Architecture, Alcohol, and Adventures in Voodoo

Besides having some National Park sites in the area, New Orleans has been on my travel wish list for two reasons: I’ve been in the city twice for only a couple of hours (so all I’ve done is Cafe Du Monde) and it’s where my brother’s fiance, Gabby, is from! I’ve wanted my brother and her to show me around town for some time, and finally we put it on the books. They’re some of NOLA’s biggest fans, so I knew they’d be perfect travel companions.

My brother was set on leaving Dallas around 3AM and getting into New Orleans by noon, his so-called perfect travel time, so that’s what we did. I was able to take a bit of a nap after work so I was prepared for the early, early morning start. By the time the sun came up, I took over driving, and was enjoying Louisiana. The beautiful trees always surprise me for some reason.

We got in a bit before noon, and found our Airbnb was just shy of Esplanade Avenue, meaning our first drive to check out the colorful houses was perfect. Along this neighborhood drive, we also spotted Edgar Degas’s house! The famous painter once lived as neighbors to our current Airbnb. I was glad we’d picked such a cool area, especially after checking out our temporary home’s decor. They were clearly emphasizing the New Orleans wild and fun time.

Speaking of, the first item of the itinerary was at a craft rum distillery, Old New Orleans. None of the three of us had been to a craft distillery tour before, so we were excited. They had two cocktails available when we got there as they took us on the tour. It was so tasty and we were worried we wouldn’t get our money’s worth, so we asked for refills (even though no one else did). Luckily, they kept filling us up as we learned more about how rum is made. It was pretty cool! This distillery in particular is also the oldest rum distillery in all of the US.

At the end of the tour, we were surprised to find they had shots of all their rums lined up for us. Uh oh. I don’t know why we didn’t realize they’d have samples of all their flavored rums at the end. We were pretty tipsy already, but we weren’t going to turn down delicious finely crafted rum. I’d say we definitely got our money’s worth! We even grabbed a bottle of their Cajun Spice Rum for our pregame planned for the following night.

Now that we were nice and buzzed, it was time to head off to explore some of New Orleans. We stopped by the famous “Umbrella Girl” on our way to the French Quarter. This graffiti is one from Banksy’s famous New Orleans series, originally twelve all around the city to make a statement on Hurricane Katrina. It was really cool, and preserved with a plastic shield so no one would try and destroy (or “add” to) it. Then we walked through town, to enjoy more architecture.

The French style of all the old historic houses was so awesome. Lots of trellises and working shutters and colors an balconies and columns. It was almost like being in a completely different country at some points. I love when every house is different and unique – and New Orleans is most certainly that! It was after enjoying all the beauty that we found ourselves on the hunt for voodoo. I originally knew I’d want to look for “something voodoo” because it was such a big part of the culture but I had no idea exactly how many voodoo stops we would find.

There were several shops all over! Anything that had voodoo, witch, or occult in the title, we stepped into to explore. I discovered potions, and prick dolls, and satanic idols. Sachets of herbs for good luck or “get out of jail” luck. It was so fun to just inspect all the wild stuff they had in their shops. I’m not sure if they were over the top for tourists or if they were pretty typical for a voodoo shop, but there was a lot of crazy and interesting stuff. Honestly some of it a little scary (haha).

As we were making our way from the French Quarter to the Bourbon Street area, we stopped to watch a street performance in Jackson Square that was pretty entertaining. That particular area reminded me a lot of something similar to New York City. More walking got us to dinner for the night, a fancy place called Pêche. So fancy in fact that when we ordered a few side plates to try things and when we asked for big plates so we could share, we definitely got a look. We were still feeling great from the day’s activities so we didn’t give a fuck; we also stuck to all waters. It was all really good! Recommending this “family style” tip for all broke people going to fancy restaurants if you can stand the judgement from your waiter.

