Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

Window Trail, Arches National Park

Listening to: Courtney Barnett, Live at Newport Folk Festival

As this adventure took shape and became a reality, there was one place that Jess definitely wanted to go to: Moab, Utah. I had never heard of Moab but I was obviously along for the ride. Driving from the Southwest corner of Utah, to the Eastern border of the state was a stunner in and of itself. The twists and turns of large highways are nestled in between large red-faced mountains and canyon drop offs. With multiple vista viewpoints along the road, we got to stop along the way a few times to stretch our legs and take in the land we were driving through. The approach to Moab is flat and straight with mountains in the distance, reminiscent of the drive into the Badlands, your excitement sort of bubbles up in anticipation. Following a bend in the road, suddenly you are staring at large red cliffs of natural sandstone. Passing by the entrance to the park we continued on the road, passed through the downtown of Moab, and arrived at our next home base, Moab KOA.

Up until this point, I had never stayed at a KOA. In actuality, I had barely even camped in my lifetime. I grew up spending summers in Southold, New York. A beach bum, my summers were filled with sand, salt and sunsets. Our family vacations were spent in hotel rooms. I did have a quick jaunt at sleep-away camp in New Hampshire, but I don’t think that can really count as camping. That is how I feel about our stay at the Moab KOA. Knowing the days are long and hot, we booked ourselves a camping cabin. A quaint sleeping cabin with one queen bed, a bunk bed, a front porch complete with porch swing, charcoal grill and fire pit. With electricity and AC our little camping cabin was just perfect. Camping without the tent. Divine. For those of you have never heard of or stayed at KOA, I suggest finding one the next time you want a little camping experience when you travel.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we settled in, did some work and then headed into town for dinner. The main strip of Moab is maybe a mile long and is lined with hotels, restaurants and tourist shops. Randomly, a friend of mine happened to be driving through Moab at the same time as Jess and I, so we met up for dinner at Zax Restaurant. Zax has a pub-like feel with dark wooden floors and serves extra large beers for your drinking pleasure. Jess and I both ordered the BLT and were very delighted. One of the best BLTs I have had in a while. As a side bar, BLTs were sort of the meal of our trip; I think we may have ordered one in almost every place we stayed in. A classic, a BLT is always a good idea. Zax was a great place to eat in Moab. A great time had catching up, we headed back to our KOA and got some rest; we would go to Arches National Park the next morning.

Waking up the next morning, we snoozed a bit longer than we should have. Getting ready for our Arches adventure, we were undecided on what trail would be the best to hike. Also, as the sun gained height and heat, we were hesitant to do too much strenuous activity. Mindful of the heat wave going on in Utah, we didn’t want to be hiking in direct sun. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to venture to the Windows Trail in Arches. Saying goodbye to Lennon (dogs are not welcome in National Parks), we hopped in the car and after a short ride, we were entering Arches National Park. The entrance sits at the bottom of large sandstone cliffs. As you drive into the park, you follow a winding road and after a turn, you are gazing upon some of the most remarkable rock formations. Carved over millions of years, massive red rocks stand paramount. Each unique, it is like witnessing Mother Earth’s curated rock collection. Awe-inspiring, the colorful, curved, arched formations welcome you as you drive through. Heading North to our destination, I sat shotgun and snapped photos, hoping they would do this beautiful landscape justice. Arriving to the Windows Trail, we saw in the distance two magnificent arches standing adjacent to one another. We quickly realized this “trail” was more of a guided pathway. With our hiking boots laced up and our packs filled with sustenance, we felt a bit overdressed for our ‘hike’. Although this trail wasn’t going to be like that of Zion National Park, the views were spectacular and we got to enjoy the arches up close. We climbed all over them! Thankful to have my boots on, Jess and I went ‘off-roading’ and scaled sections beyond the “THIS IS NOT A TRAIL” sign that was submerged in the rocks. We came upon large boulders, which we climbed with concentration and grace. Finding a nice perch, we sat ourselves in divots in the red rock. High above the crowds, we sat and took in the scenery. Checking our emails, we agreed that this ‘office’ wasn’t too shabby. We enjoyed some trail mix, some good conversation and then decided we should see what else this section of the park had to offer.

Heading across the way, we came upon another large arch, which we also climbed! More crowded than our previous spot, we found a section that was less populated and had another sit session. Suddenly a girl, wearing a sundress with bicycle shorts (so on trend) came barreling up the rock-face. Shuffling right by us, this girl was wearing no shoes and we were quite alarmed by her daring nature, but mostly were concerned for her safety. Prompting us to say, “We don’t think you should go any further up there”, pointing up beyond us. With a jolt of her head, she whipped around and proclaimed, “My mom said I could!” and continued, catlike, up the rock. Stunned, we kept an eye on her and were comforted when she decided to sit about 5 feet away from us. I guess she wanted to win this little climbing game everyone was playing on the rocks. As the girl headed back down the rock, Jess and I decided to descent with her. Our adventure had, and hungry for (yet another) BLT, we got back into the car and headed to town for lunch.

We stopped into a café. Jess ordering a lemonade, and me, an iced tea, we unwound from our morning and readied for our Bacon, Lettuce, and Avocados. A lovely swap out for the “T” an avocado gives your sandwich a nice creaminess. After lunch, we headed back to the KOA to do some laundry and take a dip in the pool while we waited (yes they have a laundry room and pool – delightful). After the pool, we decided to do a bit of grocery shopping and grill out by our cabin for dinner. Chicken and veggies on the menu, we sparked up our charcoal grill with ease and set our picnic table for a great dinner under the pink dusk sky. I can’t say enough pleasantries about our Moab KOA. Our night under the Utah night sky was perfect; card games, a few beers, and a makeshift lantern that I made with a clear solo cup, a mound of paper towels and a flashlight. Innovation at its finest! As the night continued on, we readied for bed and looked forward for our next stop: Dillon, Colorado.

South Dakota stole my heart

 

Location: Montana
Listening to: Birds chirping
Time: 10:55 am

Alright, everyone needs to go to South Dakota at least once in their life. Rapid City itself is a little run down, but the surrounding area is so stunning, you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, July 17th, we got a late start to our day as we both had some work to do in the morning. After shutting our laptops, we readied for a visit to Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and a hike through Custer State Park.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

I was curious about Mt. Rushmore being, as they say, a tourist trap. Arriving a little after noon, we joined our fellow tourists to gaze upon the legendary mountain. Crowded, but not overrun the memorial is located high up in the mountains. Upon arrival you are met with a flag lined promenade with inscriptions on each pillar detailed with every state and the year they entered the Union. Past that, the promenade opens up into a vista where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln greet you with stoic faces. The mountain is quite incredible. Started in 1927, it is a masterpiece of steadfast dedication, immense talent and grandeur. The blue skies created the perfect backdrop to the stone sculptures. After a quick visit to the gift shop (Obviously I needed a Christmas Ornament) we got back into the car and headed South.

Next on our list, Crazy Horse. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Crazy Horse is incomplete. Currently, just a head is sculpted into a large red rock, facing out, staring into the Black Hills. Started in 1948, this sculpture is far from completion. Privately funded, this memorial will probably take many more years to complete. The memorial will depict an Oglala Lakota warrior heading into battle on his horse. A member of the Great Sioux Nation and a native to the lands of South Dakota it is a shame that this memorial is so cumbersome. As an ode to the truly native people of this state, it seems to me that Crazy Horse Memorial should be a proud symbol of South Dakota heritage, not a stagnant worksite. I hope I am still around when this memorial completes. I would love to return to see this majestic warrior riding into the Black Hills.

After Crazy Horse, we continued onto Custer State Park. Custer State Park is located just 20 minutes south of Rapid City and holds incredible landscapes with green rolling hills and high peaked mountains. After our history lessons in the early afternoon we were anxious to get outdoors and hike! We planned to head to Cathedral Spires, a trail located near Sylvan Lake in CSP. With Lennon in tow, we followed the twist and turns of the road up the mountain heading to our trail. As we gained more altitude, dark ominous clouds appeared overhead. As we continued to climb, the temperature dropped 15 degrees and the winds began to bang against our car. We approached a vista point in the park and decided to pull over and get out to soak in the scenery and assess the dark clouds surrounding us. We were nearly blown down by the heavy wind gusts and light misty rain began to kiss our cheeks. It was time to start our descent, a hike was not going to happen today. As we headed back towards where we came, we were met with a hail storm that stands to be the craziest storm I have ever witnessed. Quarter sized hail beat against our windshield creating such a loud noise that I had to cover up my ears to drown out the striking thumps of ice. Within minutes the roads were covered with hail. Cars began driving with hazards and some were forced to pull off the road to wait out the storm. Our main goal, head south and out of the mountains to escape the cannonade of hail. Twenty minutes later we were met with crystal clear blue skies, sunshine and bright green hills.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

