Onward and Upward.  Very, Very Upward.

Original Post: July 24, 2015

We’re up at 5:30 and on the road by 6, but not without first appreciating the views that early morning Kansas plains have to offer.  Deer in the tall grasses, pheasants calling unseen, and the golden sun rising over the horizon.

We decide to stop for gas early in the trip, since we’re low and we want to make sure we get a full day of driving as long as we can.  What’s this?  Oh, gas at the next exit.  So, off we go, but there’s no gas station in sight.  Instead, we drive two miles down the road to a “town” that wasn’t yet awake.  Though the sign in the window proclaims it to be open, it’s quite obvious the gas station is not.  And given the other sign they’ve posted, I think I’ll pass on the hospitality offered in this town anyway…

No need for me to guess, I’ve no need to be here, thanks!

We eventually do fill the gas tank and I am especially glad to be on the road to Colorado.  At the very least, it has to be cooler, right?  It was a long drive, longer than we expected, coupled with an extra 1-hour delay in Denver.  Denver…what’s that smell?  As we sit in traffic, waiting to get back on our way, we realize that we’re smelling…wait…could that be what we think it is?  Yes, pot.  Hey man, a mellow traffic jam is the best kind, I suppose.  At least the road rage will be kept to a minimum.

When I planned this particular leg of the journey, I noticed that the roads we’d chosen happened to be marked with “Closed in Winter” warnings on the maps.  But, hey, we were journeying in the very middle of summer.  Surely the roads would be fine.  No, it’s true that we didn’t encounter any snow or ice on the road.  But, we did encounter roads only 1 1/2 lanes wide with more hairpins than any elegant bridal up-do.  

Remember back on Day 2 when I said I wasn’t afraid of heights?  At this particular point in my life, I seriously began to reconsider.  At one time in the drive, Nate pulled off to one side (where there actually was a small side…) and pointed my camera straight down the ravine below.  The result was this:

And it doesn’t nearly do it justice.  I won’t lie.  During the time we were pulled over, my heart actually might have tried to leap out of my chest.  (Probably just trying to cling to the road in case the rest of me went tumbling below with the car and all of our belongings.)  I am not afraid of heights, but I’ll fully admit to having a healthy fear of landslides and could only too clearly picture our car slipping off the shoulder and into the empty space below.  

You can image my relief, then, when Nate pulled the car back on the road and we resumed our drive.  When we finally reached the summit at 11,318 feet we had to pull over one more time.  Why?  To do this, naturally:

Who doesn’t want to throw a snowball in June?  By the time we are on our way down the other side, we’re happy for an excuse to stop at a rest stop and trailhead not only to use the rest rooms, but also to check out the ice cold stream flowing with impressive turbulence just off the trail. Naturally Nate can’t resist and he throws in a line.  He catches two cutthroat trout, but both make it off the line before he can reel them in.  A disappointment, but then, he hadn’t really expected to catch anything at all at a rest stop.

As we walk back to the car, the one thing that strikes me as odd is a slight dizzy feeling that I can’t seem to shake.  Before we’d left, a coworker had asked me if I had ever suffered from altitude sickness and up until that point, it hadn’t even been something I’d thought about.  I laughed it off, thinking it sounded ridiculous.  “I’m not even leaving the country!” I’d thought.  But, after she’d brought it up, of course, I did a little research on it to familiarize myself with the symptoms…you know…just in case (Hint: Read – “to add to my repertoire of things about which to worry”).  Now, as I fought a funny lightheadedness, I realized it might actual be a real threat after all!

Our home away from home.

Thankfully, dizziness was the only symptom I experienced in the Rockies.  We camped at the Silver Queen Campground in the White River National Forest near the Maroon Bells Recreation Area.  The campsite, our first true tenting experience on this trip, was perfect.  Gorgeous tall aspens and reed-like grasses made the campground.  The only downside – bear boxes!  Yikes, that meant we were really in bear country now (black bears, anyway). I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you that I made sure every last smelly, aromatic, scented item in our car or on our person ended up in that box.  According to the brochures, bears find the scent of soap, deodorant, detergent, and many other odd things attractive.  They’ll come around to investigate dish soap just as quickly as they will for a cooked ham.  (Well, I didn’t actually test that one.  It’s entirely possible they’ll move a little faster for a juicy ham, but I took the brochure’s word for it and stashed everything smelly into that big metal box, regardless!)

After setting up camp, we debated just calling it a night, but we were both too excited to actually relax.  So…off to Maroon Lake for some stunning views of the Maroon Bells and the amazingly clear waters of the lake.  Nate threw on a pair of waders and was in the lake without even having to be asked if that’s what he wanted to do.  He caught (and actually reeled in) his first cutthroat trout.  Though the fish here are small, they are native to the area and brilliant in color…which kind of makes sense because just about everything is brilliant in color.  It’s an amazing view and breathtaking (literally – remember the altitude involved).

