November 1st, 2015

Getting to visit family is priceless, especially family that I haven’t seen for some time. Long talks over drawn out meals or nights spent laughing next to warm fireplaces together are the foundations of memories for years to come. I have loved being with my family here in Chicago, we have had a lot to catch up on and what better place to do it than this beautiful city.

Yesterday we explored the Pilsen district in the rainy Halloween weather, and ate delicious food (I got chicken and waffles for the first time) while talking for a long time.

Today we went into Downtown Chicago since the sun was out in force and there was so much to see. We got Dim Sum and then meandered around Millennium Park together.

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The Chicago skyline is exquisite; the sheer variety of shapes, widths, colors, and materials that compose the rugged ups and downs of this city’s outline are unbelievable. I could stare up at these buildings forever. Cities have a way of making people feel small but in a good way; the fact that people conceptualize and then materialized these structures is humbling and exciting at the same time, a living monument to the capacity of man.

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It was such a warm day and after so many cold days in Michigan it was a breath of fresh air. Even the trees still had color! It is amazing to have witnessed an entire month of autumn in Michigan only to come here and start at the beginning again. So many trees here are still green and it is a marvel to me that not everything is dead. Regardless, we wandered around the park and then returned home for a short break.

I then ventured out alone to the Wicker Park area of town which is full of quirky life and graffiti. Both Pilsen and Wicker Park had some great work like these I found.

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I went and got some coffee at the Wormhole, which is an offbeat and fun study cafe squeezed between vintage thrift shops and bars flashing with neon lights. I sat and read my book for a little while only to realize that the sun had already disappeared. Darn daylight savings time. Stealing all of the sun.

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But I happened upon a bookstore I had been hoping to visit without even trying called Myopic Books; this collection of over 70,000 books is an astoundingly awesome second-hand bookstore. I could get lost in this store for hours. It was a great coincidence that made my nerd heart very happy.

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I wandered around the warm city streets taking in the glittery shops and shining street lights amidst the cacophny of car sounds and found myself beginning to readjust to city life. There is a specific brand of beauty in big cities, I have not yet fully discovered the nature of that beauty but maybe it will be more clear to me in the weeks to come as I explore more major cities on the east coast.

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For now the night time streets of Chicago are more than enough for me.

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October 31st, 2015

I have exchanged my endless forests with city streets and skyscrapers; swapped Lake Superior with Lake Michigan, and found more family along the way. If there is one thing that I have learned on this journey thus far, it is that even on a solo road trip, I am never truly alone. The are so many people who take part in this journey with me, friends, family members, and strangers that become friends. Even when I think I am truly alone there is always someone on the end of a phone or at the end of a long day of driving. There is a peculiar feeling of desolation that I have grown familiar with, that clings to me like a shadow and sometimes eclipses my vision. However, the desolation is only as real as I make it.

So here I am, another city, another loving family that has taken me into their home. Bootjack to Chicago. The difference a day can make is astounding. I left behind my comfort, my home away from home and my family once more in Michigan as I did in California and then Colorado. I am constantly moving away from the places, people, and things that I love only to realize that not only can I never truly leave them behind, but there is always someone else waiting with open arms. I love my family, everywhere across the United States and I have never known so securely that I am loved and not alone.

So even though it was hard driving away from my home in Michigan after one final look across the still waters of Portage Lake at the end of the frosted dock, I knew it had to be done. It was time to move on and begin again. In the dark of early morning, long before the sun rose I drove away down Bootjack Road.

Its funny, I have been in so many big cities on this trip and somehow managed to avoid rush hour traffic jams in all of them except for Houghton. Tiny little Houghton, the gateway that literally bridges the upper peninsula to the rest of the world. I got stuck there in traffic (as I would find out later this would be the motif of my day) for quite some time and finally made it out just as the first light of day was creeping into the dark skies. I reached the Bishop Baraga Shrine, the snowshoe priest, at the southern end of Lake Superior to watch the sunrise and say goodbye to Lake Superior one last time.

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The sky turned such a vibrant pink for a moment and it felt like Lake Superior was bidding me farewell. It is so hard for me to leave that great lake behind because for some reason I feel so lost without it when the sting of fresh remembrance is so clear in my mind. I feel disoriented without its waters to guide me and driving away from it feels like I am setting out into the world without a compass. But leave I did.

I stopped in L’Anse to buy a giant cinnamon roll the size of my head but that was really my only stop (besides a lot of detouring since so many of the roads I had planned to take were closed due to construction) until I reached Sheboygan on the coast of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan.

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I said hello to Lake Michigan for the first time on this journey but did not linger long at the water’s edge.

I made a major stop in Milwaukee, which is a surprisingly wonderful city! I had no idea it was so interesting and I ate lunch at the Milwaukee Public Market.

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It was a great break before heading into the stressful heart of Chicago traffic, which was completely overwhelming after a month of living somewhere where your only roadside companion is the occasional tractor. Being back in a big city is baffling to me and very stressful but I finally made it to my Aunt and Uncle’s home where I will be staying for the next little bit. It is so great seeing my family again especially since it has been a long time. We went out to a wine bar called Bascule where we drank wine, ate delicious food (I tried octopus for the first time), and caught up on the space between all the years since we had last seen each other. It was a long day but overall a good start to my life back on the road again.

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October 18th, 2015

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Even though I have a home once more, I have found myself taking to the road. Not to get anywhere in particular, I have no grand destination at the end of a long road anymore, but I take to the road all the same. Somedays I drive just to feel normal again, the road has become my home in more than one way. But most days, I drive to watch the fall leaves twirl in the air of my car’s wake as I devour mile after mile of empty roadway. This is my now, after the colors turned, after the winter winds began, and after the leaves began to fall. But this isn’t where I want to begin, I want to go back when the trees were still green and the lake lay still. I want to tell you where I have been, how strange life has become, but in the best of ways.

3,354 miles and a little over two weeks on the road. The space between me and everything I once called home. Now it is over a month since I left the sunny west coast behind me and I have been living in the Northernmost tip of Michigan where the sky meets water and the land ends.

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This place is not unfamiliar to me though, it is not a strange, exotic and unknown location; this is my home away from home. However, I have never seen it quite like this before. The closest city to me is Houghton, a drawbridge city with cobblestone streets and old brick buildings lining the downtown stretch of road. But every morning this is the view I wake up to.

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So many things are different now, things I have never seen before because I only ever visited in the summer time. I feel like my world has been turned topsy turvy, everything is so similar yet just different enough to disturb the normalcy of everything I had grown accustomed to since I was a very young child. Small things are off, like leaving a book on your desk and returning to find it on top of your bed with no one around to have moved it.

Small things like seeing acorns on the ground. The entire ground is littered with them but since I have only ever been here in summer I have never seen an acorn here. Or watching fog lift off of the lake in the early morning or funneling down the channel when I have only ever seen sun, rain, and lightning in the sky before now. Or realizing that the shadows fall differently because the sun is in an entirely different position. The sun sets so far south and instead of 11pm sunsets, the sky gets darker earlier and earlier every day. There are endless things that entirely transform this place I have visited almost every single year since I was born. I feel like I have found myself on the other end of the looking glass and everything is slightly distorted.

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There are two not so subtle changes that have really transformed this once familiar place into a mysterious and new experience. The first of which is obvious, it is Fall. I have never seen the once verdant ubiquitous green burst apart into such an array of beautiful colors. It makes me look at everything with new awe struck eyes.

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The land around me has become its own sea of colors. Amber, wine, violet, peach, rose, and so many other colors have transformed every tree into a color palette of startling fiery colors. Every day the world around me looks different. Every day it transforms a little more, becomes a little more beautiful, or looses a few more leaves. This ceaselessly protean landscape has dug its beautiful fingers into my imagination and lit my eyes aflame with the possibilities of fleeting life. There is such a desperate beauty in imminent perishing life.

The other difference is the life that already perished. The loss of my grandfather, one year after his passing, is thick in the air everywhere I turn up here. It is not necessarily a bad or sad feeling, just a very persistent one. Memories are the greatest ghosts we could ever conjure.

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I dreamt for years about coming up to Northern Michigan to see the peak of fall colors, but I never dreamt that it would be without my grandfather. I always thought I would walk arm in arm with him through the forest of amber and wine colored trees. I thought we would sit in his favorite chairs by a fire, no words passing between us, just a mutual understanding that sometimes words aren’t necessary to know you are loved. Now I am finally here and on the one year anniversary of his passing. I wish he could be here with me and I cannot believe, even a year later that he is actually gone. I miss my grandpa but I see him and feel him in the flurry of falling leaves everywhere I go.

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I am staying in his home without him and every time I hear this old house creak I always wonder if it is him. I feel like I cannot go anywhere without bumping into his ghost. But I know he would have wanted me here. I just wish he could have been here along side me.

I think one of the biggest things about being here by myself is how much older it makes me feel. I can physically see the changes, the way that time has transformed this place and myself. I have always known this place as one filled with love, family, laughter, adventure, mischief, and growth. But now I am here at the end of fall and the cusp of winter. It isn’t summer anymore. I have grown older, my grandfather and grandmother are both gone, my cousins aren’t here with me to enjoy each others company, and the leaves are falling one by one as the water slowly recedes from the shores.

It is a beautiful death here. A beautiful transitioning between the life of one year and the life of the next. This is where I find myself. Between the death of an old life and the beginning of a new one. The west of my past and the east of my future as Kerouac would say if his journey had been reversed. I am moving slowly towards something, but I know not what yet. For now I sit and watch the world around me changing, wondering what will come when the color is gone.

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October 6th, 2015

I am caught somewhere between way to busy and being too tired to reflect to put my thoughts on the page, or, in this case, on the internet. I know I have neglected my blog the last couple of days, so here is the update: I made it. I had one last final day of driving after I finished my time in Madison. But I had to have one last breakfast in this wonderful city (which is somewhat of a foodie heaven, especially for the midwest!) and stopped just outside of the captial building grounds for a great chai latte and a dark chocolate, caramel sea salt crepe from Bradbury’s. IMG_9855

Driving away from my amazing aunt who was gracious enough to host me for my time in Madison and with the gorgeous capital building in my rearview mirror, I hit the road one last time.

I drove through Wisconsin up into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I will be staying for the next month. I saw a couple of really amazing places on my way up like Minocqua, Wisconsin. This little town surrounded by a series of wonderful lakes, crisscrossed by trestles and interwoven by a state hiking trail. How amazing is that? I totally stumbled upon it on accident while trying to take a picture of a trestle. IMG_9858

The trail was a long and winding stretch of covered pathway, framed by trees and surrounded by lakes. I felt like I was weaving my way through a wonderland of lakes. IMG_9861

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The trail took my breath away between the aqua green waters and the fall colored leaves. It was a great accidental side trip before I crossed over the state line into home territory, Michigan. Processed with VSCOcam with kk1 preset

I also took a few random side breaks to campgrounds, lakes, and boat launches just to sneak off the main road and find some water or fall forests to explore. IMG_9894

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The fall colors from Minocqua upwards were unbelievable. Colorado was a land of golden trees but here were so many shades of oranges and reds, trees the color of wine and cinnamon. I couldn’t help but laugh at the rush of exhilaration I felt every time I turned around the next corner because each view was more amazing than the last.

My final stop was at Bond Falls, a great stop that I always make on my way in or out of the UP (Upper Peninsula for all you non-midwesterners). The cascading waterfalls at Bond Falls compounded with the fall colors was the last step in total and uncontrollable excitement about being back in Michigan. IMG_9899

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I had made it, driving in along the rainbow of fall colors I rolled down my windows, blasted my music, and felt the cold crisp air of impending winter, knowing all the while that my heart had come home again. There is no home to me quite like going up North to the Keweenaw Peninsula. No brighter colors or stiller lake, no calmer heart to be had than when I sit on the dock next to the gentle lapping waters of the place I call home. And of course, there are no sunsets quite like the sunsets in Bootjack because every day is a beautiful day out here. There are many beautiful days to come and hopefully I can post more now that life is beginning to settle down a touch more, but for now I am staying put. No more open road for a little while but there is still adventure to be had in this quiet land. And I have every intention of not wasting a single second of my precious time up here in my home away from home.

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October 2nd, 2015

Trying to catch up on the last days of my road trip, it has been kind of hectic so bear with me! Here is the account of my final day in Madison, Wisconsin.

One of my favorite features thus far throughout Madison are all of the amazing gardens. From ALlen Centenntial Garden, to the Abrotetum, and now finally the Olbrich Botancial Gardens, all have been spectacular displays of nature within the confines of a major city.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens was like a playground for nature lovers. From amazing fountains, art exhibits hidden in the trees, and my personal favorite, a kaleidoscope of succulents. IMG_9791

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My view of all the different gardens around the city had begun to feel like a kaleidoscope mash-up of everything I had seen thus far. I had luckily caught a period of time right before the major frost where flowers were still blooming and beautiful but leaves had begun to change colors already. I was getting the best of both worlds and I knew it. So I reveled in the amazing gardens and was shocked by the array of colors and textures I found everywhere I went.

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There was even a Thai pavilion in the gardens that was ornate and beautiful with the backdrop of flowers surrounding it.

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Everything was beautiful and so much fun to explore with my Aunt, we really had a great time.

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There is one thing I forgot to mention thus far and it is the frequency with which Madison has free libraries in front of their homes. It always makes me very happy to see free book boxes in neighborhoods but Madison had an astounding abundance of ornate and well stocked free libraries. A neighborhood feels healthy and lively whenever there are free book boxes lining the streets. I really enjoyed this one which was a vibrant orange and had a beautiful mosaic of a tree on the side. Well done Madison, well done.

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I went off on my own again with a more serious mission in mind this time: visit the University of Wisconsin- Madison campus and check out the English Graduate Program. I spent the rest of my day slowly meandering around campus (with an additional stop inside of a wonderful liitle bookstore on State street) and visiting the English Department.

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The campus was really and truly very nice, I was genuinely impressed. The buildings were beautiful, the people were kind and generous with their information, the scenery was amazing (right on the lake and covered in colorful trees), and the available opportunities to talk to students and faculty was very abundant. I quite enjoyed it.

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I even found an acorn friend that sadly rolled away from me and got crushed by a car. It was slightly heartbreaking. Can you tell I haven’t been terribly sociable? I have started befriending acorns.

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But honestly, it made me miss Berkeley. There were so many things that kept reminding me of my alma mater and it left me with a heavy heart burdened by homesickness. There was even a tower that looked like the campanile (complete with carillons) and several of my favorite professors from Berkeley were going to be visiting campus to give lectures in the coming weeks. I missed my friends, my mentors, and the feeling of belonging to a community regardless of whether the people around you knew you or not. Despite actually really liking this campus, I left full of sadness because I wasn’t sure if anywhere else would ever feel like home in the way that Berkeley was. I know this is naive in many ways; I know I will go somewhere and I will learn to call it home, but Berkeley will always have my heart.

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It was a hard day, the first of probably many to come in the next few months, but not something that would stop me from moving forward. Some days are worse than others, but every day on the road is a step farther from home that I am proud to be taking even on the days when I wish for nothing more than to be back where I was. I am learning to miss the things I love and I hope each day to miss these things with happiness rather than sadness, but sadly that day has not yet come. Despite my sadness, I know nothing is gained without losing something first. Growth can be painful and I would be foolish to wish that pain away, so for now I grit my teeth and try to push forward to days when it hurts less.

But I know it is worth it.

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September 30th, 2015

I woke up to the sound of rain against the window. It was the first time in a long time I had heard rain calling me outside. I lay in my bed listening and for the first time it became real. I knew I was very far from home; I knew that I was no longer in California and would not be returning for quite some time. In many ways this whole trip has been so surreal. A strange mixture between road trip and living in a bunch of different states. I bounce from one location to the next, usually with someone I know waiting at the end of my drive so it never feels like I am truly alone. But this morning I woke up and felt alone. I felt far from my friends, family, and all that was familiar to me. I felt it ringing in the rain drops like a vibrating siren and each drop sang out the sound of total strangeness. It was an odd moment, of finally letting it sink in that I wasn’t going home, at least not for a while. I had to make a home wherever I could find it now.

For now home is with my Aunt in Madison but even that is not for long. I pulled my tired body from bed and looked outside at the cardinal on the bird feeder below, unfazed by the rain and even more vibrant in it. The roads ran like rivers and the fall leaves had been glued to my car like some child’s scrapbook of autumn.

On our way to explore Madison we first stopped to get some really great coffee and Colectivo. A roomy coffee shop with huge windows, bright furniture, and great study spaces, Colectivo was definitely instantly on my favorite coffee spot list.

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I took my coffee out into the cold rain to warm my fingers as we explored the state capital building. It was truly a magnificent piece of architecture and I loved escaping from the rain under their marbled ceilings and fancy decor.
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It was quite the place and the square that it sat in was surrounded by adorable shops and fantastic restaurants.

After we had circled the captial building a few times, marveling at the architecture from every angle, we drove through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Going through campuses that are closer to the east coast always impress me because they are so thoroughly different from west coast campuses. The buildings are older, crafted from beautiful stone or brick and much more ornate than the average west coast campus building. I love my alma mater but I cannot help comparing the architecture between campuses and I was thoroughly impressed with the Madison campus.

At the far end of campus we stopped at the Allen Centennial Gardens, a small enclosure of nature next to an old historic home. The gardens, though small, were marvelous. Even in the rain, the vibrant crops like kale, colorful swiss chard, and of course corn, were incredibly beautiful.

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There were some really unique looking flowers, like the ones below, that lit up the entire park with vivid colors. IMG_9697

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From boardwalks to koi ponds, gazebos to vegetable gardens the entire garden was surprisingly entertaining. After marveling at the entire complex we continued on our way.

We decided to poke in at the Henry Villa Zoo. It was a fun little zoo but the alligator was by far my favorite. I had been taking pictures of the fall leaf littered pool, not realizing it was an alligator enclosure until afterwards when I looked at my pictures. It surprised me so much that I hadn’t even noticed the alligator lying quietly below the leaves.

There were also some adorable little badgers having a fun time digging around in the mud, which was pretty quintessential for all of Wisconsin. Go Badgers 🙂

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After the zoo, my aunt and I parted ways for a bit and I went off on my own to the University’s Arboretum for a hike. It was pretty, but also pretty marshy so my hike kept getting cut short by closed pathways. But what I did see was quite nice; the variety of different trail landscapes that I set foot on in just the few short miles I was able to hike was staggering. It was a wonderfully diverse park filled with prairies, lakes, and flowers.

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We finished out day with a sunset mini walk along some overgrown boardwalks next to Lake Monona. Stepping over a natural bubbling spring, we walked along the creaking old wooden planks along the rim of the lake watching the sky turn pink under wispy clouds. IMG_9754 IMG_9755

It was a good first day in Madison (finished with some really great pizza) but I am finding myself growing more and more tired as each day passes. Michigan is only one day away of driving from where I am now and I can feel the closeness in my road wearied bones. I have been traveling now for exactly two weeks and I have been alone for one week; it feels like a lifetime.

A good rest is in order soon and I know it awaits me on the shores of Lake Superior, so close yet so far from where I am now. For now, there is still more work to be done, more things to see, and always another adventure around the corner.

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September 29th, 2015

Kansas City, Missouri to Madison, Wisconsin; day two of my long days to come. To break up the monotony of corn I decided to make a quick stop in Wallace State Park, a small natural park about an hour outside of Kansas city, to take a hike and get out of the car. It was a great idea but also turned into somewhat of a nightmarish experience that I could never have predicted.

I exited the main drag of interstate and entered into a wonderfully windy and hilly back country road that wove its way deeper into forested countryside. The road was pleasnatly meandering through farm houses and red barns disappearing from my fast paced world into obscurity behind me.

As I found the enttrance to the park I was pleasantly surprised by a doe and her little baby deer grazing calmly on the roadside. I took a few pictures, kept my respectful distance, and continued on my way just as they did theirs.

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There was no one else in the park, so I had the stillness of the lake and the chittering of the woods all to myself. The forest seemed alive and vibrating with wildlife that remained unseen but well heard. The lake was so still and serene, the perfect reflecting basin for the world that surrounded it.

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I laced up my hiking boots and headed out across some wonderful foot bridges, but I did not get very far before things started to get weird. First of all, I was slightly on edge because there were so many noises all around me that I had never heard before, be they bugs, birds, or small mammals, the noises they made were somewhat haunting and remotely sounded like a child crying or a wounded animal screaming. Not a great start. So I tried to ignore the noises that were far off but present in the mysterious woods around me. I tried not to let it get to me, but being a woman hiking alone and having no one else in the park put me too on edge. So after a short bit I returned to my car and decided to drive around instead of hike because I was sort of freaked out.

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Once I went back to my car I drove to a separate trail away from the strange noises of the forests I originally started by and found an amazingly beautiful boardwalk.

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Again, I didn’t get far before everything went down hill. I didn’t even get onto the boardwalk, I was just taking pictures of it, when all of a sudden there was a wild frenzy of cracking twigs and rustling bushes coming from the hill behind me on the other side of the parking lot. I turned around with my heart in my throat and the horrible thought in my mind that it was going to be a bear charging at me out of the woods. A thousand things go through my mind: I don’t have a weapon, just my camera, I can use my telephoto as a (very expensive) weapon if I have to defend myself, if it is a black bear I have to stand my ground and get angry, big, and scary fast, there is no one to yell for if I need help, my car is so close but whatever is coming at me is between me and my car, and a bunch of other gut reaction thoughts about whatever was making that horrible ruckus in the woods.

When I turned and found the source of the frenzy I was relieved but also deeply shocked and confused: it was a deer. A very angry deer. I don’t know why or what was going on except maybe there was a baby nearby it was trying to protect, maybe even the same mom and baby deer I had photographed early about a mile away, but I didn’t know. It was a very angry doe running out of the woods kind of hunched over, straight legged, and kicking every which way and coming right for me.

Luckily, I was already on edge so I was able to react quickly and jumped up onto the banister of the boardwalk above the reach of the deer. I don’t know what I would have done if it had reared up because it could have possibly reached me, but thankfully it stayed roughly on its four feet. It ran up to me on the boardwalk and started battering the post I was standing on with its front legs and angrily snorting. I started yelling loudly at it to scare it away and weilding my telephoto in one hand, ready to use it to defend myself, tried to scare away the pissed off deer as it attacked the boardwalk posts I was perched atop.

After this back and forth went on for a little bit the deer seemed to calm down and kind of ran off back towards my car and away from me. Warily eyeing it I waited until it seemed distracted and jumped from the banister to run off into the woods the other way since it was still between me and my car. I had planned on taking a hike, this was just not necessarily the way I had wanted to do it.

It didn’t come after me and all I can assume is that it left and whatever spooked it was gone (including myself). So I calmed down from the scare and tried to enjoy my hike. Then things got weird again. Yeah, I know, again.

I was walking through the forest when I started accumulating a few more spider webs getting caught on me than I was comfortable with. So I stopped to wipe them off and kept going only to get even more. Feeling the hair on my arms rise, I stopped again, wiped them off and tried to peer forward into the wooded pathway I was taking and was horrified: there were spiders everywhere. So naturally I almost threw up, ripped my coat off my back and yelled

FUCK THIS PARK

And ran as fast as I could out of woods, frantically clawing the webs from my body and trying not to imagine all of the possible spiders crawling on my body. I made it back to my car, the devil deer was gone but my car was COVERED in spiders and webs. COVERED.

I ripped the door open and jumped in as fast as I could and took off. I kept trying to wipe the spiders away with my windshield wipers and couldn’t stop twitching I was so freaked out. Once I was a safe distance from the park I pulled over, screamed at the top of my lungs at a corn field and thoroughly checked myself for spiders. I flipped off the park behind me, hopped back into my car and continued on my way.

I’m sure it was a perfectly nice park, it just hated me. It was a misadventure to say the least, but at least I got some nice photos of the beautiful scenery.

I pulled into a McDonalds to wash off my hands, ordered the largest coffee I could get and looked like a mad woman pulling twigs out of my hair as I waited for my drink, being watched by a tour bus full of old women with questioning eyes.

I had finally calmed down after I crossed the Missouri state line into Iowa and was glad to have left it all behind me.

To further soothe my rattled nerves I took an innocuous stop at an Amish Country Store in Iowa. I sat on a curb for a while and pet a little Amish Corgi that had popped out of a bale of hay covered in straw and wagging its entire body like only a Corgi can do. I spent some time there just enjoying the sunshine, the endless fields of corn, which suddenly seemed strangely more appealing than the woods to me after that morning , and my little Corgi friend.

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The rest of Iowa was more of the same, endless corn that swayed in the wind like the undulating waves of a dusty amber sea. After a while of this I decided to take a break because I was getting pretty tired at this point. I felt like a person who has been on a boat for a long time who then steps foot on shore and feels like everything is still rocking, except I felt like the world was still whizzing by me at 80mph despite everything moving at its normal speed. It was disorienting and I figured it was time for a breaking from the mind numbing monotony.

I just so happened to pull off in Des Moines, Iowa at a BBQ place called Smokey D’s BBQ Joint, which had been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. So I got some good ol’ Iowa BBQ and enjoyed my break.

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The rest of the drive was a blur, nothing between Des Moines and Madison except corn, corn, and more corn. I do enjoy the silos though that break up the continuous fields. But aside from that, nothing.

I made it to Madison totally exhausted, toast. But I got to relax in my Aunt’s backyard who I was staying with and watch cardinals flit about a bird feeder dancing like little red ballerinas about one another. It was a peaceful and restful way to end the day, watching the sun set over the green backyard of Madison.

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September 28th, 2015

Literally. Yesterday I drove all the way across the width of Kansas from Colorado to Missouri. It was a long day of solo driving, just me, Mama the Llama, the Serial podcast, and corn. Lots and lots of corn.

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I drove away from Colorado with the Flatirons of Boulder in my rearview mirror and my heart in my stomach as I left behind the state I had grown to love over the last week or so. I traded in my grand majestic views for two lane interstates, the loss of beauty exchanged for ease and speed of transportation. Sometimes I think that places like Colorado have such wonderful single lane roads in order to force you to drive slower through all of the beautiful scenery, while places like Kansas and Nebraska offer speedy roadways so you can get the hell across them as fast as possible.

While I will admit, I actually didn’t hate Kansas like I thought I would, it was still a really long day of somewhat monotonous landscapes. It was still better than my old road trip nemesis Nebraska. There were at least some nice rolling hills across the state and every once and a while the sea of corn fields where swapped with some lovely fields of a red colored crop (possibly old corn?) that contrasted with the rolled hay bales resting like giant marshmallows across open fields in a rather photogenic manner. There were also some impressively large energy wind mills that almost seemed to be stirring the clouds like cotton candy as the gusty winds whipping across the open plains sent the clouds speeding across the horizon. My little prius did not care much for the high winds that kept jerking my car across the roadway like a toy.

But the journey, though long, went quickly with a few fun stops like the Kansas welcome center, the World’s Largest Easel, and the historic landmark of Brown vs Board.

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But mostly it was just me and wide empty expanses of road heading off into the flat horizon and my own thoughts. I had thought a lot about how this day would go, considered whether I would be able to make it all the way by myself or not. This was my big trial day where I was either going to be able to prove to myself that I was capable of so much more than I thought I was, or I would crash and burn. I will jump past the long anxious hours of ruminating about whether I could do it and tell you that I did. I made it in one piece and feeling fine.

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This might not seem like a big deal to most people but this was a huge deal for me. Time for some honest talk. For those of you who don’t know me and even for those who do know me but don’t know about this, here it is: I am sick. No, not sick in some horribly dramatic, I am terminal and will never recover sick, but not in a cough cough I just have a cold way either. I have been plagued by chronic pain, migraines, and unknown illnesses almost my entire life. I have some names to label my pain like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Fibromyalgia, and Alopecia Areata but even they do not encompass what is wrong with my body. The baseline is this: I am an adventurer in my mind and heart, but most of the time my body physcially disagrees with me. I cannot predict or know when I will feel bad (and usually what accompanies feeling bad is headaches, painful muscles, extreme and sudden fatigue, and nausea) so I live in a constant state of anxiety about whether I will feel well enough to do the things I want to do.

Most of the time, there is no physical or external symptom that others can see so it is hard for a lot of people to understand this fear and these feelings. I have an invisible illness that even I don’t fully understand. It is unseen yet dictates most of my every day decisions and actions. This is why this road trip means so much to me as a solo adventure. I am so constantly worried about being incapable or handicapped by my illness and this is my big middle finger to not feeling well. That might be strong, but I have a lot to prove to myself and each day at a time on this solitary adventure I am learning to trust in my own abilities and stretch my capabilities.

So to drive for ten hours by myself is a huge obstacle surrmounted that has lingered in the horizon for quite some time for me. Despite how flat Kansas is, it has seemed like Mount Everest to me. This long day was my veritable mountain to climb, just to show myself that I was capable of anything, no matter my illnesses, no matter my fears.

So driving across the Missouri River into Kansas City where I was staying the night with some incredibly generous and hospitable family friends was like crossing the finish line of my own personal race. I was tired, but it was a well earned exhaustion that was soul satisfying and only bodily tiring.

I had the great treat of trying out a local Kansas City BBQ joint called Gates where your ears are constantly ringing with the sing-songy cry of “How MAY I help YOU?” as you enter into the building. It was the perfect end of a long day filled with conversations with old family friends and good food. I was only stopping for a night and would then be continuing on to Madison, Wisconsin the following day. One step closer to Michigan, one step closer to my next major stop. I am almost halfway done with my trip now, Michigan is the next major stop and I will be there for about a month and then continue onward to the East. My mind is being pulled in a thousand directions towards memories of what I have seen and imaginings of what tomorrow will bring, but all of it boils down to the road, the pavement beneath my tires and the miles speeding past my eyes. I am right where I need to be.

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September 26th, 2015

Even though it has only been three days since I set off on my own to take this journey across the country, I have already started to notice things about myself as a solo traveler as well as how it feels to travel alone.

The main thing I have noticed is how exhausting it is to travel alone. However, it is more than just the obvious answer (since I am alone I do not have anyone to split the burden of effort/work put into travel like driving, purchasing things, making plans, etc) that is behind this exhaustion. It is the feeling of being in the world, but not of it; feeling like people are talking at you and not with you essentially, but it is the city, the places, and the people all figuratively talking at you while you have no in into the conversation to allow you to actually take part. When you have someone to do things with it feels like no matter what happens in the day, at least you have one another for entertainment/enjoyment. However, when you are alone it is just you confronting the world so even normal everyday things like getting a cup of coffee at a cafe becomes a battle to engage with strangers, act friendly, and act as if everything is normal when everything is new, different, and strange. At least for an introvert like myself, it is hard for me to deal with small talk and polite smiles, which results in me wanting to have as little contact with people around me as possible despite the fact that I am lonely and really do want to be around people and make friends. Every day events become exhausting because I no longer have the buffer or the comfort of my friends or family to ease my interactions with the world around me, it is just me and the rest of humanity clamouring towards me with an overload of information and sensory input that I just do not have the current capacity to handle. As a result, I have found that when I travel alone I wind up avoiding people and try to remain alone rather than branch out and make new friends.

In some ways this is hard for a road trip like this because it is hard to go so long without really talking to anyone, but it also results in me seeking out nature instead of humanity, which leads me to some truly amazing places in pursuit of natural solitude. I may be anti-social or maybe just really overly introverted, but either way I have realized my own tendencies towards self isolation, but I have not yet decided whether I like or dislike these tendencies. To be determined…

Today was one of those days where these reflections were extremely apparent because for the first time I didn’t spend my entire day out in the wilderness. Instead, I dedicated today to exploring Boulder and learning the streets as well as the happenings of this bustling town.

… But I had to fit a hike in there somewhere. The iconic backdrop of the city are the Flatirons, a series of giant rock slates slanting towards the sun and rising high above the cityscape of Boulder. I decided to check out these wonderful mountains with a hike in Chautauqua Park.

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I hiked a series of loop trails on the adjacent mesas that provide sweeping views of the mountain range as well as the city of Boulder down below them. I hiked through Ponderosas and up steep hills lined with breezy grasses and rocky trails up to the top of the mesas.

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There was an astonishing array of landscapes on the four miles of trails I traversed which made for an interesting and ever evolving experience of the nature in Boulder.

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I managed to only get lost once and then some how actually helped some other girls who were visiting the park for the first time as well find their way after getting lost. I suppose that is one good thing to say for getting lost, you can advise others not to follow your trail. But when I finally finished my hike I had a firm grasp on the baseline trails around the Flatirons.

After my healthy dose of nature I was ready for some city experiences. Luckily I was in Boulder for one of my favorite things to do in any city that I visit, farmers’ market. Boulder Farmers’ Market was a fantastic way to ease into high density human interaction after having spent so much time alone for three days straight. Everyone was so friendly, talkative, and helpful at the market even though I was slightly lost and aimless amongst the crowds.

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The market was huge so I wandered up and down the stands for quite some time before going in for some conversations, samples, and small purchases. My first stop, naturally, was at a local bakery’s stand where I got an amazing almond croissant to eat as I wandered around with big hungry and fascinated eyes.

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I visited two produce stands where I bought some tomatoes and carrots for the road tomorrow. One had a stunning array of colorful turnips, beats, and carrots while the other had a beautiful selection of green veggies like kale, swiss chard, and many other delectable items. IMG_9539

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The second stand had an incredibly sociable and kind staff, which led to an encounter in which my inner introvert ran away screaming while I was left laughing awkwardly on the outside looking for the nearest and socially acceptable place to go hide. It was a stupidly simple interaction that caught me totally off guard and unsure of how to respond it went like this:

Me: What a beautiful stand!

Farmers’ Market Man: Look at how beautiful you stand.

He didn’t break eye contact, I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a genuine compliment so I just awkwardly laughed as the rest of his coworkers began to laugh too and then I slunk away into a corner and died a little. Awkward muffin time.

So naturally I went and spent some time smelling flowers at a stand clear on the other side of the market that was full of Dahlias and sunflowers (two of my favorite flowers).

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Finally I rounded out my time at the market with some fresh tamales from the Amaizing Corn Tortilla stand. Get it, aMAIZing. May or may not have been the only reason I decided to try them out, but you will never know. IMG_9530

Then I wandered down the incredibly popular Pearl Street Mall, which is a long expanse of street closed to cars and filled with shops and plenty of street performers. Everything from bango players, clowns with balloons, mimes, and performers balancing on rollers while hold fire could be found on the couple of blocks that make up the Pearl Street Mall.

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For the rest of the day I jumped from coffee shop to coffee shop writing postcards and working over delicious cups of coffee from Boxcar Coffee, Ozo and the Laughing Goat again. The mochas at Ozo are to die for, I may have to go back before I leave early tomorrow morning for one for the road.

I also took a drive around a section of Boulder right next to the university dubbed The Hill where all the college students roam in hordes. I was somewhat appalled by their conduct and quickly left after driving through blocks of street covered in shattered beer bottle glass, red plastic cups covering frat front lawns, and drunk students literally face planting in the middle of the street in front of moving traffic. I got out of there fast when droves of drunk students began wandering the streets, possibly after a football game got out? I hope it was an event, because if this was an every day occurrence, I would be genuinely concerned for this school.

After another long day alone I returned to my hostel for some more alone time because, ironically, after so much time alone, what I really wanted and needed was to be even more alone. So I set up my hammock on the river after slacklining alone for a little bit. That is how I finished my day. That is how I finished my time in Colorado. Tomorrow morning I leave this wonderful state to continue eastward.

I find it funny that in many ways I am doing Jack Kerouac’s journey backwards, moving west to east instead of the other way around. I am so glad that I decided to pick that book up from City Lights back in San Francisco before I left my beloved Bay because never have I read a book more applicable to my current state of being. I too have found myself exclaiming to the wild and dark night

“‘And here I am in Colorado! …Damn! Damn! Damn! I’m making it!'”

And now that I am leaving Colorado, I too am passing the center dividing line both in the continent and in my life, except the reverse of Kerouac’s, where his east is my west.

“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”

Funny how the world works out and the road rolls on, I wonder where my future will find me.

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September 26th, 2015

I woke up bright and early this morning with only one thing on my mind: hiking Rocky Mountain National Park. I had visited the park once before but did not get to actually hike into the park anywhere and have always felt the need to go back and redeem my lost time in the park. Today was the day I finally realized that dream.

I made a quick pit stop on my way out of Boulder towards Estes Park to do the most important thing I do every day… get coffee. I have heard there are many great places to grab a cup of coffee in Boulder and I decided to try out the Laughing Goat on Pearl Street. I enjoyed it quite a bit, the interior was cozy and work oriented while also being hip, modern, and welcoming. I ordered a Venetian Creme that was sweet and delicious. I also grabbed a croissant for a later day hiking treat.

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It has been about six years since I last stepped foot in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. In many ways, my last trip to this place was the beginning of my life as a road tripper, but not quite in the way you might expect. Last time I was here all I wanted to do was leave. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible with as few stops in between as we could manage. I was not a road tripper, not yet. But looking back on the squandered opportunities I had passed by in such a hurry to get no where made me re-evaluate my priorities and the things that meant the most to me. I had to go back, I had to do it again and after that I never stopped. So here I am, back again and ready to do this the right way.

I pulled into Estes as the sun was rising over the lake that held the reflections of the mountains surrounding it. I bypassed Estes for the time being and made a bee-line into the park where I had a hike in mind. I decided to hike out to Emerald Lake, which is a trail that stops by a total of four alpine lakes. The final lake lay at an altitude of almost two miles above sea level, but I had my eyes on the prize and didn’t plan on stopping until I could put my feet into the cold clear emerald waters of that final lake.

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I packed everything I had (including Mama the Llama and my croissant my the Laughing Goat) and hopped on a park and ride that would take me to the first of the four lakes, the incredibly popular Bear Lake.

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Bear Lake was just the tip of the iceberg as far as beauty goes for the day and its still waters made a perfectly wonderful start to the adventure ahead.

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The path from Bear Lake lead upward into a Gorge with a glacier at its end, but everything from my point of view was all sunshine. The weather was splendid, perfectly warm but with a breeze that rustled the aspen leaves causing them to cascade gentle down from the sky onto the trail. The sky was a deep blue and you could feel the thinness of the air crisply in your lungs.

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I made my way between trees and boulders, over rocks and fallen autumn leaves, and found myself standing on what felt like the top of the world. It was enough to make my heart scream at the top of my lungs; it is a moment like this that makes you feel truly alive.

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After hiking with a smile from ear to ear on my face up the mountain side I arrived at the second lake of the day, Nymph Lake. Covered in lily pads and much smaller than the first, this lake definitely felt like little forest nymphs were hiding under the lily pads waiting for all of the hikers to leave before leaping from their hiding places to skip and dance across the still lake surface.

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From Nymph Lake the climb continued and the air was getting thinner and thinner resulting in a harder and harder ascent for me and my sea level lungs. But every gasping breath was well worth the effort because every step I took revealed an even more beautiful sight than the last.

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I repeatedly crossed over a stream that rushed by me from the third (and my personal favorite) lake of the day, Dream Lake. Just like Nymph Lake, the name accurately embodied the lake to come, it was dream-like in its natural splendor. I couldn’t help but think with every step that I took that people all over the world look at postcards or pictures of the places I have been lucky enough to step foot in and dream of someday visiting them, some with more realistic intentions of realizing these dreams than others, but still, I was there in this fairy tale place, a place of postcards and magazine covers as if it was my own backyard to play around in for the day. How lucky am I to have seen the things I have seen, to have done the things I am doing.

Dream Lake was rimmed with driftwood caught on the shores. The water was such a shocking emerald color it made me particularly dubious that the next and final lake, Emerald Lake, could possibly be closer to the color emerald than the waters of Dream Lake. Underneath the clear waters swam speckled rainbow trout that occasionally disturbed the still surface by pecking at bugs sitting on the water. The fish were everywhere, slowly drifting through the clear waters undisturbed and unafraid of the people surrounding the lake.

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I pushed on from Dream Lake knowing that the end goal was not too far off (albeit up the steepest portion of the trail yet).

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After befriending a young hiker ( a ten year old girl who followed me up the trail as her parents and brother lagged behind), we ascended the final portion of the trail. I felt light headed and a little faint by the end of the climb because we were almost two miles above sea level at this point and the affect was staggering. At least I had my little hiker buddy to keep me motivated and moving despite not feeling super well.

I rounded the final corner and there it was, Emerald Lake, the fourth and final stop on the hike. The waters were indeed emerald and beautifully pristine. Some hikers had stopped to eat lunch at the lake and were being casually attacked by a horde of chipmunks who were literally crawling on the backs of the hikers to steal crumbs. One chipmunk even tried to take a bite out of Mama the Llama until I chased it away.

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The driftwood surrounding the lake was a massive accumulation of bone white tree trunks scattered on the rocky shoreline. With some difficulty, I made my way down to the water’s edge over the boneyard of driftwood and took a break with my bare feet in the glacial waters.

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With the finish line crossed I made a decision that made the rest of my day perfect. I decided to return to Dream Lake since it was my favorite of the day and eat my lunch there instead of Emerald Lake. It was the best decision of the day. So I hiked back down to Dream Lake and found a perfect hammock spot on a rocky out cropping into the lake and set myself up with my croissant from the Laughing Goat in Boulder and my book. It was marvelous.

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I sat there for several hours just basking in the sun and soaking in everything. It was truly glorious but I wound up getting pretty sunburned since I was so much closer to the sun up in the Rocky Mountains than normal.

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After I was too warm to continue resting in my hammock I packed up and descended the mountain back to the first Lake where I took the shuttle back to my car so I could continue on my journey around the park. I decided to drive the Trail Ridge Road and go up to the Alpine Visitor Center that was over two miles above sea level. I stopped a few times along the road to marvel at the Autumn colors and take views of the valleys below the towering mountains I now stood atop.

I even managed to get photobombed by a chipmunk at the Rainbow Curve.

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At the top where the Alpine Visitor Center sat I walked around the fragile Alpine Tundra environment that stretched across the ridge. I was above the tree line so there were only rocks and tiny shrubbery dotting the horizon line. The road going up there was slightly terrifying because there were no guard rails despite being precarious perched on a road with no shoulder and gigantic drops on either side. IMG_9455 IMG_9454

The air was getting a little too thin for my sea level lungs though, which became my general thought of the day, and with my head swimming and seemingly floating on my shoulders, I decided it was time to return to a somewhat bearable elevation. Dropping back down to the valley I took some time to look at the colors and was rewarded with a bonus sighting, a small elk family consisting of a Bull, a doe and an adorable little baby. IMG_5385 IMG_5414

The baby was eating while the parents were settling down to rest in the field and he was quite the photogenic little guy. IMG_5408

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I left them be and exited the park exhausted but satisfied. I wandered slowly on sore feet through Estes Park and stopped to get some Nepalese food outside in the warm autumn air next to the river. It was a pleasant way to end a long but wonderful day and my drive back to Boulder was filled with thoughts and images of everything I had seen and experienced in the park. I could have stayed forever, but there was always more to see and time would not wait for me, not today at least.

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