Minnesota Road Trip Part III: How to Enjoy a Destination

Since a large portion of our trip to Minnesota from Colorado was the drive (tune in to my Part I and Part II posts if you haven’t already) our time spent in our actually destinations was limited. Our main focus was visiting with our respective families, and not necessarily the sight-seeing or adventure seeking…but that didn’t mean that we didn’t try to do it all anyway.

So how do you make sure that you can actually enjoy your destination after spending so much time in the car, and knowing that you have another long drive ahead of you? My biggest takeaway was that TG and I specifically looked for and found ways to enjoy our drive together. Instead of just “trying to get through it” we looked at it as a way to spend time together that we otherwise wouldn’t have. With busy work schedules we often don’t see each other for several days at a time. This trip was a way to slow down, catch up, and be near each other (in a small car, there is no other choice).

Our foundation was solid, so when we got into the whirlwind of family dinners, lunches with cousins, coffee with grandmas and aunties, and stolen hours of sightseeing we felt good. Even when we were exhausted. The trip was a success.

Being able to enjoy the open road, and being willing to take country roads and- shout out to TG- being able to read a good ole’ paper map when Google maps fails AGAIN definitely helps the miles to go by.

Another tip? Find a way to be active after all of that time spent sitting in the car! Our AirBnB in Duluth was near downtown, but you had to hike up and down the Hill to go anywhere, so we automatically had a workout. We also drove up the north shore to Gooseberry Falls State Park and hiked the falls. It felt so great to get out and move!

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The Secret To Packing Light

I’ve found it, the Secret to Packing Light. Yes, yes, I know I’ve written about it before (see: packing only one outfit and then thrifting the rest), but this time it’s not just about packing fewer clothes. It’s about real minimalism. We’re talking extra-room-in-your-carry-on minimal.

I’m on my way to to Wisconsin (from Denver) for a friend’s wedding at Devil’s Lake. I’ll be kicking it in my home town for a few days, and then driving west to collect TG and camp out at the state park before the wedding. This means that I need clothing and gear for regular wear, a fancy day/night, and camping. I feel I have covered all my bases.

So, are you ready for the secret?

Pack when you are really tired and really not in the mood. You won’t be tempted to take “an extra outfit, just in case”. Got something to keep your face from mummifying? Toothbrush? You’re good. T-shirt and jeans? Done. There’s a few more things, but you get the picture. I must say that walking around the city and the airport with this light luggage has been a breeze.

You’re welcome.

Road Trip Part 2: Taking Turns as Tour Guides

Both TG and I had our time as tour guides for one another on this trip. I think that is a little unique for a road trip: instead of us both in uncharted territory and both of us learning/failing/discovering together, we each spent time as the “guest”. This was a unique dynamic, and one that was new to both of us, I think.

Our first stop was a picturesque little town outside of Minneapolis where TG’s family lives. This place had rows of modest houses with yards full of huge trees and plenty of garden decor. By decor I mean all manner of sports team, animals, gnomes, and family crests. Houses that didn’t feature gorgeous trees instead had a lakefront view. There were the usual fast food restaurants, car dealerships, and big box stores. Around the corner, though, was another adorable home and another handwritten sign for an upcoming rummage sale. This place was the quintessential Midwest environment.

Have you ever had an important meeting after 24 hours with almost no sleep? You know that great flat car hair, that stale smell from clothes worn too long and teeth not brushed, mixed with whatever food and old drinks have been fermenting in the forced air for too long? Yeah, that was how I met TG’s parents. I’m a red blooded human, so of course I was nervous about making a good impression, so the car hair definitely helped. Luckily they are lovely people and made us right at home. Of course TG was sorta already at home, even though this house is not actually his childhood home. Their family dog, Lucy, a shining jewel of a creature, was so happy to see her boy return that she looked like she might knock herself over with her own wagging tail. We showered (at long last), brushed our teeth (such a relief), and napped. Upon waking spent the day juggling coffee, water, and beer.

