At Altitude

Over the past month we’ve taken a number of glorious excursions into the mountains.  On my (and Van’s) first trip to the top of a fourteener, we opted to use the assistance of four wheels.  While we would love to climb one with our own legs, that will have to wait until our toddler gets a bit older.  Instead, we opted to drive up the highest paved road in North America.  When we reached the forest service entrance, the ranger on duty informed us that the road to the summit was closed, but that we could get as far as Summit Lake, about five miles before the summit.  We began the drive with crossed fingers, hoping that the snow would clear up and we’d be able to make it to the top.  We drove as far as we could and got out for a romp through the snow.  Van did amazingly well hiking over snow, slush, and ice at a very high altitude, but we knew better than to keep him out for too long.

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Once he started to show signs of exhaustion, we headed back to our car and watched as another car began ascending the road to the summit.  The road had opened!!!

Mt. Evans Road - the highest paved road in North America

Mt. Evans Road – the highest paved road in North America

View from the summit

View from the summit

The temperature was reading in the twenties without the wind, and the wind was practically blowing us over.   Needless to say, we didn’t subject Van to the cold wind (we don’t want him to hate us too much), but we both took turns exploring the summit.  While most of our drive was into the clouds, some of the clouds began to clear as we were at the summit.  Instead of viewing the Rockies from afar, here we were, in the mountains!

On our way back down from the summit, we stopped at Echo Lake for a picnic lunch amidst the pines and a short walk around the lake.  While this isn’t as exciting as hiking to an alpine lake, it was a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the fresh (albeit thin) air and the local wildlife.  Apparently, we brought some wildlife of our own along for the day.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Yes, he's a lion...

Yes, he’s a lion…

and a cutie pie...

and a cutie pie…

with an extra helping of sass.

with an extra helping of sass.

A few days after our trip to Mt. Evans, we set out to explore the town of Evergreen.  We spent much of the day hiking at several of the many county parks in the area.  This would be an amazing place to live if you’re into hiking or mountain biking.  We were incredibly impressed by the number and quality of parks in the area.  You’d never be bored!

One of the charms of not having GPS or regular data access on our phone is that we have to use maps and intuition to find our way.  When the maps are incorrect or woefully inadequate, we wind up in some new and exciting places.  The photo below is taken along one of the roads we incorrectly but oh-so-happily drove down in our quest to find yet another park in Evergreen.  Now if only that could be our view from our (currently non-existent) front porch.

Views in Evergreen

Views in Evergreen

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Daytrippin’

For any of you counting, we’ve been in Colorado now for just over a month.  Much of that time we’ve spent with Alan’s family just south of Denver.  This has been an enormous help to us, as well as a lot of fun!  The first of couple weeks here gave us time to deal with our Eurovan, which we physically parted with on the side of the road in Memphis but didn’t legally part with until several weeks later.  We also used this time to figure out how we were going to travel going forward and re-equip, which mostly consisted of taking a very critical eye to everything we had previously been traveling with.  In our down time (meaning nap time for the little guy and in the evenings after he hits the hay) we’ve been reading travel books like crazy for the next part of our trip.  We had previously only researched in detail places we were planning to visit before arriving in Colorado.  Since we skipped a few states (that we hope to circle back to), we’re now faced with doing research for the next few states we plan to visit (Utah, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California).

In addition to dealing with logistics, we’ve taken a couple of camping trips in our other (and now only) car to test out our pared down system.  But, for the most part, we’ve been enjoying time with family and friends and taking day-trips around the area.  We’ve been busy taking multiple trips to the mountains, exploring Denver museums and the zoo, poking around the Boulder Creek Festival in Alan’s former stomping grounds, frequenting the neighborhood pool, playgrounds, and trails that run right near our home, celebrating a milestone birthday with one of our dear friends (complete with belly dancer), and having (what has become a tradition during our visits to Colorado) a fabulous homemade Persian feast cooked by our birthday-celebrating friend’s wonderful parents.  I’ve also had the chance to catch up with old friends, one of whom I haven’t seen in at least twenty years, and spend much more time getting to know Alan’s wonderful family.  Watching Van interact with his grandparents and his Auntie Laura is definitely one of the highlights of our time in Colorado.  Van asks for each of them by name every morning.  He’s going to be in for a rude surprise when we can’t simply respond with assuring words that they’re right downstairs or that he’ll see them in a few days.

I guess he was tired of the walks to the pool.  He created his own in the backyard!

I guess he was tired of walking to the pool. He created his own in the backyard!

Splash!

Splash!

Van riding his horse that's at least as old as his daddy!

Van riding his horse that’s at least as old as his daddy!

In an Emergency Response Vehicle at the Boulder Creek Festival

In an Emergency Response Vehicle at the Boulder Creek Festival

Lessons Learned – v.2.5

Given that we’ve been on the road (more or less) for about two and a half months, I figured it was time for another installment of Lessons Learned.  As we’ve made our way through the demise of our not-so-trusty traveling companion and regrouped to travel in a more slimmed-down fashion, here are some of my recent thoughts.

  1. The types of dining or fast food establishments in a town (if any) can be a pretty good barometer for the economic health of the area.  A Chipotle?  The area must be pretty well-to-do.  The nicest (or only) fast food is a Hardees or a Subway?  It’s either a really small town, or at least several rungs below the Chipotle towns in economic status.
  2. Things don’t go according to plan.  This is such an important lesson that I’ve been learning most of my life.  Embracing it allows me to let go and move on much more quickly.
  3. Flexibility and patience are key to minimizing stress.  This is one of THE most important lessons I’ve learned in the past five years.  While this isn’t something new to me, I’ve intentionally focused on practicing flexibility and patience in the presence of adversity, small and large, during this trip.  This has made a remarkable difference in my stress level.
  4. The only way to get over irrational fears is to face them head on.  When I was a child, I had a fear of dogs.  Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that, but I’ve moved on to bigger and badder fears – airplanes and bears.  Kinda stinks for someone who likes to travel.  Having the van to sleep in on nights and in places that I was a bit more scared of bears served as a warm and cozy security blanket.  As we traveled, I found myself thinking about bears less and less as we were out and about on trails, cooking dinner, and sleeping at night.  It’s much easier to think about bears constantly during weekend outings than it is to think about it day in and day out when I’m living in the great outdoors on a semi-permanent basis.  Now that I don’t have the van as a back-up sleeping destination, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that if we want to travel, I need to sleep in bear country.  And it’s been going remarkably well, helped in large part by several months of facing it every day with a back-up plan.  Will I have the same reaction in grizzly country?  No, I know I won’t.  But that’s a much smaller part of our journey.  I am so relieved to be making progress towards putting bears (or at least black bears) in the same category as woof-woofers, using Van terminology.
  5. I belong amongst trees and mountains.  And no, I’m not snobby like some Coloradans I know (wink, wink) – the Rockies are not the only topological bumps I’d call mountains.
  6. Lavender Kombucha (my favorite drink of the past few months) is a great conversation starter from Kentucky to Arkansas to Colorado.  It’s a bit pricey compared to our usual drink of water from public spigots, so I don’t splurge often.  But, I don’t think that I’ve made the splurge on this trip without an interesting and fun conversation to go along with the drink.
  7. As much as we like to joke about it, my father really is the most interesting man in the world.  He’s been to so many of the places we’re exploring and always has an interesting story about his time there.  I’ve heard fun and crazy stories about my father my whole life – each one of which would be the most interesting thing to happen to someone else – and yet these are all new stories.  I think I ought to write a book.
  8. Even with three people living full-time in a car, we still have plenty of room to bring wants.  The continuous downsizing of our possessions has been a great lesson in need vs. want.  We’re still taking plenty of wants with us – needs for three people do not fill up an entire car.
  9. The best destinations usually cost the least, if anything at all.  We are not traveling to see all the major tourist destinations.  We’re traveling to get to know pockets of this country in a way we cannot without going there and engaging with the land and its people.  Yes, we’ll be hitting some of the major National Parks with our annual pass, but other than the $80 we spend annually on this pass, most of the places we’re visiting don’t cost anything.  There have been some notable exceptions (The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill and the Museum of Appalachia being two destinations very worth their admission fees), but we are generally very hesitant to spend money to have an experience on this trip.  Because of the thought we’ve put into paying for “attractions”, the few places we’ve paid to visit have been fantastic experiences.  If we were on vacation somewhere  for a week, I’d probably be more free with my wallet.  But, given that we’re traveling for so long, it helps us in numerous ways to keep that wallet closed more than we open it.  Besides the saving money part, it also encourages us to see some lesser visited places that may be free or to explore towns and the natural environs of the citizens instead of the touristy parts of towns.  There is a lot of fun to be had at libraries and laundromats, town squares and supermarkets.  Writing that last sentence made my realize that this trip has basically been a tour of town square picnic lunches!

