Today Was A Fairytale: The Castle, the Vineyard & Dinner by Gilles

Our second day in the Loire Valley began with the smell of fresh baked breads wafting up the stairs and into our rooms. Our AirBnb host, Gilles, was busy in the kitchen preparing a traditional French breakfast. There were meats, fruit, croissant, baguette, jams, juice, and eggs waiting for us as we meandered downstairs to start our day. A handsome man had made us breakfast; talk about a fairytale beginning! I’d tasted the good life and never wanted to return. I was ready to give my blessing for Olivia to marry Gilles simply so I could come visit and eat baguette and creamy, French butter on the regular.

We had only two places on the itinerary that day, so we took our time savoring our meal and getting ready before hitting the road. While we were preparing for the trip Olivia and I had gone shopping. She wanted to find a dress, something delicate and feminine, to wear while visiting castles and vineyards, and found a beautiful Kelly green dress to fit the bill. I’d been eyeing a kimono in the same shade of green, and Carey found a dress that was also the same shade, so we decided our second day in the Loire Valley would be Green Day (and yes, we obviously listened to Green Day in the car). Once we’d all stuffed our faces full of the delicious breakfast Gilles had prepared, and donned our floral green outfits, we were off.

Our first stop was the Château de Chenonceau, a Renaissance castle once owned and occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (after kicking the king’s mistress out of it upon his death). I’ve told you all before that I’m a history nerd, but that nerdiness is on a whole new level when it comes to the Medici family. I’m completely obsessed (just wait till I post about Florence). I was beyond excited to visit the Château de Chenonceau, and the experience surpassed my expectations beyond measure.

The path to the castle is lined with well manicured trees, a gift shop, gardens, and a hedge maze. The castle itself is smaller than the others we’d visited, but no less beautiful in appearance. Situated over the Le Cher River, the Château de Chenonceau is like something straight out of a fairytale. Built in the early 16th Century, and renovated to its current state by the Medici Queen, its design is classically Renaissance and hopelessly romantic.

We explored every nook and cranny of the castle, seeing the room where Queen Catherine slept and the kitchens where her meals were prepared, admiring the antique furniture that filled its many rooms and corridors, standing on every balcony, imagining what it must have been like 400 years ago. The entire building was enchanting, with intricate wood paneling and stonework, massive fireplaces, stunning leaded glass windows, and beautiful tapestries. I was in heaven.

Once we’d gone through the whole building we went outside to explore the grounds. A moat surrounds the castle and gardens, with tall trees all around, making the property feel like its own little enchanted kingdom. We walked along the moat and through the beautiful, meticulously manicured gardens, soaking it all in and taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I almost had to pinch myself to believe we were really in such a magical place!

I couldn’t take enough pictures of the Château de Chenonceau. So many of my favorite pictures of this trip are from this day, including a hilarious series of Olivia attempting to leap. It took about 30 tries to get it right and by the time we were done we weren’t the only ones laughing. Don’t let Instagram fool you. For every perfect shot there are dozens more that look ridiculous and hysterical.

Before moving on we swung by the hedge maze where Carey and Olivia raced to the finish as I relaxed in the shade and smoked a cigarette. Carey won the race, and after a stop in the gift shop we were on our way to the Château de Miniere for a wine tasting.

We weren’t sure they were open as we arrived and were the only car in the parking lot, but a very handsome young man greeted us at the door and gave us a map of the grounds, telling us to explore while he checked the guests out of the château. The first thing we saw when we went into the courtyard, aside from the charming château itself, was a cat. My daughter is like the cat whisperer and was positively gleeful as she called the little kitty to her for some pets. Liv was already in heaven and we hadn’t even had any wine yet!

We explored the vineyard and made our way back to the château where the sommelier was ready to give us a lesson in the region’s wines. We sampled 10 different wines; some red, some white, one rose, all exceptional. I didn’t know what good wine tasted like until these wines touched my lips. It took but one wine tasting to make wine snobs out of women on a Barefoot budget. We’ll never be able to drink bargain wine again! I brought home the rose, while the girls bought the 1996 white–without a doubt the crème de la crème–harvested the same year I graduated high school.

Olivia gave some extra pets to the resident cat before we left, which gave me a little time to let the effects of sampling ten wines wear off before getting back in the car. The day had been absolute magic, and it wasn’t over yet.

After all that wine and exploration we were (okay, I was) starving, so we started looking on Google for a nearby market, stopping along the way to get some pictures at a sunflower field (the only one we’d seen with the sunflowers still alive). What we hadn’t taken into consideration was that it was Sunday, and nothing in the small towns of France is open on Sundays, nor, apparently, do people leave their homes. We mapped our way to two separate towns, not finding a single store open, and not seeing a single person out and about. They were like ancient, picturesque little ghost towns. Undeterred, we knew we just needed to find a larger city, so we headed into Tours.

Given our ignorance of the area and the names of French grocery stores, we mapped our way to the nearest market that said it was open. When we arrived we realized we should’ve done more research. The store we mapped to was a tiny little bodega that was most definitely designed to serve their black community, not white chicks with the munchies. Lots of products to care for black hair, lots of French beans and nuts, but nothing snack-wise. We got quite a few “are you lost?” looks as we walked in. I did find Coke, so I bought a couple to take with us and we headed to the fast food joint around the corner, called Point B.

What a hilarious experience. It clearly wasn’t just the folks in the bodega who thought we were lost. The whole restaurant was watching us as we ordered, and we felt quite on display. I went outside to smoke after I inhaled my burger, and the girls came out saying everyone in the restaurant had been staring at them. Blatantly, shamelessly staring, whispering and pointing. Clearly we had not found the touristy part of town, and our presence was either amusing, confusing, or both. Such a bizarre, yet highly entertaining experience!

We arrived back at our AirBnb to find Gilles hard at work in the kitchen preparing our dinner, and us regretting our stop at Point B barely an hour before. The whole house smelled amazing as we got cleaned up. The table on the patio was set and the sun was just beginning to go down as our first course of baguette, pâté and fruit was served with a bottle of local wine. We had barely finished that when he brought out our next course of various meats, followed by the main course of slow-cooked sausages (smoked for 8 hours) and cheesy potatoes, then a cheese course, and apple cake for dessert. By the time the dessert arrived we weren’t sure we could eat another bite, but the cake was so good we couldn’t help ourselves. The girls said they had never been so full, which is really saying something for Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving every year.

We sat on the patio for hours digesting, talking, laughing, calling family back home, and just relishing every second in this French paradise. Each moment of the day had been unforgettable. We were so satisfied and joyful that I didn’t want the day to end. So fun, so memorable, so magical, so unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Truly, today was a fairytale!

Though we were sad we had to leave France the next day, we were excited to head back to Italy to soak up the Renaissance history of Florence! Come back next week to hear about our attempt to visit Normandy and get a Covid test before our flight, both of which proving to be a bigger challenge than we’d anticipated. Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Louvre-ing Life: Art, the Seine, and the Frenchmen

We’d already had two amazing days in Paris, but we’d barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. Since we had no idea if or when we’d be back in Europe I wanted to cram as much as possible into our itinerary. While I would certainly not describe our trip as a relaxing one, we awoke each morning excited for what we had planned. Waking up knowing we were about to see the most famous painting in the world, and would be eating our dinner in style as we cruised down the River Seine, was certainly no exception. And, as usual, the day far surpassed our expectations.

Paris is absolutely full of museums, but only one is the most famous museum on earth: The Louvre. The museum itself is gargantuan, and filled with some of the most recognizable art on the planet, including sculptures like the Venus di Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, both of which are absolutely breathtaking.

We drooled over the Crown Jewels of France, walked past priceless paintings and sculptures, and through rooms of hundreds of years old furniture, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. But, without a doubt, the main draw to the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master who painted her, got his start in Florence in the 15th Century, and was a man of many talents. He was a painter, inventor, and scientist before science was really even a thing. He had a curious mind and was ahead of his time, even performing autopsies to understand human anatomy during a period when that was a huge no-no. The dude had brains, talent and balls.

