about was how brutal a place it must have been to live during the winters. It's not the first homestead I've visited on this trip, but it was the smallest, and somehow, the most fragile. 

I hit Wall Drug, because you pretty much have to see that crazy place of you're in the neighborhood. I bought beer jelly because I couldn't help it. Someone will be getting a hopefully delightful breakfast treat.

The Yellow Mounds were among my favorite stops inside the park because of their rainbow hues. Many wildflowers and a fair amount of grass grew among them, making the stop seem like an oasis in the desert. I also loved the Door and Window trails, which allowed me to move around and see some of the formations up close, minus any snakes.

I celebrated my last night with a ridiculously long coin-op shower, planning to leave at the crack of dawn so that I could make a pit stop to see some presidents on my way to North Dakota.

Queen Viv, Her Glorious Underbite, and Her People

In Snowmass it was gloriously, blazingly sunny. It also hailed, because it was spring in Colorado and that's just how it goes.

Queen Viv, the Tiny Lady with the Glorious Underbite, brought her people, my friends Stuart and Andrea. There were tacos, mid-day margaritas, and naps-as-needed. Stuart, Viv, and I climbed up through aspens and wildflowers to a gorgeous view of the village, where we met a friend of his who was flying a super loud, annoying drone. I saw the footage afterward and it was pretty spectacular, but I wish they were a little more subtle in person. Stuart and I also went to Maroon Bells, slipping and sliding our way up to Crater Lake through the snow. I forgot my sunglasses in the car, so it was a little painful, but I did have my raincoat with me, so we took turns sliding down the treacherous, snow-covered trails on the way back, which was incredibly fun. Stuart got his 2nd #travelingunicornhat photo at the lake. 

We managed to find our high school friend Caleb in the middle of a giant soccer tournament nearby and spent an hour or two reminiscing. It was so good to hang out with those guys together after 25 years!

After a long weekend it was time to continue on to the Badlands, so I took off through Independence Pass, an impossibly windy, drop dead gorgeous pass that dumped me out on the eastern side of the Rockies. I traveled north through the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests until I reached Cheyenne, where I checked in and promptly passed out after hours on the road.

The Best, Most Ridiculous Detour Ever

When I was in Washington, my friend Andrea sent me a casual text along the lines of "Hey, we'll be in Snowmass in a few days, why don't you join us?" A great invitation, two great friends, and a teensy, weensy 20-hour detour to Colorado on the way to the Badlands. I had time to kill since I'd just pretty much given up on planning anything at all and was wondering what in the heck I was going to do with 3 wide open weeks. So, I sat in Jackson and planned a route that made my friend Andy look visibly ill, though he did help me with it, so I ended up going through some country I might otherwise have missed. The route wasn't exactly a picnic, but it got me to all of the places on my list and I got a LOT of time to think as I drove hundreds and hundreds of miles to see people and places I just couldn't miss.

I spent my first night out in Vernal, UT. The landscapes I drove through before and after that place had me screeching over to the side of the road and whipping out my camera regularly. I just love Utah and it was so good to see those red rocks again, never mind great huge swaths of water, sagebrush, and wildflowers. I drove through Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area on the way in, and along the edge of Dinosaur National Monument on the way out the next morning.

Grand Teton

You must search for the loveliness of America; it is not obvious; it is scattered; but when you find it, it touches you and binds you to it like a great secret oath taken in silence.
— Struthers Burt, Jackson Hole Dude Rancher, 1934

While I stayed in Jackson, on of the minor sub-plots was Ruby and her search and destroy mission related to my bare feet. It's challenging to stay somewhere when the whole time it's a "the floor is hot lava/swarming with rabid cats" sort of scenario. I'm sure you can figure out which one she is - she's got that Very Intense look. Andy has a voice for Ruby that left me in floods of helpless laughter, tears streaming down my face. If he ever starts a YouTube channel for that cat, I will be its number one fan, no question.

I ventured out on Wednesday to explore Grand Teton National Park on my own, armed with direction from Andy on must-sees. I stopped at the visitor center first and spent a long time admiring animal skulls and native bead work, which is so intricate and beautifully done that it always stops me in my tracks. I also encountered my first ledger art, which was pretty exciting.

