Take Me to Church: Three Audacious Atheists Visit the Vatican

I struggled for months with whether or not to visit the Vatican. I am, after all, a pastor’s daughter-turned-atheist, so being inside the Mothership of Catholicism doesn’t exactly sound like my jam. But the home of the Holy See houses the largest privately owned collection of art in the entire freaking world, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Church has also, in large part, shaped the path of the western world for more than 1500 years. Less so now than, say, 400 years ago, thank God (pun intended), but it’s impossible to separate Christian history from European history–which is totally my jam. However, the Vatican amassed their enormous collection of priceless art through centuries of widespread greed, corruption, plunder and slaughter, and they ran (run?) the largest pedophile syndicate in all of documented history, so. . . yeah. I struggled.

In the end I decided that I’d be contributing to the preservation of the art and history, not the Ring of Rapists, and our one-time $20 donation wouldn’t go far in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bestie ventured into the inner sanctum of et Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti (Amen).

Now, about that history. . .

Notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, in the 1st Century CE, began building a massive circus (think chariots, not clowns). However, Caligula was a super shitty emperor (rumor has it also a sadistic, incestuous, nymphomaniac), so his own men murdered him after he’d reigned for a mere 4 years, leaving his circus unfinished. Enter Nero, the villain of early Christianity who, upon completing Caligula’s circus, promptly took all the credit and named it the Circus of Nero.

In CE 64 about a third of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. As usual, people wanted someone to blame, so Nero gave them one: adherents of a strange new cult who worshiped only one god, and called themselves Christians. Given the absence of modern investigative and forensic tools to reveal how, or at whose hands, the fire actually started, scapegoating the folks his subjects were already suspicious of must’ve felt like a no-brainer to a ruler who just wanted to restore order to a city teetering on anarchy. To placate the throngs of angry Romans, Nero’s soldiers started targeting and executing Christians (by crucifixion, as they’re infamous for doing), and the primary spot used for the executions was–that’s right–the Circus of Nero.

The bodies of the alleged arsonists were laid to rest in a cemetery right next to the Circus, including that of the most famous of Nero’s victims, the man credited with founding The Church, Peter the Apostle. St Peter’s Basilica is supposedy built over his grave, and the sprawling complex of palaces, gardens, offices, chapels, residences and museums has been built up around it over the ensuing centuries to give us what is now the independent city-state called The Vatican.

There’s one piece of the original circus left, and that’s the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square. Not a Christian relic at all, but a pagan one, Caligula looted the obelisk from Egypt way back in the early 1st Century CE. I can’t even tell you how hilarious I found it to be standing in the epicenter of the Christian world, neighborhood of the Pope, burial place of a dude who purportedly walked with Jesus Christ himself, and staring at looted, pagan booty. See, guys? History is fun!

More than the paintings and sculptures, or artifacts and relics, the rooms themselves were incredible, especially the ceilings. The Sistine Chapel doesn’t have the only magnificent ceiling inside the Vatican. Others are just as spectacular, and many are covered in gold. So. Much. Gold. Despite their beauty, I kept wondering, “Y’all sure this is what Jesus had in mind?

Through the entire museum, room after room, gold ceiling after gold ceiling, I was amused by the juxtaposition of a hippie like Jesus, who reportedly said it was, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Matthew 10:25 NLT) with the obscene wealth that now oozes from the seat of the church founded in his name. If they melted down all the gold in the Vatican they could single-handedly end homelessness for millions of displaced persons, which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus would do. Yet there I was, walking under gilded ceilings and surrounded by art that’s worth more than the GDP of most nations. “Seriously though, you guys even read his work?

Confessing nearly 44 years worth of sins was a lengthy endeavor. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. How much time you got?”

After the museums we headed to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping for souvenirs along the way. Another building that would be far too ostentatious for Jesus’ liking, it’s basically a massive marble and gold testament to the ingenuity, artistry and power of man. If the builders and architects wanted visitors to feel small and insignificant under the eyes of God, they nailed it. The giant atop Jack’s beanstalk wouldn’t even need to duck his head to walk into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s tomb is at the front of the sanctuary near the high altar. The above ground marker is a massive bronze and gilded baldachin by Bernini that is absolutely stunning. While I may be an atheist, the history nerd in me was beside herself to be potentially standing over the grave of yet another pivotal historical figure.

The most magnificent part of the entire basilica, as far as I’m concerned, is, hands down, Michelangelo’s Pieta. WOW! There’s a reason he’s considered a master. The emotion on Mary’s face, the realistic lifelessness of Jesus, the detail of every inch of them. . . and just knowing that before my eyes was a piece of marble carved by Michel-freaking-angelo was overwhelming. I felt the anguish of a mother who’d lost her child, and I actually cried. My daughter made fun of me, but this wouldn’t be the last time Renaissance art moved me to literal tears.

The least intimidating looking security of all time: the Swiss Guard.

As we left the Basilica the girls did an impromptu impersonation of the Swiss Guard, after which we fled before getting arrested at spear-point, tried for heresy, and burned as witches. We then found a shady spot in St Peter’s Square to sit down, relax and enjoy the day. While the museum had been crowded the square was relatively empty. I’m sure there were an equal number of people in both places, but the square is so enormous and open that it felt nearly deserted. We all FaceTimed with family, I smoked a cigarette, and we spent an hour just chilling and soaking everything in. We listened to the bells tolling from the basilica, watched as traditionally dressed priests, monks and nuns passed by, and I tended to my blisters. A lovely respite before continuing with our day of sightseeing.

Swiss Guard Imitation Vatican
Olivia and Carey imitating the Swiss Guard, but in less ridiculous outfits

Though we’d taken a taxi to the Vatican, we walked back in order to see some sights along the way, the first of which was Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally built in the 2nd Century CE as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, history has seen it used as a prison, and even a papal hideout during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While primarily German and Spanish troops pillaged the city, Pope Clement VII fled down the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage that connects the Vatican to the castle, and remained there until the troops finally exhausted the city’s resources and left. Not exactly one to lead by example, that Pope, but before he died he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, so he’s not without his contributions to posterity.

We admired the castle, then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and continued walking along the Tiber until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus. The building itself, like the Castel Sant’Angelo, was austere and imposing, but had lost most of its decorative detail to the ravages of time, and was visually unimpressive. We sadly weren’t able to go inside, but I did take a moment to pay my respects to the superstars of history entombed within: the entire Julio-Claudian Dynasty, starting with Augustus and Livia, and going all the way to Caligula, Nero, and finally Nerva. Some bad, some badass, all part of the history that shaped Western Civilization.

After I’d paid my respects it was time for some more gelato, and to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. As we walked, we passed Trajan’s Market, the Altar of the Fatherland, and a statue of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite parts of Rome is that, no matter which way you turn, there’s probably something fun around the next corner.

That evening, as we savored our final dinner in Rome (best steak I’ve ever had), we decided we greatly prefer the European style of dining to the American way. Dinner is an event, and it anchored us each evening. The waiters are always nearby, ready to help, but they don’t bug you. No loud music to impede conversation, no interruptions to ask if you’re enjoying your meal, no rushing you along to free up their table. Instead, we were able to enjoy leisurely, relaxed meals that allowed us to decompress, reflect on the day, and really connect with one another. I can’t begin to say how refreshing an experience that is when you’re used to places like sports bars or Olive Garden.

Rome had been as magical as I’d always dreamed, and although we were sad to leave, we knew we still had a week and a half of European adventures still to come. Stay tuned for the next installment when we trade the narrow, cobblestone streets of Ancient Rome for the wide avenues and posh luxury of Paris! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Exploring the Eternal City: Rome for History Nerds

Rome, the Eternal City, is like Disneyland for history nerds. The Roman Empire once stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, as far north as England, and as far south as Egypt. Rome helped shape Western civilization for thousands of years, from their time as conquerors to the height of Vatican power. For better or worse, Rome changed the world, and for history nerds like me, exploring the Eternal City was a dream come true.

After breakfast at our hotel we headed to Rome’s main attraction: Il Colosseo! Built between CE 72 – 80, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheater, and one of the most recognizable buildings, in the entire world. Once used to stage public entertainments for up to 70,000 plebeian and patrician spectators alike, it showcased everything from gladiatorial combat and battle reenactments, to animal hunts and public executions; the bloodier the better for Ancient Romans. On the one hand, it’s rather disturbing to think that watching people fight to the death in an arena passed for quality entertainment a couple thousand years ago. On the other hand, beating the shit out of people is an actual Olympic sport, and we spend millions of dollars every year flocking to theaters for movies like Saw and its many sequels, or reading true crime novels about grisly murders. So it seems our humanity hasn’t evolved quite as quickly as our technology.

We arrived early and had plenty of time to admire the exterior and take pictures before going inside. That so much of the structure is still standing and intact after thousands of years being ravaged by the elements is astounding. The phrase, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” never seemed so fitting. Earthquakes, fires, rain, snow, hail, wind, war–she’s been battered, but never beaten.

We had all our documents ready when our time came to enter the Colosseum, but we weren’t sure what to expect since Italy had rolled out their new health pass. There was some confusion as to whether or not a US CDC card would be sufficient for entry to Italy’s museums and restaurants. We were pleased to learn that yes, our CDC vaccine cards with our passports were all we needed to get into everything. Europeans are now used to seeing them from American tourists, and we never ran into an issue. Though you may be slowed down if you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as they expect to see 2 doses on your card, so you will have to explain why there’s only one.