Like the rest of the trip, this was a whirlwind day. I met lots of family, and even got to kayak on the lake, which was a five minute walk from the house. TG slipped into his family routine effortlessly. It felt like taking a break from life in Hobbiton, to be honest. We got a real night’s sleep, and the next day we left for Duluth and the next leg of the journey!

Road Trip to Minnesota Part 1

A couple of weeks ago TG and I packed up my little Yaris and zoomed off for Minnesota from our respective homes in Colorado. We left around 4 pm and fought our way through evening traffic, and then drove through a long dark night, finally reaching our first destination, just outside Minneapolis, just after dawn. Our trip was compact and full. I loved so many things about that I decided to write several posts on the subject instead of trying to cram everything into one. I think really good travel deserves some meditating afterwards so that your brain has time to pick through and relive good moments. Life is so fast and there is so much stress associated with jobs and transit and expenses; those things that make up “real life”. This space is dedicated to focusing on the things that balance all that crap out.

Our trip was a glorious whirlwind. TG and I split our time between his family’s home outside of Minneapolis, and my family’s annual get-together in Duluth. We bounced from one family introduction to the next and had a gorgeous time reconnecting with everyone. Not to mention that Minnesota is a beautiful state, and a great place to get outside and stretch our legs after a long drive! I took along my little Instax Mini camera, which takes instant pictures and spits them out for you to see and enjoy.

I call this part the Reality of Roadtrips:

Our dive on the way out was definitely more stressful than the way back. For one thing, we were both already tired since TG had spent the day running last minute errands, and I had worked most of a shift. I’ll be honest, TG heroically did most of the driving, but sometime around 3 am I found myself on a very dark road in Iowa wondering how I had gotten myself into this whole situation. I had pretty much finished my bubbly kombucha, and so I reached for the mug of coffee TG has filled at the last gas station. I took a sip. Gak! It tasted like tar. It was all I had. Subsisting on this I continued to drive. A huge blown out tire in the middle of the road appeared and I definitely did not react in time. My poor little Yaris ran right over it and the resulting big bump jolted TG awake. So much for sleep.

Cut to a little while later and I blearily identified eyes shining back at me in the reflection of my headlights. “Oh shit,” I muttered and swerved. It was a coyote, and yes, he got away safe and sound. Not long after that, the rain started. We did end up making it the rest of the wash in one piece, but those hours in the deepest part of night are hard to forget.

There were good parts of the drive too. We listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Should Know. We also have an audio book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon, which kept me company through some of the dullest driving. TG surprised me by stopping by our favorite food truck and getting some delicious burritos for our on-the-road dinner. Neither of us like to dilly dally much, so we were happy to be with each other and take on whatever the trip would throw at us. If a fourteen hours in a small car is a relationship test, then I think we passed with flying colors. After all, we still liked each other when we got out in Minnesota.

Rattlesnakes and Late Night Bike Parades

Yesterday TG and I got up early in order to go for a hike at Dinosaur Ridge. It’s been brutally hot for the past week or so, and we knew that if we wanted any chance of being able to enjoy the great outdoors we had to go early. Even so it was in the high 70’s and climbing when we started at 7:30 am. Dinosaur Ridge is a trail located in Morrison, Colorado, right across from the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater. This lesser known spot is home to a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils and footprints. If you are a geologist, or a geology enthusiast (like TG is) you will also loose your mind over the crazy formations and the history of this part of the Rockies.

It was a pleasantly difficult hike uphill for a short while, and then the trail leveled off. The ground was sandy and we passed clumps of big juniper bushes, aspens, and little cacti. The views were great. A woman on a bike passed us, but otherwise we had the trail to ourselves.

