We have way too much propane storage.
See it started off innocently enough. We had set a minor goal to not have the propane tank visible on the outside of the trailer. It was mostly aesthetics-related, and as such it wasn't a mission-critical item. Plenty of trailers have small, external propane tanks and that's perfectly fine. We looked at tank options. 11lb. tanks are really popular for this sort of trailer. We already have a few 20lb tanks at home, maybe those would work. We would have to fill a 30lb. tank less often. All sorts of things to consider, and then we looked at horizontally-mounted tanks and suddenly there were twice as many options. We worked up the layout drawings using a 30lb. tank footprint as a worst case scenario. We could install a smaller tank, no problem. After some fiddling, we got a 30lb. horizontal tank to fit under the bed. Then we moved it to the front of the trailer. Then back under the bed to a different location.
Once we were content with the layout, we got a tank on order. And immediately after, we decided to change the layout again. D'oh! "Well, that's okay, we can just return it and get something else." So we received the tank and I got to work organizing the return. No big deal, I've done this several times before. Got my return label and headed down to UPS to send it back.
"We can't ship that, sir."
"But you just shipped it to me..."
So that was a very interesting conversation. I'll save you the headache. I told Amazon the situation that I wanted to return the dang thing because it wouldn't work for us, but that I couldn't actually return it, so they told me to keep it and refunded me the full amount. At that point it became a no-brainer to just stick with what we had and make it work. Because, well, if it's free it's for me.
In order to get everything tucked neatly under the bed for a lower final height, we're using the water tank as a reference. The water tank is already situated and strapped in, so if we keep everything "shorter" than that, we're all set. So what that meant was we had to lower the propane tank a bit below the bottom of the frame. Since it is above and behind the axle, and only protrudes a couple inches, we're comfortable with it. It should be safe from impacts. But just in case, we built a rugged skid plate for it, which doubles as its mounting bracket. It will take a bit more work to take it out and get it filled, but the upside is that it shouldn't have to be filled very often. So it is in that way a blessing that we ended up with such a large tank.
I didn't want to use a through-bolt arrangement for mounting the skid plate to the trailer frame. The primary issue is that you have to use two tools; one to remove the bolt, the other to hold the nut (or vise versa). I could weld the nuts in place to alleviate that issue. But the other concern is that when the bolts are tightened, they will have a tendency to crush the crossmember tube. Probably not a visible amount, but it's not ideal to have the clamp load taken up by the tube like that. So I sleeved the mounting holes for 3/8" hardware. Then to prevent the load being take up by the welds that hold the sleeves in place, I stuck some nuts to some large diameter washers to help distribute the load in case the welds fail. Since we won't have access to the top side of the fasteners when it's all together, the nuts are welded in place. To fill the propane tank, we will remove the skid plate, then remove the tank. A little labor intensive, but it shouldn't be terrible.
In parallel with the trailer frame fabrication, we ordered a custom axle from Redneck Trailer Supplies. It arrived right about the time we were ready for it, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief when it matched up perfectly to what we had made so far.
We had also bought 2,000lb leaf springs, U-bolts, and mounts from a friend who decided to go a different route with his trailer. Score! And we got a set of old Jeep wheels for free from another friend (we have lots, apparently!) who was ready to throw them away. Perfect! So of course, we had to bolt things together right away. Suddenly, it sort of looked like a trailer!
So, we tacked on the spring mounts to the frame. With the exception of tires, we’d built down as far as we could. It’s time to build upward!
These project tables were free so there's no guilt about totally destroying them! The white one we found in the woods on a Jeep adventure. Who leaves a table in the woods?! So as a bonus for cleaning up the environment, we got a free table! The other one...well we had to buy a house to get it. So it's either really expensive, or it was free. However you want to look at it.
Anyway, you can see some brackets on the frame that we haven't really talked about yet. It's tough keeping up pace with the writing, but also I kind of screwed them up. I've since fixed it, so we'll get there soon.
The tubing we recovered from the horse stalls at Rockingham Park is 1-1/2” square and 2” square about 1/8” wall steel. We don’t know how long it had been in service there for, but it had some light surface rust, as well as some patchy black paint. We devised the following process to clean up the tubes inside and out. First, a tube gets a bath in a rust remover product, Evapo-rust. It works reasonably well.
After a thorough rinse and drying, the ends get taped and the tube is filled with a primer designed for rusty metal surfaces (in case there was still some rust inside) and the primer is sloshed all around inside. The tape is removed from the tube ends and the excess primer is recovered for reuse. Then, the tube is left to dry for a day or two.
We addressed the remaining paint and rust on the outside of the tubes by using an abrasive wheel in the drill press.
This was of course a long process. But it gave us time to work out the design. So, by the time the tubes were ready for assembly, we were too. We laid out the ladder frame in accordance with the drawings we’d made and welded them up. Of course, the first one was in the wrong spot. Rocky start. But we caught it immediately and corrected it.
It hardly looks like anything now, but it was a lot of planning and effort to get us to this point! So much work has to go into defining our wants and our needs, deciding what we will actually install, where it will go and how it will all fit together. We had to consider multiple modes; over the road, it must be as small, light, and well-mannered as possible. Off road, it has to have ground clearance for obstacles, it must be sturdy to withstand a beating. In use, it has to be comfortable for cooking, cleaning, and sleeping. It has to be ergonomic, accessible, etc. And we had to figure all that out before we actually did anything that we wouldn't be able to undo. Hopefully this works!
Let’s begin with the idea. The conceptualization. No. Let’s start before that. Let us tell you about us. We love to camp. We are avid tenters. Not that we turn up our noses at trailerers or RVers or anything like that. It’s simply because our tent or hammocks are sufficient. We can throw everything we need (which isn’t much) into the back of our Jeep (which is tiny) on a Friday afternoon and disappear for a weekend pretty quickly.
That is just what we did this summer (2016). We had our first overlanding experience and it changed us. We had an absolute blast, of course. But there were a few purpose-built trailers travelling with us and that got gears turning in our heads. We could nearly eliminate setup and teardown times. The hammocks are great, but sometimes we have to get a little creative to set them up. We can put the tent up pretty quickly, but it’s never what I would describe as “fun” when we’re trying to do it in the dark. Additionally, we could keep a trailer packed with our gear and just hitch up and go. Lastly, keeping the gear in the trailer would move it out of the back of the vehicle, thus leaving more room for Loki to horse around or whatever he does back there.
We got home and decompressed and then started researching. What types of trailers did we like? What do we hate? What features do we want? What do we NEED? How much do we want to spend? Do we want to buy something already made? There were many angles. We looked at it in all sorts of ways. What do we intend to do with this thing? We went back and forth a lot on the two most common types of small trailers; a “storage box” with a rooftop tent, or a teardrop. Eventually we decided on a rooftop tent on a box. Then we changed our minds.
So, we set out to have a teardrop trailer. Build it or buy it? The two biggest strikes against buying a teardrop were price and unavailability of exactly what we were looking for. We agreed if we were going to spend upwards of $10,000 on a trailer, it better be what we want. So by this point we had seen more pictures of teardrops than we could count. We had a good idea of what has been done and we were starting to put our own twist on the typical designs.
To facilitate describing the finer points of the trailer design, I put pencil to paper. We measured the pieces of the puzzle that we already had. We pulled dimensions from the internet for things we wanted to add to our arsenal. I shuffled them around on paper until they all fit together nice and nice. Then we took two steps back and decided to shuffle everything up. We felt like the trailer was maybe a bit too tall, so we pulled everything down a bit.
So, we have come up with something somewhat unique, but it’s just what we want. We’ll have a queen size mattress, a grille, a fridge, a shower, and yes, even the kitchen sink! Support equipment includes a 20-gallon water tank and 30lb propane tank. We had to have good ground clearance, and we wanted it to be as short as possible (in length and height) to facilitate navigating tight trails. It must be beefy to handle the trails. It is an off-road trailer, after all.
So as we were working out the design, we started to acquire some parts we knew we’d need. We found a 12VDC/120VAC fridge/freezer on Craigslist for a song so of course we scooped that. We stumbled for a little bit trying to figure out where to get fabrication materials. It seemed like it was going to be fairly expensive. I was hesitant to buy materials until we had the design more developed. We came across another steal on Craigslist so we bought a bit more than we thought we’d need, which ended up being just enough. We got several lengths of square tubing reclaimed from the famous, historic, former Rockingham Park in Salem, NH. This would become our basic ladder frame for the trailer.
We're going on a cruise to Alaska! We're traveling with Mandy's parents, Mike and Lisa. We will begin the trip at Logan International Airport and fly to Seattle, WA. The cruise will take us to Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC over the course of seven days.
Day 1: 9/3/16
We dropped Loki off with Lisa from Rover at 6am. She thought that we were coming at 6pm. Oops! After we got Loki settled in, we quickly cruised over to Pavillion Beach to get a picture of sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. After snapping a couple pictures we went back home to collect our luggage and fellow travelers before heading to the airport. We parked in Logan's economy parking lot on the roof near "3E" sign. (This was for future reference for finding the car upon our return.) The airport shuttle took us to the airport where we checked in with Alaska airlines, checked our bags and got through security quick and easy without issue by 8am. We boarded our flight and took off around 9am. The flight was smooth and ended just as we were starting to get restless, which was 11:24 local time. All in all, it was pretty uneventful, which is really what you want in a flight.
Once we picked up our luggage we headed to ground transport. We tried to flag down a Travelodge shuttle but he kept driving and didn't even notice us. I swear he looked right at me, and just ignored me. It's a good thing he did though, because we later found out he was heading to the wrong Travelodge! So we paid a cab instead and headed to Travelodge-by-the-Space-Needle. We checked into our room and dropped off our bags and set out to find some lunch. We felt like we were starving! We wandered around a few nearby blocks on foot until we found Bambinos Pizza-Calzoni-Microbrews. We decided to order two different pies, the Calabra and the Calorosa, and split them amongst the four of us. They were both amazing and delicious. The chef kept throwing doughs up to the ceiling, but I was the only one that saw it and everyone else kept missing it. The Silver City Fat Scotch Ale was okay, I didn't love it. D's baked apple cider was really good.
Once we'd eaten more than we should have, we caught a Lyft to Mulkiteo to see and tour Boeing's Everett plant which boasts the world's largest (by volume) building. They build 747s there, as well as some other models. Since I work in aerospace, I really loved seeing how the crafts are built, although there was only a very small crew working since it was a holiday weekend. They had a General Electric GE-90 engine on display. These are made at GE Evendale in Ohio. The GE-90 is the world's largest turbofan engine. Simply put, they were cool as heck to see up close. The production shop floor is bounded by internal "buildings" which house engineering and management offices with windows looking out over the production area. In the museum area, there was an airplane cockpit to sit in but we kept getting jumped in line so we left, mildly disgruntled. There was a "Dreamlifter" plane parked outside one of the hangars at the plant. It's just SO ugly. It is a modified 747 built specifically for transporting 787 "Dreamliner" parts. Boeing Commercial's president has officially/jokingly "apologized" to the original 747 design engineer, Joe Sutter, for what they did to "his" plane.
After the tour was over, we caught another Lyft back to our hotel. After wandering the blocks near our hotel, we decided to head down to the waterfront for sunset. We got there around 7 pm and captured some pictures of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. I was able to capture ocean sunrise and sunset pictures on the same day, which was neat. Then we walked towards the piers area. There's a really nice walking/biking path/puppy play area! along the waterfront. On our way back we almost got stuck by a freight train. Stuck, not struck! We decided to stop and watch it go by anyway to count it. I don't know why, but I've done this as long as I can remember. We counted 5 engines and 141 cars. It was definitely one of the biggest we'd ever seen. A lot of the cars were double-stacked, too. We tried to imagine how much that train and cargo we worth, but we couldn't. We timed our walk back to the hotel which took 8 minutes. Based on this information we decided that we would probably forego a taxi to the ship in the morning. We also stopped to get some medicine at Walgreens on the way back for my awful cough. Back in the hotel room we watched one episode of House, M.D. on Netflix and then slept. Truthfully, I fell asleep shortly after the episode started. Typical.
Day 2: 9/4/16
We woke up at various times. I got up at 4:45 am and watched the episode of House that I slept through last night. I woke up around 7. After a round of showers and getting dressed we got breakfast at the hotel and set out to find good coffee. We found a place that uses Uptown Espresso cups but we don't think that was it's name. Anyway, the cold brew was great and the cafe mocha (dark) was good. Neither tops Fernando's in Antigua, Guatemala though. (We later confirmed the name of the coffee shop IS Uptown Espresso!) Also, they allow puppies inside, so it's highly recommended.
We spent some time in the hotel packing things up and getting ready to go to the ship. We left the hotel at 10:30 am and walked down to pier 66 to board the Norwegian Pearl. Once we got to the pier we got in line to check our baggage. There was a sign that said to have your passport and cruise documents ready. We all grabbed our passports. Except me. Mine was missing. I thought maybe it fell out of my jeans in the hotel room because I was certain I'd had it yesterday.
We had looked through the carry-on bags and were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the rest of us waited at the pier while Rob ran back to the hotel to search for his passport. Rob called me to tell me it wasn't at the hotel and we decided that he would come back to meet us at the pier and we would all search the luggage and formulate a plan. As soon as I hung up the phone I started my search. Much to my surprise, I found his passport in the first pocket I opened! I quickly called him to tell him that he was in the clear to continue on vacation!
We went through several checkpoints in rapid succession. It took maybe 15 minutes until we were on the boat. It was a pretty quick process. We found an outdoor seating and eating area at the aft end of the ship and got some lunch, some drinks, and I got some cool down time. (He was pretty sweaty after his run back to the hotel room.) Since our stateroom wasn't ready yet, we milled about exploring the rest of the ship. The weather was great so we had some outdoor adult beverages. At 3:15 there was a safety meeting so we hung out at O'Sheehan's (get it? "Oceans"? Classic.) for that.
We went back to O'Sheehan's for dinner at exactly 6:30ish. It was prime rib night! I noted it, but I kept it to myself until Mandy mentioned that the corn cobs tasted a little cinnamini. Cinnamoney? Cinnamon-ey. It was unexpected, yet a tasty surprise. We wandered around still more after dinner. There was a lot of ship to explore! We got some drinks and listened to live classical violin and cello. I had flashbacks to Titanic. You know, to that time that I didn't sail on the sinking ship. We went back and forth on getting another round but decided to call it a night around 9 or 9:30ish and we headed to bed.
Time change (-1 hour)
Day 3: 9/5/16
We got up at about 5 am. We were too early for any breakfast so we read books over coffee until 6:30 at Garden Cafe and then had breakfast. After we digested breakfast some we hit the gym. It was super crowded. It felt weird to me to be working out at sea. It seemed like I could feel the waves more when I was at the gym. We worked out for an hour and then showered.
By now, we were hungry again so we went on a hunt for second breakfast which was mostly unsuccessful. We have to wake up later than 5am, apparently. We read some more in the late morning, this time in the library, as we watched an endless ocean out the full windows. For lunch, we decided to eat at O'Sheehan's again. We had burgers which were good but didn't compare to Bunz Burger of Ipwsich, at all. After lunch we decided to do some bar-hopping and sat in the hot tub while we sipped our drinks. Of course I tried it, but the pool was way too cold for swimming. Also, we think it might have been salt water. We mingled with some people at the martini bar and at the mojito bar. The mojito place was my favorite bar! It was fun to strike up random conversations with other travelers.
Wandering the ship at dinner time, we found ourselves at Indigo. Indigo is one of the complimentary dining rooms on the ship. I had szechuan chicken, Mandy got steak. A manager said he would send a gift to our room since we were first time cruisers. I don't know if we ever got anything... After dinner we stopped by the theater and caught the end of an entertainment showcase. We saw the ship's comedian Tim Kaminski. He had audience members participate to "reenact" The Wizard of Oz. It was awful as far as reproductions go, but funny nonetheless. We went to bed at about 10:30.
Day 4: 9/6/16
We woke up around 6:30 and showered. After breakfast we went to the gym and did some reading but not in that order. We showered again and then got some BBQ for lunch at Topsiders. Today's drink is a painkiller so we killed some pain. The ship slowed to a crawl shortly after lunch as we followed a narrow passage to Juneau's port. The captain did a very slow 270 degree spin into the dock. We heard something that sounded like Loki groaning but it was much louder. Eventually we spotted the source which was a sea lion playing around in the harbor. We got off the boat around 2:30.
We had some time to kill so we decided to go to downtown Juneau. There was an option to take a bus but we wanted to walk instead. Unfortunately we got stuck behind a really large group of slow-walkers. When we passed them they asked us directions to the buses we had decided not to take. Once we got to downtown Juneau, we realized we didn't really want to be there. It was so crowded. There were three other cruise ships in the port, so somewhere around 10,000 tourists milling about. We took a bus back to our ship, then we switched to a different bus. One that would take us to a quiet bay (we thought we had booked the lake tour to paddle next to the glacier!) where several tandem kayaks awaited. We spent a couple hours paddling around the bay with seals and salmons and we got really close to a pair of bald eagles. One shot out a poop in our direction. Our tour guide, Kara, was on her last day. She didn't seem to care too much when our group got all spread out in the bay. Eventually we tired of paddling so we headed back to shore. It was drizzly when we set out but by the end we were mostly dry.
While we were paddling in the bay, we had asked Kara where to eat. When our bus brought us back to the docks, we made our way to The Hanger per her suggestion. I got a delicious coffee brown ale, Mandy got a Seattle cider Co hard cider that was also good. We enjoyed our beverages while looking over the dinner menu. After a lot of back and forth, we decided to just eat on the ship. The couple next to us had plans to do the same. We started chatting with them as they had been in our kayaking group. They were also cruising on the Pearl with us. And they were from MA as well! They were Sam and Eric. We got another round of drinks with them and decided to dine together once we were back on the ship.
Once our second round of drinks was consumed we set out in the rain to head back to the ship. We all wanted to put on dry clothes, so we agreed to go change and then meet for dinner. We were going to eat at Indigo but they were full, so we went to Summer Palace instead. Sometime during dinner the boat pulled away from the dock and left Juneau. We enjoyed a few courses of food and were all getting tired. We decided to call it a night around 10:30 pm.
Day 5: 9/7/16
We woke up around 5:45 am to find we were just arriving in Skagway. We got breakfast at Garden Café which was particularly packed this morning. I think everyone was trying to get off the boat ASAP. We slowly gathered our things as we were in no hurry and had no desire to compete with the crowd. Around 8 am we made our way off the boat and downtown to 6th Ave and Broadway.
The Jeep rental company was inside Heath’s Popcorn Emporium. We signed the required paperwork and hopped into our 2004 TJ. The contract allowed 200 miles on the rental and charged $1/mile over the allowance. The company recommended turning around at Emerald Lake. Rob and I had discussed getting tattoos on this trip. It seemed like the only port we had time for this was in Skagway. Unfortunately there were no tattoo shops in Skagway. The nearest one was in Whitehorse, capital of Yukon Territory. We really wanted to try to make it there, although round trip would be over 200 miles. We decided to set out on our journey and figure out the rest along the way.
Skagway was covered in fog as we set out on our drive leaving the town behind. There really wasn’t much to see due to the fog and cloud cover. We hit the Alaskan Highway and sailed through Canadian customs. (+1 hour time change) Eventually it seemed as though we were leaving the fog behind. We saw some beautiful scenery and stopped a few times along the way to snap some pictures.
Carcross was the first town that we encountered on the route. It was a very strange town. I believe the population is about 450. On our walk through town we grabbed a coffee and chai latte at a coffee shop. The town is right on a lake with a nice beach. It also has a laundromat, library and a college. We stopped by the visitors center in town and asked how long it takes to get to Whitehorse. About one hour. We decided to go for it and left Carcross to continue north on the Alaskan highway.
It turns out that the drive only took 45 minutes. We didn’t make any stops along the way as we had to have the Jeep back by 6pm and we wanted to ensure we would have enough time in Whitehorse. Downtown didn’t seem to be too large and we easily found the tattoo shop that we were looking for. After paying for parking, Rob and I made our way into Triple J’s. As we were entering there was a woman exiting the shop while breastfeeding a baby. Maybe it’s legal for women to be topless in the Yukon? I didn’t try it myself to find out. Unfortunately the tattoo artist at Triple J’s was booked for the day, as was the artist at Molotov and Bricks. Buzz Tattoo was available by appointment only and had no open hours on Wednesdays. After three attempts and three rejections, it was time for lunch.
Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ looked promising so we decided to eat there. Rob had the Kickass Klondike burger made of bison, boar, and elk meat. I had a chicken focaccia sandwich. The food was delicious and the portions were enormous. After we stuffed our bellies we decided to head back to Skagway.
The drive back to Skagway offered breathtaking scenery. The sky was partly cloudy and the sun was shining. We stopped a few times along the way for photo ops. It was amazing to see how gigantic the mountains were that we had driven by earlier in the day when they were shrouded by fog. After refilling the tank in Skagway we returned the Jeep. Our total trip length was 226 miles but the rental company decided to waive the overage charges.
The town was busy and crowded but we proceeded to browse through some shops. Rob had been looking for a new watch so we stopped into a few local stores. It was at Kimse’s that Rob instantly spotted something he must have. Not a watch, but a knife. The blade was made from recycled metals (an old sawmill blade) while the handle was fashioned from antler. Rob’s credit card had been placed on hold due to fraudulent activity and his cell phone didn't work. So it took some extra effort to purchase the knife. We got back on the ship and the knife was taken by security for safe keeping until our final departure.
I ate dinner at the Garden Café. Rob was still full from lunch so he just watched. After dinner we stopped at the whiskey bar for a night cap.
Day 6: 9/8/16
Today was another sea day which meant we wouldn't be getting off the boat. We woke up a little after 7 and made our way to Deck 8 forward. This is normally a crew only area but is opened up to guests while cruising Glacier Bay. Unfortunately it was a foggy morning and we couldn’t see much. We decided to grab breakfast instead. After breakfast we visited the game room and pulled our chairs up to the windows to read as we sailed through Glacier Bay. Rangers from Glacier Bay National Park provided commentary over the ship’s PA system throughout the day.
Rob and I decided this would be the perfect time to hit the gym. It turns out that we were right and the gym was pretty empty. I could see some of the scenery from the treadmill but Rob could mostly see just water since he’s so tall.
After our completed workout we went back to the cabin to shower and then watched glaciers pass by from our balcony. The park rangers were on the intercom pointing out specific things to look at. They said we saw Johns Hopkins Glacier. It was really big. There was also Marjorie Glacier, Lamb Plu the blue, and Grand Pacific Glacier. One of them calved into the ocean with a giant splash and the sound of thunder. Eventually, the ship did a 180 and we returned back the way we came.
We made our way to the mid ship bar area and grabbed some drinks. It just so happened that a martini tasting was about to begin so we decided to partake. We like martinis. The martinis came in a flight with a lesson. I liked the Manhattan and 007. We liked the basil cucumber and the espresso. Then we dressed up and got dinner at Teppanyaki, the hibachi restaurant. The chef was very entertaining and the food was really good so we ate too much of it. And then we went into food comas.
Day 7: 9/9/16
We arrived in Ketchikan before we woke up which was around 6:30 am. We ate breakfast at the buffet. It was very rainy when we got off the boat. We met up with our tour guide at 8:05 am. After the remaining five people from the group arrived we got into a van and headed to Alaska Canopy Adventures to go ziplining. We had signed up to do the Bear Creek course. Everyone else in the group was doing the Eagle Creek course, so it was just us and our tour guides, Joey and Immy. We ziplined around the Alaskan rainforest canopy (yes, it's actually a rainforest). The downpour was very fitting. Immy suggested Fat Stan’s for a beer so we found it after we got back to the docks, fully saturated. We had a beer and then got back on the ship to change our clothes.
We ate lunch at Summer Palace as we were pulling away from the docks at about 1:30 pm. I didn’t like my salmon burger. We liked Mandy’s pulled pork cheeseburger. We did some reading in the Spinnaker Lounge for the afternoon. The water was really rough. At dinner we ate at the buffet. We bumped into Sam and Eric and planned to see them at the White Hot Party which started at 10:30 pm. We were exhausted at 9:30 so we didn’t make it.
Day 8: 9/10/16
We slept until about 7:30 this morning. We gained an hour overnight crossing back into the Pacific time zone. We went to the buffet for breakfast and brought our books to do some reading. Eventually we headed back to the room to shower and read some more. Our plan was to go to the gym but as our sneakers were still soaked from Ketchikan this was not an option. Instead, we felt it was a good day to wander the ship.
We started at the great outdoors with a screwdriver for me and a rum and diet coke followed by a beer for Mr. Roberto. Sam and Eric were there eating a late breakfast and we exchanged pleasantries. Maybe they think we’re stalking them. We weren’t. Our next stop was the martini bar. I ordered a basil cucumber twist and Rob had a Jameson and ginger and then a manhattan with Jameson. It had mostly sweet vermouth and also a drop of dry vermouth and finished with a lemon twist. After the martini bar we browsed the ship a bit more before stopping for lunch and drinks at O’Sheehans. Here, we saw Sam and her family again so we stopped and chatted for a bit after we were done eating. We decided that we should head back to the room and try to get some of our things packed as this was our last day on the ship.
After packing we stopped by the hot tubs to relax. It was mostly foggy throughout the day but it started to clear off as we got closer to port. Eventually, we pulled ourselves out of the hot tub and back to the room for a shower followed by some more reading. We ate a buffet dinner at the Garden Café and then disembarked the ship in Victoria. We exited through the gates into Victoria. I wondered to myself, and to Rob, why we didn’t need our passports checked here.
We stopped outside the gated area and decided to wait until people filed off the ship in hopes that we might see people we knew and could explore Victoria with. Sam had said that they were planning to walk around the city and would be getting off the ship around 6 pm. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anyone we knew in the masses of people exiting. It was fun to smile and wave at people like we knew them but somewhat unsatisfying because no one seemed to notice or care.
We admitted defeat in trying to find people that we knew so we set off to explore Victoria on our own. We started following signs for the waterfront path. Rob desperately had to pee (it was probably because of all those drinks) so we picked up the pace. Public restrooms were available at the fisherman’s wharf so that’s where we made our first stop. Once we had piddled in the loo we walked around the wharf. This was a neat area where you could grab a water taxi, get some food at a local shop, or peep the floating homes. The floating houses were very cute but I think I would tire of the tourists if I lived there.
Our walk continued on towards downtown while we admired architecture and landscaping. We passed by some street performers and stumbled upon a sidewalk chalk festival. We wandered around until we found a place to get a beer. That was Milestones Grill and Bar. I got the Rail Ale Nut Brown Ale. We were seated at the edge of the patio area and had a prime view of the sidewalk to see people walking by and also of the harbor with the government building in the background.
We were enjoying our beers when we saw Sam and Eric. Or maybe they spotted us. They were heading to meet Sam’s family but said they wanted to meet up later for Tim Kaminski’s comedy show. Post-beverages we decided to head back to the ship to catch the comedy show as it started at 10:45. The show was in the Spinnaker Lounge. When we got to the lounge at about 10 pm it was already quite full. Rob got us some drinks at the bar while I secured the only booth left in the room. When Sam and Eric arrived with her sister Tracy and brother-in-law Jason we flagged them over. There was plenty of room at our booth for six people. We enjoyed an evening of comedy and drinks as we pulled away from Victoria to make our way back to Seattle. After the show was over we said our goodbyes to the friends we had made and parted ways to go back to our rooms.
Day 9: 9/11/16
Today is the day we depart the cruise. We woke up in Seattle and decided to go get breakfast in the buffet followed by showers and making sure the last of our things were packed. Since we were planning to carry off all of our luggage that meant we could get off the ship in one of the earliest time slots. We grabbed our bags and started to depart. On the way we stopped to say goodbye to Angelo, our cabin steward for the week, and thank him for his great work. The departure process was very easy, so easy in fact that we almost walked right past the security desk without picking up Rob's knife that he had bought in Skagway. Luckily, my dad reminded him, and we obtained the knife before we left the gangway.
After we got on land we found our way to the concierge service. Here, we left our bags for a small fee, so that we could do some exploring before our flight. All of us wanted to check out Pike Place Market so we made our way there. It wasn't too far from the cruise terminal. I think that we were all impressed by the market. There were so many fish and trinkets and flowers! They had to have been the most beautiful flowers I'd ever seen. And so affordable! The hunger started to set in after we had wandered the market a bit so we grabbed some lunch at a nearby restaurant. We were all pretty exhausted at this point and agreed after lunch to go grab our bags and go to the airport.
The cab dropped us off at the airport and we made our way through baggage drop-off/security with mostly no issues. My parents were targeted for additional baggage searching but we had plenty of time to allow for this. At the departure gate we sat and relaxed and read a little bit while we waited for our flight. The trip was non-stop back to Boston, however, we all somehow wound up separated in middle seats which is probably the worst place to be on a flight. It was a fairly uneventful flight. We landed before midnight and picked up the bags at baggage claim before taking the airport shuttle to the parking garage and finding our vehicle. I was the designated driver and did my best to find the most direct route from the airport back home. We finally made it safe and sound around 1 am on 9/12. Rob went straight to bed so he could get up and go to work that day. The rest of us slept shortly after. Vacation is always enjoyable but it's also nice to be back home.
Background - We're 10 friends as a result of a local Jeep club (check us out on northshorejeeps.com) and currently living scattered about Massachusetts. We try to get out wheeling as much as we can, but we all shared a desire to do something a little different. Something a little bit bigger. Maybe too big. None of us - well, maybe one of us - had made a trip quite like this before. The gist of it is Concord, NH to Massachusetts via the North Maine Woods, about 900 miles, and as little pavement as possible. Well, that was the initial design, anyway.
We are Rob (that's me!) and Mandy (that's me!) in our green '99 Wrangler. With us are Topher in a yellow TJ; Shayna in a blue TJ; Shaun, Jenny, and Declan in a white JK; Brendan in a silver JK Unlimited; and Bob and Claude in a grey JK Unlimited Rubicon.
We used this trip report (http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/67758-The-Map-is-Not-the-Territory-A-Northern-Maine-Adventure) as a solid basis for trying to figure out where the heck we should go on this journey. Some of us probably knew about them already, but I learned of the B-52 site and of the lost trains from reading that report. They seemed really neat, and we were all interested in checking them out. Now just how the heck to get there...The planning process was long and involved. We had several more people and rigs during the early phase. I won't bore you all with the details of that. As you know, that's the fun part of the trip, but really only if it's YOUR trip.
Day 1: 6/23/16
So we set out on a Thursday at 7 am. We finally got out of the driveway at 7:11. Don't know what happened there but this is it! It's finally begun! Mandy and I are coming out of Ipswich. Just for the sake of clarification, I drove the whole time. That's not to diminish the role of shotgun! In fact, a lot of the time, it might be more work than driving. (I took great notes for the trip log!) Anyway, the rest of us left from all over the place, but we've agreed to meet in Concord at 9am.
At 7:50, Mandy noted that we have made our first turn-around because I hopped on 495 the wrong direction. Because I was on auto-pilot. Because I hadn't gotten my coffee in yet. (I didn't suspect it would be the LAST turn-around of the trip...)
We met up with Topher and Shayna in Salem, NH real quick so we'd at least have some company and some CB chatter. And I had to pee. Just before we hopped back on the highway, we could overhear Shaun and Brendan on the CB. I tried to contact them over the radio but they wouldn't stop talking long enough to hear me. We saw them fly by ahead of us as we approached the on ramp, but we simply couldn't catch them before Concord. We all arrived precisely on-time-ish and applied stickers and fueled up. Some of us finished waking up. We officially started driving the route when we left the parking lot at 9:52. The somewhat-arbitrarily-chosen order put Bob and Claude in the lead. They were followed respectively by Brendan, Topher, Shayna, Shaun + Jenny + Declan, and Mandy and I brought up the rear.
The weather was pristine. Low 80s. Light clouds. We cruised to the Kancamagus Highway. Of course we had to stop for a group photo at Pemigewasset Overlook. It's just so scenic. Back on the road, the route had us taking Bear Notch Rd. north to route 302. On the way, Mandy convinced us to take a slight detour to check out the Experimental Forest. Joke's on her because that was a planned part of the route already! (I was so excited!) Bob came upon a tree across the road, so we rerouted rather than bushwhacking. Detour number 1. (Technically detour number 1 started when we went the wrong way on 495...) We picked up some speed on 302 and got to Jefferson Notch Rd. We found a big clearing on the side of the road and pulled in to have some lunch. And stretch the legs. As we were getting ready to get back on the road, we realized that we were at our first campsite. Neat! Excepting a chip in Brendan's windshield, everything was going well, so we continued on to Trio Pond Road.
Trio Pond Road flipped all that upside down. Now, before we get into all that, it's necessary to explain a bit more background information. See, our route was roughed out using the aforementioned trip report, but it was detailed using topo maps, satellite imagery and GaiaGPS. So the actual surface conditions were unknown, but we were hoping for the best all along. So when Trio Pond Rd. got really rough, we had to just deal with it. All of us are experienced with more technical wheeling than Trio Pond Rd. presented, so this was not a show-stopper. But it did set us back some. We aired down and disconnected the front sway bar for comfort. In the future, I'd do this at the beginning of Trio Pond Rd. We crawled on for a while until, eventually, we came upon a cluster of lake-front houses. Or pond-front? We found this quite odd, especially when we saw the vehicles parked at these houses. They were quite incapable of getting there by their looks. We pushed on. We had to do some winching to help some of our smaller rigs through the mud and boulders. We came upon a small creek with a pretty significant and awkward ledge. This required some makeshift bridge construction to help prevent the trailers from flopping. We all got through with a little nail-biting, but no problems.
For potential future running of this route, we made a note that at "Point 024" on our route, we should have turned left. This is near the houses, and given the state of the vehicles at the houses, it must be an easier route out of the woods. We wondered aloud how they were able to get the building materials for the houses out there along Trio Pond Rd. Or heating propane. Or groceries. There's got to be another way in and out.
Anyway, at 7:15pm we finally arrived to our first campsite! The campsite, just after "Point 026" on the route, was in a clearing on a plateau on a large hillside. The views were spectacular around dusk. The sky was perfectly clear. There were some windmills in the distance spinning casually. When we pointed them out, Jenny shared some confusion as she believed them to be called "powergrid mills". Everyone was a bit frazzled/exhausted/hangry. Jenny and Shayna got to work straight away cooking us all delicious steaks! We also feasted on cheesy potatoes and corn cobs. The food was delicious and well-deserved. Everyone poured themselves a drink (or a few!), set up camp and gathered around the fire Shaun built. The ground at this site was not awesome for tenting, but it was not awful either. Mandy and I hung our hammocks so we didn't have to care. With food and drink in our guts, spirits were boosted and lots of laughter ensued. We recalled Jenny's "powergrid mills" comment and shared a laugh. Sorry Jenny.
Day 2: 6/24/16
We woke up at 5:30 because Mandy forgot to shut her alarm off. Hi, we're on vacation, remember?! Sorry!! That didn't happen again. We got to work making coffee and whacking bugs. Breakfast was scrumptious breakfast sandwiches of sausage, egg and cheese on English muffins. These were super satisfying (as well as delicious) because all the ingredients were the same diameter and concentric. Rob is so weird, but they were delicious! I ate two. We packed up, aired up, and reconnected the sway bar, and hit the road at exactly around 8:40ish.
Everything was going swell. The weather was pristine, the roads were good. Spirits were high. We had the top down and it was sinking in that we were on vacation. You know the feeling. We had covered a fair bit of ground and we had about a half hour or so until we entered Errol, NH. When suddenly...
Brendan stopped abruptly. As the dust settled (literally) I could see that he'd either parked awkwardly across the road, or something was very wrong with his trailer. Upon inspection, we discovered that the passenger's side of the axle had shifted rearward until the tire contacted the fender. He must have finished his coffee by then, because his reaction time was quick enough to prevent any damage to the tire. And there may have been several profanities let loose! So what it appears had actually happened is that the axle U-bolts worked themselves loose. This allowed some relative movement between the spring pack and the axle tube. This allowed significant forces to be translated to the spring pack bolt and at some point, this bolt was sheared. At this point, the axle was free to move along the leaf spring. It stopped when the tire touched the fender. Everyone searched their tool kits for a replacement bolt and unfortunately we had none. We looked at our rigs to find an appropriately-sized, non-crucial bolt that could be removed and installed in the trailer. We came up empty-handed. After some head-scratching, we realized that a 1/4" drive extension is almost an exact fit. We installed it up through the bottom of the leaf pack, and then set it into the spring perch. The taper on the large end ensured that it couldn't pop out over a bump. It was a perfect Band-aid, and served well to get us to Errol, NH.
We pushed on. We wanted to find the easiest route to pavement because we weren't totally confident in the limits of the extension-Band-aid. Luckily for us, it was Craftsman! So if it broke, we could just go to any Sears location....oh wait. We were in the middle of nowhere. So we decided not to turn left at "Point 035" because it looked steep and overgrown and unpredictable. The trail system we were on has occasional maps placed at major intersections. These are very well detailed and served us well. Also, we chatted with a local who was stopped at one, and he helped us navigate to pavement. We emerged the woods in Errol, NH a short drive from L.L. Cote hardware, lumber, clothing, sporting goods, grocery, gas station, rest area megaplex. A backcountry Walmart. We divided and conquered. In other words, we fueled up, Brendan got new trailer hardware, we got drinks, used the restrooms, checked out the grass flip flops and other interesting merchandise and then we moseyed over to the Hawg Trawf BBQ. Which, ironically has very little BBQ. We figured it wise to get a full meal while it was available to us, because we were all a little unsure of what lay ahead. One thing we did know was that a quick parking lot wrenching session was in our immediate future. We settled our bill and regrouped in the parking lot under the trailer to swap out the extension for a real bolt. We were practiced now, and worked pretty efficiently as a team. After a minor exploding bolt incident (Brendan threw a little too much muscle into the new bolt and it failed under tension, rocketing up into the floor of the trailer) we were packed up and back on the road.
Over lunch we had discussed some route modification to make up for time lost both crawling over Trio Pond Rd. and addressing trailer suspension issues. We were also keen now to consider potential future breakdowns. We made a group decision to cut off the northern sort of "loop" in NH through Pittsburgh. We took route 16 east from Errol towards Rangeley, ME. We officially entered Maine at 2:30pm.
We got off-road again and hit some more logging roads. We cruised until we found our second campsite. We were all ready to call it a day much earlier today. We parked at 5:10pm. It'd been a taxing day. Though the wrenching was not particularly difficult, it's hard work "supervising". But actually, stress levels were slightly elevated because of the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Would we have more problems? Would we get stuck in the middle of the woods? Setting up camp helped to take the edge off. We had better ground this time.
Mandy found a bunch of delicious field strawberries. (They were quite scrumptious. Claude agreed.) We were at the base of a wind farm, on another hill. So the views were again amazing. The weather was still perfect. We set up our hammocks again as everyone built camp. Jenny and Shayna got to work on dinner of chicken, beans and rice. Yet again, the food was delicious. We were beginning to notice a trend of hangry, followed by excellent food, followed by elevated spirits. Maybe it was the drinks. Maybe it was Shaun's fire. Maybe it was just being content with being done for the day. Whatever the cause, I think the nights after dinner were the most relaxed moments. One by one, we headed to bed.
Day 3: 6/25/16
Strangely enough, it was Shaun who awoke first. Even stranger, it was only 6 am! Everyone hustled out of bed and huddled around to collect their share of the long-hyped overland pancakes. It was everything we hoped it'd be. So. The evening prior, other than the good timing at which we arrived to one of our chosen campsites, a large part of the reason we stopped where we did was because the path forward was unclear. Our best guess is that the imagery used to plan the route was dated and the path shown has since become overgrown. The intended route made a sort of corner (north, then east) which we simply cut off diagonally by heading over established roads northeast. It was a short diversion. Back on logging roads, we were able to space out (for dust abatement) and cruise around 30 mph.
We came across a village? (later research shows it is classified as a "township" - Holeb, ME) that was quite odd. It's very secluded, and then suddenly there is a small cluster of maybe a dozen houses very densely built. We crossed the train tracks to push forward along the route. We didn't get too far before we were stopped as the trail fizzled to what was about a walking trail. None of us were looking to bushwhack at this time. So we pulled out the maps and found a loop around to the "other side" of the bushwhack. So back through Holeb and onto logging roads again we went. We found a small pond (just west of Long Pond) at which we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. I had to go for a swim because, well why not? It was warmer than I was anticipating, but very refreshing! Eventually we got onto Holeb Rd. which we took east to route 201.
We took 201 south a short ride into Jackman for fuel at Citgo. We spent some time in Bishop's grocer/liquor store/deli/restaurant/convenience store thing. We got sandwiches for lunch here. Then we drove back up the road a tiny bit to a pretty sweet park we saw on the way into town. There was plenty of grass and shade for frisbeeing and after we worked up a little sweat, we went down the hill into the pond to swim and continue frisbeeing.
After a while in the water, we noticed that we were all surrounded by tiny, dead, baby fishes floating on the surface. (EWWW! - I couldn't swim in the lake anymore after noticing them.) Eventually, a yellow lab named Diesel trotted onto the beach alone. We noted that he had huge balls. Some old lady was yelling at him from atop the grassy hill. He didn't seem very interested in obeying her. Once we were all sufficiently grossed out at the tiny, dead, baby fishes we got out of the water and back on the road.
We took mostly highway to Moosehead Lake so that Shayna would be able to visit the B-52 crash site and Gulf Hagas with us before she had to split off and head home. We felt like we were running "behind schedule" although we didn't actually have one. We were worried if we ran the route as planned (give or take) that we wouldn't have any time to enjoy these sites (even ignoring when Shayna would break off from the group). We revised the plan from doing a clockwise loop (i.e.-follow Canadian border to Allagash wilderness, then head south toward Gulf Hagas), to a counter-clockwise loop (head east to Gulf Hagas, then north to Allagash wilderness area, and then follow the border southwest if time permitted). This plan would allow Shayna to safely drive alone back home (she had to leave the trip early) without any challenging or technical roadways.
So that brings us to the B-52 crash site. In 1963, a B-52 bomber plane crashed on Elephant Mountain near Greenville, Maine. Only two of nine crew survived. Some of the crash debris was cleaned up for analysis at that time. It was then redistributed throughout the woods. It's a very short, easy walk into the site from where we parked. It is really interesting to see the aircraft hardware strewn about the nature.
We passed through Greenville and made our way back to logging roads and the route. Somewhere near "Point 192", the route became rather vague. It is important to note that for nearly the whole trip, Bob had been unofficially deemed the leader, but at this moment I was, for reasons unknown, in the lead. The trail had all but disappeared into overgrowth, but I decided to push ahead just a bit to see if it became clear again. It didn't. But it didn't get any worse either. I kept creeping along and Bob followed, just in case. The rest of the group hung back in a small clearing where the trail had seemingly ended. We stayed in touch via CB. I gave the all clear and that the path was pretty mild, though overgrown. Minor pinstriping was the worst of it. The decision was made for the rest of the group to circumnavigate a short distance and link up with the route at the next waypoint. They'd found another path. We and Bob were committed at this point, as it was too narrow to turn around, and too difficult to navigate in reverse. So we pushed on, the only way we could. Luckily for all of us, we had tuned our CBs before this trip, so we were able to stay in contact. The rest of the group were making progress, but it didn't sound as though their path was clear. Neither was ours. Eventually, though, we broke through to what appeared to be a formerly-logged area. There were small branches and sticks all over the ground, preventing new growth from overtaking the area. It worked out awesome for us because it gave us a reasonably-flat, open, wide makeshift road and an obvious direction. I jogged ahead to make sure the going was good, which it was. So we pushed on and arrived at "Point 193" which was a large clearing atop a hill.
The "road" we had been on intersected a well-kept actual dirt road! So we hopped on that and very shortly arrived at "Camp Dirt Lot". I scouted the site on foot and came what was apparently too close to a mother bird and her nest. This was deemed a mistake for which I would be required to pay. The bird was on the attack! I had been jogging through the site as it was rather large and I was ready to setup camp if it looked like a good spot. Well, I about-faced and sprinted back to the Jeep, and Mandy. "How is it?" she asked. "We're not staying here!" Also, there was a rather extreme number of flies around which we tired of swatting as we waited for the rest of the group to make their way to us. Eventually, they arrived at the North Maine Woods office/gatehouse. This was marked as "Strange House" on our route. It's not that strange in person. They inquired about campsite availability and the decision was made that we would camp in the North Maine Woods! We'd made it! We just had to continue along the dirt road we were on, and we'd arrive shortly at the "strange house". But not so fast...
We got a couple hundred yards down the road and had to stop. There was a tree down, blocking our path. Bob and I busted out our hatchet and axe, and got to work straight away. We were ready to be setup camp and stop driving at this point. But there was work to do. Unfortunately (or not? I don't know) it was a whole bunch of small branches, and not one big log across our path. So we got to chopping. We were through about half the work and I paused a moment to realize that about 50 feet beyond this tree was another, bigger tree down. Shit. So we kept at it, doing what we had to. Topher came up the road from the office to meet us, ensuring that we were going the right way. He conveniently arrived just as we finished clearing the road. We got him turned around and then we had a very short ride to the gatehouse. We paid $39 for two people to camp and we were in! Entering the North Maine Woods was one of our major goals with this trip, so this was an exciting moment.
We chatted a while with the gatekeeper and paid our fees. He gave us several maps and hand-drawings and explained the route to the campsite in great detail. It seemed a bit odd at the time, but now I get it. Because we managed to get lost on our way to the site. We came all this way, with all this technology, explanation and more maps than we could count and we still managed to lose our direction before we arrived at our site. This was really frustrating for the group; we were hungry, we were tired, and we just wanted to be done with the day. But eventually we figured it out. Well, Bob and Shayna did, by splitting up and travelling the same dirt road, two different ways and somehow arriving at the same point, which we still don't understand, but whatever we don't care because we were finally at the site! At 7:45 pm. To be fair, it's a very long ride from the gatehouse to the site. I can't speak for everyone, but it's gotta be the largest campground I've ever been in, by several orders of magnitude. It's just gigantic.
Jenny and Shayna got to work making dinner again while everyone setup camp. We pitched our tent instead of hammocking. This night it was sesame steak tips, green beans and sweet potatoes. I don't know if it was because of the long day we'd had or the frustration, or maybe just because it was an excellent dish, but this meal was a hit with everyone. When we arrived, I think everyone was a little hangry (I certainly was, and Mandy had a headache), but this dinner (and drinks!) turned that right around and everyone was much happier in no time. We had a fire again (that's every night, so far), and gathered around for more drinks, stories, jokes, planning, and relaxing. This site was right on a stream, which was great. But also right next to another group of campers, which was fine, but we were not used to. We'd been so alone and remote each night before this, it was just different.
Day 4: 6/26/16
We got a later start; we were up at 8:05am. We had to figure out our 2-day plan which would take us to the end of our trip. Over breakfast burritos and Maine Gazetteers, we plotted our route to the Allagash Waterway.
But first, we drove to Gulf Hagas. This was another goal/stop/attraction in our original plan. We weren't sure if we'd be afforded any swimming opportunities, but I wasn't taking any chances to miss out! So I swapped into my swim trunks and in the process I lost my key. We scoured an area about 10 feet in diameter for 10 minutes as a group until Shayna found it on my spare tire. We'd already held up the group enough at this point, so when we couldn't find our camera, we said whatever, and went without it. Unfortunately for us, the views of the canyon and the waterfalls were amazing, and we couldn't get any pictures. But we did get to swim in the river pools, which was equally amazing. And the hike was pretty great, but a bit longer than we all anticipated. We should have brought some more snacks, or eaten a bit more before we hiked. We were parched and hungry when we finally got back to the parking lot. So we replenished ourselves and hit the road to the north gate and left Katahdin Ironworks Jo-Mary Forest to head towards Millinocket. We fueled up and iced up and beered up in Millinocket and then headed to Baxter State Forest.
I'd heard about "the golden road" in Baxter, so I was secretly a little excited to get to drive it. But I was also curious if this was just a colloquialism. I'd asked the group, no one knew. Turns out it's just a road named Golden. Golden Road. Not THE Golden Road. It should be called Dusty Rd. It was very anti-climactic for me. Well, not exactly. We crested a hill along Golden Rd. and had awesome views of Katahdin from the west. We took a right onto Telos Rd. There were more awesome views on the bridge over Ripogenus Gorge. We followed Telos Rd. until it intersected with Main St. At this intersection, we took a right and followed a path a short distance to a campsite on the northwest shore of Harrington Lake. We weren't sure if we were supposed to have paid, or how much, or where, but we decided that if someone came along to collect a camping fee, we would gladly oblige. The guys setup camp while Jenny and Mandy worked on dinner. We were tired and dusty. We had cheeseburgers for dinner and they were, of course, delicious. We pitched the tent again, in lieu of hammocks. The campsite was pretty awesome, the ground was flat and grassy and there was plenty of room for us to spread out our vehicles and our tents. Of course we had a fire, yet again. And we gathered around to have some drinks and stories. Some of us dropped off early to sleep, some of us stayed up til about midnight. The night sky views over Harrington Lake were outstanding. We saw several meteors and countless satellites.
Day 5: 6/27/16
We got up at 7am. Jenny and Mandy made breakfast burritos! Do I need to keep saying the food was great? We spotted a rabbit in our campsite, near the tree line, before it hopped away. It was pretty big. Then we all got to work cleaning up the site and packing our gear away. In the process, a red squirrel went into Bob's open tailgate and was climbing all about inside his Jeep. This was hilarious for the rest of us because he strongly despises red squirrels. We got on the road and headed to the Telos checkpoint, which only took us about 10 minutes. We thought we were further away. We checked in and told them we would be camping near the Allagash Waterway. It's $35.50 per adult. It took a while for them to process the whole group; their pricing system is odd. So we had some time to look over maps and get a better idea of what we could do on our last day of the trip before heading home. We found out that the abandoned trains were only 30 miles from where we were and we decided as a group that we must go see them. We had considered it in the early stages of planning the trip, but ruled out visiting the site because it was far off the route we had planned. Since that plan was long since abandoned, we were all in. But things had been going a bit too smoothly...
As we set out, we were making good speed on the logging roads. Everyone was spaced out and cruising comfortably behind the dust. But then we saw brake lights through the cloud of dust. Topher had stopped unannounced. He was looking at his suspension. This always means that something is not right. So we stopped and I went to see what the issue was and if he needed help. His rear shock bracket at the axle end had sheared off the axle. Unfortunately, this allowed the shock to drag on the ground and bent the shafts rendering the shock useless. Since there was nothing else to be done, he simply removed the shock and put it inside his Jeep. He packed up the minimal tools used and we were back on the road in about 10 minutes. A very minor setback. For now...
We drove to what's probably not the best parking spot to hike in to see the trains. There's gotta be a better trail than what we took. We were bushwhacking for about two miles, following pink ribbons, trying to guess what the trail maybe was. We eventually found some rails in a small valley. Right about the time it started to rain on us. In this regard, the dense forest we were trekking through was a blessing. It helped us stay dry. Fortunately, it only rained for a few minutes. (Unfortunately, this meant the roads were still going to be very dusty. Oh well.) As we continued our hike, we began to see more and more railroad debris strewn about the woods. Eventually we found a clearing and a trail that looked much more travelled. Bob scouted ahead and shouted back that we should follow. Walkie talkies would have been useful here. He'd found the trains! It's a pretty neat site. It's so strange to see trains buried so deep in the woods, with no clear way in or out or how they got there. We spent a while climbing on and photographing the trains. We picked a different trail back to the vehicles, which eventually linked up with the one we came in on. We got back on the road and saw a moose! Well, I didn't see the moose, but some of us did. It was walking along the road we were driving on.
Earlier at Telos checkpoint, we had found a site labeled "Ice caves" that we knew nothing about, but had a campsite nearby. We had planned to check it out and hopefully camp there. But after hiking back from the trains, which took longer than we'd anticipated, we were all somewhat exhausted so we decided to skip the ice caves in favor of setting up camp early. We found a campsite nearby at Round Pond and set up around 5pm. I think everyone was slightly jealous of Brendan's location within the site, right on the waterfront.
Jenny made us delicious chili for dinner. Shaun and Brendan gathered, cut, and split plenty of firewood. We were having a fire yet again. We had one each night, at every campsite. As I was sitting by the fire relaxing with a beer, I saw a fox trot by at the top of our campsite along the road.
I should note that this writing is derived from a journal that Mandy and I kept as we travelled. Whenever there was downtime, we would jot about what had gone on for our memories. So since it was the last night and (we thought) the whole story was written at this point, everyone wanted us to read it back to them. So we had story time around the fire and it was actually pretty neat. Everyone notes different things about the journey because of their perspectives and it was fun to share ours and hear others'. We haven't kept a travel journal before, but I think we will continue to do it in the future.
After story time, Bob and Declan were looking out over the pond when one of them spotted a moose! They got the rest of the group’s attention as quietly as they could so we could all get a look. It was a couple hundred yards away along the shore, standing around in the water. We watched it not do anything for a while then returned to the fire. Just before bed, Mandy took a peek down by the water to see if the moose was still around. There was a large black thing in the water immediately in front of where she was standing. She thought it was a large boulder until the moose lifted its head. Jenny saw it too. By the time the rest of the group got out to the shore, the moose was swimming away. Which was still really awesome to see. It seemed it was trying to get around our campsite to the shore on the other side, but didn't want to come too close to us, so it swam by about 30 feet off shore. After that, we headed to bed so we could get an early start. We had a long ride home ahead of us.
Day 6: 6/28/16
We woke up at 6 am to start packing. It became apparent that over the course of the night, something had taken care to cleanup the leftover chili from our garbage bag. It was THAT good. By 7, everyone was packed up and we left the campsite. We took a left out of the site to take a shortcut through some trails that would get us to Telos Rd. After about 25 minutes or so of driving down trails that seemed to be slowly dwindling in size, we reached a water crossing. From looking at the maps, it looked like the trails would continue to diminish. I think that everyone wanted to be on the way home at this point, so we decided to go the long way instead. The way we knew would get us there. The way we came in. So we turned around, and since we had been in the rear, we were now leading the way. We had a chuckle as we passed by our campsite around 8am. We'd explored as far as we were going to and we were officially headed home. We would cover no new ground. But that didn't mean it was about to get boring!
We reached a large intersection, and unsure which way to go, we stopped to handoff the lead back to Bob and let the rest of the group catch up. When he arrived, Topher hopped out to confirm his suspicion that he'd broken his other rear shock mount. Same issue. Same fix. Just a few minutes to remove the rear shock and we were good to go again. Towing a trailer with no rear shocks was not ideal, but we drove on anyways.
We had almost reached the Telos checkpoint when disaster struck yet again! Not really disaster, though. Bob got a flat tire. We figured that with 7 people on it, they should be able to handle fixing a flat, so we continued on to the checkpoint to use the restroom and brew a coffee for the road. See, we'd foregone breakfast in favor of getting an early start, so I was a bit hungry. Right as I was finishing cleaning up our snack remnants and packing away the coffee gear, the rest of the group arrived. We got a few group pictures and some locals hit us with some questions, and showed a general interest in our trip. After a short stop, we headed back toward Millinocket.
We gassed up in Millinocket and said our goodbyes. I think some of the group were going to get breakfast somewhere nearby. Mandy and I both wanted to go straight home. Which we did, with just one fuel/pee stop. Mandy got some messages from Jenny which said Topher had swapped his trailer over to Bob's Jeep because it was too difficult and dangerous to tow with no rear shocks. And that when they were on their way, some of the axle nuts came loose. Luckily they stopped in time to tighten them down, that could have spelled disaster for real.
We got home around 4 pm.
On January 3rd, 2016 we packed our things in our hostel in Antigua. After gathering all of our belongings into our backpacks, we went out to the street to await our van to take us to Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlán)! This was super exciting for us as it was an internet picture of Lake Atitlán that drew us to Guatemala in the first place. We were excited to see the lake in person. But first we had to get there. We had purchased tickets in Antigua for a van ride to San Marcos la Laguna (San Marcos at the lake). We were told the ride from Antigua would be about 3 hours. Whenever the van showed up. As we were waiting, we debated on going back to Fernando's for a coffee. But I talked Rob out of it in case we missed the van. We definitely would have had time as the van showed up about an hour late. We piled our gear on top, and piled our bodies inside and hit the road. Apparently we were the last passengers for pick up. Rob got shotgun while I had to ride in the middle between him and the driver. We were again glued to the windows, watching everything as it passed us by.
Originally, when we'd arrived in Antigua, we had felt as if we'd stepped back in time in some ways. There is a lot of old architecture and cobblestone streets. It doesn't seem that there is an abundance of money there, but the people get by. In short, it was a bit of a shock to us. By the third day, we had begun to get used to it though. We felt safe and pretty comfortable there. But, as we inched closer and closer to the lake, we wondered what had we gotten ourselves into with this trip. The small, single-story city blocks enclosed by brick and cement that comprise Antigua central gave way to standalone single family homes that were fashioned from cinder blocks and corrugated sheet metal and were mostly open to the air. Along the drive, these slowly became more scarce and were replaced instead with open landscapes dotted with sheet-metal-and-stick lean-tos.
Our van crested a mountain ridge and we caught the briefest glimpse of the lake. Our worries were quelled for the moment as our excitement skyrocketed. We made it! Our driver began a very long, very slow, very twisty descent down to the lake. The road was laden with giant potholes and was washed out all over the place. The shoulders were nearly vertical on both sides with scant guardrail. I noted that a good mechanic could probably do very well for himself here just replacing brakes. Our lives were fully in our driver's hands through these countless switchbacks. Before each turn, he laid on the horn as a warning for any approaching vehicles. He was laser-focused and we averaged maybe 5mph for the last 2-3 miles down to San Pablo la Laguna. Our van driver informed us that we would be getting out here as he was continuing with the remaining passengers to San Pedro center. He hailed us a tuk-tuk (imagine a quasi-enclosed, motorized tricycle) driver and we climbed in with our backpacks. We asked our driver if he knew how to get to Castro's in San Marcos. "Si." We were in luck and on our way to our house on the lake!
Because there are no street addresses in San Marcos, our landmark to find our temporary new home as told us by our host Castro was a "multi-colored flag hanging in a tree 50m before the burned-out truck". For months we had tried to imagine this scene. What if we walk right past it? Will we notice? What if the truck gets removed? What if someone else's truck breaks down somewhere else? Is this truck destined to be there permanently? The questions vanished when we found it, though; it was quite obvious. Our tuk-tuk driver parked on the side of the road and pointed to the trail up the mountain side as our destination. Following Castro's instructions, we went up the path and through the gate. Then up the trail into the woods. We felt like we were on a jungle safari now, as all we could see everywhere was green; we were deep in the thicket. "Turn right at the path" (this would have us now walking across the hill rather than straight up it. We appreciated this change) and follow it down a ways...suddenly we were in front of the house!
We walked up to the house and found a woman cleaning. Rob communicated with her that we were looking for Castro. The lady walked through a path near the house and came back shortly with a man who introduced himself as Karsten (aka Castro). He welcomed us to the house and stated that it wasn't quite ready for us as we were a little early. This was fine with us as we were very hungry. Karsten gave us a quick tour of the house and a key. We locked up our valuables in the safe and left our bags so we could go get some food while the house was being prepared. We walked back down the path to the dirt road and made our way into San Marcos center.
It was about a twenty minute walk into town from our house. The views of the lake along the walk were amazing. Our stomachs were getting angry at us so we ate at the first place we could find when we got into town; Los Abrazos (the hugs). When we walked into the building we first saw information for the travel opportunities that could be arranged on site. Next, we saw the restaurant dining area which looks as if it is in the living room of the family's home. We sat down and ordered our meals. I got tacos and Rob ordered a burrito. The experience was pleasant although maybe slightly slow but we didn't mind. Rob even had the opportunity to translate for a lady that came in looking to rent an apartment from the restaurant owner. This was totally pushing the limits of my Spanish speaking skills. I hope I got the proper message across. When it came time to pay, we realized we only had large bills with us. The meal cost much less than our smallest bill and the restaurant could not make change for us. They suggested that we go break the bill at another business and come back to settle our tab. So that is what we did.
We left Los Abrazos without paying in search of a place that we could make some change. We wanted to get some things to bring back to the house for preparing our own meals anyway. There was a roadside stand that seemed to sell a bit of everything including eggs and veggies. We stopped here and gathered some things to make our own breakfast. We learned that eggs are sold as singles and do not come in a carton. We ordered a dozen eggs and received a queer look from the store attendant (maybe it's more typical to buy them one or two at a time?) and we got them handed to us loose in a plastic bag. This was frightening. What if the eggs broke on our trek back to the house?! I had brought a reusable compact grocery bag in my purse that I put the eggs and other items in. This seemed to work well for extra strength and protection. After we got our change, we quickly went back to Los Abrazos to pay our bill before exploring the town.
San Marcos la Laguna is a small village. It is known around the lake for it's holistic and spiritual vibe. There are several yoga, meditation, and massage centers. We wandered the narrow paths off from the main road and made our way to the dock. This is where locals and visitors can take a boat to any of the other lakeside villages for a small fee. There are several children who seem to hang around the docks and gather around tourists when they arrive via boat. They ask where you are going and offer to show you around the town (generally in English, and this seems to be about the extent of their English vocabulary). We were very well versed in "No, gracias!" in short order. After checking out the water tempurature (it was warm) we wandered back through other paths to the main road. The town seemed to be organized exactly how we had read that it would be. Businesses/hostels/tourist spots were located closest to the water, this is where the "gringos" (expats and hippies, mostly) lived and frequented. Further into town and up the hillsides is where most of the indigenous Mayan families resided.
The walk back to the house was pleasant and offered generous views of the lake again and surrounding volcanoes. We offered pleasantries to all the passersby with a friendly "Buenos dias!" Everyone we met was in good spirits. How could you be anything but happy when you're in a place so beautiful with such amazing weather?! Before we knew it we were back at the burned out truck and our signal to start our hike up the mountainside to the house. This week was definitely good for our calves! We arrived to a house that seemed like it was fit for a king and queen with its outrageous view. The hostel in Antigua was comfortable for us but this house raised everything to the next level.
After appreciating the view from the house we started to unpack our things. We were going to be here for a whole week so we figured we should make ourselves feel at home in this paradise. Karsten stopped by as we were settling in to greet us again and ask us if we needed anything. He provided us with phone numbers of local men who could provide us with tuk-tuk and/or guide service. He also showed us where we could refill our filtered drinking water vessel and gave us a quick rundown of the area. It was safe to walk in the area but we were getting into the high tourist season and there was a small chance of being held up by machete in certain areas outside town. Karsten said that we likely wouldn't have any issues (especially with Rob's big muscles) but to be safe we should carry only small amounts of cash and give it away if threatened rather than risk injury. We asked him about places to eat/things to do and he recommended Maya Moon (further up the road away from San Marcos) for drinks and/or food as well as a good swimming spot. It was safe to walk there on the road and further past Maya Moon to Tzununa. But, he stated that to continue on past Tzununa to Jaibalito he would recommend a guide for safety. We thanked Karsten for his information and finished settling into the house as he left. He lived down a short path from the house so if we needed anything he was nearby. For anyone checking out the area we highly recommend renting this property.
When we were in town we had picked up some rum (Ron Botran) and Coke so we cracked into this and sat to enjoy the view on the deck with each other. We each had brought a book with us as well as a deck of cards so we took the opportunity to relax and enjoy the quiet while reading followed by a game of cards. Eventually we decided that we wanted to venture out before dark to check out Maya Moon. We locked up our valuables and the house and hiked our way down the mountainside to the road and turned left to head towards Tzununa. We followed the dirt road and continued to marvel at the views. About ten minutes later we found ourselves in front of the gate for Maya Moon. The property was on the lake side of the road so we entered the door to the property and started following the path to the restaurant. This "path" was more like a neverending set of switchbacks and stairs. It took us about another five minutes (it sounds like a short period of time as you're reading this, but when it is nonstop stairs, it may well be forever) to make our way down to the base of the mountain where we found the bar/restaurant next to the waterfront.
The bar was close to the lake and had several small tables to sit and enjoy the view. We grabbed a couple drinks from the bar and ordered the special of the night which was a spicy noodle dish. As the sun started to set we could begin to clearly see Volcan En Fuego (that's its name, which translates to volcano in/on fire) erupting against the night sky off in the distance. There was a couple nearby that had binoculars to get a closer view. We began chatting with them (in English, thankfully; it's exhausting translating 24/7) and borrowed the binoculars to see the magnified eruption. It was neat to see the lava spewing out of the top of the mountain and then trickling down the sides. We enjoyed our dinner and drinks and then decided to go back to the house. It was after dark now but we had brought a flashlight with us to help navigate. The walk back up the stairs to the road seemed like it took forever. The walk on the road gave our legs a little bit of a break before making the hike uphill again. We fell asleep shortly after arriving home in what Mandy liked to refer to as "the princess bed" because it was enclosed in mosquito netting.
The next day we got up and ready at a leisurely pace. We went down to docks at Maya Moon to get a water taxi to Panajachel ("pan-uh-ha-SHELL", though I liked to say it "Pan-uh-JAY-CHEL" just for fun). We arrived in what seemed like a bustling metropolis as compared to San Marcos. Pana had a lot more people and a lot more activity. We wanted to go ziplining but didn't really know where we were supposed to be going so we set off walking. After about 10-15 minutes, we realized we were going in the wrong direction! We turned around and headed out of town up the hill instead. It's a pretty steep hike (as is all the hiking around the lake) but as the road makes a sharp switchback after a short distance, there is an outstanding view of the lake. Conveniently, it is at this switchback where we were turning off the road, so we got to go back downhill.
We arrived at Reserva Natural Atitlán (natural reserve) and arranged to go ziplining! We waited for sufficient guests to arrive to form a group for a tour, then we geared up and I translated safety instructions for Mandy and a couple others in our group. Our tour guides were Carlos and Baldo and neither spoke a word of English. Communicating with them was...interesting. I tried my best to chat with them as we hiked up the notch. They were quite friendly and laughed a lot the whole tour; we got the impression they very much enjoyed their work. We saw a monkey on our hike up to the beginning of the course! There were a few hanging bridges that we crossed along the way, one of them providing an excellent view of a nearby waterfall. The hanging bridges had a two person limit so we took our time moving slowly across them. Once we reached the top our guides split up. Carlos ziplined down to the next landing and Baldo stayed behind with the group. We were generally in the front of the group and eagerly hopped off the ledge as instructed, hand braking when we got the flag to slow down from Carlos. When the cable was clear for the next person to zip, Carlos would radio up to Baldo and say "Libre, Baldo!" (literally, "Free, Baldo!" meaning the zipline was clear) to let him know the next person could go. This became a catchphrase for the rest of our trip, just because it was fun to say. We ziplined back down across the notch over coffee fields, forests, and a river. The views of the lake were even more impressive up here. We got all the way back down and we did an obstacle course. That was fun, but difficult.
We left the nature reserve in search of food as we were quite hungry. We stopped to take a couple pictures along the way. Once we were back in town we looked for some good food. We found a spot that was completely deserted of any patrons, so we thought that it must be legit. The menu looked like it offered authentic Guatemalan fare, and we had discovered that the tiny hole in the wall restaurants offer the best food. We wandered in and were promptly waited on by a woman who may have had a glass eye. She was very friendly and seemed to be the only person working in the restaurant. She seated us, took our orders, served the food, and probably cooked it as well, though we can't be sure. We both ordered the daily special which consisted of steak strips, peppers, onion, rice, guacamole, potato, and fresh tortillas. And picante of course. The lunch was satisfying and filled our bellies.
After lunch, we found a grocery store to stock up on supplies for the house. We got some chicken meat, and a bag of rice, and a few miscellaneous items. The rice was interesting because it was sold in zipper-lock style bags with hand-written labels stating what type of rice was inside. We took our goods and headed back to the docks to catch a water taxi back to San Marcos. There were many vendors gathered selling various crafts and similar items along the path toward the docks. We got some bracelets. Then we made our way back to the house to drop off the groceries. We cooked up dinner that night and had a lazy night in, reading and relaxing.
The next day we got up at our leisure and made breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed waking up in this house and looking out at the spectacular view. After breakfast we went to San Marcos center. We stopped at a cafe, Circles, to get a coffee and enjoy the patio area. The service was extremely slow (perhaps this was an abnormal day but we only visited there once so it's hard to say). We didn't mind the wait as we enjoyed lounging around and chatting with some of the hippie gringo patrons. An old traveler man started chatting with us and was quite taken by Rob. He made several comments about how beautiful of a man Rob is! After we enjoyed our coffees we made for the docks again. This time we caught a water taxi that was headed to San Pedro. It's a very short ride; you can see both towns from one another across the lake. We hiked up, up, up several blocks in San Pedro, just to see what we could find.
We stopped by a bank to exchange some of our larger bills into smaller bills that we could use more easily at the small shops. At every bank we saw in Guatemala there was an armed guard at the door, which was interesting. We left the bank and continued wandering through the upper streets of San Pedro. We found some sweet architecture here in San Pedro. And some street puppies. It was somewhat sad to see them, but they appeared content. There were several businesses that had food and water bowls out for them on the sidewalks. We started walking back downhill towards the lake and dock areas. The closer you get to the lake the more gringos you see. It is an interesting intermingling of cultures around the lake.
We stopped into a random shop to check out the textiles. I found a pair of pants that I liked and the lady was insistent that I take them. She kept dropping her price. I wasn't ready to commit so I told her that I would return when I decided if I wanted them. She set them aside for me until the next day. At this point we were starting to get hungry and decided to stop and get lunch. We found a restaurant near the docks looking out over the lake. We stopped in here and took a table on the deck closest to the water. The restaurants were fairly open to the streets/walking paths in Guatemala. However, this was the only restaurant that we ate at where people came up to us trying to sell us things. A small boy came up to Rob and I and wanted to shine Rob's sneakers:
"Limpio tus zapatos?" (Do you want me to shine your shoes?)
"No, gracias. No es posible." (No thank you. It's not possible.) (I showed him I was wearing cloth sneakers.)
"Es posible con agua." (It's possible with water.) (This boy was quite persistent.)
"No, gracias." (No, thank you.)
"I'm hungry. I need un quetzal to eat." He suddenly switched to English, which was odd. But we felt so guilty, eating in front of him, so we scrounged in our pockets and found a quetzal to give the boy. He seemed satisfied and disappeared.
It wasn't long after the boy left that a woman approached our table carrying a basket on her head. She was selling banana bread and we had shown our vulnerability. She offered us 2 loaves for 15Q. We politely declined. She listed all her flavors, regular banana, chocolate, coconut, vanilla, and more. Again, we politely declined. She insisted that we take two loaves. Two for 10Q she said. We figured we weren't getting out of the situation without bread and it smelled amazing. We gave her 10Q for a loaf of banana and chocolate banana bread. It was still warm when she handed it to us. It was probably the best banana bread we've ever had. Well worth the $1.14 we paid. After the lady left we enjoyed our lunch without anymore visitors. Lunch was okay here. But it was an American style restaurant and was not as delicious as the Guatemalan fare we'd had at other locations.
After lunch we hopped back on a water taxi to take us to San Marcos. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon at the house relaxing. For dinner we had leftovers from the night before and paired this with the banana bread which we grilled slightly. We enjoyed spending evenings out on the deck reading or playing cards and staring at the lights of villages across the lake.
The next morning we woke up knowing it was halfway through our week at the lake. It was a lazy morning and we were enjoying the laidback lifestyle of this vacation. I was standing on the deck enjoying the views of the lake early in the morning when Rob decided that we should take a photo together with the volcanoes in the background. It was something that we had been meaning to do but Rob wanted to wait for the lighting to be right. Rob set the camera up on self-timer and asked if I was ready. I was but I was trying to position myself and be prepared for which side he was going to stand on for the picture when he got down on one knee. I'll spare you all the sappy details of the proposal but it was perfect and of course I said yes! Rob had actually put the camera on video mode to capture the proposal. Rob admitted that he had been carrying the ring around with him throughout the trip as he didn't know when the right moment would present itself. I was shocked the had taken it ziplining with us. What if he dropped it?!?! But he didn't! After the proposal we decided to actually take a picture of ourselves with the amazing backdrop and we both had huge smiles on our faces. I don't know if the lighting was quite right after all, but now I think he was using that as an excuse just until he was ready for the proposal!
We decided that we should celebrate our engagement for the day. There was a hotel/restaurant/bar/pool in a nearby village so we threw on our swimsuits and set off to Maya Moon to catch a water taxi. The restaurant was called Club Ven Acá (Come here) and was located in Jaibalito but only accessible by boat directly to the restaurant's dock. After arriving at the dock we made our way up to the patio area of the large building and were seated by the hostess in the bar area. We both decided that the only proper way to celebrate our engagement was with burgers and beers.
After we enjoyed our lunch it was time to lounge by the pool. The pool was free to use with the purchase of a meal but the hot tub was an additional charge. The weather was nice enough to enjoy the pool and bypass on the hot tub anyway. The pool was an infinity style right over the lake with a swim up bar. We decided to splurge on the occasion and have a few drinks in celebration. It felt like we were on a tropical vacation, lounging by the pool without a care in the world. Oh, wait, we were!
Eventually we were fully relaxed and ready to get out of the sun so we flagged down a water taxi to take us back to the dock at Maya Moon. We walked back up to our house and decided that we should call our families to share the news with them. Everyone was delighted to hear the happy news and that we were alive and well in Guatemala. We continued the day's celebrations with a relaxing afternoon at the house and pizza for dinner in San Marcos at Fe (Faith) restaurant. As we were leaving the restaurant for the night, a small boy saw us with our container of leftover food. He approached us while reaching for the food and asking, "Por mi? Tengo hambre." (For me? I'm hungry.) He looked sincere so we gave him the leftover food telling him it was pizza and he ran off quickly with the food. We made the walk back to the house after dark offering greetings to the passersby. Buenos noches!
The next morning, we had decided we would go to Santiago. We caught a water taxi and found out we had to transfer in San Pedro. We didn't have any detailed plans of what to do in Santiago, so we just wandered around the streets somewhat aimlessly. We like to see where our feet take us sometimes, foreign places are full of wonderful surprises to be had in this manner. We stopped in for lunch at Comedor Brendy. The food was pretty great there. It had a vibe of place that would be popular for locals, though it was mostly empty while we were there.
We took back to our feet and meandered through the streets some more, sort of making our way loosely back towards the docks. We were enjoying cooking some of our own meals, and the money saved by doing so was a nice bonus, so we decided to make tacos with the freshest ingredients we could find. We walked past a couple women on the sidewalk next to a cooking device. They were clapping their hands next to it, in sweltering heat. We stopped for a moment and stepped back to investigate. They weren't actually clapping, they were stretching a dough between their hands and making perfect flat circles and tossing them onto the cooking surface. These were, of course, corn flour tortillas. We wanted to buy a handful or so, so I chatted with the elder of the women to ask how much it would cost. I don't know what happened. I got confused and then frustrated with the language barrier. I just wanted to get out of that situation, so we paid and walked away with like 18 tortillas. Like I said, I don't know what happened. They were cheap enough, and delicious, so it really didn't matter to us. After a moment to process what had transpired and once we were out of earshot we definitely had a good "WTF" sort of laugh as we made our way back to the boats.
We figured out which boat was going back toward San Pedro and paid a random man that was standing nearby. Although we had broken some larger bills earlier in the week, we had used up most of the small stuff that we had by this point. The total fare was 40Q for both of us. The smallest bill we had that we could pay with was 100Q. I tried to explain to the man that was the smallest I had, and expected change, but he stalked off briskly and told us to get on the boat. I was so confused that I just obliged. Downtrodden at our loss, we got a couple seats in the nearly-full taxi and waited for the final seats to fill in. We had been trying so hard to be safe and to avoid being robbed up to this point. I was so upset with myself at letting the man leave with our 60Q that I was going to let it ruin my day. As the water taxi fired up and was about to push off the dock, a small, unfamiliar boy ran up shouting, "¡Señor! ¡Señor su cambio!" (Sir, your change) while he waved some cash at me. I snatched it from him with a "Muchas gracias amigo!" We were instantly elated and rode across the lake with big smiles on. Apparently the whole situation was only a misunderstanding on our part, and we hadn't actually been we ripped off! We made the transfer in San Pedro again to get back to San Marcos.
We stopped and bought some vegetables on our way to our house. There's a house that seemed to be always selling fresh produce each day, right in town. Then we made way for home so we could relax a little before we started making dinner. TACOS! After dinner, we got into bed early. We would have a very early morning.
We woke up at 3:30am so we could walk into San Marcos in the pitch black, using only our flashlight to guide us. We found Luis and he hailed us a tuk-tuk from the pool. He told the driver our destination, but it was too early for translating. We just got in the back and sat obediently, quietly. Trying to turn our brains on, and to stay warm. It gets rather chilly in the evenings. Our tuk-tuk driver bombed up dirt roads through the pitch black, with only a wimpy yellowed headlight to light the way. If we had been awake enough to process it, it may have been terrifying at the time. We were constantly climbing in elevation. Eventually, our ears popped. We wound our way through a small sleeping village and then back out onto dirt roads. We came into another town and our driver slowed to a stop in the middle of the road next to a couple other tuk-tuks. He shut down his engine and we hopped out, sufficiently lost. We hadn't the slightest clue where we were. After introducing ourselves around to the handful of people in the road, we all started walking together, except the drivers, who left.
We followed a tiny dirt trail into a backyard, perhaps. And across a very small farm. A local man was guiding us on our sunrise hike. We didn't catch his name. He wore jeans and fancy dress shoes. So, as the walk turned into a hike, we were somewhat surprised. The trail took a sharp left and climbed diagonally across the hill, where it cut back right. And again. And again. We lost count of the switchbacks, yet we were thankful for them. The hill we climbed was nearly vertical, it would have been impossible without zigging and zagging until our legs fell off! Finally, when we couldn't handle another step, the trail flattened out! It wasn't a very long climb, but it was very steep. By the time we got to the top, there were several others already up there, with whom we had not begun the hike. Everyone was milling about the bald peak of la Nariz India (Indian nose) trying to find a place to comfortably calm their heart rates and wait for the sun to come up over Lake Atitlán. The morning was pristine, and we enjoyed what was perhaps the best-looking sunrise of our lives. The views of the lake were the best we had; it was completely beautiful. We watched the sleepy towns wake up, and we warmed a bit in the morning light before we wound our way back down the hill. Once we got out onto the street again, our tuk-tuk driver was waiting to bring us back to San Marcos.
We walked back to the house from the center of town to exchange our hiking clothes for swimwear, and to grab our towels. Then we turned around and went back to town to get some lunch. On our way to lunch, we passed a man with a machete on the sidewalk. For a few quetzales, he'd swing his machete a few times and open up a coconut and stick a straw in. We took our cocos to a restaurant, and got seated. I made my way over to the bar to see what was available to sweeten the coconut milk. I asked the bartender to please pour in a splash of malibu for each of us. He laughed at the request, and happily topped us off. We sat back down and ordered some sandwiches that we weren't crazy about.
After lunch, we set out to find a trail we'd read about. It took us some walking to find it; for a while we weren't quite sure we were going the right way. We followed several tiny alleys between houses and hostels and other restaurants, like some weird jungle maze past tiny hidden beaches. Eventually, the path opened up and we saw a sign marking Cerro Tzankujil. We had been pining for this place for a few days, as most of the waterfront in San Marcos seems to be private property. However, the nature reserve at Tzankujil has a few places to get in the water and it's deep enough for swimming, and! it's not dirty or dangerous due to water taxi traffic. The most exciting part for me was that there was some high jumps into the water. But first, we had to wander through the beautiful tropical gardens in the reserve, following a gravel walking path. We found the first cliff and I hopped into the water. It was perfect! I scrambled up the rocks to the top and did it again. And again. Until I started getting worn out. Then we continued further along the path, enjoying the gardens to the next cliff. The big kahuna. This one was a deck built out from the rock face and probably 30 feet or so tall. I knew I couldn't look first, so I just walked off the edge. It's a long drop! One was enough for me. We found a spot for Mandy to get into the water more gently as she's not good with heights. A family of 7 or 8 who had been swimming nearby somehow flagged down a water taxi to get picked up from the reserve. We're pretty sure this is not a standard stop. Somehow they all managed to get onto the boat from a large rock without getting wet or squished, and without the boat once touching the rocks! It was an intense few moments, to be sure. After they left, we had a little cove to ourselves, so we paddled ourselves around until we'd had our fill of swimming. We got out and dried off, and continued following the path, not really sure what else this place had to offer. As we wandered, we slowly climbed up a small hill. At the summit, there was a small cluster of houses or something, which was odd, but we didn't see any people around. There was a gigantic cactus up there so we took a picture with it. We came back down along a different path and eventually found ourselves back at the entrance/exit.
We decided to eat at Posada Schumann (Hostel of Schumann) because of its awesome location right by the docks. And also because it was on the way as we headed back toward town and our house. However, it took forever for any staff to come out to us. Perhaps they didn't know we were there, but there was no notification system that we were aware of. We just walked in from the sidewalk and found a table, but there was nobody there at the time.
We got to watch the young boys hanging out on the docks waiting for the gringos to come in. This was neat because generally they're right in your face trying to sell you things or get handouts. It was much less annoying when we got to watch them from a distance, and we realized they actually offer a useful service directing people where to go and organizing the water taxi routes. The water taxis are very loosely managed, if you haven't gathered that yet. The boats have no indication on them of where they're going. It seems that they just head to whichever destination is most popular at that particular moment. If 20 passengers want to go to San Pedro, then they go. If there are only 5 people at the docks, the boat will wait for more people. The boys on the docks help coordinate who is going where, and they collect money for the taxi captains. So while they can be a nuisance, they generally seem to be working pretty hard, especially for their ages.
We finished up with our meal and decided it was time to head back to the house. It was our last night at the lake so we wanted to make sure we had everything packed and ready to go for the morning. We strolled leisurely back to the house, knowing this would be the last time we would be making our way to it.
We awoke the next morning and made breakfast per usual. We gathered all of our belongings and stuffed all of our gear and souvenirs into our backpacks. We made the walk into San Marcos smiling and waving at everyone we encountered along the way. We already knew we would miss the friendly atmosphere around the lake. Once we got into the center of town we waited for the van that would take us back to Antigua. We had arranged an early ride to Antigua so we could spend a few hours there again and then we planned to catch a different van to the airport. We again enjoyed looking out at the foreign land through our windows for the duration of the ride.
The ride seemed to go by quickly and soon enough we were back in Antigua. Our drop off point was at a hostel close to Fernando's. We were allowed to drop our bags here to be secured in a room while we wandered Antigua waiting for our next ride. It was lunch time. The only logical place we could think of to go was Gloria's to get more of those amazing tacos! Again, we were blown away by how good they were. And the fresh juice that came with them was strawberry-pineapple this time. We strongly believe a trip to Antigua is incomplete without stopping at Gloria's. Holy crap, it's just SO GOOD.
After lunch we wandered the streets enjoying the lively atmosphere. We had a completely different perspective of the city after driving through the highland villages and visiting the lake. Antigua now seemed like a wealthy bustling metropolis as opposed to our initial impression.
Before we headed back to catch our van we stopped by Fernando's for coffees. And also to pick up coffee beans to bring home. This is another must-do in this amazing city. We bought as many packages of coffee that we thought we could fit in our bags. We knew once we ran out, it would suck to go back to store-bought coffee in America. We paid for our things and left, making our way back to our bags and catch our van to the airport.
We boarded our van at 6pm. The van had various other stops throughout the city to pick up other passengers. We were a few blocks away from our origination point when we were informed that we were on the wrong van. With the language barrier we couldn't quite figure out what was going on. But we grabbed our bags and made our way back the pick-up point as we were told. It seemed that the process was very disorganized. Soon, we boarded another bus. And very soon after that it was like déjà vu when we were told we were supposed to be on a different van. This time we got out and grabbed our bags and waited at that location. A coordinator from the van service was with us. Finally, we got on a third van. And thankfully, the final van. Again we stopped at different locations to pick up other passengers. Only Rob and I were going to the airport it seemed. We got to Guatemala City and dropped off some passengers at other stops. Eventually, we saw the airport entrance sign approaching. And passing. We were about to let the driver know that we needed to go there when he pulled to the side of the road and got out to give us our bags. Apparently, we weren't getting dropped off at the airport, but sort of close by to it. It was hotter in Guatemala City than Antigua and near the Lake, even though it was evening. We walked up the road, carrying all our worldly belongings on our backs, to the airport entrance and began the final steps to getting home.
Our airport experience was pretty uneventful. Since it was evening, there weren't very many people around. I think ours was the only flight going out within several hours. It seemed everyone there was at our gate. We got a final drink in the airport bar. A local beer, Moza, because who knows if we'll ever have one again. The flight was pretty rough most of the way, unfortunately. It was the first time we'd been actually somewhat nervous due to turbulence. We had a transfer in New York, and finally landed in Boston around 7am on 1/10/16, a Sunday. We were greeted with dreary, rainy weather, and cold. But it was preferable to snow! We arranged an Uber to get us home. We'd been so long out of Ipswich, we were excited to be home. And we needed to catch a nap before we were prepared to drive to pick up Loki from our friends! He was so excited to see us when we finally got to him.
We decided to spend the precious few years we have on this Earth being adventurous and exploring the globe, even if some areas may be considered unsafe. Where is safe? Where is unsafe? I suppose there is not a correct answer to those questions. All I know is that travelling and learning about new areas, people, foods, and cultures gives us amazing experiences and memories. We are determined to see as much of the world as we can while we are able.
We said: "We’re going to Guatemala.”
They said: “Why?”
This was the most common response that we received when we told friends and family of our plan to visit the central American country. The unknown instills many emotions in people. We felt curious and excited when we saw a picture of an eco-lodge situated on beautiful Lake Atitlan a year ago. We were instantly intrigued. We decided then that we would someday make a trip to visit Guatemala and see this amazing lake. After about a year, we had accrued enough vacation time. We spent that waiting period conducting research on traveling in the area. To comfort ourselves, as well as our friends and families, we worked to prepare ourselves as much as possible for the experience, so we read accounts of fellow travelers, travel alerts, and CDC websites.
During the few months prior to the trip we solidified our accommodations through AirBNB and obtained the recommended vaccinations for visiting the country. The night before our departure we drove to the lakes region of New Hampshire to drop Loki off with some friends. We would miss him but we knew that he was going to have an excellent time with Kerri and Theo and his canine friend Bambi. Finally, on 12/31/15 we got an early morning ride to the airport and awaited our flight to Guatemala City. It was about a six hour flight in total with one layover in Atlanta.
Flying into Guatemala City afforded us an amazing bird's-eye perspective of the alien landscape. It was different than anywhere I’d been before with several small dips and valleys, and many of the communities organized on the high plateaus. Having never been outside the US or Canada I expected some level of a culture shock once I arrived. It was honestly just a bit overwhelming trying to navigate through customs and get out of the airport. The process itself was quite easy, however. We stuck together and made use of Rob’s small Spanish vocabulary and basically followed the crowd. However, I don’t speak the language and am not a huge fan of crowds, so upon exiting the airport I stuck close to Rob and followed his lead.
Once we made it through customs I desperately needed to use the restroom. I was frantically searching for a ladies room with none to be found. There were several kiosks for people to get taxis, shuttles, and buses etc. so we stopped to ask where to find the restroom and get transportation. We decided to take a cab to Antigua which was about one hour away. The restrooms were located outside the building so we made a detour there first. The ladies room of course was closed so I waited patiently while Rob disappeared into the men’s room. It was when I was by myself that a man came up to me and started speaking Spanish. I tried to tell him that I didn’t know Spanish and finally he said “I’m the guy.” I found our taxi driver! Or he found us. Either way, as soon as Rob came back out we hopped in his cab and started our Guatemalan adventure.
The weather was amazing as we left Guatemala City. Dry and in the 80s. We were mesmerized by our surroundings. Lots of people, "chicken buses" loaded with luggage on top, we even saw a man on top of a bus while it was driving down the road. Since neither of us are fluent in Spanish, conversing with our driver was hard, so we mostly just stared out the taxi windows, absorbing everything we could as it whipped by.
As we approached the former central American capital city, our driver began trying to extract from us exactly where in the city we wanted him to abandon us. We were able to remember and communicate a nearby landmark, "Hotel Santo Domingo", when our actual street name didn't seem to register. A very short walk later had us standing in front of a nondescript door to the hostel Casa del Sol. A door on which the other side of was our temporary home; our solace in this crazy foreign place; our safe space, home base. A door which was locked and to which we had no key. Fortunately, we had been given special instructions by the Airbnb owner on how to get the key from a keybox.
Finally, we were inside! And there were English-speakers here! We got up to our tiny room and threw down all our belongings and crashed on our bed for a while. We were super excited, exhausted, and overwhelmed. We needed to regroup before heading back out beyond the wall. Once we were comfortable, we set out on foot. If our primary mission was lunch, then objective zero was to absorb as much scenery, architecture, flora, and fauna as we could along the way. Our feet carried us to Cafe Condesa (countess) where we devoured the most delicious fresh fruit platter we'd ever had.
Our hunger sated, and our bodies rested, it was time to get lost! We checked out parque central (central park) just outside the cafe. We walked all over the tiny, adorable city. We explored miscellaneous alleys and side streets. We picked random places that seemed intriguing and hopped in for a closer look. We had such a great time. Everyone was super friendly, even if we could only communicate at a very basic level!
It is important to note that it was new year's eve, so the streets were extra busy. Calle del Arco (street of the arch) was packed with artisans, vendors, and performers. We admired local crafts (and of course collected some of our favorite pieces!). As night rolled in, we made our way back to parque central. Everyone packs into the park and there's fireworks exploding and flashing lights and music and all sorts of things happening. We counted down to January 1, 2016 and then headed towards our bed. We were slightly uncomfortable around a bunch of foreign people with explosives and alcohol, but mostly we were exhausted from a long day of travel.
Fernando's Kaffee on at Calle Camposeco and 7a Avenida Norte is a must-see for all you coffee drinkers. There are so many delicious options here, we had to visit it twice. Maybe three times? A popular Guatemalan coffee variation includes a special type of chocolate made for this purpose. It dissolves easily into the drink to make a rich mocha drink that is amazing. I stuck to cafe Americano which has since ruined all other coffee for me. The seating area is very relaxing here. One of the days we sat out here there was a woman making fabrics and selling them. The colors used are incredibly vibrant. Also note there is a cat that likes to hang out at Fernando's, and you will likely meet Fernando himself if you stop in here. He's super friendly and will make his presence known. We decided to forego making our own breakfast one day and stopped here for traditional Guatemalan breakfast with eggs, beans, and fresh tortillas.
One evening we went to Habibi's Lounge to partake in some hookah action. Well, when we arrived, the doors were open into the lobby and the gentleman at the entrance greeted us. I think we asked if we could come in to smoke a hookah (at least that's what I meant to say!). He seemed very flustered, told us no, and disappeared beyond the walls of the lobby. We felt so awkward that we left. When we walked by again a while later, all the hookahs that had previously been on display in the lobby were gone, as was the host. We were a little bummed, but had to laugh at how strange the whole encounter was.
We stopped at Gloria's kitchen for lunch one day. We think it was on 3a Calle Poniente between Alameda de Santa Lucia and 7a Avenida Norte. When we first walked in, we were a little disoriented. The kitchen/register/counter is all immediately next to the doorway. It's super hot; there is no ventilation hood or any sort of safety equipment like we're used to seeing at home. There were just two ladies and one young boy working there. I ordered two tacos for Mandy and a burrito for myself. We paid and took a seat as far from the heat of the kitchen as we could find. Looking around the restaurant further lowered our expectations; the roof of the establishment was a makeshift array of burlap and plastic sheeting, held loosely in place by miscellaneous rough-sewn lumber. The boy brought us a couple glasses of fresh juice that we certainly didn't order. He said it was piña. Pineapple. Freshly squeezed. We tasted it hesitantly, and it was delicious! I'm sure it was my error somehow, but when the food arrived, we ended up with two plates of tacos. So 6 tacos. And a burrito. It was so much food but we didn't even care because it was all so amazing. And it was all only about $5US! We devoured everything and vowed to return.
As we were walking around aimlessly one afternoon, we reached an intersection somewhere near central park. As we tried to decide which way to go, a woman approached us. She was selling fruits. We weren't particularly hungry, but we bought a bag of freshly-sliced mango for 1Q (about 13 cents) anyways. It was unbelievably good. We learned that food just tastes remarkably better when it hasn't traveled far.
If you're looking for souvenirs, Nim Po't is a great place to check out. They stock all sorts of art and crafts made (almost always by hand) in Guatemala and nearby countries. The great part about shopping here for us was that they accept major credit/debit cards. We had exchanged for an amount of Quetzales through our bank before we left home and we were hoping not to have to get any more because it's more expensive to exchange currency in Guatemala. So we took the opportunity to get some small gifts for family and friends back home, without putting a dent in our cash-on-hand.
As a recommendation from our AirBNB host we found outselves at Café No Sé (Café I don't know) on 1a Avenida Sur. This was convenient as it was right down the street from where we were saying. And they had happy hour!! This bar is known for it's Ilegal Mezcal which had been traditionally smuggled into Guatemala from Mexico. Mezcal is made from agave. It is similar to tequila (made from blue agave specifically). We each took a shot, with a couple that we had met from Chicago who were on their honeymoon. Rob enjoyed it. I on the other hand, passed on the second round. Another evening we made our way to Terrace Hostel. Here we sat on the rooftop bar and watched Volcan En Fuego erupt. It felt surreal to be drinking a cocktail on a rooftop while watching lava flow down the sides of a mountain in the distance.
We spent a total of 3 nights and most of 4 days in Antigua. We tried to explore as much of the city of possible during this time. There is amazing architecture around the city and several ruins from the old colonial capital. Rob was interested in all of the vehicles that we saw that are not available or differ slightly from what is seen in the US.
So then we went to Lake Atitlan.
We decided to take a road trip to Yellowstone. It wasn't quite as spontaneous as all that. It was a trip in the making for several months. Since I had just graduated pharmacy school this seemed to be the perfect time to go before I started a new job. Rob had very limited time off, so we figured the best approach would be to rent a car, drive to Wyoming, and then catch a flight home. We loosely planned the trip but didn't have any hard goals other than the flight home. We picked up the rental car in Beverly, MA on Friday. Originally we had reserved a compact car in order to get good gas mileage. When we arrived at the rental car company we were informed that they were out of compact cars but we got a free "upgrade" to a Chevy Malibu. We weren't thrilled about the increased fuel cost we would surely incur, but we hoped the extra interior space would be nice. It was Memorial Day weekend so we wanted to get out of the greater Boston area as quickly as possible to avoid traffic.
We got the car packed and set out on the road around noon. Other than a few pee-stops and to stretch our legs, our first lengthy stop was at Niagara Falls, on the U.S. side. Neither of us had been to the falls before but we both had grand expectations. I expected the falls to be much taller. It’s width is pretty impressive, however. The park surrounding the falls was a great area to spend a couple hours wandering on foot. We even got to see some fireworks, which was a nice surprise!
After leaving Niagara Falls in the late evening, we fit in a few more hours of driving. Eventually, we stopped somewhere at a gas station in Pennsylvania to catch some sleep in the car in the parking lot. The Malibu seats were extremely uncomfortable for sleeping, but we got about 4 hours of shut-eye. Unable to feign sleep for one more minute, we decided to push on. We were lucky to catch a fantastic sunrise over Lake Erie near Cleveland.
The journey continued on I-90W through Ohio and Indiana. We were approaching Chicago near lunch time. We were getting hungry. We had heard that Chicago has great pizza, so we thought we would try to find some. Not really knowing where to stop we decided to just get off the highway and wing it. We saw signs for a college and knew there had to be pizza nearby. Success! There were people inside and it was around noon, but when we walked in they told us they didn't open until 2pm. We were so confused and now flirting with hangry. Really, we just wanted to get some food and get back on the road. To our surprise, there were no other pizza joints to be found nearby, so we decided on a sandwich shop that appeared local. We walked in and ordered some sandwiches. This is the moment we realized that Jimmy Johns is a chain restaurant we’d both never heard of. We left Chicago feeling underwhelmed by the food experience. We had higher hopes, but we know it was our own lack of planning that caused it.
As we continued through what was left of Illinois, we passed the Belvidere assembly plant. We felt bad we hadn't anticipated this, but fortunately, it seems they don't offer tours, so we didn't miss out! But at the time, we were intrigued, and it was too late to stop in. So, we made our way through Wisconsin. We got dinner in La Crosse on the Mississippi River. We walked around a bit to stretch the legs and happened upon a neighborhood of floating houses. Boat houses, but not house boats. We were perplexed, because it appeared that some of the houses had bicycles on their decks and cars parked nearby but we couldn't figure out how they got there. Some of the cars were pretty deep in the water and there were no signs of any roads or driveways.
We got back on the route and called ahead to Palisades State Park in Garretson, SD to secure a campsite for the night. We were excited to set up camp and not sleep in the car again. But we still had to make it through all of Minnesota! We were doing our best to make good time as we had to get to the state park before they closed the gate for the night. It was here in Minnesota that we had a run-in with the police. Rob was driving over the speed limit to make time and we got pulled over. Oops. I gave him a quick heads up about the Minnesota accent before the cop approached the vehicle as Rob had never heard it before. It was a hilarious surprise! The cop was very nice; he even apologized because he "had to give me a ticket". Then he told me where I might look out for his colleagues.
We finally made it to the state park and pitched the tent. Immediately after we got the tent set up, it started to rain. The thunder and lightning might have been the most intense either of us had ever witnessed. It was tough to fall asleep but we did end up getting a good night's sleep and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to explore.
We wandered around the state park for a little bit in the morning and grabbed some pictures. We hopped back on I-90W and headed for the badlands of SD. I LOVED the red dirt roads throughout South Dakota. We decided to venture away from I-90 for a bit when we reached the Badlands. We followed US240 through the park and enjoyed the change of scenery from the rest of the drive. We had ample opportunity to get out and explore, snap some pictures, and even play a game of Frisbee. We rejoined I-90W in Wall, SD. We had covered so much distance the day before so we felt like we had plenty of time for adventures in this area. Being so close to Mount Rushmore, we couldn’t just drive through without stopping so we made our way down to Keystone. When we actually got to Mount Rushmore, we realized they wanted to charge us a fee just to park at the monument. But we could see Mount Rushmore from the road, so we called it good enough and didn’t feel like parking would get us significantly better views. I guess we did drive through without stopping! We stopped in Keystone though and that seemed like a pretty neat town.
Our plan for the night was to get a campsite at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. As we made our way there, a rainstorm blew through the area, and as we arrived we could just see it on the horizon, moving away. We got an amazing campsite near the base of the tower. We were so excited to get another good night’s sleep in a dry tent. At some point in the night though, the wind picked up. The tent was caving in. We pushed it back out and it was fine for a few minutes. But then it happened again. There was intense thunder and lightning. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified we were going to blow away with the tent. I’ve never camped with that much wind before! I convinced Rob that we should sleep in the car again. (It didn't take much!) We quickly put our gear in the trunk while we were getting pelted with rain from the torrential downpour. The tent didn’t seem safe to leave set-up but it was also soaking wet so we just took it down and shoved it under the car to “protect” it. In hindsight, this is probably not the best treatment for a tent, but in the end it was fine. So we had another night of restless sleep in the car. The morning was beautiful when we woke up though. And the tower is way cooler than Mount Rushmore, definitely worth a stop if you’re ever in the area.
We were prepared for the "last stretch" of driving. Not actually the end, but the last major leg that we intended to do in one day. We left Devil’s Tower and made our way towards Bozeman to meet my friend Kelly. She was attending grad school at Montana State University. I met her in 2009 while were both doing research projects there because we’re nerdy like that. I was so excited to be in Bozeman again and to experience it with Rob. We got to Bozeman around noon and met Kelly for lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill. The bison burgers there were amazing! It felt great that we had completed the majority of our drive. From here on out we could take a more leisurely pace. We enjoyed the day with Kelly and some of her friends and did a small hike on the outskirts of town. We spent the rest of the day hanging out. We were planning to sleep in the tent on the lawn but decided to crash inside instead. It was nice to sleep in a bed and get a free shower. THANKS KELLY!!
The next morning we headed into Yellowstone through Gardiner, MT. We checked out Mammoth hot springs and wandered around a bit on foot. We stopped at the office and reserved a back country site for the next night. We had to watch a bear safety video first. After reserving our site we explored some more. There was a family of elk that had made their home in Mammoth, on the lawn outside the back country office. It was fun to watch them. I had been to Yellowstone before when it was much more crowded. We were there at the start of the tourist season this time, but the crowds get bigger as the summer goes on.
We grabbed a campsite at Norris for the night. We were planning to make our dinner on the campfire but the wood was wet and we were hungry so we decided to go for a drive. We figured we would feed our hungry bellies at one of the restaurants in the park near Old Faithful. After dinner, we stepped outside and watched Old Faithful erupt. It’s pretty incredible to see in person how high the geyser can shoot. We made our way back to Norris for some sleep before our activities the next day.
We started the morning by visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never been to the “actual” Grand Canyon. I have! I love the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone because of how it shimmers. It’s just so pretty. After taking several pictures we drove to the trailhead for our back country adventure. We started our 5-mile hike in to our campsite on the Hellroaring Creek trail. This was a beautiful hike. I’m not really one for hiking up mountains, so this hike was more my pace than others I have done. It was mostly flat with some minor elevation changes.
I started to get tired throughout the hike, though. Neither of us were used to backpacking and carrying ALL of our gear. The weather held off pretty well but my feet did manage to get wet. We found our site with no problem and set up camp and secured our bags over the bear pole. Of course, as soon as we got everything set up it started to rain. We relaxed in the tent and decided that an early night to bed wouldn’t hurt.
The hike out in the morning was more brutal than on the way in due to it being uphill most of the way. Those minor elevation changes were okay the day before because they were mostly downhill. I was definitely slowing down towards the end of the hike on the way back out. I had to offer some motivational speeches to keep her going. We followed a deer for quite a while on the hike back out; he seemed to be leading us back towards the road. This was such an awesome brush with nature and it really highlighted for us how far we were from home. Overall, we both loved the back country adventure and it was probably our favorite experience in Yellowstone. The hike was beautiful and it gave us an opportunity to explore some of the park without the masses of crowds. Really without any other people at all. It was just us and the wildlife.
We had plans to head out of the park to Gardiner the next day. Kelly was planning to meet us again there along with our friend Harrison who we had also met during our summer doing research. It was nice to catch up with them again and spend more time with them while we were in the area. We met for lunch and played a couple games of pool.
After lunch with Kelly and Harrison it was time to part ways again for the last time on this trip. We headed back into the park and wound up near Yellowstone Lake. We stayed at Bridge Bay campground which was very different than being in the back country. It seemed that they had a lot of campground rules. Do this. Don't do that. But, we FINALLY got dry weather and a clear night sky which made for some excellent stargazing.
We departed the next morning. Our last day in Yellowstone. We enjoyed a leisurely drive through Grand Teton National Park and were mesmerized at the enormous size of the mountains. They truly are majestic. We were also relieved to find amazing weather in this area! It was 80 and sunny. A nice change from the cool, misty weather we had been experiencing. We made it to Jackson for lunch and explored the town center on foot. Obviously, we had to get photos with the antler arches.
The campsite of the night was at Curtis Canyon Campground. This campsite was phenomenal. By far, the best one of the trip. It was up on a hillside overlooking Jackson Hole with the Tetons in the background. We spent some time in a field there watching the sunset behind the Tetons. Some locals paraglided down from higher on the hilltops behind us. A few landed right next to us. Later that night we went out to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar for some drinks and food. This bar was very cool and we had a blast watching the locals dance. I think I would be content to spend some more time in Jackson.
The next morning we packed our things and made our way over to Mormon Row. The views were amazing and we got some great shots of some barns there with the Tetons in the background. We continued on our journey to Riverton, WY. This was a very small town but we got a “family” discount on the rental car and apparently that means you can only rent/return the car at corporate locations. Riverton was the closest we could find to Jackson. We stayed at a hotel here (and showered!) and visited a fair that night before catching a flight out the next morning.
Our flight from Riverton to Denver was tiny. I think there were twenty people on the plane. Unfortunately, one leg of our connections (LaGuardia to Manchester, NH) was cancelled. So we got rerouted to Atlanta and upgraded to first class! We enjoyed the free alcoholic beverages and the comfy seats. We finally made it to New Hampshire around midnight but our bags were nowhere to be found. Apparently they didn’t get rerouted to Atlanta like we did. No big deal. We made it home and climbed into our nice, big, comfy bed and slept like babies. Without the pooping and crying. And our bags finally showed up a few days later.