The pavement steaming up in the aftermath of the storm, we entered into the Wildlife Loop located in the Southern section of CSP. We were on the hunt to see some Bison. As we drove along the loop we couldn’t help but gawk at the tremendous beauty of the rolling hills. Rounding a corner, Jess and I both burst out laughing as the landscape was just too much to take in, how could something so beautiful exist? How were we so lucky to be existing in the same space as this landscape? Overjoyed with nature, we pulled over, hopped out of the car and took in our surroundings. Pictures do not do it justice. Even now, thinking back on it, I am smiling. Nature is truly one of the most majestic things we can encounter. If we choose, we can surround ourselves in natural landscapes and put down our phones, take a deep breath, and thank the Earth for such a precious gift. As the sun began to set into the West, we headed back home in preparation for the following days activities: The Badlands.

Badlands National Park is located about 1-1/2 hours East of Rapid City, SD. We began our trip East around 10 am, arriving in this desert landscape a little before noon. Layers of colored earth peak up out of the desert plains. Unearthly, the Badlands are definitely a unique landscape that must not be missed. As Jess and I found parking, we readied ourselves for the Castle Trail.

Castle Trail, Badlands National Park

This 10 mile loop trail is mainly flat, but has little (no) shade. We started our trek at the hottest part of the day, poor planning on our part. Even though the sun was hot, we were stunned by the landscape, pointing to different rock formations and keeping our eyes peeled for bighorn sheep. About 3 miles in we were sweaty and guzzling water, this being my first hike ever, I was following Jess as she led the way. We decided to venture onto an adjoining trail, the Medicine Root Trail, which took us through grasslands. A large sign, “beware of rattlesnakes” sent us on our way along this new trail. Quite the juxtaposition of the rocky, cracked earth we were just crossing this trail was filled with flowers, tall grasses, small toads, and sunshine (still no shade). We continued on the Medicine Root Trail, avoiding run-ins with rattle snakes, and eventually met back up with the Castle Trail. Feeling a bit faint and rouged (my face was the color of a tomato) we decided to head back and started to trudge along the Castle Trail, retracing our steps, excited to get into the shade of our car. Do you ever notice that a return back home seems shorter than the journey there? This was not one of those times. Struggling with the heat, I was thankful for my light button down I brought to cover my shoulders, my (not so fashionable) wide brim fishing hat, and the insulated water bottle I stored in my pack for the return back. As we hit our final mile, the clouds rolled in. I was thankful for the shade and wished for some light rain to cool us off. Rain did not come, but what did come? Bighorn sheep. Walking along, rejoicing the shade and discussing how thankful I am for AC, we turned a corner and stopped dead in our tracks. Three large fellas perched on a mountainside about 100 meters off from our next trail marker. The sheep (these things were huge!) stood, staring, heads up and hooves raised, assessing us. We, after all, were on their turf. The trail marker would lead us only closer to them so we opted to walk in the other direction to find passage. We sat down on our butts, and slid down a small mountainside. The dust rising as we slid, our yoga pants covered in soot. Standing a safe distance from our new friends, we said our goodbyes and finished out our 6.8 mile hike just before the rain started to sprinkle on the Badlands.

South Dakota truly stole my heart. The landscape is one to be witnessed in person. The air is fresh, the weather is unpredictable and the area is rustic, quiet, and beautiful. I hold my memories of this place in writing and photos, but also in my heart. I am excited to return to the Black Hills one day and see what other adventures await me.
Next stop: Bozeman, Montana.

This is America

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota
Listening to: myself typing
Time: 11:53 pm (MT)

Tonight, we arrived in South Dakota. About 1,700 miles away from home. We feel like we have been traveling for weeks, yet this is officially ‘day three’ of our trip. The last I wrote, we were heading to Pittsburgh, PA, so let me start where I left off…

As we approached the city, Jess and I both realized we had no idea what the skyline of ‘The Burgh’ looked like. This has been a common theme throughout our drive; In fact, I have not yet been to any places on our itinerary, besides DC, which will be the last stop on our trip before NYC. As we rounded the bend into downtown Pittsburgh we witnessed a bright, layered city, with overlapping bridges and long, arched tunnels. It was interesting to see how the legacy of Carnegie still lives throughout the city. Taking in the city lights and witnessing street signs holding the steel tycoon’s name we hurried over bridges and through tunnels eager for a good night sleep. We arrived at a Red Roof Inn at around 1 am and quickly realized the hotel looked much better on a computer screen. The word ‘slumming’ comes to mind. So exhausted from our trip, we reluctantly hopped into bed jokingly saying, “don’t let the bed bugs bite”. Sleep was necessary. We had a long drive ahead.

