"Life is like a camera. You focus on what's important, capture the good times, develop from the negatives, and if things don't work out, take another shot." - Unknown
The next morning, we took our time getting ready. We had to wait until Woodchuck opened so that we could pick up some more cider for me since we would be spending a few days at Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill’s. It took most of our day to travel to the Hoffer House, and when we got there we were happy to be able to see Emma go for her Practice Skate. Since they live up-state (New York) it’s nice to be able spend time with them. As luck would have it Craig and Jamie were also visiting the Hoffer's, so while Emma practiced we were all able to catch up and spend some time together. We had a great dinner at a restaurant nearby, and headed back to the house for the night. The next day was spent at the Saratoga Race Course. I had never been to a racetrack before, so I was amazed at how big it was, and how many ways there were to bet! After a crash course, and mostly failure, the big winner of the day was Emma. We were positive she was the only one coming home with any real profit for the day. It was a great day of crazy outfits, talented horses, and a lot of math, and while it was unbelievably fun I was surprised at how exhausted we were by the end of it, definitely a once in a life time experience!
The next morning the boys went shooting with Bill, and the girls mostly laid about the house, being lazy and relaxed. When the boys came home from shooting, we went right back out to go rummaging a huge yard sale, a reclaimed wood workshop, and a neat produce shop. After working up an appetite shopping, we headed to a nearby ice cream shop where we ate an ice cream lunch. Ice cream eaten, we drove back to the Hoffer House and relaxed in the afternoon sunshine, spending quality time with family. Uncle Bill made smoked chicken, and after dinner we went on a boat ride across the lake to go swimming. We spent a good amount of time playing in the water, the sun sank low below the horizon, and we rode back to the house. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing on the couch, and watching Olympic swimming.
In the morning, everyone was packing up to go their separate ways. So as a group, we brought Emma to art camp in the morning to see some of her unbelievably well done paintings, and then we had to say our good byes to Emma. Aunt Jean walked with us around town for a while, Craig and Jamie showed us their favorite metal work art in one of the town shops, and then we stopped for breakfast. After eating, we hugged each other goodbye, and split off into our traveling groups. It was such a wonderful thing to be able to spend real quality time with Hoffer's, since we don't get to see them that often.
Joe and I had decided our next stop would be Niagara Falls, Joe had been when he was younger, but I had never made it there myself. It was a decent drive from Saratoga to Niagara, so we stopped for lunch on the way at Dinosaur BBQ and enjoyed a dive bar atmosphere and fabulous BBQ. After filling up our personal fuel tanks, we hopped in the car and lumbered off to our destination for the day. When we arrived, we searched for a good campground nearby and ended up at Grand Island KOA. It was a hot day, and the site that had been picked for us offered absolutely no refuse from the heat of the sun. After deciding that we as a couple could not tolerate the unyielding heat, we went inside to see if we could switch spaces. As luck would have it, there was one space that we could upgrade to that offered not only shade, but running water. We jumped at the chance, splurged a few dollars over budget and moved on up in the campground… just in time for someone else to come in and attempt to claim the space as his own. Timing is everything. Victorious, we went back to the car and moved our hot selves into the shade. Around the time we finished setting up camp for the evening, it was dusk, and time for dinner. Since we were on a spending spree with lunch and the extra amenities, we settled on making our own food, watching the sunset, and enjoying watching the hustle and bustle of the campground. Dinner eaten, we burned off our calories the old fashion way, by taking a walk through the campground on a truly beautiful night. We started our after dinner tour through the campground wandering in between all of the rows of RV’s and trailers; talking about what it would be like to own such a massive vehicle for ourselves - never having to go home because it was always with you. As night fell, we meandered back to the tent site, and settled in for the evening, excited for the next day’s trip to the incredible waterfalls that acted as the border for the United States and Canada.
Well rested and excited, we hurriedly packed up camp and jumped in the car to make our way toward the massive natural phenomenon. Having no true idea where we were going, we kinda just followed the hordes of people heading in a particular direction (you learn to do this in touristy areas, for better or worse, who knows). We eventually found our way to the ticket booth for Maid of the Mist. Like good cattle we made our way through the rope lines and down through the elevators, and to more fenced lines. It was at this point that the staff insisted that we fill all the spaces nearby, much to the chagrin of the woman in front of us who did not hear the staff member say to fill up the space. She essentially set a body block and thrust herself in front of Joe as if he were the devil himself come to take her children: “NO CUTTING! WE HAVE BEEN HERE JUST AS LONG AS YOU!!” My husband, never one to back down when he knows he’s right, simply stated that she should learn to listen when people in charge are speaking. After a nice long tense death stare, the offended party stomped off shuffling her oblivious children on to the boat. Good start to the day.
We donned our obligatory protective sheathing from the inevitable mist, and began to take absolutely all of thousands of pictures we could manage. As shown below:
After fully immersing ourselves in the spray of Niagara, we decided to make the climb up the steps towards the top of the falls. A decision that ultimately ended in Joe panicking about his sopping wet shoes and socks, and insisting that we leave to change our shoes and eat something. Thankfully, there was a Rainforest Café nearby which was also a part of a hotel; making them uniquely qualified to assist us with lunch. As we enjoyed our dining experience our lovely waitress Valerie told us about a unique travel line they call the Discovery Bus. After eating, we went on the free bus line to tour the nearby area attractions, including Whirlpool State Park where we walked along the rim of Niagara Gorge, and climbed the steps down to Devil’s Hole… shortly thereafter we realized we were terribly ill prepared for hiking (we were wearing flip flops now and had absolutely no water with us). Spent after climbing all the way back up the gorge steps, we went back to the bus line and off to the next interesting stop – a discovery center where you can take an elevator down to the gorge floor and see the falls in the distance. After taking the whole day to traipse around the falls, we were exhausted and ready to relax for the evening, so we took the bus back to the car park, and turned our tails towards the Sands Motel where we would be staying for the evening.
Since it was a motel night, we did our due diligence and looked for a pizza place with gluten free options and delivery. And we thought we found one, so, we ordered, set about our showers, laundry, and well…. Adult beverages. (Hey! I’m getting delivery! Or at least that’s what I thought.) Turns out an hour or so later when the food is supposed to be at the door, that we receive a phone call. Even though we cleared with the restaurant beforehand that they deliver to this location, we are now told that no driver will be coming. Apparently, the manager decided that despite the food being made and us having already paid for the food, there would be no delivery, the manger didn’t even bother to apologize, and just said we should come pick up the order. In much gentler words, I essentially told him where he could put the aforementioned pizza, and then hung up. After venting hangrily about our situation, we eventually submitted to the will of the universe. We opted to wander the streets since it was a beautiful evening, hoping both to tamper our tempers, and to find something nearby that would suffice our need for food. As luck would have it, about a mile away was a 7-Eleven (The amazing simple joys of being in the Northeast!)
Truthfully by the end of our walk we admitted we were ultimately grateful the pizza didn’t come. It turned out to be a lovely sunset, on a gorgeous summer night, and a bit of extra exercise that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. As night fell, we made it back to our room and set about eating dinner, finishing laundry and planning our moves for the next day.
Our next adventure involved driving from Niagara to Corning. Being art enthusiasts, we were excited to visit the Corning Museum of Glass and tour the exhibits. On the way we stopped for incredible coffee at the Sugar Bowl, and when we landed in Corning, we were fortunate enough to find a pizza place called Aniello’s that took great care and consideration in the making of their gluten free pies. Even in the middle of a lunch rush, the manager made sure to handle the creation of my pizza, and watch it through the entire process (I know because I’m a super creep, and I watched him). It was FABULOUS, and exactly what we needed before meandering through a massive collection of painstakingly crafted glass.
Corning Museum of Glass was unbelievable. We spent hours wandering the halls of the collections housed within those walls, evening being fortunate enough to witness a demonstration in glass blowing. We watched from the stadium seats as the craftsmen displayed one of the oldest trades in modern culture. It was an engaging presentation, and was a great way to end our tour.
After soaking in all the impressive figures and fixtures, we hopped back into Hefe and made our way to our accommodations for the evening. Ferenbaugh Campground, a one of a kind, tiered road campground that had a considerable number of seemingly permanent residents anchored into the hills. After driving the circuit to select the perfect site, we planted ourselves in a shady nook and set up camp for the last time. As blunt as I can be, I really couldn’t believe that we had come to this part in the journey. It was the second to last night we would have on the road, and as we inched closer to clustered civilization, there were less campgrounds to choose from; so our true last night had already been promised to a hotel, further down state. This night however, we had given ourselves one last hurrah in the form of camping. We made ourselves a rice, corn, and enchilada soup dinner, watched the sun sink below the trees while listening to nature and each other, and begged the universe to slow time down. Alas, nightfall persisted; marching on with no reverence for our wishes. We stayed up late talking about where we had been in the last three months, how many odd things we had seen, and how many bucket list items we managed to cross off our lists. We waited until late dark had fallen completely, and popped out of the tent for an attempt at a pure night picture of our resilient little home.