When we finally get back to our campsite and climb into our sleeping bags, we’re surprised to learn that at 9:30 pm, it’s still as bright as 5 pm back home.  How is this possible?  It seemed to take forever to finally get dark.  We’re up early (and several times during the night to use the bathroom – high altitudes = peeing a lot) and at 5 am we decide on one more trip to the lake to see the sunrise before we go.

Getting up early sure does have its benefits.  Not only are we treated to an amazing sunrise on the peaks above, but we’ve also gotten to see our first elk, mule deer, marmots, and grouse.  I’d call that a successful Rocky Mountain trip.

Next destination?  Funny you should ask.  We actually have two in mind for Day 5 – Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon.  It promises to be another long day, but I guess they all are when you get up at 5 am.  I just looked forward to finding a lower altitude where I didn’t have to pee so often.

Beautiful water. Beautiful fish.

19 States in 22 Days

Original Post: July 17, 2015

The original plan was 22 states in 22 days, but who’s counting?  

I have wanted to travel cross-country for almost as long as I can remember.  I began formulating an actual “road plan” when I was 18 and had I done it the summer I turned 19 as I’d originally planned, gas would have been a mere $0.88 a gallon instead of the $2.70 – $4.20 a gallon it was this summer.  But hindsight is always 20/20.  On the upside,  digital photography didn’t exist back then which means — I would have spent more money on film in 1998 than I spent on fuel a few weeks ago.  I guess it all has a way of evening out.

Part of the reason for my longing to embark on this crazy road trip had to do with my love of photography.  I love just about all photography, but there’s a special place in my heart for landscape photography.  Though there is an art to nature that cannot possibly be experienced aside from being immersed directly within it, good landscape photography is a close second.  Where else can you experience the immensity of the El Capitan or appreciate the subtly changing light as the sun rises over the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon?

Not a day goes by where I don’t view a scene on my way to or from work and frame it out exactly as I’d shoot it in the camera of my mind.  Rarely do I have an actual camera in hand.  So to plan a trip that was entirely based on my desire to photograph the country was akin to planning a trip to heaven.

“Are you insane?” I heard numerous times from different friends and family members.  “Do you know how many hours you’ll be sitting in a car…just…driving??”

Yes, in fact.  I did.  135 according to my Excel spreadsheet.  (Yes, Excel.  You didn’t think you could plan a trip like this in three weeks time without a little bit of planning, did you?) 

Generally speaking, people had one of two reactions when I showed them my spreadsheet.  I either got a breathless “Wow! I’m so impressed,” or the dubious eyebrow raise with a “Better you than me.”  

I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  In fact, even my husband doubted the wisdom of so much driving in so little time. When would we have time to do anything or see anything?  Would we hate each other after so many hours with no other company?  I was convinced we’d either end up spiritually bonded on a new level…or divorced.  Only time would tell.  “Plus,” I’d told him, “the entire schedule is able to be changed at any time.  It’s OUR time and we can do whatever we want with it!  If we decide to scrap a campground and lose $20, it’s not the end of the world.”  Little did I know how soon I’d have to eat my words.

So when the big day was just about here, I was more than a little crushed when the remnants of a hurricane were moving through Texas and into the midwest, scheduled to hit Lexington, Kentucky, just as we were supposed to be setting up our first campsite.  This was NOT the way things were supposed to go.  I wasn’t supposed to have to change plans on the very first night!  When I drew up the schedule, I figured we’d probably end up sleeping in our car at least one night.  I just never bet on it being the very first one.

“We can’t very well set up a tent in an already flooded campground,” I told Nate the day before we were to leave.  I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that whether I liked it or not, my very outlook on the trip was being challenged by forces greater than I.  

At 10 pm the night before we would leave, we scrapped Kentucky and made plans to head to Ohio, staying well north of the majority of the storm, and visiting Nate’s family on our way westward.  Despite the visit, I wanted to pout.  It didn’t feel like day one of a monumental vacation.  It felt like we were going where we’d already gone a dozen times before.  For this day at least, I felt like a nine year old who wanted nothing more than to sulk at the fact that’d I’be been served pistachio ice cream when I’d ordered mint chocolate chip.  Still green?  Yes.  But not the same.

But, like all things, this too shall pass.  And it did.  I could live with the fact that we wouldn’t be visiting Maryland (been there), West Virginia (seen it), or Kentucky (haven’t seen it, but I’ve done Tennessee and isn’t that close enough?).  By day two, we were ready to catch up and get back on schedule.  But that’s a post for another day!

Yep, that’s a year’s worth of planning.  If anyone knew how many hours in the car I was going to sit, it was me.