© 2017 by Lauren Wiatrek - Austin, TX
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Reclaiming My Stolen Summer Part 1

01.08.2018

Last year I had just gotten my port placed, I had cut off all my long locks and I was getting mentally prepared to start my first chemo infusion of the “Red Devil”… Last summer was brutal. I had to cancel all our plans, different vacations, family reunion… all of it. I was so so so so bummed. I remember walking into the oncologist’s office practically begging to go on my trips. As most of you know, travel is my heart’s longing… I love to get away and explore, especially when it gets sweltering in Texas. But I soon realized these trips would have been miserable and close to impossible with how terrible I felt.

There was about a month I don’t even remember… I spent that month on the couch slipping in and out of sleep… unaware of what was going on with my two little girls. Heavily relying on help because I was so detached with the Food Network on in the background at my mom's house. 

 

Once I was coherent, I started planning our trip for the following summer to keep my mind looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. One year later, here we are on a family trip for the summer. With Evan being a teacher and me working virtually, it was a no brainer to escape the Texas heat and head north. We left the first chance we could get, my side effects were still in major effect, but I didn't care after my 50th Camp Gladiator workout at 5:00 a.m. and downing my last Xeloda chemo pill, we hit the road. 

 

We decided a great first stop would be Hot Springs, Arkansas… we didn’t want to be in the car too long and knew our girls would be ready to get out and play, so the 9-hour trip (with stops…because #littles) got us out of Texas and into “the natural state” where trees were taller, it was a tad bit cooler, and a fun start to our much-anticipated vacation.

 

 

Hot Springs was a little different than we expected, not as much of a family-friendly place as we thought. BUT the Gulpha Gorge Campground was fantastic, it was tucked away into a hill with tall pine trees and some cold springs that the girls had a blast in. Our camp hosts were so hospitable and invited us on our second night to paint rocks, cook s’mores and enjoy conversation with other campers. We had a joyful time in our first camping trip as a family of four, the girls slept pretty great considering we were in a tent, where it was still decently warm.

 

We had dinner at the Forsyth Bathouse where the brewery was, it is the only brewery within a national park using hot spring water to brew their beer. Evan tried the Ram Bock beer and I tried the Strawberry Kombucha. We had a hummus plate to start, sandwiches and fruit for the girls and a fresh greens salad with orange vinigarette. I walked amongst the tall trees with my arms outstretched, finally feeling distanced from all the cancer. 

 

 

2nd stop: Hillman Ferry- Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky:

 

We wanted another stop not too far from Hot Springs, so we did a bit of research and stumbled upon Kentucky. This spot was a huge lake between a peninsula of land, hence the name Land Between the Lakes. It had a huge campground dedicated to loyal campers, and ones like us who were newbies just passing through. We got our groceries from this cute, local market and set up camp. We swam in the lake where there was a beachfront and a gorgeous view of a vast lake and trees upon trees. LBL was a pretty awesome spot to take in the fresh air and let go of our worries. We meandered into the local town: Grand Rivers and the girls played on an old school playground, we had local pizza, and walked along the pier to see the wide-open lake. It was still warmer than we thought and around 2 pm bugs were EVERYWHERE. I kept thinking bees were swarming us, nope they were FLIES! Ugh. But other than that, we had a lot of fun, the girls LOVED swimming in the lake…daddy was their trampoline and would just toss them into the water this way and that. We collected seashells and made “sand cakes” … I had my phone tucked away and just loved being present with my family. I highly recommend this spot for anyone looking for a new camping, RVing destination with lots of summer fun activities for the whole family (many brought their own boats, bikes, etc).

 

 

Evan and I so far are pretty blown away by the tried and true RVers. They are incredible, they bring everything you could possibly think of to have… we saw TVs, microwaves, toaster ovens, dirt bikes, golf carts, hammocks, piles of firewood, lawn chairs of every kind, animals, plants, rugs, decorations, etc. There are a certain crowd of dedicated folk who come spend the summers out here. It is fun to see all the families playing and enjoying their summer.

 

3rd stop: Mammoth Cave National Park:

 

On our way we moved through some rain, which was a nice reprieve from the heat, the drive was gorgeous, winding on a local road past farms, horses, fields and tall trees. We found a little tiny cabin located close to the national park and decided with the rain, it would be a nice break from our tent. The cabin was definitely different than we expected…but we made the best of the 100-square foot space for our family of four…all ultimately sharing the queen size bed after watching a few episodes of Full House on the circa 1980s television. The next morning, we loaded all our gear back into Thunder (our trusty Ford Explorer) and headed toward the caves. The cave was 54 degrees, which was a fabulous pardon from the 85 degree, humid heat that was hanging in the air. We chose the easiest passage into the caves with our little ones in tow. We walked from a beautiful, lush forest down some stairs into a wide-mouth cave where the cool air swallowed us up. We were guided around the cave, following the Ranger, learning about the history and facts about the cave. The girls enjoyed romping around the cave, hearing their echoes call back to them. Halen earned her first Junior Ranger badge and we were beaming with pride. Using the Junior Ranger program at each National Park is an excellent way to get your kids involved in their surroundings. The activities really get the whole family involved! Evan and I learned so much. We had some lunch at the Mammoth Cave Grill, dining on the state’s obligatory meal: fried green tomatoes and a Kentucky Hot Brown, after filling our bellies we were ready to hit the road again. 

 

 

4th stop: Louisville, Kentucky:

 

As we were pulling into Louisville, a rainstorm struck and poured down on the humid streets of Kentucky. We decided to find a hotel and not wrestle with putting our tent up in the rain. We were happy to find a Garden Inn that had more space than we had had as a family of four in a week. We unpacked and quickly started searching for the best places to eat dinner in Louisville. We are the ones who love finding the restaurants off the beaten path. A place called Hammerheads kept popping up in our search as a gem dive that has taken off. We decided to load up and head that way, we entered Germantown and were unsure of where we were as we drove past weathered houses until we spotted a Hammerhead shark above one of the houses. We walked in and were pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere and staff. In all the reviews we read online the most recommended items to order were: lamb ribs, duck tacos, and Grippo fries, we also orderd the mac n cheese balls because our littles were with us. All of the above was amazing, the mac n cheese balls were made with a smoked cheddar, instantly elevating the appetizer… the duck tacos were so incredible, the meat was tender, juicy and had just the right amount of gaminess that I love. It was wrapped in grilled corn tortillas with cilantro and pico de gallo + a hint of lime… SO GOOD. Then as I was savoring the tacos, Evan tried his first lamb rib… his eyes glazed over as I could plainly see he was more than enjoying his dinner. The lamb ribs were so delicious, tender, and glazed with an incredible sauce, so edgy and awesome. The Grippo fries were sweet as you take your first bite, then a spiciness takes over your palate and you crave more, we ordered the sage sauce and sun-dried tomato dip, both which were creamy and a perfect pairing with our sweet ‘n spicy fries. We also ordered local beers, mine a Vanilla Brown Ale from Kentucky and Evan a double IPA from Kentucky, both easy to drink as we gobbled up this marvelous food. We wished for a moment that we were on a date without out little ladies as they twirled around the dive restaurant, sometimes in a precious way and other times in a mom–is-going-to-lose-her-shiitakes way. We left with happy bellies and happy our expectations were exceeded.

 

That night we snuggled in our jammies and went to bed, daddy cuddling with the big and mommy cuddling with the little.

 

The next morning I woke up gazing at my little slumbering away and quickly approached by my big saying (not so quietly) that she was ready for breakfast. After convincing her to snuggle a little while longer, I found myself walking down the lobby with my giggly girls for breakfast. I was disappointed to find no milk alternative for my coffee, hello 2018 ;-) More hotels need to get with the healthy program, anyone with me?! Lol.

 

After breakfast the girls were thrilled to go swim, so we got our suits on and went to the swimming pool, which we had all to ourselves. After jumps, practicing our swimming skills and pretending to be a family of sharks (remember the camp song… baby shark doo doo doo doo baby shark…) we headed upstairs to shower and head out for our day in Louisville.

 

We knew we had to go to Churchill Downs, we arrived and were already impressed by the grounds, so pretty and white. We checked out the museum, which was awesome and took a 30 minute tour around the racetrack learning history and facts. We all found it fascinating and have it on our bucket list to go for Halen’s 21st birthday (as she was born on Derby Day in 2014…so we thought this would be a fitting celebration site for her). The girls had a blast exploring the museum and we ducked through the rain as we walked around the racetrack, capturing pictures in this quintessential place.

 

After seeing all we could see at Churchill Downs, we looked up the place to go for lunch was Waggoners Diner across the street. Waggoners has been open for over 90 years and started off as a coffee stop for horse riders and racing writers, then quickly gained fame. As we entered we were instantly transported back into time with the scene of diners from the good ole days with a counter and seats up where they are cheffing up omelets and plate of the day. We ordered the Tuesday special: grilled cheese and beef and vegetable soup and of course, the Kentucky Hot Brown. It was simple, homemade and yummy.

 

Then it was nap time which meant we need to load back up and hit the road.

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