Change of Plans, What to Do in a Small Town

With only two National Park sites left in Arkansas to visit, and those being a battlefield and a fort, we planned to enjoy our drive back home by peppering in some nature. The hikes had been so awesome the day before, it was only fate that rain would balance out our trip and steal the opportunity to visit Devil’s Den State Park. But also because of this rain, we got incredible fog at our first stop of the day.

We got to Pea Ridge National Military Park first thing on the morning of our last day, and it was chilly, quiet, and foggy. I browsed the visitor center to refresh my civil war history, but mostly I just stared out at the big (battle)field, which with the current weather conditions made it easy to imagine how terrible a battle would be and how it must’ve felt to not have any kind of comforts of home nearby. Y’all probably know by now, I’m not much for battle sites, forts, etc., but this one was pretty cool.

It was time to head south down the edge of Arkansas, but Jenna and I both knew the weather wasn’t going to clear up. The closer we got, the more cloudy the sky got. Yet another day of rain on my trips; another day of hiking stolen. So it was time to scramble and I knew Fayetteville wasn’t too far and I also knew one of my friends who was a Razorback would have some last minute suggestions. My friend Megan came in clutch with some helpful tips that led us directly to the downtown square.

We had literally come one day past the last farmer’s market of the year, but not too far was a bookshop called Dickson Street Book Shop. I love small independent bookstores so I was pretty excited before we even parked. After arriving, I realized this was no “small” bookstore – it’s deceptively massive! Most of it was cramped aisles full of books (my favorite). Megan definitely wasn’t lying when she said, “Bring bread crumbs to find your way back out – it’s a never ending labyrinth.”

After some quality book browsing, Jenna and I had a bit of a sweet tooth, so we headed over to Hurt’s Donuts. That place was insane! Unpopular opinion: I hadn’t been that impressed with VooDoo Donuts. But Hurt’s Donuts had so many more unique flavors, amazing colorful decorations – it was hard to not want to leave with more than one! I got a blueberry cake donut (my go-to) and then decided to grab a chocolate peanut butter one for later down the road. The blueberry honestly wasn’t as good as the every day small shop ones – but the “Reese’s” inspired one was phenomenal. It was truly decadent but I needed it after hours on the road with no food stops in sight.

Kissing Fayetteville goodbye (with a promise to be back to explore not only Devil’s Den but more of the town when it’s not a Sunday), we headed on to Fort Smith. Here we were looking for our last Arkansas National Park site. We expected a typical fort, with some battle ruins or history on war, but that wasn’t the case. Fort Smith is classified as a National Historic Site, and their claim to fame is more about their criminal system – jury, judge, and imprisonment. (They still had a clearing where the old fort used to be, but the main attraction was definitely the big courthouse.)

The big visitor center had two different styles of jails to tour and a mock courtroom. It was fun to walk around a true model set up; one where you could actually lie on the prisoner cots or sit in the audience of the jury. Outside, we checked out the gallows, which wasn’t too interesting only because they’re the gallows you’ve seen in almost every Western movie. To my delight, a little theater town was set up right near this, with a saloon and a guy dressed as a cowboy. Not too far from that, a cute trolley was idling. Definitely worth the stop, but in that small town quaint way.

It was getting late in the day and all that was left was to finish out our drive through Arkansas by taking the scenic route through the Ozarks, winding our way around the Boston Mountains. It was so, so beautiful. Gloomy sure, but the trees were colorful enough that it was no bland drive. Even though I’ve checked off those National Park sites, Arkansas will definitely be seeing me again soon!

We wanted one final fun stop on the drive back home, so when we saw our route was taking us through Paris, Texas, we decided to do a quick google for anything good. Believe it or not, they have an Eiffel Tower! Well, with a cowboy stop. I sure do love weird road trip stops.

To the Edge and Back, Whitaker Point

While talking to the Buffalo National River park ranger, she let us know that if we went to hike at Lost Valley (which we did), not too far away was Whitaker Point. Even though this was outside of the Park, it was apparently the “most photographed spot of Arkansas” and worth it to check out. That recommendation was good enough for Jenna and me, so we were headed off down a looping, ascending six miles of dirt road.

