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The Roadtrip Begins!

The Roadtrip Begins!

Annnnnd…we’re off. The first stop on our nomadic life adventure was Salt Lake City. This is quite a haul from Chicago so we broke up the drive into four manageable days, with a little sightseeing thrown in. We are frequently asked how the dogs travel. Well…you can see below that they seem to handle the road just fine.

Our route took us across the southern edge of the entire state of Minnesota. I thought this would be an uneventful leg of the trip, which it was, with one big exception. A “rainbow” contained within a single cloud. It was a bizarre sight. This uncommon phenomenon is called cloud iridescence. When a cloud’s properties and the water droplets/ice crystals inside are just right, light diffraction causes us to see colors in the cloud. It was an amazing sight to see and a fun way to start our trip.

Our second day of travel (my birthday!) included some more sightseeing. We were traveling across South Dakota from Sioux Falls to Spearfish. Between these stops we visited Badlands National Park as well as Mount Rushmore.

The Badlands was an incredible landscape. We only had time to do the scenic drive through the park, but I would love to do some hiking there, over the fascinating geologic features in the park. However, the scenic drive gave us ample opportunity to gawk at the unfamiliar landscape and some of the park’s wildlife, namely prairie dogs and bighorn sheep.

Once we had passed through the Badlands it was off to Mount Rushmore. I have to admit: I’ve always wanted to visit Mt. Rushmore, but…I don’t get it. What a weird monument. Four dead presidents carved into a mountain in the Black Hills National Forest. Really, in the middle of nowhere. But, as a history and outdoor lover, I had to check this weirdo monument out!

We couldn’t take the dogs up to the monument so we took turns making the short walk to the viewing area while the other watched the dogs. I have to say I think the dogs were more of a hit with kids than the monument 🙂 One more thing…if you visit, get the ice cream.

Our third day of travel started with a visit to the Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood and a hike to Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon. The museum displayed great information and artifacts from the history of Deadwood; a fascinating gold rush town. The hike was a stunner that I’ll talk about in a separate post as part of my 52 Hike Challenge.

After these stops it was time to cross the state line into Wyoming and visit Devil’s Tower AKA Bear Lodge. A 3-way debate still rages about how Devil’s Tower was actually formed, but all theories agree that this geologic feature was formed by magma forcing its way through other rock formations. American Indians had many connections to and names for this place. Several tribes called it Bear Lodge and there are many stories about the creation of this place according to each tribe’s religious and historical oral history. Ceremonies still take place at Bear Lodge and each summer climbing is suspended for a month to respect Indian religious traditions. We also had our first bison sighting near Devil’s Tower! So exciting. I love these creatures!

After our quick visit to Devil’s Tower we had a long day traveling across Wyoming to the small town of Rawlins, our last stop before SLC!

Our 4th and final day of travel did not include any sightseeing, only our much anticipated arrival in Salt Lake City! After four days and a couple thousand miles, we made it!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 17 – Route 66: A Geographic Journey, Towanda, Illinois

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 17 – Route 66: A Geographic Journey, Towanda, Illinois

When I was in high school, I had a very influential teacher. He continues to be an important mentor to this day. But back in the “olden days”, he inspired me to become involved in a new project of his: transforming a section of Historic Route 66 from barricaded pavement to an educational linear park. It was a big task, but if you’ve ever met Mr. Walk you know not to underestimate him. The man gets things done.

My first hands on exposure to the project was pulling weeds after school one day. I know that doesn’t sound captivating, but it was. I was immediately hooked on the history and romance of traveling this historic road. Thinking about it now, it was probably the earliest seed of adult wanderlust in my brain. I spent many hours over the next few years working on creating informational markers, staining benches (so much staining!), planting beautiful gardens and broadening my knowledge of the Mother Road.

When I was a senior in high school we embarked on one of our biggest projects: designing, painting and installing eight 4 ft x 8 ft murals, one representing each state Route 66 passes through. Great care was taken to make sure these murals would weather as slowly as possible. Roofed shelters and UV-blocking plexiglass were installed with each mural, and it’s great to see each piece hold up pretty well over the last fifteen years.

For Hike 17 of my 52 Hike Challenge I revisited my beloved park, and took some photos so I could share the experience! I know some of you reading were involved in the early stages of this project. I hope you enjoy seeing your work still shining in Towanda, Illinois!

The trail starts with a trio of flagpoles flying the US, Illinois and Route 66 flags. There is also a welcome sign, informational pamphlets in several languages and a guest book that has been signed by people from all over the world. I’m not the only one captivated by the Mother Road.

As you travel along the path, you’ll see large gardens with labels on many of the plants, trees planted on the roadside (many with memorial markers), Burma Shave signs, informational placards, birdhouses, benches to rest on and the murals.

The murals are placed in the order in which you would travel the states if you were starting the Route 66 drive in Chicago and finishing in L.A.

I’m so grateful to have had teachers who valued service learning, and I’m especially grateful I was able to work on a project that is still thriving. It’s great to be able to visit, but it’s also great to know there are many other people learning about and enjoying the project as well.

Have you ever traveled Route 66 or participated in a historical/travel/outdoor service project in your community? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

McLean County Nature Day

McLean County Nature Day

As much as I believe I belong in the mountains, I still do love my flat home state of Illinois. And despite its lack of mountains, it still has so much to offer someone looking for outdoor recreation. On a recent trip home I visited a couple parks and thought I’d share a few pictures from the day!

First, I visited Moraine View State Recreation Area near Le Roy, Illinois. As its name implies, this park sits on a large moraine created by glaciers 15,000 years ago. One main feature of the park is a beautiful lake. While checking out the lake I saw a hummingbird for the first time in the “wild” (not at a backyard feeder). It was so interesting to watch the bird feed on some beautiful iris, and I was surprised at how camouflaged it was in the flowers. And a trip to an Illinois lake wouldn’t be complete without seeing lots and lots of geese.

Next I headed to Comlara Park. I basically grew up in this park and visit it frequently when I’m in the area. Even so, I usually see something new and exciting while I’m there. On this trip I made friends with a turtle crossing the road and found some deer and raccoon tracks. Spotting wildlife is my favorite part of being outdoors!

When I decided to take a “nature day” I didn’t realize how close Moraine View was to my childhood home (hint: extremely). Even when you’re in an urban area, nature is all around, and finding an outdoor space to play in might be closer than you think!

Now that I’ve had more experience looking for outdoor spaces, I have a few go-to sites for finding hiking trails, camping, etc. For hiking I always turn to AllTrails. It is an extremely easy-to-use site, and in the event a trail I’m considering isn’t already on the site, it’s easy to add. My other go-to for any kind of outdoor activity is The Outbound. This site has everything, crowdsourced and added by “explorers”. It’s another great resource that’s easy to add to if you know of activities that aren’t already included. Between these two sites I can find something to do near every location I’ve ever tried, and would recommend them to anyone. Do you have a favorite way to track down outdoor activities? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Chicago Quick Trip

Chicago Quick Trip

Over Memorial Day weekend, my good friend Jess came to visit good ‘ol Illinois. We took a very short trip to Chicago, took some photos and thought I’d share!

Since we were staying overnight, we needed a place to sleep. We hit the jackpot when we found a vintage Airstream available on Airbnb. Jess and I both had wanted to stay in one, so booking this was a no-brainer. It turns out that our Airbnb hosts were some of the most warm, kind and hospitable people I’ve ever met, and after chatting with them over the two days we stayed with them, they’ve left a permanent impression on us. So thanks Andy and family!!

When we weren’t hanging out with our awesome Airbnb hosts, we were in the Loop, doing some sightseeing and meeting up with some old friends. On our first night in the city we grabbed a snack at the Berghoff, a historic German restaurant, then passed by the Willis (what will always be the SEARS, to me) Tower, the Cloud Gate (the “bean”), Millenium Park where we caught part of a concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Lions at the Art Institute and picked Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park as our meeting point with the rest of our group. After grabbing a few drinks, Jess and I headed out for famous Chicago pizza at Giordano’s.

On day 2 we did more wandering. Since we were short on time we mostly stuck to free, outside, walkable attractions. We spent quite a bit of time on Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent Mile where we saw the Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station. We headed up to the Signature Lounge in the Hancock Building for brunch and impressive views of the city. After brunch we wandered by the Tribune Tower and discovered some free fun at the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. We finished the day wandering along the Chicago River and making a quick visit to Navy Pier.

The highlight of the entire weekend for me, though, was running into the Puppet Bike. This is a one-man show that might just be the happiest place on earth. If you’re ever feeling down, just pull up some Puppet Bike videos on YouTube or search #puppetbike on Instagram and I bet you feel better.


Overall it was a great, quick visit to the Windy City and it was fun to show a visitor around! What’s your favorite Chicago attraction? Tell me in the comments!

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 16 – Starved Rock State Park

52 Hike Challenge – Hike 16 – Starved Rock State Park

For Hike 16 of my 52 Hike Challenge, I headed to a state park close to home, yet one I’ve sadly neglected: Starved Rock State Park. The park borders the Illinois River and contains 18 canyons formed by glacial melt. Legend says the park’s name comes from members of the Illinois tribe who starved to death while hiding from members of the Ottawa tribe.

My friend and I hiked two of these trails: the Starved Rock Trail that overlooks the Illinois River and French Canyon so we could see some of the park’s famous waterfalls. Both hikes were easy, but there were quite a few stairs involved.

We hiked the Starved Rock Trail first, which opened up to a great overlook. This trail is right next to the Lodge and food, which makes it a great end point to your day – get in some views, then sit back with a snack and relax. However, we had a jam-packed day and couldn’t stay to eat at the park, so we hiked it first. We couldn’t go to Starved Rock and not hike the namesake trail!

Next, we hiked French Canyon. Turns out we went a little too far and wound up in Wildcat Canyon, but doing a little extra walking never hurt. This trail was through some pretty heavy canopy which meant it was shady, but extremely humid and buggy. Definitely need bug spray in the canyons!

Both trails were absolutely packed. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, but there were definitely some trail etiquette issues. It was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend and I suspect that brought out a lot of novice/casual hikers. However, I think this park is always popular. A few weeks after our hike the park had to close temporarily because there was no parking. All this to say, hiking short, popular trails here probably isn’t for you if you like a more secluded/solitary experience.

Overall we had a great time, and it was nice to be able to quickly knock out a couple different trails. I would love to return in winter when the falls (and crowds) are frozen.

Have you been to Starved Rock or another favorite state park? Tell me about it in the comments!

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