It was on our way back down the trail, back to the parking lots and our cars, that we heard the terrifying dry rattle coming from the side of the trail. We both froze (as I think pretty much all humans are programmed to do) and then TG tugged me backwards and away from the rattlesnake. The snake rose up and stuck it’s black tongue out and rattled it’s tail even harder. I have never come across a rattlesnake in the wild before, but it struck me how naive I had been not have been actively watching for one. TG pointed out that he had been looking out, but it caught him by surprise anyway. Pretty much no power on earth could have made me walk past that thing on the trail, but there was a pretty wide swath of land on either side of the trail, covered by small bushes, and I pointed out that we could just go around the snake. Then TG said something that sent a shiver up my spine.

“Well, they usually travel in pairs.”

I hadn’t heard any other rattling, but then we had probably passed this snake on our way up and not noticed, so there could be a second rattler lurking nearby now. We ended up throwing some rocks into the bushes along the side of the trail, thinking that if there was another snake it would give itself away by rattling in alarm. Nothing happened except that the original snake became even angrier.

So we passed cautiously and then hurried away unharmed. Talk about adrenaline rush.

The day wasn’t exciting enough, though. There’s more. I spent some time that afternoon getting a new tattoo on my arm (photos to come when it’s a little more healed and a little less red and ointment-y). Then a hot hot hot afternoon. Then the sweet relief of sunset and cool air. Then bed, right? Nope! Sometime around 9:30 there was a bicycle parade on the street in front of my building! Hundreds of people riding their bikes, decked out in lights and flag, complete with music, riding through the street. Cars did not even dare to get involved. We were witnessing the Denver Cruisers on their monthly Wednesday night ride through the city. The organization seemed pretty fascinating (check out the link) and I am kind of hoping they pass my way again next month!

Alright, so how was your Wednesday?

The Big Africa Blog

Oh boy. This post is a doozy. While on a strange internet adventure it occurred to me that I have not shared one of my largest writing achievements: my Africa blog. I faithfully recorded my study abroad semester in 2011 in which I spent the latter half of the year in Botswana, Africa, attending University of Botswana. There’s a lot of content, and some of it is in rough shape. Full disclosure- I haven’t read it all the way through in years. But I love it just the same.

Here is the link.

It pretty much covers life for a twenty one year old college student far from home. I had the most glorious hands on experiences with the animals I had always dreamed about (see the cheetah above?). I helped raise an orphan vervet monkey in my spare time. I had days when I couldn’t even deal with leaving my dorm room, let alone getting good grades in classes that sometimes weren’t in English. I had a lovely host family for a week. I swam with a whale shark in the Indian Ocean. I cuddled dogs (against my host family’s wishes). I observed the sun setting over the Okavango Delta and knew that I would never see a sunset more beautiful again. I sang the Fresh Prince of Bel Air song to foreign students around a campfire somewhere in the Kalahari. I cut class so that I could watch ‘Wishbone’ when I felt really homesick. I didn’t see a single meerkat, but I did watch a herd of elephants walk around the vehicle I was in. Who doesn’t want to run through a darkened fish market in Maputo, dodging huge rats? Who doesn’t want to drive through South Africa in the dead of night, fearing annihilation via hitting a wild zebra on the road?

Yeah, there’s a heap of content there. So follow the link above, feel free to skip around, or even just look at the pictures. This blog is far from neat or clean, but it is a heartfelt account of the time I lived so very far from everything that I knew and everything that was familiar. I can remember feeling drained as I tried to recount the things going on around me, but I am so glad that I pushed myself to do it anyway. It’s time I give myself a little credit and go back to see what I put down there.

Summer Reads for Travel Inspiration

Summer is just starting to get underway, and I’ve been stuck inside for almost two weeks with a terribly nasty sinus infection. This has given me plenty of time to read and dream about future travel plans. For anyone else out there who wants to find some fresh pages to explore, here are my recommendations.