We didn’t really know anything about this hike, neither the elevation nor the distance. The sun was due to set in two hours and this seemed like enough time to at least try to attempt the hike. (Also, let me be clear these are all no-nos when going hiking. The main reason we proceeded was because there were a ton of people hiking with us. People in jeans, people who looked like they’d never hiked, people to the front and back of us. My one complaint with Arkansas is how many people there are out on the trails- haha!)

The way to the point was a lot of downhill terrain, so Jenna and I were both preparing for pain coming back up and out. Passing people headed out who were red in the face and stopping for breaks had us both a little weary. But what are we going to not do it? No. We wanted to reach “the most photographed area of Arkansas” even if it meant a serious workout. After enjoying our time in nature, taking a few preliminary pictures along the trail, we reached Whitaker Point.

It was a big cliff edge that opened up to big rolling hills of Arkansas where you could see only trees for forever. It was really impressively beautiful. But also crowded. About forty feet ahead of this point on the trail is a little opening in the treeline where you can get a pretty cool shot of the ledge, so Jenna and I took turns taking each other’s pictures. But also kind of battling back the crowd of people hanging around in the trees.

I want people to go out and hike. I want people to enjoy nature and see what this beautiful world has to offer. But these Arkansasians are out of control. They’re out in hoards. And I’ve learned from my time in the state that I’m not a fan of sharing a trail with more than a few people. If I’m constantly in eyesight of someone (other than a hiking buddy), I’m one unhappy hiker. I don’t know if it was because the sun was out after a cold front, because it was a Saturday, or this was the typical, but I was ready to go back to having the trail all to myself.

On our way back, Jenna and I decided we would try and just plow through it. We’d take breaks if needed, but we didn’t want to drag out our misery. This speed hiking back uphill business has kind of become a strong point. We just focus, grit down, and go. It had taken us about an hour and half to get to the point, and we estimated it would take us just as long to get back out, trading picture time for ascent time. But with our sheer force of will, we made it out in half that time, legs and lungs burning.

We had a nice middle-of-nowhere drive (with gas station snacks) back to civilization. Or as close as Bentonville gets to that moniker. After showers and meeting up with our hosts, my friend Margaret and her husband, Matt, it was time for dinner. We went for Mexican at one of their favorite local spots. Afterward, I was bugging them for ice cream even though the temperature was dropping to the forties, so they took me to Sweet Dream Creamery. This cute little shop was a food truck located in the downtown square area, right across from the newly opened ice skating rink. We enjoyed the lights and then decided it was time for us old ladies (and man) to head home. I can’t wait to head back and focus more attention on Bentonville because it seemed like a neat little town!

Chasing Fall(s) in Arkansas

I wanted to strategically plan my trip to finish up the Arkansas National Park sites in fall so I could enjoy all the beautiful colors. I’d been to the area earlier this year for a wedding, and my drive to the northwest corner of the state was so beautiful, I was excited to head back with some yellows and reds added. One of my best friends, Margaret, lives in Bentonville, so after work on Friday me and my friend Jenna headed that way. Side note: I will never head out of town between 4PM and 7PM again. Dallas traffic is pretty dang awful.

After arriving late enough that there wasn’t much to do, we woke up early the next day to enjoy the sunshine in the cooler weather. We started with a two hour drive further east into Arkansas, which I wasn’t at all upset about. The state is truly beautiful, with its rolling hills and plentiful trees. Arriving at the Buffalo National River visitor center, we chatted with the ranger for a good half hour trying to figure out where to head for the day. We’d done minimal research and I was excited to get the insider perspective on the hot spots.

In fact, I had only looked up one major lookout to see the river (which the site was named after obviously), but the ranger recommended a closer river lookout that would save us almost two hours of driving round trip. As a planner, I’m really trying to figure out how to plan future National Park trips. There’s always so much to do that we never have enough time, but the rangers aren’t always available for me to ask an hour’s worth of questions over the phone long distance. I’ve learned the best approach is to research using a full map of every trail (and driving distance between!), look up any pictures you can find (which gets hard), and then start your convo with, “What do you recommend?”

So we headed to the nearby River Overlook Trail to checkout “America’s First National River” and see the land. It was an easy twenty minute hike through a field with some surrounding woods. We passed the Sod Collier homestead on the way, a few buildings that were preserved by the Park. The crunching of leaves under my feet was so nice – I was glad to be hiking in a new season! Getting to the overlook, I was impressed by the view of the river, but also glad I hadn’t driven somewhere else when this view was great. Plus, we saw the river – worth it! I hope to head back in summer to enjoy some kayaking or other river sports.

We headed to the west area of the park where the most popular hikes were found. First, it was time to take on the Lost Valley section. This turned out to be such a busy trail! I don’t mind seeing people every now and then on a trail, but I guess I’m a bit of a selfish hiker. Having to pass people, or not feel rushed when trying to get a good picture, or wait on switchbacks so everyone could proceed safely – it was kind of terrible. We did our best to be on our own, but people were out in hoards. I guess Arkansasians love their outdoors!

On this trail, we first ran into an off shot of the Eden Falls which had a little cave you could hike through. After a couple of pictures, I slid and slid and slid. Even with my hiking boots on, the moss on the side of the rock was so slippery, once I started – I didn’t stop until I was in a puddle of water at the bottom. It was cold, but mostly I was just embarrassed and glad nothing hurt. People saw me (because of how busy the trail was) so I hurriedly ushered Jenna and me along through the cave to escape their concern. Then just as we were able to laugh about it, going down a hill of roots and steps – I fell again.

Seriously, I have never fallen on a hike – and here I’d fallen twice! In the span of fifteen minutes, on the busiest trail I’ve hiked to date, I embarrassed myself by falling probably about six feet each time. An older gentleman helped me up from my second tumble and this one had hurt a bit more (my legs are still bruised up) but I awkwardly laughed and rushed forward to the falls.

The falls weren’t too impressive, though they were nice minus the loud surrounding chatter from so many people on the trail. The trail looped back through the trees and it seemed most people decided to go back the way they’d come, so finally we got the trail to ourselves. And we found fall. The trees were so beautiful with the golden hues. Ah, peace and quiet – and flat ground.

Road Trip Essentials

Obviously, the most important thing to a road trip is a car – and I just recently got a new one! After having many struggles with my first and only car, a 2006 Kia Sportage with over 200,000 miles, I made the jump to a 2016 Subaru Forester. I rented one when I drove to the Oregon coast and loved it so much,  I had my eye on it when car shopping. Of course, I got green! I picked this size because it’s not overly big but still fits my road trip mattress in the back. I talked about road trips quite awhile ago, mainly focusing on car camping: The Good of Roadtrips, the Bad of Car Camping. But today I’m sharing some things I always try to have on a road trip! Always be prepared.

Instead of blowing money on whatever mediocre snacks I can find at the gas station I stop at, I always try and get snacks a couple of days before a road trip. Not only does this help me save money, it helps when I know I have something I’ll want (that’s also healthy!). I will usually bring protein bars, like Clif, RX, or Lara. I love bringing a bag of apples because that freshness is always welcome when you’ve been in the car for a few hours. And weirdly enough, chips and salsa is one of my favorite road trip snacks! It’s easy enough to dip straight out of the jar and easy to keep mess-free if you’re careful (or not driving). I’ll also pack pb&j ingredients because it’s my favorite hiking food, but after a terrible mishap in California I’ll never make another sandwich while on the road again.

The truth of road trips is you’ll probably have to have fast food now and again if you’re trying to save time and want something warm. Being a vegetarian, it’s not always easy to get something good. I’ve definitely learned where my favorite stops are. The market base salad at Chik-fil-A is great because it’s cheaper without the meat and is full of yummy fruits and nuts. I’ve also become a fan of the simple egg biscuit at McDonald’s. I’ve learned that too much fried food when stuck on a road trip is a bad idea, so I definitely try and stay away from fries and hashbrowns even though they’re so delicious. Of course, it’s not always easy to count on a certain fast food place to be around on the route, so I’ve learned to be flexible with the side items on the menu.

There’s only a couple of comfort items I keep on hand, mainly because I usually have a bed made up in the back. It’s an old futon mattress I cut to make it a single or double sized depending on how many of us are on the trip. We usually make it with one sheet, one pillow, and one blanket so that stuff doesn’t take up too much room. (Especially when we also have our sleeping bags with us.) One of my most important items is a pair of easy slip-on shoes no matter the weather. Getting out for a tank fillup without shoes – or having to put on boots – is so obnoxious that I always throw some sandals in my door side. It’s a no-brainer and I have a few pairs at all times in my car, but sunglasses are obviously essential for any road trip.

One of my favorite thing about road trips is discovering new things you hadn’t even thought to  look for. It’s important to know in your trip itinerary when you have extra time for stops. It’s when I leave this time that I love looking for billboards or shops that look fun or interesting. These random stops are responsible for me checking out the Georgetown caves in Texas, stopping to pet a baby alligator in Louisiana, and  the cute coffee shop find in the middle of nowhere New Mexico.

It’s important to note there’s a few things I bring just in case of emergencies. I always have a lot of stuff for the car: spare tire, automatic air pump, various fuses and tools for easy fixes. I always have lots of water just in case. (Water! Yes! Always water, usually in jugs that I pour into the two different water bottles I have with me.) I always have my taser just in case. (Especially if I’m camping or doing a lot of night driving.) I also always have my mini first aid kit with me because accidents do happen. I got a splinter at a gas station once (gross) so I was glad to have the medical tweezers.

What do you bring on your road trips?

Collegiate Nostalgia; My Favorites at OU

It took me a couple of years to stop wishing I was still in college – ah, what a “carefree” time before adulthood. I went to college at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. (Side note: one of the major reasons I picked it was for how beautiful the campus is.) My time there was spent learning how to discuss literature, discovering the wonder of instant streaming, figuring out how to tolerate all types of alcohol, and meeting some best friends who I’m still close to today.

Lucky for me, I have two reasons that take me back yearly to Norman for visits – my friend Amanda still lives in the area and my mom is an Oklahoma football season pass holder! My mom always is generous enough to let me tag along for a game or two and we have such a blast.

Football is definitely a big deal as an Oklahoma Sooner. Partly because the state has no official NFL team and partly because our team takes home a lot of trophies. Besides national championships and Heisman trophies, we just overall win a lot – which obviously makes it fun to watch and root for the team. Football on Saturdays is something you plan your weekend around when it’s a Home Game. Where to tailgate, what to wear, and who you’re trash-talking (for that week). It’s packed with school spirit even if you’re not super into sports.

Besides that, some of my favorite food is only in Norman. Ted’s is a great Tex-Mex place where you can get freshly made tortillas, queso, salsa, and chips as a part of the standard table setup. Pizza Shuttle has the best cheesy bread I’ve ever had, and I’m kind of an expert.  And T.E.A. Cafe, ah, that Asian restaurant is responsible for a couple of missed classes (sorry mom) and still holds my favorite vegetarian fried rice anywhere. Plus special mention to the cheap and delicious Caesar wraps at O’Connell’s, which is a bar but definitely does not serve bar-quality food. Seriously, I cannot explain why all the food is so good.

Also, if we’re talking about food, we have to talk about The Mont, which has become my favorite place to visit when I head to Norman. They have the most amazing cheese fries (but as I get older I’m finding it harder and harder to finish them without a tummy ache- haha). But they also have delicious swirls! Swirls are frozen sangria-slash-margaritas and these ones are the best. I graduated college before I turned 21 – I actually had a swirl at The Mont as my first official of-age drink – but me and my college best friends, Cassie and Amanda, love seeing how many swirls we can tackle the older we get.

