Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chicago Urbanites visit Springfield, Illinois (In 36 hours)

This weekend we took an intriguing trip to the capital city of Springfield, Illinois. Steeped in Abraham Lincoln history and Illinois lore, it was a surprisingly enjoyable trip for this traveler who generally prefers mountains and wilderness.

Mr Lincoln's original Springfield home, preserved for 175 years
I'm getting settled in to a new way of life up here on the third coast. Most of our weekends have been spent busily furnishing the condo or exploring Chicagoland. Something that both of us have wanted to do for some time is visit the capital- Springfield. The obvious historical appeal along with seeing the newly famous Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library was enough for us to make the 3 hour trek from Chicago. We had a delightful time.

Driving three hours across Illinois allowed me to appreciate the meaning of the "heartland". I can't say it was a particularly glorious drive but it was nice to see where all of our food comes from. Every so often there was a hill or forest but for the most part it was farms. Bloomington-Normal was a rurally-metro area that we briefly toured through.

Once we finally arrived in Springfield, we checked in to the Lincoln Hotel and began our weekend. Springfield is a sleepy town, to be sure, but in the downtown area retained its quaint historical character.

Main Street Springfield
Now, in a state who's motto is "The Land of Lincoln", nearly every single town and parcel of land tries desperately to connect itself to one of our country's greatest leaders. So I'm quite hesitant to drive somewhere just because it is, in some obscure way, connected to Lincoln. Springfield, on the other hand, is his de-facto hometown and where he spent much of his adult life. Most the historical sights in Springfield are much more meaningful than where you would find elsewhere. The sites cater to both the casual explorer and dedicated historians.

The town is fully integrated around Abraham Lincoln's original time. The architecture and layout is very Midwestern which could be mistaken as dull but is actually complimentary to its storied past. For example, we were able to walk right by Lincoln's original law offices, across the way from the Old Capitol. (Lincoln was a mostly self-taught lawyer, I discovered)We were not expecting much from the old capitol but it ended up being fascinating as it was critical to Lincoln's rise to power. Most everything has been preserved and the building looks almost the same as it did 150 years ago. Court rooms and offices were much smaller back then; must have been difficult for a 6'4" lawyer!

The Old Capitol

General Grant is in the lower right corner
From here, we visited one of the crown jewels of the town: The Lincoln Home National Historic Site. This is actually the only National Park Unit in Illinois but it is one of the more fascinating historic sites in the system. Not only is his home preserved, the entire neighborhood of houses remains as it was during his non-presidential life.

Lincoln's story is a true "rags-to-riches" story and his historic home points towards this. In the Lincoln Museum, you can see an almost-exact replica of the tiny and famous log cabin he was born into. The house in Springfield is a two story semi-mansion which would be impressive even in this day and age. Not knowing we would be allowed to enter, a friendly park ranger took us all around the house as we viewed his original living room, kitchen, study and bedroom. I could not believe they were able to preserve all the original furniture, fixtures and wallpaper.

Mr. Lincoln wasn't raised in severe poverty but his beginnings in Kentucky were humble. His entire life was plagued by untimely deaths. However he was self-taught and educated which allowed him to rise to prominence in this capital city. Interestingly enough, Lincoln is actually considered one of the least wealthy presidents. He was also one of the only presidents to neither inherit, marry in to, nor amass a great deal of wealth throughout his life.  

Lincoln's old neighborhood is entirely preserved

Lincoln's Original Study where he would have written many of his earlier debates
While we had enjoyed our tour through the past, we were able to find something that catered much more towards our Millennial tastes at Obed and Isaacs Microbrewery. Flights of delicious beer and plenty of American food reminded us of which time period we were living in.

Later that night we enjoyed the holiday parade across town. The sleepy streets were almost instantaneously crowded with residents and good company. Even the current Capitol Building had extensive lights and decorations. I'm glad we came during the holidays.

Our second day was just as delightful. Breakfast was spent at Café Andiamo. It was nice to have a tasty breakfast that was filling but not thousands of calories. The coffee was great too. From there we headed to the pride and joy of Springfield: The Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library.

This place has been called one of the best museums of the 21st century. I'm not a museum buff but I can see why people would make such a statement. The exhibits are historical and informative but presented in a very modern manner. Our favorite exhibit was the "Ghosts of the Library" presentation which was a mythical blend of acting and special effects used to tell the story of the extensive preservation of Lincoln's life. Of course, it was no small joy to my librarian significant other seeing fellow librarians presented in deservedly heroic manner.

