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Big Surprise in The Natural State

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After reserving a hotel for the night in Little Rock, Arkansas, I left Memphis, Tennessee with the only thing I knew about Arkansas: that’s where the Clintons come from! The only reason I chose to stay overnight in Little Rock was its location and because I thought I would visit the Hot Springs nearby. My plans thereafter were to stop in Dallas, Texas to visit a friend I had not seen in years. From there head on to New Mexico where I had one National Park on my list; literally, Arkansas was on my way, so to speak.

As I checked in to my hotel in Little Rock just a few blocks from the State Capitol, I got the recommendation to go to The Big Whiskey’s as it was one of the few places that would still serve food at that hour. The place was full of life and packed with a diverse crowd, which were both good news being that it was past eleven. So far on this trip most of the places I had been through had long ceased to live after nine o’clock in the evening. Certainly, diversity was not something I had seen since I left New York. Yep! I was already happily surprised in Little Rock.

A couple of days into the trip I had changed my profile on all social media apps to reflect what I was doing. That way I would curb the enthusiasm of people who just wanted a date. So, while I sat at the bar waiting for my food and enjoying my beer, a message came through from someone asking me where had I been hiking in Arkansas? My response was “I haven’t and won’t hike in Arkansas”. He then told me that it was a shame because Arkansas, as The Natural State, has about 50 state parks. I later ran a search and found out that The Natural State actually has fifty-two state parks. Wow! I had no idea! Nobody ever talks about Arkansas in the Northeast! I might be wrong as I am not a TV type of person, so for me to say that I have never seen an ad on TV featuring the State of Arkansas as a hiking destination would just not be right and fair.

My new friend in Little Rock, David, turned out to be an avid hiker and biker who convinced me to not visit the Hot Springs on my way to Texas. Instead he told me to at least visit one park: Petit Jean State Park just about one hour northwest of Little Rock. He also was surprised when I told him that I was not going to do anything in Texas other than visit a friend in Dallas. Again, he was shocked that I seemed to be “bypassing” the wonders of the South. So, I tried to justify by saying that my eyes were on the Southwest and the Pacific Coast. But my heart is soft and one of the purposes of a road trip is to discover things one never heard of. I had no schedule and no commitment other than trying to stay out of bad weather. We met and chatted for a couple of hours or so and by the time we said good-bye he had twisted my arm. I was headed to Petit Jean the next morning hoping to get a camping spot for at least one night! And did promise I would at least drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Lone Star State.

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Call me Crazy

IMAG0069I think that the most encouraging thing that I heard on my fifth day on the road, which coincided with Fools Day (no pun intended here!), was that “if you haven’t been called crazy yet, you’re not trying hard enough”. On that account, call me crazy! And I must confess that I came close to call-it-quits and head back home because the weather was not on my side!

I’d now have been on the road for five days and all I’d seen was rain, cloudy skies and indoors. The purpose of this trip is hiking and camping and registering awesome scenery; all I’m getting are comments of my now noticeable growing facial hair. After years holding corporate jobs all my friends and family have seem in over a decade were images of a clean cut guy. But two days before getting on the road I decided that shaving while camping wouldn’t work.

Another decision I’d made was that I would try to avoid cities and urban routes. I live in the Hudson Valley, just about one and a half hour north of Manhattan and I have always had a passion for the outdoors, as long as I live close enough to a metropolis. But, on this trip I wanted to stay away from the so-called “civilization”.

I was now driving south of the eye of the tornado through Tennessee still under heavy rain left behind by the storm. The rain seemed to be tapering off as I drove south on I-65 and around ten in the evening, I decided to pull off the road in Nashville. I was famished and all I could think of was a hamburger with fries and a cold beer. After a quick search I was headed to a pub that was still open and serving food and that was casual enough for someone who had been on the road for a while and not quite dressed for the night. By the time I heard the friendly announcement that “your destination is on the left”, the rain had returned with full force. The storm was so bad that I could barely see the other side of the street and the water running down the street looked more like the rapids I was looking forward to see in the wild. Not being able to get out of the car, I sat for about thirty minutes hoping that by the time it would stop raining the kitchen would still be open. At that point, under heavy rain and windy conditions, a homeless knocked on the window in my car’s passenger side. Apparently, Nashville has a huge homeless problem and they don’t give you a break; not even during a storm! So, at that I decided that I would get back on the road and just keep going.

I drove the three hours trip from Nashville to Memphis that night and stopped at the Tennessee State Welcome Center on North Riverside Drive. I thought I was just going to take a brief nap and decide what next. At this point I had already figured out that couch surfing wasn’t going to work and I couldn’t wait to start camping and doing what I had in mind from the beginning: hike! Surprisingly, I woke up around nine in the morning to the brightest sunlight I had seen in days! No, it was not a short nap! I had slept for over seven hours. After having breakfast and strolling around Beale and Main Streets, enjoying a warm, sunny day at the sound of blues coming from every corner, I got back on the road headed south to Little Rock, Arkansas. I think it was the first on the trip that I actually began to smile. My road trip had finally begun!

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When the Sun Goes Out!

A storm rolls in
When the Sun Goes Out

By early morning on Wednesday, March 30th, I had reached Columbus, OH. My Facebook entry of that morning reads “…beautiful, sunny day” and although I was tired I wanted to keep moving forward it was time for a quick stop for breakfast. A bad selfie at a Cracker Barrel is a reminder of how little sleep I had. It also reminds me that it was the last day I would see the sun bright and shiny above me for a while! The waitress kindly greeted me with a “Howdy! Are you ready for the storm?” What??? Storm??? I really thought it was just small talk and all she was doing was starting a conversation. I forgot all about her weather forecast as fast as she moved to pour coffee at the next table.

After breakfast I got back on the road headed to Louisville, KY where I would spend the night. Driving down the Ohio Valley with the sun still shinning above, the landscape gradually turned from brown to greener and blooming bushes along the road announced that the Spring had arrived. However, gusts of wind were now more and more frequent and stronger. Never mind, I thought: it must be because I am in the valley! A message came through my phone from my couch surfing host in Louisville letting me know that he could no longer host me due to unexpected family issues. Time to reroute! I reset my GPS to take me to the Mammoth Cave National Park. Although that was not in my tentative places to visit, it was a place where I could potentially camp and hike.

Along with the increasingly strong winds that forced me to drive below the speed limit, the bright sun gave way to cloudy skies which continued to grow darker and darker. Before crossing the state line into Kentucky the rain settled in with thunder and lightning. By the time I arrived at Mammoth Cave, KY, it was dark and I had to search for a hotel for the night as I knew that camping was no longer an option. I reserved a hotel through Booking.com which was located out in the country. Getting there in the rain and in the dark on a dirt road was not the worst part, as I would come to find out. In the hotel’s description it advertised a full-service restaurant with breakfast, lunch and dinner. All I could think of was a hot shower and food!

I was greeted … well, in fact I wasn’t! The young lady behind the desk was a thrilled to be there as I was. After attempting to talk to her it became clear that conversation and human interaction was not on her agenda for the day. When I asked until when the restaurant was open for dinner, she informed me that “oh, we don’t open for dinner at this time of the year! But it will be open for breakfast!” Great! That meant I only had to wait some ten hours to see some food on the table. Braving the storm I headed back to the car to retrieve some snacks.

During the night I woke up several times with the wind pounding the windows and the whistling trees. The tornado has landed … or, so I thought! Judging by the age of the TVs in the room I figured that the building was tornado proof and had been through many of them along the obvious decades of existence. The next morning when I mentioned the tornado to the breakfast server she replied with a “Oh no honey! That was just a storm with gusts! The tornado should be passing by here early this evening!” Now it was time to scrape the plans for camping and hiking at the Mammoth Cave National Park. But I was already there so I should at least tour the caves which I believe to be tornado safe. As I arrived at the visitor center the electronic boards announced that all open tours were sold out for the next week or so.

At that point it was time to sit down and figure out all the conflicting weather forecasts; different weather forecasters had a different route for the tornado which had originated somewhere in the gulf in Mississippi a few days earlier. I figured that I had to drive eastbound and around the eye of the storm. Driving through country roads under cloudy skies, listening to country music and enjoying the sight of horse farms and the peculiar scent of wet grass and manure was a welcomed upgrade to the past 24 hours events. But that would not last for too much longer. By the time I reached Campbellsvile in south central Kentucky around 5PM on March 31st, so had the epicenter of the storm. The town of Campbellsville has a few signs indicating that it is a college town and when I googled for a Starbucks, it sent me to the Campbellsville University, which is a Christian college. I sought refuge from the storm in the college students’ hall where I stayed dry, drank coffee and had internet service. It was clear to them that I was not from Kentucky and had never been to a campus of a Christian college before. But I must admit that everyone was kind and polite and for the first time since I had left New York, I chatted with quite a few people for a while. I think that at that point I craved for human interaction as much as they wanted to find out who I was. Do not lose faith, brother! The sun will return!

From the Shores to the Mountains

Crater Lake: Winter Wonderland and Beyond

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The Road Ahead – Excitement and Surprises

DSC04453On March 28, 2016 after I finished packing I headed to bed around ten in the evening and set the alarm for 6AM. Filled with excitement and with my mind racing with imaginable scenarios about the road ahead, I could not fall asleep. It occurred to me that in the morning I would be just too exhausted to get on the road. “That’s it!” – I told myself that I’d rather get on the road there and then.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2016,  at 1:11 in the morning I set the GPS to my first destination: arrival time 8:43AM at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio. Based on my tentative road trip route research and readings about the Cuyahoga Valley, I was looking forward to my first stop. According to “Your Guide to National Parks” by Michael Joseph Oswald, 2012, the When To Go tab informs that the park is open all year.

Crossing Pennsylvania in the middle of the night turned out to be a good decision. If I got tired, I figured I would just pullout at a rest area and take a nap. Clear skies, a bit windy, low traffic with just a few trucks here and there, it was smooth sailing.

Having been with Couchsurfing and hosted travelers, I thought that I would use it on my route as much as possible. I had a confirmed host in Cleveland, Ohio for that evening as a fall back plan in case I could not get a camping site at Cuyahoga Valley.

Arriving at the park turned out to be a bit challenging as a number of road constructions and detours proved to be difficult for the GPS instructions. I drove in circles for a few minutes and at which point I was tired and falling asleep. No problem! I thought I would set up the tent and take a nap. Maybe I will rest and pick a trail for my first road trip hike.

By the time I finally arrived at the visitor center I already knew that I was the only traveler there. What made it more bizarre was the unwelcoming attitude of the National Parks Service ranger. He did not seem to be thrilled to be there that morning and he did not seem to be happy to see me there either.

The trails were closed! Excessive rain and subsequently trails repairs proved to be my first obstacles. With no chance to stay and camp there I headed to Cleveland where I stopped to have breakfast. As I arrived early, I contacted my host and we agreed that I could come by around noon. He was very friendly and let me know that he was studying for an exam and was up all night. Perfect! I was exhausted myself and was ready to close my eyes for a few hours.

I woke up around eight that evening and feeling rejuvenated I decided that it was best to get back on the road instead of being awake all night. Next stop was Louisville, Kentucky, where I also had a confirmed host through Couchsurfing. I thanked my host and left Cleveland with a positive attitude of not letting the Cuyahoga Valley disappointment to bring me down. After all, road trips come with surprises!