Camping With Kelley

img_69481With my head tilted uncomfortably against the back of the camp chair, and I stare at the sky above our little clearing in the woods. Even though there are no clouds to obscure the view, the stars don’t pop like I thought they might – we’re too close to San Antonio, and the moon is too bright. The combination leaves the campsite comfortably dark, but not oppressively so.

Until I’m in nature, I forget how bright the night is. In the city, night means darkness, shadowy corners, a hyper awareness to every sound.

Among the low trees of this Texas forest, cicadas, tree frogs and crickets chorus loudly around the campsite.

It’s been awhile since I’ve slept outside, although I’ve started opening the balcony door to my bedroom to avoid running the air conditioning. I’m afraid I won’t sleep well, that the shockingly loud noises of the woods will distract me, but sitting there soothes me, makes my soul quiet.img_69611

The wood we get to make a fire and cook dinner is wet, but I learn that perseverance is key. And dryer lint. And lighter fluid. This is not an exercise in suffering.

Thankfully, we brought chips to snack on and music to listen to. As we work on the fire and prepare the vegetables for roasting, conversation swings far and wide – the past, present, future. In between conversation that flows only the way two old friends who don’t see each other nearly enough, I learn about camping. How does this work? What do you do about this? What’s your favorite kind of that?

Night creeps over the camp, but it’s hard to tell for awhile because those city lights maintain a perpetual twilight to the south.

Finally, we eat something so delicious, mostly because we waiting so patiently for it to sizzle in it’s tin foil in the hard-earned embers. Marshmallows come after, with squares of delicious chocolate.

After midnight, exhausted, we crawl into our sleeping bags, still in the middle of all those sounds, but it’s quiet in the late hour. Warm and cozy, my mind is quiet for the first time in what feels like months, just soaking in the cool air on my nose, the warmth in the bed, the subtle sounds outside the tent.

img_69511Sleep, better than I usually sleep, comes easily, probably because we stayed up so late, partly because I feel surprisingly safe. And partly because my cat isn’t purring in my ear for a 3 a.m. scratch behind the ears.

It’s bright when I wake up, but filtered through the tent, I feel cozy and snug, like it would be okay to laze around in bed like I do at home on a Saturday morning.

Quick trip to the semi-modern bathroom, then light up the stove for eggs. It was warm in the tent, but the cool morning air sends a chill through me, and I’m thankful for the heat. We’re quiet in the morning as we wake up, a routine we got used to back in college as roommates. Oh, how I miss the easy flow of that time.

We undo everything we worked so hard to construct the night before – sweep the tent, pull stakes, fold, fold, fold, roll. Then, almost suddenly, everything is packed away in neat packages how we brought it all in. Haul it all back to the car, everything neatly in the trunk, day packs out and water bottles filled.

Ready for the next adventure – an 8 mile hike on rocky ground to see dinosaur footprints. It’s warmer by the time we start hiking, and I’m glad I shed my sweatshirt. Through the trees, the conversations continue – hiking, flowers, birds, trees, places we dream of, places we loved visiting, philosophy on travel and relationships and jobs and careers and the intense pressure from all sides to not miss out on a single moment of this glorious and precious life.img_69741

At the top of a ridge, we look down and see the footprints from so long ago. Across the way, clouds hover above the next treeline. We are on top of the world, but also nestled into this little pocket.

And there it is – this moment is incredibly unique, and we are one of a kind. Yet, we also are so insignificant. This moment is everything and nothing. And that’s the beauty of nature.


Castles Part 2: Singer Castle


View of the castle as you exit the boat

After exploring Boldt Castle (go read Castles Part 1 if you missed it), we hopped on another boat and rode for about an hour to Dark Island, home to Singer Castle.

Riding along the St. Lawrence River feels surreal, like we were transported to an alternate universe in a storybook. I’ve always lived in landlocked places with little water culture. Sure, I know people with boats and houses by the lake. But to travel down water wide enough that you aren’t quite sure if you’re seeing islands or the main land, dotted with houses on rocky outcrops, I knew we were headed somewhere a little mythical.