Being inside a building that was constructed 1400 years before Europeans even knew America existed is surreal. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around just how long ago that really is. 21st Century life would be unrecognizable to the men who built The Colosseum entirely by hand. No cranes. No computers. No power tools. Just human ingenuity and raw strength. Mind: blown.

Our next stop was the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Even older than the Colosseum, The Forum was the heart of Rome before Julius Caesar even walked its streets. Speeches were given, commerce conducted, trials executed, debates and tributes held there. Palatine Hill, on the other hand, held the most expensive residential property in town. According to legend, around 754 BCE, twin brothers Romulus and Remus disagreed as to on which hill to found their new city. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while the Aventine was more Remus’ jam. So, being the superstitious ancient humans that they were they, “let the gods decide.” Remus claimed to have seen 6 birds from the Aventine Hill, proving him divinely favored. Romulus, not one to be outdone, said he saw 12 birds from the Palatine (totally legit, surely), declared himself divine winner (yep, because birds), and killed his brother Remus, thus making the Palatine Hill prime Rome real estate, while the Aventine became Skid Row. It’s also why it’s called Rome and not Reme. Isn’t history (mythology, in this case) a hoot?!

Once we’d finished walking through the Tribeca of Ancient Rome we were ready for some lunch. We started walking and came across a lovely trattoria with what we were all craving: pizza! We sat on the patio and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, watching as two old nuns left the convent next door for supplies, then came back oblivious to the trail of onions they were leaving in their wake. Just as we noticed them falling off their little wagon, a passerby kindly pointed it out to them. The nuns just shrugged and kept going. Zero fucks given. It was fantastic. Even more so when a car ran the onions over, moments later causing a very confused pedestrian to wonder why the street was covered in smashed produce.

Olivia has always been obsessed with France, and Paris in particular, but her favorite movie is Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. In the movie Greg takes Audrey to the Mouth of Truth. He tells her the medieval legend which says the mask will bite the hand off any liar who dares to put their hand in its mouth. It’s one of Liv’s favorite scenes from her favorite movie, so it was a must-see. The mask is located in the portico at the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and Liv was so excited and adorable as we waited in line to reenact the scene. Bonus: we all kept our hands!

On our way to the Pantheon we passed one of the spots I was most excited to see. On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar walked into the Theater of Pompey for a meeting with a group of senators. What he didn’t know was that the meeting was a ruse designed to lure him to his own murder (et tu, Brute?). Caesar entered, and the senators swarmed around him and pulled daggers from their togas. As the blows rained down on him Caesar knew he was toast. He pulled his toga over his head so they wouldn’t see his face as he died, then bled to death right there on the temple steps. His assassination sent Rome into chaos, triggered a civil war, and effectually ended the Roman Republic for good. Gaius Octavius Julius Caesar Augustus (commonly referred to as Octavian, because that name is a hell of a mouthful), Rome’s first emperor, was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and posthumously adopted son. After gaining control of Rome, he erected a monument on the spot where Uncle-Daddy Caesar was assassinated, and that spot is located in what is now an archeological site called Largo di Torre Argentina.

I recognized it right away and immediately began nerding out. I was staring at the spot where one of the most pivotal events in ancient history took place, and I couldn’t even. There’s not much left of the temple, and even less of the monument, but I couldn’t help but visualize what it must have been like as the senators fled the theater and word spread that Caesar was dead. Loved by the people and hated by the ruling elite, whatever you think of him, Julius Caesar’s fingerprints are all over our lives. He’s the man who gave us the calendar we still use today. July is named after him, August after his successor. He had an affair with Cleopatra, crossed the Rubicon, and inspired Shakespeare. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” He’s fucking legendary. So, I pulled my kimono over my face to pay homage in my own way to the OG JC.

The girls finally dragged me away from my nerd-fest and we arrived at the Pantheon, which is the best preserved ancient building in the city. Commissioned in the early 1st Century CE by Agrippa, bestie to Emperor Augustus (Octavian), but rebuilt after a fire around CE 126, its original purpose was as a temple to all the gods of Rome–and they had a lot of gods (shoe leather? Yep, there’s a god for that). Even Caesar and Augustus were posthumously deified and worshiped. Of course, the Pantheon was eventually converted into a Catholic Church in the 7th Century, but I still see it as a pagan monument. Once again, its size blew our freaking minds. Absolutely colossal. It was impossible to not feel dwarfed in its presence, and mad respect for the dudes who were up there building that roof more than a millennia ago. Unfortunately reservations aren’t possible, and the line to go inside was several blocks long. So we enjoyed the view from the fountain and then headed to one of the most famous piazza’s in Rome.

Piazza Navonna. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a huge priority for me, but I was so glad that we went! Having been built on the site of what once was the Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navonna is huge, of course, and utterly charming. The Baroque fountains are beautiful, as was the 17th Century church of Sant’Agnese in Agnone, but our favorite part was a man called Super Mario.

We were about to walk back to the hotel, not interested in being lured into sitting down at one of the overpriced cafes, when one of the maître d’s caught our attention in the cheesiest, most cliché way. Realizing we were Americans, he said, “My name is Mario. Super Mario!” mentioned cocktails, and we caved. When in Rome, right? This was the perk of not scheduling every minute of the day. We had the freedom to just stop, relax, listen to the old man playing a portable organ, and sip our cocktails, soaking it all in. Olivia ordered an espresso martini, while Carey and I went for the frozen mimosa, and they were absolutely divine, the perfect way to cool down on a 90 degree day. Thank you, Super Mario!

Our first full day in Rome was everything we’d dreamed and then some. After hitting so many sites in one day we were once again exhausted, but so excited to get up in the morning and head to the Mothership of Christianity: The Vatican. Come back next week to read about how St. Peter’s Basilica became a trip-favorite of us three atheists.

Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Ciao, America! Ladycations Goes International: Italy and France

Airport selfie

Ladycations is back! And we’re going international! After my last Ladycation turned into a total crap-cation, then COVID-19 grounded us all for more than a year, I was beyond ready for an escape in 2021. I’d taken social distancing and masking very seriously, hadn’t done much of anything outside my home and work throughout the entire pandemic, and had worked myself into hypertension over the cacophony of misinformation being spewed. I wanted to completely disconnect, and flee to far away lands that stir the imagination and stimulate the senses.

If you’ve been following Ladycations you know I love nature. I’m always down for camping and hiking, and generally escaping humanity for the serenity of the Great Outdoors. What you might not know is that I’m also a history nerd. I devour historical non-fiction, binge low-budget documentaries, and will randomly announce historical “fun facts” to people who then question whether I know what the word “fun” actually means. Going to Italy was my dream, like an historical pilgrimage for nerdy nerds. So, instead of getting my nature fix I decided to feed my history habit, and with at least six miles of walking a day, it was basically hiking with cuter shoes and better snacks (and considerably more people).

France was my daughter’s dream. She even minored in French in college. She worked her ass off throughout her entire education, has literally never gotten into trouble, and graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University in May. She’s smart, witty, kind, responsible, thoughtful, poised, driven. . . She’s amazing. So, being the proud, cool-ass mom that I am, I decided to make both our dreams come true and take Olivia and her best friend on a two week tour of Italy and France to celebrate their awesomeness.

Our adventure began in Cleveland with a flight to Rome, and we were prepared. We had our passports, my international drivers ID, we were vaccinated, Covid-tested, and equipped with KN-95 masks. But, because preparation can only do so much, an unwelcome surprise: our flight out of Cleveland was delayed by several hours, adding an additional layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and getting us into the city much later than we’d planned. Welcome to international air travel, folks! Between that and all the uncertainty associated with traveling during Covid, despite having all our documents in order, part of us wasn’t sure we were actually going to make it to Rome at all.

The Frankfurt airport is. . . off-putting. Very gray, very confusing and crowded, and not overly friendly, in our limited experience. We looked up reviews of the airport online to amuse ourselves. “Gray, gray, gray.” “Unsettling.” They’re not wrong. While I know logically that Germany would be a beautiful, super interesting place to visit, we won’t be doing that anytime soon. It’s like childbirth, we need time to forget the experience before trying again. On the bright side they did have smoking lounges, so I was able to smoke a couple cigarettes while we waited, which may have saved lives.

We arrived in Rome as the sun was starting to set, and I’m not sure I have the words to explain exactly how I was feeling. Years of dreaming and planning and reading and researching and pandemic-related apprehension, and here we were, in the back of a taxi, being driven maniacally through the ancient streets of Rome. We made it!

Our home for the first three nights of our trip was the FH55 Grand Hotel Palatino. I usually prefer to AirBnb or VRBO, but it was cheaper to book the hotel with the plane ticket, and I wanted to be within walking distance of all the major attractions. I also wanted rooms with balconies cause smokers gotta smoke, and a continental breakfast to simplify our mornings. The Grand Hotel Palatino checked every box, and we would definitely stay there again! Clean, perfectly situated near all the major attractions, with bright, spacious rooms and friendly, helpful staff. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

We needed food. We were dying for our first taste of real Italian pasta, and after traveling for more than 24 hours, our nerves needed the sedating effect of wine. It took us all of 5 minutes to find an adorable trattoria in a little piazza with everything we craved and charm to boot. Within 10 minutes of sitting down at the tiny outdoor table we were sipping our wine and nibbling fresh-baked bread. It was so European that the reality of the distance from home really started to sink in.

