Get Your Road Trip On

You know what I think is kind of funny? That Americans are suddenly “rediscovering domestic travel.” Umm…What? Well, it really shouldn’t surprise me, with “influencers” (ugh, I strongly dislike that term) all over social media blasting the human race with professional selfies in front of picture-perfect settings eight thousand miles away and telling us, “You can be like meeeeee! Just read my blog and I’ll teach you how!” One has been traveling for seven years, waitressing in Thailand in order to spend several months there, another one is teaching English in Hong Kong so he can afford to live there. Now, they’re all home trying not to lose followers and stay relevant while we, the rest of the world, stick closer to our own backyards. What is it about some people that think the further away they are, the better?

I know, I know, I’m one to talk! Until cancer almost took my life and COVID19 followed, I was running around the globe every chance I got. But I never, ever pushed domestic travel aside. In fact, there’s still nothing better for me than a road trip in my beloved American West! I didn’t get there this summer because of the virus, but I still had me a nice drive to South Carolina. I have not been out of the country since last summer. Do I miss it? Yes. But what I yearn for most are my hiking trips to Southern Utah and several other closer to home destinations. The wonder of domestic destinations was never lost on me!

Here are three ways to enjoy America, still the greatest and most beautiful country in the world in my eyes!

The Full Road Trip

What the heck is a “full road trip?” Well, if you’ve spent years behind the wheel like me, the “full road trip” is when you drive your own vehicle from your own house and go a long, long way. You can probably guess that these are the gold standard. I’ve done several of them, and the fact that I live in Massachusetts makes for some major drives if I want to get to my favorite places in the west. How long do you need to do a bang up job of seeing America? If you’re really lucky you have all the time and money in the world and you don’t ever have to go home. If you’re like me and most of the rest of humanity, you’re on a budget and you might actually have a job you have to get back to. My advice is to take a minimum of four weeks to have a decent trip in. For me, the perfect time is five to six weeks, though my longest road trip to date was seven weeks. Understand that you aren’t going to see “everything,” so start making your wish list of most coveted sights and connect the dots if you can. The worst thing you could do is try to stuff too many sights into too little time. Better to see a few things well than many things hardly at all, though not everyone will agree with me. Add in some hiking, and your time in one place gets even longer. To me, driving too much in a day is also a major sin. It’s stressful and you don’t see anything. Don’t be one of those road trippers that rolls down the window to take a picture of the Grand Canyon then rolls it up and drives on. Please?

The Fly/Drive

I fully realize that when some people read “a minimum of four weeks” above, they started gasping for air. For those folks, I introduce “the Fly/Drive,” the type of domestic trip that I have taken too many times to count at this point. The Fly/Drive is just what is sounds like: You get on a plane and fly to a starting point, where you rent a car or RV. The trick is to start from a convenient location to what you want to see most. Las Vegas is a terrific place to start. I’ve also grown very attached to Albuquerque as “go.” I guess my love for the west continues to shine through! Then again, I’ve had fantastic Fly/Drives from Miami, El Paso, and Seattle. I suggest at least two weeks even if you’re road tripping this way, though I usually do three. Once again, it’s all about what and how much you want to see. I highly recommend checking air and car prices from different cities. A few years back I rerouted an entire trip because Salt Lake City offers were much better than Denver’s. The Fly/Drive allows you to skip over some parts of the country you might not be as interested in and get to your personal nitty-gritty!

City Slicking

I don’t usually include cities in my road trips, and if I do, it’s pretty quick. Maybe an overnight to break up a long drive, or a special museum or show. What I have done is jet to a city just to see the city. I can remember flying in and out of Chicago numerous times and thinking, Someday I’m going to fly into Chicago just to see Chicago. And I did, and was thrilled with what I found! Some cities are car friendlier, like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Others, like Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, have excellent public transportation systems that will add some extra adventure to your trip. One of my more memorable city trips was to Dallas to do my own investigation into the JFK assassination. In these uncertain times we live in, you will obviously want to call ahead and be sure that you aren’t planning a trip around something that is closed. Even so, filling your day pack and pounding the city pavement can uncover some hidden gems that make lasting memories!

Hmm…I’m getting inspired to get back to writing that little book I started last year, “How to Road Trip.” I’m even more inspired to plan my next Southwestern Fly/Drive!

A Different Kind of Summer

Hey, how was your summer? Okay, I know, it’s not over yet! But if you’re a teacher like me…Well, yeah, it kind of is over. Believe me, I can’t wait to retire so I can rethink summer and make it last until September 21st!

Kids and adults are returning to schools that look a lot different than usual. For me, I’ll be teaching over a computer until at least November. But COVID19 is hardly the first thing that rocked this teacher’s world and changed the way I had to look at it. Cancer did that first, then the virus extended the weirdness for me. In fact, I was set to put my traveling life completely back on track this summer after being blessed with an amazing medical team and treatment at a major cancer center. The corona virus stopped me in my tracks, like it did for so many others who had to give up hoped-for plans and stay put instead. I still had a very busy summer in which I accomplished three major things: I got back on the road, saw my beloved niece Amanda again, and with any luck, killed the rest of cancer. Though it was hardly my typical summer, it could ultimately turn out to be the most important one of my life.

The necessity to alter my schedule opened up some compelling opportunities for me, and gave me more time to remember how necessary it is to make time for simple pleasures like taking a ride with the top down on my Bug, hitting the trails with new and old friends, hanging out with animals wild and tame, and exploring my own backyard. Yet, I was still clinging to the possibility of road tripping through the Mojave Desert, Northern California, and Oregon. I was not able to confirm any major plans until after a scheduled scan. This time, it was my post-radiation PET scan in June, which would tell how effective the treatment to the primary tumor in my lung was. It wouldn’t be so wrong to say that my life depended on the outcome. Miraculously, the CT was nearly clear. Just one more small area of cancer, but it would require three more weeks of radiation. Which decided the course of my time off: I would spend two weeks on the road, with most of it in South Carolina with Amanda, then return home to spend three weeks in Boston eradicating cancer. Never have I ever booked hotels two days before heading out on the road! But that’s how tight things were between my scan and the beginning of my plans further from home.

Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows that one of my major fun goals is to hike all the national parks in the United States. That dream really got derailed by cancer, but I got the idea to take a couple of days to finish a park that narrowly missed getting taken off the list because of car problems a few years back: Shenandoah, in Virginia. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, always a favorite Eastern Seaboard stop when my mom and I used to road trip, also appeared on my schedule. Now I was more excited than ever! Get back to national park hiking, see an old favorite again, and spend a week with my niece. Sign me up! I also promised myself that I’d make the most of my time in Boston while I was there for radiation.

Well, check them all off the list! I left on June 29th for a 400 miler to Gettysburg, where I spent a few evening hours exploring a fascinating historic town I don’t remember at all but was happy to see again. What I was really looking forward to came the next morning: Gettysburg National Military Park, a must-see of lifelike statues that tell the story of the winners as well as the losers of the Civil War. I found it very important to see the park again, with all that is going on in our country and the questioning of our history.

The weather got more humid as I headed south, but that didn’t stop me from walking several miles in the park. After a morning of exploring, I drove to Virginia for the evening. The following day, July 1st, I arrived in a tiny town in South Carolina to get a whole lot of niece love and dog love, and to have Thanksgiving dinner in July! I was supposed to be there last turkey day, but cancer had other plans for me. It was well worth the wait!

Amanda ran her crabby old aunt all over the area of South Carolina that falls between “the Greens,” Greenville and Greenwood. Our new tradition is bowling, our old one is Chinese food, but we can’t ever get away without going to Walmart! I’ve never stayed for a full week, so I got a better taste of her life and met more of her friends, too! A favorite memory is the full attention I got from Miss Shelby, Jax, and Chevelle, her three fur babies!

As always, leaving them and her behind was tough, but radiation in Boston was looming, and I still had a national park to finish!

After missing out on so much of my life for the past year because of cancer and COVID19, this view at Shenandoah was nothing short of SURREAL! I never thought that I would hike a national park again, much less do it so soon after a devastating diagnosis that was supposed to have a much different outcome. And yes, my emotions got the best of me as I looked out at the gentle, comforting sway of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Moment of silence.

Back home, I had a quick turnaround before I left for Boston. I pulled in the yard at five in the afternoon on a Sunday, and headed to Beantown at ten the next morning for an early afternoon inaugural radiation session. First, I had to haul all my clothes and food into my room at Homewood Suites! I did this three Mondays in a row after driving home every weekend. Really tried to make my stay like a vacation. If it wasn’t for that damn radiation I may have been content! Oh wait…that’s the only reason I was there!

Boston is a lovely city, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is in the Longwood section of Brookline, where stunning Victorian homes line the leafy back streets, making for pleasurable city walking. I took the MBTA into town a couple of times too, and enjoyed old and new favorites, but Boston will always mean something different to me now that I’ve been there so many times for cancer.

I was so thankful to get home after my last treatment, with my radiation mask in tow! Muffin, who was an orphaned bunny being taken care of by his fairy godmother (my sister Marie!) was truly the only living thing I wanted to see after being away from home for five weeks.

I still had almost four weeks to get my life back on track after the big interruption of radiation, and was soon back on my five mile a day walking schedule, taking extra precautions to protect my post-radiation skin from the sun.

Deep breath.

My summer was still full of fun and adventure. Because there’s more than one kind of adventure!

Maybe next summer we can all get back to normal. What do you think? I’m skeptical, but hopeful too.

Please do your part, wear your mask and remember to social distance so that we can all return to doing what we love doing best as soon and as safely as possible.

A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.

Two Great Alternatives Outside Yosemite

One of my close friends and travel companions was recently in the Lake Tahoe area and wanted to do some time at Yosemite. I gave her a couple of alternatives nearby, in case the steep road up to the Tioga Pass was closed. Upon returning, she described Yosemite in two words, the first one being “cluster” and the other starting with “f” and having four choice letters. The sentence went something like this: “Yosemite was a cluster f*** of people.”

Yeah, been there, done that. In my bid to hike all sixty United States national parks, Yosemite was one of the first I eliminated. In fact, Yosemite was the first one I ever visited, way back in 1987 when I was a newbie traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place. Ye olde Yosemite holds a lot of nostalgia for me, as my mom and I discovered it together, and revisited it a couple of times afterward. But it’s not the first park I would run back to, as I hiked it for several days, and oh yeah, there’s that people problem!  (Thanks, John Muir!) What I would do again, however, is hit my two favorite sites in close proximity to the park. If you’re in the area, don’t miss them! And you can see them both in a long day if you only have one.

Mono Lake & the South Tufa Trail

Located on US 395 just north of the east entrance of Yosemite, Mono Lake was nothing more than a crystal blue alpine persuasion the first several times I saw it. It wasn’t until a decade or more later that I learned that the super-salty body of water actually had a trail leading to some other worldly formations of “tufa” made from calcium carbonate. Thus, the South Tufa Trail became one of my favorite trails anywhere. And like so many other incredible walks in the American West, anyone can do it. It’s short, flat, and spectacular.

A brief gravel road leads down to the lake, and a small parking fee is charged once you’re there. Mono Lake is one of those places where the sky makes all the difference. As you can see from my pictures, the white puffy clouds were on my side the day I stopped by.

Like anywhere a stone’s throw from a world famous national park, don’t expect to have the place to yourself. But most of the crowd will be at Yosemite. Promise.

Bodie Ghost Town

Anyone who knows their ghost towns knows that it doesn’t get much better than Bodie State Historical Park. To get there from Mono Lake, continue north on US 395 approximately twenty miles to California 270 east, just south of Bridgeport. Bodie is a fair weather destination; don’t underestimate the power of the three-mile climbing dirt road at the end of 270. The town sits at 8,375 feet above sea level, and you will feel it in your chest as you walk the dusty streets.

If you’re looking for an amusement park, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re looking for a genuine ghost town, you’re in for a real treat. Bodie is kept in what is called a “state of arrested decay,” meaning that it’s preserved but not restored.

You aren’t going to see any slick mining rides or “old west” shootouts. What you are going to see is the fascinating remnants of a once-vibrant gold mining town that at its peak was home to 10,000 residents and offered up as many as sixty-five saloons and a busy red light district. Bodie also has an amazing cemetery. If you love a good boneyard, there isn’t anything that quite compares to a ghost town burial ground. Don’t forget to check out the final resting place of Rosa May, the beloved madame of Bodie, who even in death is still bringing in the cash!

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After you’re done with your walk, don’t forget to marvel at the simple beauty of the landscape. And don’t forget to thank me for a day away from the crowds at Yosemite!