Somehow, it’s the end of December and this year has whizzed by and long story short I’m going to be 85 any day now and screaming at children to get off my lawn. As I make plans for upcoming travels next year (Scotland, here I come!), I started to think back on where I’ve been this year as well. At first, I was a little disappointed with myself. I ended 2016 and started 2017 strong, in terms of traveling. Going on two international trips back-to-back within six months of each other while on a nonprofit budget is no easy feat, but if I could explore a new place every month, I would.
And because of this, I took the rest of 2017 easy, and stayed stateside. Although I initially was a little bitter that I hadn’t managed to squeeze another international trip into my schedule in the last six months of this year, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the trips that are based just as much in friendship as they are in adventure are just as important.
I spent summer re-introducing myself to D.C. I hiked a lot, took on new responsibilities at my job, and spent a lot of time on those iconic D.C. rooftop bars with friends. But by the time August rolled around, I wasn’t just getting antsy from a lack of new location – I was drowning in heat. Washington, D.C., had one of its longest summers yet, and we were sweltering in humid temperatures well into October. As someone who un-ironically loves autumn (minus the Pumpkin Spiced Lattes), this was not fun for me. So although my fingers hovered over purchasing a quick flight to the wilderness of northern Canada, I instead planned two trips within the United States to visit friends, save money, and escape the humidity.
In late August, I visited my friend Kate Hay – the tiny, fiery woman in my life who I was lucky enough to meet when living in Bath, England, as my housemate. Kate has more spark and personality than the next ten people combined, so a spontaneous trip to her family’s home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was the perfect getaway from baking in the marble and concrete-lined streets of our capital city. She is my go-to adventure buddy – the only friend I can rely on to immediately say “Where are we going?” when I ask her to book a plane ticket with me.
Almost as important as her love of international travel is Kate’s understanding of the important things in life. A.K.A., tacos. Get yourself a friend who immediately takes you to tacos and margaritas upon arrival after a hellish 4 hour drive that involved an entire tree hitting the side of your car in the middle of a storm. This, coupled with a long couple weeks at work, made Kate and her brother Elliott (and the entire Hay family, to be honest) my heroes for taking me in. And for bringing me to tacos.
Even though I claim a pretty small, historic Virginia college town as home to my alma mater, I have to admit that I’ve always thought of Harrisonburg as kind of just a tiny little farming town with a strip of bars that catered to James Madison University students. Harrisonburg is still surrounded by farms and does indeed have plenty of bars for JMU students, but it was also charming and had so much more to do than I expected and have I mentioned tacos?
We ate tacos and drank margaritas on the roof of Magnolia’s Taco and Tequila Bar and talked about Kate and Elliott’s upcoming plans to hike coast-to-coast through England’s countryside with their parents. We talked about Elliott’s life in the Philippines, where he goes to school, and we talked about all the places we all still want to go. Having friends who understand the constant need to board planes is such an incredible, refreshing thing.
We went to an arcade bar before calling it a night, and got up bright and early for Harrisonburg’s farmer’s market, which was predictably adorable. Here, we ate waffles out of a food truck which I, predictably spilled all over myself. We then for some reason decided to walk three miles across town with the entire Hay family to go to a co-op restaurant, where I had all the southern trappings of biscuits and sausage. I was in heaven.
Afterwards, we explored Harrisonburg and drank fancy things like lavender lattes. We then drove one town over for food and my first Escape Room experience! Kate and her entire family have a…special obsession with escape rooms. They go to so many that you would think they’re preparing for the apocalypse. But if the apocalypse comes, I want to be locked in a room with Kate and her family. Alongside a few friends, we managed to get out of a military bunker-themed escape room with ten minutes to spare, and I was way too proud of the ONE clue I figured out (it was a team effort, okay?).
The next morning we drove out to do two of my favorite things: drink wine and play with puppies. We got flights of wine out in the sunshine at CrossKeys Vineyards before heading to Gap View Ranch. And lemme tell ya – there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a rough couple weeks than to arrive at ranch full of Golden Retriever puppies in the sunshine while slightly buzzed on wine.
Gap View Ranch is home to a highly esteemed Golden Retriever breeder. I know, I know. Adopt, don’t shop. I’m all about rescuing dogs and I have to constantly restrain myself from driving down to my local shelter and taking every animal home with me (except for cats – what kind of monster wants to own one of those unloving creatures?). However, my family has always had Golden Retrievers, and there’s a reason why they’re one of the most popular dogs on the planet. Our current dog, Breaker, is the light of my life and literally exists just to love and be loved.
So Gap View Ranch, a large farm with rolling hills and pastures with horses and turkeys, is a dream. They allow people to make reservations to come and socialize the puppies, so they’re ready to live and interact with humans when they finally go home with a nice family. This means that I dropped $5 into a tin and got unlimited hours to be covered in big balls of fluff/excitement/love. It is one of the happiest places on earth, and it’s where I want to go to die. Honestly. I want to leave this planet just smothered in puppies.
It was a great way to end a quick, weekend trip. Unfortunately, I had to leave Kate and Elliott and their wonderful, gracious parents immediately afterwards because the entire family was leaving for Europe the very next morning.
Summer rolled into fall, but my God, D.C. was really owning up to our dear president’s claim of it being a “swamp.” The humidity and the heat were awful, and it was sometime on a very sweaty walk home in mid-September that I remembered I had a flight voucher that expired at the end of the month. So I, you know, got home and immediately bought a plane ticket to Colorado.
Four months is a long time to go without spending a full weekend with your best friend, so this free ticket to Denver was the perfect opportunity to reunite with my former travel buddy, Patrick, who had just moved to Denver this summer. We started my trip off in the most predictable way possible: we went to a bar that also had a dog park attached to it. Beers and dogs? Yes and yes.
Next up was Patrick’s local haunt, Fiction Beer Company. I was an English major in a literature-themed bar, with beers named after Winnie the Pooh and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was perfect and I loved it (even though we lost spectacularly at trivia).
The next day we explored Patrick’s neighborhood, got some Popeye’s (of course), and later I met up with my oldest friend since birth, Jessica Weathers. Jessica was born just three weeks before me in the exact same hospital in Naples, Italy, and our families have been close ever since. She had quite literally just moved back to Denver that morning, but still made the time to meet up with me and share a few beers (because I was in Colorado – what else was I supposed to consume?). I hadn’t seen her in years, so this was such a nice surprise!
Afterwards, Patrick and I went to a Colorado Rockies game with his friends and roommates, and although the Nats’ field is still my favorite, that sunset view of the mountains from those high seats wasn’t too shabby either.
Essentially eating and drinking my way through Denver, we hit up an empanada restaurant and then bar-hopped. I was eerily aware of how many white people were everywhere. Yeah, okay, I know I’m white. But Denver looked as if an entire congregation of Episcopalians from the suburbs moved into one city district. It was weird. After living for two and a half years in one of the most diverse cities in the country, it was a bit of an adjustment to be surrounded by a bar of people who looked exactly like me, but with slightly better shoes.
The next morning we did one of my favorite things, and one of the most obnoxiously Colorado things you can do: we went hiking. Unfortunately due to the altitude and the possibility of me vomiting and passing out, we couldn’t do anything crazy cool or with high elevation, but it was still incredibly beautiful. Everyone on the trail looked like a Patagonia model and had a dog with a customized leash. I heard at least five people complaining that their horoscopes didn’t match up with their Tinder dates’. Welcome to Colorful Colorado.
We planned to camp that night but unfortunately all the spots that Patrick had picked out were uh…covered in sleet and snow. I knew it would be colder in Colorado than back in D.C., and I had brought layers, but I was definitely not prepared for snow. It’s also hard to fit all necessary camping gear into one carry-on bag. The conditions were looking pretty terrible, so sadly, we did not get to camp. We drove back to Denver, but with the promise that the next time I visited, we would definitely make sure to spend a night on a mountain.
Coming back to Denver wasn’t so bad though! We ended up having an incredible meal out and then somehow ended up in another arcade bar, which I loved. We killed it at skee ball and I played my first game of Pac-Man ever, which was stressful. I screamed a lot and spilled my beer. People stared. We went to an excellent gay bar and some very nice but very intimidatingly tall ladies tried to flirt with me and I had to very gently turn them down.
The next day we drove out to Boulder to hike some more but while on the trail some sketchy-looking storms started to roll in over the mountains. Once again, my dreams of becoming the next Emma Gatewood were thwarted by weather. We instead uh…went back to the start of the trailhead and illegally drank some beers that were intended for the top of the mountain. Really felt like the outdoorswoman I’ve always aspired to be.
In a move that was beginning to feel very similar to our pub-hopping adventure in Dublin earlier this year, Patrick and I promptly found Avery Brewing Co. and ordered more beer. We also very ambitiously ordered a $50 plate of meat, which included at least 3 different kinds of brisket. The waitress led us into this trap and told us that it was “probably enough to share between two people.” The leftovers lasted through Patrick’s lunches for the rest of the week.
It was another short trip, but an incredible one. In an age where most people get distracted by the next swipe on Tinder, it’s nice to know that relationships with people like Kate, Jessica, and Patrick can withstand distance and time. And after months of being apart, it was so nice to finally be back with my best friend, falling into old patterns of staying up until 4 a.m. talking and watching Trainspotting.
Both trips were also a nice reminder that although I’ve traveled to twenty countries (and am planning many more for next year), there are so many places in the United States that I still haven’t explored. My bad knee is still a little shaky from that ACL reconstruction surgery those years ago, but seeing the Rocky Mountains made me even more determined to get stronger, to climb more mountains, to push myself harder. Since returning to the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah, I’ve spent the past few months hiking more and more by myself, and I can’t wait to go back to Colorado soon and – pending adjustment to the altitude – hike some more mountains and drink some more beers.
I’m home now, back at the beach with my family for the holidays. And I love being near the ocean. I have always grown up beside it, and I somehow become magically graceful in the water, so it’s a nice, familiar thing to come back to. But I’ve come to really like the accomplishment of reaching a mountain’s peak. And most importantly, I’m grateful to have friends who are still willing to adventure with me, no matter where we are in the country. As this year comes to a close, I’m looking forward to exploring even more in 2018. Kate – get ready for Scotland in a few months.