Before this trip I’d been to Windsor, Canada for a couple nights, and had stopped in Mexico and Jamaica on my honeymoon cruise, but I was always surrounded by English-speakers. I’ve never been so far from home that everyone around me was speaking another language, and it was such a strange feeling. It gives a sense of vulnerability, and anonymity. You know you’re not going to run into that annoying coworker, or your ex. In fact, you’ll neither know nor see anyone you encounter ever again, and no one will even remember you once you’re gone. Just another American tourist. That’s incredibly liberating. But we also had a keen sense of being at the mercy of others, relying on them to know our language because we never bothered to learn theirs. That’s mercilessly humbling, especially with the added risk of traveling during a pandemic.

When we heard a police car nearby with its siren blaring I felt even more detached from life in the US. So many sirens, and not the sirens I’m used to hearing in the American Midwest, but the sirens I’d only heard in movies. Sitting there, as I alternated between white wine and Prosecco (because, why choose just one?), and savored my to-die-for lasagna, I half expected to see Tom Hanks come flying into the Piazza with the Swiss Guard hot on his heels, like a scene from The Da Vinci Code.

It was getting late when we finished our (delicious) meal, and we were exhausted, but we weren’t ready to turn in, so we headed deeper into the Eternal City in search of gelato and the 18th Century Baroque masterpiece: the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). Talk about living up to the hype! The gelato was sublime, and the fountain was massive and stunningly beautiful. All lit up for the evening, the water was glowing blue, reflecting its light onto the faces of its many admirers. The intricate detail and enormous scale of the sculptures cannot be adequately captured on film, and we were in complete awe. So different from anything any of us had ever seen. I wasn’t sure if I was more amazed by the fountain or knowing it was only the first of fourteen days full of being amazed by Europe’s magnificent art and architecture.

After taking some pictures and making a wish as we tossed a coin into the fountain we slowly made our way back to the hotel. It had been a long day, with unforeseen delays and lots of frustration, but it ultimately ended exactly as I’d imagined it would: joyfully, my appetite satisfied with scrumptious pasta, my thirst satiated with crisp wine, and me blissfully smoking a cigarette on my private balcony. The travel stress had been entirely worth it.

Before Covid hit I’d been planning a solo trip to Italy for Spring of 2020. As disappointed as I’d been about having to cancel, as I sat on the balcony, listening to the sound of the revelry on the street below, I was immensely grateful to have my daughter and her friend sleeping in the room across the hall. It was my first time overseas, which was a little unnerving. I’d have been fine alone, but it certainly would’ve added an extra layer of anxiety. Mostly, though, it was just special to be able to experience it all with Olivia, seeing everything from my own perspective and through her eyes, as well.

I couldn’t wait for morning to explore more of Caesar’s ‘hood! But first, a shower and the soundest sleep I’d had in months. Next time my fellow Ladycationers and I set off for the main event in Rome: The Colosseum! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

When Good Vacations Go Bad: My Hawaiian Crap-Cation

Rainbow over Kipahulu

Hawaii. Its mere mention conjures mental images of sun-kissed bodies lying on sandy beaches, palm trees swaying in warm breezes, and leis of colorful, tropical flowers. It connotes relaxation and luxury. While my trip to Hawaii certainly had a little bit of all of those things, this is not that kind of story. For no matter how meticulously one plans, dream vacations can turn into nightmares in the blink of an eye, or, in this case, a crick in the neck. And when good vacations go bad, they can go really, really bad.

I’ve tried to write about my trip to Hawaii for more than two years. Each draft was ultimately scrapped. They either read as aggressively depressing or superfluously disingenuous. My brother asked why I hadn’t written about the trip and I told him my predicament. He said with confidence, “You’ll find a way to make it funny.” At that point, however, I was entirely unable to find anything funny in that shit-sandwich of a vacation. And so, two years later, here I am. Trying again.

Everything started out great. Lindsey and I had two weeks planned on three islands, mostly camping, with bookend stays at AirBnbs and a resort. We spent our first two days on Oahu at our beachfront guesthouse; snorkeling, swimming, hiking, driving around in our convertible, and eating our dinner under the palm trees in our lounge chairs on the beach. It was magical. We assumed the next leg of the trip (camping on Maui) would be even more so. The universe heard that assumption, laughed diabolically, and said, “Hold my Mai Tai.”

sunset ewa beach oahu hawaii palm trees
Sunset from our AirBnb in Ewa Beach

Our first night on Maui, my sleeping pad popped. We were in the middle of nowhere, at Wai’anapanapa State Park, on the Road to Hana, and had zero options as far as finding a replacement. No big deal, I thought. I’m a badass, outdoorsy woman, right? I wasn’t going to let a little ground-sleeping interfere with my bitchin’ Hawaiian Ladycation, so I popped some ibuprofen for my sore shoulder, smoked a breakfast joint, and carried on like the boss-ass-bitch I am.

We hiked across barren fields of ancient lava flow, swam next to sea turtles in the crystal-clear ocean, soaked up the sun on the black sand beach, and spent countless hours staring out at the waves as they crashed against the rocky shore. We invented our own constellations at night, made friends with fellow campers, and were generally having the time of our lives in “paradise.” Unfortunately, my shoulder was becoming more and more of a problem, the pain extending farther down my arm with each passing day. My boss-ass-bitchness was wilting faster than a Hawaiian lei.

After the third night of camping I couldn’t lift my left arm. My shoulder had just stopped working. Fuck. The pain was extending from my neck to my fingertips, and had evolved from an annoying ache to a burning, ferocious, all-consuming pain. Fuck. I struggled to get dressed (fuck, ow, fuck), trying, to no avail, to mentally will my arm to work. Fuck. That was my last night’s sleep of the entire trip, the first of an infinite number of “fucks,” and the moment my Hawaiian Ladycation turned into a total Crap-cation.

The pain continued, unabated, despite deploying every weapon in my arsenal: ibuprofen, Tylenol, ice, steroid cream, prescription strength NSAIDs, stretching, massage, reiki, and copious amounts of cannabis. Nothing helped. I didn’t want to ruin Lindsey’s trip, so I tried to “woman up,” and just deal with it, but when we missed stargazing from atop a volcano because I couldn’t handle the drive, then I had to use a pool noodle for snorkeling the Molokini Crater because I couldn’t swim with only one arm, and got seasick on the boat ride back to shore (I grew up on the water, I do not get seasick), I lost my ability to be even a wilting version of my boss-ass-bitch self, and was just plain old bitchy.

I went to the emergency room on Maui, got X-rays, a cortisone injection in my shoulder, a sling, a prescription for pain medication, and off we went to Kauai for the final leg of our trip. None of those interventions helped. I suppose one would think, “I’d rather be miserable in Hawaii than Ohio.” But, when you’re blinded by unrelenting pain the view doesn’t really matter.

The only thing I found that did help the pain were near-death experiences. How did I discover this, you may be asking? A wave at Polihale Beach knocked me down and tossed me around like a ragdoll. My desperate attempt to not die caused my brain to release chemicals–an “adrenaline rush”–which temporarily blocked my pain receptors. Momentary sweet relief. So, what did I do? I just kept almost drowning. . . on purpose. . . over and over and over, until I was too exhausted to risk it again. I had an hour of glorious, pain-free bliss, and had unknowingly been providing entertainment for another group of campers, who found my apparent clumsiness and inability to learn from my mistakes absolutely hilarious, and more than a bit concerning. You’re welcome, folks.

By this point Lindsey and I were not exactly a harmonious duo of travelers. I hadn’t slept in days and was in constant pain, and Lindsey was stuck in “paradise” with a miserable, bitchy cow. Not an ideal situation for either person involved, to say the least. While Lindsey was exploring a holistic souvenir shop she found a mineral that was purported to “heal ligaments and tendons,” and told me I should hold it. I wanted to throw it at her damn face. When she performed reiki on me before snorkeling she recoiled and needed to meditate, saying I had, “too much negative energy.” Well, no shit! My arm is on fire! I wanted to slap her. Was she deliberately being dismissive? No. Did I handle it any better because her intentions were innocent? Also no.

I never want to come home at the end of a vacation. I always lament going back to reality, wishing for more time in whatever beautiful destination I’m in. That was not the case with my Hawaiian Crap-cation. I could not wait to get back to lame-ass Ohio and the medical care at my disposal there. Being that I’m a medical secretary to two orthopedic surgeons I assumed (erroneously) that I would get a quick diagnosis and surgery, and be back to Ladycation-planning in no time. Unfortunately, I was only at the beginning of a three month journey through US Healthcare Hell. 13 medications, 6 doctors, 2 spinal injections, countless physical therapy appointments, and 4 full-blown panic attacks later and I was a shell of the person I’d once been. Shit got really dark.

Ultimately I did get the surgery I needed. I had herniated two disks in my cervical spine (neck), and one was compressing a nerve that runs all the way down my left arm, which was what caused the pain and loss of function. When I came out of anesthesia after surgery the first thing I did was try to lift my arm. When it actually lifted off the bed I was so happy I cried. It was the first time I’d felt hope in months.

I don’t have wonderful memories from my trip to Hawaii. I did come home tan, but I also came home crippled. I remember watching the sunset over the ocean at Polihale, but I also remember that that’s where I deliberately near-drowned myself to escape the pain. I remember the waterfalls, and the pain. I remember the palm trees, and the pain. Every memory from the entire trip is clouded by the memory of the pain, and the several months and thousands of dollars in medical bills that followed. Even the memories of our first couple days, before “The Incident,” are under a fog of, “You didn’t even know what you were in for.” I went to Hawaii and came back physically and emotionally broken. Was it Hawaii’s fault? Obviously not, but when it comes to emotional trauma, it’s hard for the mind to differentiate between correlation and causation.