The layout of the museum is in line with Lincoln's life and presidency. After one and a half centuries of time, we view Lincoln in a very positive light but his presidency was anything but glorious. As a lawyer, state politician and president, Lincoln's life was as tumultuous and murky as any modern politician's. Exhibits are designed to make you feel the immense weight of the country on his shoulders and how much doubt was casted upon him from both his supporters and detractors. The Eyes of Lincoln exhibit shows the change his eyes and face went through during the Civil War- telling signs of the stress and uncertainty that he faced. While we give him great honor in our time, it appears that he probably received very little until just about the end of the Civil War. I'm thankful the museum showed just how difficult his life was.
Lincon's Tomb
Our final visit before heading back home to the bustle of Chicago was Lincoln's final resting place. His tomb is designed somewhat similarly to the Washington Monument although it's comparatively humble given his contribution to the country. However its appropriate that he was buried in Springfield instead of Washington seeing has he called this place home for much of his life. Actually visiting his hometown and literally walking in his footsteps around the area gave me much more appreciation for his life than my past trips to Washington or my elementary school civics class. Seeing his history as a young adult allowed me to appreciate the not so glamorous aspects of his life that are often forgotten when remembering famous politicians. I'm not sure what I was expecting before I came to Springfield but we both left with greater understanding and reverence for our 16th president. As is customary, we each left a Lincoln Cent of our birth years at his tomb.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Travel Essentials that can’t be Replaced by a Smart Phone App

It’s about this time of year that I start planning my winter road trips and travels. I used to live in New England and California where a road trip from home could be as great of an adventure as any international trip. Now that I live deep in the heart of the Midwest, I pretty much have to fly to get to any mountainous area within a day. To that end, I’ve been intrigued by the new company, RelayRides who provides peer-to-peer airport car rentals. For this newly-midwestern traveler, that means that I could rent a more road-trip friendly pickup truck or SUV for what I’d normally pay for an economy car. This makes flying and then road-tripping out of Denver, Salt Lake City or Oregon far more economical. Less money spent on car rentals means more to go towards lift tickets or vacation rentals.

RelayRides has asked me to share what I’ve found to be most useful on my road trips, whether 100 or 1,000 miles. From my most recent 6,000 mile trip across the South to my month long trip out west, there’s some things that I try never to leave without.
Vermont's Route 100 would have excellent scenery this time of year- always wanted to drive it in the winter
Smart phones have had a profound effect on travel. Ten years ago I was still printing out mapquest directions, relying on phone cards and using an old-fashioned compass even on shorter road trips. These days, those are all apps on my phone. While I would never forfeit my phone for the cumbersome old-fashioned methods of direction and information, there’s several items that could never be replaced by an app in my world. Smart phones die, occasionally break or simply not work in some places which is why I continue to rely on some of my favorite relics.

Delorme Maps

Simply put, Delorme Maps are the best road atlases available. Designed in my adoptive-state of Maine, Delorme maps were extremely handy to seasoned hunters and wilderness lovers as well as the casual day tripper. There’s an incredible amount of detail on the maps but they are easy to read. Additionally, the information in the front contains destinations, points of interest and trip ideas which could be easily glossed over in an internet search of “cool things to do in ____”. Even with my three dozen travel-related apps on my phone, I constantly rely on my dog-eared, highlighted and somewhat torn Delorme atlases. When I went on a 25 state tour of everything east of the Mississippi, you can be sure I had one for every state.

Garmin eTrex 10 Handheld GPS Receiver

You can spend a lot of money on a GPS these days. A quick google search of hand-held GPS devices will reveal that the eTrex is one of the “cheaper” models. Sure I could get a more detailed one, but I’ve been relying on this one for as long as I’ve been traveling and never once thought about spending a penny more than I did here. Again, there’s plenty of GPS-related phone apps but it is important for me to have a long-lasting GPS for when the phone invariably dies. The eTrex is essentially a waypoint mapper and helps you get from point A to point B (no topo map) but that’s really all you need for 95% of your travels. From deep in the Rocky Mountain wilderness to local Chicago state parks, I’ve always appreciated this GPS for basic path finding and directions. It’s a great bargain for those who don’t feel the need to spend 600 dollars on a 2 pound GPS device.

REI Double Shot Press Mug (or any Portable French Press)

Although there’s no app for this (yet), the portable Frenchpress falls into my 21st century travel essentials. An unexpected expense of road-trips is coffee. Spending 2-3 dollars a cup on those long days can get a little pricy on a longer trip. Plus, gas station coffee is usually half-burned by the time you get it. Most coffee connoisseurs would agree that French pressed coffee is infinitely better than mass produced stuff anyways. Having that little extra luxury on a long trip really makes a difference. When I was camping, all I had to do was have hot water and coffee grinds for a local-coffee-house grade cup of Joe. On my more civilized trips for conferences, I brought my little French press along and enjoyed not having to rely on iffy hotel-room coffee machines. It is my 11th essential.

Stanley 1000 Peak Amp Jump Starter/Compressor

The Stanley Jump Starter is like a Swiss Army Knife for automobiles. I purchased one of these for an extended expedition into the Canadian woods where I was going to be on logging roads for the duration of the trip. However, I’ve found that this useful pack has saved me on multiple out-and-about trips near home. Having a portable batter jump-starter, flat tire air-compressor and USB charger gives me peace of mind on all my road-trips. Not only that, but I could charge my phone or tablet overnight in my tent when I was far from any outlets (and didn’t have to leave my car on!) It plugs right into a car DC cigarette lighter, charges pretty quickly and runs for hours. From filling up a flat mountain bike tire to giving a quick jump to my lawn mower, having one of these jump-starter packs is invaluable on long road trips and at home. (They make this in 300-1000 amps which will charge most any car, truck, boat, ATV or snowmobile) 

AC Power Inverter

Speaking of electric outlets, it’s nice to be able to turn your car’s cigarette lighter into a simple AC outlet (like the kinds you have in your home). I purchased one of these along with the jump starter and essentially was able to charge anything and everything from my car’s cigarette lighter. Given that a majority of my travel writing is done on site, I really can’t be driving all the way to a coffee shop to charge a phone/tablet. With the power inverter, ever single device was always charged- from electric shaver to laptop. These are not very expensive but make a huge difference on a road trip.
Would love to head back out to Utah and drive this road again! (Valley of the Gods)
I’m always the first to get a new app that continues to expand my traveling universe but something things can’t be done by the smartest of phones. As such, I always include a little extra space in my car or luggage for those few non-replaceables that add a little extra peace of mind or luxury to a camping or road trip.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Opinions and Thoughts on Short-Term Health Insurance for Millennial Travelers

This my account of selecting short-term health insurance during my most recent month on the road. It is not meant to be political nor from an insurance professional perspective. It is simply my experience of getting insurance as a traveling millennial nurse practitioner, for whatever that's worth.
Earlier this year I had an excellent opportunity to hit the road for a month as I transitioned between two jobs. It was a millennial dream to go on a 26 state road trip and live out of my car and tent for the late summer. But, one of the things that must be taken into account for this length of trip is health insurance. I may seem like a "throw caution to the wind" type but I wouldn't go a single day without coverage.

So my situation was this- I was working at a hospital and had decent group coverage through their employee plan. I would be ending my term there approximately one month and a few days before officially starting at a new medical group in Chicago. The new job would be offering similar group coverage but, like most employers, the plan would be in effect after 30 days of employment. So that's two months without coverage.

Here were my options-
  • COBRA insurance: This means that I would continue my plan through my past employer and pay the employer's portion of the premium. While employed, my plan was a tiny $65 per two week pay period (benefits of working at a hospital and taking their HMO plan!). But continuing with COBRA would mean I would pay the additional $200 that the employer normally pays. For two months of coverage in between jobs, this is not very helpful. Especially because I would be far away from any kind of in-network coverage in my home state, COBRA was an uneconomical option.
  • Obtain a plan on the "Obamacare" Marketplace: This was also an unlikely option as I was reasonably sure that I would have coverage through a new plan in 2 months. Had my future employment or health insurance been questionable, this might have been a good option.
  • Take out a short-term health insurance plan: this is what I ended up doing and I go into the reasons why.
  • Go without health insurance: As they say up in Maine... nevah-evah!
I did not have the benefit of having a spouse with an insurance plan but this could be a good choice for some. Ending or beginning employment constitutes as a qualifying life event where you could change coverage through a spouse's plan. For those who have that luxury, I'd recommend doing that over anything.
SHORT TERM HEALTH INSURANCE HAS ITS RISKS: It should first be mentioned that short-term health insurance does NOT meet the standards set by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare or just Affordable Care Act. It took less than 30 minutes to complete the application for my plan and I had coverage in 24 hours after submitting the application. I went through ehealthinsurance which is like the priceline of short term health insurance plans. Reviewing and selecting a plan was not difficult but I was wise enough to know that while the plans were cheaper than long-term coverage, there were several risks I was taking.

COMPARING PLANS: I liked using ehealthinsurance because you could compare plans very easily and figure out what best best. Deductibles ranged from $500-$5,000 dollars. Nearly every plan had a 2 million dollar limit, meaning if some reason I had medical costs greater than that, I was on my own. Most the plans were indemnity type which meant that I didn't have to establish a primary care provider and could essentially go anywhere for care (as long as it was in-network). Obviously this was the greatest benefit of short-term insurance as my employee plan was managed care (meaning I wouldn't be covered for anything other than emergency visits if my plan was based in my home state and I was 1,000 miles away). Prescription drug coverage varied substantially between plans.

WHAT I CHOSE: Given that all I really wanted a plan that would cover any adventure-related injuries or hospital admissions, I went with a slightly more expensive plan ($75/month) for a $1,000 deductible and 20% co-insurance. So this was similar to having catastrophic health insurance, except with a low deductible. I didn't need prescription drug coverage nor any other services outside of urgent/emergency visits or admissions. It was through HCC life which seemed to offer better plans for what I was seeking. Obviously I didn't need any OB/GYN type coverage but if you're female, this is something to consider.

SERVICES NOT COVERED: Because short-term health insurance does not have to follow the rules of the Affordable Care Act, coverage does not have the cover the full extent of long-term or group plans. There was a list of 59 things that were not covered in my plan. Here are some noteworthy examples which are typical of short-term plans:

  • Pre-existing conditions: anything that has happened within 2 years prior to obtaining the plan was not covered. TThis can include common problems such as diabetes, asthma, COPD, chronic pain, injuries that have resulted in continued therapy and any other conditions that pre-date the plan.
  • Pregnancy, Pre-natal care and Abortions
  • Substance Abuse, Alcoholism and Addiction
  • Vision and Dental
  • "Injuries resulting from participation in any form of skydiving, scuba diving, auto racing, bungee jumping, hang or ultra light gliding, parasailing, sail planing, flying in an aircraft (other than as a passenger on a commercial airline), rodeo contests or as a result of participating in any professional, semi-professional or other non-recreational sports including boating, motorcycling, skiing, riding all-terrain vehicles or dirt-bikes, snowmobiling or go-carting." 
  • Any self-inflicted Injury or Sickness.
  • STDs/STIs
  • Immunizations and Routine Physical Exams.
  • Charges for travel or accommodations other than local ambulances (no wilderness rescue services, obviously)
  • Services received or supplies purchased outside the US
  • Chronic fatigue or pain disorders.
As you can see, the list is pretty extensive and there are numerous things on here that could happen to even the safest of travelers. While I don't have the specific details on all plans, I'm under the impression that this is pretty common for most short-term medical plans.

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: Know that most short-term medical plans do not cover any kind of mental health or substance abuse treatment. Take this into consideration when deciding whether short term health insurance is best for you.

PREVENTATIVE HEALTH: Most normal preventative health services were not covered. Again, I needed short-term insurance and I'm young and healthy so this was not concerning.
PRESCRIPTION DRUG COVERAGE: As mentioned earlier, there was no prescription drug coverage under my plan other that inpatient medications. I had the benefit of being a healthy young person with zero medications. I don't believe oral contraceptives would have been covered under my plan.

PAYMENT AND DURATION: The plan was billed and went into effect 24 hours after I applied and I paid by the month. The maximum duration was 6 months. If I had kept this plan, I would have had to have paid the "Obamacare Penalty" if I continued to get coverage through the non-Affordable Care Act compliant plan. Fortunately, my employer's insurance kicked in before the end of the year. There was an option to pay the entire up-front cost of a plan for a certain period of time which would have been cheaper. For example, instead of paying $75 on a month to month basis, I could have paid for 2-6 months of it up-front and saved money. I didn't do this just in case I needed to cancel the plan early or continue it longer than anticipated.

In the end, I didn't use the insurance at all; my trips were all safe and I had no reason to see a healthcare provider nor hospital. However it was a great comfort to know that I had the insurance, just in case. I got a refund from the short-term plan for the time that I paid for after my employer's insurance kicked in.

Health insurance and outdoor adventure are largely about managing risk. You wouldn't mountain bike technical single track without a great helmet, regardless of your skill level. It would be a bad idea to go on month-long trips without health insurance, regardless of whether you're young and healthy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Best of the East Coast according to a Californian

Mark Twain's overly quoted saying that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts" is often the inspiration for a trip abroad. It exciting to cross international boundaries and confront one's own notions about a particular corner of the world. Less likely is it for a traveler to use the same inspiration to better understand his own country.

My first experiences in Maine...
As I was essentially raised on the West Coast of the United States, I had a previously misguided view of the East as being entirely flat, metropolitan and unimportant to a true adventurer. What could the East Coast possibly have on the Sierras, Cascades, Pacific Coast, southwest deserts and abundant national parks? The most profound part of the East that crossed it off my list for travel was that no mountain was greater than 7,000 feet. Those are just hills out here!

In a fortunate turn of events I spent my first summer after undergrad in Maine which rapidly deconstructed my idea of the East as nothing but cities and low hills. I liked it so much I went to graduate school in that state and spent the last three years exploring from here to the Gulf Coast and back. Now a firm believer of the importance of domestic travel, I'd like to share what I believe are the top places which dismantled my previously harsh view of this coast.

The Northern Appalachians
The Northern Appalachians

One of my first experiences with eastern ranges was a hike up Katahdin. Not seeing how a mile high mountain could ever be a challenge, I gauged this hike might take four hours. Those who've hiked the Appalachian Trail or anywhere in Baxter must be floored from that statement. It was a savage all-day affair, even for this Californian who's used to hiking 14ers. Somewhere in between the precipitous scramble along the Knife's Edge and the perfectly mirrored reflection of "The Great Mountain", I half-walked and half-limped my way towards a genuine reverence for this range.

The coast of Maine is something I'll always return to
The Coast of Maine

Part of my teenage years was spent leading canoeing and kayaking trips around the Channel Islands of Southern California. I've also spent time on Northern California's Lost Coast and kayaked through Alaska's Inside Passage. My first 100 mile expedition of the Maine Island Trail by kayak was equally adventurous but distinctly Atlantic. Maine has a "drowned coast" which means that across geologic time, rising sea levels have created innumerable archipelagos and rugged coastlines which sharply contrast the wide beaches further south. The islands number in the tens of thousands and the Maine Island Trail makes camping on a private island easy.  From Camden, across Penobscot Bay, through the island towns of Stonington. Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut, I fell deeply in love with the bold coast and returned year after year for expeditions. I frequently refer to it as a Northern Caribbean.

Near the summit of Mt Marcy
The Adirondacks

The difference between New York City and Upstate New York are drastic. For an eastern state, New York is massive and includes a great degree of cultural difference as one moves north or west from the city. Adirondack Park contain an area greater than any western national park. The Park is nearly 3 times larger than Yellowstone and larger than some eastern states. It is a historical landmark in the United State's push for publicly accessible wilderness and has equal standing with Yosemite. My own exploration of the park was quite miserable when 3 feet of snow fell over what was supposed to be a nice Memorial Day Weekend backpacking trip. I walked out with new respect for New York. Later I returned for a kayaking trip along Lake Champlain and a splendid wilderness hike to Mt Marcy.
Ohiopyle, PA

Pennsylvania Mountain Biking Trails

The number of mountain biking trails in Pennsylvania expands every year. The state is already well know for producing some excellent cross-country road biking but the technical singletracks of the state are just as good. Ohiopyle is right in the heart of the Allegheny Trail and whitewater country. I didn't have the time nor resources to undertake a legitimate rafting trip but my mountain bike was recently tuned up and ready to go. The Baughman, Sugarloaf and McCune Trails were extremely technical but I managed to survive and discovered yet another Mountain Biking Mecca. Ohiopyle is the type of place I could spend a month in and never do the same activity twice. Hopefully that happens in the future.

West Virginia might challenge the assumption that there's only one Grand Canyon

West Virginia

I actually knew much more about West Virginia's natural appeal long before I ever was near it. The New River Gorge is an obvious candidate for one of the best known natural features of Appalachia and seeing it in person was surreal. Sure the Grand Canyon is wider and deeper but the New River is the oldest river on the continent, slowly carving its way over 325 million years (over 4 times older than the Colorado River). The sheer remoteness of Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob and Canaan Valley along with the hidden beauty of Pocahontas are just the tip of the iceberg for the mountaineer's state. I haven't had the extensive travel experiences here as I have in New England but I left with an encyclopedia-length list of things I'd return for. 

The Black Mountains near Asheville
Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville exemplifies Appalachian chic. Its a city that's elegant but so accessible to anyone and the locals are quite friendly. Its also large enough and historical enough to have developed its own culture while supporting a thriving 20/30-something scene. I suppose its a lot like Denver in that respect (and the nearby Black Mountain is like Boulder). Perhaps it was just the crowd I was running with, but it seemed like everything revolved around nature and outdoors. There wasn't an off-season, just different outdoor sports to enjoy while the weather was perfect for them. My favorite adventures here were the Black Mountain hiking traverse and mountain biking the nearby Brevard Dupont State Forest.

Kentucky Mountains
Eastern Kentucky/Western Virginia

I put this here for two reasons. The first is the same as every other place on this list; this is an area of abundant natural beauty. The rugged ridge and valley areas around Wise, Norton and Big Stone Gap look like waves frozen in time. The rugged semi-alpine summits of eastern Kentucky are frequently overlooked for more popular summits in North Carolina. However the magnificence of the mountains contrasts the significant degree of rural poverty that permeates the region. Appalachia has some of the most persistent poverty in this country and it is frequently overlooked. As a family practice student in rural Maine, I was no stranger to situations such as these but my heart went out to this area. I hope that I can continue to be involved in advocacy for the rural poor even though I'm now in the big city.

Charleston is a perfect balance of outdoor adventure and urban exploration
Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is a more coastal version of Asheville which exhibits the same opulent but surprisingly accessible Southern elegance. When I was young in North Carolina, my family used to vacation to Myrtle Beach but after spending a week in Charleston, we discovered a new favorite on the Atlantic Coast. It had been nearly 15 years since I was last here but the city still evoked warm memories of summer vacation. One of the more delightful part of Charleston is that it remains accessible for nearly everyone. Downtown Charleston had the full range of restaurants, historical sites and bright southern architecture. Even a wilderness-loving guy like me found enjoyment among the tourists. James Island and Folly Island had very affordable accomidations and a great beach for 20/30-somethings while Kiawah Island was a millionaire's paradise (nevertheless, there's a great public beach on the island where you can wander one of the country's best shorelines). Kayaking through marshes full of dolphins and under all the Palmettos and Spanish Moss almost made me not miss the coast of California.

Talladega National Forest
Little River Canyon and Talladega National Forest, Alabama

I had thought that I wouldn't be seeing much after leaving the Appalachians of Northern Georgia. The mountains do extend deep in to Alabama but don't have quite the elevation that they do as the rise in the Central and Northern ranges. Nevertheless, no trip through the south would be complete without seeing its Grand Canyon. The Little River Canyon drives straight through the plateau of Lookout Mountain and carves an 800 foot gorge that would impress anyone. There's a substantial amount of unexplored rock climbing and river running through the area too which has no crowds. Further southwest, the Talladega National Forest protects the tallest mountains of the state. Mt Cheaha is a relatively short mountain but has some epic vistas which reminded me of something out of the Northern California foothills. Lastly there's Oak Mountain State Park which is one of only 50-something best mountain biking destinations named by the International Mountain Biking Association.  

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Mississippi is a pretty flat state for the most part but there's still plenty of natural and historical sites worth seeing. I drove down the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway which is probably better biked than driven. This road follows a historical route though the state and follows along rivers and marshes that are as pretty as any mountain. Something which shouldn't be missed in Mississippi is Vicksburg National Military Park. This park is as well preserved as Gettysburg and hold about as much historical significance. Vicksburg is built on the Mississippi River bluffs and was a perfect military base in the Civil War. It was a strategic stronghold that anchored the Mississippi River to the Confederate States. The lengthy trench warfare and siege was some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Once captured, Vicksburg divided Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the South and was instrumental in ending the war. The battlefield is meticulously preserved with monuments for every state that was involved in the battle.

View from Mt Magazine, Arkansas
Arkansas/Missouri Ozarks and Ouachitas

The Ouachitas and Ozarks are a nice break in the otherwise flat lowlands and piedmont of the lower Midwest. Both mountain ranges are distant ancestors of the once Himalayan-like Appalachian Mountains. Although not rising greater than 3,000 feet, the mountains feel much larger when looking down onto the great plains. The Talimena Scenic Byway runs along a stark ridgeline that feels somewhat like driving the Blue Ridge Parkway or Million-Dollar Highway. Mt Magazine has a very posh lodge along with some rustic cabins which are cooler oasis during the summer months.

After having found a deep respect and appreciation for all things East, I have hope that I can discover the Midwest in a similar way. The thought of spending 3 years away from California was daunting at the time. The East seemed so stagnant and urban compared to what I was used to on the other coast. Clearly this was misguided. Now I have the same feeling towards starting my career off here in the Midwest. My assumptions are similar- its flat, boring and uninspiring. I hope that with time, I'll come to appreciate the Midwest like I love the East, despite my previous beliefs.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hiking Mt Magazine, Arkansas State Highpoint

Mt Magazine is the tallest mountain between the major western and eastern ranges. Rising from the planes of the southern Midwest, it is a dominating feature of the oddly located Ouachita Mountains and the highest point in Arkansas.

A little alpine oasis in the Great Planes
Day: 29

My explorations of the Ouachita Mountains would not be complete without a visit to Mt Magazine State Park. This plateau-like summit has expansive views of all of the Ouachitas and most of the Ozarks which makes it a prime destination for outdoorsy types. Unbeknownst to me, there was also a massive lodge with full amenities. I came knowing the park would be pristine but I didn't know it would be posh as well. I'm all for the wilderness experience but I sure enjoyed the lodge...

Normally I don't like to hike mountains with parking lots and touristy type things at the summit but this state park was a nice touch. There was a full range of lodging and camping options. Staying in the lodge was obviously ideal but I noticed there were a dozen independent cabins which also looked appealing. Of course, there's also traditional tent camping and an RV site. Actually, the overflow area is cheaper and has better views than the formal campsite.

View from just outside the lodge

The western edge of the plateau
Despite the resort-like feel of the lodge and cabins, there's still lots of backcountry hiking and biking to be done. The best hiking/biking trail isn't even a trail though- it's a fire break! Brown Springs is an overflow camping and picnic area with a curiously unmarked trail leaving from the furthest parking area. The rangers told me it is one of the better trails because it has a dozen overlooks ending at the western tip of the plateau: a perfect sunset spot. It is a fire break but it feels like a trail and I had no problems mountain biking it. Most of the park's trails are only for hiking.

Mountain biking the fire break was a little precipitous in parts. Its only a few miles but I found myself stopping so much to take pictures that it took much longer than originally planned. The rangers gave me a trail guide which helped point out the better overlooks. I would like to come back during the wet season because there are several streams and waterfalls which were not running this late in the summer. Regardless, it was still pretty.

Cliffs of Mt Magazine

Fire break hiking trail
Another prime hiking trail is the trail to the high point. It doesn't have any expansive vistas that the other trails have but the satisfaction of summiting the Arkansas high point is enough. Well, it's also a nice walk through the woods. Like many isolated and relatively tall summits in the area, the "alpine" vegetation is stout and gnarled which is witness to the harsh environment. Its similar to the krummholz that is common at higher elevations in the northeast. At the actual high point, there's a rock-made map of Arkansas, a formal sign and a few trinkets from the Highpointers Foundation.
Summit of Arkansas
The Ouachitas have been delightful. From here I turned north and toured through the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. It was far too late in the season to do any serious rafting on the Buffalo River which was disappointing. I did get plenty of information for a future trip. I felt a little sad that I didn't plan out my Ozark leg of the trip as well as I should have but next time I'll be better prepared.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hiking and Exploring Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

Robbers Cave is one of the favorite state parks in the state of Oklahoma. Its natural and human history have given rise to numerous hiking trails and legends surrounding its cave. For me, it had an uncanny resemblance to several parks out West.

Robbers Cave in the Oklahoma Mountains
Day: 28

Oklahoma continues to amaze as I drive through the relatively mountainous portions of the Ouachitas and Ozarks. This little gem was barely marked on my map but pictures of it flood Oklahoma tourism websites due to its uniquely rugged scenery. Robbers Cave has many legends surrounding it from famous American Outlaws Belle Starr and Jesse James. Certainly it would make an ideal hideout. These days, the large crevasses and precipitous cliffs make an ideal place for scrambling, hiking and rappelling. It reminded me of Joshua Tree, actually.

Robbers Cave State Park is a pretty large state park with hikes that can be up to 10 miles in length. The Cave itself is the most popular feature of the park but three lakes are open for recreation as well. Its a well run park which attracts visitors from all around the region and a few outsiders like me.


Driving the Talimena Scenic Byway, Arkansas and Oklahoma

An unlikely place for one of America's scenic drives is far from the Rockies or either coast. Located in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, the Talimena Scenic Byway is surprisingly mountainous and is a favorite drive for motorists and motorcycles on cross country trips.
This doesn't look like a typical scene from the Midwest, does it?
Day: 28

The further I'm going on this road trip, the further I come from all my previous perceptions of the Midwest and South. Oklahoma and Arkansas seem to have significant traces of both regional cultures and I don't know if I'd fully place either state in a single category. The Ozarks and Ouachitas are mountain ranges that run from eastern Oklahoma through northern Arkansas, southern Missouri and just briefly touch southwestern Kansas. Really, the area is its own region and functions somewhat like a state with similar heritage and culture. It is similar to how the Pacific Northwest is a multistate area with shared background and culture. I've enjoyed this part of the country immensely because both the topography and the people are much different than the way they are commonly perceived.

The Talimena Scenic Byway is a great way to experience the area. It runs along a massive and narrow ridgeline extending from the town of Mena, Arkansas to Talihina, Oklahoma and rides much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although not nearly the elevation of its eastern counterpart, the byway has a similar design with plenty of roadside pullouts with sweeping vistas and hiking trails.
Plenty of places for a picnic or campsite
The ridges and valleys of this area give it an Appalachian feel
Its so nice to be in an affordable part of the country for a road trip. I filled my tank in Arkansas for something like $40 and headed up the byway from there. I was actually the only person in a car on the whole road- most everyone else was on motorcycles. I could see how this could be a thrilling ride for those used to driving across the surrounding flatlands.

It was good to start at one of the visitors centers. There's a visitors center just outside of Mena known as the East End Visitors Center which was very helpful. (The West End Visitors center appeared to be closed). I didn't realize that there are over two dozen vistas just off the highway that serve as photography moments and tell the history of the area.

I decided to spend a leisurely day just visiting the vistas and hiking around the few side trails when they were available. Sure I would have preferred some more epic singletrack or hiking but I was contented with a more relaxing pace. This isn't to say outdoor adventure isn't available- right at the beginning is the Earthquake Ridge Trail too which is a somewhat maintained mountain biking trail. The long-distance Ouachita Trail also runs across the ridgeline and parallels the road. Parts of it were a little overgrown but its an up and coming trail. The area isn't as well developed for mountain biking as nearby Hot Springs and Mt Ida but there's potential.

A foggy morning below made for some great pictures

Yes, this is Oklahoma
The highest point on the drive is Rich Mountain which is nearly as tall as the highest mountain in Arkansas. A road leads right to the top and the historical fire lookout. You can no longer get to the top but there are some interpretive sites and buildings. The road continues on through Queen Wilhelmina State Park featuring a quaint lodge and ample camping. Like the Mt Magazine Lodge nearby, the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge is quite chic. There's also a couple of well-established hiking trails. I wished I had stayed here overnight!

Shortly after the state park, the highway crosses in to Oklahoma and the vistas are just as glorious. Horse Thief Springs supposedly has mountain biking trails but I couldn't find them. I came across another great campsite which served as my lunch break. Winding Stair Campground doesn't have the amenities that Queen Wilhelmina does but it is secluded enough to feel like a mountain retreat. Some of my best pictures were from those vistas.
Near Winding Stair
Things begin to taper off as the road gets closer to Talihina but I couldn't leave without visiting another famous Oklahoma destination- Robbers Cave State Park. I headed down into the valley and enjoyed the view of the ridgeline I just crossed by car. I certainly never call Oklahoma or Arkansas "fly-over" states again!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!