All Who Wander

27 02 2021

I’ve always loved the well-worn phrase, “All who wander are not lost.” I know I’m neither the first, nor the last, of millions of individuals who identify with this sentiment. It made the younger version of myself – the one who had just gotten her first taste of traveling overseas and was flush with the travelbug fever – feel seen and understood.

It’s weird, in these recent times, how sharply the loss of travel can feel. In fact, myself and many others who feel most grounded when attempting to get lost in a foreign city, feel more lost than ever amidst the heavy blanket of COVID travel restrictions.

As with many other complex psychological impacts we’ve all felt during the global pandemic, the ensuing stress is immediately guilted by the knowledge of how lucky and privileged we are. Yes, we had COVID early on, but we were asymptomatic and stayed healthy. Yes, we know many people who have – and still are – suffering COVID symptoms, but I have not personally lost anyone from this horrible virus. The brain is constantly surveying this landscape of ubiquitous stress, comparing and contrasting our own feelings with seemingly appropriate justifications. It’s easy then, for us to feel pressured to squelch our sadness about canceled plans, missed celebrations, and a general itchiness to travel again.

I think you need to hear this.

It’s OKAY to feel saddened by the loss of travel. It doesn’t make you unempathetic to other people’s trauma. It makes you human.

I want to share a bit of advice that I got over a decade ago, when I was preparing to go through a divorce. It was an amicable breakup, and we both still love each other very much. There were no lawyers involved. No arguing over stuff. No name-calling or even fighting. It was simply time to part ways, as we needed different things that we could not give each other any more. It was truly for the best.

So why did it hurt SO MUCH? Why did my heart ache so horribly, even though it had ultimately been my decision? It’s not what you have– what you are giving up- that you are sad about. It’s the vision of a future you thought was yours.

So, as my wise friend, Jessie, told me, “Allow yourself time to grieve that future that is no longer.” It’s okay to be sad that it’s no longer possible. It’s okay to be scared by not knowing what (or when) that will be replaced with.

I thought that I knew this lesson inside and out. I’ve applied this grieving process to many of life’s disappointments that followed that big change. I was a champion at processing losses and moving on in a healthy manner. Until a few weeks ago.

In the past year, I’ve had plenty of exciting travel plans. We had been organizing a big trip for April 2020 to celebrate the year that I was to turn 40, and my mom, 70. So, my wife and I were to set out in advance for 2 weeks, just the two of us, exploring Peru, hiking Machu Piccu, then meeting back up in Ecuador with my mom for a memorable week in Galapagos Islands! Of course, our ill-fated departure date was just one month after coronavirus wiped out normal life as we knew it, forcing most of us to suddenly either get laid off or switch to working from home. Our trip was understandably postponed until April 2021.

Optimistic, (back when most people didn’t think it would take more than a couple weeks or – at most – a couple months to get rid of this pesky virus), we planned a new trip. We would go back to Thailand, to finally reunite with ‘our Thai son,’ Veeraphat. He had lived with us in Ypsilanti, Michigan, back in 2012-2013. Now that he is a grown man, finished with university, his family opened a small resort with some guest houses we could stay in. We were so excited! I jumped on the drastically reduced airfares in April, and scheduled our trip for December 2020.

The summer was quiet, with just a few cautious camping trips close to home. We grew accustomed to hiking with masks on, and finding wider spots on trails to step aside as oncoming hikers approached. During one visit with a dear friend, who also loves to travel, we learned that she, too, would be celebrating a landmark birthday, and she planned to go to her 50th state in February to ring in her 50th year. As we learned of her plan to head to Hawaii solo, we eagerly volunteered to join her! With all of our recent cancellations (business trips too), I had plenty of travel points waiting to be used.

As November holidays came and went, and predictable surges in cases came, we had already made the decision to continue avoiding all family holidays, for fear of spreading COVID. We were worried about the upcoming trip to Thailand, whose government still had not lifted the ban on ALL commercial flights entering the country. We literally could not even get there if we wanted to.

Sadly, the trip to Thailand got cancelled too. We hope to reschedule to December 2021. But at least we have Hawaii!

As a backup plan to Thailand, we decided to take our road trip to Big Bend N.P. It was such a relief to FINALLY, safely be able to get out on an adventure. I can count on one hand how many people passed within 6 feet of my during those 3 weeks, always masked. We missed spending Christmas with our families, but we knew this was a much safer plan. I’m so grateful we managed to get away, even just a few states from home.

As Hawaii approached, the COVID restrictions clamped down. Because we were planning to go to Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail, it required a number of new requirements:

  • Get a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours before departure
  • Arrive in Kauai, without stopping and leaving any other airport along the way
  • Do NOT rent a car. Go directly to an approved ‘Resort Bubble’ to quarantine for 3 days
  • Pay $80 for a tracking bracelet
  • Figure out how to get food without leaving the resort, even though all hotel restaurants are closed, and there is no room service
  • After 3 days, pay another $200 for a rapid COVID test. If negative, feel free to proceed about the island

We understood and accepted all these parameters. We knew it wouldn’t be the relaxing, luxurious version of Hawaii that most people seek out, but we were truly there for the hiking. Kalalau trail is very sought after, which required booking an overnight camping permit in advance. We managed to secure our spots for 4 days, just to be safe. We expected to hike in and out in 3 days, with a buffer day planned, in case of bad weather.

The seasonal timing was risky, since February falls squarely in the rainy season. As I researched the trail further, I learned that, as one of the top 20 most dangerous trails in the world, the biggest risk comes not from tumbling off the cliff at Crawler’s Ledge, but rather attempting to cross one of 4 river crossings during flood conditions. Many a traveler has refused to wait out the weather, and instead insisted on forging through raging, waist deep rivers gushing with epic force from the mountains above. They either get washed out to sea and sucked into the strong rip tide, or banged against large boulders by the strong currents. We discussed these risks as a group, and agreed to turn back if anyone felt unsafe. Nobody would be dying our our trip.

The week before our flight, we were eagerly giddy, as it finally seemed that our travel plans would go through! We packed and repacked our bags, prepared with extensive gear for the 22 mile, treacherous backcountry hiking and camping. Then, as if in a dream, we starting hearing the reports.

“Winter storm Uri preparing to hit U.S. hard with record ice storms, extreme winter weather, and artic cold air.” NOOOOOO!

We hoped for the best, despite our flight laying over in Houston. We always try to route our winter flights through Texas or Atlanta, because Chicago ORD is so prone to cancelled flights. Never would I have thought that the entire Houston International Airport would be shutdown due to a winter storm. We were glued to the forecast, watching each day as Uri crept across our nation, stretching from our southern border with Mexico clear up to Canada. The forecasters predicted devastation, and once it became clear that they might be right, we began calling our airline to see if there was anyway to be rerouted. So did everybody else. Then they started talking about Winter Storm Viola, the one-two punch just nipping at the heels of Uri.

