Words cannot adequately describe the anticipation we had as we boarded our train on a perfectly crisp summer morning in Durango, Colorado. Our son's affection for "steamies" lingered past the toddler days where he constantly wrapped his tiny fingers around Thomas the Tank Engine or constructed wooden track that spanned the entire length of our living room. He wasn't the only one in our family whose fondness of steam engines brought us to the beginning of our adventure. We could hardly contain ourselves; our energy was much like the iron horse's boiler, full and ready for action. Our dream of riding a steam engine through the "Wild West" was about to come to fruition... only we didn't expect it to truly get wild.
Everything about the Durango-Silverton Railroad is authentic. From the costumes of portrayed passengers to the railroad crew, all involved were committed to bringing history to life. With a call to action, "All aboard!", and a final whoosh of steam, our journey began. The conductor was heard before he was seen. A request for tickets, followed by a quick click-click-click signified his approach. We presented our proof as our coach car swayed gently side to side. The sun drenched everything in its morning glow. The meadows lining the Animas River were ablaze with wildflowers that stretched to the foothills surrounding us. Conversations began to rise within the confines of the coach. Strangers became new friends, and travel stories were swapped as we began to ascend from the valley floor.
Not too far into our journey, we came to our first stop in the mountains. New passengers came aboard dressed in hiking gear, and fragrant with the aroma of triumph. They had just finished a fourteener- backpacker slang for mountains of at least 14,000 feet elevation. I couldn't help but feel a tinge of envy, as that goal still remains unchecked on my bucket list.
We linger well after the hikers board, and my curiosity is piqued by the urgent way a brakeman climbs along the edge of the engine, peering down as if to inspect the mechanical elements. He scurries back, returning to his rightful place inside. The train rolls back a minute, then abruptly jolts to a stop. Nothing is said, and we soon begin our journey further into the mountains.
As the broad ground surrounding the tracks narrowed, passengers began to squirm in their seats. We clung to the edge of the rocks while the river's rapids raged in the canyon perilously far below us. Everyone subconsciously leaned towards the mountain, as if our weight would prevent the train from tipping towards danger. All except a daring few who peered over the edge, myself included. We were of course perfectly safe, but the element of danger made our hearts race as we continued on.
We pulled up next to the remains of some wooden box cars and the now eye-level Animas River. It was quiet in this part of the forest, and the stop gave us a moment to drink in the serenity. Only this stop became an hour long wait, as we learn our train's air brakes had failed. Man, were we all glad to learn this on level ground! Our crew has determined the safest solution was to hitch up to another engine that was hauling its unsuspecting passengers up the mountain behind us. Watching the men and women of the Durango-Silverton Railroad problem solve for one hundred year old equipment made the time pass quickly, and most guests were so engrossed in the process that the delay brought few complaints. As our conductor boarded our car to apologize, he summarized it best, "You didn't purchase a ticket to Silverton, you paid for an experience". His words were the gospel.
Arriving in Silverton was like arriving on Ellis Island. We were strangers to this land; weary from our long journey yet hungry for possibilities, we stepped off the platform with enthusiasm. In a city whose population is a whopping 629 people, one wouldn't expect to find many options. However, with the railroad being a major source of revenue, there were many restaurants and stores that catered to the daily influx of guests. We decided that BBQ good enough for Guy Fieri was good enough for us. Thee Pits Again had limited seating and a line out the door, so we knew we had chosen the right place. Settling along the wall at a long table, there was room for more than our family had occupied. A couple from Texas gave us a big "howdy" and asked to join our company. We obliged and dug into the smokey, sticky ribs. I encourage everyone to invite a stranger to dine with them. In a world of isolation, it is wonderfully refreshing to connect with people while breaking bread.
We boarded the Durango-bound train with a mix of thoughts over what the next leg of our journey would hold. Although we had already taken the same route, traveling the opposite direction opened our eyes to even more wonders. The San Juan National Forest could possibly be my favorite chunk of ground in all of Colorado. It is that splendid. I chose to ride in the open car for most of the trip back, which proved to be another great decision. The conductor stood beside me and shared treasured stories and hidden facts that only enhanced the magnificence of the mountains. It was evident that he too loved his job and those mountains. It seems that many people have stories like his. They've left the "normal" world because they got an elevation high that they craved again. The more I visit them, the more I agree with Muir; those "mountains are calling, and I must go".
Entering the area surrounding Arches National Park seemed other-worldly. Awed by the uniquely shaped rocks, we shouted out, "that one looks like a sleeping bear," or "I see E.T. in that one!", much like one would lying on their backs to watch clouds take form. Only we were not ready to lie around. Red rocks, river-gorged canyons, and legendary arches begged us to come explore.
Our spontaneous trip had already been chock-full of adventure: the spouting geysers of Yellowstone and the pristine beauty of the Tetons were checked off our list, but we were hungry for more. Thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, our free entrance into the National Parks afforded us the ability to see as many parks as we could in our two week escape from reality.
Coming into Moab, Utah on the second of July meant that we risked not finding a camping site due to the influx of visitors that vacationed around the holiday. Searching for campgrounds ended successfully, and without the camper in-tow, we set out in search of arches. The summer heat often exceeds 100 degrees, but we were blessed by a blanket of storm clouds that offered reprieve from the baking desert sun. We explored Balanced Rock and began to get a taste of just how fascinating this park really was. However, we came to see arches, and the impending storm and late evening hours meant we had to keep moving, in order to see the park's most famous arch.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Wolfe Ranch, we gathered water bottles, laced our hiking boots, and wasted no time trekking towards our destination. The trail that led to an up close and personal view of Delicate Arch was a moderate three-mile hike, which we reasoned very doable for our pre-teen kids. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we began to debate whether we could make it to the arch with the remaining twilight hovering in the sky. "You still have quite a distance to go," was the not-so-encouraging remark from a nearby hiker who noticed our lack of lighting and dwindling water supply. A quick family discussion ended with a disappointing 180, and an undiscovered arch. Not all was lost, however, as lightning bolts shot across the sky in magnificent display.
The storm passed quickly, and the remaining light gave way to the darkness of night. Our adventure-hungry family wasn't about to call it quits because of a few limitations, so we continued our journey deeper into the park and into the night. Consulting the map, we decided that Broken Arch was something we could surely find in the dark. After all, it was only .3 mile off the road. We were certain that our cell phone flashlights were electronic flares to light our way. However, in a place void of light pollution, they were no more helpful than the glow from a lightning bug's back side. With the moon hidden behind the clouds, navigating trails in utter darkness made us question whether we were daring or dangerous in our plight for the arches. At once the sound of other's voices gave us hope that we might have found our destination. Between us and the body-less voices stood a wall of rock too sheer to climb. The voices instructed us to go into the campground and follow the trail there, which would lead right to the arch. "It's easy," they promised.
Driving into Devil's Garden Campground, we briefly envied the campers who had made reservations well in-advance, guaranteeing them a site during the holiday influx. As we set out in our third attempt to experience the grandeur of an arch, we said a quick prayer for the batteries to hold out on our cell phone-turned flashlights. We soon became aware of the dangers that lie underfoot, as sand gave way to rocks, which dropped without warning into seemingly bottomless pits. Lights flickered ahead, and the body-less voices sang out through the darkness. We shouted to our new friends, and they gave the same promise that an easy route lay just ahead of us. We searched for this path with trepidation, hoping our friends would have pity for us and come show us the way. Alas, they served only as a lighthouse, proudly anchored upon their discovered arch.
There's a moment when you know you've been defeated, and our moment had come. The illusive arches lay unconquered in the dark, but we did not return to our campsite with heads hung in shame. Making the most of our time in this thoroughly wild place, we parked along the road and shut off the truck. Beckoning our hesitant kids from the safety of steel, we encouraged them to experience being in complete darkness in such a remote place. As we climbed out of the truck, my husband heard a rustle in the sagebrush next to us. I quickly dismissed the rustle until it got louder, and bigger. We breathlessly scrambled into the safety of the cab, giggling with excitement. While it may have been a jackrabbit, in our minds we had just missed an encounter with a hungry mountain lion.
Even if we were not victorious in our search for arches, our adventures in the park would never be forgotten. The stories we earned through our quest were the making of legends. And with unconquered arches still on our list, we have reason enough to return. The National Parks are our nation's finest treasures. Far greater than any material possession, every person gains great wealth when they experience them first hand.
Yellowstone: Re-Awakening the Wild in Me
The minivan was loaded: grandparents, two kids, my husband, and myself. Every remaining square inch was crammed with suitcases, road-worthy entertainment, snacks, and drinks. The day started with an impressive drive across the Bighorn Mountains (another must-see) and a supremely satisfying lunch in Cody, Wyoming. After playing twenty questions with our locally-raised waitress, we prodded her for the must-do activities once we entered the park. She insisted we stop at the last fueling station just outside the park entrance to enjoy the owner’s homemade ice cream.
We hit construction just outside of Cody. I suspected it was repair work on what remained of the road, post-snow melt. We laughed about the pot-holed gravel road that guided us into this national treasure and followed a hand-painted sign to famous ice cream. We pulled in and were immediately greeted by two tail-wagging black labs who, we assumed, were politicking for handouts. The ice cream, we discovered, was not homemade: it dripped out of the heavily worn soft serve mixer behind the counter. The germaphobe mother in me crept out and I managed to convince the family that we could wait on the ice cream. Back in the car my husband informed me of the owner’s boast: world-travelers returned year after year to enjoy her frozen treat. First lesson learned? Let go a little and trust the local advice.
It was rainy and cold as we entered the park. At our first glimpse of Yellowstone Lake the teacher mother in me took the platform and we discussed how the lake was formed. Upon hearing the word “volcano,” my daughter hit instant panic mode. While everyone else marveled at the hydrothermal activity at water’s edge, I held my daughter and reassured her of her safety. We prayed together, which apparently moved some onlookers who insisted on photographing the tender moment. As we obliged, we felt a connection, one which expanded to include many other people we encountered during our time there. Maybe it’s because we were all mystified by the greatness and power of this place. Maybe it’s because we were all a little more open to the world around us when the cell service dropped off. Whatever the reason, it was a welcomed change from the isolated, individual worlds we construct in our fast-paced society.
From the hissing mud pots to the roaring waterfalls, our exploding curiosity carried us through rain and hail, from one impressive site to another. The crowds of umbrellas and poncho-dressed tourists created camaraderie: we weren’t the only ones who cared little about the weather. Nothing could hold us back from experiencing all there was to see. At the end of our first day we were quiet as we retreated to our accommodations in West Yellowstone. Our minds were full. Our hearts were full, but we knew we would hunger for more.
The rain beat on the roof as we awoke to begin another day’s adventure. We unanimously agreed on our first must-see: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. As we parked, the clouds parted, giving way to brilliant blue skies speckled with cotton ball clouds. Each step towards Inspiration Point was more impressive than the last. The gold and amber of the canyon walls gleamed in the warming sun. Suddenly the falls came into view and most of the hushed conversations overheard were filled with awe-struck superlatives.
From Inspiration Point we laced up our hiking boots to adventure down a 500 foot descent named Uncle Tom’s Trail which led to an up-close view of the breathtaking Lower Falls. The further we descended, the more we realized how physically challenging this hike would be. Red-faced hikers returning from the bottom gasped out the words, “It’s worth it,” as they struggled to ascend. Facing the stairs proved physically and mentally strenuous: 328 metal-meshed stairs clung to the side of the mountain giving way below us. Our knees trembled as we viewed the nothingness below us. Once we hit the platform we certainly agreed: it was indeed worth it! We reminded ourselves of this point as we began our own ascent.
Each remaining day of our time inside of Yellowstone held its own bragging rights. While Old Faithful was indeed worth seeing, equally impressive Castle Geyser deserves its own attention. Every stream that meandered through the park glistened regardless of sunshine or clouds; they were pure and clean.
The National Park Service has been successful for the last 100 years for many reasons. At Yellowstone it was evident in every aspect of our experience that every park employee carried the highest respect for the land and its wild inhabitants. The ample parking and well-marked trails made viewing the park’s main features easy and accessible for all. However, this is still a very wild place. The hydrothermal activity was everywhere, as were the bison herds. Fuzzy golden-colored calves rested in the prairie grasses while their nearby mothers grazed; unscathed by the tourists that gathered in droves, it was clear this was their land.
This wildness left us hungry for more and planning our next return. Somewhere between the dripping ice cream machine, majestic mountains, and spouting geyers I lost the germaphobic mother in me and re-awakened the adventurous woman that was dying to get out. In Yellowstone I rediscovered what it meant to get a little wild.
Perhaps my favorite moment in the movie Captain Ron (1992) was when the Harvey family is sailing in to Miami, about to bid farewell to the adventures they've just experienced. The entire family is somber, knowing that they are saying farewell to the life at sea to return to normal American life. Suddenly the mother has an epiphany and presents her revelation to the family. "The way I see it, we have to options: sell the boat and return to our lives in Chicago... or don't!" In an out-of-character move, the father spins the helm around and the family cheers as they sail off into the sunset.
That's me: the spontaneous, forget normal life, live the adventure kind of girl. With my husband's vacation time rapidly approaching I present a gutsy idea (the day before his vacation was to begin nonetheless). "Let's try and make it to the California coast" I say to my husband. As a man of thought and process, I awaited the expected pause before his response. "Do you think we could really do that" he asks with a mix of excitement and hesitation in his voice. I reassure him that with our trusty GPS and cell phones we had the ability to be spontaneous and adventurous.
Without further ado, I give you The Wandering Frame's Tips for Spontaneous Travel:
1) Trip Advisor is your first source for last minute lodging options. With reviews, availability, photos, and more; this site is a last-minute (and pre-planned for that matter) traveler's best friend. What I immediately look for are customer reviews, followed by customer photos. Things to remember: there's always more complaints posted than good reviews, so look for issues with cleanliness, security, and major maintenance problems. Customer service is important, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of things if your front desk agent was crabby?
2) Always negotiate your room rate. With last-minute travel, this is your ace in the sleeve. When hotels want to book their rooms last minute, they are typically willing to negotiate. We have generally received 20% off the initially quoted rate. Additionally, you want to ask for any discounts you are eligible for after you ask for the walk in rate. We have several different discounts we qualify for which typically knock another 10% off that quoted price.
3) Make sure you have data! Day three of our spontaneous adventure began with a friendly data warning from our cell phone carrier. Although this hampered our ability to read reviews and know our options, this certainly did not prevent us from continuing with our "no plans" plan. With free Wi-fi available at many public facilities, we determined how far we wanted to travel that day, set our GPS for that area, and continued using our regular method.
4) Spontaneity is great, but a little research goes a long way. Knowing some of the must-see places along the route from our Missouri home to our California dream helped us stretch our budget and have options available to us. Watching weather patterns, we avoided routes that looked like they would be rained out. Traveling during the busiest holiday of the summer means the tourist hot spots are going to be busy, room rates are going to be higher, and travel times will be greater. A little foreknowledge goes a long way. Siri and Google are your go-to for the last minute research (when the above mentioned data is available).
5) Food is your biggest daily expense. You may think hotels or fuel are the biggest hit on the wallet, but the cost of meals can quickly add up to a greater expense than both. There are ways to keep this part of your travel budget within reason. First, book hotels with a breakfast. Even the basic continental breakfast is a savings. Purchase your lunch from the grocery store and enjoy it at a local park. A loaf of bread, big bag of chips, and lunchmeat can feed our family of four for more than one day and costs far less than the lesser-quality fast food options available to budget travelers. Dinner is typically your biggest expense, but the blow can be softened by utilizing different dining apps which will advertise dining specials. Drink water! You'd be surprised how much you can save by avoiding soda... your waistline will thank you too.
Our spontaneous trip was a great success; filled with laughter, quality time together, and was set among some of our country's most beautiful places. We indeed made it to the coast and enjoyed equally fantastic stops along the journey. Stay tuned to hear about these adventures and the awe-inspiring places found in this beautiful country we call home.
The little blue frame made its debut at my family gathering yesterday. The day was perfect (well, almost... if you don't count the maddening bugs): the temps were cooler than usual, the company was the best, and the food was to die for.
It's funny what happens when a little blue frame is introduced to a photo shoot. Suddenly those who normally shy away from the camera want to be in a shot or two. Soon everyone wants a turn with the little blue frame. Although I normally like being the one behind the camera, I gave my best impression of one who enjoys getting her picture taken.
I regret not having the little blue frame along with my family as we traveled this beautiful country over the course of what may go down as the best summer ever. I look so forward to the many adventures that lie ahead of me and the little blue frame!
Born with a severe case of wanderlust, I'm always searching for new adventures and sharing those stories here.