smiling hiker
Smiling as it’s not blaze orange.

In mid August, after a spring of a few trips and a basement remodel, then a summer of training for and completing a team relay race, I went up to the attic and discovered that I’d left my tent set up, drying out from an April trip to Moab. We’d gotten rained on, on our last evening there, and when I finally returned home, the tent had been packed and wet for nearly 48 hours. It needed a good drying-out.

Maybe not four months’ worth, however. At that point in August, Steve and I were still trying to decide what to do with a vacation we’d planned in October. Then in the running were a long weekend in Reykjavik, at his favorite music festival, or a road trip that would include a visit to his grandmother in southeast Missouri. Road trips for us have usually meant at least a few nights of camping: we do enjoy getting outside and making these rare small attempts at roughing it: tent sleeping, hiking, outdoor cooking, just packing into the car and moving on: what’s not to love, now and then, if both parties are willing?

Our “now and then” had diminished to shocking infrequency: we hadn’t done such a trip, even just a camping weekend, in two years, so my discovery of the neglected, fully set-up tent made the decision for us. Road trip in October!

What cemented the deal was that a trip down to the Missouri bootheel, if given a whole week, could include a visit to at least one other nearby state, and we have friends in Louisville, Duane and Nancy, who have invited us to visit. Also drawing us toward Kentucky: my rock climbing proclivity has lately brought the Red River Gorge to my awareness. It’s a climbing mecca, especially in October: beautiful colors, tolerable heat and bug density, and affordable lodging in the form of ample campsites. While I wouldn’t be climbing on this trip, I could certainly check out the situation & plan a future trip with my findings.

So, after work on a Friday we headed southeast, stopping in the Wisconsin Dells for a pint and a wink of sleep in a motor lodge (notably, the staff at the AmericInn were extremely helpful in guiding us to Monk’s for that pint & a burger). The next day we spent driving down through a little more of Wisconsin, a small bit of Illinois, and then most of Indiana, which was ablaze in stunning fall colors. At some point we drove through a massive wind farm that gave the terrain a very otherworldly feel: both of us have read too much sci-fi, perhaps.

We arrived in Louisville just in time for cocktails, then dinner, with our friends, who at that point also included another pair of alumni who happened to be cruising through town, as well: Nina and Paul. Aye, the web of Carleton rugby friendships, she be thick and strong! We enjoyed a terrific evening of great food (at Doc Crow’s), conversation, and, finally, as a nightcap, a tour of bourbons, guided by our able and very willing host, Duane. By the end of the tasting, I’d decided my favorite was the Four Roses Single Batch, though most of us agreed that the Basil Hayden was one remarkably smooth sip. While I’m not “a whiskey drinker,” I do like the taste of various scotches, bourbon in general, and other whiskeys, so this activity was enjoyable and it also helped persuade Steve and I to head to one of the nearby distilleries for a tour, on our way out of Louisville.

bats
Bats. Flying.

Our hosts’ generosity extended for another day, though we set off on our own in the morning, to take the excellent Louisville Slugger factory tour and to enjoy a walk along the riverfront, where we spied a double-crested cormorant. This is not a rare bird, but this is pretty far inland for them, and I was really surprised to find that my bird-identifying skills have improved so much that I could ID the bird without binoculars nor guide book. After lunch we rejoined Duane and Nancy for a trip to Churchill Downs and driving tour of Louisville’s architecture and landscape, which exhibit a blend of southern grandeur and northern sophistication. We toured Cherokee Park, one of the many Louisville parks that were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park. I found myself craving just a few more days to spend in this beauteous town, just to walk and run in that park!

derby winners
Seattle Slew’s Spot in History

Our visit to Churchill Downs and its most informative and entertaining Kentucky Derby Museum gave me another reason to plan to return: to attend a horse race there, if not THE race in May. The history, the ceremony, the gorgeous beasts (well, I am a girl), the sport, and the fun look irresistible!

Our day concluded with another great meal out in Louisville, at Avalon, on their charming patio. The next day, after a lazy and enjoyable morning, catching up with Nancy, Steve and I got back into the car and headed further into bluegrass country, to stop at the Woodford Reserve distillery for a tour, on our way out to the Red River Gorge. The rolling green hills, with their slatted white fences and brilliantly fall-hued trees, made for a nearly hypnotic drive: I found myself desiring to stop for a photo, but then deciding that only film could do this experience justice, and so we just kept driving until we reached the distillery.

During the tour, I learned more about the reasons bourbon isn’t simply whiskey made in America, starting with this: the golden hue of the mostly-corn mash, bubbling away in three huge vats. The method by which the whiskey is encouraged to circulate within the barrels, letting each drop of it spend time in contact with the oak of the barrels was fascinating: the barrels stayed still, stacked in the stone storage building, which was heated, cooled, and reheated many times each season.

pizza
Miguel’s Delivers!

All that learning and walking, as well as a final taste of the stuff, made for two hungry travelers, so we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the premises, before heading back onto the road.

We continued southeastwards, for a few days of camping, hiking, leaf-peeping, rock-fondling, and peacefully co-existing with hordes of climbers (Rocktoberfest was still in semi-swing) in the Red River Gorge. During our two days there, we took a hike on the Original and Rock Garden Trails, which allowed us a very close look (and feel) of the unique sandstone in this area, which had ribbons of iron in it. Steve and I had so much fun on our own that I didn’t get a chance to check out any climbing routes, but I did pick up a climbing guide book during our visit to Miguel’s Pizza for lunch and an Ale-8 soda-a ginger brew unique to Kentucky, we found out (and enjoyed).

We found our lodging at Lago Linda Hideaway – AKA our campsite – to be quite fine indeed, though neither of us has ever had a camping experience so beset by dogs, albeit mostly friendly (and unleashed) or a few miles distant (barking up a storm in the middle of the night) dogs. Such is to be expected, we supposed, on a trip in the southern part of the country, especially during a climbing festival in a climbing mecca.

Just added, later on 10/17, as the memory is really quite giggle-inducing: What can also be expected, apparently, is to have a hay bale roll across the road in front of you, in the Gorge. I can now confirm that a 2008 Nissan Versa can safely cross a road covered by freshly-unrolled hay. Oh, the adventure…

I am happy to report that I still love the North Face tent that I’ve had for years: Despite a rain that started as we finished preparing dinner and finished around 7am, it kept us almost 100% dry, though we’ll need to apply some seam sealer to one corner, in the next few days. We also need to get a new tarp: we found out the hard way that our tarp was too old and ragged to hang up over our cooking table as an awning. It wouldn’t be camping if new lessons weren’t learned, each time!

Next, we headed westwards, and found out just how wide, and filled with amazing fall colors, the state of Kentucky is. We arrived at Steve’s grandmother Thelma’s house just in time for dinner and then to watch the Cardinals-Brewers NLCS game with her, on television: Chaffee, Missouri is definitely close enough to St. Louis for locals to be tuning in for this series. Our short, 2-day stay with her included a hike around Lake Tywappity, shopping for and then cooking a lentil stew dinner for the three of us, and enjoying another Cards game as well as a second night in a warm, dry house full of love and comfortable sleeping conditions. The cooking-for-family while traveling experience was new and appealing to me: suddenly the difference between our foodie trip to Sonoma in August and this road trip seemed less vast: loving food is about enjoying life and other people, any way you procure that food.

country road
Road P281. Or P263? Or 2220?

The last two items on our trip agenda were hiking (1) and camping (2) in the Ozark mountains, so we headed out early the next morning. We’d spent a healthy amount of time sprawled out on Thelma’s living room floor, poring over topo maps, making sure we’d be able to find the hiking trail that we had chosen for our adventure: the Brushy Creek Trail, in the Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry. We’d read about it in a recent Backpacker Magazine article, and decided it was as worthy of a destination as any other. However, before we even left Minnesota, we decided to only do part of the trail as a day hike, as we didn’t quite have the planning or packing time for an actual overnight backpacking trip.

We ended up scaling it back even further. When we arrived at what our maps told us was the trail, and found a large hunting encampment, we decided that our victory was to be simply finding that trailhead: it was three hours of fun but sometimes difficult driving, the last hour of which was on a very rugged semi-crushed limestone surface, and we had to ford Big Creek 2 or 3 times, while on it. We got out of the car, stepped a few yards onto the trail, marked it (there was no loo, seriously), then went back out to the car for a picnic, before heading back out to the semi-civilization of a state park campground and hiking trail. Taum Sauk delivered.

The last night of our trip was delicious; a great end to the trip: a very big, but not full moon, a light breeze, and a campground that only allowed tents (so, no RV generators) was ideal, and there was zero motor noise at any distance. Our site was in a small clearing, under some very tall trees that still had leaves: in the middle of the night, the moon’s light cast some very spooky, comical shadows on the tent walls that just briefly scared this girl enough to awaken her husband to seek some comfort, right before realizing the spooks on the walls were just the trees, high up.

And that was pretty much the end of our trip. We elected to drive all the way home the next day; the thought of a night in an Iowa motel was far less appealing for a vacation memory than was a night in our own comfortable bed, and a Sunday not spent in the car. Thank you Steve, Duane, Nancy, Thelma, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Missouri, for a wonderful road vacation! We are so, so fortunate in this life.

10/17 Addendum: more photos, LOTS of them, are here. Enjoy!

2 thoughts on “To Mo (and Kentucky) We Go

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