Morning came, and with it restless and heavy hearts. We knew that this would be the last day living the in the reality we had cultivated over the last three months. In 24 hours the reality of “real life”, that both of us had managed to forget completely in the seductive wake of the living the vagabond dream, would come crashing down on us. We decided to linger a little bit longer, and stop in Owego at Las Chicas Taqueria for a Mexican brunch. Absolutely Incredible. We lingered in the town a little while, walking through its small side streets, window shopping. After walking off the added taco weight we drove off to Middletown where we had previously decided to spend a night in a hotel. There was an incredible storm that was coming in, and we were not interested in battening down the hatches. We decided to have an early dinner at the greatest fast food place I have ever had the pleasure of eating at; a small place called Mix n’ Mac that takes pasta and quickly makes you an individual serving of mac n’ cheese with any possible combination of cheeses and fixings you could ever hope to mix. And, most gloriously; an entirely separate line for gluten free. In minutes, you have a perfectly made mac n’ cheese and all the joy that a full belly brings. Unapologetically bloated from ingesting all we could finish, we drove off to our Poughkeepsie hotel to make sure we were indoors before the skies let loose their fury.
As we drove down the roads leading to the hotel, we began to realize we were in unexpectedly familiar territory. Unwittingly, we had booked a room in the same hotel we stayed in the night that we were engaged. The hotel had been sold in the time we had last visited, and they had renamed it, in hopes of rejuvenating business. When Waze announced that we had arrived we drove right past it, we only knew it by its other name, and incredulously couldn’t believe it was the same hotel. We turned around at the behest of the GPS, and pulled into the parking lot laughing. We checked in, and with curious onlookers we unloaded our bins, and bags like crazy drifters, and began settling in. The skies grew darker, and soon it was darker than midnight. We showered, and organized ourselves for an easy unpack for the next day, with the full gravity of journey coming to an end. Several hours later, and admittedly childishly hungry, we opted for a vending machine raid. After leaving our room we noticed that there was a peculiar smell, but truthfully, after the number of places we have stayed in, strange smells are simply customary. Dismissively, we went looking for the lobby and found the machines, and began the categorical search for the best options for under $5.
While perusing the products, a voice peeps out from behind us exclaiming “I’m Sorry!” Admittedly startled from the pop up stranger, we turned around to find the manager of the hotel, standing behind us and looking incredibly concerned. Confused by the abrupt apology, we asked why an apology was necessary, thinking maybe the vending machine was broken. Consequently, we were very mistaken. The manager then informed us that the man staying in the room across the hall from us had brought in a portable stove, and had been frying chicken in the room… setting off his fire alarm…. Which we did not hear. We did however, then piece together that the peculiar smell did remind us of fried chicken, albeit a touch overdone. Comforted by the fact that the problem was handled, and we didn’t have to deal with the fire department or evacuation during a thunderstorm, we celebrated by enjoying some Reese’s and M&M’s, and hoping the man with the deep fryer was done risking everyone’s lives.
The morning was a somber one. The clouds were overcast and coincidentally matched our moods. The day had finally come for our trip around the Lower 48 to come to an end. We dawdled as much as we could, and stopped for coffee at a great little place called Bad Ass Coffee and had a great cup of coffee, while donating to a great cause. Which did make us feel better, but was not delaying the inevitable. We realized that one of the only ways we would feel better about ending our escapade was to visit a place that was very special to us. We considered COSM the true origination point of this dream journey, since this is where we were engaged. I’d like to pretend that it was this beautiful and incredible experience, but truthfully, in the true hilarity of life, it was a blistering and humid day.
We arrived before they opened, wandered the grounds and were bit by all of the bugs that were on the grounds, made it to the engagement site (definitely made out a bit) and then went back to the car. By this time, they had opened so we stopped in the store for about 6 minutes, and then climbed in the car to continue our way home. We laughed about the roguish nature of our visit since we didn’t pay to walk the grounds, (We represent the true resistance, I know) and drove down increasingly familiar New York roads. We reminisced about different trips we had taken through these roads, and through others. Eventually, and all of a sudden, we found ourselves at the door of family members, stopping by to drop off cans of food for a fundraiser that was happening that day. In true Pfeifer fashion, the house was a revolving door of family members, coming and going in various stages of responsibility for the event. We stayed for lunch, and then afterwards made our way to the Celeste house for a welcome home hug. After spending not enough time catching up, we had to hit the road again back to the McKee house for a quick unpack of the car, before running out to the Engine 3 Food Drive Fundraiser.
Who could ask for a better homecoming, than to come home, see, and hug, all the people that you missed the most in one day, and to have it end with a good cause? We drove home from the event and pulled into the driveway as the official last day’s drive. Exhausted, happy, sad, and still; we looked at each other before getting out of the car. We leaned over the seats, put our heads together for a brief moment, and then gave each other a kiss. Knowing full well that after 3 months and 2 days on the road, we had accomplished something that very few people had dared to dream, let alone attempt. In a Honda Element, a tent, and with tremendous planning, working in a maximum of 150 sqft of living space, we traveled for over 16,000 miles. We witnessed corners of the world that people dream of seeing but never do. We river rafted, ziplined, go-carted, hiked, traversed caverns, and stood at the base of monuments – both natural and manmade, and marveled in their majesty. We stood in Death Valley and were privy to an unbelievably rare rain. We threw a GoPro in a cavern and a man retrieved it with his foot. We had left months ago, never having camped together in our entire relationship, never having been this brave with our definition of what life could be. In that moment, before we left Hefe and returned to reality, we had a moment where we knew that those memories would last a lifetime and inspire us to reach for the unthinkable, the undoable and we knew in that moment we could do anything we could imagine together.
We left Hefe in the driveway, went inside, and began the first steps of another adventure; Beecoming Conscious.
We woke up early, anxious riddled and excited for our day’s adventure. We packed the car in such a rush, that we collectively checked the room 14 times to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind (to be completely fair, I think I checked 11 times and Joe checked 3). We pointed Hefe in the direction of Lincoln, New Hampshire’s Best Attraction – Alpine Adventures Ziplining. We got lost going to the park, which made us even more nervous because now we were thinking we would miss our preferred time, so now we’re hastily calling the place, getting the right directions, arriving at the place and! We were 30 minutes early. So, with plenty of time to spare we got ourselves signed up, and chose the midrange course package. More experience than the beginners course and a little less terrifying than the super course.
We were called into the equipment room, where we were sized for harnesses and helmets, and introduced to our new found flying partners. We were grouped up with about 9 other people for the day, and said hello. Four of our members instead said “Hallo” back. It was a family from Holland, the two parents spoke perfect English, and the two girls (14 and 16) didn’t speak any. The other group members were a Father and his group of 4; son, daughter, and their 2 friends, they were from New Jersey, and were there on vacation. As we finished our introductions, the first fun part of the day’s adventure arrived. In order to get to the top of the Zipline Course, we needed to climb there, in a 6 wheel truck. We buckled in and held on for our lives as we climbed up the craggy mountain path, laughing through the rest of our introductions.
After surviving the road to the top, we climbed out of the back and hit the course. Our guides were wonderful, funny, and engaging. They breezed through the course and kept it interesting with races, and bets. Everyone knows I’m not competitive – not at all. Nope.
After flying through the air with the greatest of ease, we were positively famished. Lucky for us there was an awesome little delicatessen styled supermarket called the Purple Tomato nearby. We had the Jumbalaya, and were amazed at how unbelievably flavorful it was, and dense. Bellies brimming with food, we waddled back into the car to make our way to our next stop, and another state – Rockefeller Marsh Billings National Park in Vermont.
The day itself was very rainy for most part, not lending itself to anything particularly fun or beautiful about our travels, but it felt comfortable for us. We knew the foliage, and the winding roadways, we mused about how out West so many of the roads went straight on for what seemed like infinity. We made good time to the park, and drove around it for a while. We landed at the visitor center, where we tried some raw milk cheese, and read about early small farming practices. Fortunately for us, the rain had let up enough where we felt comfortable pitching for the night, and we headed to Quechee State Park, where we pitched in a cozy little spot for the night.
As we settled into bed, it began to rain softly on our wind cover. We reminisced again about our time out West, and the different campgrounds within the South, and the North. We looked forward to our time in Vermont, as both of us had been here before around the time of our engagement. The best part about the campground we had chosen was the clean bathrooms and showers that were in close proximity to our site.
We woke in the morning, put our money in the shower machine, and enjoyed the hot water. After spending a quality $4.00 worth of time scrubbing in hot water, we went back, got dressed, and packed up Hefe. Our first stop was Knight’s Spider Web Farm where we received an education about spiders and collecting spider webs. Our host was all too happy to have some company in the early morning hours. Originally a surveyor for the state of Vermont, when the work dried up he started making furniture with his wife to support their family. At his wife’s suggestion they started collecting spider’s webs on scraps of wood which then quickly became his best seller. After several short TV segments about his unique business they were able to make ends meet and provide for their children. We happily purchased a unique web on a small black plaque, just as our bellies began to growl and beckon us to our next stop at the Ladder 1 Grill, an awesome restaurant that also serves as a hotel. We enjoyed a great meal, and explored around upstairs in the rooms. After our exploration through the reinvented firehouse, we got back in the car to travel to our dessert – Ben and Jerry’s! Of course, we had to go on the tour, we made some spin-art, and we waited on the insanely long line for ice cream. We also bought a faux melted ice cream statue to torture our parents with, and with our absurdly childish souvenir in tow, we drove off to our next tour.
But what do you tour after an ice cream factory? Why, an Apple Cider Mill and Distillery, obviously. Cold Hollow Cider Mill is an upstart in the world of Hard Cider, but what a great start it is! We happened to come on the day where they had just finished filming a news piece on the company for their recent success with their brew. While they were not supposed to be open, they invited us in anyway. We had a drink with the two bartenders, and talked about their company. They asked about our trip, and before we knew it our glasses were empty. We started to say goodbye to let them go home, and instead we were invited to stay a bit longer and meet a few of the cooks in the back for a drink at the bar. We spent more time laughing, and socializing, and bought a growler for when we eventually left. Before we left the kind staff members gave us a coupon for a free lunch, since we had missed the chance to try the food they had. We thanked them for their hospitality and immediately were grateful our campsite was 2 miles down a straight road, and an easy access place. The weather was beautiful, and we backed Hefe up to right in front of a stream, pitched the tent and honestly? Drank the night away watching movies cuddled up in our tent. (Jealous? I am. I’m nostalgic just reading it.)
We woke up the next morning, mildly hungover but raring to go. We had both been to Smuggler’s Notch as children, and we both wanted to see what it looked like as adults. I had seen it in the winter time during a ski trip, Joe had seen it as a kid while on vacation during the summer, and apparently had loved it so much that his parents thought he had been brainwashed. So, we drove the extremely harrowing and narrow road up the mountain to Smuggler’s Notch, took a picture with the sign, drove briefly through the grounds, and then made our way back down the mountain to try our luck at lunch at Cold Hollow Cider Mill Creek. We got there in just the nick of time too, because they were hopping! We ordered our food, took a seat in the back and looked out the window at the bustling Cider Mill that the restaurant shared a parking lot with.
After eating our fill, we bought another growler to bring to Aunt Jean’s and Uncle Bill’s, and then drove off to our next destination. Which was… another cidery. We agreed that we were not really ready to start drinking this early in the day, so, we backed out of the parking lot and drove down into Burlington instead to stop and get some coffee at Maglianero Café. Beverages in hand, we took a leisurely stroll down to the docks on Burlington Bay. We admired the boats on the water, and the view, while walking along the train tracks talking about how both of our families had an affinity for old train sets. After a nice walk and a great conversation, we were finished stretching our legs, but we took our time driving down the road, enjoying the Northerly parts of our 48 State adventure. Admittedly, we drove slowly for another reason; our next stop was – Surprise! Another Cidery! (Mom, I swear I’m not an alcoholic.)
However, this cidery is special. It’s Woodchuck Cider, where we spent the day celebrating our engagement, and the opening of their new facility, almost 2 years to the day of our visit. We made use of the self-guided tour, finishing at the bar for a tasting. Afterwards, we drove to a local campground named Riverbend, where we backed up to huge, lazy, river to set up camp. Fortuitously, in perfect time for us to watch the sunset while sitting in amazing little fold up chairs, listening to the sounds of the world in the fading sunlight.
As soon as the sun was up, so were we, albeit lazy about getting on the move; taking our time brushing our teeth, and packing up the car. We started the drive from Portland to Acadia National Park. We stopped in Bangor and had lunch at the Fork and Spoon, decided to walk up and down the main street and found a little spot that made some great coffee. We were very much taking our time, blessedly unaware of the camping enthusiasts we were about to meet. Being novice campers, we had no idea about seasons or timing, which places were better to camp than others, we just hit the road and hoped for the best.
When we arrived in Acadia, we did the same thing – fly by the seat of our pants! We drove through the town loving every minute, meandered through the gorgeous landscape of the park visitor center, and promptly discovered that like the Mountainous Central States, Maine brought a substantial camping base. Panicked, we hopped back in the car and drove back through town searching for an available campground,or vacant hotel. Checking our apps and making phone calls. Every. Single. One. Was. Full. As we crept further out of town, we found one with first come first serve rules. We combed the campground and claimed one of the last spots, of a campground with 150+ spaces. Joe backed in, and ran for the campground pay booth. I pitched the tent. Can’t say it’s yours, if it’s mine!
By the time Joe got back I had managed to have the entire tent standing. We decided to spend 2 days in Acadia, so, after setting up the tent for the night, we basked in the warmth of fading afternoon sunlight. Hunger had seeped its way in to our bellies, and we decided to try Garlic SPAM and wild rice. Sitting in our camp chairs, drinking Corn vodka from Smoky Quartz Distillery mixed with Lemonade, in our last moment campsite, we were very, very, happy. ….Waking up the next morning at 4:00am not prepared to go to a sunrise on a mountaintop, I was very not happy.
Acadia National Park is very famous for their photogenic mountain top – Cadillac Mountain. On a poorly executed whim, we stumbled amidst the darkness for a very long time, and then managed to get ourselves shoved into the car and off to the park… almost. Basically we made it to a tiny little cut out on the side of the road, a real nowhere place, and we opened our chairs and watched the sunrise. We watched the tide flow in, and we watched as another beautiful summer day began. Truth time – it did not feel like summer – it was cold! But, it was beautiful.
We watched the sun come all the way up, and we drove back to our campsite…. and went back to sleep! I know, I know! But it was just a little nap, and I needed it. Once we woke up we decided it was time for a legendary thing – Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast. An INCREDIBLE place that offered a seriously unreal gluten free menu, and a serious wait time. But honestly, the 45 minutes was worth it. They leave the pot of coffee in a warming pot on the table. And they believe in incredible food. Most importantly, this was my first ever Eggs Benedict. I left a true believer in the power of a perfectly poached egg and masterfully made cheese sauce. We split an order of massive fluffy pancakes and polished off a pot of coffee. After praising every person we could praise about our unbelievable breakfast, we made our way to Acadia to explore the park.
We traveled the park loop road and admired the unique spaces that were carved out as tourist attractions. We admired the sand beaches and the otter cliffs, and we climbed over some seriously craggy rocks to get to Thunder Hole. We then drove around and up to Cadillac Mountain, we had been on the fence about waking up the next morning for the “Real Acadia Sunrise” which happens on Cadillac, but after reaching the peak of the mountain, we knew we had to come back to see the sunrise. After taking in our fill of the beautiful landscape, we headed back down the mountain to go back to our campsite. It was at this point that we realized it was too hot to want to cook a hot dinner, and we were trying to be good about eating too many big meals in a day, after much deliberation, we settled on walking to a nearby ice cream shop, and having milkshakes for dinner. Adult Life. We spent the rest of the night sitting in our camp chairs, watching the fading light. Once the sun set we prepared for the next morning’s quick departure from the site, and went to sleep.
Our alarm went off, we got dressed, detached the tent, and set off. (Much more fluid compared to the morning before) We rolled through the quiet town and made our way to Cadillac. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were one of three cars. We pulled out our chairs, set up a spot, and waited. Time went on, people gathered, clumped, and blocked camera shots, so; we moved. And then we watched, and then more people came. They brought with them noise, and garbage, and general rudeness. In the stillness of this beautiful natural wonder, a thoughtless woman opted to play the Celine Dion Song from Titanic.
Now, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the stick in the mud, but I didn’t sit in a car for all these hundreds of miles to listen to your tinny, shitty, cell phone play a watered-down version of a love song while I’m watching the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness unfold before me. Thankfully, the song ended and we were spared an encore. Just in time for the sunrise to be over, and for daybreak to be official. In that moment, Joe and I turned around to see the sea of people who had gathered not so silently behind us. Scores of people in heavier coats and their folding chairs littered the mountain and were snapping pictures of the daybreak. When we made it to the parking lot it was overflowing and cars were lining the side of the road leading up to the lot. Grateful that we had prepared ourselves and gotten in early, we made our break for the bottom of the mountain. We opted for another nap before breaking down the tent and moving off to our next state.
While driving the country, you happen to see things. It’s an undeniable consequence of travel. However, while you’re traveling you’re hardly ready to see what you do sometimes. Case in point, traveling down a highway in New Hampshire, there were two boys driving a tractor, that contained two other boys, drinking from red solo cups, inside the scoop piece of the machinery. For a brief moment I was flabbergasted, but the “cheers” motion the 2 boys made in the scoop, made me raise an eyebrow and shrug my shoulders. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. We continued to Lincoln, New Hampshire where we opted to stay in the Franconia Notch for the night. Adorable little motel, that had a beautiful and peaceful river running through the back. It was going to be a torrential downpour, and we needed our energy for the adventures of the next morning. After all, it’s not every day you get to fly thought the air.
"On the road again, goin' places that I've never been. Seein' things that I may never see again." - Willie Nelson
We hopped the ferry in Port Jefferson and crossed the water to Bridgeport, or rather we navigated slowly and safely. As always, we have a tremendous penchant to travel on days where there is less than favorable weather. It’s amusing to note, that on both days we embarked from home, we encountered exceedingly thick fog. The majority of the trip to Bridgeport was spent trying to find a space to have a conversation. It was a pretty packed ride over, and it was heavily trafficked with small children.
One of the benefits of taking the ferry was it put us much closer to Mystic Seaport. I had never been, and Joe was positive it would be the perfect way to start our trip. Mystic Seaport is the nation’s leading maritime museum. Founded in 1929, it collects and preserves the artifacts of America’s seafaring past, and the Northeast was where the foundations of that history began. During the colonial era, seafaring folk were the only kind that were around, so they figured out pretty quickly what food was in the waters. We learned about all the different tools they created, crafted, and perfected, so they would flourish in a predominantly wild environment. Since Mystic Seaport is an educational facility, it also has Artisans on staff using the techniques of decades past, to break down the barriers in history and show people what their ancestors achieved with mere humble beginnings. We walked from exhibit to exhibit, learning about all the various techniques in Wordpressing, Ropemaking, Coopering, Blacksmithing, Candlemaking, Shipbuilding, and about the study of weather patterns as it specifically relates to storms. It was a wonderful way to spend a morning. Before we left to head to our next stop, we treated ourselves to something I never knew existed; a fabulous concoction called a Baked Potato Pizza. Yeeessssssssssss. A tiny place called Pizzetta’s, tucked away in the back of an old Victorian Home, and some of the best gluten free pizza I’ve had…. however, to be fair, it wasn’t a fair metric. Anyone who knows me can attest to my obsessive fanaticism of potato; but Joe who is a more thorough judge did admit that while it wasn’t as good as the pizza in Wyoming, it was high up on the list (and A LOT closer to home!). We finished our carb overloaded lunch and lumbered off to our next stop.
Our next tour was through the Johnson and Wales Culinary Museum in Rhode Island. It’s a great (and inexpensive) pit stop to walk through, and learn about how most of our restaurant business was formed. Mostly, the museum focuses on the evolution of culinary technologies and the strategies that were successful for restaurant tycoons. It includes a section containing the achievements of its alumnus, but there was art and history abound. Paintings, and retired factory pieces, uniquely fit together to create a wonderful patchwork working mosaic of American Culinary History.
We left Rhode Island and drove a bit longer until we were just outside Boston. Joe had planned a small bit of a surprise for me for our morning Adventure. My only hint was that it was in Boston, and that I was personally going to love it. We spent the night in a hotel, and after having such a heavy lunch decided that a lighter snack style dinner of hummus and chips would suit our waistlines better.
In the morning, I woke up like an annoying child, excited for my soon to be discovered present. Mother Nature dejectedly attempted to dampen my parade, but I would not succumb. Rain had accompanied us through the majority of this trip, and had become more like a traveling companion. Traffic inside of Boston however, was almost the death of me, but we persevered, and found parking. We walked, and we walked, and we got lost a little bit and then we walked further. After which we found ourselves at the doors of Harvard. My loving husband took me inside of a building, to the 2nd floor, and to the silent glass cases housed within: the Warren Anatomical Museum, a small collection of medical anomalies, oddities, and rarities, that are part of a much larger anatomical library. I was in creeptastic heaven. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted of the exhibit, so what I witnessed is only for my memory banks.
After staying longer than we should have looking at the Warren collection, we climbed back in the car and continued onwards. Long periods of time in traffic has a tendency to make people cranky and we were no exception. So, we were grateful that our next stop offered adult refreshment as their main attraction. Smoky Quartz Distillery is a USA Veteran owned and operated distillery that makes everything they have out of locally sourced corn, or as locally sourced as they can get. The benefit to that, for me is… EVERYTHING is Gluten Free! Woo! Hello Bourbon! The owner took us on a small tour of his warehouse, showed us how everything was made, and why he chose to walk this path after he served our country. We had a phenomenal conversation, a small sip of everything he offered, and ended up buying a bottle of each. Traffic had died down enough for us to continue towards our goal for the day; a Walmart parking lot in Portland, Maine. This particular parking lot was chosen so that we would have a comfortable drive to Acadia National Park the next morning, but quickly became a fabulous travel destination in its own right, when we discovered that it shared residence with a movie theater, and not just any theater, but the kind with the incredibly large and comfortable reclining seats. Bonus. We bought tickets to see “Star Trek Beyond”, went back out to the lot to set up the car for the evening. After a quick conversion, we were ready to recline. Who doesn’t love going to the movies? Admittedly, it was the shortest commute home after going out that we ever had. It was a great way to spend time if you’re sleeping in a parking lot.
"Having somewhere to go is home. Having someone to love is family. Having both is a blessing." - Unknown
Morning arrived and brought with it beautiful weather, and the introduction of an unexpected guest of the campground. While packing up the car from the inside of the tent, I heard Joe (who was towards the front of the car) start to yell and stomp his feet... this rustling was followed by a slightly higher pitched exclamation, and a car door slam. I poked my head out of the zipper door and saw a large ball of black fluff with white stripes… and a raised tail, lumbering towards our car. With a squeal of terror, I panicked about whether or not it would charge me while in the tent, and zipped myself in to take cover. After a minute or 2 the odoriferous offender ambled off towards other sites to terrorize the inhabitants. We only realized this is what happened because as time went on, more and more people down the road began exclaiming and rummaging for cover. Satisfied that we were definitively out of the blast range, we scurried about to finish packing our belongings into the safety of Hefe’s closed doors before any other friends of the forest could find their way to our site.
After brushing our teeth, we were finally ready to hit the road to come back to NY… or so we thought. As the drive wore on, we started to remember what it was like to drive the roads that lead to our home. The highways became larger, traffic sped up and increased in numbers. Horns began announcing themselves much more frequently. As the miles passed behind us, we noticed our sense of peace leaving us as well. By us, I really mean Joe… but only because New York and New Jersey drivers have a way of bringing out true road rage in him (it’s because we are inconsiderate drivers, if you must know). Navigating through the clogged highways and byways of NY and NJ, trying our best to simply enjoy the scenery of being home, and suddenly from the hum of occasional traffic there was a trumpeting of an insistent horn. Normally, if someone honks their horns, they honk until the situation deserving the honk is somewhat resolved, usually then scream something out the window and drive off furious. However, that’s not what happened. The horn continued to blare in an undeniably annoying pattern, as if whomever the driver was attempting to alert, remained unaware. Officially livid and unable to contain his rage for the discourteous welcome we were receiving, Joe broke for an exit to make his way down a different highway towards home. The horn stopped its bleating, and Joe claimed a moral victory. Then the phone rang.
Turns out, the car that we had believed was being categorically rude was actually our family. Uncle Dan and Uncle Mike were driving in from the city for the christening of Maddox also, and as it turns out, were next to us in traffic. They were so happy to see us that they forgot to use their phones to call us, and instead did what any reasonably excited person in a car would do to get attention – they honked. Hysterical laughing at our foolishness and immediately hateful response, we promised to see them shortly, and went about our drive home.
Having a little bit of time before getting home, Joe treated me to a kindness. As I mentioned previously, I am about as delicate as a bull in a china shop; in that regard traipsing all over the country had required a bit of a sacrifice – my engagement ring. During all the cavern exploring, white water rafting, and general tomfoolery, I managed to crush the prongs that supported my diamond, forcing it lean a touch to the Kildare side, and making it loose in the process. Not to mention that it had more than its fair share of dirt from various campgrounds wedged into the chips. Filthy and crushed, we brought my ring into its creators. Impressed with my uncanny talent for breaking things, they kindly offered to fix and clean it in under a half hour; just enough time for us to grab a cup of coffee in a local Starbucks, and get reacquainted with the accents and attitudes of our fellow Islanders. After reminiscing about different people we had met along our journey, we picked up my ring, and headed out to my mothers.
In a case of perfect timing, we happened to make it to my mother’s house just in time for happy hour. All five of the McKee Brood were home which was incredible, but it was crowded! Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and niece, all under one roof - it was wonderful to see how much of our family has grown. Admittedly, it felt strange being in the home that we had left only a few months prior, but what was even more odd is that we didn’t have a room to stay in. Truthfully, Joe and I were still on our trip, and this stop was more akin to the other family stops we made; stay for a few days visiting with everyone and then head back out. A good way to keep that going was to sleep in the Element in the driveway (Lord knows it was definitely quieter than staying in the house!) However, I’m sure it confused the neighbors to see us crawling in and out of the back.
The next day was Maddox’s Christening, and we had a phenomenal time. He was baptized at St. Patrick’s in Bay Shore, our childhood church, and behaved exceedingly well (as to be expected from our adorable madman.) Poor Natey on the other hand was having a bit of a rough go. It was right in the middle of nap time and we were forcing him to stay awake in a loud, funny smelling place, with a ton of people….and he was in dress clothes which are always uncomfortable. So, after a few family members tried and failed to soothe him, I stole him outside into the vestibule, fed him a bottle, and rocked him to sleep. So, while I was physically present in the building for Mad’s Baptism, I wasn’t actually there. Making the total number of attended christenings for my nephews - 0. Oof.
After the ceremony, we convened back to the house for the best part about baptisms: the party, which was fantastic. Since July is extremely hot, it was a good time for everyone to go swimming; tons of games, great food, and as always, an endless supply of friends and family. The party continued into the night, everyone coming and going as they saw fit as is customary for the McKee home.
We spent the next morning trying to convince the three boys to look nicely in one direction; succeeding less than we all hoped, but getting some adorable results. Chaos is the lifeblood of such a big family, and it was nice to be a part of the bustle again, however, this was a trip and we needed to keep moving – so we said our goodbyes to the McKee’s and headed further east to spent a few days with the Celeste’s.
Taking shelter in the Celeste home was a welcome calm after the whirlwind. Granny happened to be staying at the same time and it was wonderful to spend some time with her. We had a delightful couple of days visiting with everyone and it was nice to recuperate in the company of family. We used the time to sleep on an inside bed, prep our supplies, enjoy a few more hot showers, and plan the epic close of our journey. The last states we had left were in what we called “Our Comfortable Territory” aka the Northeast. These were the states that we had already spent time in, since they were close tourist attractions for people in NY. We opted to indulge ourselves to a rare treat while traveling off island, a ferry ride. We knew we were heading to Connecticut anyway, so may as well make it a fun thing to do instead of wading through hours of concrete jungle and traffic. We set up our ticket for the ferry, and relaxed before our early start to Connecticut.
"I believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown." - Jim Morrison
We knew that getting in and out of Chicago was going to be the hardest part of the day, so we made haste to get packed up and on the road. We were curious what it would be like to go walking around a city like Chicago, being from New York and so close to Manhattan had afforded us certain opportunities. We knew what it was like to see tall buildings, traffic, and a ton of people. We thought we knew what to expect when it came to difficulty parking, however most parking lots had height limitations, and we had additional height in the form of our Thule putting us at a whopping 7 ft. 9 in. After driving around for a half an hour trying to find parking, we finally found a lot that would accommodate our height and within reasonable walking distance to the tourist traps. We knew it was kismet when we saw this amazing mural on the side of the lot:
Parking a touch on the outskirts of the city center gave us the opportunity to really walk the streets, and get a feel for what was or wasn’t like home. It was an unbelievably beautiful day, warm, and still early. We knew that if we put up a decent pace we could get to the infamous Cloud Gate Bean before the tourist surge. Only problem with this absolutely perfect day was that I had utterly destroyed my current pair of sneakers prior to our arrival. For those of you who don’t know me, I am a bull in a china shop. I do hardly anything with finesse, grace, or with poise. If there was a sliding scale, I would say I was more akin to a Tasmanian devil than I am an elegant lady. I say this only to emphasize that I had only worn the shoes for a month or two before there were holes, sole ripping away from the shoe, ripped fabric inner lining, and they were bent in places that were beginning to give me blisters. I am also painfully Spartan and saw no reason to replace them. I only wanted a band-aid to cover my ankles and we were going. Joe started to realize that I was no longer causing him to run out of air while traversing the city streets, and queried. Then looked down, and immediately began insisting that we buy me new shoes. I said no, and we continued towards the Bean. Joe kept insisting, I said no, and we went looking for lunch, got lost, wandered in and out of air conditioned buildings, and finally found food in the form of Broken English Tacos Ah.Maz.Ing.
It was after lunch, a lecture highlighting the necessity of new shoes, complete with proof of 2 suitable shoe stores on the way back to the car, and an adamant refusal to get back into the car without new shoes from Joe that I finally begrudgingly conceded to the purchase of new footwear (I did get them on sale, and Joe made me throw the old ones away while we were at the store.) We continued exploring Chicago for a bit longer to make full use of our parking lot fee, and then pointed Hefe toward Michigan.
If I am going to be completely honest with you, we wanted to spend more time to go deeper in to Michigan, but as the days of our adventuring went on, we started to realize that we had a real deadline back in New York. We decided that to make this deadline more realistic and still do the things we wanted to do, we would have to cut some time off the trip (sorry Michigan). We did stop briefly in New Buffalo at Warner’s tasting room for a tasting and a chat, we drove around town in search of a postcard, found one and then made haste towards Indiana for the real excitement of the day – The RV and Motor Home Museum!!!
Normally, Joe and I are exceptional at planning. We had set about our day with the intent of ending in Ohio and we made every effort to allocate time for our ventures in the states we would be passing through. What we forgot to consider was time zones. In crossing over from Michigan to Indiana, we lost an entire hour in the blink of an eye. Crap! We made it to the RV and Motor Home Museum with only 20 minutes before closing. The gentleman behind the counter chuckled at us when we told him about our time zone miscalculation and decided that since we’d missed out on a whole hour of museum time, that he’d only charge us for one ticket. Grateful and pressed for time, we set about the museum path and admired the evolution in travel.
The Museum had gone to great lengths to make you feel as if a trip through the museum was a road trip through history. The path was fashioned to look like a road and the exhibits were in a chronological display, some were in good enough shape where you could go through and look at the interiors of the transportable homes. One benefit to our being there so late was that it was almost deserted. Everyone had gotten their fill for the day, so we could bounce excitedly from one vintage vehicle to another. Thankfully, they let us stay a little late (we weren’t the only ones left after all!) and we were able to see everything we wanted. We realized that we still needed to make it the additional 182 miles to where we were sleeping that night, so we said our thank you’s and got back on the road.
While we traveled, we grew famished and located a Mexican place in Toledo, Ohio that could accommodate my dietary needs. The restaurant was good, but was located in one of the most questionable neighborhoods I ever had the displeasure of setting foot in. True depression had wreaked havoc on the population and it showed. A screaming match had broken out across the street between some neighboring homes, something to do with the garbage filled front lawn, complete with stained mattress. We were relieved to be back on the road in under 45 minutes, and continued our way to stay at the Bayshore KOA.
We drove onward and the sun set behind us, we were tired from the full day of driving and my shoes were fully broken in. Anticipating the great relief that laying down for the evening would bring, we began to discuss how we would sleep for the evening when we heard a sound that was familiar…or so we thought. The pelting sound against the windshield that we had begun to associate with rain surprised us when we discovered that what we were really being pelted in was small bugs. It was a swarm season for a small little gnat bug that liked being near water. We drove for a half an hour through a dense fog of insects and murdered countless millions of them. This intense swarming made up our minds about our sleeping arrangements for the evening. When we arrived at the KOA, we checked in, parked for the night and set about sleeping inside the car for the evening.
It was important for us to get a good night’s rest, because our night’s stay at the Bay Shore KOA was planned for an even greater event; Cedar Point!!! We both love roller coasters and haven’t been on any in ages. We knew that it would be a very long time again before we were near a theme park as famous as for its coasters, so we elected to dedicate an entire day to being thrown around by force and gravity.
We slept comfortably for the night, rose early the next morning and hit the park as soon as it opened. We spent the entire day running from coaster to coaster. Admittedly, I am a junkie for adrenaline. I love crazy adventures, and being scared out of my mind. We screamed for the majority of the day and while we weren’t screaming we were sweating to death in the heat. One thing we did notice is that heat makes Joe and I a little… defensive. The lines for the rides were getting longer, the heat of the day was increasing, and younger teenage kids in the park were getting bolder. One group elected to mess with Joe a bit while we were on line for a ride, and then they promptly regretted that decision.
Truthfully, we had a great day, and it would have been phenomenal if the park was just a little bit more honest about their meal plans (that we had spent a considerable portion of money on). Turns out when Cedar Point says Gluten Free, what they really mean is “No way in hell you are eating.” We searched up and down the entire park for hours trying to find anything that would be safe for me to eat. We had done our homework, and had made sure that there was food; the park insisted there was. When we got there, not one place was safe for me to eat. Stressed, frustrated, hot and hangry, we set about finding customer relations. Conveniently very close to the customer relations was an ice cream shop that didn’t mind scooping ice cream from a fresh container for my milkshake. Hanger satiated by a milkshake and a refund, we left the park after 6 hours of coasters desperate for a shower and to be still.
My brilliant husband had the foresight to book us a room at the South Shore Inn for the night so that we could wash the day away and truly relax before making a long drive the next day towards New York. We also were fortunate enough that in this area of Ohio, there was a pizza place that delivered incredible gluten free pizza to our hotel. There are few things in life that make me happier than being in a freezing cold hotel room in the middle of July, freshly washed, and eating a delicious hot pizza with my husband.
Our next day was dedicated entirely to making our way through Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful drive but a very long one coming in at 450 miles. After a day of eating peanuts and drinking water, we treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner at Sara Street Grill. We found a campground that was still open and accepting reservations called Shady Acres a surprisingly massive and very well tended campground. They were extremely family focused, and we were happy to embrace that mentality….or so we thought. We had a peaceful evening watching a movie and enjoying each other’s company one last night before the pressures of civilization were upon us…. then at around 10PM, some Christmas carolers came up to the tent and loudly chastised us for being quiet inside and not coming out of the tent to watch them sing about ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ in July. Can you imagine??
Now I realize there may be a faction of you out there saying “Well, gee Claire, why didn’t you come out of the tent?” simple really; I was not appropriately dressed for the occasion, nor did I feel like making a big fuss about not being dressed for the occasion. Sleeping in a tent for as long as I have, has caused me to relax a certain amount, and as far as I’m concerned, this is my private home. I have no air conditioning and its 85 degrees with considerable humidity, And I don’t know about you, but most people are in pajamas at 10PM. Add that all up and what you have is an image not appropriate for children. Not to mention, I’m sure that none of them sat in a car alllllllll day to get there, and if they did, they certainly weren’t the ones driving. So yes, it may have been cowardly, maybe even bad neighborly, but we laid in wait as the out-of-season caroling herd passed by to sing out of key to the next group of people unfortunate enough to be outside trying to enjoy their evening.
After the sounds of their carols faded and it was deemed safe, we chuckled about our cowardice and whispered to ourselves about what it would be like to cross the border into our home state for the first time in months. The reality of reality had knocked on our happy dreamscape and reminded us that this hiatus from life couldn’t last forever. We knew that after a short stint home, we would be back out on the road, but only for a short while longer. So, we stayed up this night a little later than we should have, laughing about the carolers on the campground, recalling memories from campgrounds past, stretching out our road reality for just a little bit longer, falling asleep slowly and begrudgingly.
We awoke in the middle of the night to the massive rumbles of thunder and the brilliant and continual flashes of lightning. The wind rattled our window panes, and the storms violence continued for quite a while and after what felt like hours finally began to wane. We fell back asleep to the rhythmic rain, and hoped it would stop by our departure in the morning. Rolling out of bed at a reasonable time, we packed up our bins and drove on to the Dows Depot Welcome Center. Built in 1896, it operated as a working depot until 1980. Passengers rode the trains to nearby towns, and many commercial products such as poultry, farm products, and coal were shipped by rail. The Dows Historical Society raised enough money to purchase and restore the depot in 1988, and to our chagrin, no one was there… but the door was open. There were no sign, no cars, nothing - simply an open door. So, we looked around, and left $0.41 on the counter for a single postcard, as well as a note, notifying whomever may show up afterwards of our purchase. Signed the guest book, and headed across the street in to the museum they had, assuming there may be a person there. Nope. Still nobody. We admired the old machinery that was used in times before us, and then went on our way towards Austin, Minnesota.
Why Austin Minnesota? Well, for SPAM of course! In Minnesota, the wonderful people at the SPAM company opted to take a commercial space and fill it to the rafters with the rich history of their pork product. Honestly, I had no idea how influential SPAM was during times of war. The company sent innumerable cans to the soldiers to feed them while they fought. (There were many letters from soldiers both thanking them for their contribution and swearing heartily that they would never have it again.) Truthfully the museum itself was a spectacle, countless displays about the effects the company had on the modern world, as well as interactive learning displays where you could find out more about different countries and their use of the proliferate pork product. The most interesting thing that we learned about the company was their dedication to the rejuvenation of a town. Previously, the museum was located further away from central town, closer to the highway – but the town was dying. Travelers would come to visit the museum, and then continue their journey down the road. Recognizing this, SPAM opted to move their facility into a larger space in the center of town. They also decided that not reopening the restaurant that had been inside the museum prior was the best way of encouraging patrons to frequent the local fare; thus pumping more money into the town. SPAM even made the admission to the museum free, so that everyone would be able to enjoy the pleasantries of the plentiful pork product.
After purchasing a mixed flavor case to bring home as souvenirs (you’re welcome Paramold!!!), we decided to stick around for some food. Conveniently, there was a great little restaurant across the street named Piggy Blues BBQ. It was covered in funny posters and served great food. We decided after eating that we weren’t entirely ready to get back in the car, so we went a few window fronts down to a coffee house. We did what any set of New Yorker's with a bit of free time do, and we utilized the free WiFi to do some work. It was a welcome gift to be sitting still while writing for once! Legs fully stretched and mochas fully enjoyed, we climbed back in Hefe and drove through to my new favorite town… SPARTAAAAA! Wisconsin.
Certainly, a touch less dramatic than it’s Grecian counterpart, but still very fun to scream while pretending to kick someone in a hole. Or at least that’s what I told the counter lady when she asked why the hell New Yorker's were in Wisconsin buying a postcard, and one of our more common dinners - mixed nuts and a bottle of wine. After perplexed looks and payment, we set about converting Hefe into night mode, much to the interest of the townsfolk. We made our home for the evening in the friendly neighborhood Walmart parking lot, and we closed the curtains on another day.
Morning greeted us with sunshine, and we were grateful for it. We started our day as every person should, by saying hello to a statue of a man on a massive bicycle. Duh. His name is Bicycle Ben. I’m not entirely sure why he’s there, but he seemed a happy fellow, so we decided to stop.
From this statue, we drove to our next oddity; a statue of a pink elephant with hipster glasses parked outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere. (According to Joe’s Aunt Linda, this pink elephant has a brother who is in Tennessee.) The gas station I should mention, sells freshly made cheese curds… because Wisconsin, that’s why (pay attention Idaho!!!!). After posing with the pachyderm, purchasing freshly packaged curds, and filling Hefe’s tank, we marched on down the road to our next tourist attraction – Clock Shadow Creamery.
Clock Shadow Creamery is a self-described “Urban Cheese Factory” that specializes in small batch cheese making. It’s a small-ish factory that makes all their cheese in one room. While we didn’t see any cheese being made that day due to their schedule, we were able to ask all the questions we wanted, and most importantly, try all the fresh cheese we wanted! Curiosity satiated we decided that while we were cheesed out, we were still hungry for real food. So we looked to my Find Me Gluten Free app and found, within walking distance, an awesome tapas place called La Merenda (Guess who got to try an empanada!!!!). Rejuvenated from an incredible meal, we got back in the car and made our way towards Chicago.
Normally heading to a city makes finding a place to sleep a little easier. More people, usually means more places to sleep. Up until this point we could stay in local Walmart's if there was no local campground, but heading into Chicago complicated matters a bit more. What we were realizing through our travels is that mega cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all have a sad common denominator; homeless populations. Chicago Walmart's in their perpetual struggle to battle this continual social issue had placed a ban on vehicles being able to stay overnight in the parking lots. This matter was further complicated by the concrete nature of Chicago, there were no campgrounds or one night RV parks. What’s a couple to do?
Find any available local motel that we can afford and hope for the best. That’s exactly what happened. We trudged through horrific rush hour traffic, regretting every moment of heading towards a city at the end of a day. Stressed from being lost, hungry from finding no suitable food, tired from being on the road, we cracked open a bottle of wine, cranked the air conditioning, and showered like we would drown. Officially famished, we elected to be brave and wander the streets outside our motel. We found a little bodega around the corner that suited our purposes, and Joe being extremely sociable managed to strike up a conversation about Tool with the bodega clerk. We walked around the exceptionally depressed ghetto area our motel was situated in, and did our best to enjoy the sunset stroll and the company of one another.
There are very few instances in my life that I can honestly say I felt like I was in a movie. However, the way we started our morning at Sleepy Hollow Campground in Wall, South Dakota is counted among those times. Nestled cozy and content in our blankets, we slept soundly, and happily, unaware that the town of Wall has a bright and early start time. The work day began. By that, I am referring to the terrifying shrill, 4 AM wake-up call that the town receives in the form of a very long Freight Train pulling into station. Unwittingly, we stayed in the campground that shared a neighbor line with a fill station. After making no attempts at quiet during the hour it occupied the fill line, the train trumpeted its departure promptly at 5 AM. This triggered yet another viscerally offensive cacophony of horn screams. Desperate for the cessation of the devil train, we began to rest easier as the horns faded eastward. As our luck would have it another train shrieked its intentions to pull into the station. It’s in this moment that Joe and I recalled for the second time on this trip ‘My Cousin Vinny’.
Our plight was not without benefits! Since we were at one of the nicest campgrounds we have had the pleasure of staying in, we could give ourselves a lovely morning gift – A SHOWER!!!! Manna from heaven, Sweet nectar of life! At this point we had grown accustomed to several days in a row doing a daily sponge bath in random bathrooms or in the tent (baby wipes were our best friend – dirty but true). After being woken up in such a brusque manner, I must admit the shower did a world of good. We felt ready to take on the rest of our day, and used the extra hours of time at our disposal to get an early start into the Badlands. The Badlands were an incredible sight; a place where the true king of nature is erosion . Utterly unforgiving, completely wild, and stunning in its purity.
However, even a fabulous shower couldn’t wash away the oddities that would follow us through the day. The Birds must have gossiped about their fallen brethren and offered up another contender to battle Hefe. With decisive vigor, the brave bird launched itself in determination at Hefe...with a small 'thunk!' the would-be champion followed in the footsteps of his predecessor. Hefe elevated his title to 'National Champion' (we've crossed state lines now) with a record of 2-0. Although, it seems the birds have learned from their previous mistakes- instead of going for the windshield, the new opponent opted to aim lower and careen into our radiator. Thankfully, no real damage other than a distinctive bird print in its metal screen (talk about leaving a mark!). Nauseated again by the murder/suicide of yet another animal, we pressed onward. Only to shortly thereafter encounter another first on our trip, the sighting of our first tumbleweed! … which we promptly ran over, and it became wedged under the wheel well. Great. We pull over, (take a picture of course) dislodge the sizable bouquet of dry twigs, and set it free… where it promptly tumbled straight into the road. Determined to keep the tumble in its natural habitat, I threw it over a fence as far away from the road as possible. After a trying morning, of train horns and unintentional vehicular manslaughter, we decided it was time for breakfast. We ate at a resort just south of the Badlands, Cedar Pass Lodge and had ourselves a solid breakfast.
Bellies full, we hit the old dusty trail on our way to Nebraska, to stop by Fred’s Flying Circus – an amazing art installation created by a man who worked on cars his whole life. He opted to restore some vehicles, weld on well-loved television characters, and place them on extremely high poles, as if they were flying. The man who created it, Fred Schritt, had passed recently, and his family chose to keep his art legacy intact.
It was after admiring the vehicular masterpieces that it dawned on us we were required to give Hefe some maintenance, particularly since he had been fighting the locals the preceding days. We found a nearby Walmart that would help us out for both the oil change, as well as the lot to stay parked for the night. We arrived just in time for them to take us as their last customer. The salesperson was kind enough to let us go find food inside, eat it at the service desk, and chat with us about our journey (they too were perplexed by the New York license plates). We had a great conversation, and afterwards simply had to park the car, set up, and relax. Except for, there was a little bit of an issue with the weather. After a stunning sunset (fireworks show included free of charge), the wind kicked up and began to rock Hefe. Then thunder and lightning came, no rain, but holy wind. Several times a sudden gust would rock us, and the wind would wail across the broad side of the car, waking us with a start. The thunder and lightning was a result of all the heat that had been building from the previous days. With no humidity to release water and break the cycle, the air was heavy with heat – almost like walking in to an oven. Sleep was elusive to say the least.
Despite our restless sleep, morning came, and brought with it the heat of day. We left Walmart behind and ambled down the road to discover the rest of Nebraska as we made our way to Kansas for a look at the Largest Ball of Twine. On our way, we realized that it was Sunday. Normally, that means nothing, at least not to a New Yorker. Some stores might have odd hours, maybe one or two are closed, but there’s always something open. In the great state of Nebraska, that meant that there was a functioning gas station, and that was it. Every store in the towns we drove through were closed. It was haunting. As if frozen in time, abandoned, and forgotten – but perfectly preserved. Not one person walked down the town streets, no children rode their bikes in the gorgeous sunny weather. We obeyed the 25-mph speed limit and crawled through town, feeling the palpable difference between our preconceived notion of a Sunday, and the reality of these empty streets. Unable to find anything that would allow us to experience more of Nebraska, we pushed onward towards Cawker City, Kansas and the impressively rolled jute wonder.
I must confess myself underwhelmed. Not by the twine ball itself, that was about what I expected, but I suppose the experience is a touch more lackluster than I had anticipated. It’s a gazebo that covers a giant ball of twine, and a mailbox holds the ledger for visitors to sign in. There are no people to talk to, no locals to wax philosophic about their city’s sole contribution to the world of the meandering motorist. Just some pigeons, and a notebook. It made it easier to take our pictures and be on our way, but I suppose I was expecting just a bit more fanfare. Maybe other people don’t get as excited by twine as I do.
We left the twine in the rear-view mirror and decided that we would comfort ourselves to some Kansas City barbecue. But not Kansas City, Kansas – Kansas City, Missouri. We crossed the border into our third state for the day and settled ourselves down for a fabulous meal at BB’s Lawnside BBQ, a restaurant that had been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and was also well versed in gluten free food. I enjoyed burnt ends and green beans, while Joe treated himself to their renowned “BBQ Sundae”.
Glutinously satisfied with our food, and the experience, we said our thank-you’s and took to the streets to cross another state line. We opted to spend the night in Des Moines, Iowa at a hotel. The weather reports insisted that a relentless thunderstorm would be passing through, and given the wind we had experienced the night before we didn’t want to risk being in the tent or car. We checked ourselves into the hotel and began to relax our bodies from the long day in the car. We were exhausted from the day’s travels, and very much looking forward to lying in air conditioning for an entire night. The air in Iowa was oppressive, combining it with the untoward heft of humidity made it feel as if we were breathing through hot water. Grateful for the nights shelter, air conditioning, and a shower, we turned off the lights and settled in to watch the storm pass.
We woke up early in the Medora Campground which was a very short distance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and decided to pack up our space before going to the campground office to hash out why our reservation had been lost the night before. After packing up, we headed to the bathrooms for a quick wash and teeth brushing. I opened the door to the bathroom and promptly discovered something awry. There happened to be a very large bearded male standing at the sink, washing his hands. Consulting the outside sign to confirm that in fact I was not in the wrong bathroom, (Meaning Joe was also in the wrong bathroom) I concluded that he must have not seen the sign. So, I walked in and said good morning, and began to wash up. The gentleman looked quite a bit panicked and asked “So, uh, is it me who’s wrong here? Or is it you?” laughingly, I answered his worst fears with the affirmative that he had mistakenly entered the ladies room, but that I didn’t mind, as I was only washing my hair and brushing my teeth. He thanked me for my graciousness, apologized, and ran out of the bathroom. A moment later, 2 little girls came in to the bathroom, they were about 5 and 7, so I was grateful that the man hadn’t stayed longer. The girls looked at me and didn’t make a move from the door. I suppose it must be strange to see a grown woman with her head in the sink of a public bathroom. I told them that the stalls were empty and that they were more than welcome to use them, or that if they needed the sink, I would be done in a moment.
After tending to their business, the oldest girl came out and began to ask me why I was washing my hair in the sink, and not in my RV like everyone else. I explained to her that we didn’t come in an RV, that we were there using a tent to camp, and that sometimes, as an adult you have to do silly things like wash your hair in the sink. I told her I liked her pajamas (Elsa from Frozen) and she thanked me. I asked where she was from and she cooed “North Dakkkoooooootaaa, where are you from?”
“Well, I’m From New York.” It was as if I told her I was from the moon. The look on her face was utterly priceless.
“New York?! Are you really from all the way out there?!” apparently, New Yorkers don’t come to North Dakota that often. After finishing my hair and the odd pleasantries, we said our goodbyes. Joe says that he doesn’t understand why I always manage to have such strange encounters in bathrooms. We stopped by the office to fix our reservation confusion, and then headed the half mile to Theodore Roosevelt National Park where we were lucky enough to see beautiful landscapes and more importantly prairie dogs, mountain goats, and bison! I’d like to consider my photography series for the bison to be my best work yet.
After our tour through the park, we embarked towards Mount Rushmore. We tried to stop for breakfast at a place that claimed they would cook gluten free. When we arrived, we ordered coffee, immediately blanched at its terrible quality, and then were informed that there was no way that they would accommodate my dietary needs (even though my app said they could). They had stopped serving breakfast so eggs were out of the question, they wouldn’t give me a baked potato because apparently, those are reserved for after 4 pm. Frustrated and hungry, we asked for the check. The waitress appeared offended “Ya don’t want nothing to eat?” I explained that since she had just stated that my options were unavailable I asked what she would do in such a situation, she shrugged and said “You should just order a sandwich.” Officially furious, we paid for unconditionally horrific coffee, and left.
Our grumbling bellies were quieted with bottled water and hopes that further down the line we might be able to find better accommodations for food. Thankfully,a few hours later, The Powder House Lodge did an incredible job of taking care of me, happily customizing a meal for me and explained it may take a little bit longer due to the need to make it separately. Gratified, full, and renewed, we drove through the town and up to the majesty of Mount Rushmore.
Truly a beautiful drive, and a very well-tended monument. As we were taking pictures we looked off in the distance and noticed that there was a quite familiar sight for this trip – yep you guessed it! Rain clouds. Determined to not be rained on, we hopped in the car and made our way towards Wall Drug in South Dakota where we would be spending our evening. I would say it poured, but that suggests that what was forming in the black clouds was rain. It took us quite by surprise when we realized in fact it was not rain, but hail. Marble sized pellets of ice began to pelt our car at a torrential rate; causing the cars on the highway to either pull off, hide under bridges, or turn their hazards on and drive less than 20 mph. We were of the latter group. But don’t worry, we filmed the natural assault, and even managed to get some pictures of the gathering hail on the highway. It looked like snow, in the middle of July. Go figure. After surviving the storm with no cracks in the windshield, we kept pushing onward to Wall Drug.
For those playing the home game, Wall Drug is not a town, it’s a business. The town’s name is Wall, but the reason it’s called Wall Drug is because of the pharmacy that placed this town on the map. A Pharmacist many years ago, opened his shop in the town of Wall, and was failing. No one wanted to stop in a nowhere town. So, they came up with the idea of offering free ice water to passing motorists. No gimmick, no secret cost, just free water. They would fill up jugs of it for people who were traveling along, and send them on their way. It launched an incredible venture wherein they were able to expand the shop to create a strip, offering everything you may need out on the road; including family friendly entertainment. It’s a cute place that gives a good rest and has nice people.
We stayed across the street at the Sleepy Hollow Campground a nice place with beautiful bathrooms (trust me, it’s a blessing when you find that). We set up the car for the night, and walked over to the tiny strip to go explore the ins and outs of Wall Drug. What we didn’t realize is that we had gotten there quite late, and in this part of the country, everything closes fairly early. We went to the small bar (the only one in town) and sat down for a drink. Slowly, the realization that this was the locals watering hole began to dawn on us. There was no one in the bar except for people who lived and worked in Wall. Everyone was meeting up after coming off shift, and looking quite quizzically at us. They mostly ignored us and our froo-froo cocktails, and started talking small town gossip. (I’m fairly positive that it’s big information that one of the townswomen recently broke up with her boyfriend and was already after someone else in town. Utterly scandalous.) We finished our drinks and headed back to the car, and enjoyed the evening air. The campground was quiet, the weather was beautiful, and we closed the hatch on another day.
In the morning when we awoke to a chilly but beautiful Wyoming sky. Our clothes were still a touch damp, but we couldn’t afford to wait any longer, it was going to be an arduous day of driving. Turns out the town of Cody is full of surprises – one being the Cody Laundromat was open (and was unbelievably clean). Apparently, this town is so kind to each other that they leave the laundromat open 24 hours a day, and only staffs it during normal business hours. They have a flat screen TV mounted on the wall, cable box, with remote, free Wi-Fi, complete free coffee pot station, an unused detergent donation basket, and cheap machines. I fully believed that we were on candid camera and at any second someone was going to come in and steal the TV. Instead, we spent a $1 and 15 minutes drying the rest of our clothes, in the cleanest laundromat I have ever seen in my life.
Before leaving the most honest town I’ve ever set foot in, we popped into the gas station across the street for coffee, then continued our drive straight across the state of Wyoming to get to the infamous Devil’s Tower. During our trek, we stopped briefly at the Smiling Moose Deli for lunch, and eventually landed in Crook County at the base of the iconic 867ft. National Monument.
We poked in to the very small visitors center and then started the uphill climb to the foot of the igneous intrusion. After taking some obligatory selfies while discussing aliens and walking around on the path through the tumbled boulders at its base, we realized we still had a minimum of 4 more hours of road time until we reached our destination for the evening. Happy with our brief but impressive exercise, we made our way down the path towards the parking lot.
In the short time that it takes to weave in and out of the path, I managed to immortalize myself in a random family’s vacation picture. The woman taking the picture informed me with great pride that I would officially be part of their treasured memories - I told her that my only request is that I make the fridge, I like being on the fridge – particularly for Holidays. Laughingly we parted ways, and climbed into the only orange car in the parking lot. Also, interestingly enough, the only car with New York license plates - while we were also the only people wearing nothing but shades of black. It was a very stereotyped moment in our lives.
We turned our tires towards North Dakota to reach the breathtaking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we were most excited to see Bison for the first time. North Dakota is beautiful, but I have never seen a place where the majority mammal wasn’t human. Herds of cattle dot the landscape, it’s a place where cars, fences, and cattle guards are the only signs of human intervention. Well, that and the livestock tags that hang from their ears. (I keep insisting that they are free wild cows – undomesticated entirely, Joe says I’m adorable.) With each passing mile marker, the skies swelled and darkened. The clouds began to condense and swirl, beginning to reach further down; on the horizon was a wall of grey that grew heavy and bloated with the upcoming rain. We were going to witness one fuuuuuunn thunderstorm.
The wind picked up, giving our little box car (We call him Hefe) some fight, the rain poured from the skies - but the birds were the worst of it. The thunderous and unrelenting rain must have scared the birds and caused them to panic, because once it turned torrential, there was a wave of dive bombing birds that kept narrowly dodging the edges of our car. Until… one poor kamikaze bird obstinately approached us head on in a fight. Hefe definitely won. With a walloping “thunk!” and a small smear of blood and feathers, Hefe won his first joust. Joe exclaimed, I gagged, the windshield wiper wiped, and in unison, we wretched. In about 3 wipes and the assistance of the heavy rains all trace of Hefe’s fallen foe was erased, but the memory of it’s untimely (Intentional?) demise will forever make me nauseated. Joe was devastated as it was the first animal we had ever hit between the two of us. But guess what we caught on video?
Eventually, it stopped raining long enough for us to stop and eat dinner at the previously discussed Pizza Ranch (20 miles in the complete opposite direction, but legitimately the ONLY food I could eat within a "reasonable" distance) we ordered two very American pizzas; chicken, bacon, & ranch and a bacon cheeseburger with half pickles. Immediately after ingestion we deeply regretted the combination of these two pies. While driving the 36 miles back over the roads we just used, we relived every bite of our bad choices. Every belch tasted of pickles, garlic, and ranch - it was indeed a hardship. Our exhausted bodies and bothered bellies were only placated with the promise of rest at our previously reserved campground space in Medora Campground.
Weary from the hundreds of miles traveled, we pulled into the office to find that we had just missed the standard operating hours. Not to be discouraged, we set about looking for our night reservation papers… Not there. The dreadful thought that someone may have stolen our space for the evening began to creep into our minds. Determined to make this night go to plan, I called the phone number for after-hours service, and tried to sort out what had gone awry while Joe began to look more and more perturbed. Turns out, our reservation wasn’t stolen, it was lost in their system, and had been consequently canceled. Absolutely at our quickly fraying last wit, Joe and I searched in frustrated desperation on rain soaked grounds for an unclaimed piece of un-flooded campground. Our efforts were rewarded with a tiny plot off the fork of a road. Grateful for the space, we quickly began work setting up Hefe during the first lull in the rain. I’ll be honest, it was a tense set up. We both felt awful, smelled like pickles and pizza, and couldn’t wait to no longer be moving. Ultimately, we managed to get cozy before it began raining again, and fell asleep to its soft sounds against our roof. It was a cold night in North Dakota, and we were thankful to be warm, safe, and still.