As I get older, I also find I can afford more of the stuff at the shops on Campus Corner. They have a ton of great OU stuff, so you can always find cute college sweatshirts and tees. But they also have a lot of great fashion boutiques that have a lot of really cute clothes. My favorite store, Antique Garden, always has such great gifts too! I’ve probably bought at least five gifts from there over the years. I love shopping around Campus Corner Friday afternoons before the weekend – it’s like having “adult” OU fun. Because I’m not as broke as when I was a student!

Drive through Nowhere to Hidden Organic Haven

After the awesomeness of El Malpais, we were fine that El Morro was a little disappointing. The El Morro National Monument is most known for its sandstone cliffside. Deciding our drive up to its massive edge was good enough, we got our stamp and continued on.

Here, something crazy happened and my scheduling was off by almost two hours. I know! And after I’d gotten so good at road trip timing. Driving almost the whole west border of New Mexico was quite a feat for one day, but in making the itinerary I’d cut the time it would take by a third. So after our day of fun, it was time for some driving off the grid.

Lola, Jenna, and I were very much out in the middle of nowhere, not even able to map our Airbnb on our faltering GPS. We knew the roads and the vague area though, so we went after it. The sun was setting and it was drizzling, so when we passed the first sign of civilization we decided to stop to try and connect to satellites and our Airbnb host’s directions.

Not sure we’d find another chance, we stopped at a little mart to look at snacks and then decided we might as well grab a full sit down dinner at the cafe next door. Everyone was so friendly – it was a nice little reenergizing stop. We got the directions we needed and got going even though it was so dark and we were following hand written directions (like the old days ha!) to get to our beds for the night.

We arrived and met our hosts, D & D, a cute couple who owned the bed and breakfast that we’d found through Airbnb. Immediately there was so much about the place I was in love with. The couple had spent the day picking the vegetables from their backyard to can the next day. The whole house was fragrance free and full of organic and vegetarian-friendly foods in the kitchen.

After a day of hiking and driving, we were delighted to find out there was a hot tub out back under the stars. A hot soak was just what we needed! Then I took a shower with all natural bath products and nerded out living my best clean hippie life. I definitely tried every item because it was all sulfate-free, vegan, and unscented. And maybe I took a sample of locally made coconut moisturizer.

A great night’s sleep and then I was up with the sunrise. Mostly it was hidden by the cloudy sky, but as the sun brightened the surrounding landscape beauty emerged. Ah, New Mexico sure is gorgeous. I munched on one of the homemade morning glory muffins and brewed local coffee in the pot, realizing why bed and breakfasts are so popular.

It was time to head home. After a leisurely packing and hitting the road, we began our drive. Only an hour or so later and we hit the “beginning” of our road to the day’s stop (and our last New Mexico National Park site!) the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This road winded through curving roads and a bunch of trees. While I had a great time driving and enjoying the scenery, there was some motion sickness from my travel buddies because of the continuous twists and turns.

Finally, though we passed back and forth between Gila National Forest and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, we arrived at our visitor center, a secluded spot in the middle of vast nature. We were excited to get out and stretch our legs. However, well to be honest, the park ranger scared us about time. Looking at our itinerary she said we were misjudging our following drive by two whole hours and we wouldn’t have time to see the cliff dwellings.

We didn’t have GPS to check our route and because of the mishap the day before judging driving times we trusted that if we stayed to hike we wouldn’t have time to get to our next destination before it closed. Bummed, we spent a bit of time checking out the surrounding valley and then headed back through the twists and turns of road. It would turn out the ranger was wrong. We would’ve had time for our hour hike and if you can believe it our next stop (to see the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns) ended up being a total letdown.

Sure, there was still lots of amazing views on our drive home, but missing out on that midday hike made the final leg of our trip feel dreary. So even though I’ve learned to accept surprises when I travel, the lesson here is to appreciate the things you didn’t count on from the original itinerary. Sometimes taking the risk, brings the higher reward. We should’ve stopped to do the hike, risking missing that final stop. As always, I’m learning to take my time on road trips.