I stopped in front of the quote I posted above, unexpectedly tearing up and spending a few minutes contemplating questions I've been turning over in my mind this year. What does it mean to me to be a patriot? Am I one? Am I proud of this country in which I live? Where do I fit? In that moment I gained more clarity. I love the land I've been through. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to see it, spend time on it, and understand it from a personal perspective; it's given me a context I never had before. I feel as though I've taken that secret, silent oath. Mr. Burt articulated something I have not yet been able to put into words.

I spent part of the morning at Jenny Lake, walking along the shore in the blazing sun, admiring the green water and keeping a close eye out for bears. I desperately want to see a bear, but I'm also afraid of them, though maybe not as much as snakes. Maybe. I'll let you know after I see one. 

Jackson Lake Dam provided an unobstructed view of the mountains and also, apparently, excellent fishing, based on the couple of very happy guys below the dam. The trees and shrubs in the area were all golden yellow, rusty red, and pale green - a soft watercolor against the bright blue sky.

Jackson Lake Lodge is an imposing building, but from the inside, not the outside. Two-story floor-to-ceiling windows frame a gorgeous view of the mountains, while soft leather couches welcome you to sink into for a long, contemplative coffee. I found a sun hat there for my small noggin. Ridiculously expensive, but I'm pretty sure it's paid for itself by now, so I'm grateful.

Toward the end of the day I made my way back toward the National Elk Refuge; on the way I spent some time wandering around the Mormon Row Historic District before making my way back into town.

It's hard for me to see the change in myself from these past few months on the road, but I can tell you for sure that nobody would have gotten me to happily smile for a photo while sitting on a saddle in a touristy cowboy bar last autumn. 

Three days, two national parks, miles and miles and miles, and I couldn't have been happier. Next up? A completely senseless 20-hour detour that was one of the best decisions I've made on this adventure to date.

Yellowstone South

After coffee and a quick breakfast, Andy and I headed out to tackle the southern end of Yellowstone. We managed to hit most of the stops south of Madison, which included many brilliantly colored geyser basins, and also made it to West Thumb Geyser Basin. We saw Old Faithful, wandering along the boardwalks to see smaller pools and geysers for an hour or so before it finally erupted. We visited the iconic Old Faithful Inn, climbing up its steep plank stairs to check out the ancient timbers holding the whole place together.

I'm sure I'm forgetting to mention half of what we saw and did on that marathon day, but it was good to be with an old friend, catching up on years worth of news, laughing at practically everything (Andy is seriously funny), listening to music, watching bison and elk roam around, and hopping out of the car frequently to explore a new place, especially with the added bonus of actually being able to point and say how amazing something was to another person. After hours of exploring we finally left the park and drove down the other side of the Grand Tetons to a small town just across the pass from Jackson, where we had some super good tacos in Victor, ID before calling it a day and heading for home.

Yellowstone North

After Bozeman I had a very, very long day on the way to Jackson, WY to stay with my college friend, Andy. Since Yellowstone is so huge, Andy made some suggestions about what I should try to see and do on the way south. I'm so glad I took his advice, because every single stop was well worth my time. This national park is a singular mashup of Mars and Eden that is really difficult to absorb. There were geysers, steaming sulfur waterfalls, enormous craggy mountains, snowbanks higher than my car, evergreens, sagebrush, cacti, bison, elk, and rabbits. I specifically made time for Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, both of which were spectacular in completely different ways. There were a lot of tourists and some construction delays on the roads, so I was glad to be there in mid-May; I can't imagine navigating it in peak season, since I'm now spoiled by months of visiting national parks in the off-season. I stopped at Old Faithful and wandered around, but it wasn't set to go off for another couple of hours, and I needed to make tracks to Jackson, so I left it for the following day.

Oh, Montana

I've been to some beautiful places on this adventure, but Montana! I forgot all about Montana. I don't know what trick of light or scale or color of blue makes the sky larger there than anywhere else, including the desert, where you can see forever. It's drop dead gorgeous, as far as the eye can see. It doesn't matter that it takes 45 minutes to get to the place you can see straight ahead because there's plenty of mountain ogling to accomplish along the way.

I stayed with my friend Andy and his family - Andrea, Stella Blue, and Soren. The family is in the process of relocating to Portland, OR, so my visit was a chance to reminisce and see places they may not get back to for a while. We went to Lewis & Clark Caverns and to a tiny town with an ancient saloon. Stella and I made dinner for friends one night, including her very first cold blueberry pie. It snowed in the canyon on my first night, pretty normal for May. Soren gave me stickers for good behavior at dinner. I threw a ball for Rosie over and over, missing my own dogs and feeling my heart turn over toward home.