Bad Luck Fixed by a Drive to the Coast

My only “real” knowledge of Portland, Oregon before this trip was the tv series Portlandia, which seems not too far off in retrospect. This trip was mainly for my travel buddy Jenna, who’s birthday was the following Wednesday. Her Oregon wishlist included lots of nature highlights, so that would be our main goal the first day.

However, we had to fly in Thursday night and I got to admit, our trip didn’t get off to a great start. Our flight had been delayed by three hours and so when we finally made it to check into our Airbnb around one in the morning, we discovered we’d been given the wrong code and our host was unreachable. We were tired and cold and on the phone with Airbnb support for quite a while. Not the greatest introduction to Portland.

They ended up giving us an old code that luckily worked, and we were more than ready to shake off our bad luck the next morning. However, the bus we’d planned was nowhere to be found. I took out my perfect schedule, and knew we would have to rearrange some things. When your transportation plan is derailed when traveling, it’s time to be flexible.

Originally, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (which is actually in Washington) was a “if we have time” item, but now it was within ten minutes of the car we would be renting. We lyfted there, and I was secretly glad to be crossing off a new National Park stamp and be checking off a whole new state. We arrived as soon as it opened and it looked very much like the little town John Smith establishes in Pocahontas. They even had a volunteer blacksmith that we spent some time chatting with!

We enjoyed the tall trees and open field, and I was reminded of the Park ranger, who pretty much said she was glad we were visiting but as a true Oregonite, wanted only visitors. Next we got our car, headed back over the state line, and checked out one of the top Portland tourist destinations: Multnomah Falls.

We walked up as close as we could get, and it was still pretty amazing since I’d never seen such a high waterfall (especially not on the side of a small mountain), but our bad luck would strike again. The Falls were cut off from the main entry because of mudslides, so we were only allowed a far off look. While still impressive, I couldn’t help but be bummed we wouldn’t be able to get closer.

On the way to lunch, we changed up our plan again to stop at The Grotto. We wanted to get rid of the last of our bad juju, so we headed to this Christian alcove which was full of pretty trails and one of the tallest, rickety elevators you’ve never seen on the side of a hill. There were lots of famous saint statues and a beautiful meditation building with a great view of Portland.

It was starting to drizzle when we headed to Bye Bye, a vegan restaurant in the heart of Portland. Optimistic about the nature left to see, I chowed down on a vegan grilled cheese and guacamole. Let me pause to say, I loved all the food in Portland! I could probably write a whole post on just the stuff I ate – and I just might!

We were headed to the coast in our rental car from a new app Turo, and I was really enjoying the drive. Oregon had equal parts farming and woods, so the mini roadtrip was pretty great. I love a good drive, and even though it was a bit rainy, that just added to the enchantment of seeing new things. I entered the winding roads of Ecola Park, and couldn’t imagine that we would soon pop out through the woods and be on the coast. But we did.

There was only thick forest, until suddenly the sky appeared and I parked at the top of a cliff overlooking a magnificent site. It felt like I was in a different country, one where tales of dragons and magic had been based in. It’s hard to describe the beauty. And even though I have amazing pictures, it still doesn’t really do it justice.

From Ecola, we headed south a bit, driving through the adorable coastal village, making our way to Haystack Rock. We enjoyed the beach, the massive rocks, the scenery, the ocean, everything was magic.

I fell into the water right near the end, but was having such a great time, I didn’t even mind. It was cold, but driving back I only felt happy. It had been such a great day by the end.

I know based on previous travels that things are bound to go wrong. When you leave your safe, predictable home, you invite something different into your life. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but overall I’ve found the journey worth it.

Deep in the Heart, Close to Home

Waking up well rested in San Antonio, I was ready for a day of exploration. Seeing old friends the night before had been nice, but I was ready to get to some new places and see a side of Texas I hadn’t before.

It was rainy when we headed to the San Antonio Missions. I was surprised to find out that four of the five Spanish missions had been moved all into the San Antonio area for better conservation. I was even more surprised to find the National Park site so busy! The visitor center was packed. The site seemed to be busy not only because of the National Park denotation, but also as a local Texan highlight. The shop was full of fun Texan gifts!