Everyone says, “The Mona Lisa was smaller than I expected,” which is why it was bigger than we were expecting. The painting is at the center of a large gallery, surrounded by other masterpieces, including his famous (and strangely erotic) painting of St John the Baptist. Though we would have undoubtedly had a better view of the detail had we gone through the rope line, standing outside it near the front gave us a pretty solid look at her without waiting for an hour amidst the throngs of people. We may have been vaccinated and masked, but we were still cognizant of the risk involved with spending time in crowded indoor spaces mid-pandemic. Just to be in her presence was a privilege.

After spending a couple hours wandering the massive Louvre, there was one more museum we didn’t want to miss, so we struck out across the Tuileries Garden towards the Musee de l’Orangerie. A smaller museum, with an abundance of pieces by Renoir and other masters, the crème de la crème is definitely Monet’s Waterlilies. The paintings surround the walls of two oval shaped rooms dedicated solely to those paintings, and they are absolutely magnificent. The galleries are intended for silent meditation, which is enforced by museum employees whose sole job it is to sit there and tell people to shut the hell up. A boring job with a spectacular view.

We walked around each room slowly, marveling at the detail of these enormous paintings. It’s so cool to see them up close, admiring the texture and the colors, then to stand back and see them all together as a whole. Two completely different experiences, both exceptional. And, as was becoming customary for me, I was moved to tears.

We had some time to kill after we left the museum, and decided to just relax and enjoy the gorgeous day in the Tuileries Garden before heading back to the AirBnb to get ready for dinner. We grabbed some drinks at the museum and found a quiet spot to kick back and revel in not having anywhere to be in that moment. We admired a particularly handsome man lunching nearby, watched the leaves that were beginning to fall from the trees, and were amazed by the stamina of the young (teenage) couple who sucked each other’s faces for the entirety of the time we sat there. No shame, gratuitous groping; they just wanted to get it on. It was so Parisian (and rather nauseating).

The Bateaux Parisiens is considered the best dinner cruise in Paris. They have several package options for just about any budget, but since this was our special, splurge meal, we went for the premium VIP package that included champagne at the beginning and end of the cruise, and a table in the front of the boat, completely enclosed with windows to allow you to see the whole city as it floats by. It was touristy and pricey, almost $300 per person, but worth every penny.

The boats board beneath the Eiffel Tower, and we were a little tense as we were running late, so when we finally found the right boat and got in line we were relieved. The one thing about Paris we were not crazy about was the aggressiveness of the people walking around selling shit. Souvenirs, water, beer; they were approaching us constantly. A polite, “No, merci,” is usually sufficient, but not on this occasion. As we waited in line to board the boat a guy approached trying to sell us roses. We politely declined, but he wasn’t taking no for an answer. I get that everyone’s gotta make a living. However, if you’re selling something and I say I’m not interested, being pushy and intrusive is definitely not going to change my mind. After a couple minutes of this clown testing the limits of my patience, I’d had it. I summoned my angry-mom voice and forcefully said, “NO!” Did that do the trick? Of course not. He just began to mock me with, “No! No! No! No!” until Olivia whirled around with an assertive, “No, fuck off!” We’d tried polite, we’d tried firm, but it was ultimately good ol’ American snark that finally did the trick.

We boarded the boat without further incidence, and were escorted to our table and given champagne and hor d’oeuvres. We felt positively pampered as the boat slipped away from the dock and glided down the Seine. The city was all lit up along the riverbanks, and we finally got a glimpse of Notre Dame, still closed for renovations after the devastating 2019 fire. We were relaxed and laughing, enjoying the atmosphere, and the food.

Our cruise lasted nearly 3 hours, included several glasses of wine, five courses of authentic French cuisine, and concluded with cappuccino and a macaroon. The girls even got to try something they’d been wanting to try since we arrived in France: escargot (to mixed reviews).

Once we got back to shore the Eiffel Tower was all lit up and looming over us. The girls looked absolutely stunning in their fancy dresses, and we decided to stay for the next Twinkle Show before heading in for the night. We all FaceTimed with family, giving them a view of the shimmering tower against the dark, night sky, as we walked to the Champ de Mars to admire the show.

Even that late at night we were still approached by no fewer than six men attempting to sell us something to drink. Fortunately none were as obnoxious as the flower man from earlier in the evening, but it got irritating. After a while a young, cute, French man approached Carey not to sell her something, but to hit on her (a refreshing change of pace). He apologized for his English and asked, “Is okay if I. . . sit down with you?” Carey wasn’t sure how to respond, probably at least in part because she was there with her best friend’s mom, so she said, “Uh. . . I’m on the phone with my dad, but sure.” The young man sat and kept trying to spark a conversation, eventually asking what her plans were for the next day, and telling her he would love to show her, “hidden Paris.” Surely an innocent proposal to show her around areas not frequented by tourists, but definitely came across as serial-killerish. She let him down gently and we called an Uber to take us back to Suresnes. Awkward though it may have been, is there anything more Parisian than being hit on beneath the Eiffel Tower?!

The Uber that arrived was a tricked out Mercedes, with neon lights throughout the interior and undercarriage. Total pimp-mobile. While at a stoplight a car full of young men pulled up and tried to get the girls’ attention. They weren’t sure how to react, so I leaned over them both and yelled, “Hi! I’m their mom!” to the car full of now confused young men. The light turned green, and we drove away laughing, as our Uber driver chuckled along with us. An amusing end to another wonderful evening.

We had only one more day left in Paris, which was bittersweet, but a whole extra week of European adventure to follow. Stop by next week to read about our trip to Versailles, and the moment all that activity caught up with me. Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Flirting with the Finer Things: Getting Posh in Paris

If there’s one word I’d use to describe Paris, it’s posh. The fashion capital of the world, a city dripping with gold and luxury, Paris is a place for the average Joe to flirt with the finer things. The finest restaurants, designers, hotels, wines–everything is fancier in Paris. While we were traveling on a budget, I still wanted us to have the full Parisian experience, so I worked some of that finery into our itinerary.

First up was a history-nerd stop at the Musee de l’Armee. The Museum houses a massive collection of military memorabilia, including the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s fancy-ass casket is inside an enormous marble rotunda, with the skeletal remains of his horse suspended above it. Quite the pretentious digs to spend eternity in, but I think that was the point.

Next up was the Musee d’Orsay, which wound up being my favorite museum of the trip. Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas; their collection contains some of the finest pieces by the finest artists to ever have lived. Carey was moved to giddiness by Van Gogh’s Stary Night Over the Rhine, Olivia fell madly in love with Renoir, and the Monets literally made me cry. Seeing them up close, the color, the texture, the detail, was awe-inspiring. When we came to Van Gogh’s self portrait that was likely his last piece before committing suicide, we were all overcome with emotion. None of us are “art people,” but the extensive, stunning collection at the Musee d’Orsay certainly made us understand why some people are.

The downside to traveling with me is that I’m the pickiest eater you’ll ever meet (until you meet my oldest son), so finding a restaurant with something I’ll eat can be challenging. That was especially true in France, where the food isn’t at all to my taste. I wanted the girls to be able to experience French cuisine, but I also didn’t want to gag my way through every meal. Luckily, European restaurants have their menus posted outside, so we were able to read them before deciding whether or not to go in. We quickly found an adorable bistro with authentic French food and the most American thing in the world: hamburger and fries. Sold!

The main event in Paris is undoubtedly the Eiffel Tower, and we planned to do it right. You can probably guess how excited we were on the way there, all dressed up and ready to spoil ourselves from the top of the world. Once again, we were blown away by the enormity of the monument. We knew she was tall, but damn, it’s a long way to the top of Paris’ most famous landmark. Even the footprint of the tower was bigger than I expected.

We’d opted for the premium ticket option (highly recommend) that allowed us access to all three levels via elevator. We stopped first at the 2nd level with its viewing deck large enough to allow people space to maneuver around each other without too much crowding. We meandered all the way around, taking in the view and posing for what turned out to be laughably awful pictures by their overpriced photographers, before continuing to the top floor.