The next morning, we promptly departed from Pittsburgh and headed to Milwaukee. Friends of mine were kind enough to set us up with a family member attending Marquette University – so we were back in college for the night! We unpacked and headed to the historic Third Ward to grab some food and meet up with Ethan, a close friend of mine. We started off at the Milwaukee Ale House. From there, we were hopping from place to place. Ethan showed us all around town. We sipped cocktails at a speakeasy, enjoyed Bastille Days (a local celebration in Milwaukee celebrating the national day of France complete with its own replica of the Eiffel Tower), and ended the night on the dance floor. Needless to say, the IPAs were flowing and Sunday morning I woke up with a college size hangover, at the ripe age of 29. Crawling out of bed, Jess and I headed to the burbs where Ethan, Candice and their son, Ethan Charlie welcomed us into their home for a delicious and filling brunch. Enjoying the company of close friends so far from home was a special treat and fueled me up for the trek ahead. After brunch, and a stop into EC’s playroom, we repacked the car and hit the road for our 5-hour ride to Minneapolis.

By the time we arrived in Minneapolis, we were all so exhausted (Lennon included) that we ordered Italian food delivered to our hotel room, opened a bottle of ‘Woop Woop’ wine (thanks Julie), and watched the 2015 rendition of Cinderella. It was glorious. This morning, we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed and ventured off to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

A beautiful morning, the garden was the perfect way to get a taste of Minneapolis. Not being able to spend a lot of time exploring, this city has now been added to my bucket list for future travels. With a 9-hour drive to Rapid City, South Dakota on the agenda, we calculatingly repacked the car and headed West.

And then, South Dakota…

The main reason for our visit to this state was to gaze upon Mt. Rushmore. Having learned about this man-made wonder my whole life, it seemed an obvious choice when staring at a map deciding where to explore. What I was not expecting was the immense beauty that South Dakota possesses. I see why Teddy Roosevelt was so taken with the Dakotas in the late 19th century. The plains at the Eastern end of the state are calming and remind me of the North Fork of Long Island. The endless green fields of farmland are reminiscent of the East End I love so dearly, yet these fields have characteristics all their own. At the Western side of the state, the hills start to appear. Sort of out of nowhere you are met with grassy green hills which are home to cows and small pockets of lakes and ponds. Random spirts of trees unexpectedly sprout out of the land and gaping cliffs and canyons are seen off in the distance. As we headed towards our destination of Rapid City, we were met with a sporadic rainstorm, the heavy rain beating against the windshield. We couldn’t resist keeping the windows open as the scent of summer rain filled the car, the wind whipping our faces. Once the rain passed we were greeted with cotton candy skies as the sun began to set over the Black Hills. I suppose that is why they call them The Black Hills; the sunsetting beyond them creates a blackened shadow of the tree lined hills, allowing the colored skies to beam against a shaded landscape. Meandering up into the mountains where our home is for the next couple of days, we couldn’t resist snapping photos and proclaiming our love for South Dakota. I am looking forward to exploring this area more and look forward to more surprises from this beautiful place.

 

My bags are packed…sort of

Location: Union Square, New York City
Listening to: The streets of NYC through double pane City Glass windows
Time: 7:50 am EST

I remember there was a moment in 2010, I was standing in my parents Laundry Room, staring down at a blue porcelain bowl that was filled with car keys. At that very moment, I pictured myself grabbing the keys, sprinting to the car, hopping into the drivers seat, and off I would go. With the spark of the engine, I would be off on an adventure West. The locations and details were not important. The journey was what I hungered for. The open road called me and I wanted to answer that call. Obviously, that did not happen. My mom walked into the room, put her arm around me, and reality struck in. I was a twenty year old who was living at home, having taken a 6 month leave from college. Trying to get my life back on track.

Fast forward 8 years; Here I am, sitting in my NYC apartment, at my grandfather’s desk (a beautiful wooden masterpiece that I love) and tomorrow at 8 pm marks the start of a Midwestern road trip that my soul has craved for more than a decade. Though this essentially is just a car trip with my friend Jess and her dog Lennon, this trip is a spiritual and emotional journey that will change my life forever. I am happy you have decided to follow along on my drive West. I hope you can be inspired by these posts and eventually chase your own wild and crazy dreams.

Until next time, xo Erin