Luckily for Lindsey my injury didn’t have as negative an impact on her trip as I thought it had, and she packed up and moved to Kauai less than a year after we’d returned to Ohio. I’m glad she’s happy and living her best life–but I will never be going to visit. She can have Hawaii. The Island has spoken, and Jeff Probst has snuffed out my torch. Aloha, Hawaii.

If nothing else the trip was a learning experience. Most importantly I learned of the necessity of travel insurance. I learned the value of having backup equipment. And, weirdly, being incapacitated and miserable for several months before Covid hit kinda prepared me for the long months of lock downs and social distancing, so in the end, it all worked out pretty well.

For my triumphant return to travel, post Hawaiian Crap-cation and post global-pandemic-travel-restrictions, Ladycations is going international! Stay tuned to hear about how I am the most awesome mom ever, cause I took my daughter and her best friend to Italy and France to celebrate their college graduation. Ancient ruins, iconic art, actual castles, all the wine, and no neurosurgeons needed. The boss-ass bitch is back! But for now, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Walking (and Driving) on Water: Winter on Madeline Island

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Madeline Island in the winter is a completely different experience than it is in the summer. Tourism doesn’t just slow down in the off season, it damn near stops entirely. Save for a handful of winter adventurers and an even smaller handful of badass, die hard locals, the island feels all but deserted from October to April. The stores and restaurants close for the season; Tom’s Burned Down Cafe boarded up, waiting for the warm breezes of summer; and you’re just as likely to see a snowmobile cruising down Main Street as you are an actual car. But the beauty of winter on Madeline Island cannot be denied.

You might be wondering how one gets to an island in Lake Superior in the dead of winter. Depending on the day and how cold it’s been, you could get one of three answers:

  1. Ferry. Happening with increasing frequency thanks to climate change, milder winters have meant a year round ferry season when the lake never fully freezes.
  2. Wind Sled. The least appealing and sustainable option, before the lake is thick enough to drive on, but after it’s too thick for the ferry, islanders travel back and forth to the mainland, skidding across the thin ice on what’s essentially an everglades boat with an airplane propeller on the back. Bring earplugs.
  3. Ice Road. The lake between the mainland and the island, once frozen, is actually considered a part of State Highway 13. img_1500

The Ice Road begins in Bayfield next to the ferry docks. With a speed limit of 15 miles per hour (to prevent creating wake in the waters beneath the thick, frozen layer of lake), and Islanders’ discarded Christmas trees marking the route, the Madeline Island Ice Road is, like all things on Madeline, something you just have to experience to fully appreciate.

The day I arrived was bitterly cold. So cold, in fact, that Duluth set a record for the coldest March day ever (a fact I was thrilled to have been present for). The entrance to the Ice Road was frozen solid as I slowly inched my rental car from land to the frozen expanse of lake before me, with sparkling snowflakes blowing across the well-worn path.

When I reached the middle of the “road” I stopped the car and got out, feeling like a kid again when my dad would stop and let us run around on the ice before continuing on our way. I realized very quickly that I hadn’t dressed appropriately for this adventure. Since I don’t own a winter coat, I was sporting two long sleeve tee shirts and two hoodies, jeans that had holes in them, and my cute, but not functional boots. I had a scarf, but no hat or mittens, and definitely no snow pants. My nose hairs were frozen within seconds. jonis beach madeline islandAfter taking a moment to appreciate the experience and revel in happy childhood memories I got back in the warm car and continued on, passing some ice fisherman, one other traveler, and the wind sleds parked at the island’s shore, before I felt my tires grip the solid ground of Madeline Island. I was home.

I drove down Main Street, past the closed up storefronts and eateries, the summer homes that had been winterized for the season; abandoned to the snow drifts until the spring melt. I passed my old house and church, Joni’s Beach, with the dock where I used to spend hours with my girlfriends, our feet dangling into the water. I drove around the empty marina with its lonely, snow-covered docks, and then headed out to my favorite place on The Island: Big Bay Town Park.

As I drove it occurred to me that unless the town was maintaining it during the winter months, the park may not be accessible. I was grateful to find the entrance plowed, but as I parked the car I realized I still wasn’t in the clear. Though the driveway was plowed, the trail to the beach most definitely was not. My jeans and fashionable boots suddenly seemed alarmingly ineffective. I hesitated for a few moments as the wind whistled through the air, wondering if hiking through snow up to mid-thigh was wise, but ultimately decided: fuck wisdom, I wanna be on that beach, and frostbite is treatable.

It took considerably longer than usual to reach the staircase that leads down to the beach. Trudging through snow that deep is no joke. I was winded and sweaty despite being freezing by the time I reached the end of the trail and was gazing out across the lagoon. Even in the winter, under a blanket of snow instead of a blanket of summer stars, the view took my breath away. Though, to be fair, that may have partially been the wind whipping in my face. So cold was the wind that my revelry ended significantly earlier than it does in the summer months.

The next challenge to getting to the beach was the stairs. Previous visitors had packed the snow down so tight that each step was now coated with a thick mound of ice. I once again questioned the wisdom in continuing, and once again was too determined to reach that beach to be wise. I slowly sidestepped my way down the stairs, across the bridge, and finally found myself standing safely on a deserted Big Bay Beach.

I thought Big Bay was peaceful at night, but I’d forgotten the peace of Big Bay in winter. Instead of the sound of the waves kissing the shore, the frogs croaking, and the loons calling, all you can hear at Big Bay in the winter is the wind as it blows the dusty top layer of crystallized snowflakes gently across the frozen expanse of the bay. The flat, snow-covered lake against an overcast sky made it impossible to see the horizon. Everything had been whitewashed. The glare was so bright it made me remember that snow-blindness is a thing, and I was grateful that I had at least one piece of proper gear: sunglasses.

I walked out on the lake that I’d been skinny dipping in just a few months before, my feet crunching on the snow with each step instead of my toes sinking into the sand, and stared into the white void ahead, engulfed by the same sense of peace in my many layers of hoodies as I had been when I’d slipped naked beneath the surface of the water I was now standing on. Despite the cold I could’ve spent a lot more time enjoying the solitude of Big Bay. The feeling of absolute isolation was intoxicating. I was only on Madeline Island for about an hour. I could’ve spent days cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, sitting by a fire and staring at the stars, but I had a plane to catch, so I set off back towards the car. Miraculously, I made it back in one piece, without injury, and only a couple spots of frostbite (in the spots where my jeans had holes). As is always the case, even in winter, my visit home to Madeline Island was enchanting.

 

 

 

Big Bay By Night: The Lake, the Loons, and Skinny Dipping Under the Stars

The Milky Way over the Big Bay Lagoon

As much as I love laying on the beach under the blazing hot sun, jumping off the cliffs at Big Bay State Park, and my morning runs along the boardwalk, nighttime at Big Bay is my favorite time at Big Bay. Between the distant, lonely call of the loons, the peaceful solitude of having the beach to myself, the absolutely breathtaking night sky, and its reflection on the lagoon, Big Bay by night is an absolutely magical experience.

The campground gets quiet after dark. Big Bay Town Park used to be the “party” campground, the bulk of visiting families opting for the State Park and its more modern facilities, leaving the unattended Town Park to us party people looking to have a good time. They have since made some “improvements” (probably to cut down on the party people). After adding an on premises Park Office, flush toilets, coin operated showers, additional campsites, and joining the 21st Century by adopting an online reservation system, the vibe, with the clientele, began to shift. These days, with a full time camp host and more families than partiers, things get very still at night.

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Can you see the Big Dipper?

The darkness at Big Bay is profound. On a moonless night it’s nearly impossible to see what’s only 6 inches in front of you. It’s black as pitch, and even after one’s eyes get accustomed to the absence of light, they’ll still only see vague outlines of dark against darker, shapes shifting in an unending shadow. It’s so easy to forget, as a city dweller, what darkness really is. One night on Madeline Island will make you realize you’re rarely truly in the dark.

Northern Lights from Big Bay in July
Northern Lights from Big Bay in July

When one thinks of stargazing, Wisconsin isn’t typically the first place that comes to mind (or the second place, or the third place, or the. . . you get the idea). Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Hawai’i, or about 100 other places, sure. But Wisconsin (you’re thinking of cheese right now, aren’t you)? Not so much. Believe it or not, the Apostle Islands are one of the best places in the country to stare at the cosmos. The Bortle scale, a rating from 1-9 which measures the brightness in the night sky, rates parts of Madeline Island, and a good portion of the Apostles as a whole, as a level one. As good as it gets. Big Bay itself is a level two. The Milky Way shines overhead, and in the winter months one can even watch the aurora borealis dance across the sky (which can often be captured even in the summertime with the right camera).

When my brother and I were telling my best friend (and fellow Ladycationer), Lindsey, about the stars at Big Bay, she didn’t really believe us. In her defense, it’s not the sort of thing one can fully appreciate without witnessing it first hand. That first night she spent on the beach she was blown away. “I didn’t know it could really look like this,” she whispered. And even though I grew up looking at that very sky, to this day it still takes my breath away. Shooting stars aren’t just possible, they’re common. And if there’s a meteor shower. . . holy shit-balls, it’ll blow. your. mind.

One year, during the Perseid meteor shower, we were laying on the beach as massive, red fireballs streaked across the sky. I’m not exaggerating. These were not quick, little, white zips that, in order to be witnessed, one has to be staring at that exact spot, at that exact time. No. This was like the giant star from the “The More You Know” PSA ads from the 80’s and 90’s: large, bright, impossible to miss. They blazed hot and red, these huge fireballs, with miles long trails, beaming all the way across the sky until they appeared to burn out, disappear. It was one of the craziest, most incredible experiences of my entire life.

