Stop 18: Schnitzelburg – Louisville, Kentucky (a reflection from both of us)

Thoughtful eloquence from Sarah:

For the first time in a month, I slept in my own bed, cuddled up to my cat and dog, showered in my own shower, brushed my teeth in my own sink, drank coffee in my own kitchen, and used my own toilet. It was quite refreshing!

And you might be wanting to ask, so I’ll tell you. Yes, yes—it’s a strange adjustment now to be back. I already feel like I’m ready for the Next Big Thing. I’m waiting for something to happen or I’m waiting for our next adventure. I’m terribly, immovably sad that it’s all over, and now all we have are the memories (which, honestly, aren’t too shabby). In the past four weeks, I had gotten used to waking up with the sun, looking over at Bryan as he blinked awake in our tent, taking that first breath of fresh air as we drank our coffee overlooking placid mountain lakes, steep red canyons, and morning light filtering through the world’s forests. It’s hard to bring myself back to the reality I knew before these moments, before I knew something like this was possible.

While we were on the road, we often talked and daydreamed about what life would be like in the various places. We’d repeat the phrase “We live here!” (a phrase our dog Kitty says to us all the time to remind us that she lives in our house). We’d look at the local high schools as we drove by and think, “What if Bryan taught here?” And I’d imagine working at the various national parks (what if were giving this tree talk about tannins at Muir Woods instead of Ranger Daniel?). It was fun to think about who we were when we met, who we are now, and who we might become.

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Contemplating the next step. Lone Pine, California.

Before we left on our trip, my sister-in-law Emily asked what I was most looking forward to about the trip. I said I was most looking forward to being with Bryan for a full month without interruptions like household chores, work, and other life things. Bryan and I met while we were in college, arguably the most fun time of your life because your only responsibilities are to yourself as a student, to your fellow classmates and teachers as a member of university life, and to your part-time job that paid just enough for rent, bowling, car insurance, and cheap bars. We spent our first eight years pursuing our undergraduate and graduate degrees, so we were accustomed to spending summers together. I was looking forward to recapturing that feeling, seizing another summer with Bryan. And, boy howdy, we did just that.

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Painted Desert, Arizona.

Which is why is has been a difficult readjustment to “normal” life. We woke up. Bryan’s watching sports on our TV. We’re having coffee. I’m doing laundry and cleaning the house. Kitty goes out, takes a nap. John Denver begs for food, takes a nap. We will probably go out to eat together later. Then we’ll both go back to work tomorrow. We’ll come home, have dinner, watch Netflix, and see each other for about four hours before we go to bed to wake up and repeat. Ho hum.

Yet, there’s another thing. While we were on the road, I learned I would be part of the Carnegie Center’s Kentucky Great Writers series, which is, as they say, achievement unlocked. I have been able to achieve many dreams as a writer: an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, collaborative artist residency with my sister through the Spring Creek Project at Oregon State University, my first book of poetry with Airlie Press, and so much more. Before we left, Bryan learned he’d been selected for two new classes he’d wanted to teach at his school. He brings with him a communications and English background from Eastern Kentucky University (where we met), and he’s an excellent writer in his own regard, so this will be a great fit for him. He’s also been voted by South Oldham High School students as a Most Influential Teacher two out of the six years he’s taught high school, teaches two AP courses, sponsors the academic team, student newspaper, and gay-straight alliance, and serves as English department manager. And these are just to name a few.

 

This is all to say that after I shed a few tears in the shower this morning over the end of our trip, I also sat down next to Bryan to share coffee. There isn’t an “other” reality in which we travel vs. the one in which we live together in our house. This is our home, which we built together during these past ten years of marriage and fourteen years of being together. We are blessed enough to have made choices along the way, chosen and supported each other in those choices, and had the support of friends and family to be living lives together doing what we love—and loving each other.