Northwest Arkansas

DSC_0958

Reaching about a month back in time, we had a glorious six days in Arkansas with my parents.  We really wanted to share part of our journey with both of our families, and the Ozarks seemed like the perfect place to do so with my family.  My father visited the Missouri Ozarks regularly as a child and has also spent time in Northwest Arkansas.  Given that much of his time in these parts were spent with his grandfather, I thought this would be the perfect place for him to travel with his grandson.  And perfect it was!

We bounced around a bit during those six days, but we saw some pretty amazing places.  Though people who have been to the Ozarks have gushed to us about its beauty, it seems to be a relatively undiscovered corner of our country.  We certainly didn’t get the same reaction from folks when we told them we were headed to the Ozarks as we got when we told them we were headed to the Colorado Mountains.  Oh well…their loss.

We spent our first night at a wonderful bed and breakfast in Mountain Home.  After spending several hours getting to know the woman who owns and runs this beautiful home, she took us to a nearby pair of bald eagles with their new eaglets.  We were all in awe, but my mother was particularly excited to see bald eagles in their natural habitat – a long time dream of hers.

Nesting Bald Eagle in Mountain Home, Arkansas

Nesting Bald Eagle in Mountain Home, Arkansas

There are two things that we saw in Arkansas that stand out to both Alan and me as two of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen.  The first was the Buffalo River, the country’s first national river.  We disappointedly looked through our photos and saw that none do it justice.  Then I looked online for photos of the river and didn’t find any that did it justice either.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful photos of the river taken by much more experienced photographers than me, but I suppose this is a place with a beauty and spirit that just can’t be captured by film.  Perhaps this is why we were so shocked and impressed when we glimpsed this glorious river for the first time.  Rather than post many mediocre pictures of this river, I urge you to take a trip and visit this beautiful, winding gem.  The shorelines are undeveloped, bluffs line the river, and the water is turquoise and crystal clear.  My father and I were lucky enough to float the Buffalo with some friends of friends on the weekend.  It seemed like everyone in Northwest Arkansas was out on the river that day enjoying the sun.  This is another spot that I’d love to return to with Van when he’s a bit older.

Grandpa and Van checking out rocks along the Buffalo River

Grandpa and Van checking out rocks along the Buffalo River

After a couple of days along the Buffalo River and a quick trip to Branson, we headed over to Eureka Springs.  My favorite part of the town was exploring the footpaths through some of the historic residential neighborhoods with my father as Van napped.  We came upon some beautiful homes and inns, spoke with a man working to repair statuary at a petite but meticulous Catholic Church, visited the famous Crescent Hotel, admired the many preserved springs throughout town, and marveled at the early date at which the town began historic preservation.  But the highlight of our stay in Eureka Springs was not in the downtown.  The second amazing place that we visited was Thorncrown Chapel, which has its home in the forest just outside of Eureka Springs.  Again, our photos do not do this brilliant chapel justice, so below is a photo from the Chapel’s website.  We knew that the Chapel was listed fourth on the American Institute of Architects’ list of the top buildings of the twentieth century, so it was not a shock that the building was beautiful.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many churches, chapels, and cathedrals, including many of the greatest in Europe.  This is without a doubt my favorite of all such buildings.  It is constructed so that when you’re sitting in the Chapel, it feels as if you are bathed in the forest.  The clear glass pane behind the altar provides a magnificent view of the forest, changing my concept of an altar forever.  Thorncrown Chapel evokes God through its architecture in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

Thorncrown Chapel

Thorncrown Chapel

Alan, Van, and I were so lucky to spend such a fantastic week in Arkansas with my family despite our van troubles.  The beauty and company certainly helped us to refrain from letting our problems get in the way of enjoying our travels.