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Glass-like lagoon reflecting the stars

Though I’m amateur at best, I love photography. A friend once asked me, while on a camping trip, if I thought I was missing out on the fun because I was going around taking pictures instead of interacting. “This is the fun,” I responded. I love being behind the lens; framing a shot, playing around with the settings, shooting from different angles. There’s something therapeutic in it for me. And beyond taking the pictures, I love capturing those moments, looking through the photos years later and seeing little snippets of my life; each picture representing a memory, an experience, a moment that, when it happened, I wanted to remember.

You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful backdrop for night photography than the lagoon at Big Bay. The Milky Way above with countless stars and galaxies blanketing the pitch black sky; the still water of the lagoon, smooth as a mirror, reflecting the heavens as if Mother Nature wanted to make sure the stars could look down and see how beautiful they are; the surrounding trees lit up with countless lightening bugs, like Mother Nature’s glitter.

As I approached the lagoon the air was filled–and I do mean filled— with the sound of croaking frogs. The lagoon and surrounding marshes are teeming with wildlife, its very own ecosystem. Fish, bugs, ducks, snakes, mice, turtles, birds. . . Frogs are in abundance, and those little freaks have a massive orgy every single night. It’s the soundtrack of Big Bay Nights (Not as edgy or sexy as Boogie Nights, and with more frogs, and less Marky Mark, but the view–and the smell, I’m guessing–is arguably better).

lake superior through the trees
Standing on the bridge, looking out at the lake, Mars shining bright through the trees.

Every now and then the sound of the amphibious sex party is punctuated by the haunting call of a loon, somewhere off in the distance. Loon calls are one of my favorite sounds in the world (along with my children’s laughter, my mom’s laugh, waves crashing on a shore, and Dave Grohl screaming--no, that’s not weird). It sounds mystical, almost longing. They seem like they’re calling out to each other, but can never find one another; stuck in loneliness until morning when the calls stop and, I assume, they’re reunited. I once tried playing a YouTube video of a loon call for a friend who’d never heard one. Don’t ever do that. She was horrified. It sounded creepy AF, nothing at all like how it actually sounds, and I don’t think she’ll ever understand why the hell I love it so much.

I never made it past the lagoon our first night on The Island. I stayed on the bridge taking pictures until almost dawn, the view too irresistible to walk away from. It wasn’t until the second night that I finally got to the beach. Olivia and I built a fire down there after we got back from Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. We spent a solid hour together, tending our little fire, talking, laughing, and desperately (and hilariously) trying to open our beer on a driftwood log, as I’d left the opener in the car. It was wonderful. She let her guard down, opened up. With all distractions removed we truly connected.

beach bonfire

After I walked Olivia back to the campsite I grabbed my camera and headed back down to the beach. It was a warm July night, humid and still. The lake was like glass, the water rippling nearly imperceptibly as it gently kissed the cool sand along the shore.

I set up my camera and started playing: changing the angle and adjusting the settings, focusing and refocusing until I got what looked like a good shot, find a new angle, repeat. Before too long I was staring out at the lake between long shutter clicks, feeling her pull. There was no one on the beach, I had the entirety of Big Bay all to myself. So I did what anyone would do: I stripped off my clothes and slid my naked self into Lake Superior.

long exposure night photography
Zach and I experimented with the long exposure one night. Here’s his love note to his son: “I heart Stone,” written with his cigarette.

If you’ve been reading Ladycations for a while, you know I’m a big proponent of getting naked in nature. Nothing is more liberating, and skinny dipping is next level liberation. In the penetrating darkness I couldn’t see what was around me. Feeling the water creep slowly up my body kept me grounded, prevented me from getting disoriented, as the world, seemingly devoid of all light, wrapped itself around me in its shroud of darkness.

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Without the sense of sight, touch and sound become more acute. I was keenly aware of every inch of flesh the lake touched, and could hear, with absolute clarity, each ripple I made in the water. I was completely in tune with my body and my surroundings, all vanity and insecurity gone, totally and utterly at peace; content.

naked woman staring out at lake superior

My favorite thing to do while skinny dipping at Big Bay (don’t let your dirty minds run away with you, it’s not a sexual thing) is the back float. Yes, the back float. I highly recommend everyone try this. I float on my back, relax my body, and let the water submerge everything but my face. With my ears under water all I can hear is the lake and my own breathing, and all I see is a blanket of stars. I once slipped into such a meditative state while floating that I’d drifted halfway down the beach before realizing I’d even moved. I was suspended in time and space, weightless, a tiny speck in a sea of stars. It’s pure magic.

When I got out of the water I stretched my towel out on the sand next to my camera and continued my attempts at astrophotography. The Milky Way was on full display; a bright, colorful cloud, swirling around the suns of galaxies inconceivably far away. Mars was shining big, bright, and orange over the lagoon, and mast lights from moored sailboats reached across the bay. It was magnificent. I wanted to commemorate the moment with a picture, and was feeling all kinds of artsy and free of inhibition, so I set the timer, ran to the shore (yep, still naked), jumped in the lake, and tried to stand still.

skinny dipping at big bay

As you might have guessed, it took several tries to get it right. Adjusting the settings and my positioning in the frame. Had anyone happened upon me that night they would’ve gotten one hell of a show, “Dude, I went down to the beach last night and there was this naked lady running back and forth, in and out of the lake.” You’re welcome.

I knew it was time for bed when the rising sun started interfering with my photography and all my camera batteries died. It was shortly before 4:30am by the time I started back to camp. I spent each night at the beach for the remainder of the week, like my own nightly therapy. And although I most definitely didn’t get my doctor-recommended hours sleep, I wouldn’t trade a single second I spent naked on that beach.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! See you for the next LadycationSunday! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe: “It’s Not A Bar, It’s An Experience”

Tom's Burned Down Cafe at night

By day Madeline Island is a quirky beach getaway. At night the magic begins. Usually, when people think of a beach vacation they imagine working on their tan while lying on golden sand. While Madeline Island most definitely has that aspect of island life going for it, the shores of Lake Superior aren’t the only places where The Island comes alive when the sun goes down. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is where locals and tourists alike come together on Madeline Island to celebrate another day in paradise.

Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for my absence. Writers block combined with (or perhaps in response to) a visceral reaction to the Kavanaugh hearings here in the US left me at a loss for words. Or, more accurately, a loss for cohesive thoughts that I could translate into words, confusion as to what, specifically, I was even feeling, and an inability to refocus my mind on anything else. I’m guessing a lot of women out there who are familiar with the situation can relate to that. Madeline Island is a personal favorite subject of mine, she holds a special place in my heart. I want to do her justice in my depiction of her, and I wasn’t in a mental place to do that, so I took a break. I did some reading, limited my social media exposure, spent a lot of time alone sorting through my emotions, and getting to a healthier, more clear state of mind.

By the time I had done that, it was Thanksgiving, then Christmas (which I hosted), and man. . . time sure got away from me. So, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry for my neglect. Now, lemme tell y’all a bit about the coolest fucking bar in America: Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Night time is my favorite time on Madeline Island. The sound of the waves and the call of the loons, the absolute darkness, the mind-blowing view of the night sky, the tranquility; it’s magical. But before we head back out to the beach for skinny dipping under the Milky Way, we’re gonna go into town and head to Tommy’s, which, like everything on The Island, you really just need to experience to fully understand (and appreciate). A few years ago I invited a friend from high school and her husband to come camping at Big Bay with us. When we took them to Tom’s she said, “I thought it was weird that you go to a bar when you’re camping, but now I get it.”

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is exactly what the name implies. Shortly before the official opening of what was then known as Leona’s, a small fire broke out that quickly spread (aided by the fact that the firetrucks had just drained their tanks to prevent them from freezing), and the whole place burned to the ground.

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While surveying the charred remains of where his life’s work and all his money once stood, as if to add insult to injury, the beer delivery for the grand opening showed up. Tom, a lifelong Islander, was broke AF and his dream had just literally gone up in smoke. Instead of breaking down, he did what any Islander would do. He opened that goddamn bar out of the back of his car, changed the name from Leona’s to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, and bam! History was made.

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Today Tom’s is legendary. It stands on the repaired remains of Leona’s original floor, and consists of multiple trailer’s and hastily constructed buildings adorned with lights, lanterns, various graffiti-like signs and sayings, and is surrounded by eclectic art. There are showers in the bathrooms that are open for public use. Just pay the bartender, or drop some cash in the box on the bathroom door if the bar is closed. Yes, I’m serious. Why? Because Tommy’s.

At night the whole compound lights up and is host to all walks of life, both human, and of the animal kingdom. In fact, I’ve never been there at a time when there was not at least one dog roaming around. One time there was an old dude walking around with a bird on his shoulder. Yes, a real live bird. Why? Because Tommy’s.

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The year round Islanders mingle with the summer people and tourists, and the phrase, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” is definitively not the policy at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. Indeed, one could show up stark naked, and I’m not sure it would even be an issue. The smell of cannabis is frequently (and delightfully) in the air, and on summer weekends it’s the one place on Madeline where you can always find live music.

In Wisconsin people who are underage can not only go into a bar, but can even be served alcohol as long as they’re with a parent. Since my daughter is nineteen and was about to enter her sophomore year of college, I decided she was ready for a night out at Tommy’s.

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Olivia wasn’t sure what to expect. She knew that it was a crazy looking bar that the adults loved to go to, and that we always came home fairly intoxicated. She had been there during the day, but that is not even remotely the same experience. A couple of years ago I went to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe with my brother and Zach. I was ordering shots of vodka, but the bartender was pouring quadruples, and after two of those I was shitfaced. Chris and Zach got me back to the campground safely, and the rest of the night is pretty much a blur. I do remember waking up in the middle of the night to pee, but that’s about it. When Olivia woke up in the morning, she came out of the tent and said, “Mom, I had to wear your flip flops, mine smell like pee.” As it turns out, I had not, in fact, left the tent to pee at all, though I most definitely had peed. . . on my daughter’s fucking shoes. Why? You got it, because Tommy’s. Somehow I didn’t win a Mother-of-the-Year award that year. Weird.

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Liv was pretty excited (and probably a little nervous her mom was gonna get wasted and piss on her shoes again–which I am proud to say did not happen) as we drove into town with Zach. Kim and the rest of the gang were meeting us at the bar, and after stopping on the way to take pictures at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, backlit by an absolutely spectacular sunset, and a very aggressive deer (did you know deer hiss? Me either), we parked the car in town and headed into Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Most of The Island closes around 8:00 in the evening. The town of La Pointe was quiet when we pulled in, but Tommy’s, as always, was hoppin. The whole place was lit up, fire already roaring in the fireplace, as we walked into the bar. We claimed the prime spot: the big, round table under the tiki umbrella, got some drinks, and settled in.

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I love being at Tom’s. There’s such an incredible, positive energy there, and sharing it with my daughter was particularly entertaining. I was glad that not only was her first legal drink with me, but it was also on Madeline Island, and at Tommy’s. So much cooler than my first legal drink, which I literally don’t remember as I was pregnant with Olivia when I turned 21.

We went up to the bar and Zach got the first round. When he asked Liv what she wanted, she froze for a second. So unaccustomed with ordering at bars, she literally hadn’t even thought about what she would want to drink. So many options! After a brief pause where I imagine a zillion thoughts went through her mind simultaneously, she settled on a Jack and Coke. I should’ve guessed that my daughter would go straight for the hard shit.

Though Tom Nelson, owner and badass, doesn’t recognize me until I tell him who I am (I was a child when he knew me), as soon as he realizes I’m “Pastor Dale’s daughter,” I’m greeted with a huge smile, a warm hug, and a tale of how much he respected my dad. “He would come in here and we would have these long talks. Yoimg_8841ur dad is a cool guy. Tell him Tommy says hello.” It always makes me feel at home.

tom nelson at tom's burned down cafe
Tommy and me

If you’re looking for high class and a five star drink menu, and are incapable of letting loose for a night, Tom’s Burned Down Cafe isn’t the place for you (and you and I would not be friends). But if you enjoy really getting to know the local culture when you travel, or quirky, fun bars, a trip to Madeline Island isn’t complete without a stop at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

After an hour or so of talking and laughing with the whole group, most of our people were ready to call it a night. Zach, Olivia and myself, however, ordered another drink. As usual, the crowd was eclectic and having a great time. Prime people-watching at Tommy’s, there’s a little bit of everything: a group of drunk, middle aged women, a group of drunk, middle aged men, a group of barefoot hippies, the obviously wealthy “boat people,” who’ve docked their vessel at the marina for the night, a mom breastfeeding her baby, one really drunk lady (which has been me on more than one occasion). It’s got something for everyone.

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The three of us sat there for a few more drinks before deciding to head back in for the night. Liv’s first experience at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe was perfect. It’s a memory she’ll always have, and will tell her kids about someday. And isn’t that what life’s all about? Making memories and sharing them with the most important people in our lives?

Though I could stay at Tom’s all night, leaving is always made easier by what awaits us at Big Bay Town Park. The night sky from Madeline Island will blow your mind and leave you in literal awe. But for that we will have to wait for the next installment, which I promise will not take months for me to post.

Thank you for reading! Check out my other blog posts for more stories of my Ladycations, and don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips and tales. And, as always, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Lake Camping: Beach Days at Big Bay Town Park

Last week I wrote about the history of Madeline Island, how it became a part of my life, and why I love it so damn much. But it’s not just my own sentimentality that makes The Island such an incredible place. If you like beaches, sailing, really any kind of outdoor activity, if you like exploring quirky small towns or funky bars, you dig history, or stargazing, then you’ll be crazy about Madeline Island.

Big Bay Town Park campsite and beach map
Map of Big Bay Town Park

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of big campgrounds. When I go camping, I go to get away from humans, and surround myself with the peacefulness of nature. Big Bay Town Park is the exception to the rule. Surrounded by a forest of birch, White Spruce, and Balsam Fir, the campground is situated on a 2.5 mile, sandy beach along the shore of Lake Superior. Separating the beach from the campground is the Big Bay Lagoon that parallels the shoreline with 130 acres of tranquil, island dotted, wilderness paradise. It combines camping with a beach vacay which, like wine and cheese, is the perfect combination.

Big Bay Town Park has 61 campsites, including primitive drive-in, walk-in, and electric sites. It’s one of two campgrounds I’ve ever camped at that had flush toilets, and even coin operated showers (though, with Lake Superior right there, they seem unnecessary). Like most things on The Island, it combines modern comforts with Madeline’s own eccentricities. You know the park is a little different when you pull in and see the sign that says, “8 m.p.h. is plenty.” That is Madeline Island.img_0138

We always choose one of the “old” campsites. One of the primitive, drive-in, original sites, filled with beautiful, tall, old trees, and backing up against a hill that drops down into the marshy wetland surrounding the lagoon. The campsite is deep, quiet, with a picnic table, fire pit, plenty of room for our three tents, and even a bonus second picnic table this year. Even better, it was one that I’d carved my initials into several years earlier.

It didn’t take us long to get our site set up. It struck me how different the whole process was when I first started taking my kids camping. I taught them immediately how to set up the tents, and get a fire going, how to gather the best kindling, and prepare for a storm, but they needed a lot more direction and supervision when they were younger. Now they just unloaded their tents, set them up, and started setting up the picnic table area, hanging the clothesline, and hammock. It was a proud camping-mom moment.

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Once we’d made our campsite our home, our first priority was to head down to the beach. It’s the beach at Big Bay Town Park that makes this campground so amazing. From our campsite, at the far end of the loop, it’s about a quarter mile walk to the beach. My childhood friend, Zach, his fiancé Kim, their son Stone, and a whole group of friends they’d brought with them, were already down there as my kids and I started our walk.

Walking through the wooded campground at Big Bay Town Park isn’t like walking through a KOA. There’s no playground, no concrete, no pool. Instead you’ll find cozy, rugged, peaceful campsites, filled with couples and families on vacation, groups of friends looking to hike, kayak, fish, or just spend a few days soaking up the sun on the beach. It’s generally quiet, despite the number of people that can fill this campground up.

We crossed the large dirt and gravel parking lot that’s lined with more campsites, past the Park Office, and bathrooms, and the wood shack that’s replenished daily with firewood, to the trail that leads to the bridge over the lagoon. Every step we took, my excitement grew. Of all the things I love about Madeline Island, one of my favorites is the view of the Big Bay Lagoon.

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The parking lot leads to a wide trail, cut through the birch trees, above the lagoon. Before reaching a set of wooden stairs that descends to the bridge, the trees open up to reveal the lagoon below, stretching across the 130 acres separating Big Bay Town Park’s campground from the sandspit of 2.5 miles of golden sand beach. It’s my favorite view in the world; tiny, green islands, some with small, sparsely filled trees, fill the landscape as it reaches deeper and wider into the distance, surrounded by lush, wilderness, with the blue sky above, its reflection on the water. I could stare at that view for hours.090-001

We descended the staircase and crossed the wooden bridge to the beach. Few people were still there as the sun had begun to set, and it was dinner time. We walked down the boardwalk that runs the length of the beach and found Zach, Kim, and their group of friends easily. Kim was in the water, beckoning us to join her, while Zach and some of the other adults were relaxing in the soft, cool sand, and the kids horsed around nearby.

I immediately took off my shoes and slipped my toes into the water at the shoreline. The lake was calm, and as I stared out across the bay, and felt my feet sink deeper into the sand as the gentle waves kissed my ankles, I knew I was home. I was connected to The Island, engulfed by it, complete and content. Every breath I took seemed to fill me with her energy and nourish my soul.

Once sufficiently filled with Island Spirit I joined the others on the beach. Zach has been my brother’s best friend since they were infants in daycare together. He’s very much my brother from another mother, I’ve known him most of my life. And like my siblings and I, Zach’s love affair with Madeline Island began when we were kids. He came to spend the weekends there almost as soon as we started going there ourselves. In the winter months, when my mom, sister, and I would opt to spend some weekends back in Duluth, Zach and my brother would spend the entire sisterless weekend outside, building snow forts, sledding, playing on the frozen lake, and watching movies in the parsonage. He fell in love with Madeline right along with us, and feels just as strong a connection to The Island, and to Big Bay Town Park, and he’s passed that love onto Kim and their son, just like I have with my own kids.

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We spent every single day on that beach for the week we were there. It was the first year that the weather had completely cooperated the whole time we were camping. Every day was warm and filled with sunshine, and the lake wasn’t even as paralyzingly cold as usual. Each morning Olivia and I would take our biodegradable soaps and shampoos down to the beach, slide into the lake, and take the most glorious lake-baths you could imagine.

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During the day, particularly on the weekends, there can be a good number of people on the Beach at Big Bay Town Park. However, despite its number of visitors, it’s easy to escape the crowds and have a whole section of beach to yourself. With two and a half miles of beach at your disposal, all you need for some solitude is a willingness to hike a ways past the other beach-goers. With the boardwalk that now connects the Town Park to the State Park, with the exception of one missing section with a sandy trail, it’s easy to find the perfect, quiet spot to spend the day.

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Big Bay Town Park is an exceptional place for kayaking and canoeing. Whether you want to explore the lagoon, the bay itself, or even head out past the point to admire the rocky coastline of The Island, there’s an option for everyone, from beginner to pro. At the end of the bridge along the boardwalk one can rent kayaks or canoes for a reasonable price, so BYO kayak isn’t even necessary. Just head to the beach and look for the short, super tan, thin, barefoot man, with the messy, gray, beach hair, and welcoming smile.142

Though the beach is soft, golden sand, there is a field of polished stones that stretches the length of the beach along the water’s edge. Every time we get in the water we look like we’re having some sort of seizure as we step cautiously across the rocks. But once you get past it, it’s nothing but sand. Soft ridges of wave-rippled sand beneath the clearest, cleanest, most refreshing water imaginable.

It’s Lake Superior, so of course it’s cold. Some people won’t even go in, and I consider them ridiculously wimpy, as it’s not that bad (except when it is). However, it is one of those times when it’s just better to dive right on in and get it over with rather than slowly easing in deeper. Every time I go under, and come up for air, I’m breathless. It’s invigorating, a slight shock to the system that reminds me I’m alive, wakes up the senses. This year, it was warmer than usual, though still cold enough to feel amazing after lying under the blazing sun, and walking to the shoreline across the hot sand.DSC_0927

While I spent most of my time at the beach soaking up the hot sun while lying on the sand, or taking pictures, my boys spent it throwing the football around, or tossing sticks for the dog Zach and Kim’s friends brought. Stone and his friend Lily made up games, built sand castles, and splashed around in the lake for hours. Everyday was a different mix of people, and everyday seemed more perfect than the last.

Back at the campsite, my son Gavin and Zach had frequent Corn Hole tournaments. Bryant, my older son, even joined in on a number of occasions, and often with Stone and his little friend, Lily, cheering on whoever they had decided they wanted to win in that particular moment.

Kim, my daughter Olivia and I could often be found sitting around the fire; cooking lunch, or just chatting and laughing. One of the things that made this trip so special was spending time with those ladies. It’s quality time, without the distraction of cell phones, or TV, or any other connection to the outside world. Kim and I have spent very little time together in the grand scheme of things, just a week of camping during the summer for the past several years, yet she’s one of my most cherished friends. Perhaps a part of it is that we met on Madeline Island, and that it helped us form a bond that is characterized, in great deal, by how connected we feel to, and how much we both love, The Island itself. But whatever the reason, I genuinely treasure the time I get to spend with Kim on those trips, and wish I could have more of her in my life.

Big Bay Town Park by day is a beach vacation dream come true. At night, it becomes a whole new, and even more incredible an experience. Be sure to come back next week for LadycationSunday when we explore Madeline Island after sunset! Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking my friends.

~Steph

 

Madeline Island: A Brief History of Wisconsin’s Secret Paradise

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Not all my ‘cations are Ladycations. Though I love getting away with my ladies, I also love getting away with my kids, and my favorite place to take them is to my childhood home on an island in northern Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has islands).img_8822

Madeline Island is a small island in Lake Superior. It is the largest, and only of the Apostle Islands that is inhabited year round. It’s 14 miles long and 3 miles wide respectively, and has a permanent, winter population of 302. That number swells to 1500 when the “Summer People” arrive.

The Island has a rich history going back to its first settlers: the Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe people. According to legend, the Gitche Manitou, or “Great Spirit,” told them to go west until they found the place where “food grows on the water.” They traveled west along the south shore of Lake Superior until they came to the wild rice growing in the marshes along the lake shore near Chequamegon Bay. They eventually found, and settled on the island, naming it Mooningwanekaaning, meaning, “Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.” IMG_5557

In the 1600’s, French fur traders established one of the first colonial settlements in the region, that quickly became one of its most important trading outposts, and later the island’s town of La Pointe. Because most men worked outdoors during that time, beaver skins, which were waterproof, were a hot commodity. Native Americans would trade them for things like knives, blankets, and other goods.

With such lucrative fur trade, of course, came more white settlers, anxious to trade with the Ojibwe. This time they were British. A rivalry between the French and British, both vying for control of the fur trading industry, came to a head in the 1660’s during the Seven Years’ War, ultimately resulting in the French relinquishing all their territories east of the Mississippi to the British, including Madeline Island, and the town of La Pointe.

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The American Fur Company on Madeline Island.

After the War of 1812, control of the fur trade was gained by the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, in 1808. If that name sounds familiar, it’s either because you’re a well informed history buff, or you watched the movie Titanic. Indeed, Mr. Astor’s great-grandson and namesake perished aboard the vessel when it struck an iceberg a century later. You may remember hearing he was the richest man aboard Titanic. That fortune began with his great-grandfather’s fur trading company, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

As tends to happen when white people “discover” land and encounter its native population, missionaries weren’t far behind the traders. Jesuit priests were the first to arrive and establish a mission to the Ojibwe. The first Catholic church no longer stands, but on the site where it was erected remains the “Indian Cemetery,” a misleading name for this burial ground given its origin in Catholicism, and the fact that both Native Americans and white settlers alike are buried there.img_0137

Among the cemetery’s Native inhabitants is The Island’s namesake, Madeline Equasayway Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane. Madeline married Michel Cadotte, the son of a French-Canadian father, and Ojibwe mother. His marriage to Madeline helped him become the lead trader in the area.  Another notable figure in the cemetery is Chief Buffalo, or Kechewaishke. The Lake Superior Chippewa’s Chief for the first half of the 19th Century, Chief Buffalo was instrumental in securing land for his people by resisting the US government’s attempts to push them westward, signing treaties that granted them permanent land in the area. The reservations at Red Rock and Bad River are still home to many Lake Superior Chippewa today.img_5482.jpg

Though few Ojibwe still live on the island, Native American history is still very much a presence on Madeline. From the Ojibwe translations on the town’s signage, to the ceremonies still held on the sacred lands, Mooningwanekaaning honors its history as the Lake Superior Chippewa’s spiritual center.

The second church built on Madeline was a protestant mission in 1832. “The Old Mission” was built on land that now houses the La Pointe Post Office. In 1925 a new church was built a short distance down Main Street, St. John’s United Church of Christ.833

It’s that church that brought my family to Madeline Island in the late 1980’s. My dad was an out-of-work pastor who ran a non-profit organization in the island’s nearest city: Duluth, Minnesota. “The Anchorage” ministered to the working people of the city’s downtown area, providing counseling services, fellowship, and Bible studies. It was through this ministry that a member of one of his Bible studies suggested he talk to the church council at St. John’s.

Before too long our family was loading up our minivan and driving 90 miles every weekend to my dad’s new parish on Madeline Island. It was supposed to be a summer gig. The church was in the process of looking for a permanent pastor, one that would be a full time resident on the island. We thought it would be a few months in the summer and then we’d be back to business as usual in Duluth.img_8900

What started out as a summer job turned into a fall job, then a winter job, then a spring job, then another summer. While the church council sought a full time, permanent pastor willing to move his family to this tiny and, in the winter, somewhat isolated community, our family was falling in love. Our parents were making cherished, lifetime friendships, while us kids spent our summers swimming in Lake Superior’s crystal clear (albeit freezing cold) waters, eating pizza and ice cream at Grampa Tony’s, and riding our bikes all over the island. In the winter we would go sledding, build snow-forts, and cross country ski across the lake. My siblings and I all agree, our time on Madeline Island afforded us the most idyllic childhood imaginable.

When St. John’s found a full time pastor we were devastated. Though we’d known this was always the plan, Madeline Island had woven its way into our hearts. It had become a part of us. We belonged there. Even as a kid, I could feel it: The Island was special.img_9100

Lucky for us (though not for he or his family), the new pastor turned out to have some mental health issues. Once he was hospitalized, they asked my dad to come back and fill in for a couple weeks. And once it became clear the other pastor would not be returning, we were ecstatic. My dad tried to keep us Christian about it, rein in our celebrations of another man’s nervous breakdown, and teach us some humility. But as a kid, all I cared about was that we got our house back, our beach back, our friends back, our home back. The fact that it came at another man’s expense was inconsequential to me. I just wanted to go home, and by any means necessary. Suffice to say, my dad’s lessons didn’t stick that time around.

Instead of going through the painstaking process of finding another pastor all over again, the church offered my dad the job as permanent part time pastor. We could remain in Duluth during the week, and come to “our” island every weekend, just like we’d done before. We continued doing this until we moved to Cleveland when I was 18 years old, when the weekly travel had become too much for my mom’s failing health.1123

Leaving again, knowing not only would we not be returning each week, but that our new home was almost 1000 miles away, was indescribably difficult. No place else has ever felt like home the way Madeline Island did. Not even our actual home in Duluth held the same level of sentimentality. It was Madeline Island that made me realize “home” isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. “Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes, and my heart is on Madeline. Always. It’s like a piece of me is always there, and until I’m there, too, a part of me is missing; as if I’m not complete unless I’m there. I’m my most authentic, contented self when I’m on The Island. I think one of the reasons I love backpacking is that it’s the closest I’ve come to recreating that feeling.050

That’s why almost every year I load an absurd amount of camping gear into (and onto) my car, grab the kids, and head north. I want my children to share my love of The Island, to feel the serenity that I feel when I board the ferry, to appreciate the natural beauty and quirky community that makes Madeline Island my favorite place in the world. I want them to keep visiting long after I’m gone, to share the sacred piece of land with their children. And since I already have my burial plot there (the best Christmas present I ever received. Thanks, Dad!), in the same cemetery where my mom was laid to rest, I think I’ll get my wish. Wanna visit my grave when I’m gone, kids? You know where to find me. No, I’m not above manipulating my children from beyond the grave for a good cause.

This summer, like most, we were Island bound. Since my daughter is now a sophomore in college and considering an internship next summer instead of coming home, I saw this as possibly the last family vacation I’ll get to take with all my children, at least for a while. As always, we spent the week camping at Big Bay Town Park, a paradise in its own rite.img_8664

Big Bay is a literal bay on the island’s eastern shore. Flanked by red rock cliffs on either end, it’s home to a 2.5 mile golden sand beach, a lagoon, and both the State and Town parks. The Town Park, which we prefer due to its lagoon access, a lower price tag, and plain old nostalgia, has drive-in campsites that back up against the lagoon, and are surrounded by White Spruce, Balsam Fir, and even Birch trees. At night the sounds of croaking frogs, and the haunting call of loons fill the air, occasionally mixed with the distant sound of crashing waves when the winds kick up, and Lake Superior shows her might.

While we spend our days on the beach soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Great Lake, night brings a totally different, and even more incredible experience, in the same place. With almost no light pollution, Big Bay is a phenomenal spot for stargazing. On clear lights the Milky Way is on full display, and when conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis. Meteor showers are particularly amazing, as you seemingly have a front row seat to seeing every single one that streaks across the sky.img_8622

This summer was especially awesome. We arrived at the ferry in Bayfield at the same time my childhood friend (actually my brother’s best friend since birth, so he’s like my other brother) arrived, and our vacation had begun. Zach, his fiancé Kim, and their son Stone, who still live in Duluth, join us every year for a week of camping on The Island. They’re some of my absolute favorite humans in the world, and getting to spend that week with them each year makes the whole experience all the more special.

So, though it’s not technically a Ladycation, I hope you enjoy this next collection of stories as I try to capture my childhood home, and most cherished place: Madeline Island. Thanks for reading! Join me next week on LadycationSunday as my peeps and I begin our week-long camping adventure at Big Bay Town Park! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

 

Hiking Recovery: Hot Tubbing in Asheville (with Beer and Pizza)

After spending three nights backpacking through the mountains in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, eating little more than granola and crackers, all we could think about was food. Hot food. Fried food. Cheese-covered food. Cheese-filled food. Really, any kind of food that’s unhealthy, hot and greasy.

As we left the mountains we picked a random restaurant and sat down, suddenly acutely aware of our appearance and smell, but not caring cause we were starving. We’d been at the table for less than a minute when a waitress came over and directed us towards the buffet. Ummm, what? That was definitely not what we had in mind. Hard pass on the mountain buffet, thanks. So instead of getting up and getting in the line, we got up and headed right back out the door.

However, once we’d smelled food, we went from starving to freaking ravenous. Of course, there was essentially nothing between the buffet restaurant and Asheville, so we had a while to wait before our hangriness would be satiated.

While trying not to think about our stomachs, our focus turned to how unbelievably sweaty and filthy we were. It’s amazing how amplified smells become once in a confined space–like my car. We had the windows down, but dayyy-um. We stunk. Had we not left the buffet on our own, we may have been asked to leave anyway. Since we needed gas and wanted something to drink, we pulled into a gas station, grabbed a clean change of clothes, and headed inside.

Lindsey went in the ladies room and, since they were single occupant rooms, I went into the men’s room to get cleaned up. My clothes felt like they’d fused with my skin as I peeled them off. I was covered in sweat, dirt, scrapes and bruises, and I don’t even want to think about the mixture of smells coming off me as I dropped my dirty clothes to the floor, and wiped myself down with paper towels and gas station handsoap. img_8242

Meanwhile, as I was finishing up, someone started pulling on the door of the bathroom. Not knocking on the door like a normal person, mind you, but jiggling the doorknob and shaking the door like they’d never come across a locked bathroom in their entire lives, and couldn’t imagine what was preventing it from opening. After the third time they tried, I yelled, “Occupied!” and finished getting dressed.

I exited the bathroom to see a very angry, confused looking man standing by the potato chips, arms folded across his chest, staring at me. Not only was he perplexed by a locked men’s room door, but when it finally opened, and a woman came out I think I blew his mind. He muttered something under his breath as he went in, and I simply smiled and said, “Yeah, you have a great day, too.” in my most passive aggressive, condescending, but not overtly rude voice. I already missed the solitude of the mountains.

I think one of the biggest challenges Lindsey and I face on our Ladycations is finding restaurants that accommodate both my unbelievable pickiness, and Lindsey’s healthy vegetarian diet. There are probably five foods we both actually like (thank god she likes cheese). Luckily, we found a place that had a veggie burger and fried cheese curds just a few minutes from our AirBnb, that also had a patio. And since I was pretty sure our gas station baths hadn’t completely solved our stench problem, a restaurant with outdoor seating had serious appeal.

Lindsey ordered a beer, I got a Coke, and we sat there sipping our drinks, and munching on the giant basket of cheese curds we ordered, while listening to the locals around us. I’ve never spent any length of time in the South, so it was quite a new experience for me to hear so many southern accents and people saying “y’all” as often as I say, “you betcha.”img_8234

We devoured our food until we were both so full I wasn’t sure we’d be able to walk. I felt like I needed a wheelbarrow to carry my gut as we walked back to the car. We passed several hippie shops and street fairs on our way to the beer store, so we decided to explore the neighborhood before heading back to the AirBnb for the night.

From everything I’d heard about Asheville, I was expecting to immediately fall in love with the place. Unfortunately, I don’t think we were in the area people fall in love with. The number of homeless people sitting and sleeping on the sidewalks was both heartbreaking and rather shocking. There was a homeless man sleeping in a storefront doorway, several folks with their dogs taking up the entire sidewalk in front of another shop. I’ve never seen so many homeless people congregated in the same place like that anywhere but New York City. So while I’m sure the rest of Asheville is amazing, the area we were in sort of just made me sad.

We did some window shopping and checked out one of the street fairs, but ultimately decided that we were way too exhausted to explore, or deal with the throngs of people wandering around. All we could think about was the amazing shower and hot tub awaiting us at our AirBnb.img_8232

I was the first to shower, and wow. . . I honestly don’t think I’ve ever taken a more glorious shower in all my life. The bathroom at our AirBnb was as large as my bedroom at home. The shower itself was big enough for a party and even equipped with a dual rainfall shower head and a bench to sit on. I stood in there for far longer than necessary simply because I didn’t want to get out.

After we’d both taken extra long showers (double hair washing, deep scrubbing of every inch of flesh) we realized we were actually hungry again. Since we had no desire to go anywhere we ordered some pizza, then climbed into the hot tub in the backyard. We were still in the hot tub when the pizza arrived (much to the amusement of the pizza delivery guy), and only stayed out of it long enough to stuff our faces and grab another beer.img_8244

We stayed in that heavenly hot tub for hours and hours, talking and laughing and drinking our beers, before Lindsey finally decided she needed to hit the sack. I smoked a little bit before deciding it was time to get out. It felt so good, and I knew that once I woke up it meant our Ladycation was over, so I resisted going to bed until far later than was probably wise. But that’s just how I roll.

Once inside and dry, I surveyed the damage to my body. The dirt was washed away, leaving a multitude of scrapes, scratches, bruises, and bug bites in all their glory. I couldn’t help but laugh. I looked like a 7 year old boy on summer vacation. Battle scars, I thought. I’d climbed up that mountain, across rivers, over trees, through swarms of bugs, and had lived to tell the tale.

Even now, 4 months later, as I write this, I’m looking at the scar where one of the overturned trees caught my shin and tore away the flesh. My whole body has scars: my left knee from when I slid down a gravel hill as a teenager, the finger I sliced with an Xacto knife as a kid when I was trying to teach myself to whittle, the stretch marks from growing three human lives. Our scars tell a story, they show where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, what we’ve survived. I realized that each and every unsightly mark on my body has a story, and all those stories help make up my story. I wouldn’t be who I am without them and the experiences that they resulted from.img_8251

That night I went to bed with a grateful heart. I was grateful for the hot tub that had just soothed away 3 days worth of aches and pains. I was grateful for the break from reality, and the chance to get out of town for a few days. I was grateful that those days were spent with my best friend and number one travel companion. I was even grateful for the struggle of Day Three when I thought I might not make it up that damn mountain, for it’s the struggle that helped me appreciate everything else.

Would that hot tub have felt as incredible if I hadn’t worked my ass off trudging up the mountain? Hell no. It’s the struggle, the pain, the hurt, that allow us to appreciate so much more thoroughly when we aren’t struggling, in pain, or hurt. If everything is great, nothing is great. We need the contrast to provide perspective.img_8254

The next morning we stopped for breakfast at the Sunny Point Cafe before we hit the road. A bright, eclectic, hipster-type establishment, the food was delicious, the helpings plentiful, and the service was great. As an added bonus, the restaurant chooses a different local non-profit organization each month to partner with. When you leave your tip, you can also leave a donation in the dedicated envelope on the table. Breakfast with a conscience. This is the kind of place I’d expected when coming to Asheville.

The long drive home was a relatively quiet one. I think we were both still tired from all our adventures, and all talked out from the night before. Instead of conversation we were both in our own worlds, silently reflecting on our trip and the battle scars we were taking home with us, proud of what we’d accomplished, and ready to start planning our next Ladycation.

Thanks for reading! Check us out on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to follow Ladycations here on WordPress to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph