Kansas – Getting in and out of Dodge

IMG_3593I have memories from my adolescence of marathon drives through Nebraska, certain that part of the journey from Pennsylvania to the Tetons on 80 West would never end.  Looking back, I wonder how many Nancy Drew books I consumed just during that drive across that one eternal flat state.  It was a useful way to measure time and distance at that time in my life, so I could hardly complain.  What I wouldn’t give now for unending hours with nothing to do but read!

As I planned this year’s western road trip to Colorado from Virginia, I determined not to drive through Nebraska.  While I’m fairly sure my current self would not be as bored with the whole thing as my preteen self, I’m taking precautions and staying a bit to the south.  Kansas would be the flat state of choice, and I was kind of excited about it as I’d never been there before.  Surely it isn’t just all corn and flat, straight roads!

Ok so it kind of is, but there were enough interesting quirks about my route through it that made it worth the drive.  You just never know what you’re going to come across when you choose the “alt” road.  It would have been easy to just hop on Highway 70 and go, but I stayed south, steering clear of city life with the exception of a quick jog around Wichita.  Honestly I was looking forward to this part of the trip, as it was new and counted as adventure.

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One of the last “family” farms I saw in eastern Kansas, before big business and gigantic grain elevators took over the landscape.

I’m from north central Pennsylvania, but have lived in Northern Virginia for the last 27 years.  I’m used to green mountains and valleys, quiet farms and small towns, as well as busy highways and lots of people.  All of this can be found in between my two home states.  Neither of these provided any context for Kansas.  I was so curious about how people live there.  No big grocery store or easy access to so many of the day-to-day things we take for granted.  How far do these kids have to travel to go to school?  To church?  Just to see another human being??  Unless you live directly in town – ok, so town is a negligible word, as many towns boast populations like 235 (Severy, for example)  and 150 (Fall River), you may not have a neighbor for miles.  While I’m pretty independent and don’t need a lot of folks around, that would be a little extreme.

And it was interesting.  And spooky, to be honest.  In the eastern beginnings, the terrain was fairly flat and the farms were large, but there was still a sense of town and community, with the occasional family farm – self-contained and noncommercial.  The deeper in I went, however, the flatter and sparser it got.  The consistent scenery included windmills, corn, soybeans, the occasional farmhouse, and a giant grain elevator now and again, with train tracks running alongside.  And cows.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Many grazed peacefully on farmland as it whizzed past my window, but the real bulk of them were jammed into cattle feeding lots by the tens of thousands, which brought with it its own special brand of stench.  I love beef, (it’s what’s for dinner!) but I may have to think about it just a little bit more before I order the delmonico for dinner.

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When we left Missouri that morning, I had asked our hipcamp host for any ideas where to stop with Lexi, my puppy golden retriever.  There have to be parks somewhere in Kansas, right?  We can’t just run around in someone’s cornfield.  She has proven to be a great traveler, but at least once a day I try to find a place where she can run and swim, if we’re lucky.  My host recommended a place called Fall River State Park.  It seemed like a good place for a short respite, as our goal for the day was Dodge City.

As we drove, I just couldn’t imagine that somewhere in the midst of all these fields would be any water at all, let alone a potentially beautiful state park.  Surprise again!  Actually double surprise as we drew closer to the entrance, we began to see debris on the road.  It looked like there’d been a storm.  This proved to be an understatement and I reminded myself that I was in Kansas – home of Dorothy and Toto, tornadoes and misplaced houses that land on witches.

The park was officially closed, and no one was around.  Bummer for the locals I’m sure!  However, a few downed trees simply served to call us to investigate, not turn around (my Nancy Drew background at work).  One other car, coming behind us, seemed to have the same idea, so we pressed on, skirting trees and big branches as we made our way through. After all, we just wanted a place to walk and swim, so it seemed likely both could still be accomplished.  Plus, I felt just a little bit daring, knowing we were heading into a place we should have been heading out of.

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The entrance to the park was littered with trees, and even the propane tank had been flung around and lay sideways.

Swimming was not an issue.  There was what normally would be a beautiful lake, (and honestly, why it was called Fall River instead of Fall Lake I never really grasped) but it had run over the campground, and high water was  evident in every direction.  Lexi swam in the lakeside campsites instead of near them.  And there were no shortage of sticks to chase and drag around.  Retriever paradise!  It’s always amazing to see what wind and water can do, especially when you arrive in the aftermath and everything looks normal – until it doesn’t.  It will be a massive clean-up effort, but hopefully they’re able to reopen before the end of summer.  It was also a solid reminder that Kansas does storms – big time.

But on to Dodge City.  I had reserved a very affordable AirBnB – called “The Western Bunkhouse”  just outside of town, in a mini house that was part of a larger compound of cabins and buildings that appeared to be some sort of retreat, complete with church, meeting buildings and sports facilities.  The little house was perfect for us, and the folks that managed it were very attentive and helpful.

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Our perfect little AirBnB cabin for the night, just outside of Dodge City.

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The draw, of course, was the town itself.  I was so curious to see what remained of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Turns out the town is all in on preserving their memories, both in the genuine historical sense and by creating every  kitschy reference imaginable.  While it was a busy town in its own right, with the requisite grain elevator, typical downtown, etc., it was obvious that selling the “Wild West” was its biggest draw (pun intended!).  I enjoyed checking it all out, and posed with Doc Holliday at his poker table, checked out the giant steam engine at the museum, and admired the storefront of the “Great Western Hotel”, which I believe is a re-creation but still cool.  If you love all these old stories and the movies that go with them (think Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), then it’s worth a visit.  I barely touched the surface of it all, but would have loved to dive in deeper.  This is one of the downsides to traveling with a dog in the summer – you just can’t go in anywhere for more than a minute!

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I can, however, highly recommend Red Beard Coffee!  I dashed in there for some caffeine on the way out of town, and found a cool storefront and a very engaging interior. (Not to mention the cool factor that they are located on Gunsmoke Avenue.)   The staff was super-friendly and helpful, especially to the older gentleman in front of me who may or may not have ever had a cup of coffee before and needed lots of handholding through the process.

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This little gem sits in downtown Dodge City, just a few blocks from the tourist attractions.

Biding my time, I noticed their prayer wall – a huge chalkboard filled with scrawlings and scribbles of prayers, ranging from petitions for a great harvest (clearly on the minds of most in this part of the country) to community unity and prayers for children.  Love!

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The “Prayer board” at Red Beard Coffee.

This last bit left me with a sweet memory for Dodge City, which of course stands in complete contrast with the bang-bang-shoot-’em-up history which draws most folks here.  Clearly it’s a kinder, gentler town these days.

Iced latté in hand on this very hot day, Lexi and I excitedly headed west.  Next stop, Colorado!  We were gettin’ out of Dodge.  (I’ve always wanted to say that.)  Happy trails!

Journey through Missouri – Part 2

IMG_4600For six days at the beginning of July, Lexi the Golden and I traveled westward from Virginia to Colorado.  We were past the half-way mark now, and after a lovely day exploring eastern and central Missouri, we were more than ready to call it a day as we approached the city of Springfield.  Clearly we had just missed a thunderstorm, so everything shimmered  in the golden light of the late afternoon.

In the week or two leading up to our trip, I had scoured the internet looking for a good camping option in that area, but nothing jumped out at me.   I’ve discovered through some trial and error, and just observation as I drive by so many places,  that my kind of campground is quiet, definitely not an RV park, and preferable in some sort of wooded area.  No luck in Springfield.  I did, however, stumble on a site called hipcamp.com.  If you camp, you’re likely familiar with it.  If not, then let me tell you about it, because I think it’s pretty darn cool.  Think AirBnB for camping.  That means not normal campgrounds, but as they advertise, “. . . unique camping experiences on over 300,000 campsites, ranches, vineyards, public parks and more.”

Not really comprehending exactly what that meant when I booked “Dream Meadows Gardens” for one night, I went for it based on great reviews and a cost of a mere $10.  Turns out, we were camping on the rear end of the owner’s 12-acre plot of land.  Yup.  Basically camping in the back yard, and just us.   Ok, so I was a little put off at first, but it didn’t last.  Let me back up and set the stage a bit . . .

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The approach to Dream Meadows Gardens.

As I pulled off the country-ish road onto the long driveway of Dream Meadows, both sides of the lane boasted of welcoming wooden fencing and a field of wildflowers.  IMG_4587I continued up the slight rise until I grew closer to the main part of the property and immediately felt as though I had stepped into Mary and Colin’s Secret Garden.  In every direction, color burst forth in beds, on walls of the small barn, and in the trim of the doors and windows on the outbuildings.  Whimsical signposts and funky yard art were littered throughout the yard and beyond,  but the incredible display of perennials were the real show-stoppers.

Homeowner Terry guided me to the back of the property where a picnic table and fire pit were at the ready.  I backed in the SUV and quickly set up the tent.  Due to the afternoon storm that had come through,  everything was wet – the ground, the table, the firewood – and now of course you can add my dog to that list.  She’s never as happy as when she is wet.  Though the weather was clear the rest of our stay, the overwhelming dampness never moved on – the one “yuck” of the experience.

It was such an interesting stay, and I enjoyed some time on the patio with Terry and his wife, Jean, sharing about my trip and learning a bit about them.  Hipcamp definitely lends to a bit more of a personal experience, which I have enjoyed so far.  Jean, who is a art teacher, is clearly the inspiration behind all the amazing flower beds as well as the painted murals on the barn and in her home.  Pure whimsy.  Terry contributes with his yard art, which takes many varied forms throughout the property.  It all feels a little bit reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s brightly-arrayed and quirky chocolate factory,  but think  flowers instead of chocolate!  Scrumdiddlyumptious!

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Lexi took an uninvited dip into the waterfall built next to the house. Where there’s water – there’s Lexi.

As I’ve had Little House on the brain lately, it seemed amazing and perfect to discover that they live in an earth contact house.  In other words, the front of it, which was a long ranch-style home, looks normal, but the entire back is built into the earth and from the rear of the yard, you’d never know there’s a home there at all.  Remember the “dugout house” in On the Banks of Plum Creek”?  While Terry and Jean’s earth contact home was far more modern than the Ingalls’ primitive dugout, I liked the idea of the continuing connection on my trip though Missouri.  (See Journey through Missouri – Part 1 for the story of my visit to Laura and Almanzo’s Mansfield, Missouri farm.)

The photos here don’t do justice to the whole experience, but the good news is that Hipcamp makes it possible for you to pay them a visit yourself!  I love that this unique experience was part of my trip.  I’ll remember it always.  I’m only sad that I didn’t take more pictures.  If you’d like more information and beautiful photos of the property, see their Hipcamp page here:  https://www.hipcamp.com/discover/missouri/dream-meadows-garden?pic=b3e579ae-da19-4a19-be12-35a2cbe49353.

Lexi and I set off fairly early the following day, as I determined to finish off Missouri before lunchtime and make major headway into the very long and repetitious state of Kansas.  I had no real agenda but to drive as far as Dodge City, Kansas, and do my best to stay off highways to accomplish that goal.

The best things happen when you get off the highways!  First off, I had no idea that I had stumbled onto Historic Route 66.  If you look at a map, Highway 44 is the obvious choice west from Springfield, but Route 96 was more my style – full of rolling hills, barns and farms and plenty of local patriotic flare for the Independence Day holiday.

I began seeing signs that said “Historic Byway – Missouri Route 66”.  So cool!  And so much history.  IMG_4613A little digging shows that this famous road, which originally went from Chicago to Los Angeles, has completely been overrun by highways now, and went off the register of official highways in 1985.

Steinbeck’s Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath will always evoke symbols of hardship and dust, though the images that movies and songs portray later in the 20th century tend to evoke feelings of nostalgia for the road trip.  I definitely related to the latter, which seemed perfect for my purposes!

And so I found myself meandering down modern-day 96/historic 66 in the bright weekend sunshine.  As I crested a hill, a sign and a building on my right caught my eye.  I couldn’t stop in time and so whizzed on past, but it nagged at me, so we turned around about half a mile later and came back.  These are the moments that almost always payoff.  “Turn the car around”, I say to myself, not for the first time.  “I’m not on a schedule,” I remind myself.  Too often I just keep going.  It’s a shame but it’s true.  Hard to break those busy-girl habits.  I’m trying.

This is how I met Willie Washam at the Phelps School, which operated as a one-room schoolhouse from 1888-1952.  The building was a handsome white clapboard building, patriotic bunting hung from the small porch.  The doors were wide open and a truck sat out front, so I parked and walked up.  I’m a sucker for historic buildings, and especially schools.  (And yes, the whole Laura Ingalls theme just keeps perpetuating!  Is this Walnut Grove???  You can’t make this stuff up!)

Restored Phelps one-room schoolhouse, Phelps, Missouri
The Phelps one-room schoolhouse, currently in the midst of restoration. The bit of road in the bottom of the photo is actually the historic route 66.

I poked my head into the space to find an older gentleman, down on hands and knees, working on the hardwood floors.  After announcing myself, he invited me to come have a look.  He poured himself into a chair and began to hold court, providing me with a much-desired history lesson on the building itself as well as the one-room schoolhouses of the area.  It was fascinating.  This particular school is one of the few that still survives, and I believe the only one that was able to be restored.  The project was taking far longer than expected, but clearly the work was being done with great care.

The original stove and chimney still stood front and center, just in front of the 12 feet of chalkboard.  Willie let me know that some of the windows panes were original as well.  They had tried to preserve as much as possible, though time and neglect had taken its toll.  Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine a room full of students of all ages, working through their McGuffy Readers, reciting math facts and poetry.  The chalkboards had just been completed, and the teacher in me wanted to run my hands over them and at least write a sentence for these long-ago students to diagram!

Willie Washam, part of community group working to restore the Phelps schoolhouse.
My new friend Willie, glad for a short break to share the history of the schools. Note the photos of one-room schoolhouse classes across the county.

But I refrained and instead looked over the wall of photos, as Willie explained that the goal was to collect a class photo from each of the many schoolhouses in the county. There were many photos framed and on display, but those in charge of the project were hopeful to track down many more.  My new friend Willie did not attend this particular school, but reported that he did go to another schoolhouse as a child.

While Willie seemed glad for the break, I could tell he was ready to get back to work.  I thanked him for the tour and the history lesson, and wished him well.  He encouraged me to come back next year to see the finished product.  I think I liked it just the way it was.

Later, I found an article from the Joplin newspaper, corroborating what I learned and providing even more detail.  https://www.joplinglobe.com/news/local_news/renovation-of-one-room-schoolhouse-bringing-phelps-back-to-life/article_65e8311e-5919-5e23-ab70-5bb6c1edda24.html.  Here is a photo of what the school looked like prior to its renovation this caring community. 

What a wonderful and unexpected stop in our morning.  I stepped outside to my car, parked on what I thought was a little service road that ran along route 96.  Now, thanks to Willie’s careful explanation, I now know I was in parked on the crumbling concrete of what was the historic highway.  Looking up, I could see Lexi waiting patiently in the car, but she was ready to move on too.  We were ready to get our kicks on the rest of Missouri’s Route 66!

 

 

 

 

 

Journey through Missouri – Part 1

IMG_2447 2As I planned my road trip from Virginia to Colorado, the midwest state of Missouri stretched out on the map as a giant question mark.  For this East Coast girl (PA for the first half of my life, and VA up until now), Missouri was mostly unknown, and an overlooked state about which I knew very little.  Ok, so that’s not entirely true.  I have spent time in Kansas City – twice, and both soccer-related.  I can attest that they are futbol crazy people with some pretty great bar-b-que.   Both super-important and fun facts, but not relative to my current travels!  In fact, I just had to remind myself that Kansas City was actually in Missouri!  My route was somewhat southerly compared to that, so on my road trip to Colorado I wouldn’t be anywhere near it, nor St. Louis.  I’m hopeful to spend some time in St. Louis on the return trip as an ending to my Mississippi River travels, but that will be a story for the weeks to come!

The “Show Me” state turned out to be such a fun surprise.  I had a bit of an agenda, but the unexpected will be what cements it in my memory.  The plan?  To start, head a little northwest from my current location of Paducah, Kentucky and cross over both the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers just south of Cairo, Illinois. Turn west, stopping off in Mansfield to see the home of childhood favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder. The day would end in Springfield, and then continue on through the western portion of the state the following morning.  I’m happy to say that Lexi the Golden and I did do all those things, and they were all great.  The experience proved to be somewhat like a really great dessert.  You ask the waitress what she recommends, and then wait to be surprised.  When it comes, the presentation makes your mouth water a little, but it isn’t until you take that first bite that you discover all the ooey unexpected goodness of chocolate ganache, nuts, cream filling or peanut butter (or all of it!) hidden in the middle.  Soooo satisfying and rich.  That was how I felt about Missouri by the time we reached the Kansas border the following day.

I eagerly anticipated the crossing of the rivers.  First off, it made me feel like we were really making progress to know we’d be on the west side of the mighty Mississippi.  Also, just the name Cairo made me nostalgic for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  While I wasn’t going to be rafting down the river, I felt equally adventurous and just a little bit mischievous. https://i0.wp.com/www.capecentralhigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Aerial-Ohio-Mississippi-Rivers-confluence-08-13-2014_8969.jpg The experience didn’t disappoint.  Wide, wide water at the crossing, as the road curved left onto a bridge that first crossed the Ohio.  IMG_5277The two-lane road, with intricate expanses of steel beams overhead, provided plenty of opportunity to look both left and right.  Barges gliding through the water, small islands of trees gathered like intimate conversations dotted here and there between the far-reaching banks of Kentucky and Illinois, and then as I crossed the Mississippi a moment later, between Illinois and Missouri.  It was easy to feel tiny in the midst of the greatness of it all.  I’m used to rivers – I grew up on the Susquehanna, and live relatively close to the Potomac in Virginia, but these were a whole different breed.

With our feet (and our SUV) now firmly on Missouri ground, we made our way to route 60 and began working our way through land that was now flattening out a bit, with farmland become the predominant scenery.  Not huge farms yet, but enough to warrant large farm machinery taking up most of the road now and again.  Route 60 turned out be more of a highway, so we jumped off and decided for the long way around to Mansfield.  This is hardly ever a bad idea!   First off, the charming small town of Eminence welcomed us, with many a flag flying for the Independence Day holiday week.  It still boasted of old but well-kept storefronts with places like “Winfields Fine Food“, an old restaurant and soda fountain.  Just beyond we headed into an area called the “Ozark National Scenic Riverways“.  A complete unknown, I decided it sounded interesting.  So with little to no cell service to do any advance research, we just drove. IMG_3837

Pay dirt for us both when we discovered beautiful rolling hills and narrow clear spring-fed streams and rivers, their banks and bottoms lined with mostly smooth sedimentary stones.  (When you have a dog who loves the water, finding a place like this is heaven – and zero mud!).  IMG_8966We stopped for a hike and a swim at Jacks Fork River.  A well-kept campground lined the riverbank, and Lexi eagerly tested the water, happy to discover she could wade it gradually.  There’s nothing this dog loves more than water, and if there are rocks to dig and dive for, the better.  I’ll always remember this as the place where she finally learned to all-out swim, and if a Golden could shout with joy, she would have.  She wanted to stay forever.

But Laura Ingalls awaited, and I wanted to be on our way.  I knew we wouldn’t be able to tour the house (no dogs allowed!) but just seeing the farm and grounds would be enough, and it was.  I hadn’t really done much advance scouting for this stop, and truly only discovered  it when I looking at my Missouri map.  A quick Google search to read over what it entailed, and I was hooked.  So I left much to discover when we were there.

As a child I obsessed over Laura, Mary, Ma, Pa and the rest of the family.  I truly wanted to live on the banks of Plum Creek, or on the prairie, beloved Pa at my side, exploring the wonders of the midwest in the late 19th century.  These people were as real to me as my own family, and I joyfully and eagerly read and reread each book multiple times in my childhood.  It didn’t hurt that not long after I devoured the books, NBC debuted the television series.  Melissa Gilbert, now in full technicolor for me to see every Monday night at 8:00 p.m., was perfection in her copper-colored braids and calico dresses, tomboy as she was.  And that Nellie Olson.  How I hated her, and secretly relished the moment my brave and wise Laura let Nellie’s wheelchair rattle down the hill into the lake, proving that Nellie was in fact, faking her paralysis.   So many memories of book and screen flooded my mind as we drove closer to the farm.

Sitting serenely and humbly on the side of Highway A, a small sign confirmed we had reached Rocky Ridge Farm, home of Laura, Almanzo, and daughter Rose.  Turning in, it just felt like arriving at a friend’s house.  Just a few miles out of the small town of Mansfield, the farmhouse sits perched on a rise above the road.   It’s much larger than I would have expected, with its white-painted wood and beautiful stone chimney.  It has the look of a well-loved place that has been added to over the years.  The front steps and small porch actually face the side, with mature beautiful trees creating a small grove-like setting.  It looks welcoming and pleasant, with what look like golden cotton curtains hanging in the front room.

We had the place to ourselves, save the woman who was just coming out the side door, letting me know that they were closing for the day.  Since I couldn’t go in anyway, I was content to wander the grounds for a while.  In its day, the farm was a dairy, fruit and poultry farm.  Chickens still remained, clucking away at Lexi as we walked past their coop and the barn.  The Wilders moved here in 1894, after a covered-wagon trek from South Dakota, in search of a new place to call home.  They bought the land, originally 40 acres which expanded to 200, and built the house and farm.   Laura lived here for 63 years, until she died at age 90 in 1957.  I loved that I was standing here, just steps from where she penned all of the “Little House” books, telling of her childhood and coming-of-age on the prairie.  She wrote and published the books between 1932 and 1943, enhancing the imaginations of children for generations to come.  And I think now, as I stand here admiring this beautiful place, how unusual a woman she was to set out on a course to write and publish the series at a time when women certainly didn’t have much to speak of for careers, especially those who lived and worked to keep a farm running every day.

IMG_6291 2Lexi and I wandered happily around the property, transported back a century ago, relishing that I walked and wondered in the very places she spent so much of her life.  Behind the house, the terrain steepens a bit and a trail climbs the hill behind the barn.  We roamed for a bit, taking in the fields of queen anne’s lace and brown-eyed susans, with golden afternoon sunshine painting the fields in the distance, carried through time.

Sentimentally, I snapped off a single flower to take with me, knowing it would dry and wither in the car, but confident that it would find its permanent home on a bookshelf at home, tucked into the pages of my favorite Little House book.

Content with our afternoon of discovery, Lexi happily bounded into the car.  We moved out for the last leg of our travels for the day, heading to Springfield to set up camp for the night.  It proved to be a fairly unique experience!  I can’t wait to write and share it with you.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow my blog so you know when part 2 of my journey through Missouri posts!

Sweet and Simple Samplings of Southern Kentucky

Thoroughbreds, basketball, bourbon and bluegrass.  Those are the images of my uninitiated mind when I think about Kentucky.  On my road trip west, I wanted to explore this state for myself, and look in some of the nooks and crannies to see what else I could find.  After spending a night camping at Koomer’s Ridge in the Daniel Boone National Forest, we headed first south and then west to Paducah.  Perched on the banks of the Ohio River, Paducah is nestled in one of those western little crooked crannies across the river from the southernmost tip of Illinois.

It’s one of those towns that would come up in something I’d read or as part of a conversation.  I really didn’t know much of anything about it, but the little research I did piqued my curiosity.  As a long-time fan of singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman (we even named our first dog after him – ridiculous but lovable mutt that he was), I’d always remembered that he was from this funny-sounding Kentucky town.   And so I endeavored to check it out for myself, not really knowing much of what I’d find.  Sometimes those are the best adventures, because everything is unexpected!

Initially, Lexi the Golden and I had planned to camp that night in The Land Between the Lakes in southwestern Kentucky.  A place I’d never heard of, but the name pulled me in as part romantic and just super literal.  Sure enough, it’s a huge north/south stretch of land designated as a National Recreation Area, poised between lakes that are created from waters of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Land Between the Lakes A few weeks earlier I’d found a great campground and we were all set.  As we began heading in that direction, two problems arose.  One, it was 95 degrees and humid.  (Sounds lovely for camping with a dog – not.)  Two, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from the campground manager, letting me know that he was very sorry to tell me that a tornado had gone through and made camping impossible for a few weeks to come.  Yikes.  So plan B.  I didn’t currently have one, but this did seem like a good opportunity to seek out air-conditioned accommodations for the night.

In the end we stopped at the Land Between the Lakes main visitor center, and found a good place to stretch our legs and hike a bit.  As the park covers such a huge area of land, much of it was unaffected by the tornado, and our hike was uneventful as all the trees and buildings remained in their proper places.

But back to the earlier portion of the day – yes, this is the same day as from the earlier post “Fear…less”, where Lexi and I escaped Koomer’s Ridge and her near-death experience.  Once we were on the road,  I was happy to make an unexpected discovery.  First off, I love barns.  Especially old ones and even falling-down ones.  Brown, green, white, red, even blue – there’s so much character and you just know they all tell a long story of the land on which they reside.  Kentucky is full of this kind of barn.  I think that my most frequent reason for pulling off the side of the road for a photo is for the sheer joy of encountering a photogenic barn.

In parts of Kentucky though, they are made all the richer and more charming with the addition of a painted quilt block.  The first one I saw caused me to turn the car around to check it out more closely.  Quilt Barn KentuckyI thought it was a novelty, a cool splash of color that some farmer added to the barn as a gift to his quilting wife, or that she may have painted as a nod to the rich quilting history of the area.  Coming across it was like finding a four-leaf clover when you weren’t even looking.  As we continued on, I began to see more and more of them.  Amazing!  All these country roads, dotted with small farms with livestock and healthy fields and gardens, boasted of at least a few of these “quilt barns”.

I wanted to photograph them all, but the roads just weren’t conducive to it, so I have but a few to share.  It was actually a full day later, in the far western reaches of Missouri, that I would my final and favorite one – a beautiful wedgewood blue barn boasting not one but two squares.  The farm, outside Joplin not far from the sweet town of Carthage, was adorned with a more traditional patchwork square and also a beautiful and unique version of our American flag, as it was 4th of July week.

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My very favorite “Quilt Barn”, just outside of Carthage, Missour. I love the patriotic colors and stone on the barn!

A little Googling provided some background for the quilting artwork.  Kentucky has several “Quilt Barn Trails” that travelers can explore, all off the beaten path.  The first quilt barn block was actually created by a woman in Ohio, who had a panel made to honor her quilter mother.  Upon further digging I discovered that many states in the midwest and south, including Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina have organized quilt barn trails.  Hmmm.  The idea has expanded and been embraced in several areas.  I loved it, and I loved that I just stumbled upon them, completely clueless that such a marvel existed.  Not to mention it could be a fun concept for a roadtrip!

I was also oblivious to the fact that Paducah is referred to as “Quilt City USA”, but it seemed fitting with the theme of the day that we were headed right into the heart of it.  As a side note, we opted for our one hotel stay of the journey, well worth the expense.  Lexi learned about elevators, and decided that for the most part they are not for her.  As our room was on the 6th floor, we compromised.  Down the stairs, but up the elevator.  Tricky stuff!

 

In any case, I was charmed by Paducah.  Maybe it was thanks in part to a great night’s sleep and escape from the humid and sticky heat, but our tour of the town the following morning taught me a thing of two of its history, and I was thoroughly charmed by the shops and restaurants of the art district.  IMG_4738There’s also just something about a city on a river, and this was no exception.  The wide expanse of the Ohio River ran just beyond the northernmost cobblestoned street.  While there is a river wall to protect from flooding, a pleasant walkway and park area is hidden just on the other side, and Lexi took her time getting her feet wet and shrinking back as the little waves lapped at the shore. IMG_0829

My favorite tidbit of our time in Paducah was learning that in 1827, William Clark, half of the notable duo Lewis and Clark, purchased 37,000 acres of land, including the area that would become Paducah, for the sum of $5.   Quite a good deal.

All in all, it was a pleasant stay in a friendly town.  I found this colorful quote on a historical marker in the middle of the city, written over a hundred years ago.  The author is Irvin S. Cobb, a Paducah-born American author, who would go on to write for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper in New York and rival Mark Twain in popularity during his lifetime.  I love the images he creates as he makes his case for his hometown. IMG_3232

“Here in Paducah one encounters, I claim, an agreeable blend of Western kindliness, and Northern enterprises, superimposed upon a Southern background.  Here, I claim, more chickens are fried, more hot biscuits are eaten, more corn pone is consumed, and more genuine hospitality is offered than in any town of like size in the commonwealth.”  Irvin S. Cobb

Though I wished I had encountered Steven Curtis Chapman in my wanderings, I can well imagine him here in this kindly, enterprising, semi-Southern quilters town.  For us, though, it was time to move on to the next.  Missouri here we come!

A Treasure Cruise – Florida’s A1A

If you read my last blog entry, Easy, Breezy, Key-Z, you can understand my hesitancy to leave my friends and their fabulous home and hospitality in Islamorada.  In fact, I’ve loved many of your comments and responses requesting their address and wanting to know if they take renters!  (Not just yet!)

It’s easy to covet a little here – there’s much to envy!   The Key-z life is a chillaxed one.  Slow-pace, laid-back, no-hurry.  It’s not hard to get drawn into the easy rhythms of eat, sun, sleep, repeat.  Atlantic Ocean sunrise across the street, Gulf sunset in the “back yard”, food, fun, and most importantly friends, within.  Thoughts of the cutthroat pace of Northern Virginia seem downright sinful in comparison.

But while I was as content as a manatee lounging in a Florida canal, I realized that the explorer/discoverer in me was ready to move on.

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The sweet Florida manatee

Consoled with the thought that this wouldn’t be my last visit to Islamorada, I headed out.   I had missed life on the road!

I had known my plan for this first leg north from the moment I decided to take this trip.  In fact, it probably had something to do with deciding to come down here at all.  Trading in the mountainous route that brought me all the way from home to Georgia and into the endless orange groves and sugar cane fields of Florida, I was opting for sand and surf as my view of choice for the next few days.  (Fun fact for the day:  Did you know sugar cane grows in Florida?  I did not. As you approach the Everglades, the roads become lined with tall grass a little reminiscent of bamboo.  The stalks, which grow up to 20 feet high, cover 400,000 acres of southern Florida west of West Palm Beach.  Driving past it for miles, I was dying to know what it was.  I’m obsessive that way.  Now we all learned something new!)

My route:  Florida State Road A1A for as long as it would take to reach its northernmost end at Fernandina Beach, near the Georgia border.  The road originates at mile marker 1 in Key West, so I wasn’t truly driving it in its entirety.  1A66B750-8841-41F2-96E2-3D52C8EB97F7I began at approximately marker 72, which left me with 256 Florida seaside miles to go.  How long can that possibly take, you ask?  Well, as much of the road is 35 MPH and serves as the main drag through countless seaside towns, it’s not quick.  Nor did I have any desire for it to be.

My imaginings of this drive conjured up dreams of a top-down, hair-flying, music-blaring summertime road trip. The reality was close, though more sun-roof open than top-down.   For the first time on my trip, I didn’t have any sleeping plans.  I had no idea how long it would take or how far I would go on any given day.  In the end, I spent two nights and the better part of three days working my way up the A1A.  Time to think, to stop wherever and whenever the mood struck me, to just be.  A free-spirited, clock-free existence.  I highly recommend it.

To provide some geographic context – once you head back to the mainland from the Keys, you must deal with Miami.  It is the first and last significant-sized city I would encounter as I hugged the coast northward. I headed east to Miami Beach, and just kept moving.  For the first hour or so, there was little to see beyond the staggering wealth and high-rises that flanked both sides of the road, preventing any possible ocean views, though I always knew it was just beyond the trappings of the rich and famous.

889AC7FC-C6D4-4B2F-9BA5-299BA2574FF6Once through the elegant clutter of it all, I began to relax and enjoy the slow-pace and the dwindling population of smaller and smaller towns.  It was a Friday night and the setting sun tried unsuccessfully to hide behind a soaring cumulonimbus cloud.  It appeared lit from within, like a trapped lightning bug peeking through a child’s chubby fingers. The result was a magical golden light cast on everyone and everything in its path.   Tan and hungry vacationers crossed the street from beachside to rows of restaurants, trading in the sea to search for their evening meal.  One by one, I passed similar scenes through little hamlets like Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Pompano Beach, Hillsboro Beach, Deerfield Beach.  When the sun stopped, so did I.  I hadn’t considered it before but quickly realized that traveling in the dark held no magic for me.  I wanted to see every single piece of it.

After another successful AirBnB experience (I don’t even know where it was, exactly!) I headed out early.  I discovered that traveling the coastal road meant that often the Intracoastal Waterway was directly on my left, divided from the Atlantic by not much more than the road on which I was driving, plus a little sand and a single row of homes.   Water, water everywhere.  West Palm, Palm, Jupiter . . . I drove through them all, with the morning sun shimmering on the Atlantic just outside the passenger-side wide-open window.  Green-blue water turns deep blue and then turquoise before continuing on to greens again, and my head constantly on a swivel between the road and the water.

30566279-05DF-4DD0-8C95-98B2AF10926EWhat is the irresistible draw to the ocean?  I drove alongside it, my faithful sidekick, for three days before having to leave it behind in favor of marshland and sea grasses at the edges of Georgia.  I never tired of it.  Unlike my trip down, I did not have set stops to explore places along the route.  The route was the adventure in this case.  When I needed to stretch my legs, I took Christmas morning-like pleasure in turning on my right signal and parking in one of hundreds of beach-side parking areas along the road.  In 30 seconds, flip-flops off and toes in the sand.  Not a bad way to spend the day.

Hutchinson Island was one such place, and I was amazed to find the beach in bloom.  Long meandering vines of beach morning glory trailed down towards the surf, with bright purple flowers marking the way.

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Beach morning glories at Hutchinson Beach

So many possible places to park for a day at the beach resulted in often unpopulated stretches of sand.  I found this makes for better daydreaming.  Fifteen minutes at this beach, twenty at another one down the road – a good drive.

One of my favorite finds along the way was eclectic road-side hot dog and ice cream stands.  My pick for one afternoon was Moo’s Ice Cream in Indiatlanic, about an hour south of Cape Canaveral.  Moo’s boasted both ice cream and hot dogs, and I had to agree with their signage, as it was indeed, “udderly delicious”.

These slow, sweet miles passing through small coastal towns fooled me into forgetting that Daytona Beach was not far into my future.  Upon reaching its outskirts I clearly recognized I was not in Kansas anymore.  Stuck in Saturday afternoon traffic edging slowly north, however, a completely unexpected shock of memory caused me to sit up and take closer notice of my surroundings.   A strong sense of “I’ve been here in this exact place before” hit me.  From the time I was a little kid, I’ve had this happen to me.  Driving somewhere I haven’t been in years, I’ll often have a very tangible sense of being near something specific I’ve experienced before.  Most times the feeling is spot-on, and it can be creepy.  I had it now, and I suddently knew why.

I have to first say that Daytona Beach is not my kind of place.  Full of hotels and t-shirt shops, vendors of all kinds line the street, old semi run-down hotels, putt-putt, etc.  All the trappings of Spring Breaks gone by.  And crawling with tourists.  To be fair, I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy its lovelier qualities as well, but on this hot summer day, it’s the seedier side that seems to be outshining the rest.  I realize that this is exactly why I know I’m very near a very average hotel, (if it still exists), called “The Mayan Inn”.

This fine establishment was home to the Jersey Shore High School class of 1984 in the spring of that same year.  (Requisite note to those unfamiliar with this school.  It is not in New Jersey, nor anywhere close to it.  It is, in fact, in the middle of nowhere in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania.  There is a semi-logical and somewhat humorous reason for this.  Click the link for more.)

In any case, for some reason my friends and I find inexplicable some 30+ years later, our school allowed us to take a senior class trip to Daytona Beach.  Yes, sponsored by the school.  Four buses (long live Bus #2!) of 17 and 18 year-olds headed to Florida, many of us our first time out of the state, to be basically set free to enjoy ourselves in Daytona Beach for a few days prior to heading to Disneyworld and the then-newish Epcot Center.  Yes, there are stories.  Many.  They will not be retold here, though if you care to know them, I can provide a short list of storytellers still living in the Jersey Shore zip code who can recount a great deal of the experience, still causing the rest of us to cry ugly laughing tears.  Good times.

In any case, I just knew the Mayan Inn was close by.  A quick look at my GPS confirmed it was up ahead, less than a quarter-mile away.  The experience seemed a little like Lucy and her siblings must have felt when they had a chance to go through the wardrobe for a return trip.  (Please do not think I am comparing Narnia and Daytona.  I am NOT!)  B1B1ED78-15BB-4F3B-9429-02C732F9D951And then right in front of me, the Mayan Inn stood in all it’s 1980s gold and orange glory, lording over the A1A and beach beyond.  The marquis seemed exactly the same as the one in our 1984 photos.  I stopped long enough to snap a few pics and send them to a friend from home.  No words needed.  She knew exactly where I was when she saw it.

And maybe that’s a piece of what I learned on these first two days on the A1A.  That I was unwittingly reaching back in time to grab hold of something familiar.  The most literal example were the memories of a few crazy days spent on Daytona Beach (days that would live in infamy!), but the entire coastal road touched something something deeper and almost lost.  A slower pace, a simpler life, a walk in the sand, family vacations, ice cream, hot dogs, a sweet sunset.  The entire experience conjured up feelings of a former existence, and not necessarily mine alone.  I felt it was a treasure I wanted to claim as my own.  I didn’t want to lose it.  Things to consider for sure, but for now,  windows down, shades on, music up – the cruising continues!

Easy, Breezy, Key-Z – the Good Life!

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Welcome to Islamorada!

A vacation contemplation:  Despite my great excitement to see my friends in the Keys, I admit to being slightly hesitant to actually arrive.  My trip, now in its sixth day, had developed a rhythm all its own.  Wake, explore, drive, stop and explore, drive some more, write, sleep, repeat.  I was concerned that parking somewhere for 5 days would somehow spoil the integrity of it, or at least break the spell of the calm, contentment that I had discovered.  In the end I had a not-shocking reality:  staying with friends for 5 days in their home on the beach is, in fact, different than staying 5 different nights in 5 different states, sleeping in my car, a cabin, airbnb’s, and hotel-ish types of places. Another reality:  it was OKAY and I got over it.  Now, to the vacation part of my vacation . . .

Most people I know in Virginia would probably define themselves as “beach people”.  Where I live, that generally means Ocean City, Maryland or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, though there are plenty of other less-populated islands and towns that stretch south through not just Maryland and Virginia, but North and South Carolina as well as Florida.  I’ve visited many of them, and they all have their own charm and draw.  The boardwalks of Ocean City, Virginia Beach and Myrtle stand in bright and busy contrast to the lazy low-key islands and inlets that dot the coastal Carolinas and parts of Georgia and Florida.  The further south you go, and the further away from the edges, in my experience, the lower the blood pressure of the average inhabitant and vacationer.  (Note: Daytona and Lauderdale do not support this argument, so I’m just leaving them out of the conversation!)

The Keys, however, seem to be a different animal entirely.  I’ve been only once before, so my experience is limited at best.  And to be completely up front, I’ve never been all the way to Key West, though I’ve read a good amount, in part thanks to crotchety Hemingway.  My friends live in Islamorada, which is an area, though maybe not exactly a Key.  Their exact Key, is Lower Matukumbe, which is at the tail end of the area of Islamorada, near mile marker 72.  All very confusing.  In fact, when I asked two residents to break it down for me, neither seemed entirely sure how to explain the actual name of their little slice of land.  As I look out the window at the Gulf, I’m content to just call it “heaven”.  It would be hard to argue with that assessment.

If you’ve never been, the Florida Keys are a sliver of land extending south and west off the coast near Miami.  They begin roughly around mile marker 106 and Key Largo, and curve back around to Key West, perched out at its furthest point at mile marker 1.  Flanked by the Atlantic to the south and east, and the Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the A1 highway is the only way through.  580FC5CA-5885-45C6-B2BD-0388D7D44094Many of the Keys are connected by bridges, the clear warming waters of the Gulf mingling with the Atlantic beneath their arches.  I find it both mesmerizing and a little creepy to know that when you’re out there, the full width of the land (if there’s any at all) can be as narrow as the road itself.  Consider that when a hurricane is threatening.  There’s only one way out for 100 miles, and hunkering down means that you are choosing to stay where can hit a golf ball from the roof of a house into the Atlantic or the Gulf, depending on which way you face.  Not that comforting when the winds are howling and the storm surge is coming at you.

With all that in mind, it’s perfectly logical that the average habitant is fun, water-loving, super laid-back and just a little nuts.  I found out that if you’re a native, you are considered a Conch, and there are quite a lot of them.  My friends, though frequent visitors for the past 25 years and one-time Florida residents, have only been living full-time in the Keys for about 3 years, so can be humorously be referred to as “freshwater Conchs”.  By the way, they do fit the descriptors above, or at least my friend Rene does.  Carmen, her wonderful and very Italian husband, cannot be considered “laid-back” simply due to Italian blood.  What he lacks that area, however, he makes up for in the fun-loving and a little nuts areas.

About 3 ½ years ago, they decided to rent in Islamorada for the winter and get a sense of what it might be like to live there full-time.  Within a month, they had bought a beautiful Gulf-side waterfront property, and Carmen eagerly set about the business of overhauling the original house in favor of his own dream of a design.  Rene, ever the supportive wife, just got out of the way.  In fact, she’s so amazing that for the next 2 years, she happily (mostly) and without grumbling, lived in their small RV, (in the driveway of the new home!) with four tiny dogs and an obsessed husband, still doing the books for their former business, with both kids away in college in North Carolina.  While we all teased and made fun, the end result is no joke.  Well, there is one very good “dirty” joke/true story about Rene and the septic line from the RV.  Hilarious, but for another time.  In fact, Rene may still say it’s “too soon”.

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Now complete(ish), their home is a dream, and designed for fun.  Color is a given in the Keys, and they embraced that to the fullest.  Their backyard (i.e. the Gulf of Mexico) shimmers with green and blues, and Carmen brought all those colors to life both inside the house and out.  A beautiful infinity pool, tiled in iridescent blue/silver squares, conjures up images of mermaids and blue marlins.  It’s breathtaking and just the beginning.5ACF3CC7-49B6-46A2-B3F8-8A5698286C09

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Carmen has a bit of a love affair with wood from Bali.  Every room in the house, and out, boasts of intricately carved pieces from beds to benches, and a dining room table that is truly a tree. DSC_0024 The house was actually built around the table (it’s one floor up) and their lava-rock bathtub (two floors-up), which are permanent fixtures of the house and both far too heavy to be carried, and thus were air-lifted and placed in their current and forever locations.
486D819E-CDC6-4C70-AC96-5E6F18406A78Waterfront rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, making you feel that you’re perched on the edge of the bay, just a step away from splashing in with the dolphins and pelicans beneath.  The details of the whole interior – part nautical museum, part dream home, are too numerous to recount.  Suffice it to say that the possessed Italian restaurant-owner turned designer, truly outdid himself.

But what’s most important to know about these fine friends is not the wow-factor of their amazing home, but their kindness, generosity and friendship.  I was welcomed like family.   Wait, one more house note – my room was to die for!  (See photos,

2CABC971-4B8E-4E97-92C7-8C1C014BF97Fthough there is not a picture of my self-heating toilet seat with built-in fan.)

For the next 5 days, I ate like a queen (he’s a chef, too!), slept like a baby, laid by the pool, drank wine and talked for hours with my sweet friend. D60DFE90-0F25-4829-B335-4595BDA4AC04 Our daughters have grown up together, best buddies, playing soccer all over the country.  Rene and I (and a few other now forever friends) traversed what seemed like all of America with our girls, enjoying every moment, unknowingly building bonds that won’t be broken.  We are all cast to the winds, now, with some of the girls now graduated and the rest entering their final year of college.   There was much to catch up on, and we did our best.

My hosts made sure that I experienced the best of Islamorada during my short stay.  By way of baptism, my first evening I was treated to fantastic steak and seafood at the bar at Ziggie and Mad Dogs, whose bartender had a laugh we won’t soon forget. (Think horror movie.)  EC357578-3060-4342-B590-FB765E586783 For the most part,  we steered clear of the vacation hotspots, and instead hung out at the OV, or the Ocean View, a very “Key-Z” joint for great music.  The night I was there, one of the former Lynard Skynard guitarists played and sang, along with half-a-dozen other incredible local artists. I admit I couldn’t resist visiting the touristy Robbie’s Hungry Tarpon, a renowned favorite. F5405D09-D2F0-4679-8873-915308464B42 Where else can you get an amazing “Trailer Trash” Bloody Mary, complete with beef jerky stick for a straw, shrimp, pickles, bacon, and more.  Breakfast in a glass!

Best of all, halfway through my stay, we welcomed home their sweet daughter (one of my favorite people on the planet) and son, back for a few days for her surprise birthday celebration with college friends.

But mostly, we just relaxed, taking in the sunshine and clouds, talking easily like old friends do, and planning a return trip down with the rest of the family in tow.  Each day I was gradually refueling for my return north.  I had been hesitant to finally arrive at this destination, and now I am contemplating devising ways to stay.  In the end, though, the desire for continued adventure wins, and I am consoled in knowing that my coastal route north will keep me close to the water with plenty of ocean breezes and salt-air.

Calm in the Storm

Destination day dawned clear and bright.  I awoke with a mix of glad anticipation to finally arrive in the Keys and a sense of loss that my journey south was coming to a close.  If you’re tempted to feel sorry for me, don’t.  I have five days in Islamorada to look forward to, and another five to drive back to Virginia.  Yet there remains an inescapable sense of losing something I can never quite get back.  These last days had been so full.  Full of wonder, joy, discovery, miles traveled, new thoughts and ideas, peace.  I was a little bit afraid to stop and risk breaking the spell.

But day dreams of wide aquamarine waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic overruled my doubt.  And truth be told, I admit to beginning to feel a little trapped by central Florida.  I think it was knowing that I was flanked by far-off balmy beaches running up and down to both my right and left, though the only things in sight were massive black thunderclouds dead ahead, and a 360-degree panorama of citrus trees.

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A small glimpse of the orange groves in Central Florida.

In fact, in those next few hours, I drove by every single grove of orange and grapefruit trees in all of Florida.  Orchards themselves were nothing new to me.  I grew up in a land of sweet and sour cherries, peach, pear, every variety of apple imaginable.  The mountainsides above our valley were dotted with fruit farms owned by neighbors and friends, and we all picked our share as teenagers.  But these endless green groves rushed silently past my windows for miles as I headed further and further into the darkness of the impending storm.  Dozens and dozens and even a hundred miles.  Tropicana, Florida’s Natural, Minute Maid.  This was big business.

Somehow in the midst of now pelting rain and wind, I was lulled into a reverie as my mind wandered back over the miles.  The word contentment kept replaying over and over.  There was a peace that had come with this journey, and it was a somewhat unexpected revelation.  And oddly there was another word that kept creeping in, but more like a memory:   fear.

EE5C9877-8E62-44D0-A908-F9B1866B70BFContentment vs. Fear.   Not typical antonyms, but yet they are.  Enemies, in a way.  Thinking on this, I recognized that to be content requires the absence of fear.  I consider that you cannot have both at once.  This moment in the storm was an example of exactly that.  I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me, yet there was no fear.  The road was predictably and comfortingly straight for 50 more miles at least; I knew where I was going even though I’d never traveled this way before.   The storm would not dissuade me from my “okay-ness”.  No room for fear here.

We all have songs that speak to us in different seasons of our lives.  Currently, Zach Williams’ song, Fear, He is a Liar won’t leave my brain.  Its truths are tangible.  From the time I was a little girl, FEAR was my demon. Of course everyone is scared sometimes.  We know it’s healthy and normal.  It keeps us from burning our fingers on a hot stove or stepping too close to the edge of a cliff.  But a healthy fear of something is different than a controlling one.  And while as a child I had no reason to be controlled by fear, I was always afraid something bad would happen.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, and of power, and of strong mind.”  (2 Tim 1:7)  Life-changing words for me.  God did not give us fear.  Fear didn’t come from Him.  This verse is rich for me.  And now this song.  The refrain is a powerful adaptation of that verse in a way.

“Fear, he is a liar

He will take your breath

Stop you in your steps

Fear he is a liar

He will rob your rest

Steal your happiness

Cast your fear in the fire

‘Cause fear he is a liar”

A liar.  Fear takes, stops, robs, steals.  Gratefully, I realized these days on the road had allowed me to trade in the adult version of all that for it’s sweet counterpart – contentment.

More verses in my head: “Be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. (Hebrews 13:5)   And “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Phil. 4:11,13)

Peace, rest, deep breaths, contentment.  Slowing down, appreciating the small stuff, the simple things, being certain of what I cannot see.   Yes, this is where I was headed all along.  And here I found it, in the eye of a black cloud, water gushing down the road in a nameless, faceless place.  It was perfect.  To be honest I quickly realized I was much like Dorothy and her friends (minus the tornado part, thankfully!), on the hunt for something they imagined they were doomed to live without only to find they had it all along.  Contentment had never left me.  It was always there, but I had traded it in for fear, and noise.  Now the lure and the peace of the road restored it to me.

The rains let up (though they would come and go several more rounds before I arrived), sunshine shimmered through the clouds and I opened the sun roof to let the rays soak in and take in deep, fresh breaths of clean air (I’d be lying if I said “orange-scented air”, but that would have been cool!).

I happily drove on, reminiscing on all the little things that paved the path these last five days.  Here are a few random discoveries from my collection of experiences thus far:

  • Old hotels are the best hotels.
  • Small-town people are almost always friendly.
  • There isn’t a town or village in the south without a clapboard Baptist church and a Dollar Store.  (Is there a connection between the two?  A question for another time.)
  • There are an insane number of small never-heard-of-them-before college campuses between Virginia and Florida.
  • Signs that say “Bear Country” are actual serious.  Not just a fun photo op.
  • Bees are beautiful.
  • It’s possible to build a fire out of totally wet wood if you’re very patient (+ firestarterJ).
  • I love fog.
  • Theoretically, you can easily run out of gas on either Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway if you’re not careful.
  • Waking up on a mattress in the back of your car on the top of a mountain is exciting.
  • RV parks are almost as common as Walmarts in these parts.
  • Just as interesting is that you can spend the night in your RV in a Walmart parking lot and they’re cool with it.
  • Greenville, SC is a “do-over” (= two thumbs up).
  • It’s possible to buy “New York Fried Chicken” at a middle-of-nowhere gas station in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
  • You’re never too far from a Starbucks if you really need it.

To sum up, I realize I cleared the fog and relearned some big important stuff that’s really pretty simple.  I’ve also learned lots of seemingly trivial things have made the trip that much more memorable.

My last important lesson of the day was a geographic one, however.  If you drive far enough into the heart (or bowels, I’m not sure which seemed more accurate) of Florida, you eventually have to head east to the Ocean or west to the Gulf.  Continuing southward would simply make me part of the food chain in the Everglades.  It was a little like playing chicken – you eventually gotta choose a side or risk dismemberment.  So, I stared down the swamp until the road gave me no choice, then promptly veered left and skirted Lake Okeechobee on my way to the coast, Miami and beyond.

If I stepped on it (and route 95 wasn’t a parking lot), I’d be hanging loose in the Keys by mid-afternoon.  These next five days will be just fine after all.