After the sale, we decided it was time to commit a bit more to the lifestyle we plan to live in the near future. We have been holding our daily 'meeting of the minds' and discussing exactly what it is we want this trip to be - how we wish to mold it - what we want to get out of the experience. It is true that this is a trip across the States, but it is so much more than a road trip to see landmarks. We desire an American experience. What that means to us is an experience heavily influenced and surrounded by people. When you break it down, that is what the U.S. is - a collective of minds, beliefs and cultures. We want to immerse ourselves in people. We want to bathe in experiences unknown to us in this small place of being we now reside in.
During our interview with Erin at the Northern Express we learned about a great web based organization of couch surfers and knew instantly that we wanted it to be a part of our experience. We have been rethinking the plan of traveling in a camper van. There is something about it that does not feel right. We want that human interaction and boon-docking in Walmart parking lots is not exactly what we had in mind. I am not saying that the van will not play a part in a future portion of our trip, but at the start we are leaning towards a more integrated path. We have a lot of enthusiasm at this point and we wish to use that as fuel. We feel we can do anything at this time. That may not be the case six months in - but for now it absolutely is. We are heavily leaning towards the idea of kicking our tour off with our Subaru, some backpacks and an eagerness to really see this country in a new light. We want to see the 'behind the scenes' version. We want to trek through the backcountry. We want to see how you really live. We want to discover what you know. And so we are going to make that happen. But before we do, we figured it might be a good idea to do a few test trips and make sure we do not loathe the experience.
Our first step was to get some gear - packs and light weight living items that will be needed during our year on the road. If we are going to be staying in the homes of generous strangers, we want to leave as little impact physically on their lives as possible. We want to have the ability to make coffee on our own and have a bed wherever we happen to be. Backcountry North hooked us up and we planned our first getaway. After a small poll on Facebook, we decided Mammoth Caves in Kentucky would do more than fine for our backpacking experience. As for the couch surfing aspect, we thought it wise to stick with family the first go round.
We headed first to Kalamazoo. We only had a few hours to drive because Marnie desired to attend a school field trip during the school day. It was a lovely stop - my cousin just had a beautiful new baby girl and we got to share a few snuggles and surf a couch. We headed out early the next morning in the direction of one of my closest friends, Catherine. A few hours drive lead us to a few more hours of great company. Our children were able to play in the sunshine together while we caught up in person - something that only happens a couple of times a year unfortunately. A little lunch and a small child being wheeled over by a Power Wheels later, and we were off in the direction of Nashville.
We had originally planned on heading straight to Mammoth and spending a few days exploring the park. However we remembered our wish for our experience to be filled with people and we sought out a few others that happen to live near enough to our final destination. Troy's brother and sister-in-law live in Nashville as do two of my cousins. Discovering how close the city is to the caves, it was an obvious choice. My lovely cousin Ana graciously agreed to let us stay the night and we made plans to meet Troy's brother for lunch the following day. Everything just fell into place so easily. It was lovely. The drive to Nashville was ridiculously long but we made just as the day turned over. My cousin was already asleep but we were able to slip inside and get some much needed sleep.
We tried to make as little of an impression as possible and I think we did a good job. We bring our own bedding so no laundry needs to be done after our departure by our host. We come with our own water supply and food. Everything we need comes in with us on our backs. It is amazing and I think I love it.
Ana was gone before we woke, so we packed up, took a picture of where we laid our heads (something I think I am going to continue to document as we proceed on our journey) and took off to explore Nashville.
The last time we spent time in the beautiful city was as evacuees from Pensacola during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This was a bit of a different experience. For one thing, the kids could walk this round. Hands down that makes this trip the clear winner. We met Ana and her sister Mo for a quick cup of coffee. The weather was sticky hot and the conversation easy. We soon departed and met up with Troy's brother Joe and his lovely bride Rachel for some lunch at a delicious Latin eatery. We had not seen the pair in over five years, so the experience was filled with excitement. The kids were thrilled to meet family they did not quite remember and we felt similarly to to reconnection. Joe was able to break away a bit longer and spend some time with us in a park downtown.
To catch up was probably the greatest part of our trip. We had such an amazing time and are already making plans for a return stop. One day is not enough to really 'do' Nashville. After a quick trip to a replica of the Parthenon (which the kids thought outrageously boring... actually, it was pretty boring), we headed on to Mammoth.
The first night we arrived late, so we stayed in the campground. We rose early, packed our belongings and hit the trails. In the early afternoon we made it back to the visitor's center to join a group for a cave walking tour. As we waited we did a quick tick check and found several. We had heard they are especially bad this year and let me say that is no joke. We found at least a couple on each of us and that was just after a couple of miles on a wide and easy trail. At the conclusion of our trip we would have pulled off an easy 40 ticks off our bodies. That being after we took all recommended precautions. We wore the right clothing and covered ourselves in deet. They are crazy bad. Rocco had so many covering his body that we had to take him into the vet to have them removed. He was smothered. They gave up after thirty and just gave him meds to kill them off. I digress.
We did a cool 3.5 mile hike through the caves by lantern light. The kids walked in awe of the caverns. Our guide was very John Wayne-esque and had no signs of a sense of humor, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. He was very interested in sharing stories of those who died in the caves which obviously our children very much enjoyed. Troy and I likewise enjoyed the great peaks and descents the tour followed. After we reemerged into daylight, we headed off to the trail head that would lead us to our camp for the evening.
Let me say that we all walk quite a bit. The kids walk 3 to 7 miles each day and we easily do double. That in no way indicates how quickly we were to travel in back country. Who knew that narrow and winding trails, rocks and trees to climb over and rivers to cross would slow you down? Well, everyone apparently. Everyone except me. Had I thought of it, I would not have chosen a camp five miles in from the trail head. I also would not have started our trek at six o'clock at night. However this is exactly what I chose to do. About a mile in, the headlamps came on and the remainder of our hike was done in the darkness. It was strange to hike without being able to see the beauty that surrounded us. It was still there but all I could see was the five feet in front of me and I had to trust the markers that had been placed as a guide. We stopped at what we believed to be our camp (later discovered that we in no way traveled nearly as far as assumed) and set up our tent. We ate in near darkness as moths continuously attacked my head and the lamp that adorned it. We collectively collapsed into sleep to the sound of a river a probable short distance away.
When we woke the following morning, we found ourselves beneath a canopy of the lushest greenery my eyes have seen. A small river lay beside us and waterfalls were scattered down the slope. It was an unreal experience. The kids immediately hit the water and played for hours. It was stunning. Kentucky is beautiful. I felt part of the earth in that moment. The incredible vastness of everything and yet so small in the same moment.
We hiked out of Mammoth that same day and left Kentucky as well. We made another quick overnight stop and stayed with some friends in the Chicago area. We returned home the following morning.
The success of this trip means much to us. We had non-stop togetherness and enjoyed it. We were able to test our gear in various situations and make notes of what else would be needed. Above all else however is that we acquired true thirst. This new life is something we have wanted very badly, but is no longer just a desire. We had a taste of the life we will lead and it is already a part of who we now are. There is this great life - these amazing experiences out there to be had by us. I know it exists and we will soon reach the place where we can enjoy it in all of it's glory. For now however, I can only trust that we are on our way. Much like our hike in the darkness - we too must now follow the markers before us. Trust what path has been placed for us to follow and put one foot in front of the other. Soon we will open our eyes and the sight will astound us. This I know to be true - and I am grateful.