I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights so I was concerned that the elevator ride would be similar to the one I took to the top of the St. Louis Arch (a tiny, cramped, egg-shaped capsule where I very nearly hyperventilated). The elevator wasn’t as small as I’d expected, but it was made of glass, which means watching the city fall farther and farther away the higher you ascend, so I was grateful I’d taken a Xanax on our way there. Once we got to the top I did alright, though I didn’t spend much time standing near the railing.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is spectacular. The top viewing platform is significantly smaller than the lower levels (obviously), and it was a bit crowded (which weirdly made me feel safer), but there’s champagne, so. . . Is it ridiculously expensive? Of course. Was it worth it? Hell yes! A champagne toast atop the Eiffel Tower is the epitome of fancy! We sipped our champagne as we wandered around the platform, getting a full 360 degree view over the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, even the mini Statue of Liberty on the River Seine. At one point my daughter said, “I’m so freaking happy right now!” and my heart swelled till I thought it would burst. This was why I wanted to bring my daughter to Paris. In that moment I knew we were both checking something off our bucket lists.

Once we’d finished our champagne, we decided it was time for more cocktails, so we headed back down to take some pictures and call another Uber. A Mercedes arrived to pick us up, which was fabulously appropriate given our destination was one of the swankiest, most luxurious joints in town: Bar Hemingway at The Hotel Ritz. In the early to mid 20th Century the Hotel Ritz was home to icons like Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway. The Nazis actually took over the hotel during their occupation of Paris in WWII, and the bartender (and several members of the hotel staff) became a spy to help the French Resistance. When Paris was liberated by Allied Forces Ernest Hemingway was the first American in the city (after essentially stealing a military vehicle), saying he was on his way to “liberate the cellar at the Hotel Ritz!” He did just that, then went on a multi-day bender to celebrate. The bar is now named in his honor, and it’s what I was most excited for in Paris.

We rolled up in our fancy ride and were greeted by the doorman with a posh-sounding, “Bonjour, mademoiselles,” before he graciously directed us to the bar, which was on the other side of the hotel. We were in awe as we gawked at the Versaci gowns, Cartier jewelry, and MacCallan Scotch on display along the luxurious hallways, and I had a keen sense of not belonging, like they’d kick us out if they saw I was wearing Old Navy pants. In my head I kept hearing, “So this is how the other half lives.”

Bar Hemingway itself is small and intimate, paneled in dark wood, with plush leather benches, and walls covered in Hemingway memorabilia and books. We were escorted to a tiny table, and provided with cucumber water and little bowls of chips, nuts, and olives. To give you an idea of how swanky it is, their signature drink is a Ritz Sidecar, which is made with cognac from the 19th Century, and costs almost $2000. I couldn’t even afford to lick the damn glass, much less fathom the kind of wealth required to think nothing of spending that much on a single cocktail. Throwing down $45 per drink was hard enough, and took weeks of saving to accomplish. But when the cocktails arrived with fresh-cut white roses, and tasted absolutely divine, it was entirely worth it! Elegant, refined and classy, just like I’d planned our evening to be.

We savored each sip, and were having way too much fun to leave, so we decided to order a second cocktail. It was about half way through drink number two (three if you count the earlier glass of champagne) when the strength of the drinks, and the fact that we hadn’t eaten a meal since lunch became apparent. We were beginning to go from classy and refined to boisterous and goofy.

We thought we’d spend 45 minutes to an hour at Bar Hemingway. We ended up staying for three hours, six bowls of chips, and a friendly conversation with the rich, honeymooning couple from Manhattan at a nearby table. The entire experience was exceptional, and when another Mercedes arrived to take us back to our AirBnb it was the perfect end to our night of fanciness.

We needed dinner when we got back to Suresnes so we decided to order some more McDonald’s, which felt strangely comforting after a night of unusual finery. There’s just nothing more average-American than a burger and fries from Mickey D’s. However, I’d be remiss to not mention that their “Chicken Big Tasty” was neither big nor tasty, and the Croque McDo ought to be re-named the Croque McDon’t. If there’s one thing America does better than France it’s fast food, though I’m not sure that’s something we should necessarily take pride in.

We watched the Eiffel Tower’s Twinkle Show again before bed, and, like each night of our trip, we were exhausted and fell soundly asleep within moments of our heads hitting our pillows. Our posh day in Paris had been pure magic, and we still had more finery to come. Stop by next week to read about our next day in Paris, complete with a fancy-schmancy dinner cruise on the River Seine. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

From Buongiorno to Bonjour: Our First Taste of Paris

Paris, the City of Lights. My daughter Olivia, like most young women, had long dreamed of going to Paris. She loves French fashion, French culture, the French language (she even minored in French in college), and was dying to try real French cuisine and wine. Her excitement as we went to the airport for our flight to Paris was both palpable and contagious. Her dream was finally coming true! Rome had been wonderful, but it was time to trade our buongiornos for bonjours!

Going from the US to Italy to France in a matter of a few days gave me a kind of linguistic whiplash. Though I don’t speak French or Italian, I at least know how to greet people, and say please and thank you. But I’d just gotten used to doing that in Italian, and now had to switch from buongiorno to bonjour, and grazie to merci, which made all my interactions somewhat clumsy and awkward. Liv and Carey, however, after both taking French for years, were totally in their element. Liv was able to tell the cab driver where our AirBnb was located, and even make small talk with her, completely in French. I was très impressed.

Paris is so expensive. Being that this was my college graduation gift to my daughter, I wanted it to be special, and for her to have the full Parisian experience, but I was also trying to accomplish this without blowing our entire budget in one city. So, when I found a three bedroom flat on AirBnb with two bathrooms, a terrace, and a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower, that was within our budget, I was ecstatic. Located in the suburb of Suresnes, just outside the city, and only a block from a metro station in a quiet residential neighborhood, we felt we had really scored. What I didn’t know when I booked it was that our host, Anis, was a douche. He left us waiting on the sidewalk outside the building for 2 hours, and kept commenting on how inconvenient a time it was for us to arrive.

We decided to get some lunch while we waited. Since we weren’t sure how much time we had before Anis would grace us with his presence, and we had all our luggage with us, we didn’t want to stray too far. Luckily there was a McDonald’s just a couple blocks away, so while I manned the luggage, Olivia and Carey went to a French Mickey D’s and brought back a little taste of home. In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, it tastes exactly the same no matter what country you’re in. I’m usually more of an Arby’s gal, but damn was it delicious! The familiarity of a McDonald’s burger and fries was oddly comforting as we sat on a French sidewalk surrounded by suitcases.

After we’d finished our literal French fries, Anis finally arrived and let us into the flat. He gave us a tour, told us not to open any closets or cabinets that had been taped shut (weird, but okay), and left, which was a relief. I got a weird vibe from him, but we were grateful to be in Paris, in a spacious flat where we each had our own room, and were ready to get exploring already.

After we’d gotten cleaned up we took an Uber into the city to our first destination. Built to honor the soldiers who fought in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous monuments in France. It was constructed in the early 19th Century and inaugurated in 1836, and it’s so Parisian! While we’d planned to go inside the Arc, it was seemingly under construction (actually being prepped for an art installation, we later learned), so after taking a few pictures we headed down the Champs Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde.

The Champs Élysées was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A wide boulevard, exceptionally clean for a busy city street, lined with manicured trees and swanky shops, and populated by some of the best dressed (and most attractive) humans I’d ever seen. The girls were absolutely giddy. Though I felt a bit out of place in my cheap-ass outfit, being an overweight middle-aged woman also made me feel somewhat invisible, which really took the pressure off. I was an observer, a facilitator of fun for my daughter and her best friend, and I was loving it.