1) Suite Venitienne by Sophie Calle

This unusual book of photos is the fascinating result of a photographer who spent her time following strangers and photographing them without their knowing. One day she followed a man, and when she accidentally bumped into him later at a party she decided to follow him all the way to Venice to continue photographing him. The book is full of her black and white photos of Venice and her search for the mystery man. It is fantastically weird and uncomfortable, and the mystery of it all will keep you turning the pages.

2) Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens

This book is the real-life adventure of Mark and Delia Owens who packed up the bare necessities and took off into the trackless expanse of the Kalahari desert in Botswana, Africa to study the wildlife there. With no other humans for hundreds of miles and nothing but desert wilderness surrounding them, this couple become deeply involved with the animals that populate the Kalahari and the delicate ecology there. This book is a thrilling and emotional look at one of the few places of true wilderness left to humans on this planet.

3) No Baggage by Clara Bensen

Clara Bensen had only been dating Jeff for a month when he invited her on a three week trek across Europe, starting in Istanbul. Jeff proposed a trip with no itinerary and no baggage. Clara said yes, and the rest is in the book. This story takes readers on an unpredictable ride through eight countries over twenty one days, all done with absolutely no baggage (they each only brought one outfit to wear) and trusting to the universe to provide them with places to stay and things to do.

Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park: Ain’t Nothin’ Like It

Last weekend we managed to ditch our regular lives and disappear into that fantastic world of campfires, bird song, fresh air, and bear poo. It was my first camping trip of the year and I feel like the summer camping season couldn’t have had a better start. We left Denver early and drove the hour and forty five minutes to RMNP where the line of cars to get in was already frustratingly long. Unlike when we had the whole place to ourselves (on a rainy Wednesday) this sunny Saturday the park was packed! The only open campground in the off season is first come first served, so we were anxious to see if we would even get a site. We shouldn’t have worried though, because most weekend campers were apparently sleeping in and there were plenty of places to choose from. I took the photo below from a meadow across the camp road from us. You can see my little blue car in the center of the foreground, and the background is dominated by Long’s Peak. Incidentally the meadow I was in was full of alllll kinds of poo, but mostly elk and a little bit of bear.

We decided to make Saturday a lazy camp day. T.G strung up a hammock and decided to nap and read a book in the shade of the trees. I had a hard time staying still, so I decided to go for a wander and check out our surroundings. Although the weather had previously promised rain and thunderstorms all weekend we had nothing but sunny weather! This meant plenty of other people to contend with in the park, but I kept trying to remind my crotchety introverted self that it was good that so many people wanted to visit a national park. A very good thing. Besides, we were tourists too, and had no more of a claim on the park than anyone else.

Having a lazy camp day, in my opinion, should definitely involved sitting around with a book and a mug of wine. Also, a hammock. This we did for a few hours. Later in the day we went for a walk through some of the camp loops that are still closed for the season. It turns out that they are all stunning, and with the recent heavy rainfall, numerous ponds had appeared, and all were full of singing frogs.

While sitting in camp we observed the camp life going on around us. The kids next to us argued about stand up comedians. A single guy cooked gourmet food at his site, and a van with Minnesota license plates pulled up and a bunch of college students came spilling out, obviously thrilled to be out of the car. Maybe the most entertaining thing we witnessed (besides T.G’s new bestie Darrel, the firewood guy) was the enormous and oversized camper that pulled in. It was ironically named ‘Solitude’ and was about three times the size of my apartment. The man in the driver seat struggled- and eventually failed- to park it at one of the campsites. It wasn’t for lack of trying though; his wife was “helpfully” yelling instructions at him the whole time. It was a bit sad when poor Solitude finally gave up and drove off.

Just after sundown, in that weird twilight time, we walked through the trees to observe the vast openness of the part of the park we were in. This meadow has a stream winding through it and is enclosed by mountains on all sides. We saw Long’s Peak still illuminated by all the snow in the darkness. Evening birds were calling out. The sounds of minivans and trucks were gone.

We cooked (tofu) brats over the campfire and went to bed not too long after dark. Thanks to my magnificent sleeping bag (I think I probably wrote a love story about my sleeping bag in an earlier camping post) I was cozy and slept pretty well. It did not rain, but a cold wind blew through from time to time. Just before dawn I got up to use the bathroom and enjoyed the early morning peacefulness of the park. My only companions were some mourning doves and a couple of crows.

The next morning we were up early to drink coffee and get started on a long hike. We ate a leisurely breakfast and then packed up. We planned to drive to the trailhead and let someone else take over our campsite.

In December of 2016 I hiked part of the Cub Lake trail and loved it. I was not used to hiking, and that plus incoming snow turned me around before I finished it. This time we were going to hike it all the way through and then some. The trail starts off in the flat land and follows a small stream more or less as you head towards the mountains. In 2012 it was an area that was partially burned by wildfire and the evidence was in the burn scar on the hill and all the charred logs near the trail. We passed ponds and boulder fields, and eventually the trail began to climb. There were a few other groups hiking around us, but for the most part this area of the park felt secluded. At one point, in a woodsy section, a couple of other hikers gestured to us. “Do you know if elk charge?” On the trail right in front of us were about six bull elk casually walking by. They were absolutely enormous! We could smell the animal mixture of sweat and ammonia coming off of them, and see the fine detail of the fuzz on their new antler growth. We proceeded cautiously.

The hike was gorgeous. The halfway point was Cub Lake. We stopped to admire it for a bit, enjoyed the sight of some elk taking advantage of the water, and then headed on. By this point it looked as if some rain might come in, so we were motivated to finish the second part of the hike and get back to the car. We stopped for snacks along the way, but mostly kept moving. The trail now started going back down. I hadn’t realized how much elevation we had gained until we started to descend.

The last part of the hike was level and followed a creek. It was shadier than other parts of the trail and cooler owing to either the oncoming rain or the water, or both. I was pretty beat by the end of it, and glad to see the car at the trailhead. That doesn’t mean I was happy to be leaving RMNP though! I thought many unkind thoughts about the city and the crowds that were descending on my neighborhood for the Cinco de Mayo festival.

This has gone down as one of the best camping trips ever, in my book. Plus it was the first time I have camped in a national park and the whole experience was so much grander. The mountains and wildlife sightings definitely helped with that, of course. It also taught us about what to bring next time (obviously the hammock), what we needed for future use (hello pretty enamel camp mugs that-I’ve-been-holding-back-from-buying-but-now-I-have-a-reason), and what not to bring. I’m eager to go back, but with work getting busy and the summer tourist season approaching I’m not sure when that will be. Until then, I guess we can at least use our sweet annual pass to come back on rainy Wednesdays!

The Day We Had A National Park To Ourselves

The crowds at national parks can be overwhelming, especially when you just want to get on the trail and bypass the touristy stuff. Nobody comes to a place like Rocky Mountain National Park just to sit in their vehicle while long lines of traffic stretch ahead.

It turns out, though, that there is a recipe for having a park all to yourself. It takes one part snow, one part weekday, and one part early morning to create the perfect mixture of calm, quiet, and empty roads. Having left Denver around 6:15 am we made good time to the park, and even beat the park rangers to the entrance! It was cold and the rain had turned to a mixture of sleet and snow, but we were undeterred.

We chose to turn left at the fork in the road and go up first. The roads started to get slick pretty fast as the snow and slush accumulated at the higher altitude. We tramped around briefly in the snow, but quickly decided to drive back down.

The roads were gloriously free of traffic and the park was silent except for the wind and the various bird calls. T.G has been working on learning not only to identify birds by sight, but also by their calls. We’re both novices at recognizing bird species, but when it comes to other animals there was no mistaking the big shaggy creatures clumped around the park. The famous elk of RMNP were out in full force on this day.

Can you spot where I am in this photo?

We got out to explore here and there, but we had been saving our energy mainly for a hike. There are so many trails in the park it can be hard to decide which one to take; however our choice was made easier by the fact that many of the trails with a higher elevation would be socked in with too much snow for us. The trail we ended up choosing was gorgeous. We enjoyed watching the view change from rainy forests with mist rolling over the landscape to silent snowy woods. T.G stopped to try out one of his bird calls on a chickadee, who was confused (I think), but not really fooled. We saw hoof imprints as big as my whole hand. We even lost the trail in the snow for a bit!

After our hike we explored more of the park. It seemed so open and huge! My special gift of summoning moose came into play again, as we saw a cluster of park rangers and a few other tourists (okay, so by this point a few other people had come to the park) pointing at one of the huge animals roaming around by the river.

We wrapped up our day with a quick jaunt over to Bear Lake and then some more elk sightings as we cruised some of the roads crossing the park. We were both pretty tired at this point, and craving fried food and beer. I think a good day of hiking and exploring is not complete without fried food and beer. I am lucky enough to have been to RMNP about half a dozen times, but this trip was definitely one of the best. Any trip is made better by having a companion who is just as excited about adventure as you are, and the rain/snow that deterred many people just made the landscape even more dramatic. We were thrilled by the isolation on the trails and road. I think this day was the perfect recipe for a day in a national park.

*Note: This is a rare photograph of T.G, who only gave his permission for me to post this because of how dark it is. I like it anyway.

Snowy Walks With Big Cats

The sun is up and warming up the air nicely by the time we get up and head outside to explore. By this, I mean that The Guy was shoveling steps and paths, and I was meandering through the snowy woods. The snow was deep enough to creep over the tops of my boots, but I didn’t mind. It was white and powdery, and the only thing that marred it’s perfect surface were the deer tracks that I was following. Here and there a cascade of snow would come down from the tree branches. Birds sang from the branches.  I think they were probably glad to be out in the sun instead of huddling for warmth in the trees. I had wandered a fair distance from The Guy. It would be easy enough for him to find me by following my footprints in the snow when he was done shoveling, but for now I was on my own. I was feeling optimistic, and the stress from work had melted away as I breathed in the fresh mountain air and marveled at the snowy landscape. I felt that peculiar feeling of being watched and I thought of the fresh deer trail I was walking beside. Of course, this was before we heard about the mountain lions.

The day before:

Work was sending me into a downward anxiety spiral and I just couldn’t get away fast enough. It was beginning to snow down in Denver and I figured whatever was happening here was tenfold up in the mountains. The Guy agreed to collect my halfway between my home in Denver and his west, in the mountains. Road conditions were patchy at best, and getting worse. It was a relief when we finally made it up the “hill” and into the house. From inside we could watch the snowfall with metal cups of wine. I essentially spent the evening burrowed under a pile of blankets, not unlike a hibernating bear (except instead of stocking up on berries and fish for the winter, I stocked up on wine, and instead of winter it was April).

The next morning we were up early, per usual. We waited just long enough for the sun to come up before we were out exploring. I wandered through the snow (see above) and The Guy made himself useful. He did find me eventually, and together we hiked up to the little trail that we like to amble along. He made time to stop and laugh as a tree dumped some of it’s snow load down the collar of my jacket. I made time to stop and taste the snow. We took in the sun, the birds, and the fresh air. It was lovely. Then we got back to house. I don’t think we had been inside for more than fifteen minutes before The Guy received a text from a neighbor:

“Just wanted to let you know that I saw a couple of mountain lions on your property when I drove by earlier.”

There, just like that, everything we had done was thrown into sharp relief. The Guy going outside alone the night before to toss wood in the boiler. My solitary wander through the woods. Our amble along a trail which is usually heavily trafficked by local wildlife. The feeling of being watched.

I guess all you can do is shrug and keep a weather eye out for big ole’ cat turds on the trail. It’s just the way it goes.