Absinthe: Sampling the Green Fairy

Absinthe rose to popularity in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and was fashionable among the literati of Paris. Some famous fans of the drink include Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and my hometown favorite, Edgar Allan Poe. Absinthe was outlawed in the United States in 1915, but since the ban was lifted in 2007, it has experienced a resurgence. While Absinthe has a reputation for being a hallucinogenic, that label is is merely a result of legend and exaggeration. Sorry.

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Despite my past travels to Europe, I had never had an authentic glass of absinthe. So, I thought that it would the perfect thing to help me unwind during a little après–ski. My friends Lilas and Chris joined me in a visit to The Absinthe Bar in Breckenridge, which boasts the largest selection of absinthe in the United States.

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The menu had 19 types of absinthe from France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and the USA. I selected Pernod absinthe, a French absinthe often written about by Hemingway, which is from the original producer of commercial absinthe and has a high alcohol content and a heavy anise flavor profile. It is made using the same ingredients as in the early 1800s.

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There are a few processes through which absinthe can be made. One method, which my bartender used, is classic French absinthe ritual. The ritual involves placing a sugar cube on top of a perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the specially designed absinthe glass. Ice water is then dripped on the sugar cube, which dissolves into the absinthe. This causes the green transparent liquor to “louche” into an opaque mint green cocktail.

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The result was a fun, cold liquorish-flavored cocktail. The Pernod was slightly bitter, but that was partially offset by the dissolved sugar. While liquorish isn’t my favorite thing in the world, I’d like to sample more because I find the history and process to make absinthe fascinating.

Snowmobiling to the Continental Divide

I have been a bit delinquent with my posting. The last few weeks have been filled with traveling and spending time back home in Virginia with my family, so I simply have not been able to find the time to write. I still have many adventures and stories to share about my time off from work!

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One of my favorite snowy excursions during my time in Breckenridge was snowmobiling through the Swan River Valley and up to the Georgia Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide. In Colorado, the divide separates the the watersheds that flow into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

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I booked a tour with Good Times Adventures, the same company that took me dog sledding. The season had just begun so we had brand new, two-week-old 2017 Ski-Doo Grand Touring 600 snowmobiles. They were sleek and sporty and, most importantly, came with heated handlebars and throttle.

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I booked the first tour of the day so I could see the sun rise through the trees as we climbed 2,000 feet to the summit. At first, driving the snowmobile took a little getting used to. Every time I hit a bump or block of ice I was worried that I was going to go careening into the line of trees. However, after just a few minutes on the trail I was able to relax and enjoy the wintery landscape.

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Our guide, Susie, took us though the winding snow-white paths which were dotted with pine trees and hills. Occasionally, we got to see a dog sled out for a morning run or some horses on their way for a visit with a vet.

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As we neared the peak, the trail steepened and the trees cleared.

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I was greeted with an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the Swan River Valley, Summit County and the White River National Forest.

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I was also greeted with the coldest air I have ever felt in my life. While my long underwear and snow suit kept me nice and toasty in the valley and on the trail, the icy wind at the top cut through it like a knife through butter. I was only able to get a few pictures at the top before the battery in my phone froze and died.

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Other than the view, the most striking part of being at 11,585 feet is the absolute silence. All I could hear was the wind and my labored breathing from the thinned air.

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Even though my phone battery died, my video goggles managed to capture the entire journey to and from the Continental Divide. I tried to trim the hour-long trip as much as I could, but the ride was just too beautiful to only make a 3-minute montage. Here are some of the extended highlights:

If you have a chance to visit the Rockies in winter, be sure to add snowmobiling to your itinerary. It is certainly worth the detour.

Snow Skiing in the Rockies

As part of my New Years trip to Breckenridge I decided to try my hand at skiing. It is something that I have wanted to do for a long time, but living in the South does not afford a lot of opportunities to hit the powder.

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I had never taken part in any winter sports prior to this trip (if you don’t count sledding down my front yard after snowstorms). I knew that if I was going to hit the slopes I would have to take a lesson. Me, on skis, without any training, would be a menace to everyone on the mountain.

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My friend Jill and I took a lesson for first timers in order to learn the basics. The first half of the day was designed to get us acquainted with the fundamentals.  We started by skiing in a circle on one ski, sidestepping up and down a hill, and then wedging down a hill. All of this, fortunately, was in a designated ski lesson area. This was wise, because while I was doing well with skiing, I was not doing so hot with stopping.

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Somehow after lunch, and with a few extra tips from my instructor, I managed to get a better hold on slowing myself and eventually stopping. When we returned from our break, five of the eight members in our class decided not to return. Apparently, they determined skiing was not for them. That was sad for them, but awesome for the three of us who remained. We basically got a semi-private lesson for the rest of the day. In the afternoon our awesome instructor took us up the QuickSilver SuperChair life to Ten Mile Station.

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I felt like I had a better handle on the skis in the afternoon than in the morning. We practiced our turns going down the slope so I was able to build up a little speed and confidence. I really liked being able to break away from the group and have a little space to practice. I managed to finish my day with no major incidents or broken bones.

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The next day I met up with my friends Lilas and Chris, who just happened to be in Breckenridge at the same time. Luckily, I mentioned my visit in a previous post which Lilas read while sitting in the Denver airport.

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I was excited to ski with them, not only because they are amazing people, but because they are substantially more accomplished skiers than I.

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We started on the same runs I tried the day before, but took a few different routes down—a few of which were much more complicated than what I did the day before and included icy wooded paths and sharp hills. We also took the A-Chair higher up Peak 9 where I learned that all green trails were not created equal. I actually spent a good part of my day on my back with a lovely view of the sky.

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But overall I had an absolute blast, falls and all. At the end of the day I decided to take one more pass down the mountain. Mainly because the easiest way to get to the ski shop was to ride the lift back up and ski down. Somehow I managed to make it the entire way without incident and I actually had my GoPro recording.

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Here is my video of my first time skiing all the way down alone without falling. Yes, I am going slower than almost everybody, but I am pretty sure everyone else had been skiing a lot longer than one day.

I can’t wait to go skiing again. I will definitely take another lesson (or two) next time to give me a refresher and help me develop my skills. Unfortunately, unless the resorts get a lot closer to home, it may have to wait until next season.

Dog Sledding Through The Rocky Mountains

When I was first planning my winter vacation I wanted something to complement my escape to the Dominican rainforest. When I could not find another tropical retreat that fit my days off, I decided to go the complete opposite direction and head to a winter wonderland. As part of the trip, I wanted to cross off a few things from my winter To-Do List. Item #1 on that list was dog sledding!

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I went to Good Times Adventures in Breckenridge, Colorado. Good Times has 160 purebred Siberian huskies, and is the largest Siberian husky kennel in the United States. The dogs consume 2000 pounds of dog food a week and have a protein snack after every run. Sounds like me on vacation.

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The dogs are well cared for and do 2-3 runs (10-15 miles) a day. But the dogs love to run! This is actually a light workout for a Siberian husky, as they are capable of running for over 100 miles a day or 20 hours straight! In fact, while waiting for the next run, the teams have to be tied to a tree so they don’t take off. They want to run all day!

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Good Times Adventures uses all female and all males teams “to keep trouble in the same place,” but racers often mix males and females. Our guide said that the females are much faster and goof off less.

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The dogs start training at 6 months and are a part of a team until they are about 7-8 years old. After retirement, the pups become part of their adoption program.

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We had an all male team with Fez and Django (the lead dogs), Olaf and Drake (the swing dogs), Chief and Trix (the team dogs), and Cyprus and Ninja (the wheel dogs).

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The dogs in the front are the super smart lead dogs who guide the pack. However, if they make a mistake or get into a fight they will get “demoted” and moved further back in the lineup. Our guide said that the dogs can tell when they get demoted and promoted.

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The dogs in the back wheel position, according to our guide, are the “meatheads” and workers of the bunch. They are not the brightest lightbulbs. (But who needs to be smart when they are that handsome?)

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Each tour accommodated six people. The dog sled was led by our guide pulling a sleigh via snowmobile. Four people rode in the sleigh and the other two rode the dogsled, one as the rider and the other as the musher. We all got to take turns in each position.

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The actual ride was spectacular! It was a blast to zoom though the snowy woods behind a team of dogs.

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We took some of the hills pretty slowly, but once we got going we had to hold on tight!

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I really don’t know what I loved more, the scenery or the ride itself.

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While the dogs do almost all of the work, the sled does come with a safety brake. We also help control the sled by leaning into the turns.

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However, some of the turns were a little too rambunctious and we almost took a little spill (pictured above). But fortunately we were able to stay on the sled.

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Both before and after the run I got to pet the dogs. They were sweet and soft, but definitely just waiting to have a chance to do some more running!

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Below is a compilation point of view video of our runs. I did not have a helmet to attach my GoPro to, so I rented some awesome goggles that recorded it for me. As a disclaimer, my friend forgot I was recording so there is some language that is not suitable for children.

Here is a compilation video from the guide sled. You can’t hear her swearing in this one.

If you want to add a little adventure to your winter travels and cuddling on some adorable doggage is a priority, then go check out Good Times Adventures. However, book early. I called weeks in advance and they were already almost fully booked during my visit.

Sleeping in a Tree House in the Dominican Rainforest

My last post chronicled my time in the Dominican Republic and my visit to Dominican Tree House Villages. DTHV is, just as it sounds, a community of tree houses in the Samaná province of the Dominican Republic. Think Swiss Family Robinson, but with electricity. There are no walls, no wifi, and no TV. It is only you and nature. And it is magnificent.

Dominican Tree House Village

Because I arrived at night, I could not appreciate the beauty of DTHV until my first morning there. However, that did not mean my other senses could not enjoy my accommodations. The sounds and smells of the rainforest teased me for what morning had in store.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

After a long day of travel, I wanted a shower before unwinding in bed. Because I reserved a VIP room for my first two nights (it was booked for the rest of my stay) I had my own private outdoor shower. It was pitch black outside, but I was determined to take advantage of it. It is a little odd to shower in the dark. It is even odder to shower in the dark, outside, in the jungle.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

While I felt exposed, for lack of a better word, I was actually well hidden from view, especially in the dark of night. While I was shampooing my hair (which responds to humidity about as well as Monica Geller’s), I looked up and saw the familiar sight of Orion’s belt above me in the night’s sky. I don’t think the stars have ever looked more bright and clear than they did at that moment. Even if I did absolutely nothing else on this trip, that view made it all worth it. But, enough about that, back to the tree house.

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The absence of the sounds I was accustomed to was noticeable. There were no cars, no sirens, no trains, no busy city streets. Each night I drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of crickets, tree frogs, and tropical birds in a symphonic cacophony of nature.

Dominican Tree House Village

Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Instead of walls, there are giant vibrant red curtains on all of the tree houses. These are more for blocking out light and providing privacy than from shielding you from the elements. But the climate is so perfect that there really isn’t anything to be shielded from. To safeguard you from the insects, each bed comes with a mosquito net. However, I only saw a few bugs on one night of my stay and was never bitten by anything during my time there.

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Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Both of my rooms were well above the tree line and far away from the other tree houses, so I never closed my curtains and instead opted to be awoken by the rising sun and have an uninterrupted view of the gorgeous sunsets. I should note that this view came with a price: 100 steps up to my VIP room and then 70 steps up to my second “treetop view” room. There were times I contemplated whether the walk to my tree house might actually kill me.

Dominican Tree House Village

Photo Courtesy of Dominican Tree House Village

Throughout the day and night, heavy, but short, rainstorms pass through the area. You know, because it is the rainforest. The storms provided a soothing sonic backdrop that Sharper Image wishes it could capture for its white noise machines. The rain never lasted long and we usually dried off pretty quickly. I brought my umbrella and rain jacket but never bothered to use them, opting instead to enjoy the refreshing showers.

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One of the lovely things about DTHV is that it is nestled in Samaná, an area in the northeastern part of the country relatively untouched by tourism or commercialism. There are only a handful of hotels and few tourists. Therefore, you really get to experience the culture and people of the Dominican Republic, unlike in resort towns like Punta Cana.

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When it comes down to it, I am doing a rather poor job of capturing the uniqueness and beauty of both Samaná and the DTHV. To say my experience there was anything other than life changing would be a serious understatement. While I have gone glamping before, I can honestly say my time at DTHV was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I now hope to have at least one vacation a year where I can completely disconnect and immerse myself in nature. Perhaps Giraffe Manor in Kenya will be next.

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I actually feel that, in my short time there, it has already affected my personality and preferences. Upon my return from the rainforest, the hustle and bustle of the airport (especially after I returned to the United States) was sensory overload. I could not handle all of the sights and sounds around me. I have also found that I do not like having the TV on anymore (though that may fade once all of my favorite shows return later this month). Although, I really hope these changes are not temporary and I can maintain my new low-technology life.

When it comes down to it, if you are looking for an escape, and resort life isn’t for you, I truly suggest slipping away into some relaxation and tree house living at the Dominican Tree House Village.

 

Beating the Holiday Blues: What Happened When I Cancelled Christmas and Went to the Caribbean Alone

The holidays are hard for everyone. We all feel it, right? While it is the most wonderful time of the year it also comes with a great deal of stress. For me, it also comes with a great amount of sadness. I recently lost both my mother and father within 13 months of each other. And it sucks. It really sucks. Even after having some time to process it all, I still can’t put into words that, despite being 30-something, I still feel like an orphan. To add to that, my closest family is over 600 miles away. It can make the holidays exceedingly lonely.

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I am a firm believer that we are in charge of our own feelings. We can either let life’s circumstances get us down or we can fight back and make the best of our situation. I choose to do the latter. In mid-November it struck me that as a single woman “doing the Mary Tyler Moore thing,” as my financial advisor once described it, I had absolutely no plans for the holidays. I contemplated going home to Virginia to see my sister, but decided that being so close to home was a little more than I could handle this year. I then contemplated going to Los Angeles to see my brother, but thought that the lack of winter weather I was accustomed to wouldn’t make it feel very Christmasy. I considered staying in Tennessee, but that seemed like the worst option of all.

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It then occurred to me that I wasn’t limited to those 3 options. I could just skip Christmas entirely and remove myself from what was causing my blues. It was a moment of pure inspiration. I started thinking about where I wanted to go. I had a few considerations: safety (as a solo female); weather; maximizing daylight hours; and being able to make the most of my time off. I knew I had to go South.

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A few months ago a friend told me about the Dominican Tree House Villages in the Dominican Republic. Just as it sounds, it is a community of tree houses in the Dominican rainforest. There are no phones and no internet, there was only fun, relaxation, and adventure. My Christmas gift to myself was not having to experience Christmas.

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I arrived in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Eve. Between a busy week at work and preparing for the trip I had somehow avoided all things Christmas, and the holiday, which my family heavily celebrated in my youth, barely seemed to register with me. I was both thankful for this distraction and a little saddened by it.

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I should pause here to explain that I just resigned from my job, leaving my first law firm behind. A job offer at another firm just coincidentally came in two weeks before I was set to take this vacation. It seemed like kismet and I put in my notice before my trip so I could truly unplug. What was supposed to just be a Christmas vacation suddenly turned into five weeks of #funemployment.

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With leaving my job, a switch seemed to flip inside of me. My typically high-strung and high-stress personality went instantly into vacation mode in a way I had not experienced since before undergrad, a period that seems like a lifetime ago. A weight, much heavier than I realized I was carrying was lifted from my shoulders. I had a special kind of freedom. It was not just the joy of being on vacation, it was the type of freedom you can only appreciate after years of being tethered to your desk, email, and phone, and overnight all chains are released.

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How does this relate to the story? Well, this freedom awaked a part of me I truly didn’t know I had. I am generally quite the introvert and lost inside of my own head, self-consciously overthinking everything. However, the second I got to the DTHV I felt transformed into an extrovert. I found myself excitedly chatting with everybody I met and willfully (and joyfully) engaging with strangers. The fact that I felt so comfortable with this scenario was a head-trip to say the least.

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I flew into Santo Domingo and then had a 2.5-hour drive to Samana to the DTHV over windy and sometimes unpaved roads. When I arrived it was dark, so while I could hear the song of the jungle all around me, I would have to wait until morning to see it. When I walked in, everyone had already sat down to dinner. I joined a family at a large table and went through the general getting to know you type questions.

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But as dinner finished and the rum began to flow, the music switched from Christmas classics to Latin rhythmic dance tunes. The tables were pushed aside and the party began. There was laughing, there was mingling, and of course, there was dancing with handsome men. Their aim at DTHV is to have a community atmosphere, and they achieve it. I got relatively little sleep my first night. My brain was not used to shutting off. (I’ll write more on what it is like to live in a tree house in my next post).

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I came down early to breakfast the next morning and was the first one there. If you know me, you know that I am never early (or even on time) to anything before noon. It was very peaceful to sit alone and read before the day began. Due to my work schedule, this was the first full book I read in 3 ½ years. (In case you are wondering, I chose Eat, Pray, Love. Cliché, I know, but whatever, shut up, it’s good.). As we ate, White Christmas played overhead. Bing Crosby’s crooning was in utter discord with the warm tropical surroundings.

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When I awoke the next morning I was greeted with a breathtaking view of the Samana jungle. It was everything I hoped it would be, but I would later learn it was merely a preview and a minuscule slice of the beauty the region had to offer.

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My first excursion with the group was an ATV ride through Samana to sightsee and spend time at the area beaches. I’ll write more on it in a later post since ATVing was a first for me, but I will say that I loved being able to do something truly active for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. The last time I took all day to do something fun was July, and before that was too long to remember.

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That night, we retuned to the tree houses sore and muddy and ready for dinner. I decided to unwind with a massage (or two) because, dang it, I am here to treat myself.

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Over the next few days we had three more excursions that included ziplining through the rainforest, a visit to a bird sanctuary and National Park, and a boat trip Bicardi Island, horseback riding up (and down) a treacherous path to a gorgeous waterfall (even though I’ve previously done a post on horseback riding, this was so different to what I’ve done before that there may be separate post coming on that).

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As I spend time in the Dominican Republic, I became more and more relaxed. My first day I tried to straighten my hair to control its craziness. However, it is so humid here that it started recurling while I was straightening it. By day two I gave up on taming it completely and let it go wild with reckless abandon. This might not seem significant, but if you know me you know that this is a pretty huge deal. By the second night I was running around barefoot wearing my new Dominican dress and jewelry . . . and loving it. My structured life was slowly breaking down. Over this same period, my over-packed and very heavy backpack became lighter and lighter as I shed the things I no longer needed. How is that for a metaphor?

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One of the best parts was traveling to the different beaches and areas for our excursions. The countryside is awe inspiring and rich with culture, and the buildings are as colorful as the people. There is also no shortage of nature. The animals (horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, peacocks, dogs, and cats) roam free with the autonomy of a newly licensed driver. The plant life does not fail to impress with its delicious offerings (we saw and sampled pineapple, coconuts, mango, papaya, oranges, passion fruit, bananas, plantains, sugar cane, coco/chocolate, and coffee). This, of course, meant that all of our food was incredibly fresh.

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Everyone is also very trusting there. You can buy everything around DTHV on credit with the promise that you would pay them later. It was not uncommon for vendors to leave their wares completely unattended. In fact, I really had no concerns about handing over my bags (full of cameras, electronics, and my wallet) to our guides or leaving my bags unattended on the beach—something I would never do in the United States. I even often left the door to my tree house open rather than take the five extra seconds it took to secure the lock.

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I read reviews about how DTHV was like a family, and it did not take long to see why. Most of the people there were traveling as couples or as families, but even though I was there alone, I felt as if we were all on vacation together. Spending time with my fellow adventurers Jane, Jordan, Manas, Nathan, Rosie, and Jon (just to name a small few) made the experience feel like a glorious pre-planned group party. They also inspired some future adventures for me. Nathan and his daughter Amelia have the next six years of their own vacations and adventures already listed out, which includes seeing all Seven Wonders by the time she turns 18. Seeing their list motivated me to make my own, something I have been avoiding doing these last few years. With my previous job, and my inability to take a vacation, I resisted making a “To See” list because it seemed so unattainable. But, the new job will (hopefully) bring new life opportunities and I plan to sit down soon and map out everywhere I want to visit in the next 10 years.

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One family made my visit particularly special. Cindi and Bruce, and their adult children Justin and Samsara were the family I didn’t have. They were warm and inviting and were some of the most special people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. They left a few days before me and I felt like I was saying goodbye to lifelong friends. I felt very lucky to spend my time with them. Interestingly, their son Justin and I shared a mutual friend. Not an acquaintance or a second cousin three times removed, but someone we had both spoken two within the last two weeks. In fact, our mutual friend had actually mentioned Justin to me on more than one occasion. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I know this unlikely connection is just evidence that I was supposed to cross paths with these wonderful, inspiring souls. (Below is Bruce, Cindi, Justin, me and Samsara posing for a “family” photo observing Bruce’s rule that all of our heads must touch).

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I almost forgot to mention the staff here, which would be a horrible disservice to DTHV. Despite being majestically beautiful, the reason the place is so magical is because the people who work here make it that way. Everyone from Pedro my driver (who greeted me with a bottle of Champaign when he picked me up and stopped for coconut bread on our return), to the manager Austin (who went out of his way to make every day perfect), to Alex (who made me a dozen or so mouthwatering rum and juices during my stay), Danielle, Patricia (masseuse and yoga instructor), Leo (our talented chef), Michael, Bebo, our tour guides, and everyone else (I wish I could list every single person because it really was a group effort).

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My week at the DTHV was a transformational experience. I do not think I will ever be the same and it will have an impact on me (and my trip planning) for years to come. I now want to have as many immersive experiences as possible and I plan to find places similar to DTHV once I return. I know, of course, that DTHV was a once in a lifetime experience that cannot be replicated.

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Next week I am going to Breckenridge for the second half of my vacation for dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling (all New Things with future posts), but after my time here, I am nowhere near as excited as I was when I first planned it. I want to stay in the Dominican jungle forever.

The Great American Road Trip Part II: 3,000 Miles in America

Three years ago my best friend and I piled in the car for a 2000-mile drive from Knoxville to Phoenix. In an effort to constantly outdo ourselves, this time we embarked in a 3,032-mile, 11-day, 12-state journey.

Great American Road Trip

A vital part of any road trip is the right playlist. Jill and I put an unhealthy amount of time compiling the right tunes for the trip. Below are 50 of our favorite road songs. Crank it up and use it as the soundtrack to this post (or your next trip). Good tunes never get old.

 

St. Louis, Missouri

No trip to St. Louis would be complete without a trip to the Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch. The Old Courthouse was the site of the Dred Scott trial where, during a less-than-enlightened period of our history, Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom from slavery in 1857. It is required reading for every law student’s first semester of law school.

St. Louis Old Courthouse

We got up early the morning to take the first ride to the top of the arch. We are total nerds who purchased tickets for our 8:10 a.m. ride in advance.

Horse St. Louis Arch

But just because we were in a hurry didn’t mean we couldn’t stop and make new friends.

Panorama View From St. Louis Arch

The Gateway Arch rises 630 feet (192 m) above the city and (after a very unique elevator ride to the top) gives gorgeous panoramic views of the city. You can see for 38 miles on a clear day.

St. Louis Arch Sunset

I loved my visit to the top so much that I decided to return for another visit at the end of the day. This time I was in the last car up to the top and in the last group to leave.

St. Louis Arch Night View Panorama

It was yet another great, but completely different, view of the city. I could see two different sets of fireworks in the distance.

St Louis Arch Night

Saint Louis has so much more to offer than the Arch.

Anheuser Busch Clydesdale

We next headed over to Anheuser Busch for a brewery tour. Jill was excited about the free beer samples. I don’t drink beer so I was mainly excited about the Clydesdales.

Anheuser Busch Tour

With our early start, we were able to fit a lot into our day. Our next stop was at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The grounds were beautiful, but it was hotter than Hades outside.

Missouri Botanical Gardens

However, they did have a boxwood garden, which, due to my odd obsession with the smell of boxwoods was my favorite part of the gardens.

Missouri Botanical Garden Boxwoods

After some time in the heat we went in search of the legendary Ted Drewes for a delicious concrete (try the turtle). It lived up to its reputation and was totally worth standing in the rain.

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard

Jill lives in Arizona, and was utterly unprepared for the Missouri humidity. (Living in Nashville, it felt like a normal summer day to me–miserable, but something you just have to fight through). She headed back to the hotel and I took off for the City Museum.

City Museum 10 Foot Slide

The City Museum is a bizarre and magical place that blends an oddities museum with a multi-story jungle gym/amusement park and descends into caves below. Yes, really. One of the big draws is a 10-story slide, pictured above. For you legal nerds out there, this building was originally the home to the International Shoe.

Collinsville, IL

In the middle of our St. Louis day we took a brief excursion to Collinsville, IL to see the Chokia Indian Mounds. Chokia was the largest settlement of the Mississippian culture and was located on this site from 600-1400 A.D.

Cahokia Indian Mounds

There are 80 mounds (originally 120) scattered around 2,200 acres, with the largest rising 100 feet. It is believed that either a temple or the residence of the chief was at the top.

Wolds Largest Ketchup Bottle

While we were there, we took a short drive over to see the world’s largest ketchup bottle. As we were finishing up, a gentleman pulled up to take pictures as well. He said he drove over 100 miles out of his way to see it and that he travels the country taking pictures of water towers. He is my spirit animal.

Independence, Missouri – Truman Library 

Truman Library

The next morning we headed West towards Kansas City. However, first we had to stop to visit the Truman Library. Our last road trip included an impromptu stop at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was so enjoyable that we now try to incorporate any presidential library we come across into our itinerary.

Truman Oval Office

The Truman Library did not disappoint. If you have an interest in Truman, World War II, or the 1940s and 1950s, then definitely pay it a visit.

Truman Home

Just down the road from the museum is Truman’s home. He lived here with his wife as president when he was not at the White House.

Kansas City, Missouri

We were struck with a torrential downpour as we neared Kansas City and we worried that our sightseeing plans would be thwarted. Fortunately, the skies cleared for a very lovely day.

Unrelated side note: At this point, for an inexplicable reason, we started listening to Ace of Base’s “The Sign” on repeat for approximately 30 minutes. We had a few Ace of Base interludes throughout the trip. Please do not ask why. I don’t have an answer for you.

Kansas City WWI Museum

We started with a visit to the WWI Museum and Liberty Tower. From the top of the tower you get quite a lovely view of downtown. The WWI Museum has a wonderful collection and worth taking the time to see.

Kansas City Skyline Panorama

That evening we took a Segway tour of the town (read more about it and see pictures here) that took us through Westport, Country Club Plaza, and past several art museums. However, I wish I had more time to spend there and was able to see more fountains.

J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain Night

Kansas City is known for its fountains and apparently has the second most number of fountains of any city in the world, second only to Rome.

St. Joseph, Missouri – The House Where Jesse James was Shot

The next day we hit the road towards Sioux Falls, SD. The first stop of the day was the house where Jesse James was shot.

Jessee James House

It was a small museum, but really one of the cooler ones I have visited. I’d rank it as worth a detour. Jesse James was a notable Old West outlaw known for his bank, train, and stage-coach robberies. It is estimated that he killed at least 16 people.

Jesse James House Interior

On April 3, 1882, James took his guns off and stood on a chair in his home to straighten a crooked cross stitch pattern that hung on the wall. A member of his gang, Robert Ford, took the opportunity to shoot James in the back of the head in an effort to collect a reward. Instead, Ford was tried for murder and sentenced to death. Two hours later he was pardoned by the governor. (You can see the bullet hole in the top right of the picture).

Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha, somewhere in middle America . . .

Iowa Nebraska State Line Omaha

We made a quick stop in Omaha to go “bobbing” on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (standing with one foot in Iowa and the other in Nebraska). Being on the bridge is an interesting experience because you can feel it moving beneath your feet.

Spirit of Nebraska Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park

We also took a few minutes to see a series of impressive statues in Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park.

Sioux City, Iowa

Just stopped in Iowa for a minute. Gas here is confusing.

Iowa Gas

South Dakota

First impression: 80 m.p.h speed limit? Way to go South Dakota!

Second impression: Your interstates are really loud to drive on.

Overall impression: South Dakotans are the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Sioux Falls was an unexpected delight. The Big Sioux River goes right through downtown and creates a gorgeous set of waterfalls.

Sioux Falls Train

Falls Park is just a quick walk from downtown. The pictures do not do it justice.

Sioux Falls Rapids

It was by far the most relaxing stop on our journey (which is really saying something).

Sioux Falls Rapids Panorama

Here is your own moment of zen:

Mitchell, South Dakota – Corn Palace

Whenever I told people about this trip, one of the first things they would say is, “you have to visit the Corn Palace.” It was supposed to be a-maize-ing. Perhaps we got there a little early, because while it is definitely good roadside kitsch, it was not the most exciting stop on the journey.

Corn Palace

Midland, South Dakota – 1880 Town

One of my favorite detours was to 1880 Town in Midland, SD. It has 30 buildings that date back to the 1880s to 1920s. It is great if you need to stretch your legs and walk for a bit.

1880 Town

I think we stayed here for close to an hour sightseeing.

Longhorn 1880 Town

Eventually I wandered up to an old church to visit with some longhorn. They were not particularly into talking to me and wandered away shortly after I took this picture. Rude.

Badlands National Park

If you ever get anywhere close to Badlands National Park, definitely take the time to pay it a visit.

Badlands National Park Sign

This was the first location we got to use a National Park Annual Pass I purchased while in St. Louis. The pass gets you free admission to national parks for a year and paid for itself on this trip alone. (I just have to be sure to use it once I get home.)

Beware of Rattlesnakes

The Badlands have been a work in progress for the last 500,000 years.

Big Badlands Overlook Panorama

It is full of beautiful and colorful buttes, deep canyons, and towering spires.

White River Valley Overlook

Every stop along the loop had a different and spectacular view.

White River Valley Overlook 2

I only wish we’d gotten there earlier in the morning. The heat made staying out in the sun long periods very uncomfortable.

Badlands Panorama

To give you some context for the scale of the Badlands, this is a picture of me admiring the landscape.

Wall, South Dakota – Wall Drug

Unlike the Corn Palace, Wall Drug did not disappoint. Wall Drug is the ultimate tourist stop and has a little bit of everything. Those who told me to pay it a visit definitely undersold it.

Zoltar Fortune

The best part was my psychic reading from Zoltar, who gave the most on point fortune ever told.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood was one of the stops I looked forward to the most. Deadwood is an Old West town that was home to legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It is nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Dead Wood Overlook

The historic downtown area is a mix of tourist kitsch and beautiful old buildings. I never get tired of the look of small town South Dakota.

Deadwood

I got to meet Wild Bill himself outside of the legendary Saloon No. 10. The walls of the saloon are covered with Old West memorabilia and it was a fun place to see a show and enjoy a cold sarsaparilla.

Wild Bill

However, things did not end well for Wild Bill. About 30 minutes later he was shot by Jack McCall, who you see trying to escape below in a good ole fashioned shootout.

Deadwood Jack McCall Capture

We made our way up to Mt. Moriah Cemetery to visit Wild Bill’s grave.

Wild Bill Calamity Jane Graves

Calamity Jane’s dying wish was to be buried by his side. As you can see, her wish was granted.

Mt. Rushmore

We started the fifth morning of our trip with a visit to one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world.

Mt. Rushmore Flags

There were only a few people in the park when we arrived which provided a pretty intimate setting for viewing the monument.

Mt. Rushmore

It absolutely lived up to all of my expectations. George, Tom, Franklin, and Abe are literally larger than life. The faces of Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet high.

Mt. Rushmore Mountain Goat

After leaving the park we met a friendly mountain goat and her kids. She complimented my hat, but otherwise didn’t have much to say. She went on with her breakfast and we continued on with our journey.

Mt. Rushmore Lake

Our entire drive through the Black Hills was filled with wonderful beautiful surprises.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial is just a short drive from Mt. Rushmore and worth putting on your list. Crazy Horse was the leader of the Oglala Lakota, the tribe that called the Black Hills their home.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Once it is completed, it will be the largest statue in the world. It is significantly larger than Mt. Rushmore and all four presidents will fit inside Crazy Horse’s head.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park is just a stone’s throw from Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse and it is not to be missed. In addition to beautiful scenery, there is a wide variety of wildlife. We saw prairie dogs, burros, and 2 herds of buffalo.

Custer State Park Prarie Dog

The burros, commonly called “begging burros,” went on a car-to-car hunt looking for treats and some friendly face scratchings.

Custer State Park Begging Burrow

One burro would not budge from in front of our car. Below is a picture of my failed attempt to reason with the burro to get it to move. Lesson: Lawyer skills will only get you so far if you do not have fresh apples with you.

Custer State Park Begging Burrow in Road

Despite the adorableness of the burros, the highlight of our journey through the park was spotting the buffalo.

Custer State Park Buffalo Panorama

There were a few hundred of them right off of the road. Custer is home to 1,500 buffalo, which is one of the largest herds in the world.

Custer State Park Buffalo

The buffalo are mammoth in size, weighing in around 2,000 pounds, which I am pretty sure is more than our car.

Custer State Park Buffalo Calf

Wyoming

Torrential rain and tumbleweeds.

Colorado

Nothing prepared me for the sheer massiveness of the mountains in Colorado. Even if all you do is drive down I-70, this state is worth a visit. I don’t know what I liked more, the dramatic rocky cliffs or the tree Bob Ross-esque tree-lined mountains.

Estes Park, Colorado – The Stanley

We spent the night at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The Stanley was the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. It was built in 1909 and is legendarily haunted.

The Stanley Panorama

I initially intended to do an entire blog post about my stay at The Stanley, but despite taking a ghost tour, staying on the “haunted” fourth floor, and being told by two different hotel staff members that I would “definitely experience activity,” I have absolutely nothing to report.

Rocky Mountain National Park

We woke up the next morning and decided to skip time in Denver for an impromptu trip into Rocky Mountain National Park. (Yet another good use of our National Park Annual Pass.)

Rocky Mounatain National Park Overlook

The detour was definitely the right decision.

Rocky Mountain National Park Elevation

The drive up the mountain took about an hour as we winded through steep drop offs and scenic views. We passed several people on bikes on the way up, which was ridiculously impressive.

Rocky Mountain National Park Elk

On our way we encountered a heard of elk resting and grazing in a field and we pulled off to chill with them for a while.

Rocky Mountain National Park Snowfield Sign

Despite it being late June, there was still plenty of snow on the ground. If you know my love of snow, you’ll know that I was extra excited about this.

Rocky Mountain National Park Snowfield

We drove to the top of the trail and then climbed the rest of the way to the peak. I think things might taste better at 12,000 feet because the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had was at the visitor’s center at the top of the trail. I’m talking serious chocolatey deliciousness.

Rocky Mountain National Park Panorama

Morrison, Colorado – Dinosaur Ridge 

What is a trip out west without dinosaurs? We stopped at Dinosaur Ridge to satisfy our inner 10-year-old nerdiness.

Dinosaur Ridge SIgn

Dinosaur Ridge is home to dino bones, dino footprints, and a variety of interesting geological formations.

Dinosaur Bones

The highlight for me was seeing dinosaur footprints up close. Growing up on the East Coast this was not something I had access to.

Dinosaur Footprints

I was even allowed to climb the rock face and touch a fossilized alligator claw mark. It was huge.

Touching Dinosaur Footprints

Idaho Springs, Colorado – Whitewater Rafting

We finished our time in the Denver area by going whitewater rafting in Idaho Springs. You can read an entire post on it and see more pictures and a video here.

Whitewater Rafting Class IV

Glenwood Springs, Colorado – Doc Holiday’s Grave

To wrap up our Old West tour we stopped in Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit Doc Holiday’s grave. Doc Holiday was one of America’s most celebrated gunslingers. The grave is part of a rather unkept cemetery and it took a little bit of a hike to get there, but it was worth it. They are actually unsure exactly where Doc Holiday is buried, but they know he is somewhere in the cemetery.

Doc Holiday Gravesite

Moab, Utah

One of the trip highlights was our time in Moab. Not only did we get to spend time in the area parks, but we did a little glamping while we were there. There are additional pictures in a glamping post that you can read about here.

Moab Under Canvas

Dead Horse State Park

Dead Horse State Park gets its name from the use of the mesa top as a corral for wild horses.  Cowboys herded the horses across the narrow neck of land and onto the point.  The horses were then fenced off with branches and brush. Legend has it that, for some unknown reason, the horses were left corralled without any water and they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Dead Horse State Park Panorama

You may also recognize it from the final scene of Thelma and Louise where the ladies go crashing into the river below. (Sorry for the lack of spoiler alert, but you’ve had 25 years to see it.)

Dead Horse State Park

Cayonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is yet another jewel Utah has to offer. Short hikes can can get you to some truly beautiful sights. However, the trails can be pretty poorly marked leaving you to guess as to whether you are actually on a trail or wandering aimlessly through the park.

Canyonlands Arch

The park is full of a wide variety of geological formations including arches and (possibly) meteor craters.

Canyonlands Metero Crater

Arches National Park

Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches. We started our day by seeing the famed Delicate Arch.

Arches Heat Warning

The hike is listed as one of Arches “difficult” hikes and should be done early in the morning and with plenty of water. In fact, two people died on the trail the week we were there.

Delicate Arch Hike

Part of the hike was pretty strenuous and was directly uphill. (Those tiny things are the people ahead of me).

Delicate Arch Trail

Many of the trails in the area parks were marked with cairns, or piles of rocks, as a guide.

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch was a pretty impressive sight (it is the one you see on the Utah license plates). It is 65 feet tall and basically in the middle of nowhere. (I am in the bottom right of the picture, for a size comparison).

Arches Petroglyphs

There were also some petroglyphs right off of the trail that date back to between 1650-1850.

Arches Double Arch

But Delicate Arch is just one of thousands to see. My favorites were the double arches in the windows section of the park.

Zion National Park

We made a slight detour on the way to Vegas to see Zion National Park. We didn’t have time to do any hiking or take the park shuttle, so instead we just drove the 12-mile road that went through the park and stopped to take pictures as we went.

Zion National Park Sign

But even though we could not see much of it, the park was still beautiful.

Zion National Park Panorama

And the sights we did get to see were absolutely worth the detour.

Zion Chekerboard

Las Vegas, Nevada 

We finished our trip in lovely Las Vegas! We turned the car in and finished our vacation on foot.

Las Vegas at night

Most of my trip was mostly spent either at the spa or taking a relaxing stroll down the strip in my introvert gear (floppy hat, big sunglasses, and Sinatra pumping though my earbuds). However, the highlight was a doors off helicopter ride right after sunset. You can read about the ride and see pictures and a video here. It was a wonderful way to end our journey before flying home.

Las Vegas Sky

Overall impressions of the trip

This was my first vacation in 3 years and it absolutely exceeded all of my expectations. There was not a single let down. I love traveling, I love seeing the countryside, and I love getting out and experiencing new places. I feel very lucky to not only live in such a beautiful country, but also to have the means to be able to see it.

One of my favorite parts was seeing the landscape change as we crossed the mid-west. Traveling through the Ozarks, the plains, Badlands, the Black Hills, farm country, Rocky Mountains, and the desert shows just how big and vast the country really is. Specifically, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much farming is done in this country until I spent hours and hours driving past it.

Now that I can cross these places off of my travel list, I just have to start planning the next road trip. I am thinking about the Pacific Coast Highway or a tour of the North West.

Trip Tips  

To plan this trip I used one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. It is a great travel guide for unusual attractions, tourist traps, and all things kitsch. Trip Advisor’s lists of the top things to do in each city filled in our itinerary nicely. We were able to fit in so many amazing things because every stop, except Rocky Mountain National Park, was planned in advance using one of those two websites.

If you plan on doing any traveling this summer (or any other time) get a National Park Annual Pass. It is only $80 and gets you in to all National Parks for free. If we paid for each of our stops it would have cost us over $115. The pass paid for itself in about 9 days. It lasts 12 months from the month you purchase it, so you have plenty of time to get in as much adventure as you’d like.

If you plan on doing a trip like this I suggest investing in a good thermos for water. I got a 40oz Hydro Flask (in Vol orange) that kept my water icy cold all day long. I am not sure what I would have done without it. Many of our hikes would have been miserable, if not dangerous, without ample amounts of water.

Hydro Flask

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