Faltering

My week in Rochester was a tough one. Closer to home, and finally beginning to fully understand how very much I did not want this adventure to end, I faltered. It was hot and muggy, and I was staying in a student apartment that lacked any sense of home but had a great goofy Husky named Milo, who distracted me from feeling too morose. I wrote the rest of this post while I was in Rochester, in between wandering through Mount Hope Cemetery, visiting the Parks-Lamberton Conservatory, waiting patiently for Milo to recover from his sudden need for a power nap in the middle of any sidewalk at any time as we made our way through the nearby historic district. I also made time to visit the George Eastman Museum, which was one of the highlights of my stay there.

I'm sitting in a small apartment in Rochester, NY, listening to the rain pour down as I follow, online, my friends in their painful traverse of the final hours of the life of Clancy, their beloved father's dog. The upstairs neighbors are throwing a party, laughing and stomping their feet. I want to yell at them to stop, but instead, I am watching a lady make risotto on TV, still checking my phone every few minutes.

Clancy was a pup when my friends' father passed away, a living legacy for these many years. Clancy is dying now, and they have made the impossibly difficult choice to let him go. This dog is more widely loved than any dog I know, because of the ferocious love of his four human sisters. They have made him the center of their world. Clancy has helped them to heal; now that he is going, it is brutally hard.

In the midst of this, I learn that my dear friend's husband has died after a sudden, unexpected illness. I was lucky to spend time with this gentle, gracious, intelligent, humorous, absolute gentleman early in my trip and I simply cannot fathom the world without him. If you multiply the effect he had on me by thousands of light years, you will still never get close to how important he is to his family.

I am in tears over the loss of two souls who are deeply loved by those I deeply love, and who I had the good fortune to know also. This is the flip side of being connected, that there is always a loss, eventually. I'm grappling with what to say and how to say it. I'm not ready, nor prepared to face any of it, but that's not how any of this works anyway, in my experience.

I keep coming back to my own father's death nearly 30 years ago, remembering some of his writing, which my uncle later had printed and sent on to people he was grateful to as a sort of benediction for many years. They are the same words I read at my high school baccalaureate, and for some strange reason, left safe at home on this adventure; I have always had them with me until now. When I need them more than ever, I am on my own.

When I left on this trip, I experienced an excruciating sense of loss over several weeks, not just after I left, but for days and days before. My completely rote, safe life, my small group of treasured friends, my family, my beloved dogs - I was leaving everything behind for some barely articulated need to just get the hell out of where I was. I searched for help all over the internet and tried to express what I was going through, but there is no help for "loss caused by a positive choice." 

I have weathered losses quietly over these long months, relying on quiet conversations with close friends, reading and listening to books, spending hours and thousands of miles driving toward the horizon with only my thoughts spinning around. I have made very little art outside of photographs, shared less of what has hurt, and more of what has been the adventure that so many people are longing for. But, and there is always a but, there has been sadness, loss, and now, profound grief.

Some things are coming full circle here. The girls upstairs whoop and stomp on the floor, laughing through a chorus of some pop song. I watch a giant catfish swim across the TV. I think about daybreak and those moments that become defining before-and-after's. I met two beautiful souls, a man and a dog, who changed me for the better. I will honor their memories by always stopping to smell the roses, and by living my life with integrity. It's what they taught me, each in their own way, and I'm deeply grateful for the lessons.

Kidnapped in PA

This is my friend Elizabeth. She kidnapped me pretty much as soon as I arrived at her home. I decided that the best course of action was to develop an immediate, advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome and enjoy myself. I'd had a rough few days, so being taken off to a location I couldn't possibly ever find again - the sort of old family summer home that has a massive fireplace, a deep front porch, and a moose on the wall, and smells like old books, where everything is comfortable, fixable, and has a story - to eat sausages and corn on the cob, dig for fossils, drink wine, sleep in a twin bed next to a giant window fan, pick blueberries for a pie, scratch dogs behind their ears, and get to know some new and interesting people was pretty much the bees knees.

I visited Gettysburg when I was finally released back into civilization, wandering among the graves and statues, trying hard to imagine the battles that had taken place on what was now peaceful fields full of chicory. We went to a movie and had dinner at a great place, then took a quick tour of Carlisle, one of the many towns in which Elizabeth grew up. Her dad taught at the US Army War College, so she moved around a lot, and has an interesting perspective on home and place.

Pennsylvania was a relief. I felt light, refreshed, and able to move forward.

Digging In

He knew that under the tall grass of an apparently untamed future the steel rails of fear and habit were already laid. What he suddenly couldn’t bear, with every cell in his body, was to act out the destiny prepared for him by his past, and slide obediently along those rails, contemplating bitterly all the routes he would rather have taken.
— Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope

It was in traffic in Chicago that my happy forward trajectory started to falter. The weather turned sour as I sat in the midst of a sea of cars, and I drove through torrential downpours for hours, hydroplaning my way across Indiana and much of Ohio before landing at Findley State Park for two nights, very much worse for the wear after a near collision with a big truck, and dreading setting my tent up in the rain. I sat in the car for 45 minutes, trying to decide whether or not it was even worth it, hungry, frustrated, and done with every little part of the journey. Eventually, I dragged myself out of the car and hopped around, muttering curses as I struggled to set up the tent just as the skies opened up again. There was a puddle in the tent when I was done and I was angry enough to wrestle a bear.

The next morning I ventured into town, walking around Oberlin in the rain, trying to jumpstart the warm fuzzy feeling that had so abruptly left me as I headed away from Milwaukee. I rallied a little bit, and the sun helped by coming out, but by mid-afternoon, I'd smashed my Kindle's screen enough to make it unusable, and my phone started acting funny. I went for a walk in the woods, which helped a little bit. As I moved through the trees, I tried to put my finger on what was bothering me so much. I was starting a long, slow slide into a depression. I didn't want to go home. I wanted to stay in this floating sort of incognito, pushing onto a new place. I wasn't sure I would fit at home. I couldn't tell how much I had changed, but I knew I didn't feel like the same person. I was afraid to look at my new self against the backdrop of my old self, and to then have to sit with all of it. Most of all, I didn't want to lose all I had gained: this new lightness, a readier smile, the drive to connect.

I left for Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle State Park in the morning, resolved to make the best of the next few days. I visited Cucumber Falls, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. I squeezed into an Andy Goldsworthy installation at Kentuck Knob, gazing up at the trees that grew out of its center, puzzling over how I would ever remain the new me when I returned home. I watched clouds scudding across the sky above bright green hills outside the house and found a little bit of grace inside myself. 

I woke the next morning with renewed hope, basking in the sun and looking forward to seeing my friend Elizabeth and her family. Along the way, I stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial, which caused a gut punch of complicated, agonizing emotion. I'm not sure why I thought I could make a quick stop at such a powerful, somber memorial. The building sits in stark contrast to the meadows in which it is placed. The tall walls feel like a downed plane. The glass wall at the end of a long walkway allows the viewer to see the crash site and the long memorial wall in the lower field. Everyone spoke in a low voice, visibly moved by the immense tragedy that took place here. I went inside and quickly moved through the exhibit, overwhelmed by the sounds of the final calls made to loved ones, footage of the two towers, and the sight of so many people with tears in their eyes. I walked the lower memorial wall, running my hands along the stone, thinking about the people who died in that amazingly beautiful spot. After, I sat in my car and cried.

After gathering myself together, I moved on toward Elizabeth's house, unsettled, upset, and very much looking forward to something lighter for a couple of days.

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.

Madtown

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.