The Place de la Concorde, my history nerd stop of the day as I’ll explain in a moment, is a large, open square (the largest in Paris) on the western side of the Tuileries Garden. With two fountains, an obelisk, and gold galore, it’s quite a sight to see. The gold that adorns just about everything in the square was all glowing and radiant in the early evening sun, and the effect was luminous. While Rome had been filled with ancient historical ruins, Paris was absolutely dripping with opulence.

Alright, time for a very brief history lesson. After centuries of being ruled by kings and queens the French citizens were tired of suffering at the hands of out-of-touch, lavish-living monarchs, and decided enough was enough. During the ensuing French Revolution thousands of people were executed by guillotine, including, in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-let-them-eat-cake-Antoinette. The infamous contraption had been set up in the Place de la Concorde (then called the Place de la Revolution), and a plaque now marks the spot where the guillotine once stood. We admired the fountains and the obelisk, somehow resisting the urge to jump in the fountains (it was still 90 degrees), and paid our “respects” to Marie Antoinette by way of parodying her execution. We then decided it was time to get to Sacré Coeur before sunset, so we called another Uber.

Sacré Coeur, a Roman Catholic church, is perched on the highest spot in Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, and overlooks the entire city. In addition to a spectacular view of Paris, the people-watching was fantastic. There were couples displaying more PDA than I’d seen since a middle school dance; couples enjoying classic French picnics, complete with baguette, wine, and pâté; people walking their dogs; others taking pictures; and plenty of entrepreneurs hocking beer and water to them all. We sat on the steps among Parisians and our fellow tourists, watching the people, and admiring the sky while its color changed from blue, to orange, to pink, to a deep purple as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. Perfection.

Once the sun went down we called another Uber and drove back to Suresnes. We were all pretty tired so we decided to order dinner in. Pizza isn’t something one generally associates with France, so it felt weird ordering one, but that’s exactly what we did. Not their specialty. Because we were so hungry the first few bites were fine, but then we started actually tasting it. Turns out, French cheese just doesn’t work on pizza. Lesson learned.

Our dinner may have been a bust, but our view was positively enchanting. We finished our evening on the balcony watching the Eiffel Tower “Twinkle Show.” Beginning at dusk and going until 1:00am, every hour on the hour, the tower begins to twinkle with thousands upon thousands of lights. It’s absolutely magical, and we were enthralled. What a perfect way to end our first day in Paris!

This trip was all I’d hoped it would be. To finally get to see Rome after decades of dreaming was incredible, but to be able to see the pure joy on my daughter’s face as she walked the streets of Paris with her best friend was everything. Hearing them laugh, seeing their smiles, feeling their excitement, gave me a sense of immeasurable satisfaction. We all want to give our kids the world. As a single mom living paycheck to paycheck that can be challenging. This trip was a big deal for me. I saved and made sacrifices for more than a year to make it happen. I wanted it to be epic, special, a memory she would cherish as she begins her new life on her own, an experience to make up for having to share a bedroom with her little brothers, for all the nights I’d only been able to afford Kraft mac-n-cheese, for the years I couldn’t afford Christmas or birthday presents. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a vacation, but as I watched the delight in her eyes as the Eiffel Tower sparkled in the distance I knew this trip was the treasure I’d intended. My daughter and her bestie were glowing. Mission accomplished! And we still had three more days in Paris before moving on to our next destination!

Be sure to come back next week to read about our first full day in Paris, a luxurious day filled with museums of fine art, champagne atop the Eiffel Tower, and cocktails at The Hotel Ritz! Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

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

jonis beach madeline island

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: to hell with 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.

Great Smoky Mountains: Forging Rivers and (not) Charming Snakes

cascading waterfalls of forney creek

So far, I’d been having a fantastic time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our first wilderness Ladycation in almost a year was proving to be just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, sunshine, and none of the distractions of normal life; I already felt more clear and relaxed than I had in months.img_8095

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.

Morning also brought a new backpacking experience for me. I had, up to this point, yet to dig a hole to poop in, but the bliss of that ignorance had come to an end. So here’s my assessment of pooping in a hole in the woods: it’s really not that bad, but it’s a pain in the ass (no pun intended). The actual act itself isn’t wholly unpleasant, it’s the digging that sucks. Just finding a spot to dig your hole can be a challenge. Leave No Trace requires you to dig 200 feet from any campsite, water source, or trail, so depending on the terrain this can be nearly impossible. Once you find a spot, the next hurdles are the roots and rocks you’re probably digging through. Suffice to say, don’t wait until you really have to go to start looking for a spot, or things could get a bit uncomfortable. . . and messy.

Once Lindsey woke up we ate some breakfast and began packing up camp. We didn’t anticipate the short distance would take that long to hike. However, we hadn’t taken the many river crossings into consideration.img_7917

The first crossing came shortly after leaving the campsite. We switched from our hiking boots to our water shoes, waded through the cool water, then dried our feet, and put our boots back on. It was less than a quarter of a mile later that we came upon the next river crossing. Clearly, switching our shoes out that often wasn’t optimal. We changed into our water shoes one more time and decided to keep them on for the remainder of the hike.

The downside to hiking in water shoes was our lack of ankle support or traction. The trail and riverbeds were uneven, and riddled with rocks, dips and tree roots. Throughout the course of the day I rolled my ankle three times. The final time I rolled it, it made the most horrific, bubble-wrap-popping sound I’ve ever heard. Lindsey thought I’d stepped on and crushed a stick. I had to keep going. No one was going to come rescue me (although, I would’ve given anything for Ranger Blondie Buns to come walking out of the forest at that moment), so I womaned up, and we kept on moving.

I had been hiking in front of Lindsey for a while, totally in my own world, when I heard her behind me, “Oh hell no, what the fuck, Steph?! Did you see this thing? How did you not step on it?!” I turned around to see what she was freaking out about, and was alarmed to see a rather large, unmoving, but definitely scary looking snake right in the middle of the trail. Judging from the diamond-shaped pattern down his back, there’s a good chance it was a rattlesnake, but I didn’t get a closer look for fear of finding out the hard way that I was right. The fact that I somehow didn’t step on him is an absolute miracle. Lindsey gave him a wide berth as she passed, and we spent the rest of the hike hyper-conscious of the path before us.

img_8046Our next obstacle was a downed tree that was blocking the trail at one of the river crossings. We’d climbed over and around several trees that day already, but this was an old, tall, thick-trunked tree that was perched in such a way that we weren’t immediately sure how we were going to get past it. In hindsight, a simple solution would’ve been to just take off our packs and climb under, but that thought somehow never occurred to me (or maybe I was just too lazy to take my pack off). Instead, we decided to climb over. Both of us, balancing precariously, nearly face-planted into the ground from the weight of our packs pulling us down, but were grateful we didn’t since we landed right in the middle of a deep mud puddle. Covered in sweat, mud, scrapes and bruises, we were really starting to look like mountain-dwellers.

The final major river crossing of the day was a straight-up river forging. The swiftly moving water was waist deep, and very intimidating as we surveyed it from the bank. Before we set out to cross, we took a break for a snack and a smoke, and honestly to gather our courage.

Regardless of the low mileage in this hike, it was strenuous. So many ups and downs, and wading through rivers tends to use up more energy than hiking on more even, dry land. Add to that the fact that it was hot as balls out, and we were definitely running out of fuel quicker than we thought we would, on a hike that was taking significantly longer than we’d anticipated.

We stepped carefully into the river when it was time to cross. The current was powerful as we waded into deeper water and we were grateful (once again) for the extra stability our trekking poles provided. I have a feeling things would’ve gotten ugly if we hadn’t had them. I lost track of how many falls they prevented by the time the trip was over.

When the water reached our waists my trepidation was gone, and I was practically giggling with glee. It was so much fun! It felt incredible on our hot, sweat-sticky bodies, and the force of the waterfall trying to take us down gave us the adrenaline rush we love; just enough risk to know we had to be careful, but not so much that we were paralyzed with fear.

This trail, though beautiful, didn’t have some of the advantages of the other trails we’ve traversed. There weren’t any sweeping views after leaving Clingman’s Dome, no massive volcano peaks, giant trees, rock formations, or ocean shores. But forging the river, and the plethora of waterfalls, gave this trek the unique characteristics that set it apart from your average hiking trail.

Once we emerged from the river we didn’t hike that far before coming to a bridge crossing that leads to campsite 70. The site was considerably larger than campsite 68, but far less aesthetically pleasing, and with a significantly more prominent critter population.img_8132

There were several separate areas for tents, all with their own fire pits. We chose a spot near the bear wire, where a makeshift table had been crafted from a downed tree. We set up our packs at the table, and put the tent in the shade of the trees near the riverbank.img_8126

The bugs were vicious. Mountains of mosquitoes, flocks of flies, boatloads of bees, and gnats galore were swarming everywhere. No amount of bug spray seemed to help, so it was time to get the fire going. This project was temporarily put on hold when we went to set up our tarp near the fire pit, and were greeted by a small, harmless, but totally snakey snake. He was only about a foot long, and was minding his own business, but he had to go. “Gray Worm,” as we chose to name him due to his color (and our affinity for Game of Thrones), had no desire to leave. We’d nudge him gently with sticks and he’d slither a few feet away, then coil right back up like, “Bitch, I live here. You leave.” If snakes had fingers, his middle one would’ve been extended for sure. It took some coaxing, but we were finally able to successfully evict him back to the forest, and were then able to get our fire roaring, and settle in for the night.img_8115

The lightening bugs didn’t have as much of a presence at the new campsite (basically the only bug that wasn’t there), but the fire was absolutely bitchin’. We stared at the stars as the light drained from the sky, and talked about how badly we’d needed this Ladycation. It felt so good to get a break from reality, a few days away from the chaos.img_8143

Lindsey went to bed early that night. As usual, I was not ready to hit the hay, so I stayed up and kept the fire blazing while I smoked and admired the stars.

I kept hearing a scurrying sound behind me, and upon shining my light over the campsite, I saw a big, fat mouse darting around under the makeshift table. He took off once he saw my light, but he kept coming back, hoping he could find some dinner, and escape unseen.

I turned my light back on when I heard more movement near the table, this time it was an enormous frog. Or toad. I don’t really know the difference, honestly. But whichever he was, I wasn’t looking to hang out with him. He hopped away from the flashlight, but I saw at least a half dozen more before we left the site in the morning.img_8127

I started to get paranoid about all the creatures that could be lurking in the dark. I swore I heard something much larger rummaging around in the bushes in the adjacent campsite, but I never saw anything. I was a bit concerned it was a bear (or that Gray Worm had returned with his entire family, seeking revenge for our acquisition of their land). After a few minutes of trying to ignore the potential company, I decided to go just go to bed. My imagination was running wild, and whatever was going bump in the night wasn’t anything I wanted to come face to face with in the dark. Besides, the next day we’d embark on an eight mile trek up the mountain; I needed my rest.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and be sure to come back for Ladycation Sunday, with a new blog post every week! Follow Ladycations on WordPress, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

Back to Backpacking: Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains

great smoky mountains national park view from clingman's dome

It had been over 6 months since I’d strapped on my backpack and headed into the wilderness. The winter had left me yearning for green trees and wide open spaces. Seasonal depression is no joke. Add to that the loss of endorphins due to stress fractures bringing my running to a halt, and I was one giant snowfall away from a full-on meltdown.

I always go west when I travel. I just feel drawn to it. But there’s some pretty spectacular country east of Ohio, and most of it is only a day’s drive from home. With time and available funds being an issue, Lindsey and I decided we’d explore some of what the Eastern US has to offer.img_7776

I ultimately settled on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d always heard Asheville, North Carolina was my kind of place: good food, near the mountains, full of hippies, lots of art, and a drum circle on Fridays. Yes, please. It’s less than an hour from the National Park, and seemed like the perfect place to recover from some mountain hiking. Before long I had our entire trip planned and booked.

Speaking of recovery, it had been a rough winter. . . My year of activity had taken its toll, and a series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months. I was most definitely not in the same shape I’d been in the last time we’d trekked into the forest. I had gained some weight, and lost all the muscle I’d worked so hard to build. So though I was determined to hike in the mountains, I should’ve realized how much more of a challenge it would be this time around.Screenshot_2018-08-19 Backcountry Permit System - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U S National Park Service)

The first two days of hiking I’d planned only totaled roughly eight miles, and were all downhill. We’d start at Clingman’s Dome and take the Forney Creek Trail to campsite 68 for the first night. Day two we’d hike to campsite 70. The third day was going to be the challenge: eight miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain, we’d trek all the way up Jonas Creek Trail, to the Welch Ridge Trail, until finally meeting up with the Appalachian Trail, and spending the night at Double Spring Gap Shelter. We’d take the AT back to Clingman’s Dome to complete the loop on day four, then drive to Asheville for a night before heading back home. I definitely overestimated my athletic prowess and backpacking readiness when planning this trip.img_7736

Unlike our previous Ladycations, we were road trippin’ it this time! We met at my house on a Wednesday after work, loaded our packs into Mary Jane, my trusty VW wagon, and hit the road.

Since we didn’t get on the road until after 5:30, we had reservations at a cheap motel just outside Lexington, Kentucky for the night. Finding cheap motels in Kentucky is like finding corn in Nebraska. They’re everywhere, and for $56 a night, I was impressed. The Quality Inn in Berea, Kentucky was clean, quiet, with comfortable beds, and a limited, but decent continental breakfast. I will, however, say that the guy working night shift behind the desk was creepy as hell. He was most definitely on drugs and potentially a serial killer, with a stare that, when directed at me, I can only describe as feeling like I’d been visually licked. I dead-bolted the door that night.

We set out the next morning and drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forecast had been predicting rain, but the sun was shining down through puffy, white clouds on an absolutely perfect day. We walked around the observation area, admiring the brilliant green of the forest covered mountains, and I could feel my spirit start to lift.img_7787

We headed towards our destination for night one: Campsite 68. It was only a few miles, and all downhill, but once we’d gotten past the first half mile of well maintained, gradual, man-made steps, things got a little trickier.

The trail winds back and forth across Forney Creek and was riddled with rocks and tree roots. We hiked more slowly than usual, using extra care so as not to roll an ankle or face-plant into the dirt when a root caught one of our feet. Every so often the creek would cross the trail, making the uneven path wet and slippery. Despite my best efforts my clumsiness kicked in, and I bit it while crossing a particularly slick spot. I went down on my side, my pack slowing the crash. Apart from the bruise to my ego, I was unharmed, and we were able to laugh at my mud-covered self and keep going.img_8239-1

I’d read that we would encounter over a dozen river crossings throughout this trip, and as we’d crossed over slippery, but not particularly “rivery,” points I wondered if that’s all we’d come across. Shortly thereafter we came upon a legit river crossing, where the trail ended at the riverbank and picked back up on the other side. We took a break and had a snack as we assessed the situation and plotted our course. Once we were ready, we changed into our water shoes and stepped into the river.img_8043

The water was cool and refressing, moving fast and ferociously as it cascaded down a series of waterfalls that didn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. I could feel the knee-deep water pushing against me, and we were cautious about maintaining our footing. Had we slipped it would’ve been nearly impossible not to get injured in the fall. Knowing that one misstep would mean certain disaster, and feeling the might of Mother Nature as we fought against the current was such a rush. We’d been nervous when we began, now we’d realized that what had given us apprehension turned out to be the most fun part of the hike. Just another example of why ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

 

We reached Campsite 68 by early evening and were absolutely blown away when we arrived. Though the name is a bit lacking in pizzazz, the site itself was incredible. It’s a beautifully shaded site nestled in the trees, and right on the riverbank. There are several spots for tents, a central fire pit, and a waterfall that rolls effortlessly down polished stone like Mother Nature’s water slide. The sound of the water flowing down the smooth, flat rock, and crashing into the boulders below was indescribably soothing. As an added bonus, the entire fire pit was filled with firewood. Home sweet home!

 

We set up camp and did some yoga stretches before Lindsey decided to meditate for a while, and I started to get our campfire going. Though we’d had a perfect, sunshiny day, it had definitely rained recently (which also accounted for the river being so high). All the wood was wet which made getting it burning a challenge, but eventually I had that bad boy roaring. There’s something about starting a fire that feels good on a primal level. It’s like the caveman instinct that tells us, “fire good, fire life,” is still hiding in a corner of my psyche.

 

We ate our dinner around the fire as the sun went down and the shadows crept in. When darkness descended, the light show began. With the stars shining brightly through the treetops, the forest itself lit up with hundreds of lightening bugs. I mean, they were everywhere. It was so spectacular that we just sat there for hours watching the whole world sparkle all around us.img_7997

Unlike when we hiked in Washington and had to pile on layer after layer at night to stay warm, the temperature never dipped below 65 degrees that night. Though we didn’t need the fire for warmth, the bugs were eating us alive when we weren’t near it. Next to the fire there were no bugs, but I felt like I was melting. One of the benefits of the seclusion that comes with camping in the backcountry is the lack of dress code. As I discussed in a previous post, I love being naked in nature. There aren’t too many feelings as liberating or humbling as standing stark naked before the stars, surrounded by the trees and all of Mother Nature’s other creations; unified in a state of natural, bare vulnerability. So, since I knew Lindsey wouldn’t care about seeing my boobs, I ditched my shirt and sports bra, and let the cool night breeze and the warmth of the fire kiss my naked flesh. It was the perfect combination of sensations.

Eventually I put my shirt back on and we settled in next to the fire. We stayed up late, or rather Lindsey stayed up later than usual, talking and alternating between watching the lightening bug show, the blanket of twinkling stars, and just being mesmerized by the flames dancing in the fire. We were consumed with our surroundings, acutely aware of every sound, every movement in the forest, every crackle and pop of the fire. I felt so present, so grounded and serene. It was everything I’d been craving throughout the long, Cleveland winter.img_8223

Lindsey ultimately called it a night around 1am, and I followed not long after. We’d had as perfect a day as we could’ve imagined, and went to bed with the sense of tranquility, clarity, and strength that we’ve come to expect from our outdoor adventures. It’s like immersing yourself in the loving embrace of Mother Nature’s arms. And who doesn’t feel great after a hug from Mom?

I was also pleased to discover that I don’t have to fly to far away places to get my nature on. I could hit the road in the morning and be in the mountains by dinner time. Knowing such a beautiful place for my forest therapy is always within reach provided a sense of relief. Like, Well, if I approach a nervous breakdown, I can flee to the woods on one tank of gas and be sleeping on a mountain within hours.  Ohio may not have much by way of serious backpacking opportunities, but it isn’t as out of reach as one might think. That’s good information to have.

 

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to take this journey with me. I’d love to hear your comments! And don’t forget to come back for LadycationSunday to read all about the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Great Smoky Mountain Ladycation Adventure!

Check me out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure you follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking my friends!

~Steph

 

When Mother Nature Strikes: A Las Vegas Kinda-Cation

Half the fun of taking a vacation is planning one. Researching where to stay, what to see, where to eat, what to do; it’s part of the adventure. I’m a planner, it helps get me psyched up for the main event. That means I always have a very clear vision of what my trips will be. But the Universe doesn’t always cooperate, and all the research in the world can’t save the best laid plans from a blizzard.

Winter in Cleveland is a dismal time. The trees are bare, the grass is brown, and leaving the house in the bitter cold of morning freezes your soul as much as your flesh. Sure, the snow is pretty while it’s falling, but soon it turns to dirty, gray sludge that outlines the entire city. Seasonal depression is all but inevitable.img_6724

In January I was in full hermit mode. A series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months by that point. I was feeling fat and lazy, and leaving the house for any reason seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I needed to flee. I needed to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, see a color other than gray, just get the hell out of the Midwest for a while.

I recruited my fellow Ladycationers, Lindsey and Mary, and began planning our adventure. We only had four days and a limited budget to work with, but we needed to get far enough away to escape the cold and snow.

My first and only time in Las Vegas had been the previous year for my step-sister’s wedding. I hadn’t really had the desire to go to Vegas, I’m more of a nature girl. But the kids and I hopped on a plane and partied with the whole family for three solid days. I had such a fantastic time that I vowed to go back–without my kids. Flights from Cleveland to Vegas are pretty cheap, and splitting a hotel three ways wouldn’t be too terrible, but it wouldn’t give me the nature fix that I so desperately needed.img_6736

Lucky for me, Google has all the answers. I looked at a map, realized how close Zion National Park is to Las Vegas, and the decision was made. Two nights of camping and hiking in Zion, followed by two nights of partying on The Strip. The perfectly balanced mini Ladycation.

I booked our flights, hotel room at the Paris, campsite, our rental car, I even bought our tickets to Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil. Everything was all set. We were going to flee the CLE and spend four days in the sunny Southwest. I was excited for Vegas, but Zion was all I could think about. I spent hours looking at pictures, researching trails, checking the weather forecasts, and reading blogs. I could barely contain myself when the day finally arrived.img_6762

Mary and I met Lindsey at the airport, and we all made it through security without incident. After toasting our friendship and the adventure to come with a cocktail at the airport bar, we boarded the plane, a trio of excitement.

That’s when it all went to shit.

It began snowing about twenty minutes before we boarded. Big, fat, wet snowflakes slowly drifting from the sky and covering everything in sight. We sat on the tarmac for over two hours watching it fall faster and thicker with each passing minute. Every half hour or so the captain would update us, “We’re just waiting for clearance to take off, we’ll be in the air soon” “We’ve been here so long they have to deice us before we can take off, we’ll be on our way shortly,” “That took so long that we have to wait for the runway to be plowed, shouldn’t be long now.” We all knew that was bullshit. No way were we going anywhere in the midst of the first blizzard to hit Cleveland in two years.

At two and a half hours they finally returned us to the gate–still claiming we were only delayed–and had everyone disembark the plane, supposedly to refuel. All the flights in our terminal had been canceled, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised a few minutes later when the announcement was made that our flight had been canceled as well. img_6645

Even thought I knew it was coming, to say I was angry would be the understatement of a lifetime. Not only were we not flying out that night, we couldn’t get on another flight until two days later. Those were the two days in Zion. My idea of what this vacation would be vanished, as though buried under the snow, and was replaced by absolute rage and despair. If I said I handled the situation with grace or dignity I would be lying. I was in tantrum mode.

We stood in line waiting to re-book our flight and I wanted to start a riot. Suddenly screaming like a maniac, tearing at my clothes and throwing chairs through walls didn’t seem all that unreasonable. So, when the Susie Sunshine behind me in line kept going on and on about how “no one can control the weather,” and we all “need to relax,” I started imagining what my fist would look like lodged in her face. If there’s one thing I can’t abide when I’m irrationally angry it’s someone telling me to relax.

My brother braved the roads and picked us up, the trio of excitement now a trio of sadness. The minute I got home I ordered pizza and poured myself a glass of wine, determined to eat my feelings and drink away my sorrows. On the plus side, I was far less aggressive and dickish by the time I cracked open bottle of wine number two.

img_6650Two days later, the three of us were back at the airport, this time more apprehensive than excited. I wouldn’t get excited until our plane was in the air. Thankfully, Mother Nature was more cooperative, and when the wheels finally touched down in Las Vegas, and I saw the light beaming atop the Luxor, and palm trees dotting the landscape, I was so happy I nearly cried.

My cousin Luke and his wife Kelly had driven up from Phoenix to meet us. They’d planned on hiking with us, but had instead enjoyed a couple days of kid-free time on The Strip, just the two of them. Knowing how frustrated we were with our two days of missed vacation, they were prepared when we arrived. They met us at the Paris and had three giant Eiffel Tower margaritas in their hands so we could begin drinking immediately. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have the best family ever.img_6659

Lindsey had tickets to see Zedd that night (a dream come true for her). Not being Mary or I’s scene, we dropped her off at Caesar’s Palace to dance the night away, and the rest of us hit The Strip. We set off with Luke and Kelly, exploring the casinos and hitting up a marijuana dispensary (obviously).

Luke and Kelly had never been to a dispensary, and I found great joy in being the one to facilitate their first experience. They didn’t partake, but we did get a discount for having Luke, a military veteran, with us. Though I know it made him uncomfortable (he gave a fake phone number for fear of going on a registry) he was a good sport about it. I know it can be weird for someone who’s not a smoker to be around that scene, particularly with the amount of misinformation out there, and the stigma that surrounds us “pot heads.” But they handled it with a sense humor and a grain of salt.img_6669

Since Luke and Kelly had a long drive the next morning, they retired early. The other major downside to our missing days of Ladycation was the limited amount of time we had with my fam. After we hugged them goodbye, Mary and I spent the remainder of our night walking from casino to casino, admiring how different each one is from the next, having many, many drinks, and trying a few slot machines.

The rest of our trip was typical Vegas. We walked the strip, we gambled, we went to Fremont Street, we saw a Cirque du Soleil show, and we watched the fountains at the Bellagio. It was great time, but I felt like a shadow was cast over the entire weekend, as I couldn’t fully get past the disappointment of missing Zion. It was the hiking, the escape from civilization, that I’d been so desperately craving. Although being drunk most of the time did help ease the pain (or at least make me forget about it).img_6668

Isn’t it strange how often we’re victims of our own making? We had two fun-filled days in Las Vegas with no work, no kids, no obligations, and legal cannabis, but I couldn’t escape the thought, “we didn’t get to . . . ”

I’m not going to say we can control how we feel, and I’m definitely not going to say that any emotion, be it happiness, anger, fear, sadness, or anything else, is wrong. However, what we can control is how we respond to those emotions. I know a lot of people will probably say we should be in control of our emotions 100% of the time. Maybe they’re right. However, I’m more of a let-yourself-feel-your-shit-for-a-minute kind of woman. If you need to be pissed off, go for it. Be pissed. If you need to cry, cry your freaking face off. Own your feelings, identify them, and learn how to channel them into something productive and get the hell over it; move on.

If I pretended I had it all figured out, that I was living a perfect life, and have all the answers to life’s greatest questions, I’d be a big, fat liar. No one has it all together (regardless of what their Pinterest boards or Instagram pages tell us). Everyone has good days and bad, moments of weakness and times of triumph. And every time we have a new experience we learn how better to relate to the world around us, making us better prepared for the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. You live, you learn, folks. Alanis Morissette was right.

So while our mini Ladycation wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be, I’m thankful we were able to get away at all. And I’ve learned that I need to get better at being ready to accept the travel challenges and disappointments that are inevitable for anyone who travels with any type of frequency.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back next week for another chapter! And remember to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

5 Lessons Backpacking Taught Me

I discovered my love for camping about ten years ago. I camped for a week on Madeline Island (where I grew up) with some friends and was immediately hooked. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been doing it all my life. But that was car camping, party camping. Sure, we were in the woods, but when you’ve got a car and all the gear it will hold with you, you’re not really roughing it.

When Lindsey and I decided to try our hand at backpacking, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Neither of us had done much long distance hiking, much less with 50+ pounds of gear on our backs. As we set out for our first trip, we had no idea how transforming an experience it would be!

I Don’t Need That Much Stuff. When I go car camping I take the whole damn house with me. Multiple outfits (just in case), all the food and booze I could possibly want, extra blankets and pillows, chairs; half the time I’m in an area with cell service, or at least I don’t have to drive far to reach it. Backpacking is a completely different ball game.

The first things I threw out were beauty and fashion. When you’ve got to carry everything in with you, how cute you’ll look in the pictures doesn’t seem to matter. I brought the essentials and nothing more, and I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be out in the wilderness, not giving a damn what you look like. My hair was a mess, my skin hadn’t seen its anti-aging regimen or a speck of makeup in days, I’d been wearing the same two outfits for 4 days, and I’d never felt better about myself.

The next thing I chose to live without was the booze. I originally thought, I’ll fill a camelpak with vodka. No, so unnecessary, and not very smart. The last thing you want to be in the back-country is without your wits. And finally I accepted that I wasn’t going to eat the most delicious meals for a couple days, but eat primarily for nutrients and energy. As it turns out, I don’t need booze or a large variety of foods to enjoy my camping experience. And it makes me appreciate a good, hot (fried cheese) meal and a (more like 3 or 4) glass of wine even more when I reemerge into civilization.

Backpacking truly teaches you what’s essential and what’s extraneous. The words, “I can’t live without my cell phone,” ring hollow and untrue. Instead you learn what you really can’t live without. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list.

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Solitude Isn’t Scary, It’s Soul-Cleansing. There’s so much noise in the world that we forget just how loud it is until we get away from it. We learn to tune out the passing cars, the distant sirens, the hum of the electrical lines, the barking dog, the lawnmower, the kids playing. It’s a part of the soundtrack of modern human existence, and it subconsciously reminds us we’re not alone, even when we’re by ourselves.

When you hike miles away from civilization, all that noise is gone, and you know you’re alone. You can sense it. And knowing you’re truly alone allows you to focus on yourself and your surroundings, to live in the present, to appreciate simplicity, and truly enjoy your own company.

Immersing yourself in nature is like hitting control-alt-delete on your mind. The hard drive; all your memories, remains intact. But it deletes your cookies and search history; all the worries, anxiety, and the negative voice inside your head that makes you doubt yourself, and compare yourself to others. It helps you to sort through all that clutter and get back to basics; remember what matters, let go of what doesn’t, and move forward with focus and clarity.

Victory

Backpacking is Empowering. When you hike into the woods with everything you need on your back, it gives you a sense of badassery. You are relying on yourself for everything. Every mile you hike, every meal you eat, every ounce of water you drink; it’s all you. You did that.

We rely on so many modern conveniences in our everyday lives that we forget just how capable we are of surviving without them. Realizing you can make it out in the wilderness on your own, feeling that connection with nature, and putting all that mileage behind you is a pretty awesome accomplishment, something to be proud of.

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Mother Nature Does It Better. Mankind has come a long way, and we’ve created some amazing things. But “things” are nothing compared to what Mother Nature has been up to since before human being even existed. I have yet to find anything man-made that has had such a powerful effect on me as standing atop the Grand Canyon or staring up at Mount Rainier.

No matter how many ancient wonders or advances in modern architecture I see, they don’t compare to the majesty that’s in the natural world. The mesmerizing sound of ocean waves crashing ashore, the peacefulness of the sun sinking down over the Grand Canyon, the sheer beauty of Mooney Falls . . . Mother Nature beats man 100% of the time.

Reflections

You Get the Privilege of Seeing Things Most People Don’t. I’m not saying places like Niagara Falls, or the Eiffel Tower aren’t amazing. Absolutely they are, but you’ll be one of thousands of people seeing that same thing, that same day. You’ll be taking the same selfie, shopping in the same gift shops, and dealing with even more commotion than usual. And now that it’s 2018, those tourist hot spots are filled with selfie stick wielding tourists who, from my experience, are a surefire way to make any trip less enjoyable (literally had to grab a woman’s selfie stick that she had tucked under her arm because she kept hitting me with it).

When you backpack, you’re seeing things only a dedicated few have ever laid eyes on, areas that are virtually untouched by man and time, and you’ll see it without all the noisy crowds and long lines of the more popular tourist destinations. You won’t pay obscene entrance fees (usually), you won’t spend a bunch of money on mass produced souvenirs, and you can take the time to really explore and absorb your surroundings.

Trying to take a picture of yourself holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is fine (albeit overdone), but to stand on a fire lookout tower on a mountaintop, staring at the peak of Mount Rainier, with no one around for miles, no sound but the wind, is next level amazing. It’s nothing short of a great privilege.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday with a new blog post each week! 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

Leaving Supai: A Successful, Sweaty Solo Hike

I’d flown over 2000 miles, driven almost 5 hours, and hiked ten miles to see the waterfalls at Supai to celebrate my 40th birthday. Amazing as it was, the real test had come: hiking out. The last time I’d left Supai I’d had to do so on horseback. This time, I was determined to hike out on my own two feet.