We got our stamps and listened to a bit of the history in the visitor center and then decided it was time to visit the biggest one (that was also the closest), the San Jose Mission. It was crazy how good the building was keeping up, and how beautiful the architecture was. There were people lighting candles and praying in the attached chapel, which was kind of great considering people had been doing just that in this very spot for hundreds of years.

It started to really pour and knowing we’d already seen the “best” mission, we decided it was time to move on. On our way out, we took the scenic drive to see what we could of all the rain-obscured missions. It seemed like a great route to bike, so I hope I’ll be back one day to explore more!

For now though, it was time to head to our last National Park site for our weekend, Lyndon B. Johnson National State Park, where the former president’s boyhood home still stood. At the visitor center, we read a bit about the history of the president and “Ladybird” Johnson. (I’ll always love her for her wildflower initiative, which to this day spurs communities to plant thousands of wildflowers all over Texas.)

The home was familiar in the way all old Southern homes are to me, so not too interesting in my opinion. There was an old double swing that was still in use though. The whole area was somewhat humbling, imagining a small boy growing up in a somewhat farm lifestyle, going on to become the president of our country.

Our final pit stop was Austin to see some friends before heading home. Funnily enough, this was another Dallas friend who happened to be in Austin the same weekend. It was weird how many familiar faces we were seeing during our travels this weekend. It made it feel like we didn’t really escape into the culture. I’ll never regret time spent with good friends, but I have to admit I might like the more remote trips than ones like these that feel more like home.

Familiar Friends in New Places

Looking at my National Park map, I realized there were still a few sites scattered through central Texas that would require a drive through San Antonio and Austin. The weekend trip would give me an opportunity to finally explore the landscape I’d heard of called “Hill Country.”

I drove this first leg of the trip early on a Friday morning and I have to say, I already wanted to drive it again as I was literally driving it. There were so many cute towns with chic antique shops and interesting coffee shops; there were so many colorful murals and friendly town slogan signs. These fun towns were separated by beautiful plains where the sunrise was easy to catch and the road seemed infinite (in a great way).

Our first stop was Amistad National Recreation Area. By the time we arrived, it had become a bit cloudy. It wasn’t too cold, but still too early in the season to really enjoy the water. Instead we explored the rocky shore and took a little hike along the ridge of the reservoir. When we got tired, we looked across to the Rio Grande River, which separated Texas from Mexico. After about a four hour drive, we were only yards away from a different country.

After a bit of nature exploration, it was time to head to San Antonio. I wasn’t sure we’d have time, but I was really hoping to get into town in time to check out The Alamo. I’d only been once before with my parents when I was pretty small. Side note: The Alamo giftshop is where I got my first rock pouch and is responsible for my low grade obsession with rocks and crystals.

Growing up in Texas my whole life, I of course knew the history of the Alamo (how could I ever forget) and had even drawn the mission quite a few times for work projects. But it’s been years since my Texas history. It was great “reconnecting” to my Texan roots and walking around such a well preserved part of our history. As typical with most Texans, I have a lot of pride in my state.

It was time for dinner and a bit of San Antonio nightlife exploration! My friend Gian was in town the same night for Army training, so even though we’d seen him the day before back home, we met up for a familiar face in a new town. I’d already spent a lot of time exploring the infamous Riverwalk on a bachelorette party a year or so before, so we wanted to check out what other scenes San Antonio had to offer. We headed for Pearl District and some of the new downtown bars.

My oldest friend Molly had recently moved to San Antonio, so I also invited her out for a drink to catchup. It was great, but also so weird to see faces from home out on my travels. Something about meeting these friends made it feel like we were just in a different part of Dallas. Even though the cities felt very different to me, it also didn’t feel quite like my usual escapism.

