"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..." -Frost
Always opt for the road less traveled. Like Frost, it's made all of the difference in my life. Arizona's Scenic Route 89A, between Flagstaff and Sedona, may not be any less-traveled than its parallel interstate, but it seemed so as we ventured through the towering pines filling Coconino National Forest.
It was just us and the trees. The road leading south from Flagstaff seemed like a ribbon, curving neatly over the rolling hills.
"Shoot! That was the overlook," my mother-in-law exclaimed from the back of the minivan.
We were filling every square inch of our vehicle: two teens, two in-laws, the hubs and I, and enough luggage and travel goodies to care for a small army.
"Looks like we'll have to catch it on the way back up," the hubs said. "It's not exactly easy to turn around right now."
The highway had squiggled up into a bunch of switchbacks as it descended through the canyon. Towering pines were replaced by rust colored rocks whose jagged surfaces elicited many 'oohs' and 'aahs' from our crew.
While Sedona enchanted us, I looked forward to the return trip through the canyon I'd instantly fallen for. Since I can't run away to Neverland, I do my best to appease my inner-child. Slide Rock State Park was calling my name.
Much like my home state's shut-ins, the creek rolled over smooth rocks, creating natural slides. Unlike the smooth granite of Missouri's shut-ins, Slide Rock wasn't as slippery. My daughter and I left with raw backsides. Word to the wise: wear shorts!
The ice-cold water was incredibly refreshing, and the kid in me was highly satisfied after the rush of jumping from some rocks into the crystal clear waters below.
After drying off, we began our journey up through the canyon. Pulling into the scenic overlook, we were treated to the most perfect light playing off distant rock formations.
Oak Creek Canyon did not disappoint. While thousands flock to neighboring National Parks, my encouragement for you is to take the road less traveled. For me, it has made all the difference.
The Grand Canyon: aptly named for its jaw-dropping landscape, it makes the top of every "must-see" list, drawing millions of visitors each year. It is inarguably worth the trip. For us, the Grand Canyon was memorable because of the seemingly insignificant moments strung together into one incredible adventure.
After extensive research, we decided to visit the North Rim of the park. My obsession with camping beneath towering pines secretly impacted our chosen destination, but I argued that smaller crowds and particular points of interest made the North Rim an obvious winner.
We were amidst herds of bison, grazing in lush green pastures when we spotted the park's entrance sign. Idyllic? Absolutely. Expected? Definitely not. Our perception of the Grand Canyon was painted with arid landscapes, tumbling weeds, and slithering rattlesnakes. This lush contrast caught us off-guard in the most wonderful way.
Our first stop was the visitor's center, where we could gain valuable insight to maximize our one-day experience. We expected to receive maps and tips on must-see points of interest. While this was included, we received the best advice one could ever hear: in a place so massive, it's easy to miss out on the tiny things... but in them, the real magic of this place is discovered.
We took the advice to heart, keeping aware of the seemingly insignificant treasures hiding amongst the grandeur. The artistry of river-carved canyons dressed in splendid hues of crimson and rust vie for your attention, and views span in every direction. Our first steps onto the patio of the Grand Canyon Lodge were silent. Words were replaced by tears of awe. Throughout the day we experienced many breathless moments as we absorbed the raw beauty of this untamed landscape. Yet we all agreed, the myriad of small things made our adventure to the Grand Canyon so memorable.
There is an intoxicating mix of cool forests clinging to the edge of sun-scorched cliffs. The road leading to the Lodge winds between giant pines, providing shaded refuge. You'll wrap a flannel around your chest to guard against the chilly breeze that whispers through tree tops. Don't forget your water bottle and sun protection... without a canopy of trees the heat quickly warms your body, and you'll be peeling those layers back rather quickly. This diversity of temperatures gives you a greater appreciation for the hardiness of all life within the canyon.
Beauty can be found away from the rim. Although you want to spend every minute gazing out across the hazy distant canyon walls and peering down perilous edges, the inner park landscape offers its own unique splendor. Challenge yourself and your family to a spur of the moment photo contest. Get in a snowball fight (yes, snow!). Spot wildlife: mule deer, bighorn sheep, and the kaibab squirrel whose only home is the North Rim.
Engage with one of the park's most interesting elements: the people. While there are moments where solitude is healing for the soul, one of the best parts of traveling is meeting people from all walks of life. Talk to those who share the trail with you. Save people from so-so selfies by offering to take a decent photo of them. Learn the stories of the men and women who protect, guide, and study within the National Parks System. Listen to them; they are passionate about educating visitors and preserving our parks.
Take a moment to appreciate the incredible creation we are called to steward. Thank the Creator. It is a privilege to travel. Some people never leave their little corner of earth. When you've soaked in the awe and wonder of our incredible planet, do something to care for it. Many generations have yet to drop their jaws in awe of vast canyons, gushing geysers, snow-capped mountains, and turquoise waters. Let's give them something to talk about.
The thousands of tiny, simple moments made our adventure to the Grand Canyon magical. I find myself closing my eyes tight, sealing in every recalled detail, lest I forget. Though I doubt I ever could.
everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes
We had unfinished business in Moab, Utah. Unconquered arches called to us from our campsite in Arizona. With no set travel plans, we packed up and began our journey across sun-scorched, red-rocked landscapes to settle up with Arches National Park.
Spontaneous travel has its pitfalls. We often risk not finding a campsite in our chosen destination when we roll into town without reservations. As soon as the cell phone gained coverage, I began calling every campground near Moab, in hopes of finding an unclaimed site. After several rejections, I figured we'd be boondocking. We approached Slickrock Campground with little hope.
Entering the office, I was greeted by a ferocious feline who held me at bay while the woman at the front desk helped the camper ahead of me. Curling his black tail around my legs, he brushed against me with a purr that spoke volumes of his personality. I was properly warned: behind the front desk a sign was posted, notifying campers to "Beware of the Guard Cat". While he did his best to deter me, I finally made my way to the woman behind the desk.
While hotel staff are generally uniform in attire and dialog, campground staff are as diverse as the landscape of our magnificent country. My host was no exception. Beautifully unique, she smiled through a pierced lip, tucking back an unruly curl that had broken free from the bandana meant to contain what couldn't be tamed by a braid. The ink on her arms told stories, and I would have inquired, had I not been so distracted by our lack of accommodations.
Thankfully sites were available, and I began my usual negotiation process. As Good Sam members, we were already privileged to a discount, but I always try to get the best deal possible. Asking if additional breaks were available to firefighters, her dark eyes lit up.
"My brother is a smoke-jumper! I am so appreciative of all those guys do. How 'bout I give you another 10% off?"
We set up camp quickly, and scarfed down dinner at ravenous speed. We knew daylight was giving way to the dark skies of night, and we intended to see some arches before bed. As we snaked up the switchbacks at the entrance to the park, the sun dipped behind the western mountains, leaving only a glow to remind us of its departure. The temperatures cooled, and we rolled down the windows to enjoy the refreshing air that came rushing into the truck. Sticking her head out of the vehicle in canine-like fashion, my free-spirited daughter kicked her head back to let out a primitive howl. Giggles filled our cab, and she dared us to join in. Of course we obliged; everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes.
We parked, immediately noticing the eerie silence. Little beams of light and the crunch of desert floor beneath four sets of sneakers was all that identified us against the vastness of night. The trail turned, leading us between spires of rock that dimmed what moonlight existed. Trudging through deep sand, we huffed and puffed as we dove deeper into the rocks whose shapes were hidden behind the dark curtain of night.
It's amazing how a short .4 mile trail can seem like a trek across the sahara with no light to give perspective. When we finally reached the arch, we were victors, celebrating the long-anticipated quest. Hoots of joy rose above the canyon walls, and we momentarily forgot about life beyond them. All that existed was us and a conquered arch.
Not every adventure turns out the way you plan it. Sometimes you miss your goal altogether. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to accomplish what you set out to do. That night solidified a deep truth for our family: it's not about the destination, but the memories you make getting there.
One doesn't simply drive through Iowa without stopping to see the Field of Dreams. It's a pilgrimage for anyone who has ever felt their heart jump when they've heard the whisper, "If you build it, they will come". After all, the field is about so much more than baseball. Then again, it isn't.
That's the beauty of the sport. In a chaotic world where it seems humanity is self-destructing, life hushes and appears a little more simple when we gather around a baseball diamond. We forget all of the fights, the hate, the confusion... we're just people, enjoying America's favorite past time. You don't have to be Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, or Stan the Man. Just grab your bat, ball, and glove, and dream big.
And so, that's what we did-- we were dreaming big as we drove under a gray blanketed sky through Minnesota. We had witnessed the wonder of the Apostle Islands, but hadn't quiet satisfied our wanderlusty-souls. The clouds vanished as we rolled through the seemingly endless miles of cornfields in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Iowa. Our hopes of something different than the typical American Dream waved around like the golden corn blowing by. We'd been on an adventure since the day we met, and our hearts were stirring for something new.
Cell service is sparse along the rural highways leading to Dyersville, home to the legendary Field of Dreams. According to our atlas we were nearing our destination, yet the monotony of farms gave no hint to the existence of the iconic landmark. Even as we entered town, a few unassuming signs were all that made mention of the famous field. Suddenly as we turned down a gravel road, the stadium lights appeared, standing taller than the stalks surrounding us. Our hearts raced as we parked our rig. Hopping out of the truck with the enthusiasm of a wonder-struck child, my husband disappeared into the camper, quickly returning with a wiffle ball and bat. He was beaming as we approached the field, talking about how he couldn't wait to hit one on the Field of Dreams.
Of course he hit on the first pitch. He always does. Bounding around the bases, he grinned from ear to ear as I cheered for him. Onlookers joined in the applause, and the older gentleman had a look of longing as my husband rounded for home. Extending the bat to him, he quickly accepted the invitation to hit a few. Like a scene from the movie, as the man headed to first it seemed his age disappeared, leaving a youthful version of himself to run the bases. The game continued as another man approached, asking if he could pitch a few. "I promised my son I'd throw the ball when I got here," he said as he motioned for his buddy to record the event. Perhaps more beautiful than the pristine farm and field, was the ongoing game of ball between strangers that has perpetuated through the years.
When we had our share of fun, we made our way to the concession stand, which was lined with memorabilia available for purchase. These trinkets, along with donations, were the only funds supporting the place. Like a kid in a candy store, we pondered which treasure was the best representation of our time at the Field of Dreams. The woman at the counter was a perfect representation of the wholesomeness of this place. The lines that graced her face curved around her gentle smile as she thanked us for visiting.
As we drove towards home, full of joy, we thought of what the Field of Dreams meant to us. It goes far beyond baseball. The field represents the crazy calls on our lives and the amazing things that can happen when we take risks to go for our dreams. We are building our field of dreams. Our goals may seem crazy... they make no sense to the sensible. But I believe that if we keep plowing ahead, planting the seeds of our plans, our time will come.
It seems our travels always involve three things: adventure, education, and missed chances. Even if I were to never recount our journeys here, their memories will forever remain incredibly vivid in our minds. To us, they're legendary. Our recent trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was no exception.
We awoke early that morning to the sweet symphony of nature outside our camper's windows. Perched above Lake Superior and nestled beneath towering oaks and pines, we continued to revel in our campsite victory. The city of Bayfield, Wisconsin maintains a campground just north of the marina. When my husband suggested camping there, I was reluctant because I had pictured a slab of concrete with little privacy or amenities. While the park lacked amenities beyond the basics, it more than made up for it in privacy. With our only neighbors tucked distantly behind the trees, we felt like camping royalty with our hidden spot and superior views.
The air was crisp, and the winds were charging off of the lake, cutting into our still thin Midwest skin. As groups of tourists gathered on the marina docks, whispers of six foot swells began to circulate through the formed line of guests anxiously awaiting the blessing to board the tour boats. Compassionate guides began making their way down the line with the disheartening news: due to the size of the swells on open water, we were not going to make it to the highly acclaimed Devil's Island-- an island known for jaw-dropping sea caves carved by the forces of nature. It was strongly recommended that weak-stomached landlubbers stay ashore, full refunds available. With a mix of ignorance and excitement, we shrugged off the warnings and climbed aboard.
Prior to shoving off, our captain reiterated the warning of choppy seas and offered us two things: last chances and barf bags. We refused, nervously chuckling about the thought that while rough waters weren't tummy-turning, a boat full of puking guests would certainly weaken the most iron-clad stomachs. Once we were no longer protected by the marina barriers, the chop was evident but more closely resembled a busy weekend on a Midwest lake. We settled in and began to soak in the panoramic scenery beyond our vessel.
Each island had a fascinating story that was animatedly described by our captivating captain. For example, Hermit Island was aptly named in honor of the legend of William Wilson, a man who despised the thought of company on his private island so much that he kept hopeful visitors away by firing rounds from his shotgun. Even if there were no tall tales to be told, our vigilant captain readily peered through his binoculars in search of wildlife that was abundant on the islands. We were privileged to see the majestic bald eagle, circling a nest on the tip of Oak Island. We were awed by the rock formations and boulder outcroppings that only enhanced the picturesque beauty of the shorelines.
As we neared the approach to Devil's Island, the waves begin to grow, tossing us around. Suddenly our sizable ship seemed to diminish in stature against the tumultuous waters. After some off-mic conversation between the captain and his crew, he addressed his guests by gesturing towards the fifteen foot spray crashing into the southern tip of the forbidden island. Avoiding a dance with the devil, he steered our ship towards calmer waters and redirected our attention to more island folklore.
As we approached Raspberry Island, the ship filled with shutter noise from every camera that was intently aimed at the crown jewel of the park. The lighthouse stood gleaming and proud atop the rocky shores, ready to beacon passing ships. A recent $3.4 million dollar restoration, equal to the annual operating budget for the entire park, brought this crown jewel back to its former glory. Although we did not go ashore, we immediately decided to make it part of our return visit.
Returning to the marina, the skies parted giving way to brilliant blue skies. The sun sparkled across the lake, marina, and charming city. As a gesture of kindness, the captain offered partial refunds to all guests in reparation for the missed island. Although we were impressed by this offer, we never felt slighted. Sure, it would have been incredible to witness the sea caves of Devil's Island, but we were equally satisfied with our adventure.
Oh, and I'm happy to report that no barf bags were filled on our journey!
We are planning an upcoming trip to _____________. This is my dilemma, the blank space. I know, I know, there are people making really tough decisions in life. I don't mean to marginalize those struggles. Mine is trivial. My husband and I are about to celebrate 15 years of marriage, and we are going on our first vacation without the kids. Just he and I, the Dreamer (our vintage camper), and the open road. Residing in the middle of the country has its advantages. Unique adventures in all regions are within reach. Here's my working list:
Aspen Viewing in Colorado- Although I was just there a few months ago, I can't help but long to return. Before my first visit to the Rockies, I had no clue just how hard I would fall for those mountains. The air is intoxicating, so pure and fresh. The feeling you get when you're sitting at the base of massive rocks is only matched by the exhilaration of climbing to the top. While I've visited this beloved state several times, I have yet to experience the splendor of fall.
Minnesota's North Shore- I've been highly intrigued by this possibility. It seems there are so many activities that appeal to both my husband and I: biking, hiking, fishing, waterfalls to explore, and wildlife to see. Although there aren't mountains to climb, it seems outdoor adventures in Minnesota are plentiful. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports peak fall colors are timed perfectly with our travel dates, making it the icing on the cake.
Getting Away in the Natural State- I often wonder why I have yet to explore the abundance of recreational opportunities in Arkansas. It is a very short drive for us, and their slogan speaks volumes for what you can expect in this state. Waterfalls, mountains, lakes, hot springs, eclectic towns, and over 250 day hikes means I will satisfy the wild inside of me.
Discovering More in the Land of Lincoln- Another neighboring state that I wouldn't normally think of when trip planning. When I think of Illinois, I think of getting to the other side. It turns out, there is more to see between the farm fields east of the Mississippi and a big lake to the north. Starved Rock State Park and Matthiesssen State Park boast waterfalls, rocky bluffs to conquer, and a quiet reprieve close to home.
Putting our Toes in the Water and Sand- This one is totally for the hubs! Although, I still have a piece of my heart on the beaches of Florida. With so many state parks dotted along the Panhandle, it may be best to give one more salute to summer and spend our few days alone salty and sandy.
What do you think? What is your favorite fall vacation? We love spontaneity, and will likely surprise everyone with our choice. Here's to 15 years of marriage, loads of adventure, and a lifetime of memories!
Born with a severe case of wanderlust, I'm always searching for new adventures and sharing those stories here.