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Casatelli-Anderson St. Petersburg Sophisticated Sunset Soiree November 2021

This blog takes on a different focus and goal as travel for This Girl and Her Hubs has all but dried up. I will continue to find ways to use language filtered love. But, in the meantime I am living my best life documenting a beautiful wedding. This is my gift to you both-Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. May the script on this page express the love, light and laughter that you both bring to others.

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Have you ever met someone who is the whole package-the real deal? A true lion-hearted “jack of all trades” luminary, crusader of courage, heroine for humanity? These traits are indeed a rare finding, but every now and then the planets align where fate and happenstance intervene converging the path for these extraordinary souls. On a chilly, Florida November evening I was lucky enough to witness the union between two such virtuosities.

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For me, the story goes back 5 years ago-first meeting Dr. Jennifer Casatelli. A firebomb of intellectual energy, medical knowhow equal parts fierce, feisty and fabulous all contained in a petite 5-foot 4-inch dynamic spitfire package. Her electrifying blue eyes, emulating the caerulean opaque oceanic abyss with camouflaged hues of mischief and mystery.

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In addition to her spellbinding beauty, she is a remarkable teacher, a patient practitioner and a medical maven mastermind. Her commitment is lovingly loyal, and her keen pediatric expertise and passion makes her a triple threat force to be reckoned with. It is important as well to note-the Casatelli “shoe game” which is on a whole different level. Footwear that makes one sigh, swoon, yelp, cry and gasp in half glee (partial pain) and jealousy. 10-12 hours her dainty tootsies endure phalangeal prison and confinement enclosed in trendy “on fleek” captivity. Elegantly, teetering on stilt-like fashion forward elevation, her heels glide with graceful ease as she sashays with medical majesty through the colorful halls of the Children’s Hospital.

Our worlds collided as we shared a mutual fondness for running, dark humor and pediatrics. She cheered me on in races and life and vice versa. It was during this time I began to hear of Kent Anderson-Jen’s neighbor. This dynamic military man who had performed death defying bold operations in the airborne infantry as a ranger in special units now facing his most monumental acquisition-capturing her guarded but generous heart-the most daring of all reconnaissance missions. Both intensely protective and private these two would negotiate a love treaty worthy of honorable medals and heroic measures. If only a Jen/Kent concord was in place in 1983 Grenada may have looked more like Woodstock.

They met by chance-neighbors for years, they connected at a local auction bidding on a dock ladder. Some friendly competitive banter manifested a unique comradery. Over a first date at Whiskey Joes with sunset, chips and salsa and storytelling-they grew even closer realizing they shared a love for many of the same humble simplicities in life. They began to spend their evenings snuggling, animals included by the cozy firepit watching the pink cotton candy sky disappear slowly into the still darkness of the bay’s horizon. It was in those magical starry night wind chiming moments that they realized a blossoming love for one another.

As their lives merged closer, fur families combined and expanded. Day to day life commenced-a sublime Spain getaway, frolicking paddleboard dolphin aquatic adventures and nightly fireside, moonlit backyard moments occupied precious gaps of time. Then, 1 week after Thanksgiving 2019 at The Don CeSar Hotel-Kent surprised Jen in a well-orchestrated, epically romantic, engagement proposal.

The Bride and Groom-Jen and Kent have graciously agreed to let me document their inspiring love story. It is my humble privilege to chronicle their most precious day through the art and sculpture of words, unveiling layer by glorious layer of the love filled, joyful Anderson-Casatelli wedding celebration.

Crossing the bridge into St. Petersburg, the iridescent turquoise waters of the Gulf ricocheted off the beaming radiance of the beguiling sun’s rays. A multitude of visual sensations pulsed through me as I gathered a stunning bird’s eye view of the fired earth terracotta roofs and sexy curved arches of million-dollar Spanish style waterside homes neighboring extravagant luxury mega yachts.  

The wedding venue -The Don CeSar Hotel is steeped in a 1920’s time capsule that is soul stirring. The salmon-colored monolithic eclipse of the historic hotel is captivating, classic and timeless. Built in 1928, the St. Petersburg icon’s popularity spans over almost a century and has been the source of indulgence-a retreat for the rich and famous, providing wealthy men such as Scott Fitzgerald a sanctuary of sugar sand beaches, sun sets and solitude.

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After pulling up to the behemoth pink palace, we entered the spacious lobby spilling out into the open, airy, fusion of old-world Mediterranean meets modern day chic. A small collection of eager attendees, family and friends were clustered in a love circle around Kent-the groom. He was surprisingly calm, welcomed us with a robust, sturdy handshake and some pre-wedding chitchat. A slender elevator shuttled the guests in a 2×2 Noah’s Ark formation ejecting matching tethered twosomes hand in hand to the next stop on the wedding express.  

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We were escorted into another area leading to French glass doors. As the partitions opened in a grandiose ooh-ahhh anticipatory moment-the aperture provided an inviting portal into a transcending entry of a 360-degree picturesque panoramic seashore Shangri la. As the harmonious wedding themed classical melodies reverberated onto the veranda, the combined cooling air and setting sun created an idyllic atmosphere.

A utopian paradise awaited us as we stepped out into the salty seascape. Family and friends began to congregate on the terrace taking in the cornucopia of scintillating delights-a free-flowing champagne station and a colorful charcuterie kaleidoscope of tasty provisions. Cordial waiters circled the space eager to provide decadent tempting appetizers. Vertical heaters stood erect like patient guards, ready to provide warmth for any wimpy Floridian shivering from the unusual cool weather (Hubs). We lingered nibbling on yummy delicacies and marveled in wanderlust at the rutilant, fading sun slowly melting into the vast cobalt serene gulf.  

The music shifted to a more matrimonial cadence and a noticeable pivot took place signifying the bride was coming. The guests shuffled to their seats in a swift determined pace. We all held our breath anticipating the beautiful bride as Kent tall, lean and handsome waited patiently. In his midnight black tuxedo, classic and bold bowtie and pink boutonniere he stood stoically- his masculinity in complete contrast flanked by 2 abundant bountiful plumages of soft pink blooming roses and pearly white hydrangeas.  

Officiating the ceremony, standing front and center with purpose guided intention was Mike Matt-Kent’s longtime friend of over 30 years and military “brother from another mother.” Pachelbel-Cannon in D melodically started-beaming with gallant pride, baby brother Michael Casatelli-furnishing a pink tie matching his blush cherub gleaming cheeks-arm in arm with the bride, made their way down the aisle.

On any given day Jen is stunningly drop dead gorgeous. But today her beauty was transcending-goddess level. Her hair resembled the exquisite golden petals of Van Gogh’s sunflowers pulled into a braided bun of silky perfection. Her face glowed with pure joy; her periwinkle-slate eyes matched her grandmother’s blue stone ring- embedded in her bouquet. As she glided shoulder to shoulder with baby brother Michael-her eyes remained fixated on her soon to be husband, her sun kissed tanned, toned torso and measured gait was steadied with confidence and exuberance. Her smile radiated equal parts repose and jubilation. The dress-let me pause for dramatic affect….

The dress-an ethereal A-line strapless, empire waist, floor length, crisp white gown created by the delicate wings of auspicious angels, beaded with heavenly lace detail, fanned out in a splendiferous and arresting wingspan. Her diamond necklace (gift from Kent on wedding morning) and matching diamond earrings sparkled in luminescent dazzle highlighting her mesmerizing beauty even further.

The Queen Casatelli

With the enrapturing backdrop behind them and the promise of their future ahead-Mike Matt in articulate precision began the ceremony. Eloquent, insightful flawless he delivered his lines impeccably. Both Kent and Mike-military heroic bad-ass special force units bravado, stood next to each other humble and vulnerable- hard to imagine these two gentle souls, relatable “civilians” performing daring and courageous military combat.

Positioned in a holy trinity formation, Mike spoke of a love and life together. The bride and groom faced each other-eyes locked mirroring their love for one other. Vows were exchanged as the sun transitioned from a smoldering yellow to a flamingo splendor. The ceremony grew to a close and sealed of course with a tasteful celebratory “close the deal” kiss. An enthusiastic unified audience applause erupted followed by a buoyant bridal bouquet thrusted fist pump and then the newlywed’s kicked off the festivities with a commemorative impromptu spirited boogey down the aisle.

From there, we were guided back inside to a dimly lit dreamy fairy tale of opulence and elegance. Celestial starlit soft ambient illumination, intimate table groupings arranged with an overabundance of flickering candle clusters layered lavishly with more of the precious pink and white flower centerpieces created the ultimate enchanted nirvana. As I made my way around the calming space, a seamless balance of first-class grandeur and refined restraint was mastered.

I sat down at table 7 perusing the crowd, in terms of wedding volume it was a small gathering-60 attendees. There were many times throughout the evening as I looked out onto the guests, I wondered why did I make the cut? In this room, were a bountiful of intimidating brilliance, medical pioneers, military excellence, worldly wise regal talent….and then me. But ultimately that’s what makes Jen and Kent all the more spectacular. A distinguishable combination of genius and humility makes them the consummate couple, clearly this room was not only filled with accomplished intellect but a striking surplus of love.    

We found our designated seats, settled in while Hubs took advantage of the open bar’s libations-several cocktails in. My table was an eclectic collection of fascinating individuals. Introductions and history swapping quickly established a theme for the newly married couple-loyalty and longevity. The relationships and connections at just my table alone added up together well over 50 years. From Jen’s longstanding trainer to her professional mentor’s widow, it was obvious that she treasured her friendships.

Midway through a lengthy explorative diagnostic debate with Jen’s trainer regarding Hub’s possible frozen shoulder-words like lateral pecs and trapezius obliques hung in the air on pause as more pressing matters such as the much anticipated “Introducing for the first time” wedding announcement. Jen and Kent’s introduction generated a spontaneous outburst of overflowing communal elation demonstrated by emphatic clapping, foot stomping, triumphant reciprocal love. The newlyweds retreated to their table; canoodling nestled in their couple’s love nest. Brother-Chris Casatelli stood up to deliver a powerfully poignant and touching speech. Impactful, sentimental prose extracted out of a poetry book from philosopher Khalil Gibran

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you Love one another but make not a bond of love between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow

not in each other’s shadow.

Chris read these meaningful, deeply weighted words derived from unspoken love and memories interweaved and entwined in each stanza and verse. For what no one knew, and Jen later revealed to me was she had read this very same passage at her older brother’s wedding. She also provided brother Michael a copy of this same book at his high school graduation. Khalil Gibran’s expressive writing was not just a connecting entity unifying the Casatelli siblings together through narrative but also a nostalgic enterprise of evocative, tangible, loving composition.  

When he was done, silence and introspective reflection stirred amongst the group. Next, Kent’s brother Steve Anderson turned to face the couple. He extended a personal account of Jen’s generosity, her openness and unconditional love from the very beginning. Between both men and their compelling toasts, it was clear the love was overflowing in this room.

All this matrimonial adoration stirs up intense hunger. Lucky for us we had quite the widespread buffet waiting. Fresh salad selections, a pasta station, various vegetarian options and prime rib were a few of the enticing culinary creations. We made heaping plates of yumminess as the music took on a spunky beat.

As the dishes cleared out, the dance floor began to fill up. Young, old, the serious and the animated, guests whirled, twirled, rocked, bopped and gyrated center stage-an entertaining view for all. The bride and groom pirouetted onto the dance floor, showing off their hard efforts achieved from weeks of pre-wedding dance classes.  

They twisted and dipped, swaying to their wedding song Broken Road by Rascal Flatts. Lost in the moment, soulfully they gazed into each other’s eyes reflecting a mirrored tenderness.

A lively photo booth in the corner held a steady line of playful participants displaying goofy variations of ridiculous glasses and silly accessories that ignited the funny and frivolous. Hubs and I jumped in there, trying different poses in 10 second increments- photos that would be placed in a scrap book of mementos for the Anderson’s.

The best part of a wedding other than the romantic thrill of it all is the CAKE. Not one, but two sinfully, sensational, salacious cakes made their divine debut. A white creamy, rich decadent tower of feminine fabulosity with pink rococo swirly “too pretty to eat” flowers awaited the ceremonial slicing. Hidden layers of luscious, velvety, strawberry shortcake mastering a spiritual level of confectionary enlightenment. The groom’s cake was sugary, serendipity infused rich chocolatey, heavenly happiness. They both stood facing the alter of sweet loveliness-the shiny gleam of the knife symbolically held in unison cutting ceremoniously through the succulent stratified tiers of cake and frosting. Coquettish Casatelli mischievously bobbed and weaved, avoiding an unwarranted icing incident, eventually succumbing to the cake laden fork. Kent less resistant opened wide for a photo op devilish gulp.

We remained seated devouring and scraping the last delicious and desperate remains of the sumptuous wedding cake. As Hubs sipped on dark coffee, we knew this fine evening was coming to an end.

Seeking out the bride and groom for goodbyes, we found them mid-jig on the dancefloor. We treasured our limited one-on-one time with the newly married couple. After our brief farewell, we made our way out. As our car made its way down the steep decline, our departure feeling similar to a magic carpet ride send off. In the dark of night, as we drove home-we replayed the evening savoring each component of the wedding. Like a recipe that works when all the ingredients are placed together, Jen and Kent-their wedding and their life are just that. A perfect combination of old-world sophistication with elegant new school brilliance. These two have solidified a place in my heart forever and I can’t wait to continue to follow their ongoing journey of love.

Honorable Mentions:

Wedding Planner: https://partiesalacartefl.com/

Venue: Elegant, Luxury Hotel in St. Pete Beach, FL | The Don CeSar

Florist: Bruce Wayne Florals l St. Petersburg l FL

Hair and Makeup: Lasting Luxe Artistry | Bridal Hair and Makeup | St Petersburg

Wedding Dress: Ivory & Lace – Bridal Shop, Wedding Dresses (ivoryandlacebridal.com)

Bristol Bridal Bash-October 2021

Mr. And Mrs. Ackerman

Bristol Virginia/Tennessee October 14-16, 2021

Just a forward introduction on this Blog. This is not my usual account of A Girl, Her Hubs and A Suitcase. This entry is a wedding gift to my longtime friend Vicki, who married Rob in October. I combined journaling my experience in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee with the wedding activities. However, please be warned-some semi “paranormal” events occurred that I am still trying to process. I went back and forth whether to share this with all, with just Vicki or not at all. In the end, I live my life openly and honestly and this Blog has always shown the good, the bad and the ugly. So, in the end-I felt it was a disservice not to share the full story. But if the supernatural is not your cup of tea-I still encourage you to read this-perhaps with an open mind.


Welcome to the Ackerman’s 3-day wild, wacky wedding weekend. This is a tale of two friends-pals that date back to almost 3 decades. A comradery that spans from young women to old gals. Victoria, Vicki, Vic-all interchangeably used at different stages in her life-her and I met as novice student nurses, a duo that could not be more different. Vicki, always confident, an air of certainty wrapped around her like a cashmere shawl, brilliant and dazzling next to me- ditzy, insecure, dramatically and dangerously messy. She patiently tolerated me, as I idolized her laissez-faire stance on life. Unable to combat DNA-my Jewish roots have always produced a slow annoying churn of palpable anxiety always brewing and ready to detonate the slow, destructive lava of unhealthy coping coupled with an ample 6 pack of Zima cocktails. As you could imagine, the twenties were not kind on yours truly. But, somehow like the song says, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” But, if not for some tough love from sweet Vic, I might still be causing havoc on the sandy beaches of Siesta Key-fogging up potential suitor spectacles shamefully through despicable (yet oddly unique) hyperventilation breathy methods.

Skip ahead some years, Vicki sets off to continue her education excelling in the surgical realm of nursing. My trajectory a bit different with decades of degrees accumulated along the way with a large surplus of student debt all in an effort to shed my destructive self-sabotaging way. Through the years, my path takes me towards working with children, a traveling partner-that later would become my Hubs and a quiet shared life of travel and steady work.

Vicki works her way up through the surgery ranks creating a name for herself and excelling as a coveted circulating OR nurse for prestigious surgeons in Atlanta. We unite sporadically through the years catching up hastily and intermittently. These reunions center on quality verses quantity and an enduring friendship and love that always brings us back keeping us connected.

Through the good times and in crisis- when Vicki’s sister Celeste died, I tried to be a buoy in the sea of sadness.

But, inside my heart ached for Vicki and her family, experiencing this profound loss as if it were my own family as well. But, always after the darkness comes light. Enter Rob Ackerman.

Vicki in a courageous move leaves the security of her surgical job in Atlanta, now that Andrew her son, her love, is now grown and has inherited her same fire and fearlessness-she embarks on a life of travel nursing. Through her shared stories, I live vicariously through her bravery as she crisscrosses the country living her best life. Through luck and divine alignment, we connected in Southwest Florida for a weekend of sun, cycling and sisterhood.

On a hot summer weekend, I traveled to her bachelorette pad, we biked through her neighborhood, dined outside, swam like eager minnows and had a good old fashioned girls night slumber party. It was during these 2 glorious days that I was reminded of all the hijinks, shenanigans and lunacy we both had lived through together all those years ago. We laughed and giggled like schoolgirls, reminisced, and discussed past heartache, pain and day to day strife. She intently listened, providing truly sage and wise advice.

Weeks following this visit I would find myself murmuring “What Would Vicki do?” Having said the statement so many times- I had to shorten it “WWVD?” Vicki’s approach to problem solving is tough love, a robust serving of sarcasm, followed by an ample helping of a throaty laugh. The hearty, baritone chuckle resonates deep from the core working its way up through the esophagus releasing a one-of-a-kind tympanic guttural harmonic opus that ultimately results in an infectious cascade of euphoric ovation for those fortunate enough to experience it. One could describe this celestial acoustic event as an exhilarating auricular exclamation point to a riddle-the infinite encore to any allegory-an audible, unmistakable showstopper of seraphic sounds.

It was on this visit; I saw the shimmer in her eyes as she shared in detail the love story of her and Rob. I knew in my heart that this is where Vicki’s new chapter of her life begins. Realizing this, our limited time together was even more special and cherished.

A short time afterwards-Vicki announced the incredible news of their engagement. A deep, emotional well of happiness swelled in my heart, sincere wholeheartedly genuine joy for my friend on this exciting news. The bride to be sent out save the dates and the monumental planning began-months later, the determined toil of details that were dedicated to this matrimonial magical occasion would be evident-sweet shout outs, nods and private mementos weaved craftily within the components of the wedding events.

As the wedding week in October approached Hubs and I planned for a 3-day retreat in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia for this celebratory jubilee. Luggage packed, vehicle crammed, Juliet-Dachshund in tow, we made the over 10-hour pilgrimage to the soon to be Ackerman/Alberti ceremonial palooza.

Bristol Experience Bristol, TN – TN Vacation is situated in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Cherokee National Forest. It is a truly unique city as on one side of the main street-State Street is Tennessee and on the other is Virginia. Bristol is known for being the birthplace of country music and has the Bristol Motor Speedway. The main downtown is lit up, energetic, country chic, with historical markers connecting the old with the new in a symbiotic way.

OCTOBER 14, 2021

We were staying 3 nights at The Sessions Hotel, Bristol, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel – Bristol | SPG (marriott.com). The boutique hotel is named after the 1927 famous country music sessions. The hotel’s décor is aesthetically appealing in a rustic meets modern way furnished with handcrafted pieces with musical elements. The uniquely designed rooms with exposed brick are spacious, dark, comfortable, clean with insanely cool details such as a hanging light resembling 2 old fashioned microphones. Throughout the hotel space and rooms are endless particulars worthy of a scavenger hunt-small subtle artistic features all leading up to an inspired architectural sensory, multilayered experience.

We checked in with the overly friendly staff and were presented with a burlap bag containing ALBERTI wine in it with a personalized handwritten tag. A welcome packet with the 3-day itinerary and instructions were also handed to us. I realized now why every time over the last 6 months I attempted to contact Vicki and why she was always so busy. The details were not lost on me and as the events unfolded over the next few days it was clear the many months of preparing and arranging were organized and well thought out.

The hotel Sessions was dog-friendly, and the promenade to our room seemed to generate a feverish cacophony of frenzied barking and puppy dissonance. Juliet our Dachshund was serenaded by a rambunctious choir of contained pooches in a pitchy enthusiast canine reception.

We acclimated ourselves to the room and quickly dressed for our separate events. Hubs would be with the “boys”. I would join the “girls” across the street for what was to be a surprise for Vicki. Dressed in -may I say -adorable “cow girlish” attire I escorted Hubs to Bristol | Quaker Steak & Lube® (thelube.com). The restaurant was filled with an abundance of men, car themed manly paraphernalia prolific, testosterone, swashbuckling, brawny, robust males yielding large beer steins as the smell of nachos and chicken wings perfumed the musky air. I handed Hubs off to Rob (The Groom) and roughly 8-10 well behaved guys, trusting them with my most prized possession-Hubs.

