When I first proposed a two-week road trip across the mid-South (hitting three National Parks, one big city, and nine states), I invited a few friends to come along. As time went on, it became obvious I would undergo this trek alone. I get it. It was an ambitious trip and planned exclusively for my own enjoyment. So I wasn’t terribly disappointed or surprised when the eventual answers were, “Nope, sorry!” I was actually relieved. Now I didn’t have to worry if everyone was having a good time and making sure they got in their own idea of fun shit to do. I also didn’t have to face the social shame associated with needing to stop for the umpteenth time to pee. Traveling alone meant my trip turned into four National Parks, one big city, eleven states, and recommendations for certain rest areas on the interstates over others.
Not to say I wasn’t filled with some trepidation. I was, after all, going to be a woman traveling alone for an extended period of time. There was quite a lot to consider, and safety was my first concern. I researched the shit out of crime in National Parks (yet somehow Murder on the Appalachian Trail never came up). I schooled myself in what to do if I came across a bear on the trails (which turned out to be fucking useless when I eventually ran into old man Baloo). I watched YouTube videos on how to change a tire (let’s be real, that was never going to happen). I sent my family a detailed itinerary and planned to keep in contact every day (especially when I said to hell with that itinerary).My friends and family and coworkers and strangers on the street were always incredulous when I said I was doing this trip solo, but I felt prepared and elated. I honestly didn’t, and still don’t, understand why I got so many “You’re crazy!” or “Gosh, you’re braver than me!” The only thing I truly worried about was my car breaking down in the middle of Bumfuck Nowhere, Mountain Land, Home of Mountain People (which, to my Minnesota Twin Cities upbringing, was the most terrifying scenario I could think of).
Despite the general bemusement of those around me, I continued to make plans. Finally, one day, I loaded up my Jeep (lovingly christened Echo Base) and jettisoned out of Minneapolis. It was 4am on July 15th, 2016. I headed east along I-94, towards my first destination of Shinnston, West Virginia. Originally, a family reunion was to take place there. Family from all over the country and Europe were to descend upon this tiny Appalachian town. It was the whole reason I came up with this trip. If I was going to West Virginia to meet people I never knew existed, I was going to make an adventure of it. For various reasons, the reunion was canceled, but I never considered canceling the road trip. At that point, Shinnston really became a minor blip in a larger expedition. I took over my mom’s hotel reservation but didn’t actually need to be there until the 16th. The leeway in time gave me the idea to get off the intended route. By the time I passed Chicago, I was severely annoyed by driving and the traffic and needed to get the hell out of my car. It was at those times, I really longed for another person to share the driving. My route took me east along I-80, skirting the Michigan state border. I had never been to Michigan, so I thought, why not? Instead of 80, I continued on 94, heading north into the Mitten State.
Shortly after noon, I stopped at Warren Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan for some lunch. The weather was unbelievably gorgeous with picturesque sunshine, and lapping waves. The beach wasn’t terribly crowded and I dipped my toes in the water and watched people enjoying their day. I spent time exploring the dunes and taking in the water, but it was difficult to turn my brain off. I kept thinking, “Girl, you need to go. There’s still so much driving before West Virginia.” It was hard telling myself to shut up, I’m on vacation, damnit. This silent conflict became a recurring theme for days. Still, I mustered an hour and a half before heading further east.
I decided to head to Ann Arbor, simply because it is the birthplace of all of my college textbooks and I am a giant nerd. It was here that I got my flirt on. Shortly before Chicago, I realized I left my camp stove at home and I was not going to eat diner food for two weeks (I truly believed that – insert eye roll emoji). So I went to the local REI where I chatted up a sales associate. He was very sympathetic to my plight and found me some discounts and coupons and I ended up with a small stove for twenty bucks. Not bad for REI! I got back on the road for a bit longer, then spent the night in Toledo, Ohio. The next morning, I was on the move early.
I decided to follow a National Scenic Route along Lake Erie. Along the coast, there are countless Great Lakes maritime and historical museums to stop at, and many lighthouses. Like most people, I should think, I love lighthouses. There are also islands to explore in the Great Lakes that ferries will take passengers to for less than twenty bucks (However, I would love to kayak like the two women are currently doing on Superior). You can follow this route all the way to Pennsylvania, but I turned south at Cleveland.
The Ohio and Erie Canalway from Cleveland takes you straight through a national park. Cuyahoga Valley is one of the strangest parks I’ve been to. I wouldn’t have thought a NP was just thirty minutes from a major city and smack in the middle of an urban area, but Cuyahoga is 33,000 acres of ecosystem interspersed with homes and roadways. I stayed a few hours in the park, going on short hikes and enjoying the river scene. At one point, along Brandywine Falls trail, the bridge was out over the river and I had to forge my own path. I ended up hiking the river itself most of the time, as it wasn’t deep and I could walk without care.
I also visited the Ledges, which are fun rock formations. Mostly, they looked like beehives or sponges. A wedding had taken place there earlier in the day, and there were still decorations up. I also spied on a young man sitting along the (actual) ledges doing what looked like calculations in a notepad. He actually scared me, because I was sitting there to get away from noise and people and was not expecting to hear the heavy rustling he did when he got up. I ended my afternoon at a small café in the park, tucking into a delicious fish sandwich and cold beer before continuing on to West Virginia.
It took me several hours from Cuyahoga to reach my next stop in Bridgeport, WV. I got there shortly before sunset. On the drive over, I’d already decided to extend my stay to two nights rather than just one. I was sick of driving and needed to stay put for a couple of days. I’m glad I did. West Virginia, at least in the north where I was, is absolutely beautiful. That was the next day, however. I checked into my hotel that night, and passed out, not to be disturbed until eleven hours later.