Left Rhode Island with a huge smile on my face and very little plan. I had my mom take this picture of me to document the occasion, stopped at Mission Burger to grab some coozies, paid a visit to my favorite honeyman for some sweetness for the road, and grabbed a sticker for the cargo box to rep my hometown. We made our way to New York that evening to hang with Keg in Brooklyn, catch up on old times and enjoy some hole in the wall tacos - look at the picture of that fox below. I could've stayed all night with her but I knew we had to make moves to Philly if we were going to make it to Nashville by Friday. We spent the night at my grandpa’s house. He had just passed away so the feeling was very eerie and our physical, non-spiritual aloneness was very apparent. I slept with a knife under my pillow. We went to breakfast the next morning with my dear friend Brian Murphy at Winnie’s in Manayunk. The four years since we had seen each other seemed to melt away. I had multigrain pancakes and we talked about our friends that had fallen off the map, great danes, and the current dating scene. A belly full of barley and arms full of Murph we said goodbye, and headed for way too long drive in search of our first campsite.
Behold Dixie Caverns in Christiansburg, Virginia. We were greeted by a rotund woman in a night gown who informed me she had just taken a pill. She took my $12 and gave me a map and I was on my way to my first solo tenting experience. I’ve camped a hundred times, but this was officially the first time I had pitched a tent alone in a campsite that I had found by myself. I didn't pull out my sleeping bag because it was a warm night which turned out to be a bad idea because it was a cold morning. The heat of success ran through my veins so the coldness didn't matter. I went to my car and grabbed my lavender down robe that I had thrown into the car at the last minute. What a magical feeling. It smelled like my mom and I wore it the rest of the day as I drove through the befogged mountains of the Shenandoah.
The songs of wagon wheel tore through my head as I passed through every town mentioned in that song. However, I seemed to be headed East from the Cumberland gap so I questioned their directional logic for about an hour. River’s for sure thoroughly confused at this point from all the singing at the top of my lungs and sleeping outside together. I can't tell if he's excited or annoyed with me. This road trip mimics many we've done before up until this point so I don't think he quite knows what he's in store for yet.
We are headed to Nashville for my best friend's 30th birthday party. A million different hikes beckoned on the way to Nashville but she was getting a tattoo at 3 PM and I couldn't miss that. We made it, and I watched my baby get love inked on her arm. The weekend in Nashville was a blast as predicted. If you don’t have fun in Nashville your sanity might be in question. We had a calm night with a beautiful southern dinner and then a rowdy night where I swing danced with a 75-year-old man with limited teeth either named Robert or Steve and got sucked into the Nashville vortex. The next day we hopped around to shops, and donut places, and foot massage parlors, and thrift stores, and brunch venues, and sushi dinner… and by the end of it all I felt like I was in the hangover movie, and was terrified at the possibility of losing something and having to retrace these steps at some point. We got to go back to one of those hikes outside the city which was an absolute delight we walked about a mile into a swimming hole and a cliff jump that had me shaking in my boots. River and I spent the last day hanging out in Nashville in the rain hitting up little rock shops and thrift stores looking for a couple extra things to send in a package to our new friend Slicky, who had a birthday coming up. He ended up getting a care package of Civil War books from my grandpas house, cattle brands that I picked up on the way to Nashville, crystals, beer bread, a half smoked a pack of honey backwoods, and a note written on a pack of matches that said I would always be older than him and not to take life too seriously.
I departed Nashville with the final farewell dinner with Michael and Becky, some solid Newport friends. They treated me to tacos and asked me to send them a postcard. They headed to the bluebird Café, Riv and I headed to Bowling Green, Kentucky to set up camp for the evening.
Bowling Green was pretty sparse so give me an opportunity to re-organize the whip and crack open the Buddhist meditation book that I've been dying to get started on. After contemplating my own death and Dharma I headed to Louisville to stay the night with my favorite family, in their house that I hadn't been to since my college days. Their Southern charm and hospitality made me feel so welcome and warm and full. Mrs. Glick helped me send a couple of packages back home to free up some more space in the car, she blessed me with holy water which added to the good juju of Betty White (see post about spiritual car protection).
We headed due east to Red River Gorge about 2 1/2 hours out of our way to Chicago, but a place I've been dreaming about since a rock climbing trip there about five years ago. River was with us on that last trip to the gorge and it rained every day. I’ll be damned as I drove to Lexington under roaring thunder clouds. We made it to Miguel’s pizza, a rock climbing coalition off of highway 11. River and I walked around and made a few friends and scoped out the place which has grown a lot since our last visit. I paid for my campsite, picked up a sticker, and River and I drove down the road to a trailhead for the natural Bridge it said no pets allowed, but River’s basically a human so we took the chance and walk the 2 miles to the overlook. It's a very dope little hike not too strenuous with a pretty inspiring view, and you actually get to walk across the top of the natural Bridge and look over the edge. The sun was going down we started to feel a couple of drops, so we quickly headed back to Miguel’s and set up the tent at warp speed and climbed inside. At this point, I wasn’t sure if the tent would hold up its promise. The rain came down for four hours but it was magical. I felt protected, accomplished, and like I had space to breathe and read. The rain let up around 9 o'clock and I hadn't eaten anything so I took yesterday's meal of black beans, onions, peppers, dill and walnuts to the commissary and sat alone with River hoping to make a friend. It took about 15 minutes but soon a cute 20-year-old boy had come up to me to chat. We discussed life purpose, our hometowns, rock climbing, spirituality, dogs and shared a cigarette. He kept calling me old, which I thought was funny. He invited me back to his van, which sounds sketchy if you haven't been to Miguel’s, but pretty much 80% of the people there live out of their vans doing some sort of similar road travel and dream chasing. The conversation got deeper and more spiritual, but I could tell he was gassing me up for the big pitch. My lamp oil was burning out. River and I called it a night and he asked again if I was sure I didn't want to stay in the van I politely declined. Good to know this'll old bird’s still got it.
Woke up the next morning and put my bare feet out on the dewy grass. I surveyed all the tents in this little community thought about how different each person’s experience is. I walked over to Miguel’s and thought about getting something for breakfast but opted for a coffee… I haven't been hungry in days and I don't know why. River and I hung out with a few climbers, Andres and Eric, that morning and got the lowdown on the best hike for me in the man we opted to start at the trailhead for the Eureka climb which ended up being absolutely the best. Fairly easy trails but definitely a little scrambling, jaw-dropping shelves of sandstone caves, ravines of covered rocks and the beautiful muted colors and textures of the gorge. At one point I stripped off all my clothes and played in the stream simply because I could. We were so alone and I knew the weather on the rest of this trip wouldn't quite call for this.
I learned something about River today. As I watched him behave on the trail, he was definitely excited on the way in but I could tell it was the way back that he lived for. His lab instinct and loyalty wanted to lead me back to the car the entire time. Not because he felt that he belonged there but because I truly think he thinks it's his duty to lead me home. He would run ahead about 30 feet wait for me, run ahead, wait, and every time he knew exactly the path to take. There was one time that I'm questioned him and I was absolutely wrong and ended up in a precarious situation him smiling at me from about 50 feet below rock shelf that I had to backtrack. We ran into some Japanese climbers the told me the name for river in Japanese is Kawa, which I think is pretty cool.
We could've stayed at the gorge forever, but we had to be on our way because wedding bells were calling us in Milwaukee.