We took a long walk back to our car, checking out the tourists stumbling from bar to bar, and watching hordes of people making their way along the riverwalk. After a long day of rediscovering and celebrating my Texan roots, I was already ready to get back home. I love basically all of Texas, but the other cities just don’t compare to Dallas. I was born there and I think it’ll always feel like home. I think seeing old friends just made me long for my hometown.

Honestly, when I travel I don’t want the familiar. I want new experiences, I want to meet new people, and I want to become a part of the local culture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great seeing old friends! But I think in the future, I’ll have to invite them to join my travels instead of pausing them to catchup.

Long Glance at the Edge of the World

Canyonlands National Park is very big. We put ourselves on a time crunch through Arches because we weren’t sure we’d make it to The Canyonlands visitor center before it closed. From tip to tip, it would take about three hours to cross. And we’d never even heard of it before this!

The best place to start seemed to head for the section called “Island in the Sky” because it was the north edge we were closest to and a few other sections were closed for the winter season. Plus, Island in the Sky is a pretty cool name, so we figured we’d be in for a treat.

Surprisingly, it turned out every section of Canyonlands had its own visitor center, so after about an hour’s drive, we had our stamp and could stop stressing about making it through the whole drive in time. Now, we could relax and enjoy the Park at our leisure. Directly across from the Island center there was a lookout where we decided to sit for a bit. It was the biggest canyon I’ve ever seen.

On a ridiculous side note, this was also the Park where I made my first friend. Well, maybe just got my first obsession. In the parking lot I’d spotted the biggest crow I’d ever seen in my life! He was large and very vocal. I wanted to take him home with me. (Ha!) Instead, I filled my phone with at least a hundred pictures of him. I guess I sort of have him forever now?

Driving a bit further into the Park, we decided to check out the Mesa Arch trail because it was average difficultly and we’d already spent the whole morning hiking. Plus, we were really into all the natural arches Utah was showing us. It was a very easy hike, not strenuous or long at all. The path was lined the traditional way with stones stacked upon each other. We only ran into one family on their way out from the trail and then had the place to ourselves!

Even after starting with a great big canyon view, I was still awestruck by the sight of another massive canyon, but this time at its edge was a nature-made arch. There was something about these views which made me and my friends pretty quiet. Normally a pretty chatty person, I kept to myself at this Park and just stared out at the lands and colors for awhile without saying anything. It was extremely peaceful and humbling.

Tired from our day of hiking and fast approaching sunset, we decided to head back to Moab to grab dinner and explore the little adventure town. It’s so funny to me how every new town I go to, I can imagine the life I’d make there. I don’t know if it’s my wandering heart, but I often feel like I could be happy anywhere. The highlights of Moab were great beer, cute boutiques full of handmade goods, an adorable independent bookshop, and great coffee. What’s not to be happy about?

Walking lazily around the main strip, I could tell there was a certain sadness in the group that this was our last night, but also I could tell we were so tired from our adventures that we were all a bit ready to be back in our own beds. We stayed in an (Airbnb) cabin at the edge of Colorado for the night, knowing we had a full day of driving left to get back home.

I was glad though, thinking over all the new sights I’d seen. Honestly, I’d never given Utah much thought before. Now, I couldn’t wait to plan another trip out there. There was so much variance to the landscape from Monument Valley to Arches to Canyonlands, I knew I’d only scratched the surface of what Utah had to offer. All in all, this was a great last trip for the year of 2017, the first year I embarked on this National Park journey.

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.

A Desert Wonder to Explore

Usually I’m into a lot of greenery, but my visit to Arches changed something in me and somehow Arches National Park became my favorite Park yet. There was something magical about waking up in the Park and being able to race time to catch the perfect spot for the sunrise.

We had to fit the visitor center into our plan seeing as we hadn’t made it before close the day before. We also needed to do a bit of cleaning up in the public bathroom since we were going on about forty-eight hours with no showers. As soon as the visitor center opened, we were inside to collect our stamps and get our trail maps.

After talking to a ranger, we knew right away we wouldn’t have enough time (probably not even enough for half the Park) but we had to decide what we could do. The most iconic arch is the Delicate Arch, but requires a mild two-to-three hour hike. Even though this would eat up most of our time, we knew we had to do it. My goal was to manage it under two hours. If we were able to succeed, we would get to add another short hike to our day and get to see other arches.

So we got our gear together and started our hike. It was basically off season and pretty early in the day, but we still passed quite a few people. The hike started nicely with only a slight incline, and then suddenly jutted steeply. It was basically hiking on a massive steep rock. The trail was marked every now and then with wooden posts and it was hard to know exactly what we’d see by the time we reached the top.

The elevation had slightly winded us, but everything was so beautiful with such a massive open sky it was hard to be upset about the effort. Finally after reaching the top, the trail wound its way through a couple of cliffs, the crater between being very rocky. After a bit more ascent, and a wide ark around the side of the cliff, we popped out on what was the top. And then we came upon the Delicate Arch.

Everything was so alien. Truly beautiful, but so different from the type of landscapes I was used to seeing. Everything was shades of oranges and reds, intersplicing a brilliant pale matte grey.

Even with about a half hour of picture taking at the top, we still made it back to the car in less than two hours. We had hustled the trail, knew we’d really be feeling it later, but now had time for another arch! There was a very quick trail, so we decided to make our way to the Double Arches.

This trail was very, very short. Honestly, took us about the same amount of time to park as to hike. That allowed us more time to explore these massive arches. Even though the Delicate Arch is more iconic, there’s something about the double arches that I really enjoy. I like that you can hike up under the archway, that there’s lots of big rock formations to climb, and that the arch phenomenon has coincidentally happened twice right next to each other.

I talk a lot about wanting to make the most of my time and scheduling in a way that packs my day full of new experiences. This trip to Arches was supposed to be very easy-going and allow us lots of time to just enjoy the Park. But even with all that extra time, I still felt like as we were leaving, I wished we had one more day. I guess I’ll definitely have to make it back to Arches at some point!

The Natural and Manmade Monuments still Standing

A really great side effect of being open to any travel that comes my way is being open to other people’s travel bucket lists. Everyone I know has places that they want to go but before this year I felt like I never knew what they were. Now when I mention something on my list, I’m always met with a dream from someone else’s list. It’s kind of amazing.

So when I started planning a four day weekend trip to Utah, I listened when a friend told me the greatness of Monument Valley. It was basically on the way so it made sense to stop for a bit.

Little did I know this was an iconic movie shot from one of my all time favorite movies: Forrest Gump. After some research, I found the exact spot where Gump famously decided to stop running after 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.

Originally on the roadtrip we were gonna spend the night in Gallup, NM and start our drive early to try and catch sunrise at the Valley. Having so much time on this particular trip meant I procrastinated planning and therefore didn’t book the Airbnb until the night before. And of course every home I’d saved was gone. But this turned out great because we found a great place in the heart of Monument Valley!

We powered through the nighttime drive and I’m so so freaking glad we did because we ended up catching sunrise from the backyard. This was actually a mishap since we wanted to drive 15 min to get shots from the road, but my phone went wonky and my alarm never went off. But what a lucky happenstance! Because we ended up with fresh coffee, lots of blankets (it was so cold), and no stress. Plus a tire swing! Yeah, a tire swing!

After catching a magnificent sunrise, and snapping some early morning pics in the Gump spot, we headed on our way to our first National Park stop. Along the Monument Valley drive we saw so many amazing cliffs. And some so oddly shaped like “Mexican Hat” (which is the picture below).

Hovenweep National Monument is a collection of ruins where people used to live. It includes six prehistoric structures in various levels of disarray set in a large circle that makes for a nice hike. It was a bit chilly but overall it was nice to stretch our legs and cross off a National Park site.

Driving all morning in a new state (my first time in Utah!) with plenty of time for stopping was such a relaxing change of pace. Usually, I’ve got such a strict schedule on trips because of the lack of time. Because we had four days, my goal was really to leave a lot of time and create a no-stress roadtrip. Any time we saw something interesting or wanted to take some pics in the middle of nowhere – we did! It was really great and I hope to have the opportunity for more four day weekends in my future!