Two Months on the Road! A Full-Time Camper Life Update

Two months down…??? to go!

Two months ago, we drove out of Atlanta with the Jeep and pop-up camper filled to capacity and have been touring the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states ever since. On or around the 14th of each month, I’m aiming to write a quick update about where we’ve been, where we’re headed, and things I’m learning along the way.

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Related: 

Places We’ve Been: Month #2

We slowed down our pace a bit and have been spending a week in each place to better accommodate our work schedules and see more in each place.

  • New River Gorge, West Virginia: Home on the road #8
    • Favorite Parts: Hiking around the gorge and bridge with beautiful views, coal mine & ghost town hikes

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  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky: Home on the road #9
    • Favorite Parts: Turning 33, meeting up with my parents, rock climbing and lazy floating on my birthday

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  • Claytor Lake State Park, Dublin, Virginia: Home on the road #10
    • Favorite Parts: Easy access to kayaking & SUPing, playing horseshoes, decorating for fall

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  • Roanoke, Virginia: Home on the road #11
    • Favorite Parts: Staying in a hotel (Labor Day camping is for amateurs), solo museum outings, Black Dog Salvage

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  • Virginia Beach, Virginia: Home on the road #12
    • Favorite Parts: Camping right next to the beach, beach yoga/running/swimming, meeting up with my buddy Dwight

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  • Surf City, North Carolina: Home on the road #13:
    • Favorite Parts: Still here, but so far it’s been surviving a crazy storm with flooding (bit of a rough start)

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Biggest Challenges: Month #2

A lot of the challenges that were really getting to me in month #1 have mellowed out as I’ve settled into a better routine. Overall, the weather has been more pleasant in month #2 and our campgrounds have been pretty accommodating.

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The single biggest challenge I’ve felt this month is finding good internet for working. We’ve had to upgrade our data plans to make up for crappy service at campsites and have even had to move sites within campgrounds for better reception. These distractions cut into my productivity and make it more difficult to enjoy the other aspects of camping life.

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The other big challenge that comes to mind is mold/mildew. After some rainy days in West Virginia, it started growing on our camper canvas above the two beds. We didn’t discover it until we were in the Middle of Nowhere, Kentucky where cleaning supplies were very sparse. Vinegar ended up working pretty well until we got to a bigger store and picked up some mildew spray. Fortunately, no one got sick.

Realizations & Ramblings: Month #2

Over the course of the month, I jotted down random thoughts as they came to me. Here’s what my month #2 list looks like:

  • I’m getting better at doing yoga in weird places and feeling better physically and mentally because of it.
  • I’m getting more tolerant of bugs and getting better at ending their lives when necessary.
  • Monkey needs social time even when I don’t. We met her perfect playmate at Arrowhead Bike Farm in Fayetteville, WV – a hound named Hank.

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  • Keeping the inside of a camper clean is hard, especially when you’re camping in mud or sand. We are constantly sweeping the floor with a tiny broom and dust pan.
  • I really crave my end-of-the-day beer or mug of wine
  • I don’t necessary identify with West Virginia culture, but the uncrowded/outdoorsy vibe really resonated with me.

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  • Having our own downloaded TV shows to watch separately makes for easy and refreshing solo time. I’m currently watching Girls, Scandal, and Wentworth solo.
  • We did an “art in the park” day that involved drawing in sketchbooks and painting on watercolor postcards. I want more of these days.

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  • It’s possible to keep up many favorite hobbies even without an apartment.
  • When one person in your travel party isn’t coping well, the other needs to pick up the slack. Take turns with negativity.

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  • Inspired by scary campfire stories, I wrote a short fiction ghost story. Once I fix it up a bit, I’ll plan to share it here and perhaps write a few more too!
  • Once a month, it’s nice to treat ourselves to a hotel to switch up the routine. The Sleep in in Roanoke over Labor Day weekend to avoid crowds and the hurricane was really fun.
  • I love living by a beach.
  • Inspired by the beach I’m trying to start meditating again. I’m trying out guided meditations on this app, Meditation Studio by Gaiam.
  • I’m getting tired of wearing these same clothes and can’t wait to toss/donate them at the end of the season.
  • I have made more income so far this year than ever before in life!

Looking Ahead to Month #3

If you take a quick look at a map, you’ll see that we’ve made a big loop and seem to be circling back. But don’t be fooled because this trip is nowhere close to done!

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After stops in North Carolina and South Carolina, we are heading back to Atlanta for a few days. Here we’ll revisit that packed 10′ x 12′ storage unit and swap out water sports gear for biking gear, and summer clothes for fall and winter clothes. This will wrap up our tour of the Eastern U.S., and from here, we drive west!

For many years, we’ve wanted to go to the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, and this is the year we’re finally going to do it! So we’ll be putting in long hours in the car to breeze through Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas to get to the festival in time. Month #3 will be incredibly different from months #1 and #2 because it begins our journey of the west. I can’t wait, and as always thanks for reading and staying in touch!

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Spending a Day with Rich Humphreys of Gnome Countryside

One of my favorite things about being part of a community of gnome enthusiasts is getting the opportunity to meet other collectors and swap stories. As a writer with an insatiable spirit of wanderlust, my travels have led me to many amazing people who inspire me to keep collecting and spreading the joy of gnomes.

This summer, I had the opportunity to meet Rich “The Gnomeman” Humphreys at the one and only Gnome Countryside, tucked away in the peaceful rolling hills of Kirkwood Pennsylvania. For 35 years, Rich has been entertaining and educating kids and adults in his “Gnomery” and enchanted forest.

Rich, a long-time diabetic who nearly lost his sight to diabetic retinopathy, created Gnome Countryside after teaching school in Alaska for 12 years. He renovated this beautiful property and interwove the stories of gnomes into his nature tours. Rich first became enchanted by gnomes on a trip to Denmark, and he even dresses like a gnome in a wonderfully eccentric fashion!

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I first learned about Rich’s mission and Gnome Countryside in 2014 under tragic circumstances. Local news sources reported that a fire devastated his 220-year-old log home, destroying his possessions, but never his spirit. He has since rebuilt his home, and it’s just as beautiful as ever.

My tour of Gnome Countryside began in the Gnomery, a cozy room filled with wonderful gnomes where Rich shared stories, environmental facts, and songs with his captive audience. Then we followed The Gnomeman through the wooded trails, using our five senses to appreciate the rugged beauty that surrounded us. Small gnomes and gnome homes could be found along the trails (if you looked closely), and they were surely very happy here. Other highlights of the visit included listening to the waterfall sounds of Gnome Gniagra, participating in a drum circle, and building gnome homes and rock towers in the woods.

Gnomes and nature go hand-in-hand, and this is a place to embrace that relationship and celebrate stewardship of the environment and a sense of community in the outdoors. Through Gnome Countryside, Rich empowers visitors to return home with a renewed love for the environment and a commitment to protect nature. Gnome Countryside celebrates the legends of gnomes, teaches us about gnomes and nature, brings your senses to life. With a creative sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, Rich’s dedication to nature and all its creatures is contagious.

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You too can visit Gnome Countryside if you only travel to the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country! Rich is an incredibly friendly and kindhearted man who loves to chat, so give him a call at 717-786-4928. Gnome Countryside is a favorite among school group tours, but he also leads individual two-hour tours at a rate of $10 per person. Morning and afternoon tours are typically available Monday through Saturday from April through October, rain or shine.

 

***A version of this story will be published in the upcoming edition of the International Gnome Club Newsletter!***

What to Do When Your Dog Is More Social Than You Are (And Other Pet Parent Pet Peeves)

We recently celebrated our six-month anniversary of having Monkey in our lives. We adopted her in February in Atlanta and have since taken her on a whirlwind nomadic journey through North Carolina, Virginia, DC, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia.

Related: One Month on the Road: A Full-Time Camper Life Update

All in all, she’s been a real trooper, and I totally acknowledge the fact that not every dog could handle traveling this way – settling into long Jeep rides, and living in a pop-up camper every day. I have to remind myself of all that when she pulls ridiculously on the leash, lunges at squirrels, wants to eat everything off the ground, and wakes me up daily by at least 6 am.

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A girl after my own heart…LOVES the beach!

But my biggest annoyances of pet parenthood these days have nothing to do with her. Instead, they have everything to do with the strangers who become obsessed with her while out and about. You see, Monkey is a very social dog. However, I am not the most social human. She wants to meet everyone, while I’d rather spend my time with the people I care about and view everyone else from a comfortable distance.

It’s impossible to walk down a city street, a hiking trail, through a park, or anywhere else for that matter without getting hassled. It’s absolutely exhausting.

“PUPPPYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I can hear the squeals of annoying excitement in my sleep with visions of outstretched hands and nowhere to run or hide. She’s an estimated 2 ½ years old, by the way. But Monkey has this puppy face that just can’t seem to be ignored. Forget everything you know about the unfair stereotypes of pit bulls. This lab/pit bull mix’s puppy-esque face belongs on a bag of dog food.

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The issue of dog-walking harassment is something that NO ONE is talking about, and I don’t understand why.

Dog owners: do you have this problem? Do you legitimately enjoy and embrace it? Do you avoid it somehow? Do you have a coping strategy that I’m not privy to?

Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic by throwing the word “harassment” around, but when I can’t get a moment of peace during a simple walk, I sure as hell feel harassed. And it has nothing to do with me, personally. It happens to Monkey whether I’m walking her, my husband is walking her, or we’re both walking her together.

Some days I just think we should have adopted an ugly dog!

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Admittedly, it’s hard to ignore a dog dressed in a cooling vest and boots But how else do you cool down a black dog on 100-degree days?!

Now before you get too quick to pass judgment, remember that we are living a very public life these days with no private shelter to seek retreat beyond a pop-up camper in very crowded summer campgrounds. Therefore, the sheer number of constant and unnecessary social interactions on a daily basis is astronomical compared to the average dog and dog parent. I doubt this would be getting to me nearly as much if I just stayed in a house all day and walked Monkey in circles around the same neighborhood.

But like I was saying, just because you have a dog doesn’t mean that you’re social 24/7, that you want to engage in a conversation, or that you want to be bothered. I don’t know why people can’t understand this simple fact. If I see a cute dog or kid, I may make a quiet side comment to whoever I’m with. But I have enough self-control to leave the individual or family in charge of that cuteness remain in peace and simply go about their day.

Am I alone in this? Why doesn’t anyone else understand how real this struggle is?!

So clearly, the unwanted socialization is my #1 pet parent pet peeve of the moment, but the past six months have supplied me with quite a few more. I don’t have another antisocial pet parent to vent to, so it’s all going right here…right now.

These are some of my other pet parent pet peeves that don’t seem to bother Monkey at all but drive me up the freaking wall.

Idiots who approach your dog without addressing you first

Hello, I’m up here.

I’d rather you not come over to bother me at all, but if you must, address me as a person first. Say hi and ask if you can pet my dog. It’s as simple as that. What if the dog you randomly started petting is sick, has fleas, or has a tendency to bite strangers? Never forget there’s human on the other end of this leash and that that human might have something to say about you groping its furry friend with permission.

Idiots’ kids who run up to pet your dog without asking permission

This largely plays into my last point, but is a more serious one because it involves small humans with questionable experience and judgment. Seriously parents, keep an eye on your kids and don’t let them run up to strange dogs. It’s not safe, and it’s just training them for bad manners.

Idiots who let their dogs off-leash in on-leash places

There are plenty of places that you can let your dog run around off-leash. Monkey, for one, loves to be off leash and run free, and I think it’s good for her. I recognize that Monkey needs and wants social time, and that’s why I take her to off-leash dog parks where she can run, play, and be as social as she likes.

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However, there’s a time and place for that, namely dog parks, secluded trails, and your own backyard.

Don’t let your dog off leash in the middle of a town or in a public park with “leash your dog” signs around every bend. Although you may trust your dog unconditionally, not everybody does, and you’re stressing the rest of us out.

The worst is when I have to deal with your off-leash dog lunging and barking at my on-leash dog while you’re lolly-gagging behind without a care in the world. It’s not fair to me to have to pry a strange dog I don’t know away from my own and put us all at risk. Not to mention, many people are allergic to dogs and an off-leash interaction could send them into a dangerous reaction that’s on your hands.

Oh and for god’s sake, pick up the poo!

Idiots who won’t leave your dog alone when you’re in a hurry

This pet peeve plays into my biggest overall point, which is unwanted social interactions. But this is the worst when you’re just trying to give your dog a quick pee break before you rush out the door for something important. If anyone has some response lines or keywords that have gotten you out of dog social situations, I’d love to hear them. I keep coming up short to spout out something witty and effective.

Idiots who interrupt you at dinner to fawn over your dog

Can’t you see I’m chewing? Or in the midst of conversation? Seriously, don’t use my cute dog as an excuse for your poor manners.

Idiots who give unsolicited dog advice  

Now this is something that has happened far less frequently in my experience thus far, but something that really sticks with you after it happens. You don’t like my dog’s collar, harness, toy, etc.? Well who asked you and named you “dog expert of all the world?”

Being the recipient of rude and unwelcome dog advice happened to me at a wonderfully chill brewery in Asheville in front of friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was totally embarrassing and unnecessary, and it bothered me for a while even though I knew I was in the right. Unless you see an animal being abused, neglected, or put in danger, keep your training and gear opinions to yourself unless you’re asked for them, and just use them for your own dog.

A Dog-Friendly Conclusion

Now I realize that the tone of this long-winded blog post is on par with “get off my lawn” crankiness. But I seriously feel like these are big issues that no one is talking about.

Before adopting Monkey, I had learned all about caring for dogs from volunteering at shelters, fostering a dog, and dog-sitting for many different types of dogs through my side business. But something I wasn’t’ prepared for and that I never even expected was the human/social aspect of dog caregiving.

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It’s not fair to say that if you’re a dog lover you’re outgoing 24/7, and if you’re a cat lover you’re a homebody. I’m neither of those, yet Monkey is a happy, healthy, and fun-loving pup who’s well taken care of and has a life of adventure.

I’ve heard from friends who are parents that this sort of thing only gets worse when you have kids, and if I do someday, I’m sure my list of pet peeves will be even longer then! So please, next time you see a dog (or a kid, for that matter), think about how your words and actions may affect the person you’re randomly approaching and choose them wisely.

Rant over.

One Month on the Road: A Full-Time Camper Life Update

As you can hear from the crickets chirping in my blog (*chirp chirp, chirp chirp*), I haven’t had much time for personal writing lately. But today marks one month of living the nomad life, so I thought it was high time for an update. This certainly isn’t the longest we’ve been on the road – the trips to Mondakoming (Montana-South Dakota-Wyoming), the Northeast, and New Mexico have all been longer.

Yet this one feels a bit different because it has no end date, there’s nowhere to go home to, and the journey is just getting started.

From July 14th: Final Days in Atlanta…Next Up: Full-Time Camper Life!

We’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things so far, but I’ve often struggled to keep my head above water with the constant planning, excess of work projects, and little hassles along the way. Clearly, I haven’t been blogging, but I have been updating my friends and family weekly home-on-the-road posts via Facebook and using an app called Track My Tour to waypoint the places we’ve been with photos and quick captions.

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It’s hard to lump a month’s worth of happenings into one little page, but here’s an attempt of sorts. I’m not feeling particularly witty or insightful right now, but I just need to take a moment to reflect and get a few things out on the page.

So to simplify matters, in text and in my own head, I’ll kick this blog post off with a few lists.

Places We’ve Been So Far: Month #1

  • Asheville, NC: Home on the road #1
    • Favorite parts = hiking, scenery, breweries, catching up with old friends, kayaking
  • Richmond, VA: Home on the road #2
    • Favorite parts = Best campground fitness center and free breakfast EVER, historic stuff
  • Alexandria, VA: Home on the road #3
    • Favorite parts = Waterfront walks, switching it up with a hotel stay during a work conference
  • Washington, DC: Day trips
    • Favorite parts = Monuments at night tour, Natural History Museum, catching up with old friends
  • Annapolis, MD: Day trip
    • Favorite parts = Waterfront area, ice cream, dressing Monkey up in cooling gear
  • Milton, Delaware: Home on the road #4
    • Favorite parts = Secluded beach 10 minutes away, learning that Monkey can swim, every brewery except Dogfish Head, SUP in the ocean
  • Lancaster, PA: Home on the road #5
    • Favorite parts = Gnome-themed campground, Gnome Countryside tour with Rich Humphreys, Amish déjà vu
  • Hershey, PA: Day trip
    • Favorite parts = Free chocolate tour, milkshakes
  • Coopers Rock, WV: Home on the road #6
    • Favorite parts = Hiking every day, playing guitar outside at the campsite, Rattlesnake trail at Coopers Rock, Lakeside crab restaurant
  • Seneca Rocks, WV: Home on the road #7
    • Favorite parts = Totally unplugging due to no phone or internet, bouldering the peaks

Biggest Challenges So Far: Month #1

However, it’s not all been fun and games. If you’re my Facebook friends, those are the photos you’ve been seeing. But there’s a darker side to live on the road that doesn’t get shared.

  • Ant infestation in the camper
  • Nowhere close by/secluded to pee in the middle of the night after too many beers
  • Constantly bothered by annoying strangers wanting to meet Monkey (more on this to follow)
  • 100+ degree temperatures
  • Campgrounds next to landfills
  • Flying insects of all kinds
  • Dirty, public laundry facilities
  • Finding dog-friendly restaurants and attractions
  • Feeling overloaded with work
  • Listening to Christian music in campground bathrooms
  • Infection that landed me in urgent care
  • Too rainy, hot, rocky, etc. to start my days with yoga
  • General crankiness due to all of the above

Realizations Thus Far: Month #1

Admittedly, I haven’t taken much time until now to reflect on my situation and how it’s been impacting me personally. Now it’s all coming at once and hard to take in. Yet taking myself out of my comfort zone and adopting a nomadic life has definitely made me realize a few things about myself.

  • I can tolerate and enjoy high heat much more than most people
  • I can totally maintain a full-time freelance writing job on the road. Business is great!
  • Having people around makes me feel exhausted, annoyed, and drained.
  • The strangers obsessed with Monkey are really wearing me down
  • My feet smell awful, especially after wearing hiking sandals
  • Having my favorite jewelry and toiletries in campgrounds makes me feel normal
  • I will never have a good hair day with all this humidity
  • Figuring out how to play new guitar songs is really hard

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Ramblings: Month #1

One thing that is really getting to me one month in is my annoyance with strangers on the road so far. I was introverted as a kid, went through an extroverted phase in college and my 20s, and have more or less returned to my introverted roots. I’m okay with that. I can “turn it on” and be social pretty darn well when I need to. But I rarely want to, and after it’s over, I feel like I’ve figuratively checked a box for the day and am happy it’s all over.

Dog owners, serious question here: how do you walk down the street in peace?

We literally can’t walk down a street/trail for five minutes without someone exclaiming “PUPPPPYYYYYY!” (she’s about 2 ½, by the way) and rushing over to maul her. Sure, she’s cute, but there’s tons of cute dogs out and about.

I want to get her a t-shirt that says, “I’m social 24/7, but my parents aren’t. Please admire me from afar.” But a t-shirt would only attract more attention, and Monkey LOVES attention and petting from anyone and everyone.

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However, I can’t be social all the time, and these constant conversations are draining. So seriously, guys. Does anyone else have this problem? Do you enjoy and embrace the random interactions? If not, how do you cope with them? It’s basically impossible to avoid them while living in public places. I’m working on a separate blog post all about this rant, so stay tuned.

So many travelers go on and on about how meeting people on the road is the best part about traveling, but I disagree. Extroverted travel is just one way to travel, and not necessarily the best way for everyone. I loved catching up with my old friend and his wife and baby in Asheville and my old coworker and her husband in DC. Not to mention meeting Rich “The Gnomeman” Humphreys at Gnome Countryside was definitely a highlight of my trip so far. But beyond these low-key, pre-planned social get-togethers, I crave time to myself more than anything else.

For the past month, my days have been jam-packed with work projects, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Sure, this is always a “good problem” to have as a freelancer, but sometimes it’s exhausting and just becomes too much.

Besides the workload, we are in a constant state of planning, which also becomes exhausting after a while – always looking for the next campground, the next dog-friendly brewery, and the next museum to take turns going into while the other one hikes around with Monkey. To solve this, we set aside some time to book our next several campgrounds so that piece of the puzzle is taken care of for a while.

Looking Ahead to Month #2

We’re spending a bit more time in West Virginia and then heading into Kentucky next. My birthday, the big 33, is coming right around the corner and we’re meeting up with my parents for a little on-the-road celebration. My birthday’s on a Wednesday, so I’m hoping to take the day off work and do some climbing at the Red River Gorge.

From there, the plan is to head to the coast of Virginia and start traveling south. I’m not entirely sure where we’ll land at the close of month #2, but despite my rare divulgence of frustrations and rants, I’m still definitely excited to see what the next 30 days bring.

Final Days in Atlanta…Next Up: Full-Time Camper Life!

In a recent post, I mentioned how notoriously bad I am writing about things I do in my own hometown, favoring more distant adventures because they seem more exciting at the time. Well today’s post is all about Atlanta because well, I’m leaving.

Better late than never though, right?

I’ve been living in Atlanta for the past year and a half and have seriously enjoyed the change from many years in Chicago. I’m not leaving because I’m tired of it here; I’m leaving because it’s time for the adventure of a lifetime.

OFFICIAL ALYSSA ANNOUNCEMENT: Starting today, I will become a true nomad and set out on a journey of full-time camper life, living & working from the road for an undetermined amount of time. 

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Both my husband and I have sustainable jobs that don’t tie us down, we aren’t bound by family responsibilities yet, our pup is healthy and adaptable, and heck, we’re not getting any younger!

So over the past couple weeks of my final days in Atlanta, I’ve been snapping photos of some of my favorite things around the neighborhood so that I can remember the things I enjoyed about living here or that I finally squeezed in at the last minute.

1. Food Trucks

Blackburn Park is just down the road and had an awesome food truck night with live music and yoga on Wednesday nights. This is the type of event I’d seek out no matter where I’m at.
IMG_3471 (1)2. Cosmic Bowling 

This certainly isn’t exclusive to Atlanta but one of our favorite ways to beat the unrelenting 95-degree heat. IMG_3493 (1)3. Local Breweries 

We checked out the new Abbey of the Holy Goats brewery in Roswell just before hitting the road. I’ve always been a huge fan of Belgian beers, and although some of these could use refinement, these guys have a sweet space and lots of potential.
IMG_3508 (1)Georgia brewery laws are pretty whack, so while I’ll miss some of the local brews here, I certainly won’t miss the annoying purchase and taproom restrictions. And added bonus at the Abbey were the fun new games set out to play while sipping your six samples.
IMG_3510 (1)Exploding Kittens and a colorful puzzle game that I can’t remember the name of provided a super fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. IMG_3511 (1)4. Sleeping in Weird Places 

I’m not shy about admitting that I’ve got some mad sales skills when push comes to shove. I sold a crap-ton of crap from my Chicago apartment and my husband’s Chicago condo before we moved down here. And I started it all back up again as our lease-end date approached.

Since the mattress and box springs were among the first to get sold, we were forced to get creative with our sleeping arrangements. A twin-size air mattress and surprisingly comfortable couch did the trick. Also on the sold list was a desk, washer/dryer combo, coffee table, end table, speakers, 2 old iPhones, induction cooktop, mini fridge, unused Fitbit, and starter acoustic guitar.
IMG_3542 (1)But don’t worry, Monkey’s sleeping situation remained unchanged throughout this transition. Pictured here cuddling with her favorite alien stuffed animal from the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico.IMG_3544 (1)5. Coffee Shop/Bar Work Spaces

A place called the Copper Coin opened up near me just a few months ago and I’d always wanted to walk over to check it out. Finally the other day, I schlepped my laptop over there and was amazed by what a great work space it was.

Literally everyone in there had a laptop and was doing just what I was. Where else can you start working with a cup of exotic herbal tea and finish working with a local brew. Oh, and they also had cake.
IMG_3552 (1)6. Cheap Local Art Museums

Our apartment was located right by Oglethorpe University, which is a super old school that dates back to 1835. There’s always a bunch of film shoots going on around campus because it really is a beautiful (and slightly creepy, perhaps haunted?) place.

There’s an art museum here with rotating exhibits and $5 admission. Admittedly, it’s quite small, but the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art is a nice place to walk over to if you live in the area and check out some random art. The exhibit we saw was all about watercolors and plant paintings.IMG_3574 (1)7. Our Favorite Dog Park

I can’t believe it took me so long to discover this dog park, but one of my favorite dog-sitting clients and her wonderful pup, Roxy, introduced us to Brook Run Dog Park. Now I’ve been to other dog parks before, but this one is really something special. It spans roughly two acres, is completely fenced in, and completely shaded in the woods. That definitely helps on hot days down here.

That black blur you see in the foreground here is Monkey, and she loves it here. She’s always one of the fastest dogs in the park and is a total instigator. All is calm and peaceful in the park until she enters. Then all hell breaks loose and she’s the center of attention. That swift speed also helps her get away from random humping that happens from time to time.

IMG_3587 (1)8. The Amazingly Beautiful Flowers

One thing that I’ll always remember about the Atlanta area are the amazing flowers and flowering trees. I remember first moving here from a neighborhood of concrete and sirens and feeling so peaceful waking up to birds chirping in the morning. This was the view from my bedroom window.

IMG_3481 (1)9. My Best Friend 

But by far, my favorite thing about living in Atlanta was being close to my best friend, Michelle. Although her place was about an hour away from mine and traffic is notoriously awful, this is the closest that we’ve lived to each other since college. A couple weeks ago, we took an awesome road trip to Asheville, North Carolina, which is worth a whole article itself (which I’ll get to at some point!).

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After selling and donating much of our stuff, we opted to stick the rest in a storage unit nearby. We rented a little U-haul trailer to tote the remaining items over there, and my biceps are bulging with soreness from carrying it all still today.
IMG_3606 (1)As you can see, the storage unit it pretty much packed to capacity with just a couple last minute things that we’re tossing in on our way out of town. Yes, for all of you wondering, a significant number of the boxes you see here are full of gnomes! Being a nomad gnome collector is tough.

Everything we own fits in a 10-foot by 12-foot space now, but I have a feeling after living without even this much stuff for a while that more of it is sure to go when we get back in town. It’s been a long couple months of packing, planning, strategizing, and organizing, but finally everything has come together. I’m exhausted, sweaty, cranky, and hope this is all worth it!IMG_3615 (1)So that brings us to today, the first day of the next big adventure. We’re starting with a grand tour of the East Coast, and a campground in Asheville is the first stop on the list.

Too much of life is planned out and predictable, and this is our opportunity to live a life of freedom, exploration, and surprises. I don’t expect to live out my remaining days in a tiny pop-up camper, but for now, the idea suits me just fine. I don’t necessarily want to know what happens next or where we’ll end up after the road trip ends. That’s the beauty of it all, and a sentiment that I plan to embrace day by day. This is a time to live in the moment.

So thank you, Atlanta, you’ve treated me well, but it’s now time for me to move on.

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Four Legs That Can’t Pedal: Adventures in Biking with a Dog

There are a two types of dog owners: ones that take their dogs with them on adventures and ones that leave their dogs behind. Now I’m not hating on those that hire dog sitters when they go out of town, because these are the folks that helped me build my side gig and make a few extra thousand dollars here and there.

But when we adopted Monkey, I knew that I wanted her to be as much a part of our travel adventures as humanly and canine-ly possible. That’s why when we recently took a trip to New Mexico and planned to put some serious miles on the bikes, I knew it was time to invest in some new equipment.

Just a few days before leaving Atlanta, we Amazon Primed a red-colored, medium sized Solvit HoundAbout Pet Bicycle Trailer to our apartment. We tried to coax Monkey inside it in the living room with toys and treats, but she was just not having it. After a while, we gave her a little push to see if she’d get used to it. But it was immediately clear that either she was too big or the trailer was too small, because it was so cramped in there that she could barely sit down. It was great quality, but just too small for a 43-pound dog.

We promptly returned the trailer with no remaining days to spare before hitting the road on an epic five-week camping trip. Fortunately these days, you don’t have to stay in one place to receive packages, and we arranged to have a larger bike trailer shipped to a UPS store in Albuquerque.

This new blue Solvit HoundAbout Pet Bicycle Trailer was a size large with a lightweight aluminum frame. The product description said it would be suitable for a pet up to 110 pounds, but I’m not sure how the heck that would work. For 43-pound Monkey, this was much better though.

ABQ Ride 1The trailer folds down for storage and the wheels come off and stow inside. It’s actually pretty easy put together after you’ve done it a couple times, and there are mesh screens to boost air flow. It came with a black cushion pad, but I whipped out my sewing machine and made her a cushier one to entice her to ride a bit more. She loves soft things.

Admittedly, the first ride or two had their challenges. I had to pick her up to get her inside the trailer the first couple times, but these days she just walks right in on her own and plops down. Whew! ABQ Ride 2Our very first ride was on the Paseo del Bosque Trail in Albuquerque, which is a multi-use 16-mile paved trail goes from the north to the south edges of the metro area through the Rio Grande’s cottonwood forest. There are lots of access points with free parking listed on the City of ABQ’s website.

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This was an amazing trail for a first dog trailer ride because it was flat, smooth, wide, and not too crowded. With the equipment we have, the trailer only connects well to my bike, so we switch bikes halfway through the ride to break up the labor. This also gives Monkey a break to get out and stretch her legs.
ABQ Ride 3On this particular day, it was lovely weather in the low-70s, and we cranked out a total of about 26 miles round-trip. Afterwards, we let Monkey hike around a bit on a nature trail and then got drive-in milkshakes at Sonic. It was just too-conveniently located right off the trail and too tempting to just gain back the calories we’d just burned. Ice cream and fro yo are my ultimate junk food weakness.ABQ Ride 4 She was a real trooper on this ride, and I felt better about bringing her along than leaving her along in a strange campsite to fend for herself. I don’t believe in keeping dogs in cages at home, especially if they’ve already put in plenty of cage time in a shelter. But I hope the pretty scenery whipping by and the fresh air flowing in are fun for her inside that trailer…especially when we pass by other dogs huffing and puffing by with jealous looks on their faces.
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The next time we broke out the bike trailer on the New Mexico adventure was in Santa Fe, on the Santa Fe Rail Trail. This trail posed a different kind of challenge because it was not paved and quite hilly.

Santa Fe ride 1This 17-mile trail follows the old Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line from the Railyard park in Santa Fe to the tracks, Highway 285, El Dorado, Lamy. There’s a little bit of everything along this ride in urban, suburban and rural surroundings. Santa Fe ride 2Where we started near our (highly recommended) campground, Rancheros de Santa Fe Campground, we encountered hilly, red-dirt terrain in the countryside with yucca and green junipers growing nearby. A 43-pound dog in a trailer feels incredibly heavy after lugging it up and down hills and over rocks with a pretty standard hybrid bike.Santa Fe ride 3But after a grueling while of this, the dirt suddenly transformed into pavement, and we were smooth-sailing again down the trail. Those first few pedals after the dirt felt like flying!
Santa Fe ride 4We took our mid-bike pit stop at Second Street Brewery, which unfortunately wasn’t really all that dog-friendly and had some questionable happy hour rules. But a cold brew after that challenging ride tasted delicious nonetheless. A local commuter train called the Rail Runner ran alongside the bike trail and the brewery, which we checked out while giving Monkey a bike break.Santa Fe ride 5The sun was starting to set by the time we made it back to the Jeep, which was perfect timing to collapse the trailer and hit up a local grocery store to cook dinner. The sunsets here really are pretty amazing.Santa Fe ride 6

Another bike trip we did in Santa Fe was to the Santa Fe Railyard. This was a shorter and more paved ride we did, with the intent of sightseeing and walking around a bit more with Monkey. From what I’d read about this neighborhood, I was surprised to see it not crowded and quite a few of the shops actually out of business and moved out. But it’s still a really walkable area, and I think Monkey enjoyed a little more time out and about.

Santa Fe Railyard

Since returning back home to Atlanta, we’ve taken out the bike trailer a few more times, and these days Monkey’s a pro at riding in style. We took her on a ride on the Big Creek Greenway between Roswell and Alpharetta, Georgia a couple weeks ago, which was super chill. This is mostly a 12-foot wide paved path that runs through the deciduous woods along Big Creek. But there are also dirt mountain biking trails nearby on the east side of the creek. Monkey and I haven’t been adventurous enough to try those out with the trailer just yet.

Another local spot we biked on the 4th of July to “celebrate our independence from motor vehicles” was the Silver Comet Trail. This trail picks up about 13 miles northwest of Atlanta and extends for a whopping 61.5 miles and ends at the Georgia/Alabama state line. And it doesn’t stop there! Once you cross over into Alabama, you can keep going to Anniston, Alabama for a total of 94.5 miles if you start in Smyrna.

But we took it easy clocked in at just over a leisurely 20 miles to get some fresh air and exercise. This is another wonderfully paved and shaded trail that you can squeeze into a morning ride, even when the day’s high temperatures are going to be 100 degrees.

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I have this bad habit of never taking photos or writing about the places I’m living in, which is unfortunate and something I want to work on. I lived in Chicago for over 6 years and now Atlanta for 1.5 years and haven’t written or photographed much of anything in either city. When I’m traveling, everything seems more blog-worthy and photo-worthy, but these places have treated me well too, and I apologize deeply to them for leaving them out of the mix. Perhaps someday I’ll visit them in the future when I’m living somewhere else and then they’ll make the cut.

Unfortunately, there’s not room in the Jeep or camper to bring the bikes and Monkey’s trailer on our next big adventure, which kicks off in just eight days. This is mostly because it’s summer and we’ll be focusing on water sports instead, like kayaking and SUP. Sadly, a tiny pop-up camper only has a limited amount of room for sporting goods storage, so choices must be made. But come fall, I’m hoping to retrieve the bike gear and introduce Monkey to some new trails that we can explore together on wheels.

IMG_3529 (1)Final Closing Tips for Dog Biking

  • Try before you buy (companies often claim trailers are rated for way more poundage of dog than actually comfortable)
  • Pick a trailer with good pockets for her water bowl, treats, and poop bags
  • Make the trailer as cozy as possible with a soft pillow and favorite toys
  • Be patient, but not afraid to shove her in after a fair number of tries
  • Start with short rides and build up to longer ones
  • Stick to paved trails, at least at first
  • Don’t put a dog in a trailer when it’s crazy hot outside
  • If biking in a pair, let the bike with the dog go first to set the pace and so she can see the other person behind her and feel more comfortable
  • Allow time for stretching and walking breaks
  • Adjust your biking expectations and be prepared to ride slower and not as far with a trailer
  • Scope out dog-friendly breweries to celebrate the end of your ride together!