The Bottling Process: Route Planning

Over the past several months, several of you have asked me for more details about the logistics of our travels.  This is the first post in an ongoing series about how we travel.  If there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to leave me a comment and perhaps it will be a topic for a future Bottling Process post. 

We spent months and months and months planning before we ever packed up our van and left our former home.  Much of that planning was related to the logistics associated with quitting a job (yikes!), packing and storing all of our belongings, financing a trip of this magnitude, and transitioning to a nomadic lifestyle.  Though I’m trying to be more spontaneous, we did have to start thinking about route planning.  While we did not leave Maryland with a fully developed route, we did have a general sense of our route and a fairly detailed list of places we wanted to check out in the first few states we planned to visit.  While this was partly due to the fact that we just didn’t have the time to do more, we also wanted the trip to develop naturally – to spend a little more time in places we really loved and to spend less in places that didn’t call to us.  Since we are camping, our travels are very weather dependent.  By remaining flexible, we can reroute ourselves to meet better camping weather and circumvent places that might be better visited at a warmer or cooler time of year.  Given our van predicament (the fact that we no longer own one), lack of detailed plan was a good plan!  Without further ado, here is how we approach the planning process.

  • Long before we left, we spent hours and days looking at the map, talking about places we’d like to visit, and coming up with the regions we’d like to visit and the best times of year to visit them.  We made a loose route for ourselves through certain states and regions, estimating when we’d be there given our likely speed of travel.  Unfortunately, this did not allow us to visit all of the regions and states that we’re interested in visiting.  Given that we both like cold weather climates, there were a number of northern states we wanted to visit, but only so much warmish weather in which to do it.  Should we be up for living on the road again next summer, then we’ll have the chance to hit some of the additional places we’d like to visit (northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, to name a few).
  • Once we had a general sense of our route for the first six months, we divided it into two legs.  Pre-Colorado and Post-Colorado.  The pre-Colorado portion was also supposed to include Oklahoma and New Mexico, but those will be saved for a later day.  Once we had a list of our Pre-Colorado states, we went to our local library and checked out tons of travel books on those states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico).  We both pored through the books, tabbing the towns and sites that looked interesting.  We then went through and compiled lists for each state in a word document.  We divided each state into regions and listed the towns, parks, and sites that looked most interesting to us.  We also added recommendations from friends and any other recommendations we came cross.  Before we left Maryland, this was the extent of our planning.  The only travel books we took were the free AAA books, which are not really great travel  planners but helped us when we’d come across towns we knew nothing about, and Road Food, a great book given to us be even better friends.
  • Now that we are on the road, we have a mapping session just before we enter a new state.  We sit down with the list, our National Geographic atlas, a highlighter, post-it notes, and a pen.  We highlight every town and site that is listed on the map.  We then write down on post-its more detailed lists of information for the towns or cities with several places we’d like to visit.  Once we have a good picture of where everything is located, we start figuring out a general route through the state.  Not every highlighted place makes the cut, but we’re able to use the map to prioritize the areas that have a higher concentration of places we want to visit.
  • Once we have a sense of our route and the places we want to visit, we then look up addresses and directions, if necessary.  We do not travel with a GPS and we only use the data on my phone (our only phone) when we have access to wi-fi or in emergency situations, which is not all that often.  This means that we travel using old-fashioned maps with ample time to get lost and found again.  More on this in a future post.
  • Now that we’re in Colorado, we’re busy reading library books on the second leg of our journey.  My goal is to do most of the mapping that we used to do just before we entered a new state before we leave Colorado.  This should make our travels a little easier down the road.  This type of mapping is best done with an internet connection and a lot of time.  We don’t usually have both at the same time, so my goal is to take the opportunity to do this in the evenings while we’re staying with family.  We just finished mapping out the parts of Colorado that we haven’t yet visited on our recent day trips.  Now I suppose it’s time for me to move on to the other stack of library books I have in front of me for Montana, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest!