People travel from all across the United States and Canada to revel on our magnificent Fort Myers Beach, and almost everyone ventures to the legendary Lani Kai Island Resort. Chances are Michele Kalka greeted you at the Beachfront Bar. Michele is often asked by her customers, “where do you go on vacation since you already live and work in Paradise?” This gave her an idea, and she and her family recently turned the tide; leaving our Paradise to set off for a different one, a 30-day, 11,500-mile cross-continent road trip adventure.
Michele says “it started out as a drive to San Francisco with my 3-year-old son Anakin and mom Linda to see my sister Jessica, then I added places I had yet to visit, like Oregon and Alaska.”
Vampires & Aliens
Although they stopped in Alabama to tour the USS Alabama Battleship, New Orleans was the first destination and an easy call for Michele because “I enjoy vampire lore!” Ghost tours and vampire haunts were the heart of their stay. At one, Michele took a photo showing some sort of apparition, though it could be a sunspot or other explainable feature. Another occurred after she took a photo of one of the ghost houses. “I suddenly felt a cold chill down my neck, as if the spirit knew I was there.”
Continuing the theme, they moved on to Roswell, New Mexico with Michele laughing: “how else do you top vampires than with aliens?” Science followed science fiction at the Very Large Array, the 27-unit huge radio astronomy observatory.
Each dish weighs 230 tons and requires railroad tracks to move along the massive property. The VLA listens for quasars, pulsars, supernovas, and other wonders, but not ET phoning home as in Pop Culture. Michele describes the experience. “What made it surreal was it was so cold and misty that day that we had the entire place to ourselves.”
Temperatures changed radically by the time they reached the Mojave Desert. Linda calls it “way too hot and we were way too ill-prepared; we were turning beat-red in 110 degrees, sharing one water bottle that turned unbelievably hot within minutes. Michele forgot sneakers and made the blistering trek to the sand dunes in flip-flops.”
They continued westward where Jessica joined the band from her Bay Area home. Highlights there included the gigantic redwoods of Muir Woods, elephant seals play-fighting to Anakin’s delight, the Point Reyes shipwreck, and dinner in Bodega Bay at the restaurant made famous in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, “The Birds.”
Oregon’s Crater Lake became Michele’s favorite. “I had no sense it would top off my list, but it is the coolest and most beautiful place ever! Even in late June, there was still so much snow.” Michele found the water in the 7,700-year-old volcano crater “so beautifully blue that a photo does not do it justice, a color one must see with their own eyes.” They hiked the strenuous trail to the traditional rock from which you dive, and Michele took the plunge, completely unprepared for the 55-degree water; “my entire body was like ‘AHHH!’” Anakin, on the other hand, found it so cold he would not even dip a toe.
The ascent up the zig-zag route is the equivalent to 65 flights of stairs but, despite being exhausted, Michele that evening climbed the mountain again to take spectacular photographs of the Milky Way, thick with thousands of stars.
It Will Be Warm, They Say!
While Crater Lake was their first snow, it was not the last. “When we reached Canada we knew we did not pack enough warm clothes,” Linda relates. “Freezing, we were suddenly at Walmart, buying jackets, blankets, sweaters, and ponchos.” Michele mockingly repeats past advice from previous travelers: “Come to Alaska and Canada in the summer, they say; it will be warm, they say!”
The starkness of remote Canada stood out: “One man was from a village with a population of two,” marvels Linda. “Signs warn the next service station is 60 miles away with no guarantee it will have fuel, so you constantly top your tank and buy supplies.” Wildlife walking down the road is the norm, with bison, wolves, and horses, and when Jessica yelled “bear” they instantly pulled over to take photos from the car.
Frustration boiled over for Michele just once. “We chose the fastest route to Alaska, knowing there was potential for a road closure due to forest fires. I stressed the importance to leave early, but Mom and Jessica procrastinated. We came to a long line of stalled traffic and people standing out of their cars because a fire forced its closure just 20 minutes before. Although Anakin had a blast playing in the middle of the road, our only option was turn around and drive back 3 hours to the alternate route. I was so mad!”
Once in Alaska, the small village of Skagway became their home for six amazing days, including a huge Fourth of July Festival. “Fireworks were at Midnight on July 3rd” Michele offers, “as the sun hardly sets there this time of year so that is as close as it gets to darkness.” The next day, Anakin finished 2nd in the children’s run and lost his amateur status by pocketing $3 in prize money. During the parade, he stood front & center, filling his pockets with treats, exclaiming, “I like the Fourth, Mommy – you get so much candy!” Other activities included a boat trip to Juneau, waterfalls, glaciers, and hiking along old gold mine trails.
Now heading south, Canadian camping was the norm despite the cold and wet. In Liard they swam in the Hot Springs where temperatures reached as high as 106 degrees. Despite the Sulphur smell, “it was so refreshing after a long night of camping,” says Michele. More cold days followed, and after the fourth night, Linda says that “we were in our tent in the rain and in unison everyone asked, ‘Who’s ready for a hotel with a hot tub!’”
It was dry when they reached Yellowstone National Park, but Linda’s memory is that “it was so cold, camping in 34 degrees . . . again!” Jessica’s school friend Dylan, who is a biologist and park ranger there, led them on an in-depth tour of the geysers, wildlife, and stargazing. Mount Rushmore followed, with Michele winning a bet from Jessica that the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was the full name of one man rather than the combined last names of two.
They were to make one last stop, at Memphis and Graceland, but after almost a full month away, “We longed for home,” relates Linda. “We had gone 10,000 miles through 4 time zones and were ready.” Jessica parted company in Nebraska, flying back to the Bay Area, with Anakin in tears at her departure. Michele, Linda and Anakin then completed the final push, and hurtling through Nebraska the heat was savagely on again. “We spent two weeks freezing, and now were roasting,” Michele laughs at the irony. “I said not to say one bad word about the heat after complaining for so long about being cold.” They arrived back on July 19, one month after their departure.
Michele recalls their isolation in an interconnected world. “There is no cell service, no Internet, and often no sign of civilization. You really are on your own.” Linda chuckles when remembering the reaction of others when seeing their Florida license plate, then learning they were three women driving cross-continent in a Prius with such a young boy. “First it would amaze them, then they would bow to us! The truth is, Anakin was tremendous almost the entire time.” Adding to the hard-to-imagine patience inside the vehicle, Michele and Jessica basically spent the entire ride carsick.
For Linda, the best part was family bonding. “Jessica and Anakin do not see each other often so he looked forward to her all the way to California, then cried and cried when she left. It was wonderful to spend that time with my daughters and grandson – truly memories of a lifetime.” She kept track of vital statistics, “mostly for Anakin’s sake. He is doing well for a 3-year-old. He visited 17 states plus Canada, increasing his total to 31 states along with England and France.”
For Michele it is much simpler – “Everything was the best part!”
They have yet to determine their next journey. “Maybe another long drive up the east coast to Nova Scotia, or overseas to Ireland,” imagines Michele. “These are new and different paradises, though there are definitely places from this trip I would enjoy revisiting.” To follow their adventure on Instagram, see michelekalka1.
Perhaps Anakin describes their travels best, when his Mom asks: “Where did we go?” and he replies, “On a very, very, very, very long road trip!”