Trying to make my way across State Street to State Line Bar & Grille – Home (statelinebristol.com). I stood there negotiating traffic on the busy street-a familiar throaty yelling “Brooke” startled me and caught my attention. Familiar golden flowy coiffured locks of undulated flaxen beauty spilled out a car window. I stood there statuesque and flustered-knowing my cover had been blown-Vicki spotted me! Perhaps, if I stand still, she will not notice me? As if to answer my redundant question-the persistent yelling of my namesake continued from the slow-moving car window. This outing was to be a surprise (I thought) and my appearance on a random street in Bristol 3 days before the wedding would certainly have created suspicion. Oh well, let’s get moving-a bachelorette party is waiting across the street!

State Street is the mecca of activity and nightlife for Bristol. For an early Thursday evening, an energetic buzz circulated down the trendy boulevard. Solo on this mission, culminating in over 10+ hours to get there, I hurriedly made my way up the stairs to the “girls night out event”. For the purposes of this blog, there are only 3 categories of guests-Aunts (7 of them) Cousins and former coworkers/roommates/friends. A small gathering of guests began to trickle in arriving in dizzying fragments. The theme was “wear your favorite rock band t- shirt”. Always one to skip instructions, I was in full cow herding regalia.  The room began to swell with laughter and volume-abundantly louder as the alcohol flowed freely.

I made my way to Vicki’s sister Jennifer, a tall, blond, beautiful soul-in any other environment I would be completely intimidated by her stunning beauty. However, her warmth and kindness took center stage, hugging me as if I too were her sister. A sudden shift in my solar plexus sent a wave of energy down my spine and an unexplainable familial love and openness settled in my being. An odd déjà vu hung over me as if searching for a word or thought forgotten but lingering. As the noise volume grew, I withdrew into a world foreign but strangely inviting. All these sentiments, although completely irrational and mystifying would later be revealed to me. But, for now as the patrons celebrated, laughed and giggled an unsettled vague feeling hung over me like a weighted blanket.

I made my way around, meeting Vicki’s friends, connecting a lifetime of stories to new faces. I immediately felt a kinship to all these ladies as we all occupied a mutual space in our heart for our dear friend Vicki.

The 7 rambunctious aunts constructed a protective ring around Vicki forming a fortified wall of love yielding years of private family moments, long withstanding jokes and a lifespan of memories. Echoes of laughter reverberated in the spacious room-an estrogen laced colloquy of multiple simultaneous competing conversations celebrating Vicki. Vicki performed a ceremonial T shirt give away brandishing each aunt with a matching kitschy statement. The aunts never strayed far from each sister as if cosmically drawn to one another. They provided an animated, theatrical and extremely entertaining backdrop to an already captivating group. Yummy treats were provided, shots consumed while Vicki anecdotes were swapped amongst the newly formed compadres.

From there, everyone moved downstairs where part 2 of the evening kicked off. Karaoke was next on the agenda. The ladies were starting to show signs of the libations kicking in. One by one, amateur serenades were belted out by microphone holding, booze induced wanna-be “singing idol” types. Some ladies from the group swaggered up on the makeshift stage, piping out unique unrecognizable versions of “I will survive.”

The aunts migrated outside to a substantial gathering of leather wearing, tattoo sporting, burly looking biker men. Inside, Vicki and a growing posse were dancing, swaying, twirling to the karaoke creations. At this point, the men including mine and the groom, done with eating, darts and pool, rejoined us-balancing out the vibe with some much-needed machismo.

As the drunk serenading continued, a rather stellar football game was on the big screen. The game was between my home team Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Philadelphia Eagles (my former hometown). A nail-biting close game kept me equally engaged as I was hijacked into an impromptu Conga line that coiled around the bar and out into the streets. The bar bouncer growled under his breath swatted at us in an irritating hand gesture as Vicki innocently led the group into a dead end. Back inside, the Buccaneers won, the boozy crooning continued, and Hubs and I were exhausted. As we said our goodbyes, the tipsy tunes melodically escorted us out the door. Back at The Sessions Hotel-Juliet greeted us with enthusiastic zeal for a quick walk and restful sleep for all of us.

OCTOBER 15, 2021

I awoke by alarm clock, carefully planned out from the evening before for a sunrise run. Slightly cool outside with a darkened skyline illuminated by a peekaboo trace of pink served as my landscape. I ran up the mounting hill on the Virginia side. I passed by the 1902 train station Bristol Station Brews & Taproom Craft Beer TN VA Bar and Music Venue (bristolbrew.com) which apparently is now a brewery. The Welcome to Bristol lit up sign hovering 25 feet over the street  Downtown Bristol – Discover Bristol illuminated the quiet darkness. The historic charm of the street displayed markers commemorating the birthplace of country music. Quaint country stores, guitar themed shops and other inviting store fronts kept me entertained as I made my way up the growing hill. I turned around, passing farm like residential homes, emerald grassy fields and then crossed over to the Tennessee side of the road. All in all, it was a short run, trying to leave a reserve for a hike we would have later that day. As I ended, the sun was fully out, and hunger began to emerge.

I made my way back to the hotel restaurant Southern Craft BBQ: Best Barbecue Restaurant | Johnson City, TN. Southern Craft conveniently situated steps from the hotel has a cool, hip and patriotic vibe. Inside the enhancing aromatics of mesquite, barbeque and smokey deliciousness filled the air. Even with my vegetarian lifestyle, the tantalizing fragrance spontaneously stimulated rambunctious tummy grumblings and carnal cravings. I ordered Hubs a wholesome and southern style 2.0 breakfast with potatoes that I am convinced was laced with crack.

Back in the room, darkened shades, cold sheets and plush linens-Hubs was still asleep-as I should have been. After feasting we made our plans for the day as later that evening the wedding celebrations would commence. We drove through the quaint streets of Bristol making our way to Osceola Island Loop – Tennessee | AllTrails. We specifically chose this trail because it was dog friendly. We were testing out a new backpack for Juliet. As we drove up, a flurry of activity and people were assembling. Later-we would learn that it was a ceremonial gathering between the Fish and Wildlife and the Tennessee Valley Authority TVA donating a large quantity of Rainbow Trout stocking the South Holston Lake and Dam South Holston Lake & Dam & Reservoir in Bristol, TN – Tennessee Vacation (tnvacation.com).

The 2-mile trail is a winding deeply shaded loop with a beautiful path, water views and park benches throughout. Trialing Juliet in the backpack was nerve wracking for me and subsequently annoying for Hubs and sadly Juliet as well. My mind was in ridiculous unwarranted overdrive with theatrical scenarios all ending with Juliet nosediving in a suicidal kamikaze mission from backpack to ground. My melodramatic milieus all concluding in an ambulance and dachshund wheelchair. Juliet was fine-I was obviously the issue with my histrionics blockading stress-free merriment. Eventually, the fresh air and beguiling landscape infused some sense in me, and only then was I able to release Juliet onto the ground to frolic like the dog she deserves to be.

As we made our way back- feisty Rainbow Trout gracefully catapulted from the tame waterway in acrobatic aquatic summersaults. Determined fishermen perched over the wooden bridge patiently awaiting a nibble. I vocalized buffoonery ponderings out loud in my most obtrusive and irritating New Jersey twang as Hubs winced and cringed smiling apologetically to the friendly anglers. He softly pointed out to me-silence is necessary to capture fish. I am pretty sure my shrilly vocals traumatized those unassuming trout tainting their tranquil dwelling fortunately only temporarily.

We left the park hungry and tired. Back to downtown Bristol we regretfully asked the receptionist at The Sessions for a suggestion and acting on her ill-advised recommendation we ate at The Angry Italian – Official Website (theangryitalianrestaurant.com). After our unmemorable meal was consumed, we walked State Street window shopping and browsing in the interesting stores. Making up for the lackluster regrettable lunch, we feasted on homemade ice cream at The Southern Churn. The fluorescent yellow sugary whimsical concoction “playdough” was dreamy.

We sat in the old fashioned, country store-esque creamery licking our confectionary goodness. Out of the corner of my eye, my mind saw an image out of place. Is that a potbelly pig, in a tutu being wheeled in a wagon? Does that wagon say Porkchop.Ebara🐷 (@porkchop.ebara) • Instagram photos and videos? Nobody else felt this was a peculiar finding. I announced to the 2 other patrons- “there is a pig in a wagon coming in”. A friendly Asian man asked to enter and explained this is “Porkchop” his emotional support Pig. Well, that makes perfect sense now. Porkchop and owner ordered a large black cherry ice cream with one spoon that the owner and Porkchop shared. Porkchop and man were from Beverly Hills apparently making their way to New York City. This was certainly in all my travels the only time I have ever confronted such a bizarre situation.

Bellies full and tired from the festivities behind and ahead of us we took an indulgent nap. Rested and refueled, donning a second cowgirl-type dress, Hubs in plaid we ventured out to Thunder Valley Tavern – Discover Bristol.

Again, Vicki left no detail astray providing a complimentary van service to and from the hotel and venue, for those who planned to drink or merely had no vehicle. We bypassed the generous option as we had our own car. We approached Thunder Valley as the golden sun was setting into the mountain horizon. The pink edges of the soothing sky offered a welcoming backdrop as we ascended the steep gravel incline to our destination. The crowd was already in full swing-many from the evening before and a lot of new faces as well. A temperamental bonfire sparked and sputtered in a fire pit adding warmth and a campy touch to the night. Informal picnic benches offered foot respite for the high heeled ladies as they negotiated the precarious pebbles and sloping ground. It was a unique pairing of country casual let-loose joviality mixed with familial ceremonial formality. Generations comingled; relatives reunified, music, laughter, conversation all converging for a shared purpose-love for the Bride and Groom.   

Outside, colorful food trucks Gypsyroadeatery – Home | Facebook and La Abejita Food Truck – Home | Facebook offered eclectic, made to order food options. We gobbled down hearty quesadillas from La Abejita as the struggling fire slowly dimmed out in the dark, starry night. We organically made our way inside where the band Coal Camp | Rock Band | Virginia | United States (coalcamprocks.com) was rocking out some good old fashioned southern rock tunes. The Aunts were all on the dancefloor, shimmying down, switching partners in a rapid, random rotation. Coal Camp was going strong on stage, energetic nostalgic guitar riffs and riotous drum solos evoking toe tapping, knee slapping heart thumping movements. Vicki, radiating and sparkling-decked out in a shimmering, dazzling dress glided in luminescent brilliance rhythmically across the room, from end to end, snatching innocent bystanders resulting in a romping, spirited dancefloor.

The most entertaining and memorable part of the evening was just ahead of us. Vicki and Rob in a startling seamless move made their way center stage to thank everyone for coming. Then, before our eyes they transformed into Olivia Newton John and John Travolta “Grease” circa 1978- “You’re the one that I want” (ho, ho, ho, honey) Grease u better shape up – Bing video. I am uncertain the preparation that preceded this debut rocking duet, but it was as if this performance was made for this diabolical dynamic duo. The audience sang along in playful harmony with a “bring the house down” ovation at the end.

As the activity around me swirled like a fast-moving cyclone, inside I felt off, emotional and not myself. I felt weepy and oddly connected to all of Vicki’s family in a strange familial way. I searched deep in reflection to understand why at such a joyous event did I feel such things? Weird stirrings shifted inside my heart until eventually, I had to sit quietly and listen closely to my heart.

I stood against the wall, feeling dizzy and vulnerable. It was then that I heard Celeste-Vicki’s sister that had died many years ago. She spoke rapidly with almost frantic urgency. I attempted to slow down the delivery of this message, as if to depict a morse code. She was here, watching Vicki and would remain here with me until the ceremony. She made it clear that she was not going anywhere and for now I was to accept this. I was to be her messenger-providing her spirit to ride shotgun with mine.

I began to view Vicki’s family members with a new love and adoration. This was no longer my feelings, my voice and my doings. I made my way to sister Jennifer unaware of what my voice would say. I pulled her aside, as I admired her brilliantly long slender legs-as my short stumpy wide-bodied self -approached her. She lovingly smiled at me, and sisterly love flowed from my heart. I told her to please not think I am crazy and began to weep uncontrollably. I shared with her that Celeste was here, with us (with me) watching all of this. She is here and I was there to tell her.

Without blinking an eye, she believed me. She embraced me and said she appreciated this comforting knowledge. She urged me to let Vicki know, but for now, I did not want to interfere with Vicki’s celebrations. I walked away, composing myself but feeling utterly drained, starving and almost weirdly violated.

We said our goodbyes, hugged the soon to be Newlyweds and made our way back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s big day-The Wedding.

OCTOBER 16, 2021-WEDDING DAY!

The steady cadence of rain and gloomy sky awakened us on Wedding Day. A rooftop ceremony was the plan-however, this dreary weather would certainly impede this. But, knowing my friend Vicki, she was one step ahead of Mother Nature and she would most certainly find a workable solution. Dressed in our finest wedding wear, we walked shieled with umbrellas by the pelting deluge of rain the few blocks to The Bristol Hotel Hotels In Bristol VA | Official Website | The Bristol Hotel (bristolhotelva.com). The historic architectural icon of Bristol dates back to 1925. Its rooftop holds sweeping views of downtown Bristol (which sadly would not be seen on this visit). As we entered the lobby, we were greeted by all our new friends we had made over the last 2 days. Adorable, creative center pieces of donut holes on skewers adorned the tables. A bar providing mimosas and bloody Mary’s remained steadily busy. The percolating coffee contained a growing line for the many that had partied the last 2 nights. It appears the rooftop wedding had migrated to where we were.

2 room doors magically opened, and a buffet of delicious food was offered. Slowly, the crowd trickled in and partook of the mouthwatering southern fare. Flaky, buttery biscuits, crispy bacon and other caloric indulgences filled our hungry greedy bellies.

We found a table and seats and settled in for the ceremony. This quick-thinking plan B decision was wise, and I could not imagine a more intimate, cozy and ideal setting. We began a conversation with a sweet couple from Atlanta next to us, who knew Vicki from her first surgical job. We struck up an engaging discussion so welcoming after months of Covid solitude.

As I sat waiting for the ceremonial events, my mood began to shift with feelings beginning to stir again. I felt on the edge of tears and hypersensitive. I gently spoke with Celeste, allowing her total permission now to stay. I would not fight any longer or question why, I simply would put myself aside so that she could have this full experience. A very heightened sense of urgency was palpable to me as if I knew she was here on borrowed limited time, taking up real estate in my exhausted soul temporarily. As the music started and family members began to gather, tears flowed spilling onto my cheeks as tangible evidence something was indeed off cue. I wept for what seemed forever and to the bystander-rather melodramatic. As the family members spoke, a familiar heart tug tethered me to each one in the most inexplicable way. When Celeste’s name was mentioned by Jennifer, I felt as if she was speaking directly to me.     

Eventually, one by one the “Wedding Royalty” began to come out-each one to a musical montage that represented them perfectly. They sashayed down the unrehearsed, makeshift “aisle”, musical prompts off and adorably discombobulated. Each one’s speech and connection to the Bride and Groom packed with humor and emotion. Vicki’s Dad, mixed laughter with love in an earnest dialogue. Andrew, her son, side by side these two grew up together. Vicki a young mom, determined and strong, clearly passed on these remarkable traits to her son. His warm and profound words, mixed with some “Alberti wit” offered levity and light to the moment. There was a tearful recognition of Celeste-knowing fully she was here in spirit on this glorious day and in this epic moment. Rob’s Dad poignantly told a loving story and shared a moving video of Rob’s Mom who sadly was unable to make it due to long term Alzheimer’s. With clarity and the clearest of lucidity, his mom provided loving, warm wishes.

After all the family members made their entertaining entrance and speeches-it was time for Bride Vicki’s magical moment. As she entered the room, all eyes washed over her elegant and captivating silhouette. The pure white lace A-Line floor length dress moved gracefully with her as her gloriously thick blond hair loosely curled framed her angelic face. A long tulle veil clipped in her flawless hair created an angelic dimension. Most noticeably, was her radiant smile, her heartfelt jubilation and authentic joy illuminating her soulful eyes. Rob waited at the altar, looking handsome, trim and striking-his gaze mirroring Vicki’s blissful state.  

Aunt Maureen then made a surprise declaration announcing she would be assisting brother JJ in officiating the nuptials. Vicki disclosed later to me-not even her mom had known this-she kept a vault of wedding secret details that made each unveiling amusing. Aunt Maureen began with some lively commentary introducing the couple’s interesting and unique online meeting and development of their relationship. The couple then recited their own vows-funny, quirky, sentimental, powerful and eloquent. After the vows, they sealed the deal with the most perfect kiss-Vicki and Rob beaming with pride, smiles displaying relief, love and happiness. It was official-these two were now Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman.

As soon as the ceremony ended, a literal weight was lifted from my body, I was able to find words and language again, laughter replaced heartache and tears. Did this really happen? Did I imagine it? I will never know. But I had never felt anything like that in my life and believe this all happened for a reason. I can provide no rationale or understanding for what transpired. Weeks later, I connected back with Vicki and shared with her the highlights of this experience. She did not laugh, she fully trusted this happened, believed me and was filled with love and hope that Celeste had been there for her most special day. This is just another example of why I love my friend Vicki.

The new Bride and Groom circulated the room, taking pictures in varying combinations documenting this extraordinary day. Hubs and I sat side by side, not too long ago we also had taken this matrimonial journey-Vegas style. Something about a wedding brings out hope, renewed love and fresh beginnings. Seeing the glow on both their faces was contagious. As I sat there introspectively thinking, I couldn’t help but reminisce of where our lives intersected all those many years ago. My nursing school comrade, my ally, my confidant, most recently my advisor and always-my friend and sister. All the people I encountered on these 3 days held a common theme in each of Vicki and Rob’s lives-longevity, loyalty, commitment, reliability and respect. I was honored to have been in company with such outstanding individuals. The party began to thin out, we sadly said our goodbyes, hugging our new and old friends.


We leisurely walked back to our hotel. We came to this event in heavy rain and stormy weather and now the sky was clear, and the ground was dry. Exhausted by all the activity, socialization, food consumption and emotions-we pulled the shades, tucked Juliet in between us and sumptuously snoozed. Waking up later with hunger, I was determined for Hubs to have his Rainbow Trout he so yearned for. I searched on the internet “best rainbow trout in Bristol.” Based on those findings we dined at J Frank – Home | Facebook. J Frank is a true treat, a gem of a find, and a divine dining experience. The exquisitely restored 1850 Victorian home originally built during the Civil War holds a great deal of history within its aging walls. It is cozy and inviting and you feel as if you are in someone’s home verses a restaurant. We were fortunate and were accommodated with the last table that actually was created in a corner for us. As promised, Hubs ordered the Rainbow Trout. The meal was memorable, offered southern flare, wholesome goodness and a great ending to our Bristol memories.

As Hubs and I made the long journey back, we had many stories to share, reliving our 3 days in Bristol that would occupy our lengthy drive home. I began formulating this memoir-this scribe composed from a place of love, friendship and sincerity. I genuinely hope that this compilation depicts events in the context accurately, authentically and honestly. These candid tender words, my dear friend Vicki- is my proud and humble gift to you.

Love,

~B&F~

Me & My Vicki ❤️

South Dakota-Wyoming-Montana September 2021

EDELLSESCIPADES.COM-A GIRL, HER HUBS AND A SUITCASE

TOP 10:

10.Downtown Custer, South Dakota-Baker’s Bakery

9. Sheridan Wyoming-The Historic Sheridan Inn

8.Whitefish Trail, Whitefish, Montana-Hike 

7.Two Medicine East Glacier, Montana-Hike

6.Fairy Falls Hike/Old Faithful/Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

5.Moss Mansion-Billings, Montana

4.Black Hills, South Dakota

3.Great Falls, Montana-Guitar Adventure

2.Sunday Gulch Trail-Custer, South Dakota-Hike

1.The Road to the Sun-West Glacier National Park, Montana

Day 1-CUSTER, SOUTH DAKOTA

It’s Fall… it’s 2021… and it’s been 18 months since we last connected in this format. But I greet you with hope and promise that life is returning slowly. Hubs and I decided to travel closer to home embracing our USA patriotism. Starting off in South Dakota in the heart of our beautiful country and eventually moving out West to Yellowstone and ending in Glacier National Park.

Our story begins on a miserable stormy September morning on the heels of Hurricane Ida from Tampa, Florida-our home base. Thrilled to leave swamp like humidity on a gloomy Thursday and the notion of escaping the hamster wheel of COVID hospital hell has provided me a small offering of a much-needed respite. Soon enough I will be back on the masked medical pandemic merry go round so this break I am certain will nurture my soul with much needed energy, strength and purpose.

On a fully packed airplane, we departed from Tampa, Florida to our halfway point of Denver, Colorado. After a 3-hour layover full of fun purchases and vacation euphoria we continued our short journey to Rapid City, South Dakota.

WE ARE ON OUR WAY

The Rapid City airport was one of the easiest and most manageable airports I have ever frequented. Luggage retrieved within minutes, rental car premises literally steps from baggage claim and before we knew it we were outside in the cool South Dakota air. A gentle breeze and zero humidity awakened a keen sense of renewal. As we drove off in our sensible non-flashy Toyota rental car, we embraced the challenge of creating new memories and for Hubs- later on reliving old ones.

It was a pleasant short drive on a near empty highway as we drove along the rolling hills and slanted boulder slabs while the salmon-colored sky began to fade. The lulling rhythm of the motor and tranquil stilled silence was abruptly halted by a surprise appearance by a beastly intensely focused buffalo munching on grass curbside. The appealing commute eventually delivered us directly to our refuge for the next 3 days-Calamity Peak Lodge Home (calamitypeaklodge.com) -a 10 cabin cozy dwelling tucked in an ideal setting nestled in the solitude of the woods.

Owners Joe and his wife are two of the most accommodating individuals I have met on my travels to date. They both live on the premises-Joe a gravel truck driver and his wife a respiratory therapist at the VA, dedicate their time when they are not working to making Calamity Peak Lodge a home away from home. A bargain of a price makes everything about Calamity Peak Lodge is a traveler’s dream. Joe provided us with maps, brochures and amazing recommendations that were all used. Perched up above numerous wobbly slate steps, we lugged our impractical rolling suitcases (hence the name of this blog) up to our abode for the next 72 hours.  

We were hungry and ready to explore the city of Custer, South Dakota. Joe suggested Pounding Fathers BreweryMt Rushmore Brewing Company – Custer, South Dakota -located in Custer’s adorable downtown. Pounding Fathers is a two-story brewery and eatery showcasing South Dakota specialties. Under the luminescent sky, we dined outside-Hubs nursing his beer with a local Wallaby Salmon cooked in parchment paper. I would soon learn in Elk/Buffalo country vegetarian fare is challenging. But, here at Pounding Fathers I was provided a delicious veggie burger on lettuce buns. This healthy focus would diminish as the days went on replaced by high carb portable snacks for quick easy convenience.

We ventured back to Calamity Peak Lodge as the night air turned cold. The dark cabin, chilly drop in temperature and well-fed bellies of good food rendered a perfect backdrop for a blissful night’s slumber.

Day 2 Custer, South Dakota

We awoke to darkened skies and heavy rain pounding obtrusively on the roof above. Disappointment and expectation adjustment forced me to refocus. In the scheme of things, this was a small obstacle and ultimately worked in our favor reducing crowds on this Labor Day Holiday weekend.

Again, at the incredible advice of Joe and his wife, they provided yet another fabulous meal suggestion-Baker’s Bakery Cafe Bakers Bakery Cafe – You are gonna love our buns!-located in downtown Custer, close to last night’s Pounding Fathers. A kitschy, long-legged lady with politically incorrect cinnamon buns strategically stationed on her derriere region is the mascot for this divine eatery. Known for its sweets and hometown comforts it did not disappoint. A diner-escue environment greets one with a very downhome local feel to it. Lauren greeted us with friendly enthusiasm, and it was soon determined that this spunky spitfire was running the whole place-quite efficiently I may add. I had a hearty and delicious Acai bowl, sweet, fresh and satisfying. Hubs had an abundant omelet that would keep him content for hours.    

From there, we made our way to Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) which was very close in proximity. The seemingly empty highways penetrated the tire wheels oddly reverberating sounds akin to Indian chanting that echoed through our silent vehicle. The Black Hills, an extension of the Rocky Mountains, occupy the southern half of the state and extend into Wyoming. The geologic history dates back almost 2 billion years ago originating from a cataclysmic collision of volcanic activity and titanic plates. The result is a beautiful, striated mosaic of tilted, twisted, slanted and folded granite, limestone and other unpronounceable stone elements forming an outer galactic display of natural riveting beauty. In various light and angles, the geologic mystery becomes even more elusive creating deceptive trickery of the eye by portraying images on the imposing boulders.

The melancholy sky began to clear as we approached the grandeur of Mount Rushmore. Hovering at over 5,700 feet with the backdrop of the Black Hills Black Hills National Forest – Home (usda.gov) near Keystone, South Dakota holds the most patriotic images of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Each President representing the country’s birth, growth and preservation. There was a minimal parking fee to a garage that brings you straight to the park. A colonnade of welcoming flags wave in greeting as one progresses down the wide arcade as all the Presidents are visible. The park’s passage twists, turns and rises in elevation as the Presidents facades become viewable. Plush greenery and scaling granite monopolize the visual field. A wide range of every demographic was represented with a strong focus on family unity and an overwhelming feeling of honor and pride was evident. There is a museum down a winding stairwell that we missed that tells the stories of the brave men that helped bring this vision to life. We spent an hour in entirety there and I was fully captivated with this bucket list event.

From there, just a short distance away is the Crazy Horse Memorial Home of the Crazy Horse Memorial: Crazy Horse Memorial– it is an ongoing incomplete  mountain monument in the Black Hills. It honors the Lakota warrior-Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing to his tribal land. Initially sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski it continues to be a work in progress with the legacy continued by his family.

The carving is 563 feet high and is erected on sacred Lakota land. Entry was a bit pricey-$30 for the two of us. It is not part of the Federal or State parks therefore, our pass could not be utilized. We entered the visitor center and made our way through the museum that displayed artifacts under the watchful eyes of buffalo heads affixed to the wall. A colorful teepee is a vibrant focal point in the open space. We watched an informative video on the making of Crazy Horse that lent insight on the daunting task. Caught up in the moment, we purchased an absurd leather cowboy hat for Hubs and a traditional dream catcher. The high-priced entry and expensive souvenirs were overly indulgent and a skosh regretful.

From there, we made our way to downtown Custer. Adorable brown western style store fronts displaying tourist bric-a-brac percolate my blood and feed my soul. I am a sucker for useless baubles, dust collectors and worthless novelties. We meandered from store to store with friendly clerks who referred to us as “sweetie and honey pie” offering us samples of tasty fudge.

We made our way to Calamity Jane Coffee Shop Home (calamityjanecoffeeshop.com) a friendly and inviting neighborhood coffee house. The barista we would come to us know well over the next several days. She provided helpful hiking advice and a hand drawn map.

Our cabin had a kitchenette and we wanted to make good use of it. We stopped by the local market-Lynn’s Dakotamart Lynns Dakotamart Grocery picking up meal essentials for an outdoor picnic. We dined at the outdoor table under the midday sun, Hubs noshing on questionable fried chicken, crackers and cheese for our alfresco dining.

After lunch, I decided to take a run. The lodge holds prime real estate situated conveniently right on the George Mickelson TrailGeorge S. Mickelson Trail | South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (sd.gov). It is 109-miles in the heart of the Black Hills. As I eagerly started my run, the weather could not have been more ideal. The sun was setting, the temperature began to drop into a cooling autumn chill and as I ascended the steep gradient, dubious deer eyed me suspiciously from just a few feet away. My motivation quickly evaporated like the dewy sweat on my forehead. My Floridian bones are not used to or equipped to tackle a 4 % slope and elevation a mile high-to prove this point my legs simply decelerated down to a slow stroll.

I persevered to a steady stride providing myself forgiveness and a pass this time. I noted on the path there was the Gordon StockadeThe Gordon Stockade | Black Hills & Badlands – South Dakota (blackhillsbadlands.com)-this log fortress replica represents the shelter that served as protection from Lakota attacks during the 1874 gold rush.

I returned to the lodge with a newfound confidence due to my exploratory skills. As I excitingly shared with Hubs my 2-mile conquest Hubs suggested we re-investigate together the area.

We returned to George Mickelson Trail pacing ourselves. The deer posse were still stationed inquisitively at the same point. We re-circled my previous route, viewed the stockade, and then as the sun was setting a creamy cotton candy pink sky, we made our way around the stunning Stockade Lake TrailStockade Lake Trail – South Dakota | AllTrails.  

We walked the 1.4-mile loop with ease. A family passed us all on bikes as the youngest child with training wheels struggled up the precipitous pitch. Her cuteness was infectious as she pleaded for a push. I playfully and gently thrust the back of her bike-giving her a helpful heave ho that got her going.

The people of this area have been so welcoming, kind, friendly, down to earth and demonstrate a real effort of caring. They are chatty and intrigued and after months of COVID solitude, isolation and forced seclusion-the interaction and approachability was readily accepted and openly reciprocated. Ending the day with a total of 6 miles earned through all the day’s events we nodded off quickly.

Day 3 Custer, South Dakota

I awoke early as my body clock remained on eastern standard time which in one regard was making us very efficient however we then would fade out quickly in the early evening hours.

I set out in the opposite direction this chilly am hoping the hills would be less difficult than the day before. Initially it was flat, and I ran with intent and fervor as the Florida humidity this summer has put a strain on my running. But, quickly the gravel footing underneath me sloped dramatically once again causing my calves to burn, my lungs could not keep up with the unfamiliar altitude and I immediately had to transition to the shuffle of shame as running with these variables were essentially impossible for me. I managed to achieve 2-miles- a feeble effort nonetheless…

Hubs and I returned to downtown Custer to Calamity Jane’s for coffee. We were greeted by the same friendly team and made small conversations with the locals around us. We sauntered around the small downtown, some minor window shopping and headed into Dakota Territory Trading Post Dakota Territory Trading Post – 18 N 5th St, Custer SD 57730 – Loc8NearMe. This fine store is a treasure trove of knickknackery, bibs and bobs and odds and ends. Basically, nothing you need and everything you want for double the price. I wanted desperately to capture the heart and soul of South Dakota and honestly, I feel in my selections I did just that. We selected a native American Indian horn that is used in ceremonies as a symbol for independence.

We had been quite receptive and lucky to receive recommendations. Both the barista at Calamity Jane’s and Joe from the lodge suggested Sylvan Lake and Sunday Gulch Trail Sylvan Lake | Black Hills & Badlands – South Dakota (blackhillsbadlands.com) Sunday Gulch Trail – South Dakota | AllTrails. Armed with only one bottle of water, a few snacks and fancy expensive (grateful to have) trail shoes we embarked on our challenging activity that would test our strength, resolve and determination.

Sylvan Lake is in Custer State Park Custer State Park | South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (sd.gov) within the Black Hills National Forest Black Hills National Forest – Home (usda.gov). The lake itself is a frenzy of activity-paddleboarders, hikers, dogs, kids, picture takers, wedding backdrops, cars coming and going and motorcyclists everywhere. Their thunderous engines and gruffy sputtering act as soundtrack echoed throughout the entire area.   

The crunchy gravel descends directly to the Sunday Gulch Trail Sunday Gulch Trail – South Dakota | AllTrails. The sign indicated a level of easy to moderate measuring 3.9 miles and should take 2-3 hours. For us, it was very challenging, it took 3 hours and measured 6 miles. The starting elevation was 6,067 feet, the highest point is 6,226 feet with an elevation gain of 830 feet.

One slowly makes their way down the granite and limestone steps with a convenient handrail providing support down the vertical descent. Mossy slippery stone steps lead the way, surrounded and shaded by monolithic mountains, boulders and scaling evergreens. Nosey squirrels darted their curious eager selves mischievously playing hide and seek.

An hour in and Hubs and I were going strong. The trees canopied over us providing a shield of protective shade from the glowing midday sun. Other hikers passed us, stopping to chat and offer friendly support. I have never observed Hubs so social and chatty. I did not think I could love my big lug more than I already have 25+ years and counting! But the alpine air and cool weather has had a delightful impact on him. Hubs was in his element and shining he was. Spry and agile this newly retired mate of mine-he was holding up better than me on what was now becoming a very physical quest. We reached the halfway turn around point and as the saying goes “What comes up must come down.” Or in our case, it was time to start climbing (UP).

It started off moderately manageable. However, quickly the environment and surroundings began to change dramatically. The rocks and slabs used as steps and leverage began to space out further and farther. This required us to lunge our bodies in a rather theatrical way leap frogging from stone to stone. Then came the roots. Big, thick knotty ones, hidden and poking out in the precise place that would catapult us like a sling shot. The constant attention to foot placement, avoiding injury, strategically thinking ahead like a game of chess began to zap our energy and drain our reserves.

As we approached our final mile, a couple in flip flops and several toddlers passed us on the slender escarpment teetering we hugged a tree precariously to make room. We reached a critical point where I feared a helicopter would need to perform a reconnaissance mission rescuing us-Mountain 1-Hubs&A Girl-Zero. It was at this pivotal point that I sidestepped my pride and began to slide breech style-rump side down the jagged awkward rock. This mortifying act ultimately hastened the conclusion resulting in a total success.

As we emerged out back to Sylvan Lake-the world felt light and innocent again. Dogs were wagging their tales, children were playing, families taking photographs capturing a utopian world.  

We limped our drained, dehydrated bodies back to the car. We replenished with indulgent ice cream sandwiches and cold water rehashing our achievement. As we exited the park, we viewed the cathedral spires Cathedral Spires, South Dakota – AllTrips (allblackhills.com). The finger-like spindle granite towers reach close to 7,000 feet. A cluster of cars monopolized the street, chaotic picture taking from frantic tourists attempting to capture the perfect photo. The truth is-these colossal and celestial figures of mother nature are difficult to isolate. To bring to life the magnificence and magic of the Black Hills, one must truly embody it, the tangible nature of it, the rhythmic crunching of the pebbles, the earthy aroma of the pines, the operatic arias of the birds, the sticky, gummy sap on the trees, the pain, the irritating blisters, the feeling of accomplishment when it is over. To just drive up, snap a few photos and feel you have truly captured the authentic essence and depth of the Black Hills of South Dakota-I would argue you’ve completely missed the mark on this one.  

We came back to Calamity Peak Lodge smelly, exhausted and sore. In true pathetic fashion, melted cheese was consumed by yours truly for dinner and Hubs dined on cheerios. We watched morbid murder mysteries and as Hubs dozed off, he yelped in agony overtaken by a debilitating Charlie horse. As I rubbed his pulsating calf, soothing his tenuous extremity, we agreed in spite of the pain, aching and Charlie horse PTSD-it was 100% worth it.

Day 4 Custer, South Dakota-Sheridan, Wyoming

On this day, sadly we would say goodbye to Calamity Peak Lodge and Custer. The time spent in South Dakota was a welcoming calm in my soul. The Black Hills Black Hills & Badlands – South Dakota | The Home of Mount Rushmore (blackhillsbadlands.com)are sacred to the Native American Indians, and I now understand why. I am convinced there are healing properties within the mystical caves, rolling hills and thick forest. My head felt clear, my soul rested and rejuvenated. Joe and his wife from Calamity Peak Lodge offer apleasant sanctuary. The small establishment provides a personal touch and we left feeling like we now had extended family in South Dakota.

We headed out to downtown Custer one final time for coffee at Calamity Jane and a hopeful Acai bowl at Baker’s Bakery. Getting a late start and it being Labor Day weekend, the quiet downtown became an intimidating, messy mass of bikers, tourists, and crowds. There was a staggering line outside the bouncy buns of Baker’s Bakery. Calamity Jane was a calamity of chaos. People straggled outdoor fronts, spilling out onto the wide sidewalks. Criss crossing, jay walking mayhem overtook the once unassuming downtown. We were grateful to have partaken in such an inviting version of downtown Custer and understood its apparent popularity. With Calamity Jane coffee in hand, gratitude in our heart and renewed spirit-we continued our expedition.

As we drove through South Dakota before approaching Wyoming, the scenery began to change, barren sloping mountain ridges flanked the highway. Slender, long tendrils of lumber strewn throughout detached from its roots carpeted the otherwise unfertile land. There were few signs of life, almost no cars on the thoroughfare and an eerie unworldly existence was pervasive.

We drove into northeastern Wyoming to Devil’s Tower Devils Tower | National Geographic Society. This unique 867-foot rock formation is composed from phonolite porphyry and formed 65 million years ago. It is believed that it was formed from the same forces that created the Rocky Mountains. It gathered its unique shape from molten lava. Erosion from the elements continue to impact the shape of it.

If you have ever seen Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind  Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Bing video this rock formation will appear familiar. For 2-hours we literally drove into nothingness void of life with yellowing vast fields and grey mountain ranges, not a gas station, rest stop or even a pull off to note for many, many miles until this curious oddity emerged out of nowhere. Additionally, cars, tourists, flocks of campers, tour buses and bikers monopolized the parking lots, so much so- a park ranger approached us to alert us that entry had temporarily ceased. Hubs and I went back and forth whether to move on. We took a small walk to a field that warned of rattle snakes and feisty prairie dogs. These annoying little rodents popped out of holes in childlike peekaboo fashion. The sign warned that they are not friendly and to not engage.

We contemplated abandoning this activity. As we pondered, we were approached by a lovely couple, one of many twosomes that we would grow to appreciate. The retired duo adorned in matching outfits shared with us their RV travels. They were well seasoned park frequenters. They provided us with a bevy of tidbits that would stay with us the remainder of the time. Armed with insider tips and in agreement, we approached the entry and to our surprise and glee-the ranger was gone and we re-attempted access. 2 miles of twists and turns led us to the Devil’s Tower.

With heads craned up and elongated necks hyper pronated we made our way through the corkscrew pavement that looped around the tower. Daring men with lengthy ropes dangled and repelled in audacious pageantry. After fully absorbing the bizarre attraction, we left for our next destination for the evening.

We drove for what seemed like hours through completely remote, uninhabitable terrain. Eventually hunger took over and as soon as we entered some form of civilization, we stopped at the first place. In hindsight, I do wish we would have held out. We dined at Pokey’s Barbeque in Gillette, Wyoming Home (pokeysbbq.com). Surrounded by dead animals and carcasses on the walls a suspicious salad bar displayed questionable items. Unwilling to partake in a salad bar during this pandemic time-my options in a “meat house” were limited. Hubs had wallaby salmon. I had a partially cooked baked potato and a mound of coleslaw. This meal was unmemorable and had I not taken these notes it would not even be mentioned, so let’s move on.

We drove another 2-hours as I dozed on and off. We made it by dusk to The Historic Sheridan Inn Sheridan Inn Hotel | Hotels in Sheridan WY 82801 | 307-674-2178. The sole purpose for this stop was purely to break up distance. However, what a treat this hotel was. The Sheridan Inn established in 1893, has significant historical importance for our nation. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, co-owned the establishment with the railroad and entertained the guests with his touring company performing the “Wild West” show from the front porch.

Each of the twenty-two rooms are named after the key characters from his life. We stayed in The Death Valley Scotty Room- Room 303. The room was newly renovated with modern Western American décor. The bathroom is out of an interior decorators dream with black and white subway tile and an exquisite bear claw porcelain tub.

The TV-less room (going for an authentic 1900’s feel) had a view of the railroad and many times throughout the evening and early morning, the comforting energy vibration of the train pulsed in a soothing cadence. After we checked in, I soaked in the lavish tub, bubbles up to my chin, calming my sore muscles from yesterday’s events.

From the suggestion of the gentleman at the front desk, we meandered the one block to Wyoming Rib and Chop House Steaks, Seafood, and BBQ Ribs Restaurant | Rib and Chop House. The place was packed with football games displayed on all TV’s. Cowboy hat wearing millennials chowed on steak and beer and all around me this felt quintessential Americana. This meal was my first real meal in days as we had been grazing and snacking on non-perishable junk food. The meal was a bit pricey and for the most part so far everything has been inflated. With tummies fed and hearts content, we slept well

Day 5 Sheridan, Wyoming-Gardiner, Montana

The bright sun streamed in through the 100-year-old windows. As I gazed out at the morning sky, the sun had an iridescent pink aura haloed around it. In full daylight, the setting of this idyllic downtown was now coming into focus. We made our way to the dining room for our complimentary breakfast that was included. After several days of packaged protein shakes from home-this added nicety was certainly appreciated.

As we ate breakfast and gazed out the window, we detected a hot air balloon rising. We swayed on rocking chairs as we soaked in this scene. This day happened to be Labor Day. From our view, the proud American flag flapped in the wind and off in the periphery the hot air balloon hovered above. As the cool morning air combined with the hot sun, I tried to snapshot this for my heart to always remember. It is times like this, when the world slows down and like the clouds that were passing by so was this memory in the making. I tried to memorize every detail and place in my reserve so in the future I will be able to resurrect this moment.

We left Sheridan and made our way to The Battle of Little Bighorn Story of the Battle – Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) which was fought along the Little Bighorn River in south-central Montana on June 25-26, 1876, between the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes vs the 7th Regiment of the US Cavalry. This fight symbolized the constant conflict that persisted with bloody and deadly implications for decades.

Ultimately, Custer and his military were decimated and a momentary victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes was had. The battle site expands over steep bluffs and ravines encompassing a wide area. The grounds hold simple white identified gravestone markers for all the dead soldiers including Custer where each man lost their life. There is a walking or auto tour option available. We ambled a short distance (we were warned of potential rattle snakes) and then took the easier rout in the car. Additionally, there is a gift shop and a museum. Our entry was free with the Federal Park Pass, otherwise it costs $25 per car. On an interesting side note, Hubs and I brought along an audio book Killing Crazy Horse by Bill O’Reilly  ‘Killing Crazy Horse’ – A Wild Ride Through the American Frontier – YouTube. This audio book has kept us entertained and invested. The captivating nonfiction story depicts the complex struggles of native American Indians and settlers from 1830-1880. It has been an incredible foundation for our time here serving as a real educational opportunity in this fascinating and devastating time in our country’s history.

From there, we drove to the capitol- Billings, Montana. We made our way to the beautiful dwelling of the Moss Mansion  Moss Mansion | Historic House Museum-built in 1903 for the family home of Preston Boyd Moss his wife and children. There were many unique architectural details and although styled in art nouveau with modern influences at the time as well as a stunning garden, the home has a lived-in quality with a big emphasis on family. I received a student discount (student age:8-16 years old) that Oil of Olay is sure working wonders on me, honey! We both enjoyed the activity and only offer one critique for any future visitors. The two staff members that worked there could be heard throughout the spacious mansion. They were having a cacophonous discussion, quite loud with obscene cackling and guffawing. This banter echoed against the ancient walls. There was odd soulful coffeehouse jazz playing on a far-ranging speaker that did not fit the time era at all and was irritatingly distracting.  As I leisurely roamed from room to room-it was impossible to remain focused while these two ladies continued their irksome tête-à-tête. Upon our departure, I felt compelled to share my findings with the only other staff member there. The feedback was received well and in spite of the inappropriate noise level we genuinely enjoyed our time at Moss Mansion.

We scavenged for food with some difficulty as again this was a major holiday, and we were in downtown Billings. Frustratingly, each place we tried was closed. However, eventually we landed at Bernie’s Diner Dining – The Northern Hotel located in the posh Northern Hotel-hence the only reason it was open.On a side note, in merely an observational context-we have noticed with some sadness and understanding all throughout our travels a complete deterioration in service. Places are short staffed, employees that are present are overworked, appear annoyed, fatigued, irritated and vacant. The service/hospitality industry has been impacted by the mass exodus in the work force. It was disappointing to see this overall sense of apathy and despair. At Bernie’s it appeared the case as well. It did seem the staff there tried to make a friendly attempt, but the underlying sense of gloom was palpable. In each of these events, I have made it an effort to increase the tip and express recognition for those that do show up. We consumed typical diner fare; anxious to get back on the road.

We arrive in Gardiner, Montana Home (visitgardinermt.com) just a mile from the Yellowstone National Park North Gate, we were staying in a home from VRBO/Expedia-a gem of a find advertised as “all the comforts of homeAll the Comforts Of Home Surrounded By The Rocky Mtns. & Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, MT | Expedia– and it certainly lived up to its name. I have stayed in Airbnb’s before and have never been truly impressed. But the owner “Momma Terry” as she called herself provided literally everything you could think of. Out of the confines of your own home, you don’t realize all the items that are taken for granted. The residence was stacked with essentials from utensils to toiletries, a fully stocked cabinet and an ample supply of linens. A washer and dryer-a real luxury when traveling was lifesaving.

We stopped at the local market and stocked up for the next several days. This was wise as Gardiner is a tiny town with only a handful of restaurants-each one with staggering long line. We arrived late Labor Day as activity and crowds hit a crescendo. People were extracting the last molecules of summer absorbing the final hours of daylight. Later we would learn, the day after Labor Day horseback riding ceases, opening hours change, restaurants and stores board up until Summer. So, although coming on the “shoulder” season is nice for crowds and weather, be aware you may miss the window to do many things.

The sleeping arrangement was slightly weird but oddly worked out surprisingly well. The bed was a little too small for us and what we were used to. But a hide-a-bed was provided. I set up camp on the floor adjacent to Hubs, I created a fort like environment and slept unexpectedly remarkably well the whole time. At some point, early on I realized I could have joined Hubs at “the adult table” but my fortress was fine and suited my needs well.

Day 6 Gardiner, Montana-Yellowstone Park

Waking up on this morning, it was in the 40’s. I had planned on running, but as I peeked out the blinds in the early dawn, an Elk glared back at me from a very close proximity. “Momma Terry” had warned me about the feisty Elks and what to do if they approach. However, I couldn’t remember do I drop and roll? Do I fight back? Do I play dead, run backwards, walk sideways?? I couldn’t remember. So, I played it safe doing a Peloton cardio workout- which ended up probably more dangerous as I backed up into the coffee table during a sexy shimmy dance number.  

The house is located on the main road, close to the few limited restaurants, market and stores. The Yellowstone River is right up the road, a walking bridge hangs tenaciously over the roaring torrents of turbulent water. Elk prance gingerly through the town, tourists acting like desperate paparazzi seeking the perfect photo op.

We headed out for the day, passing through the gate and into the park. Interestingly, Gardiner has a tiny population (approx. 1,000) and is in Montana. However, as soon as we entered the Yellowstone gate we were in Wyoming. Only several miles separate the two states-walking distance for us.

Magnificent slabs of mountain shadowed over the steady streams of tourist automobiles, RV’s, tour buses and motorcycles all full of eager visitors. We eventually made our way to Mammoth Springs Mammoth Hot Springs and the North – Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Mammoth Hot Springs is one of Yellowstone Park’s most popular sites and a main attraction. Known for its peculiar formations of white limestone unique to this area-it is caused by deep volcanic forces below the surface that fuel the thermal areas. A prism of rainbow hued steam over the limestone creates an outer worldly visual. This is caused by seismic shifts that generate heated water beneath the surface and when limestone and carbon dioxide combine it solidifies on surface. You did not know you would be getting a science lesson-did you?

We moseyed on sturdy boardwalks that zigzagged is an escalated manner. AARP card carrying couples in matching attire with very expensive photo gear raced along the wooden planks as their RV’s waited patiently for them. Every few steps, I would stop, take a picture, each one more fascinating than the next. The boardwalks rose to terraces where a 360-degree view provided a panoramic bird-eye scene. As we clomped liked Clydesdales along the wooden planks in our $150 pristine Merrell hiking boots at the mysterious landscape, all my senses took in the smoky haze and indistinct sulfur odor, as orange rust colored run off tentacles displayed like a Rorschach test on the ancient rock.

We left there joining the caravan of cars eventually locked into bumper-to-bumper dead stop traffic, due to road work. We would go through this construction zone numerous times over the next several days. Much time was lost to lines, traffic, waiting and antiquated traffic patterns with only a stop sign for half a million cars passing through. We pulled over at Grizzly Lake Trail Grizzly Lake Trail – Wyoming | AllTrails an 8-mile roundtrip hike that has easy on and off access from the main road. Colorful abundant wildflowers pervaded the open unshaded field. Other young couples passed us; one couple fled back fearing the sighting of a bear (hence the name). Armed with a whistle and a compass, we preceded. In the end, it was a crane-not a Grizzly. As I looked up to assess the difficulty and remainder, I realized it is a straight shot directly up the mountain. As we eyed with envy the fit couple we said, “How did they get there so fast?” I am certain, they looked down and said, “How are they moving so slow?” Burnt trees from past fires served as cautionary reminders of the dangers of high fire risk (which was actively in affect).  Alas-we never made it to the lake. It was mid-day the sun was potent, and our energy was waning and ultimately hunger took over.

We returned to our home away from home and I made Hubs a delicious lunch, better and cheaper than any restaurant (and no wait may I add….) After we ate, I made an impromptu FaceTime call to Hubs best Friend Greg. These two after high school graduation went on a cross country trek. For decades, I have heard of Hubs and Greg’s Yellowstone conquests-their 1-month-long cross-country extravaganza. I watched and listened with love as they both transcended back in time extracting memories from long ago and reliving precious moments.

We decided to explore downtown Gardiner. As the sun was setting, we experimented with foul tasting pumpkin ice cream, while listening to live music. We made our way to Roosevelt Arch The Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone’s North Entrance (yellowstonepark.com) sat on rocking chairs as we looked out at the near empty park. Finally, at last no crowds, no lines, no waiting. Just Hubs and I rocking at sunset at Yellowstone National Park-it does not get better than this. We sat and rocked in silent gratitude as the sun disappeared behind the mountain range.

 

Day 7 Gardiner, Montana-Yellowstone Park

Feeling rested and raring to go-we set off for The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). The park ranger directed us wrong to a road that was closed. Car after car like us were forced to turn around and redirect. Hubs saw an entrance for a one-way road that looked rustically rural to travel down. Unable to go more than 7 miles an hour on a gravel jostling road added an additional 45 minutes to our agenda. As the car swayed side to side in a hypnotic lullaby, my eyes fought to stay open. Traffic ensued for what felt like forever, due to a tiny fox in a field that people had sprung out of the vehicle to capture a picture. With a continuous parade of traffic, we made our way slowly to The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We fought once again for parking; this would be the theme throughout our time here.

We worked our way towards an overlook that hovered over the dramatic waterfall. We used our binoculars getting a magnified up-close viewing. We descended a steep decline to get as close to the waterfall as possible. The thunderous roar and white capped liquid cascade created a more theatrical presentation from above. Pregnant woman, disabled individuals, mothers with harnessed children, all passed us on the extreme incline as we worked hard on the ascension back up.

We were stuck in long periods of traffic the ride back to “all the comforts of home”. We dined on leftovers and dozed off early.

Day 8 Gardiner, Montana-Yellowstone Park

On our last full day in Yellowstone, I woke up early and ran 2 miles in downtown Gardiner. I ran over the bridge, to the Yellowstone North Gate. I took selfies as the sun rose. 2 Elk pranced down the street stopping traffic. The town was still sleeping, all was quiet. The air was cool and very comfortable. The run left me feeling revived and ready to fully immerse myself into the remaining hours at Yellowstone.

We plodded on the noisy gravel walkway to Fairy Falls Fairy Falls Trail (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Close to a 6 mile walk that took 3 hours to complete with peak elevation at 7,354 feet. We wandered to an overlook of the thermal springs. I noticed in amusement that many couples look alike. They dress identical, wear matching attire and even walk in similar gait. In my mind, I chuckled comparing it to Noah’s Ark as the visitors promenaded in pairs 2×2.

We made our way to an overlook where we had a commanding view of the thermal springs. Water beneath the earth’s interiors generate geothermal heat to form hot springs. We continued on the dusty pebbles as our exhausted calves cramped up. We pulled to the side and struck up an engaging conversation with Loren and Jeannine Candor from Iowa. This discussion would prove to be very fruitful. The Candors provided incredible advice, tips and suggestions that we would use later. So, if you are reading this Loren and Jeannine-thank you for your great recommendations and we hope one day our paths (literally) reconnect.

The day was going quickly, and we had one final site we had to check off our list. Hubs had been to Yellowstone as mentioned earlier decades ago as a college student. His memory of Old Faithful Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) had remained with him all these years later. He had shared his vivid recollections with me numerous times over the years-so to be able to be part of this new memory was very meaningful.