There are many things we didn’t get to see on our trip, and we’ve already begun dreaming about our next big trip. For instance, I was really looking forward to seeing pitchblack nights gazing at the Milky Way in dark sky parks, but the waxing, full, and waning moon during our four weeks had other plans. The feeling of slight disappointment abated, though, when I saw Yosemite Valley awash in full-moon light and watched a glowing gibbous rise above a Grand Canyon sunset. I’m grateful for colleagues, friends, and family who made this journey—all of it—possible, and I look forward to where we go next, even if it is just The Post, which is our favorite place in the city, because we’ll be having dinner with each other and with friends.

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At our spot, The Post – 2017

Thanks for reading!

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Bryan’s less eloquent take:

In some ways, it feels disappointing to be back at home. The sense that the trip is now in the past, only existing in our memories and thousands of images and hours of video, is a bit sad. Planning this trip took us over a year, and we spent the better part of the last six months in edgy anticipation. But the trip’s ending allows for some reflection on the experience, and I’ll take a few minutes to consider everything that we did over the past month.

I am amazed at the diversity of the American landscape and the people we encountered along the way. Not only do Americans come in so many different languages, religions, and skin colors, people from all over the world come to the United States to see our beautiful public lands. I was so impressed with the number of languages I heard in every single national park we visited. These places are assets to the people of our planet, not just citizens of our country. People travel the world to see the cliffs of Yosemite, the massive expanse of the Grand Canyon, the waves of the Pacific at Point Reyes, the craggy peaks of the Rockies, and the savage wasteland of Death Valley. The public lands we visited are the most amazing places I have ever seen. Our world would be a greatly diminished place if these places were spoiled by further development. It does wonders for a person’s soul to be surrounded by such masterworks of nature.

I would recommend every couple to do something like this. For weeks, it was just us and a big, weird, unknown territory. It was the perfect way to celebrate the past 14 years of being together. We slept outside many nights, saw the bright lights of a desert sky and the flashing bright spots of Las Vegas, watched sunsets at beaches and canyons (Grand and otherwise), hiked miles into wilderness, drove dramatic scenic roads through glacial valleys, climbed to the top of waterfalls, communed with the world’s oldest, tallest, and biggest trees, dipped our toes in the Pacific and swam in the Atlantic, and generally had the best time ever. And Sarah did 99.9% of the driving. I think I moved the car once. 

 

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Stop 17: Holden Beach, North Carolina

Holden Beach is one of our favorite places on earth. It is quiet, uncrowded, spacious, friendly, and slow. My family has been vacationing here since before I was born, and I spent two weeks here every summer for many years, from 1983-2007, only missing a handful of years when I was in college. Holden Beach never fails to bring me happiness. There is something fulfilling about being so near the sea.

I first brought Sarah here in 2005, while my grandparents, who “discovered” this place for our family many years ago, were taking their annual month-long vacation in the fall. And in 2012, we first came here as an annual destination with just my parents, sister, and her husband and kids. We’ve been back every year since (we were also here this past December and will be back this October).

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L-R: Nathan, Pierce, Emily, Mom, Dad, Me, Sarah, Ford

This was a different kind of beach trip, though. Instead of being our only vacation this summer, it marked the end of our epic road trip—a week of staying in one place after three weeks of cross-country travel. We spent most of our time playing with our nephews, splashing around in the pool and the ocean, reading books, buying and eating fresh seafood, drinking beer, and fishing. Sarah even managed to reel in two spots (a type of croaker) at once— and on her first cast. And I even managed to squeeze in two rounds of golf with my dad and brother-in-law, using a new set of clubs, courtesy of my parents.

It was a beautiful week, but we are ready to get back home! Mostly to see our dog and cat, but it will also be nice to sleep in our own bed and be in our own home again. A month is a long time to be away, but it was worth every second. It’s hard to believe that this trip we had spent well over a year planning is finally coming to an end.

Next stop: Schnitzelburg – Louisville, Kentucky

 

Stops 15 and 16: Memphis, Tennessee – Madison, Georgia

For one night, Oklahoma City was the most luxurious town in the world. I am sure the posh $500 a night hotel room that we paid $99 for had something to do with that. We certainly lived it up in our short time there, feeling like we were VIPs. After our satisfying room service breakfast and espressos, we headed east to Memphis, “Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks,” as David Byrne would say.

Our host in Memphis was our friend, Dr. Amber Slaven, a classmate of Sarah’s from her graduate work at WKU. One of the great things about this trip has been encountering generosity and hospitality from all sorts of people, and it was nice to see an old friend. We didn’t have a lot of time to hang out in Memphis, but we did want to do something “Memphisy,” so Amber took us to the perfect spot, a BBQ joint called A&R. It was a shabby, rundown building on Elvis Presley Boulevard with metal grates over the windows and an anthropomorphic hog on its sign. The food, however, was delicious. We left Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for a future visit, and in the morning headed east to our next destination.

We spent the next night in an old cabin on an alpaca farm just east of Atlanta, Georgia near a town called Madison. Our quarters were rustic and comfortable, and we slept with the windows open and enjoyed the night air. Tomorrow, we’d head to Holden Beach, North Carolina, joining my family. We have essentially shared the last three weeks’ experiences together, and now we’d be in a much different environment!

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From a tiny rustic cabin to this. But I think we can handle a week here…

But it will be nice to have six days on the coast—we’ve been moving nonstop for the past three weeks. I’ll have just one or two more posts. Thanks for following our journey.

Stop 14: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma via Amarillo, Texas

Our route eastward from Tijeras, New Mexico on Interstate 40 brought us right through Amarillo, Texas. To one passing through at 80 miles per hour, it might not seem to be a place of intrigue. And despite being the “Helium Capital of the World,” I never would have thought much of Amarillo. But 12 years ago, that all changed.

In the summer of 2006, Sarah and I were not together. We met in August of 2004, so this separation was a momentous change for both of us. She was off in California, working at a winery. I was a line cook at Arlington in Richmond, Kentucky. I started emailing her. Texting her. Calling her. We started talking again. I told her I was going to come to California and bring her back to Kentucky. In short, what ended up happening was we both rented cars (I was under 25 and could not legally rent a car, but that’s another story; Sarah was, too, but California has different laws) and planned to meet at what seemed like a midway point: Amarillo, Texas. Suffice to say, this place looms large in our legend.

We reunited on October 7, 2006 in Amarillo, Texas. I booked a room at the I-40 Motel 6 (I was 24 and broke). I got there first, and Sarah arrived a few hours later. We slept for about 7 hours—both of us had driven non-stop for over 17 hours or something. When we woke up, we drove around looking for a restaurant. We found Blue Sky. I won’t drone on and on about their amazing burgers (get the green chiles with it) and fried jalapeno rings (fresh peppers = more heat), but I will say it was the site of our first meal as a reunited couple. Even without the sentimental value, it is insanely good. If you are ever passing through Amarillo and you are in any way feeling a bit hungry, you must go to Blue Sky. To do otherwise would be the wrong move.

Fueled up on delicious food and nostalgia, we headed to Oklahoma City. We’re staying at the 21c Museum Hotel. My wonderful sister, Emily, works for the corporate arm of 21c, and she booked us a room that is bigger than our house. Seriously.

We toured the exhibits (much of which was hung by our friend, Marcus, who also works for 21c), had a cocktail (or two) at the bar, and Sarah had a Swedish massage at the spa. While she was out, a room service tray appeared at the door—champagne and salted caramel turtles, courtesy of Emily, I’m sure (shoo-in for Sister of the Year). It was a bit surreal living in such luxury after spending so many nights in a tent, or a conventional hotel room. But I wish we could stay more than one night—the best part of staying in a nice hotel is when you don’t have to leave the next day.

Tomorrow: breakfast at Mary Eddy’s, the hotel restaurant (dinner there tonight!) and then we head to Memphis, where we’re staying with Amber, a fellow school teacher and folk studies friend from the Bowling Green days.

Thanks for reading.

Next stop: Memphis, Tennessee

Detour Flashback: Highway 1, California (near Garrapata State Park)

 

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Garrpata State Park, California

I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of the beautiful sights along Highway 1 in California. On our way to Las Vegas from Monterey, we took a brief side trip south on Highway 1. We picked up some coffee in Pacifica, and I tried to eat a delicious Mexican pastry I’d bought the previous night in Berkeley. It was delicious (think giant cannoli with a delicious custard inside), but I ended up with powdered sugar all over my pants.