The Antique Gnomes of Rock City – Chattanooga, Tennessee

On a recent drive from Illinois to Georgia, I made a pit stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee and decided to check out the famous attraction advertised on all the highway billboards: Rock City. Much to my delight, the nature paths and caves here are filled with gnomes!

I knew I was in for something special when the road leading up to Rock City was called “Ochs Highway.” No joke. Clearly, this place was meant for me.

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History of the Rock City Gnomes

In the late 1920s, Garnet and Frieda Carter began developing a walkable garden on their private estate to share their love for the region’s rock formations and native plants with the public.

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The husband-wife team opened Rock City Gardens during the Great Depression and had over 800 barns painted to advertise and attract tourists to Chattanooga. They gave the attraction its name because the rocks on top of Lookout Mountain looked like city buildings and the natural pathways like streets.

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Frieda Carter loved European folklore and fairytales, and she was an avid gnome collector. So naturally, many of her gnomes made it into the local attraction.

Gnomes Along the Enchanted Trail

Your gnome journey begins at the new Gnome Valley installation, which is a growing collection of whimsical space at the beginning of the Enchanted Trail.

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As you walk along the beautiful and easily accessible trail, you’ll notice even more gnomes peeking behind rocks to greet you.

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Keep an eye out for little red hats as you navigate the trail to Lover’s Leap, the 180-foot suspension bridge, Mother Goose Village, and the summit where you can see seven states on a clear day.

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Another awesome part about Rock City is that the whole place is dog friendly!

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The Gnomes of Fairyland Caverns

But by far, the best place to see gnomes is inside Fairyland Caverns, as this is home to Frieda’s collection of antique, imported German gnomes.

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Inside this cave, gnomes are situated into scenes that are illuminated by black lights.

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You instantly feel a sense of magic as you pass by the Castle of the Gnomes, Carnival of the Gnomes, the Moonshine-Brewing Gnomes, and many other displays.

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Admittedly, some of the scenes were a bit on the creepy side. But isn’t that what fairy tales are really all about anyway?

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Antique Gnome Restoration

Since the Rock City gnomes date back to the 1920s and 1930s, many of them were in desperate need of repair. Rock City’s resident art specialist, Matt Dutton, created a “Gnome Infirmary” to restore the residents to their original splendor.

Matt consults old photos to keep the gnomes’ coloring consistent, painting and repairing them as needed. He uses urethane resin and a hardener to fills his handmade molds to restore each little one’s unique personality.

The Gnome Mascot & Gift Shops

A red-hatted, white-bearded gnome named Rocky is the mascot for Rock City, and you might meet him walking around in costume! Yet no roadside attraction would be complete without a gift shop, and the one at Rock City is stocked with lots of gnomes you can take home as souvenirs.

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My souvenir of choice? A purple t-shirt that reads, “I’m a rock climbing, trail trekkin’, gnome lovin’ nature kinda girl.” I couldn’t have come up with a more perfect motto for myself!

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*A version of this story is scheduled to be published in the next issue of the International Gnome Club newsletter! 

Drinking Beer in New Mexico & the Tragic Decline of Brewery Blogging

Back in 2012 when I started this blog, local craft breweries were still something of an anomaly. Coincidentally, this is also when I really started to travel and get into beer culture. Four years ago, it was incredibly exciting to stumble upon a brew house in a warehouse district, along the railroad tracks, or on Main Street downtown. But that’s when breweries were relatively few and far between in general, and definitely still new to me.

I celebrated each brewery with a strict attention to detail, with a trusty notebook in hand and a camera-toting boyfriend in the other. I used to write about each and every individual brewery I visited, noting the ambiance, the service, and casually rating my favorite and least favorite flavors.

Reminisce with me for a moment…

Fast forward to mid-2016, when every small town on the map has it’s own brewery and every big city has about a dozen. I certainly don’t love beer any less than I did four years ago, but the suddenly overcrowded marketplace has made that initial excitement wear off a bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I still incorporate breweries into my travels and plan to check out at least one in each new place I visit. But I just can’t muster up the energy to write about each and every one of them anymore. It’s a daunting task that I’m just not up for…or getting paid for! So just like every other random craft beer fan out there, these days I simply plop down, pick my poison, and leave it at that.

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit over-dramatic. I still do jot down travel notes and try to snap a photo of brew houses I visit after hikes or for an afternoon break. But after days of writing full-time for my day job, I just can’t bring myself to write more, especially about an ever-growing niche that I no longer have hope of conquering.

Then again, to bring things back into perspective…IT’S JUST BEER FOR GOD’S SAKE!

When I recently spent a month in New Mexico, not surprisingly, I visited lots of breweries to scope out the local beer scene. In no particular order, these are some of the breweries I managed to document in some way and little bits and pieces of the things I can remember about them.

Santa Fe Brewing Company, Santa Fe

This was a post-hiking brewery stop after checking out La Tienda Trails. We actually only got about 1.8 miles into the hike before a work emergency came up and we had to turn back for the laptops in the car.

Santa Fe Brewing Company 1But fortunately, all the emergency required was a little attention and an internet connection. And Santa Fe Brewing Company was right around the corner. Santa Fe Brewing Company 3They had an insane number of beers on tap, but a terrible organization system for samplers. The reason I have so many photos of this place is because I actually had to compare and match up a photo of the beer listing board inside with faded abbreviations under tiny glasses, making about four trips back and forth from the bar to the patio.

But with 13 tiny beers in front of me, how seriously irritated could I really be? Santa Fe Brewing Company 4

Second Street Brewery, Santa Fe

This was a post-biking brewery stop in Santa Fe after pedaling along the hilly, dirt roads of the Santa Fe Rail Trail. This wasn’t one of my favorite breweries because of the questionable and inconsistent rules. Apparently, I’m getting a bit crotchety in my old age.

Their large patio was not dog-friendly, but we read online that people have brought dogs to the tiny smoker’s area and didn’t get bothered, so that’s what we did. The brewery advertised happy hour specials but they didn’t honor them for the beers we picked, and they couldn’t justify their sizing and pricing. Oh well, you can’t win every time.
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Spotted Dog Brewing, Mesilla

This was a great little brewery we visited after walking around Old Town Mesilla. There were lots of cute shops and historic buildings here, and the brewery was in walking distance from all that.

Here we powered up the laptops and cranked out a bit of writing over a sampler to finish off the day in an awesome way. As any good gnome collector will tell you, these little guys love gnome-sized beer and make the very best drinking companions.

Spotted Dog Brewing Mesilla

Red Door Brewery, Albuquerque

They really did have a red door! This was one of the first breweries we went to in Albuquerque after hiking the Sandia Mountains. I remember liking this place because it had a little outdoor patio that was completely empty and super chill. After sharing a sampler of 10 tiny beers, I grabbed our growlers from the jeep and got one filled up with the wit and the small one with the scotch ale.

Red Door Brewery ABQ 1

Sometimes I forget to snap a shot or two of the brewery I’m at to help me remember it, or I’m just not in that mindset at the time. Unfortunately, this was the case with three breweries in the Albuquerque area: Canteen BreweryMarble Brewery, and Turtle Mountain Brewing Company.

Canteen was a frustrating experience because Monkey was acting like a total nut-bag and stressed us out to an extreme degree. I barely even remember what the beers were because of that, but Canteen did have a nice side patio and an attentive server.

Marble Brewery had an amazing set-up but an awful smell. The city was doing sewer work just outside the brewery in the street, and some people nearby actually complained about getting sprayed by sewer stuff. If that wouldn’t have been doing on, this Albuquerque spot would have rocked. We stopped by after a DIY Breaking Bad tour around town. There were a couple food trucks with tacos out front and a stage with a band playing music despite the crowd avoiding the outdoor space due to smells and sprays.

Turtle Mountain Brewing Company is in a fast-growing suburb of ABQ called Rio Rancho. I didn’t get any pics of this place either for some reason, but we went here after biking about 26 miles on a very nicely paved trail along the Rio Grande. Like several other breweries we went to, this was a place that has a dog-friendly patio but no service out there. I actually prefer this arrangement because I don’t have to wait on a server to come out, allowing me to just walk my own two feet inside and up to the bar when I need something.

Taos Mesa Brewing, Taos

Hands down, this brewery had the best outdoor scene ever. The ski resort town was experiencing crazy high winds the day we visited, but that didn’t stop us from sitting outside to enjoy the mountain scenery.

Taos Mesa Brewing 1We stopped by after hiking at Rio Grande Del Norte and having a picnic lunch on BLM land near the parking lot. The brewery had stages both inside and outside and clearly hosts a lot of events and concerts. However, the taste of the beer paled in comparison to the views of the mountains. The beers were mediocre at best, with standard flavors and nothing truly interesting. But those views though! Taos Mesa Brewing 2

Pecan Grill & Brewery, Las Cruces

This was a rare find that we stumbled across after taking a wrong turn following a hike in the Organ Mountains. I was actually on the hunt for a PetCo because Monkey was (gasp!) nearly out of food. I had seen the Pecan Grill and Brewery come up in a Yelp list a few days before, so we stopped in to try it to make the wrong turn worthwhile.

I was hesitant at first because it seemed like it would have more of a restaurant vibe, which often means that the beer takes a back seat in quality. However, this place pleasantly surprised me more than pretty much anywhere else on this trip. They had happy hour specials that they honored the price on, cheap appetizer specials that were quite tasty, and a laid-back environment where I got a little writing done. Our server did a killer job too.

Pecan Grill Las Cruces

High Desert Brewing, Las Cruces

Another Las Cruces brewery we visited was High Desert, which was our destination after hunting for peridot gemstones at Kilbourne Hole. Some of these New Mexico breweries serve food, while others are drinks-only. We try to save money by making our own food in the camper, but making beer from the road isn’t really all the feasible. However, at this place, we splurged and split a couple appetizers to go along with the sampler.

It was an awesome environment, despite Monkey being super-restless after a long and bumpy car ride. The patio was cozy and closed in, which provided some shelter from the crazy high winds that I’ll always remember about Las Cruces.

High Desert Brewing Las Cruces

Don Quixote Distillery & Winery, Jaconita

But of course, there are many other things to drink besides beer…namely wine and spirits. This was a stop on the way back from Chimayo, which is a Catholic pilgrimage site in the middle of nowhere.

Don Quixote Distillery & Winery 1We arrived to Don Quixote a few minutes before it opened and downed cans of soup and beans in the car while we waited. The bartender/sole staff worker was the most unfriendly host I’ve encountered in a tasting room. We were the only ones there, but she talked on her phone the entire time and seemed genuinely annoyed by having to serve us (paid) samples. Don Quixote Distillery & Winery 2I remember really liking the lavender and juniper gin, which was a surprise because I’ve never been a gin drinker. The flavors were intensely good though. I also remember liking the rose-infused wine. However, I didn’t buy anything except the tasting, mostly because of the service.

Breweries and Dogs

Although I may have started off writing this a bit disenchanted with the ever-expanding craft brewery scene, I still believe there are new experiences to discover at each one. Lately, my brewery experiences can be best defined as dog experiences too.

We’ve been slowly but surely training our newly adopted lab/pit, Monkey, to become the ultimate brewery companion. Breweries and dogs seem to go hand-in-hand, and I’ve always wanted a chill and friendly pup by my side while I sip my brews on a patio.

Before visiting any given brewery, I’ve gotten really good at one particular phone call that goes something like this:

Brewery Person: Hi, XYZ Brewing Company, how can I help you?

Me: Hi, do you have a patio that allows dogs?

(response #1) – Yep, sure do.

(response #2) – Nope, sorry, only service dogs.

(response #3) – You wanna do WHAT?!

Santa Fe Brewing Company 5On dog-friendly patios, Monkey is getting better at the fine art of hanging out, usually equipped with a comfy pad, bone, and travel water bowl.

But of course, sometimes she likes to do this and sit like people, which is a bit awkward.
Red Door Brewery ABQ 2Then other times, she does this and sleeps all cute-like and curled up under the table. And I forgive her for all wrongdoings.Second Street Brewery Santa Fe 2Perhaps one of these days I’ll manage to secure a writing gig that pays me to write about and review breweries. Then, without a doubt, I’d be all over this scene as if I’d never lost a beat since 2012. I’ve already started to break into the wine scene with a steady gig at The Grapevine Magazine, so perhaps craft beer writing could be in my future as well.

But until then, I’ll just jot down a sentence or two at the end of the day, snap a picture if I think of it, and not stress out over missed writing opportunities. After all, quality beer is best enjoyed with a chill state of mind, right?

3 Unforgettable Hiking Trips near Las Cruces: Southwest Road Trip Series

While spending a month in New Mexico, my husband, new pup, and I set up camp in three different “home bases” to explore the surrounding areas: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. I didn’t know much about Las Cruces before I spent a week here, but it ended up being one of the memorable parts of the entire trip. This was largely because of the unique hiking spots we got to explore that were nothing short of fascinating.

One thing that I’ll always associate with Las Cruces is the crazy high wind. Pretty much every day we were here, there were sustained 30 mph winds with 50 mph gusts that were relentless. Other things I’ll always remember about this place include finding my birthstone in the wild, hiking through a sandstorm, and learning how resilient my pup, Monkey, really is.

So for the next contribution to this Southwest Road Trip Series, these were my three most unforgettable hiking trips in the Las Cruces area.

 

1. Kilbourne Hole – Mining for Peridot Gemstones

The first hike that we went on in the Las Cruces area didn’t end up involving much actual hiking at all. Instead, it was a treasure hunt!

Kilbourne Hole is a place that you won’t find in average New Mexico guidebooks, and we only learned about it while reading about gemstones native to this region. I was skeptical about finding gemstones out in the wild, untouched by human existence in this day and age. But treasure hunts like this don’t happen every day, so we had to give it a try.

It took about an hour and a half to reach Kilbourne Hole from our campground in Las Cruces via intense off-road-style dirt paths that brought the Jeep’s speed down to about 20 mph. Pretty close to the Mexico border, this place really is in the middle of nowhere, and the 45-minutes of rocky dirt trail to get here was an adventure in itself.

IMG_4793Kilbourne Hole is a maar (i.e. a pit/depression caused by a volcanic explosion) in Doña Ana County and a remnant of a volcanic explosion that dates back an estimated 100,000 years. Today it’s a National Natural Landmark on BLM land and known for the unique minerals that surfaced after the eruption. The crater measures just 1.7 miles long by over a mile across, but it’s hundreds of feet deep.

IMG_4794Although I was skeptical about actually finding rocks worth anything, only a few minutes passed before we started seeing green and yellow gems glimmering in the sunlight. This area is open to the public and there are no regulations about removing any rocks from the site as long as you can maneuver the crazy roads to take them back to wherever you came from. IMG_2471Along the road to get here and at the crater site, I never saw a single other person or car. The only signs of life out here were a few stray cows and a desert flower or two.

After parking the car, we descended into the deep gorge pit and braced ourselves for the crazy wind blowing in all directions. This area can only be described as desolate. In fact, the landscape makes you feel like you’re in a cartoon: the same scene over and over again to mock you and make you question reality. IMG_4812But what was really fun about this adventure for me is that we actually found my August birthstone here, peridot! Some of the stones were scattered loosely, likely someone else’s scraps from a previous collection. But others were hidden deep inside unassuming dark rocks strewn about and required a good smash to reveal the shiny stuff inside. IMG_2973We brought a couple handfuls of peridot-encrusted rocks back home with us and have begun to separate the gems from the rock parts. It’s tedious, but how fun would it be to create a piece of jewelry someday with my birthstone gem that I “mined” for along the U.S.-Mexico border! IMG_2975

Science nerds out there can read more about the crustal and mantle (peridotite/olivine-bearing) xenoliths on the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources landmark page. There’s also a 7.57-mile hike that you can do around the volcanic maar sink hole that takes about 3.5 hours and takes you to different parts of the crater that has other types of rock to check out.

 

2. White Sands National Monument – A Surreal Sandstorm

When I was 15 years old and had my learner’s permit from driver’s ed, my parents and I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon. To my delight, they let me get some of my driving hours in on straight and boring roads in the Arizona desert. Little did I know that my parents set me up to drive in my very first sandstorm with plenty of those little white crosses lined along the highway to serve as reminders of the sandstorms that have come before.

The day we hiked White Sands National Monument maybe didn’t constitute a full-blown sandstorm like that one, but the powerful winds sure did make for an interesting day in the desert.

Oddly, we had to pass through border patrol just to reach the national park, which the park staff blamed on anti-drug trafficking efforts. However, the roads were paved, which was a nice change after the insanely bumpy ride to Kilbourne Hole. The visitor center and gift shop had lots of fun souvenirs if you need to stock up on friends & family gifts, so they’re worth a quick stop on your way in.

IMG_4828Hiking the white sands of New Mexico really is unlike hiking anywhere else. It’s vast, desolate, windswept, and mysterious. And since the dunes are formed by gypsum, the sand is surprisingly cool-to-the-touch, even on scorching hot days.
IMG_2493These dunes in the Tularosa Basin were explored by Native Americans, exploited by Spanish explorers in pursuit of resources, and used by the U.S. military for missile testing. They’ve really been through a lot but are in amazingly preserved condition. IMG_2509As we set on out the Alkali Flat Trail, we only encountered one other couple that was moving markedly slower than we were across the dunes. This trail is just under five miles, but surprisingly strenuous with the steep dune climbs and high winds.

It’s best climbed barefoot, and lots of water is an obvious must. I heard that you can actually rent out sandboards and sleds to glide down the dunes, which would have been a blast but we didn’t have time to try it after the hike and before the sun set. IMG_4924There’s no shade or water along this trail, or anywhere out in the dunes, but thankfully there are helpful little orange and white posts to let you know you’re on the right path. Reduced visibility and getting lost are total possibilities out here, especially in the high-winds of the spring season.IMG_4918About halfway through the hike, you’ll reach the flat section that has a really creepy vibe to it. The Alkali Flat is the dry lake-bed of Lake Otero, which filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered a massive1,600 square miles. IMG_4969Although she was just as covered in sand from head to toe as we were, Monkey was a really trooper and truly seemed to really enjoy the soft, cool texture for the most part. When overly excited, she “twirls” and “dances,” which escalates to the highest degree on sandy beaches and even dunes like these.IMG_4957

 

3. Organ Mountains – Baylor Pass Trail

Several years ago when I first started freelance writing full-time, I wrote some advocacy articles for the petition site, Force Change. I learned about the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico while doing some trip research and wrote a petition to Preserve Beautiful Desert Mountain Range as a National Monument back in 2013. A little over a year later, President Obama signed a presidential proclamation that the five mountain ranges above the Chihuahuan Desert would finally have National Monument status, and therefore federal protection and managed preservation.

Well, I finally got to visit these mountains for myself and venture out on a hike that started with this ominous warning sign. One afternoon after working a half-day back at the campground in Las Cruces, we set out on the Baylor Pass Trail, which is about six miles long.

P1060708The Organ Mountains are full of Native American, New Mexican, and American history that includes Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, Geronimo’s Cave, pictographs & petroglyphs, Apollo Space Mission training sites, and WWII aerial targets. Their towering peaks are even more ominous that that warning sign and create an eerie presence in the sunset.
P1060711From the trailhead, it felt like a long hike just to get to the base of the mountains, and it was a steady, moderate climb from there. I saw quite a few wildflowers and mysterious yellow berries in the shrubs along this trail, which took my mind off the rising temperatures and bright sun beating down.
P1060725This is when Monkey really proved her resilience here because I’m pretty sure she got a spider bite and was a real champ about it. She’s a very quiet dog that rarely makes a sound at anything, but I heard a tiny yelp and saw her frantically pawing at herself and starting to roll around on the ground. Then I noticed a spider on her paw and brushed it off. I can’t be sure that the spider caused the ruckus, but there was no other explanation in sight.

Monkey’s hiking pace slowed dramatically, and she would periodically sit down mid-stride, which I’ve never seen her do before. She also seemed to be limping, which was especially concerning because we still had about 1.5 miles to get back to the car. I was starting to prepare myself to carry this 44-pound pup the rest of the way and start searching for nearby animal hospitals as soon as I had internet reception again.

But somehow, she just slowly got over whatever was bothering her and got back to her old self again by the end of the hike. I was really proud of my little Monkey for being so tough and keeping up with us on all these hikes. Her life has changed so dramatically since she was picked up as a stray and lived in county animal control cage, and I can only hope that she’s enjoying all of these new adventures as much as we are.

P1060757

Well, since this wraps up my posts about my three home bases in New Mexico, my next ones will be about getting off the beaten path, doing some biking, sampling brews at local breweries, and random musings on traveling with a dog. There’s plenty more New Mexico adventures to come, which I’d better wrap up soon because the next big trip is right around the corner!

***This article was also featured as a guest post on Southwest Discoveries. Check out Hiking in New Mexico – 3 unforgettable trips to take