When we woke up in the morning and began packing up our gear, I knew immediately that Mary would rather chew on broke glass than embark on the ten mile hike out. Her face was a combination of exhaustion, pain, and dread. She asked if it was too late to ride a horse out and, upon hearing that it was, the last glimmer of hope in her eyes vanished.img_5657

As we hiked to the village (two miles, and all uphill) Mary barely spoke. She was walking slowly, her aching legs struggling with each step. When we reached Havasu Falls, and hiked down to take some pictures, she stayed up top, too sore and tired for the short walk down.

I arrived in the village well before Mary, and ordered some breakfast at the cafe. When she and Mark arrived about 30 minutes later, she told me she was not hiking out with us. She’d decided to stay in the village for a night, and fly out on the helicopter with Heather the following day.img_5639

The selfish part of me was disappointed that my hiking partner was ditching me, but the rest of me completely understood. I remembered all too well how it felt to know I wasn’t physically capable of completing that hike. She wasn’t ditching me, she was taking care of herself, and preventing a second mid-hike rescue from being necessary. I respect that. We said our goodbyes after breakfast and, leaving Mary behind, Mark, Peter and I set out for the Hualapai Hilltop.IMG_5704

The three of us began the hike together, but I soon found myself far ahead of my hiking companions. Peter’s feet weren’t doing so great, and Mark was keeping pace with him. I’d do the obligatory fake-stop to allow them to catch up a little before I kept going, but after we reached the halfway point, Mark could see I was in my groove, so he gave me his car keys and told me to have at it. It was the greatest news I’d heard all day! With Mark’s keys in my pack, I took off to complete the last 4 miles of the hike on my own.

It was hot–and I mean hot–that day. The sun was blazing down and I was wiping sweat off my brow to keep it from getting in my eyes seemingly every few steps. It was a losing battle. About two miles into my solo hike, I found a spot with some shade to take a smoke/pee/cool-down break. I took off my pack and my entire back was soaked with sweat. Gross. Not wanting to continue battling the endless stream of perspiration on my face, I took my shirt off and tied it around my head. I may have looked ridiculous, but hiking isn’t a fashion show.img_5727

I’m a very social person with an anxious mind that never quiets. I’ve always thrived on social interaction, and had never considered that I could find happiness in solitude. Alone time has always been my enemy. When I’m by myself for any length of time I start heading down the rabbit hole of insecurity, over-analyzing every interaction of the day.  Yet here I was, alone in the wilderness, and completely content. Perhaps it’s the confidence that comes with age, but I was loving every second of my solo hike.

My trip to Washington had taught me that I could find peace and clarity in the wild. Though I wasn’t alone on that trip, I had learned the value in being far removed from civilization. Being alone on the hike out of Supai seemed like the next step in my journey of learning to enjoy my own company. Like in Washington, my mind was clear and focused, free from the anxiety that usually fills my thoughts with self-doubt and worry.IMG_5711

When I approached the final leg of the trail: the switchbacks, I hesitated for a moment. I looked up at the path before me; I knew it was going to be tough. The negative little voice inside my head began to rear it’s ugly head again, “What were you thinking? You’re not strong enough for this.” I took a deep breath and a long drink of water, told that bitch to shut the hell up, and off I went.

Step by step, foot by foot of elevation gain, I hiked. It was strenuous going uphill for so long, but it wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected it to be. Each turn brought me closer to the top, each switchback behind me was one less in front of me. And every step I took gave me more confidence. I was strong enough.

I was about two thirds of the way up when I heard a familiar, but out of place sound. Is that the Game of Thrones theme song? Confused, I took a drink of water, thinking I was beginning to hallucinate due to dehydration. Somehow, despite hydrating, the music was getting louder. As I rounded another switchback, I was relieved to see I was not slipping into dementia. The nurse and her friend, whom we’d met the previous day during Heather’s rescue, were ahead of me, and they were blasting the GoT soundtrack on their phone.IMG_5719

Both of the women were in their late twenties. They’re what I would refer to as, “The Pretty People.” They were thin, looked fit, and were beautiful; the kind of girls I would’ve hated in high school. But they were struggling. It looked like every step they took physically pained them, and neither appeared to be having much fun.

I smiled as I approached, and complimented them on their stellar taste in television shows. The nurse said, “It’s the only thing getting me up this fucking mountain.” I laughed, said, “Yeah, this is a hell of a trek!” and passed them by. Me. The 40 year old lady who hadn’t been able to hike out at all when I was their age, passed them right up and kept on going. I’m not gonna lie, I took immense pride in leaving The Pretty People in my dust.

Passing the twenty-somethings gave me a renewed sense of determination. My legs were starting to feel weak, I was soaked with sweat everywhere–and I do mean everywhere–and my lungs were reminding me that I need to quit smoking. But instead of slowing down, I picked up my pace. I rounded another switchback, realized it was the last one, and practically sprinted to the top.

I’m not sure how to describe the way I felt when I reached the hilltop. I don’t even think I fully understood it myself. It was a high no drug can duplicate. I took off my pack and guzzled what was left of my water, and once I’d caught my breath, I just started laughing. I must’ve looked like a complete nut-case. I looked back at the trail I’d just climbed with total elation. I did it! I actually effing did it!

The Pretty People emerged from the trail about 10 minutes after I did, and I congratulated them on their accomplishment. They were so exhausted they barely grunted back in response before heading to their car. That made me laugh again, only this time it was the boastful, nah-nah-na-boo-boo laugh of a Disney villain who’s about to meet her demise. Karma would strike a couple hours later when I realized I’d left my trekking poles at the top of the trail, never to be seen again. Humility is clearly something I need to work on.

I dug Mark’s keys out of my pack and was doing some stretches by the car, when I noticed an absurdly sexy, beefcake of a man approaching. In any other situation I would’ve been mortified to talk to a man like that in my condition: makeupless, hair a hot mess, no shirt on, stinking to high heaven. But I felt so good after kicking that trail’s ass that I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious.

We chatted for a few minutes while we both waited for the rest of our people, and I quickly learned that he was 100% not my type (though fun to look at, the beefcakes never are). He was the stereotypical “hot guy.” You know: full of himself, and way too flirty in an overtly sexual, objectifying, and rather misogynistic way. I was actually relieved to see Mark and Peter approaching, and bid farewell to the beefcake. Saved by the . . . uncle.

After the three of us congratulated each other on the completion of our adventure, we piled into Mark’s car and began driving back to civilization. As I sat in the backseat I realized just how exhausted I was. The adrenaline had worn off and I began to feel my age. Everything hurt. But it was a “good hurt.” The kind of soreness that says, “Yeah, that’s right, bitches. I did that.” I was so happy I could’ve cried, but so tired I just fell asleep.img_5734

We had dinner at the Route 66 Diner in Williams we’d eaten at just 3 days earlier, and I felt zero guilt at devouring my entire burger, fries, and mozzarella sticks. Then, in a “treat yo’self” moment, I ordered a chocolate shake to-go for dessert. I earned that shit.

After dinner, we dropped Peter off at his car, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. Uncle Mark and I had several hours to talk on the drive home, and it’s a memory that will always be close to my heart. We reminisced about our trip, discussed planning our next hiking adventure (rim to rim hike at the Grand Canyon, perhaps?), and talked about how, despite being polar opposites with regards to religion and politics, we were united by our love of nature and family. Turns out, what makes us similar is so much more powerful than what sets us apart.

I don’t know that I’ve ever slept better than I did that night. The physical exhaustion was so great that even my mind was too tired to keep me awake. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, had reconnected with family I love, and had lived to tell the tale.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll come back next week for the completion of my 40th birthday Arizona Ladycation. And be sure to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph