Big Bay By Night: The Lake, the Loons, and Skinny Dipping Under the Stars

As much as I love laying on the beach under the blazing hot sun, jumping off the cliffs at Big Bay State Park, and my morning runs along the boardwalk, nighttime at Big Bay is my favorite time at Big Bay. Between the distant, lonely call of the loons, the peaceful solitude of having the beach to myself, the absolutely breathtaking night sky, and its reflection on the lagoon, Big Bay by night is an absolutely magical experience.

The campground gets quiet after dark. Big Bay Town Park used to be the “party” campground, the bulk of visiting families opting for the State Park and its more modern facilities, leaving the unattended Town Park to us party people looking to have a good time. They have since made some “improvements” (probably to cut down on the party people). After adding an on premises Park Office, flush toilets, coin operated showers, additional campsites, and joining the 21st Century by adopting an online reservation system, the vibe, with the clientele, began to shift. These days, with a full time camp host and more families than partiers, things get very still at night.

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Can you see the Big Dipper?

The darkness at Big Bay is profound. On a moonless night it’s nearly impossible to see what’s only 6 inches in front of you. It’s black as pitch, and even after one’s eyes get accustomed to the absence of light, they’ll still only see vague outlines of dark against darker, shapes shifting in an unending shadow. It’s so easy to forget, as a city dweller, what darkness really is. One night on Madeline Island will make you realize you’re rarely truly in the dark.

Northern Lights from Big Bay in July
Northern Lights from Big Bay in July

When one thinks of stargazing, Wisconsin isn’t typically the first place that comes to mind (or the second place, or the third place, or the. . . you get the idea). Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Hawai’i, or about 100 other places, sure. But Wisconsin (you’re thinking of cheese right now, aren’t you)? Not so much. Believe it or not, the Apostle Islands are one of the best places in the country to stare at the cosmos. The Bortle scale, a rating from 1-9 which measures the brightness in the night sky, rates parts of Madeline Island, and a good portion of the Apostles as a whole, as a level one. As good as it gets. Big Bay itself is a level two. The Milky Way shines overhead, and in the winter months one can even watch the aurora borealis dance across the sky (which can often be captured even in the summertime with the right camera).

When my brother and I were telling my best friend (and fellow Ladycationer), Lindsey, about the stars at Big Bay, she didn’t really believe us. In her defense, it’s not the sort of thing one can fully appreciate without witnessing it first hand. That first night she spent on the beach she was blown away. “I didn’t know it could really look like this,” she whispered. And even though I grew up looking at that very sky, to this day it still takes my breath away. Shooting stars aren’t just possible, they’re common. And if there’s a meteor shower. . . holy shit-balls, it’ll blow. your. mind.

One year, during the Perseid meteor shower, we were laying on the beach as massive, red fireballs streaked across the sky. I’m not exaggerating. These were not quick, little, white zips that, in order to be witnessed, one has to be staring at that exact spot, at that exact time. No. This was like the giant star from the “The More You Know” PSA ads from the 80’s and 90’s: large, bright, impossible to miss. They blazed hot and red, these huge fireballs, with miles long trails, beaming all the way across the sky until they appeared to burn out, disappear. It was one of the craziest, most incredible experiences of my entire life.

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Glass-like lagoon reflecting the stars

Though I’m amateur at best, I love photography. A friend once asked me, while on a camping trip, if I thought I was missing out on the fun because I was going around taking pictures instead of interacting. “This is the fun,” I responded. I love being behind the lens; framing a shot, playing around with the settings, shooting from different angles. There’s something therapeutic in it for me. And beyond taking the pictures, I love capturing those moments, looking through the photos years later and seeing little snippets of my life; each picture representing a memory, an experience, a moment that, when it happened, I wanted to remember.

You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful backdrop for night photography than the lagoon at Big Bay. The Milky Way above with countless stars and galaxies blanketing the pitch black sky; the still water of the lagoon, smooth as a mirror, reflecting the heavens as if Mother Nature wanted to make sure the stars could look down and see how beautiful they are; the surrounding trees lit up with countless lightening bugs, like Mother Nature’s glitter.

As I approached the lagoon the air was filled–and I do mean filled— with the sound of croaking frogs. The lagoon and surrounding marshes are teeming with wildlife, its very own ecosystem. Fish, bugs, ducks, snakes, mice, turtles, birds. . . Frogs are in abundance, and those little freaks have a massive orgy every single night. It’s the soundtrack of Big Bay Nights (Not as edgy or sexy as Boogie Nights, and with more frogs, and less Marky Mark, but the view–and the smell, I’m guessing–is arguably better).

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Standing on the bridge, looking out at the lake, Mars shining bright through the trees.

Every now and then the sound of the amphibious sex party is punctuated by the haunting call of a loon, somewhere off in the distance. Loon calls are one of my favorite sounds in the world (along with my children’s laughter, my mom’s laugh, waves crashing on a shore, and Dave Grohl screaming--no, that’s not weird). It sounds mystical, almost longing. They seem like they’re calling out to each other, but can never find one another; stuck in loneliness until morning when the calls stop and, I assume, they’re reunited. I once tried playing a YouTube video of a loon call for a friend who’d never heard one. Don’t ever do that. She was horrified. It sounded creepy AF, nothing at all like how it actually sounds, and I don’t think she’ll ever understand why the hell I love it so much.

I never made it past the lagoon our first night on The Island. I stayed on the bridge taking pictures until almost dawn, the view too irresistible to walk away from. It wasn’t until the second night that I finally got to the beach. Olivia and I built a fire down there after we got back from Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. We spent a solid hour together, tending our little fire, talking, laughing, and desperately (and hilariously) trying to open our beer on a driftwood log, as I’d left the opener in the car. It was wonderful. She let her guard down, opened up. With all distractions removed we truly connected.

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After I walked Olivia back to the campsite I grabbed my camera and headed back down to the beach. It was a warm July night, humid and still. The lake was like glass, the water rippling nearly imperceptibly as it gently kissed the cool sand along the shore.

I set up my camera and started playing: changing the angle and adjusting the settings, focusing and refocusing until I got what looked like a good shot, find a new angle, repeat. Before too long I was staring out at the lake between long shutter clicks, feeling her pull. There was no one on the beach, I had the entirety of Big Bay all to myself. So I did what anyone would do: I stripped off my clothes and slid my naked self into Lake Superior.

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Zach and I experimented with the long exposure one night. Here’s his love note to his son: “I heart Stone,” written with his cigarette.

If you’ve been reading Ladycations for a while, you know I’m a big proponent of getting naked in nature. Nothing is more liberating, and skinny dipping is next level liberation. In the penetrating darkness I couldn’t see what was around me. Feeling the water creep slowly up my body kept me grounded, prevented me from getting disoriented, as the world, seemingly devoid of all light, wrapped itself around me in its shroud of darkness.

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Without the sense of sight, touch and sound become more acute. I was keenly aware of every inch of flesh the lake touched, and could hear, with absolute clarity, each ripple I made in the water. I was completely in tune with my body and my surroundings, all vanity and insecurity gone, totally and utterly at peace; content.

naked woman staring out at lake superior

My favorite thing to do while skinny dipping at Big Bay (don’t let your dirty minds run away with you, it’s not a sexual thing) is the back float. Yes, the back float. I highly recommend everyone try this. I float on my back, relax my body, and let the water submerge everything but my face. With my ears under water all I can hear is the lake and my own breathing, and all I see is a blanket of stars. I once slipped into such a meditative state while floating that I’d drifted halfway down the beach before realizing I’d even moved. I was suspended in time and space, weightless, a tiny speck in a sea of stars. It’s pure magic.

When I got out of the water I stretched my towel out on the sand next to my camera and continued my attempts at astrophotography. The Milky Way was on full display; a bright, colorful cloud, swirling around the suns of galaxies inconceivably far away. Mars was shining big, bright, and orange over the lagoon, and mast lights from moored sailboats reached across the bay. It was magnificent. I wanted to commemorate the moment with a picture, and was feeling all kinds of artsy and free of inhibition, so I set the timer, ran to the shore (yep, still naked), jumped in the lake, and tried to stand still.

skinny dipping at big bay

As you might have guessed, it took several tries to get it right. Adjusting the settings and my positioning in the frame. Had anyone happened upon me that night they would’ve gotten one hell of a show, “Dude, I went down to the beach last night and there was this naked lady running back and forth, in and out of the lake.” You’re welcome.

I knew it was time for bed when the rising sun started interfering with my photography and all my camera batteries died. It was shortly before 4:30am by the time I started back to camp. I spent each night at the beach for the remainder of the week, like my own nightly therapy. And although I most definitely didn’t get my doctor-recommended hours sleep, I wouldn’t trade a single second I spent naked on that beach.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! See you for the next LadycationSunday! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe: “It’s Not A Bar, It’s An Experience”

By day Madeline Island is a quirky beach getaway. At night the magic begins. Usually, when people think of a beach vacation they imagine working on their tan while lying on golden sand. While Madeline Island most definitely has that aspect of island life going for it, the shores of Lake Superior aren’t the only places where The Island comes alive when the sun goes down. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is where locals and tourists alike come together on Madeline Island to celebrate another day in paradise.

Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for my absence. Writers block combined with (or perhaps in response to) a visceral reaction to the Kavanaugh hearings here in the US left me at a loss for words. Or, more accurately, a loss for cohesive thoughts that I could translate into words, confusion as to what, specifically, I was even feeling, and an inability to refocus my mind on anything else. I’m guessing a lot of women out there who are familiar with the situation can relate to that. Madeline Island is a personal favorite subject of mine, she holds a special place in my heart. I want to do her justice in my depiction of her, and I wasn’t in a mental place to do that, so I took a break. I did some reading, limited my social media exposure, spent a lot of time alone sorting through my emotions, and getting to a healthier, more clear state of mind.

By the time I had done that, it was Thanksgiving, then Christmas (which I hosted), and man. . . time sure got away from me. So, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry for my neglect. Now, lemme tell y’all a bit about the coolest fucking bar in America: Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Night time is my favorite time on Madeline Island. The sound of the waves and the call of the loons, the absolute darkness, the mind-blowing view of the night sky, the tranquility; it’s magical. But before we head back out to the beach for skinny dipping under the Milky Way, we’re gonna go into town and head to Tommy’s, which, like everything on The Island, you really just need to experience to fully understand (and appreciate). A few years ago I invited a friend from high school and her husband to come camping at Big Bay with us. When we took them to Tom’s she said, “I thought it was weird that you go to a bar when you’re camping, but now I get it.”

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is exactly what the name implies. Shortly before the official opening of what was then known as Leona’s, a small fire broke out that quickly spread (aided by the fact that the firetrucks had just drained their tanks to prevent them from freezing), and the whole place burned to the ground.

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While surveying the charred remains of where his life’s work and all his money once stood, as if to add insult to injury, the beer delivery for the grand opening showed up. Tom, a lifelong Islander, was broke AF and his dream had just literally gone up in smoke. Instead of breaking down, he did what any Islander would do. He opened that goddamn bar out of the back of his car, changed the name from Leona’s to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, and bam! History was made.

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Today Tom’s is legendary. It stands on the repaired remains of Leona’s original floor, and consists of multiple trailer’s and hastily constructed buildings adorned with lights, lanterns, various graffiti-like signs and sayings, and is surrounded by eclectic art. There are showers in the bathrooms that are open for public use. Just pay the bartender, or drop some cash in the box on the bathroom door if the bar is closed. Yes, I’m serious. Why? Because Tommy’s.

At night the whole compound lights up and is host to all walks of life, both human, and of the animal kingdom. In fact, I’ve never been there at a time when there was not at least one dog roaming around. One time there was an old dude walking around with a bird on his shoulder. Yes, a real live bird. Why? Because Tommy’s.

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The year round Islanders mingle with the summer people and tourists, and the phrase, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” is definitively not the policy at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. Indeed, one could show up stark naked, and I’m not sure it would even be an issue. The smell of cannabis is frequently (and delightfully) in the air, and on summer weekends it’s the one place on Madeline where you can always find live music.

In Wisconsin people who are underage can not only go into a bar, but can even be served alcohol as long as they’re with a parent. Since my daughter is nineteen and was about to enter her sophomore year of college, I decided she was ready for a night out at Tommy’s.

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Olivia wasn’t sure what to expect. She knew that it was a crazy looking bar that the adults loved to go to, and that we always came home fairly intoxicated. She had been there during the day, but that is not even remotely the same experience. A couple of years ago I went to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe with my brother and Zach. I was ordering shots of vodka, but the bartender was pouring quadruples, and after two of those I was shitfaced. Chris and Zach got me back to the campground safely, and the rest of the night is pretty much a blur. I do remember waking up in the middle of the night to pee, but that’s about it. When Olivia woke up in the morning, she came out of the tent and said, “Mom, I had to wear your flip flops, mine smell like pee.” As it turns out, I had not, in fact, left the tent to pee at all, though I most definitely had peed. . . on my daughter’s fucking shoes. Why? You got it, because Tommy’s. Somehow I didn’t win a Mother-of-the-Year award that year. Weird.

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Liv was pretty excited (and probably a little nervous her mom was gonna get wasted and piss on her shoes again–which I am proud to say did not happen) as we drove into town with Zach. Kim and the rest of the gang were meeting us at the bar, and after stopping on the way to take pictures at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, backlit by an absolutely spectacular sunset, and a very aggressive deer (did you know deer hiss? Me either), we parked the car in town and headed into Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Most of The Island closes around 8:00 in the evening. The town of La Pointe was quiet when we pulled in, but Tommy’s, as always, was hoppin. The whole place was lit up, fire already roaring in the fireplace, as we walked into the bar. We claimed the prime spot: the big, round table under the tiki umbrella, got some drinks, and settled in.

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I love being at Tom’s. There’s such an incredible, positive energy there, and sharing it with my daughter was particularly entertaining. I was glad that not only was her first legal drink with me, but it was also on Madeline Island, and at Tommy’s. So much cooler than my first legal drink, which I literally don’t remember as I was pregnant with Olivia when I turned 21.

We went up to the bar and Zach got the first round. When he asked Liv what she wanted, she froze for a second. So unaccustomed with ordering at bars, she literally hadn’t even thought about what she would want to drink. So many options! After a brief pause where I imagine a zillion thoughts went through her mind simultaneously, she settled on a Jack and Coke. I should’ve guessed that my daughter would go straight for the hard shit.

Though Tom Nelson, owner and badass, doesn’t recognize me until I tell him who I am (I was a child when he knew me), as soon as he realizes I’m “Pastor Dale’s daughter,” I’m greeted with a huge smile, a warm hug, and a tale of how much he respected my dad. “He would come in here and we would have these long talks. Yoimg_8841ur dad is a cool guy. Tell him Tommy says hello.” It always makes me feel at home.

tom nelson at tom's burned down cafe
Tommy and me

If you’re looking for high class and a five star drink menu, and are incapable of letting loose for a night, Tom’s Burned Down Cafe isn’t the place for you (and you and I would not be friends). But if you enjoy really getting to know the local culture when you travel, or quirky, fun bars, a trip to Madeline Island isn’t complete without a stop at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

After an hour or so of talking and laughing with the whole group, most of our people were ready to call it a night. Zach, Olivia and myself, however, ordered another drink. As usual, the crowd was eclectic and having a great time. Prime people-watching at Tommy’s, there’s a little bit of everything: a group of drunk, middle aged women, a group of drunk, middle aged men, a group of barefoot hippies, the obviously wealthy “boat people,” who’ve docked their vessel at the marina for the night, a mom breastfeeding her baby, one really drunk lady (which has been me on more than one occasion). It’s got something for everyone.

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The three of us sat there for a few more drinks before deciding to head back in for the night. Liv’s first experience at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe was perfect. It’s a memory she’ll always have, and will tell her kids about someday. And isn’t that what life’s all about? Making memories and sharing them with the most important people in our lives?

Though I could stay at Tom’s all night, leaving is always made easier by what awaits us at Big Bay Town Park. The night sky from Madeline Island will blow your mind and leave you in literal awe. But for that we will have to wait for the next installment, which I promise will not take months for me to post.

Thank you for reading! Check out my other blog posts for more stories of my Ladycations, and don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips and tales. And, as always, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

All Uphill to the Appalachian Trail: The Hike That Made Me Say “F*ck” A Lot

We woke up early in the morning with our girl-power mentality in full effect, totally ready to conquer our day of serious hiking. The first two days were the warmup. I thought it would be sufficient to get my body prepared for our all uphill, hot, 8 mile trek up to the Appalachian Trail. I was wrong. Unlike the previous hike that crisscrossed the river over a dozen times, this hike only crossed the river once, and then was just. . . up. So much up.

It had only been about 7 months since I’d hiked out of Supai at the Grand Canyon. A trail that had defeated me a decade earlier, I conquered it with ease in October. I assumed, and very stupidly so, that because I’d done that hike without an issue, this hike would be no different. There were two super obvious things I hadn’t considered:img_8160

First of all, I didn’t take into account how out of shape I was compared to my fitness when I’d hiked the Grand Canyon. I’d gone from running 30 miles or more a week, and hiking on a regular basis, to running zero miles a week, and watching a shit-ton of Netflix. I’d gained 30 pounds, I didn’t even feel good, yet I somehow thought, yeah, sure, no big deal, I got this.img_8161

Secondly, I didn’t take into consideration the drastic differences between these two hikes. Yes, the hike out of Supai had been ten miles, while the hike in The Smokies was only eight. But, Supai only had about a mile and a half of switchbacks, gaining a total of 1500 feet in elevation. The rest of the trail was relatively flat. Jonas Creek and Welch Ridge Trails, on the other hand, gained over 4000 feet in elevation, and went uphill virtually the entire eight miles. It was on a whole different level than my Canyon hike.

I was doing alright for the first couple miles. In my head, I thought, we have to be almost done with the switchbacks by now. Every time we came to another bend, I’d hope against hope that the trail would level out as we went around the corner. And every single time my hopes crumbled as I looked up at another hill. My legs grew heavier and more clumsy with each step, and by mile four I was done. Fuck. This.img_8163

The sun was blazing down from a nearly cloudless sky, and the temperature was well over 80, but it felt like it was 100 degrees with the humidity. I was sweating so ferociously that each time I took a step another drop of perspiration would literally drip off my face, and into the dirt. I had the thought, if I go down, and they use rescue dogs to locate my body, it’ll be the easiest job those hounds have ever had. Add the astronomical number of gnat swarms that covered the trail, and I felt like a giant piece of exhausted, sore, easy-to-locate fly paper. Fuck this sweat. Fuck these bugs.img_8159

My clothes were drenched, my eyes were burning from the sweat pouring into them, my back was killing me, and I smelled like the inside of an NFL locker room. Extreme physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, compounded by absolute disappointment in myself for how far I’d clearly let myself go during the winter months, had turned me into a bitter, bitchy, angry whiner. I tried to talk myself out of it, to remember that each step behind me was one less in front of me (something Lindsey tried to remind me of as well), but it wasn’t working. I just kept seeing the trail go up and up and up, and it felt like I was going to die on that mountain. Fuck this. I’m over it. This isn’t fun anymore.

I ran out of water shortly after we’d gone half way, which made me even more angry. I drank more than two full liters in less than 3 hours, and I still felt like I was getting dehydrated. Lindsey was kind enough to split what she had left, and though I am certain I didn’t appropriately express my gratitude in my foul mood, I was so thankful.img_8162

Just when the trail mercifully leveled out for all of 50 yards, and we were able to catch our breath, it narrowed and became so overgrown it was hard to tell if we were even still on the trail at all. Mostly it was just tall grass and ferns, but then the prickly branches started crisscrossing our path. Sharp, razor-like, evil, thistle branches that tore my arms and legs to shreds. Let’s just say that didn’t improve my mood.

By the time we finally reached the Appalachian Trail I was too tired and pissy to even get excited. I’d always wanted to hike on the AT, and instead of really appreciating that I was finally doing it, I just wanted it to be over. However, I still held out the slightest bit of hope that once we went over the next hill, and then the next, or maybe the next, that we would finally find flat ground, that the ridge walk would provide a respite from the uphill trek. That did not, in fact, happen.img_8184-1

When I read “ridge walk,” I thought of trekking across the narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range; breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains in every direction, the wind whipping through my hair. . .  That’s what I was expecting when we reached the AT. What it actually was was a forest that went slightly downhill on either side of the trail, and any views were completely obstructed by the trees. And we were still going uphill. On an ordinary day I would’ve been slightly bummed for about two seconds. On this hike, however, I was irate. I at least wanted all that work to yield the reward of a panoramic view of the Smokies. Fuck this trail.img_8190-2

When we finally reached the shelter I almost started to cry. Had there not been so many other people around, I probably would have. Instead of our usual solitary campsites, the Double Gap Shelter was booked solid, and there were already a half dozen people set up and milling around. They all seemed like perfectly nice people, and when our water filter broke (just like the last trip–I just can’t win with those things) they were nice enough to let us use theirs. But, I was not in a mental place that was conducive to socialization.

 

 

The bugs at the shelter were absolutely out of control. We couldn’t stand still for 15 seconds without being swarmed and eaten alive. Since we didn’t have any netting to put around our sleeping bags at night, and we really didn’t want to be around the super nice, but super chatty people (when they started singing I wanted to throat-punch them), we decided to just set our tent up in the woods behind the shelter.img_8175-1

We left the rain guard off the tent so we could feel the breeze and watch the sunset through the trees. Once we’d set up, we climbed in and did some serious stretching. Our bodies were wrecked. My back and my legs were so sore I could barely get in and out of the tent. I could practically feel the toxins leaving my muscles as I stretched as deeply as my body would allow.

With the physical relief came mental relief. Out of the bugs; dry, and in comfortable clothes, my aching muscles felt more relaxed, and I was finally able to appreciate where I was and what I’d just accomplished. I may not have been in top physical shape, but I just hiked eight miles up a goddamn mountain anyway. And I didn’t die!img_8202-2

We ate some dinner and smoked in our tent, while the sky turned various shades of orange and pink between the trees, as the sun sank below the mountain. We used what little daylight we had left to do some journaling, both of us in our own form of silent meditation, as we processed the adventure we’d just completed, and the one still yet to come. Before the last of the sunlight had been drained from the sky we were both passed out.img_8196-1

The next morning we awoke ready to be out of the mountains. We stretched some more before begrudgingly strapping our packs back on, and hitting the trail for the last leg. Though it was only two miles to where our car was parked at Clingman’s Dome, I was dreading every step.

We began walking through a forest that, with the morning light peeking through the old, moss covered trees, looked enchanted. Beautiful though it was, my fascination soon ended when the trail began going upwards. Fuck me sideways, not again, I thought. Still weak from the day before, my legs were not having it. Fuuuuuuuuuck!

 

 

We hiked slowly and quietly, too tired (and for me, too bitchy) for conversation, as we trudged up the trail. At one point I saw a building on top of a mountain peak, towering above everything else. I knew it was Clingman’s Dome, but I refused to believe that we could possibly have that far up still to go. Once I accepted that we did, in fact, have to climb all the way up that mountain, I strongly considered just building a log cabin right there next to the trail, and living like the Unibomber (minus the terrorism, of course) for the rest of my life. Farewell, society.

By the time we reached the parking area I was half running, half falling to my car. I just wanted my pack off and to be sitting. My car has never looked so inviting. We got a lot of sideways glances as we emerged from the trail. Sweaty, filthy, exhausted, and loaded with gear, we didn’t blend in with the throngs of tourists who were just there for the view and the gift shop.img_8228

Once we took off our gear and chugged some water, we picked up a couple of souvenirs (bumper sticker for my car, keychains for the kids), and recruited a Park Ranger who was gracious enough to take our “after” picture. Then we climbed into Mary Jane and drove out of the mountains, bound for Asheville, where we had fried food, beer, and a hot tub waiting to reward us for all our hard work.

I was an odd mixture of emotions. I remembered the anger I’d felt during the hike, the desperation when I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But I also had this, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe I just did that,” sense of accomplishment. I had pushed myself, both physically and mentally, harder than I had in a long time. It really is true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It was like in addition to exerting every bit of energy I had, I’d also purged my mind of all the negative clutter. I’d gotten exactly what I’d needed from this trip.

Thanks for checking out Ladycations! I hope you’ll come back for LadycationSunday next week to read the last chapter in our Great Smoky Mountains Adventure! Don’t forget to look us up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

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

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

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.img_8108

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Steph

 

 

How I Decided to Spend My 40th Birthday: Family, Friends and Adventure

The big 4-0 was approaching. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, I always thought 40 was so old. On the other hand, I didn’t feel old. I’d always assumed I’d feel different at 40: wiser, more established, maybe a little boring. You know, a married homeowner, mom-jeans, much better cook. Yet here I was in my rented duplex, divorced and alone, eating a peanut butter sandwich, and watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix for the billionth time.

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My three beautiful children and I all dressed up for my stepsister’s wedding in Las Vegas.

My life definitely hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would, but I was happy with where I was. Aside from not having the romantic and material things I’d always associated with adulting, I was doing pretty well. I have three incredible kids who, if I do say so myself, are turning out awesome, I have some of the greatest friends in the world, and have had some absolutely epic experiences.

How was I going to mark the beginning of my 40’s? How did I want to commemorate the occasion? One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to do it in Cleveland. That seemed like adding insult to injury. An adventure was in order, something to challenge my aging body and renew my spirit. I wanted to be outside, away from the cacophony of traffic, sirens, and millions of other people in the city. I wanted to be in a place that took my breath away; somewhere warm, far away, and totally different than what I was used to, a complete break from my reality. I wanted to push myself and shatter the image of what I’d always thought 40 looked like.

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Amy, Dad, Uncle Mark, and a very heavy Steph before our hike to Supai in 2008

When I was in my late twenties I hiked part of the Grand Canyon. My friend Amy, my dad, and I flew to Phoenix where my Uncle Mark picked us up from the airport. After a family cookout with the whole Stohre clan, we got a good night’s sleep before heading to the Hualapai Hilltop. From there we set off for Supai village, at the bottom of the canyon, on the Havasupai reservation. I was a lot younger then, but I was also considerably heavier and very out of shape.

I made it to the village, where we had rooms reserved at The Lodge, and even down to Mooney Falls the next day, but I never made it to Beaver Falls, and was physically incapable of hiking back to the hilltop. It was such a defeat. I rode a horse out of the canyon–which was a cool experience–but it was a huge blow to my self confidence, and also a sad testament to my general health.

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Amy and I after reaching Mooney Falls in 2008

With that in mind, the decision was made. What better way to enter my 40’s than by conquering a trail that had conquered me a decade earlier? I would go over the hill while turning Over The Hill (I love puns). Supai here I come! And this time I was going to camp and not ride a damn horse out.

I recruited my neighbor and one of my best friends to come with me. Mary is like family, and she shares my love of nature, adventure, and hiking, in addition to bringing an added layer of fun to everything she does. I also emailed my Uncle Mark. He’s always down for a hike to Supai, and I don’t get to see my Arizona family enough. Plus, he’s the guy you want around on any trip, but especially one in Arizona. He’s like the Yoda of the Arizona wilderness.

When the day finally arrived I felt more like a kid on Christmas morning than a woman entering middle age. Excited doesn’t begin to describe it. I adore the Grand Canyon and hadn’t seen it in a decade, and I was still on a post-Bestieversarycation high from Lindsey and I’s Washington trip, still in the honeymoon phase with my love affair with backpacking. I was so pumped I feel like we could’ve fueled the plane on my adrenaline alone.

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My aunt and uncle were having dental work done in Mexico (put that in the column of: Things You Don’t Hear in Ohio) the day we arrived in Phoenix, and my cousin Luke was working. That meant Luke’s wife, Kelly, was on Steph-and-Mary duty. She picked us up from the airport and drove us to their house in a beautiful gated community in Tempe, and Mary and I were finally able to smoke a cigarette (yes, I know, it’s a disgusting habit, and I’m working on it. Cut me some slack, I’m old now). Hours of airports, airplanes, and other people’s cars had left us on the precipice of full-blown nicotine withdrawal, and I could feel myself starting to get anxious and bitchy. We stepped into Luke and Kelly’s backyard and, as I took my first, glorious drag, I also took in my surroundings.

Holy crap. Their place was off the hook. That is what I pictured 40 looking like. It was a big, open, classically Southwestern home with the backyard of anyone’s dreams. The patio, that ran the entire length of the house, had an outdoor BBQ kitchen, a hot tub, and sun shades that descended from the ceiling at the flip of a switch. Mind: blown. There was a pool, palm and citrus trees, and the yard was entirely enclosed by a stucco privacy wall. It was gorgeous. I had a brief moment when I wondered if they wanted a live-in, housekeeping cousin.IMG_4599

When Luke got home we headed to the grocery store so Mary and I could pick up some camping food. Along with granola bars and mac-n-cheese, we got other important staples. . . like tequila. Once back at the house, Luke got to work mixing us up some margaritas. After all, we were in the Southwest.IMG_4589

We finished a couple margs and headed to dinner. What a great time it was getting to know my cousin and his wife! I grew up in the Midwest, far removed from the majority of my dad’s family who all lived in Arizona. I’d never gotten to know them except for a handful of visits spread out over four decades. Turns out, they’re totally dope. And they have awesome wives.

Between the pre-game margaritas and the wine at dinner, Kelly, Mary and I were pretty tipsy. Luke drove us to my aunt and uncle’s house where, I’m not gonna lie, despite my age, I still felt weird being drunk around my elders, like I was going to get in trouble. I think a part of me will always feel 15, no matter how old I get. But instead of judging, or sending me to my room and calling my dad, when my Uncle Mark and Aunt Cindy came home, Mark started making more margaritas. I remember thinking, these are definitely my people.

Luke and Kelly stayed long enough to celebrate the last moments of my thirties and help welcome a new decade before heading home. Aunt Cindy went to bed soon after, exhausted after having spent the entire day on international travel and oral surgery. Mary, who had stayed up way past her bedtime, was the next one to call it a night, and after a wonderful chat with my uncle, he was ready to hit the hay, too. There I was, alone, in a beautiful backyard in Phoenix, with nothing but the warm night air and four decades worth of memories to keep me company.

I reflected on my first forty years as I sipped the margarita Mark made me before he went to bed, and I let all the memories wash over me. I realized how many experiences I’d had, and how each experience had taught me something, brought me to where I was in that moment, made me who I was. As I sat there, I was grateful, not just for the moments of joy, but also for all the times I’d screwed up. Not a single misstep can truly be a mistake if the lesson it teaches makes us better people. So, despite my anxiety over turning 40, I found myself thankful for the experiences I’d had, and welcoming this new chapter in the story of Steph Stohre.IMG_4605

The sun was pouring through the windows when I woke up the next morning. It was hard to feel anything but bliss on a morning so perfect. It was warm, the birds were singing, the sky seemed bluer than usual, and I could smell the citrus trees as I walked through Mark and Cindy’s backyard.

Mark was getting some work done before we hit the road, and Cindy was in the kitchen cooking up my favorite breakfast: bacon (among other things, of course). God, I love bacon. I can’t imagine a better way to have begun my first day as a 40 year old. I’d worry about my cholesterol later.IMG_4615

After breakfast it was time to pack up the car and head to Sedona. In addition to breakfast, Cindy had baked chocolate chip cookies that she bagged up for our trip. She was one busy lady in the kitchen that morning! Could this day get any better? I was in Heaven. We all wished she could join us, but she had other obligations, so after some pictures and hugs, she waved us off, as Mark, Mary and I set off for our five day adventure in the Wild Wild West.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you’ll check out some of my other adventures, and be sure to check back next week to read another chapter in my Arizona Birthday Ladycation!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Hiking to Lake George at Mount Rainier NP: Boring to Beautiful, A Trail’s Tale

We almost wished we had another day to relax at the Time and Again Cabin. Alternating between bed and hot tub all day sounded pretty damn nice. But, Rainier was calling, and we couldn’t wait to get all up in her. (That’s what he said.) We had reservations to camp at Lake George for two nights. Although we reserved our site well in advance for fear of it filling up, we were one of only two parties in the entire campground.

trail to lake george

We checked in at the Wilderness Center in Ashford to pick up our wilderness pass and, with it in hand, drove to the trailhead. I use the term “trail” loosely because it’s actually an old, gravel access road snaking up the mountain. It’s not very scenic for the first four miles. Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of Rainier’s peak, but compared to the hiking in we’d done in Olympic National Park, it felt more tedious than anything. Our fatigue may have been a contributing factor to our overall opinion of the trail. Had this been our first hike of the trip, I think I’d be considerably more forgiving in my assessment.

After a seemingly endless, and all uphill hike, we reached the final stretch of trail, which is just shy of a mile from the campground at Lake George. Although much more scenic, it was also a steeper, more strenuous climb. When we finally reached the lake we were ready to drop. We quickly found a site with a gorgeous view and immediately set up camp. Lindsey’s blisters had gotten exponentially worse throughout the course of our adventures, our bodies were crying out for rest; we just wanted to be off our feet.IMG_3619

I’d begun the hike in a tech skort and tee, but the higher we climbed, the colder it got. Once in the shade of the forest at Lake George, my heart rate slowing down (and soaking wet with sweat), I was freezing. All I wanted to do was take off my skort, my big, clunky boots, and sweaty socks; put on warm, dry clothes, and smoke a damn cigarette. I’d taken off my boots and socks, put my sandals on, had lit a cigarette and was just about to finish pulling up my pants (a challenge with my sweat-sticky legs), when I realized I never took off my skort. I had to start all over. Total fail. I wanted to cry. Any illusions I had about my prowess and badassery from hiking up the mountain vanished in that moment. Call me Kendrick, cause I felt real damn humble.

Our campsite was perfect. As we ate our dinner we watched the sunset on Mount Rainier; the color of her mammoth, glacier-capped peak changing from gray to orange to red to purple, until the sun was gone and the sky filled with stars. So many stars. Between the enormity of Rainier, the pristine, turquoise water of Lake George, and the infinite stars in the sky, the trek to get there is totally worth it.

I have literally never been anywhere so quiet. It was surreal. The only sounds we could hear at night were the occasional chipmunk scurrying around, and the breeze as it passed through the trees. During the day it was just the breeze and the soft hum of insect wings. It was so peaceful that hearing the occasional hiker passing through was almost jarring. I guess we’d become more confident and comfortable with being alone in the wilderness, despite our nervousness when we began.IMG_3689

Fires aren’t allowed that high in elevation in Mt. Rainier National Park. It was cold–and I mean cold–once the sun went down. I had on fleece-lined long underwear and two pairs of yoga pants, three pairs of socks (one of which was wool), a tee shirt, long underwear shirt, long sleeve tee, and a hoodie. I was still freezing. Lindsey, however, is a genius, and she brought a bunch of those self-heating hand warmers. It kept my hands warm while we star gazed, and when I went to bed I threw it in the bottom of my sleeping bag, which kept my feet nice and toasty all night long. I definitely regretted not buying the cold weather sleeping bag and tent, though.IMG_3687

In the morning we woke to a frigid, see-your-breath kind of day, but the sun was shining and I was excited for our hike to Gobbler’s Knob (yes, Gobbler’s Knob. Insert dirty joke here). Lindsey’s feet, however, weren’t hiking anywhere. Her blisters were now deep, open sores that were weeping and raw. They were a little alarming, to be honest. She needed to let them rest. We were both afraid she wouldn’t make it off that mountain if she didn’t.IMG_3853

I hated leaving her there, and had a little trepidation at going it alone, but she insisted. She knew how excited I was to finally see the place I’d been reading about for months, and I couldn’t fathom not going. So, with Lindsey squared away at the campsite, I stopped at the lake to refill my water and headed up the trail to the summit, solo.IMG_3628

The first thing I remember on the trail was the field of wildflowers in a small valley before the ascent to the lookout tower. The ground was covered in white and yellow wildflowers, and the air was alive with the buzzing of hundreds of bees. I was a little freaked out at first. I walked cautiously, but I soon realized they didn’t even notice me. They were too busy to care about who was passing through. It was an unexpectedly delightful experience.

The climb up to Gobbler’s Knob is no joke (despite it’s name). It’s steep and can be a little disorienting if you’ve got an issue with heights (which I do). Looking out over the edge at the massive peak of Rainier is mind blowing. I got dizzy on the trail when she came into view, and had to focus on my footing so as not to fall. I was relieved to look up and finally see the fire lookout within sight.IMG_3767

When I emerged from the trail on top of the mountain and saw the view, it literally took my breath away. I don’t even know how to describe it. I was completely oblivious to anything around me except the majestic beauty of Mt. Rainier. “Holy shit.” It just escaped my mouth before I even knew I was speaking, startling even me. That’s when I heard the couple on the lookout tower, whose romantic moment I’d just interrupted, laughing. I jumped, realizing I wasn’t alone, and apologized while I tried to get my bearings. I felt unsteady, I was shaking, and my knees felt weak. The view was unlike anything I’d ever seen, but my body was in total preservation mode, “Danger! Flee!” I’ve got a really bizarre Bucket List for someone who’s afraid of heights.IMG_3771

I carefully walked up the steps to the lookout tower, my knees shaking so badly it made walking something of a challenge. I had this irrational fear that the railing would collapse, and I’d fall over the edge, plummeting to my death down the mountainside. Once I was up there I gripped the windowsill for dear life. I wanted a selfie with Rainier in the background to commemorate the moment, but I couldn’t let go of the windowsill, even to take the picture. If you look close enough you can see the fear in my eyes behind the elation.

Volcano Selfie

I wanted to take a million pictures, but my whole body was shaking, so I couldn’t hold my phone steady and only got a few decent shots. I sat down to have a smoke to calm my nerves. Back securely against the wall, and after some concentrated breathing exercises, I was able to relax and just revel in Rainier’s magnificence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The only sound I could hear was the wind, which seemed to be her peak itself, whispering. I was transfixed, entranced, in absolute awe. Take me to church!

I was busting out my snack when I noticed the water filter in the side pocket of my pack. Oh shit. I had left Lindsey at Lake George with torn up feet and absolutely no water. Commencing panic in 3, 2, 1. . .

Mount Rainier

I frantically gathered my things, bolted down the tower steps, and hit the trail. Unlike my cautious hike up, the fear was gone, adrenaline coursing through me, and I was running. I had this image in my mind of Lindsey down at camp, crying, cursing my name, and dying of thirst. I felt like the worst friend ever. I ran the entire way down the switchbacks (receiving a “Damn, you go girl,” from a fellow hiker along the way), through the field of wildflowers, and up to our campsite. When I arrived, sweaty and breathless, Lindsey was doing yoga; calm and collected, zen AF, and, upon seeing me arrive, said, “Oh, heyyyy, you’re back!” Once I caught my breath and was able to speak, I apologized. She laughed at my panic, and we headed down to the lake to sit in the sun, and get her some water. She was fine. Thirsty, but fine.IMG_3806

The lake was calm, and apart from when a breeze went through, was like a smooth pane of emerald glass. It was hypnotizing. There was no one in sight so we smoked a crazy, kief covered joint, and watched from the shore as the sun danced on the water. The sparkling drew us in, and we lost a good hour just watching the sun’s reflection twinkle and dance. The high from the joint we’d smoked was incredible. Cerebral, uplifting, and completely relaxing. The perfect sativa-indica hybrid to facilitate a full submersion in our surroundings.IMG_3834

When the sun dipped below the mountain it was time to head back to camp. It was another cold night on the mountain, but the solitude had taken us over, and we were consumed by its tranquility. It was our last night in the wilderness and we wanted to savor every single second, so we loaded up on hand warmers, and enjoyed the night, staying up well past dark to admire the stars. Living in the city, it’s easy to forget just how spectacular the night sky is when you get away from all the lights and smog. We even saw a couple of meteors!

This trip had brought Lindsey and I together on a level that, even as best friends, we hadn’t previously experienced. We’d gone through the trenches together, like comrades in arms, we’d had to rely on each other, to work together to achieve our goals. And we loved it. We knew, by the end of this adventure, that it was only the beginning of our Ladycations. And as we fell asleep on our last night in the backcountry, we dreamed of all the nights, in all the places, we’d venture to next. . .IMG_3632

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and don’t forget to come back next week for LadycationSunday when the Washington Bestieversarycation continues in Seattle!

Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on upcoming trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Hiking to Enchanted Valley: Giant Trees and the Lone Ranger

You know when you get lost and start to panic? You drive extra slow, turn down the radio as if it will help you see better, and start to think you’ve gone miles too far in the wrong direction? That’s kind of how we felt towards the end of our first day hiking the East Fork Quinault River Trail in Olympic National Park.

Ready To Rock

We were so stoked, this was the big one. Three nights in the backcountry with all our gear on our backs. We began at the Graves Creek trailhead near Lake Quinault. The well marked trail, that passes through old growth rain forest, leading to Enchanted Valley, is stunning. It winds through the forest, following the path cut by the rivers and creeks that are fed by glacial melt coming off the Olympic Mountains. The entire forest floor is covered in giant ferns that you’d expect to see in Jurassic Park, and moss grows on everything from the ground to the trees. Everything was so green! It almost looked enchanted (see what I did there?).IMG_3288

The most spectacular sights on this trail, in fact, are the trees. I really can’t say enough about them, you guys; enormous Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, mountain hemlock and western red cedar all around. I learned that Olympic National Park has the largest concentration of “giant” trees in a small area in the world. There are a few things in the natural world that have truly humbled me: the Grand Canyon, the night sky as seen from Madeline Island, the birth of my children. . . Add “the trees of Olympic National Park” to that list. These massive, towering giants stretch so high that I couldn’t even see the tops of them. Imagining how long they’d been there, how much of human history has passed by while they just grew and grew and grew, made me feel very small and insignificant. To witness their beauty and majesty first hand felt like an incredible privilege.IMG_3349

The smell, you guys. . . Oh my god, the smell. . . It was earthy, clean, crisp, woodsy; just divine. At one point we passed an extraordinarily large cedar tree that had fallen across the path. The National Park Service had cut through the middle of it, leaving the trail unencumbered, and the cedar’s shavings dusting the forest floor. The scent of that fresh cut tree was utterly intoxicating. I wanted to roll around in it, cover myself in cedar, be one with the forest. If we breathed it in any deeper we would’ve ended up with a case of cedar shaving asphyxiation.

The Giant Trees of Olympic National Park

I was overwhelmed by the desire to express my love for these trees—in a totally non sexual way, of course—and when I found myself particularly drawn to one specific behemoth of a tree, I had to hug it. I hugged a tree, and I liked it. I don’t even care if that makes me a hippie cliché. That tree and I shared a moment.

Cedar

The ultimate goal on our first day’s hike was to make it to Pyrites Creek. Since neither of us had hiked such long distances before, we didn’t want to try trekking all the way to Enchanted Valley on the first day, but we didn’t want to stop too early either. We decided to shoot for Pyrites which was, according to the maps, 9.5 miles from the trailhead; the third and final campground before entering the Valley. If we couldn’t make it that far we planned to stop at O’Neil Creek Camp, located just under 7 miles from the trailhead.

Zen Break at O'Neil Creek

When we arrived at O’Neil and took a snack/rest break, we were still feeling pretty energized, so we decided to keep going. About an hour later we started to question the wisdom of that decision. My Fitbit said we had already passed the 10 mile mark, and Pyrites Creek Camp was nowhere in sight. Had we gone past it somehow and not noticed? Were the maps wrong? Was my Fitbit wrong? We hadn’t seen another human being for hours. Mile after mile, and not a single soul passed by. We were tired, hangry, and our bodies were getting slower and clumsier with each step we took. As much as I love to escape the crowds of the city, not knowing if there are any other people nearby at all can feel a little disconcerting when you think you may be lost.

Just when I thought I might start to cry, he came walking out of the forest.

I wasn’t sure if he was real at first: He was a Park Ranger; tall, tan, and muscular, with a strong jaw, and beautiful blue eyes. His long, braided, blonde hair reached down his back, and his legs, in his little ranger shorts, appeared like the mighty trees surrounding us: solid.

It was as though the universe had sent this magnificent Viking god to give us the encouragement we needed to press on. I have no doubt that a socially unacceptable amount of time passed between his emergence from the woods and when we finally regained our ability to speak and, although it’s all a blur, I’m sure I sounded like a stuttering buffoon when we did (eventually) greet him. He probably walked away from the encounter assuming he’d have to rescue us at some point.

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Noname. Well played, Olympic NP.

Ranger Blondie Buns (yes, that’s what we named him after realizing we were too distracted by his sexiness to ask his actual name) asked to see our wilderness pass and we chatted for a few minutes. We mostly talked about being a Park Ranger, which he described as equivalent to being a glorified janitor. It made me sad to know that we need people like him going through this beautiful forest picking up the trash other people leave behind. Sometimes I think maybe I like trees more than people, but then I realize how grateful I am for folks who are willing to go around the woods picking up other people’s garbage. I guess I’d like to think it all evens out in the end.

After he walked away, Lindsey and I looked at each other, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing: You saw him too, right? Part of me wondered if I’d hallucinated the entire thing, if my mind had conjured him up just to keep from fracturing due to my high levels of exhaustion and anxiety.

The best tidbit of knowledge our Sexy Ranger Savior gave us was that we were almost there. It was like a physical weight lifted when he said that, like my pack was suddenly ten pounds lighter. We were going to make it, we hadn’t made a mistake.

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The river ran right next to our campsite, with a large downed tree which provided the perfect bench

We reached our campsite not long after we left RBB and, after taking a break to smoke a celebratory “we actually fucking made it” joint and have a snack, we got to work setting up camp and gathering firewood. Thankfully, despite it being so late in the year, the campground had plenty of branches strewn about, so we didn’t have to walk too far to find enough to keep us warm for a couple of nights.

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The moss covered trees surrounded our campsite

The campsite was perfect: a huge site, with towering, moss covered trees all around, right next to the river. After dinner we sat around our fire listening to the river, and taking a moment to really appreciate where we were. We couldn’t believe we did it. My Fitbit had clocked over 14 miles by the time I went to bed. Yet despite how far we’d come, between the fireside yoga we did at our campsite, and the CBD chocolates we ate for dessert, we felt amazing: strong, independent, empowered, and more in tune with nature and ourselves than we’d ever been.

There was one thing that didn’t feel amazing, and that was Lindsey’s feet. The blister’s she’d gotten at Shi Shi Beach had grown on our long-ass hike, and she was now developing new blisters between her toes. I swear, those boots were designed by a sadist. Thankfully, we’d replenished our first aid supplies, and Lindsey had her technique down to a science by this point. Treating Lindsey’s wounds had become part of our routine.

We talked about The Ranger quite a bit that night, wondering what he was doing at that moment. One of my only regrets from the entire trip was not asking to take a selfie with him. How could I, of all people, forget to take a picture?! We weren’t sure anyone would believe us when we told the story without photographic evidence—even we weren’t completely convinced he was real. For all we knew, we really had both come up with the same fantasy to cope with our fear of potentially dying in the woods alone.

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Dinner was Velveeta mac-n-cheese and it was fantastic. I think camping is the only time I actually like the stuff.

We went to bed that night with visions of majestic, towering trees, and sexy Park Rangers swirling through our minds. Knowing the beauty that was surrounding us, and that such a fine specimen of man was out there in the rare event of an emergency, gave us peace of mind. I won’t lie though, a part of me wished one of us would somehow injure ourselves, just enough to need to be rescued by Ranger Blondie Buns, so we could get that damn selfie. Lucky for everyone, that wouldn’t be necessary. We’d live another night and hike to the Enchanted Valley in the morning!

Thanks for stopping by! Come back next Sunday to read the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Bestieversarycation. Also be sure to check out my other posts, and follow my blog to stay up to date on the latest Ladycations!

~Steph