Long Night into a Magic Morning

Things don’t always work according to plan. I guess I should’ve known from the name we were in for some trouble. Devil’s Campground (in Arches National Park) isn’t exactly a welcoming omen.

We were headed from Hovenweep, taking our time exploring the beauty of Utah, and ended up having to take out one of planned stops so we wouldn’t have to feel any kind of time crunch. Unfortunately, it seems I’ll never plan perfectly because we finally got to Arches ten minutes after the visitor center closed. I was worried this meant we couldn’t check into our campground, but we decided there was nothing to do but try for it.

An hour of driving through the park, passing massive cliffs and seeing a couple of arches, we finally made it to the end where the campground was…and it was closed. There was a small wooden blockade, which we assumed the rangers had just put up minutes before. Our access to Devil’s Campground was closed and now we were out of luck for the night.

We drove a bit further to one of the trails to park and figure out what to do. The sun had already set and after a quick Airbnb search there was nothing available for at least seventy miles. We sat in the car at a loss – there was no way three of us (and a dog) could sleep in the car for the night. In a split decision, we got moving toward the entrance of the closed campground and moved the small wooden blockade to gain access. We figured we could just pay at the visitor center in the morning and it wouldn’t be too big of a deal. So we quickly moved the wooden barrier, hearts racing, and made our way into the campground, hoping no fellow hikers would rat us out.

But there was literally not a single person in the entire campground.

When I’d been doing research, I’d found out the only campground in the park had been under construction for several months and was scheduled to be done only two days before our visit. From the website, everything looked like it was going to be good to go for our night’s camp. But based on the fact no one was inside and realizing the blockade had come from a construction crew, we decided we needed to get out before we were caught in a closed zone.

Unfortunately, right as we were only twenty yards from the exit, a big construction crew pulled up to the campground entrance. We shut our engine off in a parking spot and tried to be silent and figure out what to do. Would the Park kick us out on our first night before we’d even done any hiking? It was getting dark fast; where would we even go?

After almost an hour fretting in the near dark, trying to decide between just approaching the construction crew (who were apparently working on the entrance) and just setting up camp, we heard the crew noisily drive off. We were saved! We could now just hurriedly leave and no one would be the wiser. We started the car and crept toward the front with our headlights off. I jumped out of the car to dash toward the wooden blockade, and then a flash of headlights hit me. I was caught!

The construction crew had come back. (I was just glad there were no angry Park rangers.) After explaining everything, the guys were pretty easygoing and said they knew we were in the campground where we shouldn’t be but they now needed us to wait before escaping because they’d just freshly painted logos and lines on the campground asphalt. Of course.

So we finally made it out and were back to square one. Well, with increased heart rates and gratitude that I wasn’t in trouble with my beloved National Park Services. We parked at the trailhead and decided the only thing to do was set up camp. In the parking lot. In the dark. We were kind of out of options.

We turned on the car’s headlights and set up our tent in the beam. We tried to throw all the car’s blankets in to give us a bit more comfort. And then instead of the campfire dinner we’d planned, we dumped out all our best snacks. We hauled out a massive bottle of rosé and got to work. We knew we were in for a long cold, uncomfortable night so we poured our wine heavy-handed.

Spoiler alert, we made it through. My new (REI garage sale, literal lifesaver) sleeping bag was fully zippable and I had on leggings, a shirt, and a fluffy sweater. It was bearable with the little buzz I’d worked up. But better than the wine and the secret-sharing, had to be the next morning, waking up to the greatness of an Arches sunrise. All I’d had to do was turn over and unzip the door.

After a moment of lying (on the admittedly hard ground) I realized we would have the best choices for sunrise pictures in the Park. I woke up my friends and packed hurriedly, basically just throwing everything every which way into the car. We were dressed and decamped in ten minutes flat, driving like mad through Arches to get back to a spot we knew would be great to catch the full sunrise.

All in all, definitely worth it, even with all the bumps along the way. We drove the winding main road at the highlight of the day twice – both sunset and sunrise, enjoying the views basically all to ourselves. I’m definitely having a lot of fun traveling and ending with no regrets.

Lead to Hot Water Hills by a Reiki

It was time to venture into Arkansas! Even though the temperatures were easing up only slightly in Dallas, I’d been dreaming of taking a bath in some natural springs. I thought the Hot Springs National Park was the obvious venture, but I’d soon find out all you’d find there were some cool bath houses with fancy spa packages – not exactly the hidden adventure I’d expected. Fortunately, there was still plenty of adventure to be made!

After an early start to get on the road, we headed to the Arkansas Post National Memorial. While mostly another battle site, it also offered some great views of the Arkansas River, which had once been a famous trading post. I’d not explored much nature in Arkansas, but this was a great introduction.

Next stop was one of America’s most iconic stops, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. While the high school is pretty much an average high school, the history behind it was amazing to revisit. As the building most known for our country’s desegregation, it was really touching to get a closer look at the Little Rock Nine – the students who went through the hardship of this necessary education equal rights.

This National Park site was honestly the one we scoured the most. I wanted every detail and enjoyed the personal stories so much. Even if you’ve heard of the (in)famous nine in passing, following their journeys in detail through the years was much more eye-opening. In class you think of this education desegregation as one day, when in reality just this event took years.

It was time to head to the Hot Springs and we were pretty excited. Even though we wouldn’t get to bathe in healing waters in the wild, after arriving we found ourselves in a run-in with a karmic Reiki healer who lead us to a “pure natural source that hadn’t been tarnished by the rusting underground pipes” where I quickly filled up my whole water bottle. He kept talking about the energy he felt and how he swore his body felt stronger, and I couldn’t help but think we were just as enchanted as they’d been years ago when the Springs had claimed to heal all sorts of terminal diseases.

We took a quick tour of the old bath houses, but after our authentic healer-taught experience by an actual spring, the commercialized spas and large bath houses just weren’t as impressive. Luckily for us, that night was the annual Hot Water Hills Festival, which was sure to offer us more of the strange and mystic.

They’d set up the festival in the middle of the town square, putting up lots of local craft and artisans, delightful food trucks, and a score of live bands. It was a lot of fun to look at everything and y’all with the locals. I certainly looked at close to a thousand crystals and enjoyed sipping my blueberry-infused draft beer. The music was pretty great too, and you could tell people were enjoying letting their “weird” out more than usual.

After an eventful night with a hard rest, we got on the road and headed to our last stop before home – President Clinton’s birth home. It was kind of weird to us that this little house was a National Park site, but we checked out Clinton’s family photos and headed on our way.

No matter what I go in expecting, I’m never let down by these adventures! I may not always get what I picture, but I always find something new and unique to experience. At this point I’ve hit a lot of National Parks site and I can’t wait to see where I’m going next!

Darker Side of the City

We had about fourteen hours left in Los Angeles and we were ready to make the most of it. We left the Airbnb early and with our backpacks strapped on, we embarked on our touristy finale. First stop: the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Wanting to beat the crowds, I’d planned this for the morning. But without all the people, it just looked really dirty. There were also so many souvenir shops, it began to feel really cheap and comical. I was glad no mob mentality would force me into a spending frenzy.

Then we headed over to the Original Farmer’s Market in the Grove. There was so much food and everything smelled so good it took us at least half an hour just to decide what to have (I did breakfast crepe with fresh squeezed strawberry juice – yum!). We walked around a bit, had some waffle cup espresso shots, bought cool sunglasses, and window shopped one of the trendiest areas in the city.

Deciding it was time for some culture to escape the materialism pit, we started on our museum journey. We explored the outdoor exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I especially loved the light posts area because of the perfectly placed columns in perfect rows. Not only did it please my orderly mindset, it was fun to have so much Singing-in-the-Rain dancing.

As a fan of true crime podcasts, I’d heard of the special Museum of Death that had just opened up and thought it’d be interesting. Did I think it would be fun? Unsure. But spoiler alert, it wasn’t. As much into horror and true crime I am, looking up close at so much death was just disturbing. I sped though the more graphic exhibits and honestly spent a lot of it just trying to make it to the end.

It was a relief to make it back outside. I was glad our next few hours would be exploring a fun area in the sun. Olvera Street was our next destination, and being familiar with Mexico, it really was like a little town in the middle of downtown LA. A short walk away we headed to Little Tokyo! The city really is a little hodgepodge of every culture – no where else can you walk from Mexico to Japan and get a very authentic experience.

Little Tokyo really brightened us up, everything was so cute and colorful! We were still trying to shake some of the darker city honesty of the morning off us after having spent a lot of the previous day convening with nature. Our backs were starting to hurt a bit because of our backpacks so with some extra time from speeding through the previous museum, we even went to the famous Pink’s. The line was long but we had to! I got fries and Jenna said the hot dogs were worth it. Plus, all the different food was a big mood booster!

It was time to head to another country – I mean LA area – the Venice Canals! Walking through the streets was so crazy! It really was so beautiful and surprising in the middle of such a populated city. The sun was setting fast, but we had a nice evening stroll through the waterways and over the cute bridges.

We rented bikes again and made our way back to Santa Monica Pier as our final event. We’d loved our nature day so much, we wanted to get back near the beach. Seeing the packed pier at night was also a new experience! Everything really felt like a fair. We got ice cream and hit on by some skater teenagers so it was like stepping into the past in a way.

It was a perfect way to end what had turned out to be a bit of a darker day than I’d originally intended. It was kind of great too in a way, because it felt like we had the full Los Angeles treatment – the nature and the urban, the good and the ugly!

Seeking Nature in a City

With vague ideas of moving to California sometime in the foreseeable future, I knew it was time to visit LA. When my friend Jenna found a round trip flight for under $100 perfectly aligned to our work weekend – we jumped at a two day Los Angeles trip. We would arrive early morning Friday and head out on a redeye late Saturday night. Knowing we didn’t have a lot of time and would only be taking a carry-on backpack, I planned a packed schedule to try and hit every major tourist area of LA.

The first day was devoted to all the nature we could explore in one of the biggest cities in America. Since the airport isn’t far from the beach, we got off the plane and headed straight to Venice Beach. It was pretty early on a weekday morning so not too many people were out. We walked along the pier looking for coffee and breakfast and accidentally picked up an overly friendly stray who’d just woken up on a park bench. After losing him and recharging we rented bikes to stroll along Venice Beach, checking out Muscle Beach and several iconic skatepark areas.

More and more people were popping up as our ride progressed. A fun and easy thirty minutes later we were at the Santa Monica pier, enjoying the souvenir booths, the Ferris wheel, and dipping our feet into the freezing waters. Originally we had wanted to swim, but it was much colder than we’d expected so we rolled up our pants and walked along the shoreline, watching the tourists who’d come from all over the world.

We were so close it didn’t feel right not to check out Malibu, so we continued our beach exploration after a quick Uber ride north up the coast. The sand was so clean and the nearby shops so much fancier, we felt like we could see a celebrity at any moment. (My hope was Miley Cyrus since her song Malibu had just hit the airwaves.) We sprawled along the beach, enjoying the weather warming up and the overall relaxed atmosphere away from the crowds.

Next we were on our way to our Airbnb in West Hollywood, but of course we had to get a taste of the infamous LA traffic. We got in the car and literally didn’t move for forty-five minutes. Our Uber driver had to stop our ride because he ran out of time on his lunch break. We got out to walk past a majority of the traffic and then we’re finally on our way. It was insane!

After cleaning off the beach on us, we headed to Runyon Canyon. I’d tried to figure out a way to get close to the Hollywood sign off a trail, but it was harder than I thought with no guide. Instead, we enjoyed a leisurely hike through the hills, superzoomed to get our snap of the sign, and ran into our own meditation coach right as the sunset across the valley.

Once it was dark (and our minds had been cleared and calmed) we headed for dinner at a trendy spot nearby. Then it was on to the Griffith Observatory because what else is there to do at night? Look at the stars, of course!

When we got there they had several of their massive telescopes out on the grounds, knowing their usual two wouldn’t satisfy the masses. We peeked at a great magnification of Saturn, clearly seeing the rings and nearby stars. It was incredible looking through the telescope at the real thing, because as we get older I tend to think we forget how impressive “every day” things are around us. They say stop and smell the roses, but I say stop and relearn things you forgot from Elementary school.

The museum inside the observatory is pretty cool too. Besides the usual how-stars-are-made infographics, there were interesting star charting facts and an original Tesla coil – which they turned on and everything! And when you’re at Griffith, you can’t only look up but have to look out because a lot of the best cityscape views are there.

Overall, there was a lot of nature to discover in this city. It had also been such a great experience to connect with the people of the city, who seem very open and oddly spiritual. So the next time you’re at the top of the world, the sun is making its descent, and you’ve had a full day converging with nature, go ahead and follow along on the loud stranger’s meditation.

Bad Luck is Based on Perspective

After blowing a tire twenty minutes from home at the start of a day trip, I was prepared for anything that would happen next. We’d gotten three hours behind schedule because of the forced car change, but me, Jenna, and Gian were finally on our way.

We stopped for coffee in Wichita Falls, saw a sign for the “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” and even as we got more behind schedule, allowed a secondary pit stop to check it out. It was cute, but pretty much just a narrow two-story building. We continued on our way to our official first stop: the Route 66 National Museum.

It was a little hokey, mostly outdated, but overall enjoyable to check out the historic highway (we’d find ourselves on this road a lot, you’ll see). Our main goal on this trip was to finish our first state on the National Parks list – Oklahoma! No better way to celebrate trips than appreciate the most iconic highway in America.

Still behind schedule, we got to Washita Battlefield National Historic Site with no time to really explore. Which turned out okay by me, because it was really just an open field where Native Americans were caught unaware and attacked. So while the prairie lands are pretty, it’s still a bit of a sad memorial. No time for hiking, so on to the next stop.

It was back to Texas for us, headed to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument which was paired with the nearby Lake Meredith. Our winding road through this area was a beautiful (somewhat treacherous in the smaller car) ride. Texas sure has a lot of different landscapes and it was a nice day. We did a bit of hiking at Alibates, short trails with big sunflower beds.

Lake Meredith wasn’t exactly the most picturesque lake, but there were lots of families enjoying the water so it was relaxing. After watching lots of full picnic tables, we remembered because of how behind schedule we were, we hadn’t stopped for food in our mad dash across state lines to pick up all three National Parks stamps. We dried off our feet, and headed back into town for something to eat.

We stopped for local Tex-Mex, enjoying the evening on the patio eating salsa and getting our energy back. Gian, who was familiar with the area, mentioned that Cadillac Ranch was nearby and worth a stop. So, after a day of rocky mishaps and easygoing itineraries, we decided we might as well check it out before heading home.

Not being super into cars, I wasn’t prepared for what this Ranch was supposed to offer. Giant Cadillacs stuck in a row covered in spray paint wasn’t exactly what first came to mind. But it quickly became my favorite part of the day! Tate weather was turning bad so lots of people cleared out and left behind lots of spray cans up for grabs.

Not minding the light drizzle, we crawled all over the cars and sprayed what we could. Everything became unintelligible because of the layers and layers of color and mismatched patterns. It was unexpectedly delightful being seemingly out in the middle of nowhere with big machinery to crawl on and add art to.

It started storming so we headed home in the rain and in the dark. It was weird, thinking about how many things had gone wrong for the day. The busted tire, the racing time, the depressing battlefield, the rain – but it had been such a great day! I truly think “bad luck” is just a perspective.

Stop for the Alligators

I had a random day available so after checking my (Southwest region) National Parks list, I decided a day trip to Louisiana was in order. There’s a few National Park spots near New Orleans but there’s one random spot in the middle of the state in Natchitoches. My friend Jenna and I couldn’t tell much from the website, but we were headed to the Cane River Creole National Park.

Our drive started early since we both had plans in the evening, but it was nice after a little break to be back on the open road again.

We only encountered one “problem” on the way – lovebugs. Apparently it was mating season for these bugs and as soon as we crossed into Louisiana our car was covered. It was fields and fields of them. Disgusting, but to be honest, we literally couldn’t keep the windows clean for how many we kept running into. We eventually made it with one gas stop to throughly wash the windshield.

When we eventually found the Park (the visitor center in town looked like it’d been closed for months) we found ourselves at the Oakland Plantation, with only a handful of older people. I’ve definitely noticed that not too many young people are on the same National Park journey I’ve embarked on, unless they’ve been dragged there by their parents. Which is crazy! There’s so many great things to see and history available near everyone.

We hit up the main center to grab the stamp for our passport, realizing there was not even a ranger in sight. I don’t think they were used to too many visitors so we explored the little “museum” on our own. They had a little antiquated shop set up that looked authentic and had some of the things an old-timey general store would sell. They also talked about the plantation being a cotton producer.

Next we hit up the main house which was two stories, very old, and locked. We explored the best we could (peaking int the windows) and nearly had a heart attack when we discovered an old man was in a rocking chair on the porch. He fit in so well I thought they’d put a mannequin there. He was waiting on his wife who was currently on the tour, which we’d just barely missed.

We’d seen what we wanted so we headed home making a point to follow the Cane River on our way out. It seemed pretty but was mostly inaccessible due to all the homes along the river’s edge.

While a bit interesting, the day wasn’t super fun so I knew we needed something to make the drive worth it. Jenna and I agreed that if we saw anything that seemed even remotely worthwhile on the way we would stop. And just our luck, right before hitting Texas we spotted a “Gator Park & Exotic Zoo”.

Of course we stopped! Who could pass that up – especially when we discovered it was a petting zoo! There was a whole pond full of alligators, swimming in the murky waters and lounging along the sand pit. We stared at them for a good half hour, I kid you not. Then it was off to hold a baby gator! It was so cute!

I bought some feed and headed deeper in the park, spotting all different kinds of deer immediately. We passed goats and sheep. Things I’d never seen up close like emus and ostriches. Some of them were pretty intense with their big glassy eyes, but they all approached when they realized I had the food.

My mission was to pet as many animals as I could, which was at some points extremely terrifying. Large birds are basically dinosaurs, okay? And anything bigger than me deserves caution. The lemurs were hilarious though.

I have to say besides the alligators, my favorite part was making friends with a baby kangaroo. I had never seen a kangaroo, let alone a baby, let alone it jumping to me! It was so soft and adorable, I decided it was going to be my next pet.

And then of course I started to feel a bit bad for all the animals because they should probably be free, right? Then I looked up their mission which was largely educational and responsible for research and promotion of understanding of all animals, no matter if they’re exotic or not. So I can definitely get behind that!

I can also get behind impromptu stops based on billboards offering adventure!

You Better Belize It!

(Yes, I will use all the corny Belize puns.)

Originally we had dreams of zip-lining or cave tubing but because of the storm that had moved in we didn’t want to have our plans ruined. After some quick research, we decided to wing it, rent a golf cart, and explore the island. And whoa, I’m glad we did!

We didn’t have a map but knew the island was pretty small, so first we just headed north. We passed a lot of shops, swerved out of the way of the locals, and saw a lot of tropical beauty that was just the backyard to them. There was the same amount of golf carts as cars and it turned out to be a great way to explore San Pedro.

Since it was off season, there wasn’t a whole lot open but just passing over the landscape was great. There was the beach to my right between every building and the river to my left along every bridge. We stopped at a cool bar eatery (closed) and checked out their setup, complete with riverside swings and danger signs for real alligators.

We headed south next, passing a lot of cool yoga retreats and big resorts. It took us probably a leisurely three hours to cover the island end to end. While making a pit stop for local handcrafted chocolate, I also grabbed some homegrown coffee (of course) and walked along the pier.

We hit a bunch of big tourist shops that were open and chatted with a few local shopkeepers. Near our hotel there was booths set up for local craftsmen and artisans and we spent some time talking to one man about his passion for making sinks. He sculpted local wood into beautiful works of art and was super friendly. I can’t say enough how great and amiable Belizeans are.

On a honest side note, we had seen a lot of people smoking and knew the smell wasn’t just tobacco. Apparently that same day marijuana had just been legalized in the country. Because of this, there were a lot of parties starting and the nightlife was getting a lot rowdier than the previous days.

This was kind of perfect for me because it was my last night. I had a lot of fun rum drinks at a packed Fido’s as a way to say goodbye to my beach vacation. Besides the amped up locals there was also a big graduate group of American tourists that had just arrived. The music was loud, the drinks were flowing, and it was one heck of a send off.

The next morning we headed via water taxi back to the main island. I had just enough time before my flight to rent a car and drive out to the ruins. I was glad for the mini road trip that allowed me to see even more of Belize’s lush greenery and exotic landscape. We also had coconut juice and sugar cane straight from the plants!

I have to admit I’m not super into ruins; part of me gets it, but the other part just sees a pile of old rocks. Still, these were pretty cool, even if walking to the top of them in the humidity wasn’t exactly a treat. They were arranged with a wide field in the middle of them and it was cool to imagine what it must’ve been like centuries ago as an inhabitant of the land.

After our climbs, we had a local Belizean meal at a nearby shack. The only thing I wanted was a plate full of plantains. And they were so freaking good. It was the perfect thing to have to end my trip. It was slightly sad to have to leave my friends when they still had one full day left, but I’m sure they had no fun without me (hah). Honestly though, I had a full trip where I saw the culture and a lot of nature, but also got to relax at the beach!

Can’t wait for my next international trip!