We made our way to the viewing area-long benches lay perpendicular all along the circumference of the Geyser. The Geyser was currently emitting a white barely visible plume of white vapor. There is a schedule for Old Faithful earning the name from its accurate predictability erupting its grand display approximately every hour.

A few minutes earlier than scheduled Old Faithful gurgled, bubbled and sputtered a white, vertical spouting erratic column of opaque steam. The presentation was very ceremonial and theatrical as all eyes remained on the natural phenomenon. The spectacle lasted about 10 minutes. The orbit of the spray peaked and then slowly, gradually lessened eventually coming to an end. Immediately, the audience rose and quickly thinned out as a new crop of eager beavers marched on through.      

We headed back to Gardiner stuck in long lines of slow-moving traffic. We stopped back at the store for some essentials, and this is how I was introduced to Huckleberry. This delicious berry is the rage here-growing in colder regions and higher altitudes. It is a sweet, tangy distant relative of flavor to the blackberry. I am certain it is a joke for the locals as I procured 20 huckleberry lollipops as gifts for my peeps back home. If given an opportunity, though I highly recommend a huckleberry and peanut butter sandwich (preferably on gluten free bread). I have spent many an evening since conjuring up a huckleberry black market gig or honing my skills as a huckleberry farmer. Both ideas seem unobtainable with numerous barriers to success. As I work out the kinks in this plan, I will continue to taste test my way through this trip, perfecting my skills as a huckleberry connoisseur.    

When we arrived back in Gardiner, I overheard Hubs talking sweetly outside as if romancing a “lady”. His sing song accolades were slightly out of character. As I peered through the blinds, I noticed he was speaking to the visiting Elk. Curious as to how the Elk entered the backyard, we then watched with fascination as she (it) munched on the owner’s lawn. We gazed out the blinds, staring with complete captivation. As we came up with theories on the Elk’s entry we watched in amazement as she (it) took a standing jump over the fence as if to answer our inquiry with a giant exclamation point. We remained there in silence, knowing that we will most certainly never witness this in Florida. We ended our amazing evening by watching a spellbinding Tampa Bay Buccaneers Football game with them winning the last 2 seconds. A little hometown jubilation 2,500 miles away.  

Day 9 Great Falls, Montana

Leaving our Gardiner VRBO All the Comforts Of Home Surrounded By The Rocky Mtns. & Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, MT | Expedia-I reflected on the trip taking a mental inventory of all the images I had been so fortunate to observe so far. The VRBO had been an oasis for us, providing a good home base, all the luxuries of home, clean clothes capability, and the much-utilized amenities. As the name indicates, it yielded “all the comforts of home” and more. “Momma Terry” the owner was an added bonus, extending her knowledge, suggestions and “Mommaness”.  All The Comforts-VRBO gets 5 suitcases from A Girl and Her Hubs-the only improvement would have been a king-sized bed-but in a VRBO/Airbnb world this is a unicorn. The incredible bargain, location and “comforts” more than made up for that small concession.

Passing through the flat plains of Bozeman, Montana we saw wild horses galloping freely over the golden fields. Rust colored striated mountains monopolized the landscape. We drove through canyons, passing cozy cabins and a bucolic scene of rowboats on a serene lake.

After several hours, we made it to Crystal Inn, Great Falls, Montana Great Falls – Crystal Inn Hotel & Suites (crystalinngreatfalls.com) . We would only be here one night, in an effort to break up the long hours of travel. Great Falls Visit Great Falls Montana – Home – Visit Great Falls Montana – Adventure Awaits in Montana’s Basecamp for Art & Adventure turned out to be a good breather from the hiking and physicality-granting us some much-needed R&R. A” vacation” from the vacation…Sue Babbitt, the front desk attendant-a spunky, spirited, enthusiastic gal represented Crystal Inn with pride. She lent her wayfinding services, suggesting activities, restaurants and detailed the hidden gems of Great Falls. Ultimately, we did none-but we enjoyed the chatter and the passion she displayed for her city and Crystal Inn.

Our suite was luxury, after 3 nights of sleeping on a cot. We had our own queen beds and spread out indulgently. A little disclosure here, I am a Pisces and love water activities (that don’t require activity). Crystal Inn had a saltwater indoor pool. We were warned a large tour group would be parading in at some point. We took advantage of the unattended pool and swam like little guppies, splishing, splashing, floating and plunging in zero gravity frivolity.

Hubs flung his arms and body in an impressive trajectory with tsunami like waves causing a storm surge with undulating aquatic ripples. Mid splash manatee style, two 20 something year old girls entered- bikini clad shocked to see this elderly twosome in a Cocoon-esque scene Cocoon (1985) – IMDb. They retreated to the hot tub, hovering closely together in fear and repulsion. No longer able to demonstrate our synchronized swimming routine for these young gals, we quickly departed-cloaking our shame and sogginess in ill-fitting towels.

Back in the room we had an indoor picnic from our grocery selections we had wisely obtained back in town while watching a Yankee game. The air was very smoggy with a high smoke advisory, so we chose a good day to rest.

Day 10 GReat Falls, MoNTANA-EAST GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA

After a great night’s sleep, waking up refreshed, I decided to surprise Hubs and provide him with an offer he could not and would not refuse. For 10 days, Hubs had given me free reign as I went from store to store collecting magnets, t-shirts, huckleberry nonsense and ridiculous sling shots, tomahawks and other unmentionables that may or may not get through TSA. Now it was my turn to let him have his fun. I proposed going to a local guitar store and purchasing an acoustic souvenir. Hubs was in total agreement and his exuberance exhibited was endearing. We drove to downtown Great Falls which was a charming town center-steeped in time. An eclectic array of stores on the surface were inviting and welcoming. But, as we entered the establishments, we realized they specialized in tattoos, bong paraphernalia and gems to ward off evil spirits. Our purpose today was Guitars of Montana –Guitars of MontanaJohn Laughlin, owner and guitar enthusiast greeted us immediately in his well-stocked store. He led Hubs to a back room with good acoustics and a nice supply of guitars. With a glassy gaze, Hubs lovingly ogled the selection. Balancing on a stool, he picked a 12 string Guild and began to strum with delight. Melodic harmonious notes boldly resonated from his expressive digits. John and Hubs talked “guitar language” which I am not fluent in. John detailed the finer selling points and mentioned “Montana has no sales tax.” That’s all Hubs needed to hear. John agreed to restring and tune the instrument as well as throw in a Led Zeppelin music book. Everyone was in agreement. We hustled off down the street for coffee to Crooked Tree-Crooked Tree crookedtreecoffeeandcakes.com).

We sat outside in the breezy autumn day at the hip coffee house as the American Flag waved proudly across from us. Hubs grinned ear to ear in glee over his new acquisition. From there, we roamed from store to store, finding ourselves in front of a pet store- Jack’s Pet Center. When is the last time you saw a pet store? We came across a Dorky (a yorkie and a dachshund) and babbled babytalk to this black, furry long mystery. We thought of our precious Juju back home under the care of our friend-shout out- Dr. Berlin. We fantasized expanding our family with this adorable creature. We calculated our finances, we created a name, and then of course reality-schlepping a puppy through the great outdoors. Puppydum, house training and explaining this new sibling to Juju-as we traveled down this rabbit hole of ridiculousness-the Dorky made eye contact with Hubs, charcoal eyes pleading adoption. Before making another monumental purchase, we moved on. Days later, we still think about the Ebony cutie and what could have been.   

We stumbled by accident in a few tattoo parlors. The proprietors looked curiously at us as ink blots and images crawled down their appendages-clearly, we were out of our element and coolly backed out.

We made our way back to Guitars of Montana where Hubs guitar was tuned, restrung, cleaned up and waiting for him. We continued our conversation with John, appreciating his expertise, his dedication and love of guitars. Leaving downtown Great Falls with our new Guild 12 string, the sun seemed brighter, the air cooler and our hearts fuller.

As the great Willie Nelson once sang “On the Road Again”, piled in now with a substantially sized guitar we motored onto East Glacier National Park. A transcending 2.5-hour drive northwest as the countryside became vast and foothills turned into grand mountains overshadowing our small vehicle.

We checked into Whistling Swan Motel Whistling Swan Motel — Your Glacier National Park Adventure Starts Here (seeglacier.com) and were pleased by our quaint cabin. The other 8 rooms were set aside in a separate location, our cabin was next to the owner Mark with no one else around. It was stark in conveniences but had what we needed-a refrigerator, a microwave, a comfy bed and parking right in front. We were situated on the Black Feet Indian Reservation  American Indian Tribes – Glacier National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) and the Native American Indian influences were everywhere.

We had an engaging, lengthy conversation with Mark the owner. He provided incredible insight on how the region has been affected terribly by Covid lockdowns. He barely had a season last year and gave shelter to all his employees during this time. He was extremely accommodating to my high maintenance requests (extra pillows, blankets, towels, Wi-Fi help, extra chair). East Glacier has a tiny village with a few stores, a handful of restaurants and an Amtrak train line. The train was in constant transport through our time and through several destinations-the train is very much a major mode of passage for people and resources.

We went to the town store also owned by Mark and picked up a few souvenirs, homemade pie and pizza for Hubs (of course made by Mark-obviously a jack of all trades). We set up a tiny picnic and watched the hilarious and ridiculous Joe Dirt as the Glacier sun set.  

Day 11 East Glacier National Park, Montana

If you recall our newmade hiking friends from Yellowstone Loren and Jeannine Candor from Iowa-they gave  incredible suggestions of which we were going to put to good use today-The Road to the Sun Going-to-the-Sun Road General Info – Glacier National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov) with an informative app called  GyPsy Guide GPS Narrated Audio Driving Tour Apps | GyPSy Guide. Setting off to West Glacier National Park was a smorgasbord for the eyes. Hubs had been here on his cross-country trip those many, many years ago-and the memory of the sheer grandeur had stayed with him all these decades later. The visual bounty that was ahead of us are images that I will never, ever forget-but will be extremely challenging to accurately express through words and description, I will do my best…

Glacier Park has over 1 million acres. As we made our way into West Glacier the wind whistled through the windows and jostled the car. We were instructed via app when to look left, right and above. The GyPsy Guide narrated in sequenced timing landmarks of The Road to the Sun. We passed through the gate brandishing dual waving flags of USA and Canada as we were 30 miles from Alberta. We looked off in the distance and saw pyramid like regal mountains displaying red stone layers and snowcapped peaks that touched the clouds. We passed through St. Mary’s St. Mary, MT Travel Information (glaciermt.com) as rising elevation caused our ears to pop. Barren, damaged, stark trees still ravaged from the Reynolds Fire of 2015 where 4,000 square feet were incinerated stood like towering toothpicks.