We pulled over a few times to look at the coast. Dramatic cliffs, waves smashing into rocks, vibrant hillsides covered with wildflowers, cool tidepools, and bunnies. Bunnies everywhere.

Here are a few photos from this little detour. I just realized my photos have all recently acquired a black smudge in the top right corner of each frame, and after cleaning my lens, it persists. I think they still look pretty good, though. I hope you enjoy.

One more post tonight from Oklahoma City, then off to Memphis.

Stop 13: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico

Stop 13: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico

Today’s drive was from the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park to Tijeras, New Mexico, just off Route 66 east of Albuquerque. We started the morning at Point Imperial—the photos were in the previous post—and started the long drive toward Albuquerque, former home of Walter White.

On the way, we made a stop at Petrified Forest National Park. The process that turned this wood into various-colored quartz is a long one—these trees were already fossilized when dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex were walking the earth. What was most striking about the trees is that you can see the pattern of the tree’s bark, and the circular structure of the tree’s rings. We took in a few vantage points and drove up to the Painted Desert to hop back on Interstate 40. The badlands of this part of the country have such a complex beauty—the harshness of the landscape belies the diversity of the life that finds a way to exist there.

We stopped for lunch in Gallup, New Mexico at a weird old joint called El Rancho after Sarah repeatedly pointed out the billboards. It is an old hotel/restaurant built by D.W. Griffith’s brother and originally opened in 1937. It is funky and cool. We ordered meals called the Leo Carillo (tacos) and the Anthony Quinn (chili, green or red).

We had planned to stop by the Petroglyph National Monument, an urban park on the west side of Albuquerque featuring thousands of ancient petroglyphs, but it closed at 4:30 and we got to town at 5:18. We found a grocery and headed to our lodging for the night in Tijeras. We stayed at a treehouse (of sorts), complete with a kitchen, queen bed, and a bathroom. It was nice to sleep in the desert air with sprigs of lavender under our pillows.

Next stop: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Stop 12: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

We did not leave Las Vegas until we had visited the In-N-Out Burger location and ate burgers for breakfast. Our road to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim would take us back to southwest Utah, so we decided to make a quick detour to see the Dinosaur Discovery Center in St. George.

 

At this site in 2000, the property owner was leveling a hill on his property when he uncovered hundreds of fossilized dinosaur tracks. It is a major find, and the family set aside the land for scientific and educational purposes. The site charges a modest $6 entry fee and allows visitors to get up close to the tracks, which are preserved forever in giant sandstone slabs. St. George, in prehistoric times, sat on the cusp of a big lake that made the preservation of the tracks possible. We saw tracks from dinosaurs walking, running, swimming, and even sitting. It was pretty cool. 30 minutes later, we were back on the road and almost passed by another In-N-Out Burger, but I loudly protested that it would likely be our last chance, so we stopped in again.

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Fossilized dinosaur track at Johnson Farm

We entered Grand Canyon National Park through the North Rim entrance, which is much less crowded and sits at a higher elevation, making the temperatures a bit cooler than the South Rim. We saw a herd of bison a few miles from the park entrance, which was a first for us. Our campsite was about 25 yards from the rim of Transept Canyon, a magnificent side canyon. We set up camp and drove out to the Walhalla Plateau for some sightseeing. We had heard Cape Royal is an outstanding place to watch the sunset, so we made the 23-mile drive out, found a comfortable vantage point, and sat and watched the sunlight play with the colors of the canyon on the east side of Cape Royal. It was stunning. The Grand Canyon is a place you have to see to grasp. It is so vast and immense, and it makes every other canyon I’ve seen seem small.

The next morning, we woke up early and drove to Point Imperial, the highest vantage point in the entire park. It sits about 8800 feet above the canyon floor. To put things in perspective, from this point on the canyon rim the Colorado River, which carves the canyon, is about 11 km away. It was a beautiful way to start our day. Even though our time at Grand Canyon National Park was short, it is a place that quickly inspires awe.

Next stop: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico