This. This is Why We Travel!

Van Sporting His Junior Ranger Badge on the Steps of a Cabin at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana

Van Sporting His Junior Ranger Badge on the Steps of a Cabin at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana

As I look back at our last five months on the road, I realize that this has been one of the absolute best experiences of my life.  There are things that can be difficult about living on the road, but it is all so worth it.  And the things that started off as difficult have often become routine and easy.  Some of my favorite aspects of our travels so far:

  • I am learning every day.  And I’m learning new things – about the weather, geology, history, about small towns and different cultures, about my limits and my abilities, about my family and the family of plants and animals that share our home.  This is undeniably one of the best things about this trip and something that I can easily translate into life off the road.  Traveling the way we do makes this automatic, but with enough forethought and the right priorities, this is something we can continue to do once we’ve found a place to call home.
  • Living outside.  Our default is being outside.  On certain days, we do get inside for more than a couple of minutes, but more days than not, we’re outside the entire day and night.  There is no better way to learn about nature and get in touch with the out-of-doors than to simply live in it.
  • Spending time with my family.  I get to spend every day, every single day, with my son and husband.  While there are moments that I’d love to get away and spend an evening by myself or with a friend, this is rare.  I am so, so lucky to have this time to spend with Van and Alan.  And not just any time, but time exploring, learning new things, and discovering our capabilities.  This is so different from what we were used to – brief time together in the evening before I went back to work after Van went to bed and time together on the weekend, often to run errands.  These are the most important people in the world to me – I want more than token moments with them.
  • Living with less.  I’ve mentioned this in past posts, but this bears repeating.  This type of traveling has been a great education in true needs.  We really need so little, and living with less makes life much simpler and frees up time, money, and effort to focus on the important things in life – and not stuff.  Because that is all it really is – stuff.  Stuff that clogs our time and robs us of the energy to devote to the things that would really bring us lasting joy.
  • Freedom.  We have the freedom to see what we want to see, go where we want to go, and stop and stay a while when we’re so inclined.  We’re not on any hard and fast timeline, which makes route planning much more relaxing and enables us to really enjoy the places we are since we don’t have to rush away to something else before a flight, a work day, or another obligation.  This freedom is tempered by finances, but we’re lucky that we tend to prefer the cheap or free things anyways.
  • Hiking frequently.  I love to hike – love it.  We tried to do it as much as we could when we lived in the DC area, but unfortunately, with work and our living locations, it was not nearly as often as we would have liked.  Now we get to hike all the time.  It’s impractical to plan to hike every day given that want to see and do a diversity of things, but hiking frequently is a definite must and makes me feel so much healthier and happier.  I’ve always known that the recipe of a happier Stacey is simple – more time outdoors and more time hiking.  Well, given the amount of both I’ve had lately, it’s no wonder that I’ve been so happy.

But, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and kittens.  There are challenges and situations that make me want to pack it in from time to time.  Living outside is awesome – most of the time.  But when it’s wet and chilly for days on in, it’s not so fun.  It’s also not so fun when it’s hot, hot, hot with no shade in sight for days at a time.  It’s in moments like these where I truly understand why shelter is a basic human need and I appreciate the comfort and security of four walls and a roof.  And while living with less has been a great education and something I intend to continue, I am so, so excited to live with a real kitchen again.  And a real bathroom, with running water and a bathtub.

While the vast, vast majority of folks we’ve encountered have been lovely and friendly, one run-in with a creepy guy and his pit bull over which he had zero control was enough to send my mind to all the places it shouldn’t go if we want to continue traveling.  Laying in the tent and focusing on how vulnerable we are is less than productive.  Never mind that with vulnerability comes growth, vulnerability can also breed anxiety, discontent, and sleepless nights.

But even after some sleepless nights, whether caused by the puddle developing under our tent or a creepster, we inevitably find ourselves in a brand new situation, look at each other, and share our most frequent refrain, “This. This is why we travel!”  We say it frequently enough to know that this is the right path for us right now.  Here’s to five months on the road and more to come.  How many more?  Stay tuned…

Salida, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods

We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a significant amount of family time over the past month and a half.  Much of that time has been spent around the dinner table or in the backyard, but we’ve also taken weekly family day trips with Alan’s parents, Carole and Bijan.  On one of our first weekends in Colorado, Alan, Van, Carole and I set out for a day trip to the beautiful mountain town of Salida, Colorado.  The drive took us just under three hours and we were treated to spectacular mountain views along the way.  Salida is wonderfully situated along the Arkansas River in a large valley with the towering Rockies all around.  I imagine that its distance from the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas keeps it from being overdeveloped, because this is certainly an ideal place to visit or call home.  We spent the morning poking around the streets and getting a feel for the place.  We had a fabulous lunch at Laughing Ladies, which was not nearly as crowded as it should have been given the quality of the food.   I couldn’t get over the view of the mountains around every corner.  I clearly hadn’t been in Colorado too long at that point!

Downtown Salida

Downtown Salida

On our way home from Salida, I convinced Alan to take a detour to the St. Elmo ghost town.  The ghost town was excellent fun to wander around, but even better was the route to town. About fifteen miles north of Salida, we turned left and drove another fifteen miles to reach the ghost town.  About half the road was paved, but it was all spectacular.  That stretch of road was (up to that point) the most beautiful stretch we’ve driven during this entire trip.  The chalk cliffs were on the north side of the road, Mount Princeton was ahead, and a creek and campgrounds that made me jealous we weren’t staying overnight were along the south side of the road.

St. Elmo Ghost Town

St. Elmo Ghost Town

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One of many spectacular views on our drive to the St. Elmo Ghost Town

We finished our day trip with a short jaunt through the river town of Buena Vista (apparently pronounced Boona Vista by locals).  This town is definitely in the throes of being discovered, especially by the numerous kayakers and rafters we saw around town.  Not surprising given its setting.

The following weekend, we all piled back in the car (this time with Bijan) and drove south to Colorado Springs.  Our first destination was the aptly named Garden of the Gods.  This is a place I’ve always wanted to see and was so lucky to visit on a gorgeous late-spring day.  We spent most of our time in the central garden trails area, but if you wanted to get away from the crowds, this is easily doable by heading out on any of the number of trails that are not in the main, developed area.  Van had a blast watching the climbers and running around like a wild man when he was through with being toted around in his stroller.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

I think we found a new career for Van - baby fashion model!

I think we found a new career for Van – baby fashion model!

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly-colored company in Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly colored company in Garden of the Gods

This is so much fun!!

This is so much fun!!

After a lunch of pizza and calzones, we made our way to the road to Pikes Peak.  The drive is a bit different from the drive to Mt. Evans.  It’s a lot more expensive ($40 for all of us vs. $3 or free with a National Parks Pass at Mt. Evans), has many more signs warning drivers to have a full tank of gas and to use low gears when descending the mountain, and is wider and generally a little less nerve-wracking.  That being said, the drive up (and down) was fantastic, and the two cars we saw being towed down the mountain reinforced why there is that much signage  about how to drive properly up and down a mountain.  Clearly this road sees a bit more traffic than the Mt. Evans route.  The views from the top also could not be more different from the views atop Mt. Evans.  Instead of being right in the midst of the mountains, Pikes Peak is set off, which gives you a broad and unique view of the Rockies and the plains.  Instead of feeling like I was in the mountains, I felt like I could see forever.  Both pretty cool feelings to have!

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak

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

Northwest Arkansas

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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.

48th State

We picked up our rental van last week, packed it full of everything from our sad, broken van in Memphis, and traveled west towards the Ozarks.  After our third night here, I’m in love.  I had high expectations – but they have been exceeded at every turn.  It’s also been wonderful to focus on something other than our van troubles.  My parents flew in for the week to spend time with their grandson (and us), so we’ve been able to relax and enjoy time with family.

We spent our first night at a beautiful bed and breakfast in Mountain Home headed southwest to the upper Buffalo River for our next two nights, and are now in Branson, Missouri for the night.  We’ll be returning to Arkansas for the last two nights of my family’s visit – leaving for Eureka Springs in the morning.  We’ve seen eagles nesting in the wild, elk, a gorgeous bluebird, and my mother, husband and son spotted a baby woodpecker yesterday.  Between that and all of the armadillo roadkill, we’ve seen quite a bit of wildlife.  But nothing has topped the Buffalo River, the first national river.  I had heard it was beautiful, but I was unprepared for the sheer beauty of the setting, the towering bluffs, and the clear turquoise water.  My father and I were lucky to get away and float down about eight miles of the river yesterday, with a side hike to a towering waterfall.  An almost perfect day (it would have been perfect if Alan had been able to join us)!

And now, I can update the list of states I’ve visited, spent time in, and (at a bare minimum) spent the night in.  Arkansas was my 48th state!  We were planning to visit what would have been my 49th state next week, but since we need to speed to Colorado and return the rental van, Oklahoma will have to wait.  And Hawaii will make a great trip at some point in the future to celebrate traveling to all 50 states.

I know you’re probably wondering where the photos are after I’ve written so much about the beauty of this area.  Once we have a bit more down time in the next week or so, I’ll be sure the post some photos from our time here.