Every window has a view like this

We bounced along the river, always on the United States side of the buoys that mark the Canada/New York border, until we started to see a bright red roof in the distance on one particular island. Dark Island, where Singer Castle sits, is not dark at all. It’s bright and lovely and one could reasonably watch the sun rise in the United States and set in Canada every day of the year. If you lived there. Which would be terrible in the winter because the river freezes, and I’m not sure how you get to the store for coffee and soup and dog food.


Secret Staircase

Singer Castle was built by Frederick Bourne (no relation to Jason, I assume), the fifth president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The castle is dotted with historic Singer sewing machines, all in pristine condition.

But the most important thing to know about Singer Castle must be confronted immediately: there’s a secret fucking staircase. So many of my childhood dreams came true when I found out and witnessed this staircase. It goes up roughly through the center of the house, so many of the rooms can be accessed by the stone steps.


One of the many guest rooms in the castle

So, let’s say, you’re a fancy pants Bourne relative, staying at Singer Castle, and you suddenly, in the middle of the night, get a hankering for some cookies or milk or maybe a chat with a maid. You could ring a bell, and a servant would come up through the secret staircase and bring you whatever you wanted! Magic!


Singer Castle’s backyard

Back to reality: Dark Island was designed and built as the ultimate playground for visitors. There was a squash court, a rose garden, boat house, library, tennis court, hunting and more.

The castle was inspired by the novel Woodstock by Sir Walter Scott. Hence the secret staircase. And dungeon. And towers. The Bourne family used the castle for many years as a summer residence, and they put a premium on entertaining their guests. After Frederick died, his daughter, Marjorie, took over ownership, and she and her family continued to spend summers on Dark Island until her death. After that, the island and castle changed hands several times to different charitable organizations (including one period where it was rumored to be owned by a secret society) until 2001, when it was sold to a tour company that continues to work on restoration and preservation of the island for tourism.


Boat house

To recap: I’m not saying I want to live in a castle because there are plenty of really annoying things about castle life. Servants sneaking up on you through the secret staircase and watching you through panels in the walls. Visitors asking you all sorts of pesky questions. Cleaning a house with a million bedrooms. Figuring out how to buy dog food in February.

But what home doesn’t have its problems? Life in a castle is still life. So maybe live life in a castle with a SECRET STAIRCASE!



Castles Part 1: Boldt Castle


Boldt Castle, Heart Island, New York

Did you know that there are two castles on United States soil that are so glorious and wonderful and mysterious that I want to crawl up inside the attics and stare out the window? There are probably actually more than two, but this summer I had the glorious opportunity to visit two castles in the Thousand Islands region of New York.

The first one we (me + some family + family of family) visited is Boldt Castle on Heart Island, which sits in Alexandria Bay. A quick 10 minute boat ride took us from the mainland to Heart Island, which is actually in the shape of a heart.

The Island was owned by George Boldt, a New York City millionaire associated with the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. George and his wife, Louise, spent many summers on the island in the early 1900s, and they had a lodge there that appeared to be roughly the size of a modern-day mega-mansion.


All the doors and windows were open to a cool river breeze



Alas, a private island (uh, make that multiple private islands) were not enough for Mr. Boldt, and he set out to build an actual castle on Heart Island. He planned to give it to his wife on Valentine’s Day of 1904, but barely a month before, Louise died. Construction on the castle stopped immediately, and George never went back to Heart Island.

After decades of neglect, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority purchased the island and began restoring it for visitors and posterity. They kept as many details as possible from the original plans, and the different rooms are set up meticulously in the style of the day.


Amazing detailed work throughout the castle

As you climb higher and higher into the castle, restoration is not complete, and you can still find graffiti from the years of abandonment.


Nonetheless, it’s a gorgeous property, everything decorated in hearts and harts (the original name was Hart Island; George altered the physical shape of the island to resemble a heart before renaming it). But there’s also a haunted feeling to the space. You walk into the ballroom and imagine the parties and laughter… and realize there was never any grand parties like in The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady. As you explore the bedchambers and find quaint window seats and imagine curling up with A Midsummer’s Night Dream, just to realize no one sat there pretending to take in Shakespeare and instead stared out the window enjoying the St. Lawrence River breeze.


The Play House


Parts of the island feel lived in and loved. The playhouse (a baby castle in its own right) was used for several years before Louise died, and the vibe is different. It’s not refurbished, but it doesn’t feel sad.

The power house on the island is connected by an arched bridge from the island, but the structure itself looks as grand and magical as anything in the main castle. When arriving by boat, the power house is the first thing that sticks out, jutting away from the island. The trees surround the castle, but the power house is very noticeable.


The utility closet


Boldt Castle and Heart Island were such a surprise. From pristine landscaping to the musty and creepy tunnels under the castle, Heart Island sparks the imagination – what was, what could have been, what will be? And, of course, how many maids would it have taken to keep the place clean?

Finding My Voice Back


Photo thanks to the talented Rachel Florman

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t written much over the past year or more. Not just on the blog, but also in normal life.

Since I was probably 7 years old and still learning what made a sentence, writing has been part of my daily life and part of my identity. I wanted to write novels more than anything, and I spent a great many hours writing fiction stories, usually about horses, but sometimes about princesses or adventure or boys or all of the above.

I chose journalism in college mostly on a whim, and my writing became more structured. I learned about deadlines, AP style and how to write a functional news article. During and after college, internships helped me hone my skills, but it wasn’t until my first full-time job out of college that the volume of writing I did – including honest and in depth feedback from fantastic editors – started me down the path of a story teller.

Many articles were still a struggle, but in the fast-paced environment of a weekly news magazine, there was no room for angsty pondering. Get it done. Make it good. Polish, primp, publish.

But life as an equine journalist is not for me, as I learned over the course of three years in the industry. I love horses, but working in the industry all day left me disinterested in pursuing it as a hobby. Within months of leaving the industry, I was back in the saddle, hungry for each ride and enjoying every moment at the barn.

But with my departure from journalism came a separation from the writing. A few freelance articles came and went, and life continued. Between the full-time job, the relationship, the other goals and interests, the writing faded to the background. The words weren’t as comfortable pouring out of my fingers. Journaling because an infrequent, at best, coping mechanism for dark days.

Worst was the loss of the fiction. For more than 15 years, my daily life involved characters and plots floating around my head like a delightful background conversation. But they faded over time, until they finally just weren’t there any more. None of them were there, not even old favorites I’d conversed with on and off for years.

I’m not crazy. Read Big Magic, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I think the ideas, the projects, simply began to recognize that I would not help them be created. They saw that I was not willing to engage.

But then, the funniest thing happened. The other day, I was going about my life, and I was hit with a sledgehammer of a character. And holy crapola did that character jump off my fingers and onto a page faster than I could have imagined. And then came another character, and another. They were all intertwined, and I forced myself to not worry about details like names or descriptions. I just wrote what happened one day when they all started interacting and sparks f;ew and people yelled and laughed and were delightful fictional characters, the type with whom I’d never actually want to be friends because they’re a little over the top and a little out of my league, but they are mine because they came to me demanding to be created, at least a little tiny bit, and I obliged.

So where am I going with this?

All this rambling has a point, but also no point at all. The point is that I’m still finding my voice back. After such a long time I started to not even notice it was missing, and now I’m working on putting figurative pen to figurative paper and see what comes out of my fingertips.

Sometimes, this blog might be about travel. Sometimes, it might be about writing. Sometime, I might even tell you what made me lose my voice, but only if I figure that out first.

Follow along if you like – maybe someday soon I’ll be able to start sharing the other projects I’m working on. Maybe I’ll start showing you the photos I’ve been taking or the maps I’ve been pondering.

But for today, just please believe that I’m trying really, really hard to find my voice back. It’s not perfect – it never was – but it’s also very scratchy after not being used for so long. It’s uncertain and faltering, but it’s my voice, damn it. And I don’t want to lose it again.

Sand, Sand Everywhere

IMG_6732I used to take day trips all the time, but Midland, Texas, doesn’t have a lot of options for short excursions. It’s in the middle of everything… which is West Texas means it’s far from everything.

However, Monahans Sandhills State Park is a gem of picturesque dunes in the midst of flat, mesquite-dotted desert.

Although renting sleds to slide down the dunes is a lot of fun, on this particular trip, Flynn the Dragon and I just went and wandered and played. Dogs are welcome, as long as they stay on leash, and the park rangers will scold you for disobeying. However, I’ll confess I let Flynn romp around a little to get out some good energy.

The magic of the sandhills is that they are such a surprise. You pull in by the sign, pause at the visitor’s center, wondering if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. From the road, it looks like the rest of this part of Texas. As you follow the drive winding back away from I-20, you start to see glimpses, but the skepticism persists.IMG_6725

Then, you pull into the picnic parking area, are you start to see the prize: crisp, smooth hills, one after another after another, off into the distance, an occasional brush or tree interrupting the pristine landscape, but mostly just something straight out of a movie.

When you look closer, you start to see small tracks by bugs, snakes and birds. You see deeper impressions from people who walked there even just minutes ago, but mostly, it’s just marked by the wind making tiny, intimate wrinkles.

Go visit. Enjoy. Take water. Take a camera that doesn’t matter if it gets a little sandy.


Want more photos? Visit me on Instagram @mbrincks989

The Mountains Are Calling

John Muir seems to be the hero of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. On a sign entering town and on a sign exiting town, he is quoted multiple times. So, I will honor him here as well: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

As we drove into California from Nevada, the wildfire smoke became very thick.

View from the house in Mammoth Lakes on our first night in the mountains.

Panorama of Mono Lake. from the parking lot before I put my phone away for the canoe tour.


View from the top of Pothole Dome in Yosemite.


Another direction from the top of Pothole Dome.


All the pointy things!


El Capitan in Yosemite. The wildfire haze was less in the valley by the Merced River, but there was a definitely fuzziness to everything in the distance.


The road through the Yosemite valley winds along the Merced River. Apparently, it’s usually higher.


Rainbow Falls. Normal pictures of it show just a wall of water with no distinguishable rocks on the side.


There was a huge fire in 1991 that we saw the effects of. Although small trees and brush are back, there are huge swaths with no large trees at all.


Mono Lake–our canoe tour was cancelled due to wind, but they gave us a walking tour along the shore.


More tufa at Mono Lake.

Project Student Loans Suck: The End

Pay Off Account

Once upon a time, I was completely broke. I was living paycheck to paycheck. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get ahead. I was stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and constantly worried I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. I graduated college almost $30,000 in the hole at the end of 2011, which was a combination of student loans and a personal loan from my parents. Even though I had a great desire to do adult things, I simply wasn’t able.

I took a job in Virginia, and then took a second job to make ends meet. I worked extra weekends for overtime pay and worked my butt off to do the best job I possibly could. I got a raise, which helped tremendously, and I started paying a little, tiny bit extra on my student loans.

In 2013, I took a job in Texas and a major leap of faith. On the side, I wrote freelance articles, sometimes two or three in a month, to improve my lifestyle and pay a tiny bit extra on my loans. But it wasn’t working. My credit card got a nice workout every month, and it never really held a zero balance for very long. My apartment was too expensive, and I wasn’t making the kind of progress I thought I should.

Then, almost exactly a year ago, I finally got serious. Some days, it feels like a decade ago. Others, it feels like yesterday. I committed to paying off my student loans by the end of 2015, but now, only a few weeks before I turn 26, I’m completely debt free. I paid off the loan to my parents, I paid off my Stafford loans. I paid off the tiny amount on my credit card and got a lot stricter about how often I use it.

Here’s the secret: there is no secret.

I lived frugally. If I bought clothes, they were on sale, clearance or second hand. If I traveled, it was at the generosity of others. I packed a lunch almost every day, and I constantly sought to decrease my food bill each week.

I lived simply. For a year, I lived in an apartment with no sofa, no television and no kitchen table. Each place I lived, I immediately found the local library and used it regularly instead of buying books and movies. I went downtown rarely, and out to eat for special occasions only. There was no cable, no Internet and very few Starbucks.

I focused. Every day, I thought about my goal, and every day, I tried to do something to move closer to that goal. I said no. A lot. I said later. I worked a lot. One job, two jobs, three jobs. Freelancing and office assisting on nights and weekends.

But mostly, I said yes to the reality that I am in control of my money and my financial health. I got myself into that mess, and I got myself out.

Student loan balance as of July 31: $0

The end.