We were basically told there was nothing we could do but wait. Sure enough, two days before our flight, as the snow was just starting to fly here in Indy, we starting seeing reports of massive ice storms, rolling blackouts, and impassable conditions across Texas. We checked in on friends and family from Houston to Austin to Dallas. No one was spared from the impacts. We shared any cold weather tips we could to help minimize the damage, but sadly watched the updates on social media as families huddled around gas fireplaces, candles were lit, water in toilet bowls froze over with ice, and, eventually pipes began to burst.

When our flight was officially canceled, we were not surprised. We called again, hoping that maybe we could at least get rescheduled the next day, or the day after that, but the massive round of cancellations across the country had left thousands of passengers stranded, and we were a much lower priority, safely stuck inside our home, by then with our own foot of snow and impassable roads. Even if our flight hadn’t been canceled, we could not have made it safely to the our local airport by 5am the morning of our departure.

The earliest we could get rerouted from our airline would have been 3 days later. By then, with the mandatory 3-day quarantine still in place, we would have completely missed our window to hike the Kalalau Trail. Our reservation could not be altered or canceled. It was the only part of our trip that couldn’t be refunded. So, with heavy hearts, we accepted the reality that our trip was now completely canceled.

At first, I was okay with this. I’m not one for fighting the Universe tooth and nail, when something is so clearly not meant to be. I mostly felt heartbroken for our dear friend, C.C., whose own recent struggles had left her desperately needing this trip to happen. Complications with her family had already altered her plans significantly, and made the whole thing even more of a disaster. She was, understandably, extremely upset, and we scrambled to figure out some other way to be able to celebrate her 50th with her. But, with flights completely jumbled with rebooked stranded travelers, and our roads being too dangerous to make the 4-5 hour drive up to Michigan to see her, we were left feeling helplessly inept.

I thought my heart ached for our friend. We can always reschedule, I thought. In fact, it seemed kismet, because my own 2020 trip to Galapagos, which had been rescheduled for April 2021, just got postponed once again to 2022. Suddenly, time I had blocked off for that trip was available, and the weather in Hawaii would be far more desirable for the hike then. But, C.C. said this was not possible on her end. Hawaii 5-0 was officially a no-go.

C.C. managed to book a flight out to D.C., where she was born and raised, to celebrate with a couple of old friends. She seemed to recover well from the extreme disappointment, determined to have a damn good time SOMEWHERE other than home. It was only then, when I breathed a sigh of relief for her, that I realized my heartache didn’t lighten. It wasn’t just her that I was sad for. It was also for me.

This was when I realized, I needed to heed my own lesson. I needed to respect and acknowledge that, not just this one trip to Hawaii, but ALL the trips that had been canceled since COVID were weighing on me. No amount of optimism and good attitude can compensate for grief. So, this past week, I’ve finally allowed myself to grieve. For memories with my aging mother on a trip that was her dream. For a long overdue reunion with our Thai son that had taken years to get our schedules to align. For an unexpected but highly anticipated excursion to celebrate the life of our friend. For all the small moments that each of these trips would have granted us. I grieved the losses of the sleepy mornings together staring at the skies over a cup of tea; the tiny moments of infectious laughter; the exhausted silliness that followed and intense day of hiking; and the goodbye hugs that would be the perfect bookend to time spent with loved ones.

I know that there is more travel, more memories, and more life ahead of us. It’s now time to start dreaming again about future adventures. Where to next????





Big Bend National Park

18 02 2021

We drove from Monahan’s State Park on a leisurely route. We stopped by historic Fort Davis, and cruised through Marfa, Texas to see an old architecture friend of mine, before heading down to Terlingua, where we had managed to book a campsite for the week.

Originally, we were supposed to be in Thailand, visiting our high school exchange student from 8 years ago. But as the months crept closer, and COVID cases kept rising, we started to formulate a backup plan, just in case our reunion trip got cancelled. I had lived in Texas a couple of times- once as a child in Dallas area, then again, in Austin during my 20s. Even thought I had made it as far as Marfa, I never managed to take enough time to go explore this massive National Park in the same state (albeit still 8 hours away).

Being from the northern Midwest, I never fathomed that December and January would be a busy time of year for camping. Thankfully, my family in Texas warned us in November, that the week between Christmas and New Years is the peak season in Big Bend. We were too late to snag a campsite inside the park by that point, so we booked a spot just northwest of the park, in Terlingua.

The campground was not much to speak of. Mostly a dustbowl, with a few determined trees dotting the beige landscape. It was situated between a couple of impressive jutting peaks, precursors to what we would see in the park itself. The majority of sites were RVs nestled close together, like they were preparing to ride out a dust storm. We were on the outskirts, on a mini mesa that bled down to the lower level with deep crevasses carved by occasional rain.

We set up camp, a bit different than usual. We prefer to camp places within walking distance of trailheads, so we can park the bus and leave it there for the majority of our stay. In Big Bend, however, there are no park shuttles, and the trail heads are so widespread, it mandates the use of private transportation. So, we had a minimalist setup, and prepared to pack up and break camp each and every morning, only to set up again each evening.

In Marfa, my friend Sam Schonseit had let us kow that the trailhead parking areas are very limited, especially in Chisos Basin. “If you don’t get there early enough,” he cautioned, “you may not be able to find a parking spot, and you won’t get to hike.” We took this to heart, and discussed our strategy over a lazy dinner of Oklahoma-made tortilla chips, guac, and a jar of Texan salsa. Since I had been waking up around 5:30-6:30am every day anyway, Bethany insisted that we roll out first thing, before sunrise. We prepped our gear, selected the next day’s clothes, and packed up all but the essentials, so we could be as quick as possible getting ready in the morning.

I woke to the faint orange glow of sodium lights, and promptly recalled our plan. My outstretched arm fumbled in the dark towards the jump seat, where I knew my phone was charging. 5:54am. Plenty of time.

Quietly sliding closer to the edge of the bed, I reached down to pet Zaha, who was snoozing quietly, and turned her electric blanket back on. Everything was already loaded back in the bus for a quick getaway, so it was easy for me to reach between the seat and the cart to open the electric cooler and feel around for the familiar plastic crinkle of the sleeve of English muffins. I extracted two dough discs, and turned to open the skinny closet door. Second shelf up was the small electric lunchbox, which I slid out and managed to get plugged in to begin toasting our breakfast.

Once I got dressed, I woke up Bethany. Zaha refused to get up, and we decided to wait to let her out until we got to the parking area. Curtains rolled up, packs moved to the back, bed set up to bench seat formation, Zaha jumped up to her travel position, and away we went!

While Bethany requires several cups of tea to power her in the mornings, I am grateful for my natural morning alertness. We remembered to stop and get gas before turning onto the long dark road south. The range station was dark and empty, though our annual National Park pass was ready. I took the two-lane road slow, at first, grateful for my new LED headlights, but still wary of what laid beyond their cutoff. With each gentle curve, we caught glimpses of low shrubbery, while the dark horizon in front of us began to silhouette formations growing in size.

By the time we made it to the turnout for Chisos Basin, the sky was a much lighter blue – just starting to glow a warm pinkish orange, quickly tucked behind massive mountain peaks. We snaked up the valley, until my 45mph head of steam chugged to a meager 25mph, and a few other early risers began to collect on the road behind us. Then the road suddenly tipped downward. A series of sharp hairpin turns wound down into the basin, until a sudden, expansive view filled my windshield and struck us with complete awe. There was enough of a shoulder for me to pull over suddenly, and we leapt out to take in this breathtaking view.

Chisos Basin is AMAZING. We hiked here 4 days in a row, and it never got old. In fact, it only gets better with each hike we were able to experience. Even for those who are unable to get out and hike more than the flat, paved, Window View Trail, it is worth it to witness this volcanic creation. Even though I had only just begun to see Big Bend, at this moment, gazing out across this unbelievably gorgeous vista, I knew it was already worth the drive from Indianapolis.





A Very Sandy Christmas

16 02 2021

We awoke on Christmas Day inside our cozy VW Bus, parked securely inside the backyard of our Texas family. We knew that we could not join them for their family meal, so we decided to enjoy a leisurely walk around the neighborhood together, share a token gift, and then hit the road. My aunt had suggested a great state park in west Texas, where we were heading, so we decided to book a campsite there for the night.

Since this was already a very untraditional Christmas Day for us, we were excited to embrace the novelty. We ordered Chinese food from a place in Fort Worth, not far from where our friend, Rachel, currently resides. We had a rooftop champagne toast, picked up our nontraditional Christmas Dinner, and continued on our way across the vast landscape of northern Texas.

I had researched several odd attractions along our anticipated route, assuming that we would see some signs along the way and make some impulsive stops. Sadly, these treasures remain well-kept secrets, unadvertised to the average traveler on the highways. Without specific stops marked, we ended up barreling through, only stopping for gas a couple of times. The winds had subsided, thank goodness, so it was an much easier drive than the start of our trip. It warmed up quickly as the Texan sun shone through our windshield, and we stripped off layers as we drove. By the time we made our last pit stop, the afternoon sun was waning, and it was time to start putting layers back on as the sandy horizon cooled down for the night.

We had reserved one of the last 2 campsites available online, which was noted as a “Equestrian Site.” We didn’t know what that meant, and by the time we pulled in well after dark, there was not a soul to be seen. The full moon lit up the drifts of sand like snow banks, and all the other campers were tucked into their toasty RVs, glowing like a string of Christmas lights. Despite the cool air, we stretched our legs and decided to have dinner al fresco, on the provided picnic table under the sun shade.

Our ‘equestrian site’ was just a simple pull through, with utilities sticking up in an island for easy access. The sky was mostly clear, and the stars were simply breathtaking. We opened a bottle of wine, flipped open our leftover Chinese food, and took in our surroundings. I couldn’t wait to see it in the daylight!

The next morning, as had been happening each day so far, I woke up before dawn, unadjusted to the time zone. I listened to the sound of Zaha snoring on the floor below our bed, contrasted by the periodic sound of the space heater kicking on and off. It was too early, and too chilly, to take her for her morning walk, so I bundled up and went out on my own. I walked by the waning moonlight, the sand reflecting enough contrast for my eyes to discern the way. I explored a nearby picnic area, then wandered the opposite direction, up the empty road for a mile or so until it dead ended in another daytime destination. I climbed up onto the dunes that wrapped the turnaround, once again seeing how the horizon was just starting to waken.

There were still large dark blue swaths filled with stars, though the sliver of lighter blue and yellow was growing to the East. I decided to go back and wake up Zaha so she could join me, now that the chill had started to lift a bit. Together, she and I trekked along the peaks of sand dunes. It was weird, staring over the undulating landscape, my eyes searching for the sign of Lake Michigan, or some other shore. My brain knew that there was no water to be found, yet the only context I had for sand dunes was in contrast to water.

Zaha discovered the unique way that the sand sprayed up beneath her toes, and a sudden spurt of playfulness struck her. We sprinted across the sand, giddy, and giggling, alone in the vastness. I could look down and see the twinkling lights of campers starting to awaken, still warm and cozy inside their heated tin cans. Meanwhile, Zaha and I frolicked and kicked sand into the air, as I watched the blackness of her fur morph into a warm chocolate, licked by the rising dawn.

I never tire of sunsets or sunrises. Each one is special. I’m used to seeing the dawn crack alone, since I rise much earlier than my wife. I’m not often outside to enjoy the truest beauty, however, and the way the sand absorbed all inkling of sound. There were no birds chirping, no people murmuring, no cars running, only silence, and the occasional sound of grits of sand being blown across the surface of the dunes.

When Bethany got up, I showed her the places we had been. We attempted to sled down the dunes, before packing up and heading to our next stop.

Big Bend National Park, here we come!





The Rough Road Continues

11 02 2021

After our low oil scare in Oklahoma, I was anxious to just finish the day’s drive and get to the familiar site of my Aunt Tina’s driveway in Farmers Branch, Texas. We were just a few hours away, but the stress of the close call left my mind whirring with what if scenarios and retracing my steps to figure out how I had failed Sam so miserably.

I didn’t factor in how much the higher speeds and added stress of the gusting winds taxed my poor engine. Of course, in hindsight, it makes perfect sense that I would burn more oil under these conditions. I just was so out of practice with traveling longer distances, it just didn’t occur to me. In a normal year, I only have to change my oil one or twice a year, with so few miles put on my bus.

After some time driving, I resolved to forgive myself. We were in the good reality, after all. I just hoped there was no permanent damage. Instead, I pushed past the blame game, and made sure that my co-pilot was also on board with helping me to remember to check my oil AT LEAST each morning, but also every time we got gas, at least until I could better predict how quickly I was burning through oil.

Once I moved past this issue, I was brought right back to the reality of my malfunctioning turn signal. It wasn’t so bad, at first, until my right turn signal completely stopped functioning. As a strict rule follower, it pains me to change lanes or exit without using my signal. It’s not just the law, after all, it’s a critical safety feature when you’re essentially a giant water buffalo with huge blind spots, running with a coalition of cheetahs.

“You’ve got to stop at Bucees,” aunt Tina texted Bethany about this massive gas station/ convenience store, “it’s a Texas icon.” We needed gas anyways, so we decided to stop, just an hour north of their home. By this point, my turn signal was giving me fits, working if I forced it hard to the side, requiring me to jamb it back once the turn was completed. The sun had set, and dusk left me feeling even more vulnerable without properly lit signals. We stopped to pick up some groceries, then made it back across the freeway to Bucees.

As we waited at the light to proceed down the hill and turn right into the 50-stall gas emporium, I heard a thumping sounds that I’d never noticed before.

“Do you hear that?” I asked.

“It’s probably just stuff shifting in the jump seat from when we repacked everything,” Bethany offered.

My bus-sense was on high alert. Years of constantly listening for aberrations had taught me to trust my gut when it comes to my vintage Volkswagen. I thought back to when my wheel bearing went out in South Dakota in 1998. I’m not a mechanic, but you can’t NOT do pre-diagnostics when you own something like this for 25 years.

The light turned green and I rumbled into Buccees to an open fill station. I was astonished at how busy this place was, and how many travelers were getting gas at the exact same time. I hopped out to begin the fueling routine. Bethany writes down the mileage from the odometer, and the date. I fill us up, anywhere from 10-13 gallons. (I never really know how empty the tank is, since the fuel gauge starts bouncing erratically the closer to half a tank or below we get.) Because the Bus was designed when Leaded gas was common, the fill neck is much wider, so I have to stare into the cavern until I see gasoline starting to back up, to make sure it doesn’t overflow. Once I’m done, Bee asks, “How many gallons?” and calculates our fuel economy for the last leg.

As I stood there, patiently staring at the guzzling nozzle, I heard felt a man walk up from behind my left shoulder. I turned, prepared to graciously receive a compliment on Sam’s behalf- a common occurrence when gassing up a classic car.

“Excuse me, Maam?” he interrupted, waiting for me to turn and acknowledge him,

“We pulled in here behind you- “ Oh, I bet their headlights caught the color-shifting paint on Sam’s lower half, I thought.

“- and I noticed that it looks like your shock is disconnected.” WAIT, what????

I realized, THAT was the sound I was hearing! I thanked him very much for letting me know, after which he shares what I thought I was going to hear, “Beautiful Bus, by the way!”

After I hung up the fuel nozzle, I walked over to the driver’s side rear and knelt ant the concrete. Sure enough, my shock was dangling there like a bored bungee jumper. The bolt and nut that should have fastened it to the frame was completely MIA. I was flummoxed! How on earth had I lost both of those parts? How long ago had I lost them???

Bethany hopped out and crawled under the bus to examine the secured passenger’s side shock to see what size bolt we needed. I dug out my tools once again and handed her sockets to see which size fit exactly. We then parked the bus and went inside this travel superstore, hoping to find a parts section, and completely failing to take our photo with the giant Beaver we had originally stopped to see.

Bucee’s had zero auto parts, except for air fresheners and vinyl wipes. Bethany tried flagging down a truck with a big tool box, to see if they might happen to be able to help. They suggested a nearby NAPA store, but there was so much traffic density, te cell tower was overwhelmed and we struggled to look up anything from our phones. Eventually, she got a phone number, and called NAPA. It was 5:55pm.

They close at 6pm, the guy on the phone told her. She explained our dilemma, and asked if they could possibly wait 10 minutes for us to get there, but they could not. Defeated, we started over, cursing our poor reception. Thankfully, we found another auto parts store 2 miles in the opposite direction, and she called to make sure they were still open. Open til 9pm!

I pulled into the Autozone parking lot, slowly, unsure if any damage could be caused by driving with this loose swinging part. Bethany ran inside to start searching for our missing parts. I followed, in search of more of my Purple Royal oil, having done to math to realize that my packed 5 quarts clearly would NOT be enough for our remaining 2 1/2 weeks of travel. They didn’t have the 10W40 I was used to, so I grabbed a few quarts of 5W30 instead. Better than nothing, I decided.

Not only did the staff at Autozone help Bethany find a few options for parts, but one of the guys volunteered to come out and help. I wasn’t sure if either of us had enough arm strength to crawl under the bus and compress the shock long enough to thread a new bolt through the hole. Especially with as exhausted as I was from the windy days of driving. This gentleman kindly used his youthful strength to force the bolt in, and within half an hour, we were safely on our way! I’m incredibly grateful for the kindness of strangers, and, as his help enabled us to finish our trek to arrive at our family’s on the eve before Christmas Eve, I called him our Christmas Angel, and thanked him profusely. When I tried to offer him a twenty spot to show our gratitude, he refused to accept, and wished us safe travels.

By this point, we were arriving hours later than originally planned, completely devoid of all energy, and starving. We let our family know we were running late, and would eat along the way. Although we are normally pretty healthy eaters, it was a no brainer when we passed the vegan-friendly fast food place on our way back to the freeway. Thank you, Burger King, for the greasy Impossible Whopper to help us close out this day!





Rough Roads Ahead?

4 02 2021

When traveling thousands of miles on a road trip, some sort of hiccup is inevitable. I learned this on my very first epic adventure in my Bus. I’ve been broken down in Wall Drug, South Dakota for 3 long days waiting on a wheel bearing part. I’ve had points go out in the middle of nowhere, Utah, and cobbled together a temporary solution with the tip of a toothbrush and some tape. And I’ve had my carburetor choke up, leaving my bus, Sam, gasping for air in the hot hills of Texas, due to dirty fuel. I’ve learned to plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

It’s been a long time since I’ve driven more than a state or two away from home in my bus, and it was several engines ago when I took the big trip out west. These days, Sam, only does local trips, and our annual Memorial weekend Buses By The Beach Benefit campout in west Michigan. I knew I was a little out of practice, which was why I did so much work to prepare for our departure. But, no amount of preparation will cover all possible events.

We had been driving for three days, and made our way through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and into Oklahoma. While the weather had been mostly dry, the winds were wicked. Driving on the freeway in a VW Bus is a bit like sailing the open waters. When the wind gusts, the bus acts like a brick wall… on wheels. If I’m caught off guard, it can easily blow me across the dashed line into the next lane over. A head wind can overburden the underpowered engine, slowing our max speed from 68 mph down to 55. All of this makes for a physically and mentally strenuous day of driving, both for the driver, and the bus. When we got up to start packing up to head out for the day, I saw that we were under a severe wind advisory. “Great,” I thought, “another exhausting day.” We discussed the risks, and decided to just take it slow, and hope for more of a tailwind than a crosswind.

Nervous about the conditions, I was rushing to get on the road, hoping the winds wouldn’t pick up until later in the morning. I had completely forgotten about the late evening arrival the night before, where I started noticing that my turn signal- which had just been replaced- was starting to resist when I tried to turn it off. The amount of force was not normal, and I didn’t know what was going on. As I went to signal to merge onto the freeway, I was quickly reminded of this new development. Over the next few hours, it grew increasingly worse, to the point that I felt like I had to jamb the slender stick with the strength of my wrist to get it to cancel.

After stopping to get gas, I realized how much the drive was wearing on me, my shoulders tense and my left side feeling sore from fighting with the turn signal over and over. We decided to find someplace ahead to stop and go for a hike. Bethany looked at the map and saw a tiny dot labeled “Turner Falls.” we both love waterfall hikes, so we dithered no further and set our course!

Upon arriving at Turner Falls, we could see that it was an expansive natural pool, carved from massive rocky embankments, yet embellished with manmade toys like a 20 foot slide, ladders up from the water, and ropes. Although it was quiet with the chill of winter, I could imagine the endless laughter, picnicking families, and splashing fits of giggles that must fill this beautiful park in warmer months. We saw that it was native land, and pulled up to the entrance to pay the reduce winter fee. Obviously, there would be no swimming today, but we hoped for a relaxing hike to the waterfall.

We were thwarted when we discovered the “No Dogs Allowed” rule. I assumed at first that this just meant Zaha would have to wait in the car. But no. NO DOGS. Period. Saddened, we pulled ahead on the one-way path to exit. When we got to the main road, I looked to the right and saw the steep incline and sharp curve, and decided to see where it went. Not much further, we found a spot to pull over and picnic, with a gorgeous view looking down over the falls from across the river. In the off-season, the zip line business was closed up, leaving the overlook free to passersby. We stopped and enjoyed this secret access, quickly gobbling up lunch in the stiff winds, before being ready to climb back into the bus to shield us from the chilly breeze.

Up ahead, after another switchback, there was another overlook, on the opposite side of the road. Without asking, I pulled over the asphalt lip onto the gravel shoulder. As I did, I saw a fleeting dash of red in my peripheral vision. My gaze jerked back from the vista that had drawn me there, to my instrument cluster in my dashboard. Everything looked fine, but I knew what I had seen. I quickly turned the key in the ignition to off, and unbuckled my safety belt. “What’s wrong?” Bethany asked inquisitively. “My oil light flashed,” I murmured, trying not to sounds alarmed.

As I grabbed a rag and scurried to the back of the bus to lift my engine deck lid, I flashed back to earlier that morning. I had meant to check my oil again before we left, but I was so caught up in beating the high winds, I must have completely forgotten. It had only been three days since I checked it last, which made me terrified that something awful was happening to cause me to lose enough oil to trigger the light.

I peaked underneath, and saw nothing dripping. I twisted my forearm around the ducting to reach the dipstick and pull it out. I always wipe it, then check it twice, to be sure. I checked it a third time. It was bad.

I spun around to the sliding door and began rummaging through the tools in my jump seat. I’ve collected an assortment of fill nozzles and funnels over the years, none of which really made it easy to tip a quart of oil into the awkwardly hard to reach fill neck. My mind was racing about all the things that may have caused me to be so low on oil, and my hands, cold and nervous, didn’t function with their normal dexterity. I clumsily spilled oil as it leaked over the rim of the funnel, multiple times. After the first quart emptied (hopefully at least half made it inside), I checked the levels again. My fear grew into in inward sort of anger. Why hadn’t I checked my oil that morning?? It may have only been three days, but it was nearly a thousand miles! That’s a third of the way to an oil change! And not easy miles, mind you, but hard-working, wind-gusting, engine-chugging miles.

A truck towing a trailer passed us, then turned around a few minutes later. A father and son, presumably, hopped out to ask if we needed any help. I was almost done emptying the 2nd quart, and accidentally overfilled. I was flustered, and probably not nearly as gracious as I meant to be, but I explained that we were simply low on oil, had plenty with us, and that we should be all set. I thanked them for stopping to make sure we were okay, trying to wipe the scene from my mind where we were stranded there overnight. I wiped the oil from my hands, put my empty quart and dirty funnel back into their plastic bag, and stood up, closing the lid. As they took off, I realized that I probably should have asked them to wait a minute to make sure my engine actually did fire back up, but it was too late. I climbed back into my drivers seat, took a deep breath, and rotated the key. Sam purred back to life without hesitation! I let out a huge sigh of relief, finally letting Bethany see how worried I was, even though I’m sure she knew. Away we went.

Little did I know, this rough day was not yet over.





The World’s LARGEST Road Trip

2 02 2021

No road trip is complete with the ubiquitous roadside attraction. We happily go out of our way to observe the unique oddities that litter the American roadsides. Thankfully, there’s one little town in Illinois that makes this goal exceptionally easy. Casey, IL.

Not to toot my own horn, but, when it comes to World’s Largest things, I am a bit *breathes on fingers to polish nails against chest* of an expert. At age 18, I postponed going to college in the fall, so I could road trip across America to see such brilliant displays of Americana. The pinnacle of that 3 month journey, was none other than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, made by one man, Francis A. Johnson, in Darwin, Minnesota. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Solidly planted in the Midwest, Casey, IL is a town after my own heart. Casey, Illinois is home to more legit world’s largest items than any other place I’ve ever heard of! It’s like a mecca for oddballs like me. Within just a few miles (most within a few blocks of downtown) you’ll find the World’s Largest mailbox, wind chime, rocking chair, wooden shoes/clogs, golf tee, pitchfork, key, gavel, twizzle spoon (don’t ask me what that is), golf club, barber shop pole, and teeter totter (good luck catching it teetering though).

But that’s not all. If you go now, you can also enjoy remarkably oversized: spinning top, rocking horse, toy glider, book worm, bird cage, ear of corn, pencil, yardstick, knitting needles, crochet hook, Wooden token, anvil, nail puzzle, big coin, mousetrap, horse shoe, cactus, pizza slicer, and deer antlers!

I can assure you, the half hour detour from I-70 is entirely worth it for this wholesome family fun. And it’s FREE- My favorite price! This was the perfect stop to kick off our epic three week road trip!





The Great Escape (In Our VW Bus)

29 01 2021

Eleven months into a global pandemic, having lived through a total lockdown (which has slowly been released back to some form of pseudo normalcy, despite surging cases of COVID-19), this winter is a heavy cross to bear. We certainly understand more about the actual risks of spreading this horrible virus, and know that the most critical requirements are to stay at least 6 feet away and wear masks to prevent unknowingly spreading COVID. When it was summer, this as an easy task to accomplish while still getting to go outside. Now that it’s winter, however, we are now cooped up inside with fewer chances to escape.

While much of our world is frozen in fear and chaos due to the seemingly never-ending coronavirus, is there any hope of escape??? Are my future memories of international travel limited to pointing at countries on my novelty socks?

Is it possible to crawl out of the confines of our home quarantine? Can this be done safely, in a sealed, self-contained mobile vessel, bound for vast, empty swaths of nature? This, my friends, has never sounded better. And I can think of no better vessel than my trusty Bus, Sam.

Sam is actually short for Langsam, which is German for “Slow.” This VW Bus is tiny but mighty, loaded with a minimalist car camper’s essentials. Carefully packed with emergency roadside repair kits, dehydrated backpacker food, spare masks and hand sanitizer, and an electric cooler and space heater that can be powered when plugged into campsites, no small detail has been overlooked in planning for this great escape. If we are to do this, after all, it must be done with the strictest of CDC safety standards.

With the ability to sleep, cook and dine inside our 1969 VW Bus, is it fool-proof? No. Nothing is guaranteed, after all, not even being a hermit in your home and having all your supplies delivered to your doorstep. Your GrubHub Driver could sneeze on your bag of tacos and you wouldn’t even know. But, hitting the road in our Westfalia camper is a heck of a lot safer than dining in a restaurant, or even my job, for that matter, which involves facilitating workshops in classrooms of a dozen or so industry folks.

Thus, after completing a full risk assessment, we deemed that we could, in fact, road trip safely, provide a much needed mental break, and actually reduce our risk, compared to our normal lives.

For months, we worked on upgrading Sam to be able to safely travel. The investment in the electric cooler means that we don’t need to stop every day to buy ice! We simply cool the well-insulated unit overnight at our campsites, and then charge battery packs in case we need a boost on a warm afternoon.

Volkswagen Buses have no heat to speak of, so we warmed up an electric blanket each morning to keep our dog, Zaha, toasty back on the bench seat. Then we layered ourselves up in winter gear, and swaddled our legs in fleece travel blankets made by our friend, Christine Comer. We updated Sam’s radio (which had conveniently died in September) to one that has a USB charger, which means that we can keep our phones charged while en route! (If you have a vintage vehicle of a certain age, you know that even a basic cigarette lighter was a luxury not afforded to these automobiles).

Originally, Sam had a standard camper unit installed behind the passenger seat. Roughly 30″x30″ at its base, it housed an ice box, a ‘sink’ with a now-50-year-old bladder for water (which I’ve been scared to use since I got him), and a skinny drawer that we used as our junk drawer (also the only drawer in the entire camper). The drain for the icebox leaked inside, despite numerous attempts at repairs, making that no longer functional as is. Eventually, the most useful part to us was a fold out tray on the side, which flips up when the sliding door is open, and is perfect for fixing a quick roadside lunch. To get rid of the lack of utility, we pulled this unit out and built a new, entirely removeable, rolling cart with 4 times the functionality. While camping, we can set this cart just outside the bus, making the inside feel much more spacious! And, lastly, the scrap of artificial turf that I installed as temporary flooring in 1995 was finally replaced with some new carpet tiles.

We packed, and repacked, testing our systems to ensure that everything fit perfectly. The goal was to minimize any need to go inside places. Stocked with everything we could need while driving- including our atlas, road tripping snacks, like peanuts and Fritos, and a base of Circle City Kombucha cans lining the bottom of our electric cooler- all we had to stop for was to the fill up our 15 gallon gas tank every 3 hours, and use the restroom along the way.

With one last round of loading up the bus, checking and double checking, we hit the road!!!!





Moonbow or Bust!

26 01 2021

It was July, 2020. Halfway through the year from hell. Summer was in full swing, and Bethany and I decided to attempt to check in on her parents for her mom’s birthday.

Her parents were terrified of contracting COVID, rightfully so, thus, we planned to make it a really quick visit. After a day’s drive down to Loudon, Tennessee, we spent the night in a hotel, and planned to bring lunch to her folks’ home to eat outside on their back deck. We couldn’t go inside their house, to be extra safe, and instead melted in the 95 degree midday sun while trying to enjoy our first visit with them in 9 months. After a much needed conversation, and 3 hours in the sweltering heat, we bid farewell and headed back.

Since our visit was so short, and the drive there was so long, we decided to use the extra time to do some hiking on the way back to Indiana. With no particular plan, we opened our atlas to the state of Kentucky, just north of us, and looked for green swaths and highlighted features. We ended up in Big South Fork N.R.A., followed by Daniel Boone National Forest, and found some empty trails with hikes to arches, several bluffs with short hikes to scenic overlooks. We saw snakes and turtles, and, eventually, I had enough cell reception to research the “Cumberland Falls” that I saw noted on my map.

We stumbled upon Cumberland Falls late in the afternoon, and jumped out to discover an AMAZING, thunderous, gushing flow of water, easily accessibly from the parking lot and multiple viewing platforms just inside the park entrance. We marveled at this stunning waterfall, and started reading more about this pleasant surprise stop. As the forested shadows began to climb over the flowing water, we quickly realized that our options for lodging overnight were sparse. We ended up getting a room at the park lodge, which is pet-friendly, and made plans to squeeze in a proper hike in the morning before we hit the road.

It was on this trip that we learned about the “Moonbow.” Apparently, when the full moon rises over the falls just after sunset, there is an opportunity to catch this mystical phenomenon. The Moonbow, it is said, is cast by the light of the moon, caught in the misty water particles rising over the falls, and appears like a faint, arcing rainbow over the falls. This idea intrigued me, even as our journey later that day led us back to our home in Indianapolis.

I started researching more about this Moonbow, and learned that the chance to witness this (without waiting until the middle of the night) happens a few times a year. The next best chance was the end of August.

When asked if they were interested in a 4 day getaway to try to see the Moonbow at Cumberland Falls, our friends Christine and Jen leapt at the adventure! The full moon fell on a Wednesday, which was perfect for avoiding crowds. We booked our campsites for Monday-Thursday, scheduled to depart right before the busy Labor Day weekend, and gleefully began planning our very first actual vacation of 2020.

We all drove separately and met at Cumberland Falls park. Christine and Bethany and I all camped next to each other, while Jen and her dog, Peanut, got a cabin nearby. The weather forecast wasn’t great- cloudy with a chance of rain each day- but we were determined to enjoy ourselves, with or without the rainbow.

Each day, we hiked to a different set of falls. The humidity was stifling, and our clothes were drenched in sweat after the first couple of miles. It was too hot and too far for our elderly dog, Chopper, so we let him nap in the bus, turning on the fan to help move the thick air through the open jalousie windows. Each day, the hikes were phenomenal! We relished in the cold dip in the pools beneath the falls, usually the halfway point of the hike. We saw nary another hiker on our entire journey, save for a few people lingering at the falls, and maybe one or two other adventurers along our trail.

Each evening, we retreated to our own sanctuaries, sometimes showered, changed into fresh clothes, and prepared a nice hearty dinner with a refreshing drink. Jen and I would walk Chopper and Peanut just a mile or two together, which was more than enough exercise and stimulation for Chopper each afternoon. From our campsite, there was a trail down to the main falls area, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the Moonbow. Rain or shine, we set out each evening together right around sunset, using the last steel blue streams of dusk to help guide us safely down the steep and rocky path. Our headlamps and hiking sticks became necessary by the time we reached the intersection where we had been warned to turn left to avoid getting lost.

The falls in the darkness were glorious. There were just a handful of other campers milling about, easy enough to avoid; their voices drowned out by the roar of the falls. We flittered from one lookout to the next, ultimately deciding on the perfect viewing platform for us to see this miracle. We laid down a blanket on the warm stones, pulled out our sealed containers of drinks, and laid down to stare at the skies.

Every once in a while, the clouds would thin to wisps, and we would see fleeting glimpses of the moon waxing. Maybe a star or two, at best, would also be revealed, but mostly, it was clouds. They glowed around the hidden moon with a silver halo that was intoxicating. Then, after an hour or two of waiting, the rain came. We debated for a minute, looked at the hourly weather forecast on our phones, and decided to call it.

With our gear hastily gathered back up, under the narrow beams of headlamp lights, we scurried back into the forest, careful not to slip on the wet stone steps, or miss our turn back to the campground. Flooded with exhilaration from the inescapable feeling of rain on our skin, and the thrill of hiking in the inky darkness of the nighttime forest, we made it to the top of the trail safely, and went to bed exhausted.

This pattern repeated itself each day and night, with little variation. Sometimes it rained all morning, and we didn’t start our hike until after noon. Sometimes we thought we would beat the rain by starting early, only to find that the weather forecast was woefully inaccurate. No matter, we definitely got wet each and every day, only to dry off, return to the humid heat of the day, and become drenched in a different type of moisture. We succumbed to this reality, and did not let it ruin our spirits. We had a blast, no matter the weather!

On our last night there, it was our third and final attempt to see the Moonbow. Despite some sprinkles, we decided to wait it out, hoping that maybe this time, the forecast would hold true, and we would catch a clearing in the clouds. We ran into another camper, who we had chatted with the night before. “You missed it!” he exclaimed. “After the downpour, around 1am, it appeared!” He eagerly shared the photos from his camera, proof that this meteorological unicorn does exist.

Determined, we stood at the stone wall that kept foolish visitors from climbing too far out and falling over the ledge. I set my camera on a pedestal to steady it. We waited.

Ultimately, what we learned was that the blurry white arc we had glimpsed a few times on our nightly adventures was, in fact, the Moonbow. With the naked eye, this is how it reveals itself. It is only with a good lens that you can begin to capture the actual, subtle colors of the rainbow that are hidden within the Moonbow. Did we see it? I guess, technically, yes. Is it crossed off my bucket list? Not quite yet. I’ll be back to try again. And now I know, whether I see it or not, this is truly an adventure worth taking.





Our Surprising Pandemic Plus!

13 11 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to write. This summer flew by with us trying to make the most of our warmer weather, constantly finding new ways to be outside, where we know it’s safe.

We all know that 2020 will go on record as the weirdest year in history. There have been so many things I never would have imagined myself saying prior to 2020. Like:

“My favorite sanitizer is this spray! It doesn’t feel sticky or grimy or stinky at all!”

“I know it’s only 50 degrees, but let’s bundle up and go dine outside tonight.”

“I miss hugs.”

Living through a global pandemic, with the early sense of panic about so many unknowns, and struggling to find some safe, new normal, has brought new perspective and appreciation to so many mundane parts of our previously normal lives.

It’s not just the mental exhaustion, the habitual detours, and the shared dread of one more video call today. In our home, we’ve been seeing things in a new light. Design elements of the Schweger Haus that I spent 2 years fine-tuning before we built, are now shining even brighter as we see new value in their functionality.

So, I’d like to write an Ode to Schweger Haus. This place of refuge has given us more than a roof over our heads. It’s gifted us with a way to not just survive the Lockdown Life, but to THRIVE during the daily traumas of COVID-19.

PORCH LIFE

We always knew that we cherished the old-fashioned habit of porch sittin,’ but spending our first spring in Schweger Haus with a massive, 130 year old brick front porch, meant that in April, while our heads were still spinning from this stark new reality, we got to cautiously climb out our front doors and start to see some of our previously hibernating neighbors.

Yoshi, the cute white fluffy puppy-dog, sprinted around his front yard with giddiness over the melting snow. The fall baby next door suddenly reappeared to enjoy the sunshine out front, with alert eyes and cooey smiles. We started a socially distanced Happy Hour, with blue painters tape marking off the concrete sidewalk every 8 feet, and our neighbors began dotting our front lawn to chat across the budding mini-clover. We developed a newly deepened sense of community.

THE ISLAND RIVER

As avid cooks and entertainers, we knew we needed a massive island for hosting dinner parties, with an induction cooktop for performing cooking demonstrations. We certainly haven’t gotten to use our kitchen in quite the way we envisioned this first year of living here, but it turns out that the 15 foot long island, which we lovingly refer to as our “river” because of the beautifully patterned blue-green coloring, is still invaluable.

As weeks turned to months, and we began to form our inner circle of what we now call our “COVID Pod,” we started to be able to reimagine “dinner parties.” Instead of an island surrounded by guests, we would invite over only one or two friends at a time, and seat them at the far end of the island, a full 12 feet away from where we sat. It felt a little odd at first, like we were some sort of royal family dining at opposite ends of a palatial table, but we all adjusted quickly to the distance between us.

A BREATHE OF FRESH AIR

It wasn’t until more recently, as studies began to provide more concrete evidence of how this virus transfers, and where the highest risks lie, that we began to think more about allowing friends inside of our home.

As an Architect, I dove into early studies about air transmission, immediately realizing the risk of strangers breathing recycled air for hours on end. Case studies began to be released about COVID breakouts from indoor gatherings. The issue is not simply about having a carrier cough on you. The issues is open, unmasked, unrestricted air flow, from loud talkers, boisterous laughter, and an unexpected sneeze, which could then be getting blown through unchanged filters in the HVAC systems, and pumped right back into the same room.

Industry responded, rapidly unveiling new ceiling fan designs with built-in UV lights, and upgrading filters to MERV10 or HEPA grade filtration. People were encouraged to avoid indoor spaces whenever possible. If you must be indoors, keep windows and door open as much as possible to provide fresh air. Commercial makeup air systems were reprogrammed to maximize outside air indoors.

I realized, suddenly, one day as summer began to wane, that Schweger Haus houses a secret weapon. Something so powerful, I can’t believe it took me so long to think of it. You see, as an airtight Passive Haus design, you must provide a way to force fresh air to circulate, to prevent carbon monoxide build-up or moisture issues. We utilize a super energy efficient system, called an ERV- Energy Recovery Ventilation. It allows you to control how much fresh air enters the house, while transferring the heat energy. So, when it’s 20 degrees outside, and you’ve heated your home to 68 inside, some of that exhausted air gives its heat to the incoming cold air, so you might end up with 50 degree incoming air, which doesn’t have to use as much energy to heat up as it would if it was 20 degree air.

While normally you would want to minimize the amount of outside air, for energy reasons, the ERV system also gives us the power to control and MAXIMIZE the outside air. With a simple click of a button, I am able to go from having 10% fresh air, to 100% fresh, filtered outside air circulating inside our home. This means that Schweger Haus can perform much like an outdoor setting, with all the windows and doors closed.

Just as we do outdoors, we still follow all safety protocols, socially distance, wear masks if others are approaching. This ability to find a way to continue safely visiting with our COVID Pod inside our home this winter, has given me so much more brightness as we face increasing darkness. It’s a feature I never would have imagined needing, but am so incredibly grateful for this surprise pandemic plus to our Schweger Haus design.





Happy Anniversary!

11 11 2020

For our newer friends who don’t know, our wedding was not your typical wedding. They wrote an article about us, and we were a full page advertisement for Buffalo Tourism. But here’s the backstory… (it’s a long story).

Our simple, legal elopement was supposed to be a small ceremony, a requirement due to the fact that we could not be legally wed in Michigan, where we lived at the time. I had just been laid off, as my nonprofit closed its doors on Halloween day. Bethany had always wanted a significant date like 11.11.11. I never wanted a November wedding, but suddenly, I was out of work and had nothing but free time.

We invited a few friends to join us as witnesses in Buffalo, and stayed for free at a friend’s house there, who also agreed to officiate the ceremony.

We had no firm plans. Maybe we would do it in a local art museum. Or outside in a park, if the weather cooperated. It would only take 10-15 minutes. So, upon our arrival, we applied for the marriage license, which had just become legal there a few months earlier. It required a 48 hour waiting period- as if that could change our minds.

While we waited, we enjoyed unusually warm weather, and flaneured through downtown Buffalo. It was unfamiliar to us, but I enjoyed the rich architectural history, and we soon found ourselves in the old theater district.

Across the trolley tracks, a stunning facade faced us, opening up to a two story arcade inside. As an Architect, I was immediately attracted to the detailed stonework. “Shall we go see what’s inside?”

Once inside, my fiancé slipped away to find the restrooms, while I marveled at the streaks of daylight washing a handful of tiny storefronts. When she returned, it was my turn to go.

I came back to discover that Bethany had slipped inside a Tourism Bureau gift shop, and her hands were full of tchotchkes, Buffalo coasters and stickers. I joined her in line to checkout, and was only mildly surprised when she asked the cashier, “Can I speak to a manager?”

“Do you trust me?” She turned to me in line to ask. I shrugged a casual yes, but never fathomed what she would ask next.

“Do you ever rent out yourself space for weddings?” She turned back to the manager who had appeared.

I wrinkled my brow and looked around us at the gift shop, flummoxed by her ask. Little did I know, there were two more rooms attached: a small art gallery featuring local Buffalo artists, and a tiny theater, replete with a stage and 30 theater seats.

We walked into the theater to explore this possibility, and the art director happened to be working in there. “Will it look like a wedding?” He asked. “I mean, are you planning to wear dresses?”

Indeed, we had brought both of our dresses with us. Why not wear them twice? We planned to really get our money’s worth from our thrift store gowns, which we bought with a 50% off coupon for less than $100 total. “Yes,” we replied.

“Could we take photos to use for tourism?” He continued.


When we walked out the door of this beautiful old building, we quickly realized we might need to do a bit more to make it “look like a wedding.” We needed bouquets, obviously. This was a detail we hadn’t yet imagined for our simple, legal ceremony. So we, being locavores, pulled out our phones and searched for a local florist. Thankfully, there was one right across the street, just a couple blocks away.


We walked in to a bustling flower shop filled with displays. I had no idea what kind of arrangement we wanted, but our eyes were drawn to some wheat stalks, and decorative cabbage. As foodies, this seemed a natural fit! To build on that, we found some discounted, day old roses. That sealed the deal.

I was nervous about how much they would cost, as a young woman approached us and offered to wrap the stems in ribbon. Bethany insisted. As she fine-tuned our arrangement, she chatted with us. When we shared that we were visiting from Michigan to get married, she lit up. “Oh YOU’RE THE GIRLS! I heard about you!”

We had only been in town for less than 24 hours. There was NO WAY she had heard of us. When we politely corrected her, she stammered and changed the subject. “Would you like us to keep your bouquets in our cooler until your wedding day?” I asked if there was a charge for that, and she said it was free, so I agreed.

Indeed, 2 days later, we arrived to a room filled with strangers, gorgeous floral arrangements, a professional photographer, a videographer, the Gay Men’s Chorus, and a 3-tier wedding cake topped with two little gingerbread women with silver and brown hair. Plus, a gift basket of goodies for us to remember our special day. The 4 foot tall flower arrangements that flanked the stage included wheat stalks and decorative cabbage, to match our unusual bouquets.


We could not have asked for a more beautiful ceremony. We couldn’t have afforded what they gave us. The details, the thoughtfulness, the kindness, were overwhelmingly beautiful. Every year in this day, I’m reminded of the kindness of strangers. I cannot believe we were the very first gay wedding in Buffalo, nor how we became the postergrrrls for destination gay weddings there, but the universe truly aligned to deliver us an unforgettable wedding day.








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