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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Crappy Craft Creations: A Recap Stuff I Recently Made

It’s always hard for me to focus on doing crafts during the summer because I love warm weather and being outside as much as possible. But once fall and winter roll around, it’s always a little easier to be an inside-dweller and get back into crappy crafting.

Like most of you reading this, I spend entirely too much time on my laptop and generally staring at screens. There’s something unique about crafting that appeals to me on a psychological level because it’s so different from what I do to make a living.

Here are some of my recent craft creations that have made my brain work in different ways than my day job.

IMG_0386Hands down, this winter’s craft-of-choice has been loom knitting. I’ve done knitting and crocheting, but this is a different approach for a similar result, and one that I find to be way quicker and easier than the alternatives.

IMG_0388I bought a set of colorful looms at Michael’s and a few balls of yarn. The process of loom knitting is really as simple as wrapping yarn around pegs over and over again. After looping the yarn around each peg twice, you pull off one piece of thread with a needle, which makes a knot.

And after just a couple hours….BAM….you have a hat!

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One thing I really loved this winter about loom-knitted hat making is that it’s a portable craft. I have knitted hats while riding in the passenger seat on road trips and even inside our new pop-up camper with a bottle of wine and a podcast.

IMG_0463The simplicity of the process and the pretty-much-perfect results every time motivated me to make more hats…

IMG_0623And more hats, and more hats! Basically everyone on my Christmas list got a hat this year.

IMG_0918Sewing has taken a bit of a backseat so far this winter and continues to intimidate me. I received this shirt pattern from a friend and decided I would use it to try making my very first shirt.

IMG_0456Hours of struggling resulted in this blue thing that has two sleeves. Two sleeves = shirt, right? I continue to have issues with translating my personal measurements into properly sized garments, and this shirt was drastically large and floppy on me.

Some seams are inside out, but at least all the pieces are in the right place. I can’t say that I’ll be wearing this out of the house anytime soon, but I am glad that I at least stuck with it and finished it. Maybe the next shirt will be easier?

IMG_0454Another craft I’ve really gotten into lately is needle felting. Check out my post, My First Attempt at Felting: Project Plush Gnome, to learn more about how this whole felting thing works.

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For Christmas gifts this year, I decided to make two felted birds….one for my grandma and one for my sister-in-law. So far, I’ve made a needle felted gnome, a monkey, and an owl-in-a-tree, and I’m always surprised at how fool-proof this craft is. I literally just stab fluff with a needle until it takes shape and it somehow turns out looking pretty good.

I was super pleased with how these little birds turned out. I bought the little nests at Michael’s and super-glued the birds to them so they have no chance of escaping.

IMG_0921I used one of those paint-a-mug sets designed for five-year-olds and made a mug for my grandma too. I mean seriously, what else do you give a 92-year-old besides homemade gifts?

IMG_0912The paint is supposed to be cool with microwaving and dishwashing, but only time will tell. It was a really basic set so all the writing and drawing was done free-hand, adding to the kindergarten look of it.

After painting it, the instructions said to put it in the oven for 30 minutes, which I did. I’m not sure if I’ll make another one of these, but it was an easy craft an I think my grandma enjoyed getting it.

IMG_0913Sometime earlier this fall, I painted a birdhouse with crazy colors that would drive even the most sane bird batty. I have a bird feeder and hummingbird feeder on my miniature balcony outside, so I thought a birdhouse would be a fun addition.

However, I have not yet figured out a way to attach it to the balcony. So it remains sitting on the living room floor taking up space, dreaming of future bird residents.

20150808_101343In other news, I sculpted a really dumb-looking elephant.

Sculpting is definitely not my gift, and I honestly don’t have the patience or precision for it. But a couple years ago, I randomly made my husband an elephant out of clay. It was purple and lumpy and barely distinguishable. When we moved to Atlanta, that poor purple elephant’s ear fell off, which must have been quite painful.

Elephant 2.0 is blue, has tusks, and is misshapen in different ways than Elephant 1.0.

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So what’s next for this crappy crafter?

Well, I figure it’s high time for a new sewing project. I’ve been wanting to learn to make handbags for awhile now and just settled on a pattern I found online.

One barrier to sewing for me is going to the craft store. There isn’t a convenient one nearby and I really don’t like shopping in stores for much of anything. So to eliminate that barrier, I ordered some materials via Amazon Prime and used some old fabric I had lying around. Yes, that’s the same gnome fabric from the skirt I made from my very first sewing class!

So far, I’ve cut out the material, pressed out the wrinkles with my fancy new Rowenta iron, and gathered everything up to dive right in…one of these days…

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Creating via crafts is so different from creating via words, and I’m so glad I didn’t wait until old age to pick up on these hobbies. I try to be a minimalist and hate being surrounded by clutter, but I do enjoy giving homemade gifts and wearing things I’ve made with my own two hands.

My crafts are far from perfect, but that’s not really the point. For me, crafting is just as much about the process as the end result. When I’m not cursing in agony and frustration, the process of creating something from nothing feels therapeutic. It makes me focus on one thing at a time and takes my mind away from whatever else is clouding it up. I wish I could sneak a couple extra hours into the day to make more time for crafting, but for now it’s a great mini-escape for me that results in something that I can show off, give away, or just laugh about.

Chronicles of the Pop-Up Camper: Adventure #1 of 1,000,000

It’s not yet the new year, but a new era of travel an adventure has already begun!

We recently bought our very first camper, a tiny pop-up that’s perfectly sized for two and in awesome condition. You hear nothing but horror stories about Craigslist sales these days, but here’s a success story. A random dude in Sharpsburg, Georgia took amazing care of his pop-up and was selling it to upgrade to a larger one to fit his wife, toddler, and dog. But for two people (like us) and no extraneous beings (like we don’t have), it’s perfect.

IMG_0643We live in an apartment complex that isn’t exactly camper parking friendly. Fortunately, we have a one-car garage that it fits into perfectly, while the cars sleep outside. Chief the Jeep likes it outdoors better anyway.

The destination for our first “trial run” with the new camper was Mistletoe State Park, a random state park along a lake near Augusta, Georgia. I packed the Jeep with bedding, pillows, towels, and kitchen items to use inside. It might be small, but it is mighty. There’s a kitchen inside with a sink, stove burners, and ice box. Our seller even threw in a free mini fridge.

IMG_0644The size of the camper makes getting gas not too much of an ordeal, which is nice. Because of construction and traffic, it took nearly three hours to reach our campground. A Dairy Queen ice cream stop was definitely needed to ease the nerves.

IMG_0646The campground was pleasantly vacant, though the temperature still pretty warm. Gotta love the south! Like idiots, we had left the manual at home and sorta kinda forgot where to stick some poles for the set-up. Fortunately, you can find everything online, so the internet came to our rescue.

Ta da!

IMG_0647The set-up was actually pretty easy, even for a first time. We picked site #31, and when we checked in there were 56 sites still available. We were right on the lake, which would have been perfect for some kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. But alas, it was a bit chilly and rainy for all that.

The interior of our new camper is in surprisingly wonderful condition, considering it’s a 2002 model. The cushions and curtains have no rips or stains, and all camper interior designs are retro ugly so there’s really no way around that.

IMG_0649I had a blast setting up our new house-on-wheels and getting everything organized. It felt wonderfully spacious, cozy, and clean. As expected, there were a number of things that we forgot to bring…things that you probably wouldn’t think of until you’re in-the-moment and in the camper. These are things like water hoses, plastic bins for dishes, an outdoor bristled floor mat, long lighters, spice shakers, and a bucket.

IMG_0662I popped open a bottle of wine to celebrate our first camper set-up success and enjoy the peaceful view. And rightfully so…take a look at this perfect outdoor scene!

IMG_0672It was a little hard to leave it behind, but we also wanted to check out the city of Augusta while it was still daylight. There’s a really nice river walk area in the middle of town that makes for a scenic stroll. Our stroll ended at Hive Growler Bar, which had a zillion types of craft beer on draft and served up a mean vegan bean burger with kale slaw. Definitely a recommended food and drink spot downtown.

IMG_0676Then a completely random idea came up…why not play bingo at an Army base? You know, seriously, like why not?

Coincidentally, my dad actually stayed at Fort Gordon when he was in the army before I was born. He was part of the military police and stood guard at the entrance where we passed through in search of bingo fame and fortune.

IMG_0680Security was incredibly tight here, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I’d never been to a military fort/base before. After passing by the guards with guns, we checked in at the entrance and had to hand over everything from social security numbers to fingerprints and our intentions for the evening.

The fort wasn’t all that interesting to drive around honestly – a lot of residential buildings but not much in the way of restaurants or shopping centers. After a considerable amount of driving, we finally reached BINGO PALACE.

IMG_0681Now I’ve played bingo at a couple bars around town on weeknights, and I remember a particularly random Saturday afternoon back in college with my girlfriends when we went to a hardcore bingo hall in Peoria, Illinois. I’ll never be able to get those images of super-intense bingo-ers with their colorful dabbers, good luck charms, and spread of cards out of my brain.

But unfortunately, this bingo outing was a flop. The woman working at the front advised us that it was a “high stakes” night and it would cost $60 per person minimum to play. That’s a bit rich for my non-gambling blood, so we bailed to spend the remainder of the evening in the new camper instead.

But I didn’t really mind. I can entertain myself pretty damn well with a knitting project, bottle of wine, and storytelling podcasts. This night’s picks were a winter beanie hat I was making for my dad’s Christmas gift, Riesling, and The Moth.

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With a wide open schedule for the next day, it seemed like the perfect setup for a lazy Sunday morning. In a rare moment of laziness, we spent all morning lounging, reading, and just looking around the camper that was ours…all ours.

When the temperatures warmed up after lunch, we packed up to hike through the state park, starting on the Cliatt Loop to the Rock Dam Trail.

IMG_0690This was an 8-mile hike, but we took a few wrong turns and blamed the abundance of dead leaves on the ground obscuring the paths. This made our hike a couple miles shy of the full route, but it was still a nice day to be out and active in November.

Besides, this trip was all about trying out the new camper. Just looking at her next to my Jeep was perfection and made so much sense. Although I’m still trying to think of a name to call her.

IMG_3315What’s next for Little Miss Nameless Camper?

First up is a New Year’s Eve/Day camping trip to Skidaway Island near Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia. This will be another “first,” because we’ll be trying out camper camping with a dog for the first time! My favorite dog-sitting pup, Roxy, is staying with us for a while, and if any dog I know can handle this adventure it’s her!

Then the ultimate “first” adventure is in talks for February – a multi-week southeast-to-southwest camper trip. New Mexico is destined to be a big part of this journey, and the rest TBD!

I’m certainly not giving up tent camping, which is awesome in its own ways. But the camper adds more versatility to the camping experience and allows us to live in the outdoors even when the weather sucks. There’s a heater and air conditioner inside and semi-soft beds to keep us comfortable and less cranky. And most importantly, it’s way more accommodating for working from the road (a la outlets, a table, and shelter from the elements), which is definitely something I crave more of in 2016 and beyond!

“Gnome Hunting” with the Boden Gnome Ranger at a Lovely UK Arboretum

Still on a “gnome high” from my visit to the Gnome Reserve in the English countryside, I sat in a cheap motel in Bristol and thought about my new move.

There was one more place in England that I had dreamed of visiting… and I didn’t know when I’d be back around these parts.

About an hour and a half north of Bristol lives a magical colony of gnomes that I’ve become acquainted with through the power of the internet. The Bodenham Arboretum is located in something of a mouthful called “Wolverley, Kidderminster, Worcestershire.”

Here’s a little blurb for historical background:

A mile long drive winding through undulating countryside gently climbs to the brow of the hills to reveal a secret garden nurtured since 1973. An oasis of plantations, pools and avenues beautifully landscaped including over 3000 species of trees and shrubs from all over the world.

Bodenham is an area of outstanding landscape beauty and interest. Its 156 acres contains mature woodland, specimen trees and shrubs and two acres of pools and lakes.

So honestly, what better place could there be for gnomes to take up residence?!

Lucky for me, I’m well-connected to the ultimate Boden Gnome Guide, who just happened to be available to meet me the next morning.

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Davy is the one and only Boden Gnome Ranger. He is the faithful leader of the Boden Gnomes, which are the mystical, woodland characters  that help the farmers and the arborists with their work at Bodenham Arboretum. He and his lovely wife, Jackie, were kind enough to squeeze us into their busy day before an 86th birthday celebration with less than a day’s notice.

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I was so excited to meet spend my morning with this friendly and welcoming gnome enthusiast and meet all of his woodland gnomes. An important distinction to remember is that woodland gnomes wear green hats. It’s all those garden gnomes that wear red ones.

Much to my delight, the Ranger was in full character and costume: green vest and hat, a beard reminiscent of a mop I used to have in the kitchen, rain boots with mushrooms on them, a fishing pole with a squeaky toy fish on the end, and a gnome-carved walking stick.

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Equipped with this hiking stick and a fishing pole, we ventured into Poplar Dingle and were greeted by our first Boden Gnomes near the entrance.

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The arboretum hosts a “gnome hunt” in the summertime. And no, there are no gnomes harmed in this type of hunting of course.

The Boden Gnome Gnome Hunt – June 3rd – August 30th

This summer the ‘BodenGnomes’ will return for the whole of the Summer holidays to enable children of ‘all’ ages visiting Bodenham to join in the fun and search for the hidden Gnomes around the Arboretum.  Details and a map of the route can be found at the Visitor Centre. There will be a prize draw for all entries. Normal entry charges apply.

I spy one up there in the tree with a “G”!

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And there’s another lurking in the weeds! Both gnome statutes and wooden gnome cut-outs call the gnome trail home.They’re not too hard to spot if you’re moderately observant.

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And just when you least expect it…a Viking Gnome appears on a fence. Man, he looks fierce.

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Gnome spotting is hard work, so we stopped for a moment to sit a spell and chat about travel and gnomes. Many of the hiding gnomes were holding letters, which formed a secret word that I won’t reveal in this blog in case there aren’t plans to change it next year. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise 🙂

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Obligatory posing at the festive cardboard face cutout was a must. And now I’ve gotten a brilliant new idea to sew a mushroom skirt.

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If you’re having any difficulty imagining this magical day by just my words and photos, how about a video or two? Here are a couple gems that really give you a sense of the Boden Gnomes experience…at least to tide you over until the hunt picks up again next summer.

Whoops, caught a lil’ bugga with his pants down! Gnomes here are strapped in for protection from vandals. Gnome thieves are the WORST, and I hope they never find their way into this lovely arboretum.

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Sadly, our visit to the arboretum was coming to a close…but not before a surprise gift was presented to us through the most beautiful row of trees.

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Would you believe that the Boden Gnome Ranger is also a skilled painter? He painted me a replica of my new newly-inked ankle tattoo, a hiker gnome, which was based on my husband’s original design.

The painting looks exactly like my tat, which is amazing! It survived the journey back to the States with no damage and I hung it above my bedside table when I returned to remember this awesome day.

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You can see more of his art on the Painterman Davy T. Facebook page. Davy’s wife, Jackie is super talented too and made us a lovely gnome-themed wedding card. Check out Crafting with Jackie to see some of her stuff! Just like my dearly wedded, Jackie isn’t all that interested in gnomes, but she’s sure a damn good sport about it!

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I was disappointed to not find any gnomes in the arboretum gift shop, but it sounds like the Boden Gnome Ranger is really campaigning for more gnomes on the premises. So hopefully it’s only a matter of time before little green-hatted men start pretty much running the place.

There’s also a really cute black dog that hangs out at the arboretum that made me miss my dog sitting business back home a bit.

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After the gnome hunt with Davy and Jackie, we spent some time walking around the arboretum to admire the wide-open, natural surroundings, which used to actually be part of a farm. So with my visit to the Bodenham Arboretum, my Euro-gnome travels had come to a close. Gnome enthusiasts really are kindred spirits, and I was so glad to have met another on my international journey.

I totally admire the Boden Gnome Ranger’s creative spirit in dressing up, singing songs, and leading prospective gnome fans through the woods in search of magic and fun. I can’t wait to see what next summer (and the summers after that) bring to the arboretum and what shenanigans these green-hatted gnomes get up to throughout the year.

A German Village Oddly Misplaced in the Hills of North Georgia

These days, pretty much all travel planning is done via the interwebs. I work for travel companies, write for travel blogs, and Google my way from one destination to the next.

However, this travel story begins differently than all the others. That’s because I planned this trip WITH A BOOK.

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I picked up this book at a local state park after a hike and flipped through it up occasionally while it sat on the coffee table. I picked out six or seven “quick escapes” from Atlanta that I wanted to check out, and one of them was the Helen/Clarkesville/Sautee area. Here are a few key points from the book that stuck out to me about this particular escape:

  • German alpine village
  • Waterfalls
  • International restaurants
  • Local wine
  • German beer
  • Boiled peanuts

Following the book’s recommendations, we started our two-day northern Georgia journey in Cornelia, a tiny town “famous” for having the world’s largest apple monument. It was pretty big, as far apples go anyway.

20150718_113810There isn’t a whole heck of a lot else going on in Cornelia (population 3,834), so we quickly moved on down US 23 to Clarkesville, another little town (population 1,250) known for mountain craft and antique stores. The book recommended a placed called Stephen’s for lunch, but Stephen must have lost in an epic battle to someone named Tucker.

I haven’t the slightest idea who Stephen or Tucker are, but this is when I realized my prized book was published in 1996. Whoops.20150718_130820

Lunch at Tucker’s was pretty alright – a fried green tomato sandwich and side salad, which hit the spot and seemed appropriately southern. Well, the fried part at least.
20150718_131021Then we mozied on over to a few of the little craft shops and watched cows paint other cows. Craft shops and festival booths always make me wish that (1) I didn’t have to have a full time job, (2) that I had unwavering motivation to keep up with crafts, and (3) that I was much, much better at crafts. Le sigh.
20150718_132107Old timey libraries with lots of books and grandma-style couches welcomed us in town…
20150718_135102…and so did little pathways around historic (abandoned?) cabins surrounding by strategically-placed statues. I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to a friendly statue.20150718_135159But statues can only provide entertainment for so long, and our next stop was Sautee, a town best known for its old general store.20150718_143502Inside the store were lots of old-timey relics…
20150718_143554…and even circus-style games that tested the strength of your love and let you watch a little peep show. I think I saw an ankle. I’m not entirely sure, but it still felt scandalous.20150718_144133By this point in the day, I’d worked up a hearty thirst. Fortunately, the Habersham Vineyards and Winery was on the way to Helen. The Southern Harvest label utilizes the distinctly Southern Muscadine grape to make sweet, fruity wines. I picked up a bottle of Peach Treat, which seemed only appropriate for a Georgia winery.

Tastings were $5 per person, but the most memorable part of this winery visit was the slushy drinks. Habersham had two slushy options: a peach flavor with white wine and a blackberry pomegranate flavor with red wine. Wine slushies…what a brilliant idea for a hot summer day!
20150718_151421Nothing really goes better with wine than chocolate, and fortunately, there are lots of sweet shops in Helen. Unfortunately, it rarely dips below the mid-90s here in the summer. So if you’re going to buy chocolate, you’re going to have to stuff your face with it right away or be prepared for a nasty mess in your pocket.

20150718_185851Unlike my typical travels that usually involve stays at campgrounds and hostels, I sprung for a full-fledged B&B this time. In Helen, we stayed at the Alpine Hilltop Haus, whose owners were kind enough to accommodate us for just one night. Most B&Bs in the area require a two-night minimum…even for last-minute bookings, which is annoying.
20150718_182624Our room had the most amazingly realistic mural painted on it. Seriously, nothing in this photo is real except the chairs, table and lamp. Mind = blown.
20150718_182336It was totally relaxing to hang out in the B&B’s living room, which was much more spacious than mine back at home. This is where I watched some ridiculous reality show about dating naked while flipping through old copies of National Geographic Traveler, while my husband started putting together a puzzle of an bland lighthouse.

This is also where breakfast was served the next morning, which was a tasty egg quiche, breads, coffee, and tea. There were four or five other couples staying here as well, but it didn’t feel crowded. The back yard overlooked the Chattahoochee River down below, which would have been quite peaceful if not for all those silly tubers.
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The big thing to do in Helen, which I quickly discovered, is tubing. Tourists stand in long lines waiting to board re-purposed school buses and be dropped off at the top of the river. They leisurely float down the gentle currents, bumping into each other and awkwardly getting out to swim from time to time.

The crowds, lines, and congestion made this an unattractive option for our relaxing, low-key weekend. But perhaps another time.
20150718_191657There were quite a few German restaurants around town in Helen, and although the food is hit or miss, this particular restaurant got my “thumbs up” for having cool steins. And the beer was pretty alright. 20150718_194200

But putting all the trip details aside, I find it absolutely bizarre that a German-themed village is tucked away in the hills of north Georgia.

Apparently, Helen was a logging town that was going downhill fast. To resurrect itself, some local business folks decided to recreate a Bavarian alpine village in its place and try to bring in some tourists. Even franchise businesses like Dollar General and Huddle House have that German architecture look.

20150718_202446And not surprisingly, this is also THE place in the area to party for Oktoberfest. On weekend evenings, this little town square area is filled with DJs spinning bad 90s dance-along tunes and vacation-minded southerners dancing-it-up with plastic cups of beer in hand. Then again, it’s also a total family-friendly area and kids are everywhere.
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After waking up in the B&B the next morning, we took the kayak out on Lake Unicoi, a 53-acre lake in Unicoi State Park. There isn’t a whole lot of water to paddle here, but it is pretty peaceful.

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Then we drove over to Anna Ruby Falls for a short waterfall hike. You only have to hike in a half mile from the parking lot to see the falls, which is created by the convergence of Curtis and York Creeks. Curtis drops 153 feet and York drops about 50.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this was my experience planning a weekend trip “by the book.” It started with a book, and then branched out into randomness from there. Helen is just an hour and a half from Atlanta, but it couldn’t feel farther away.

Sure, it’s more touristy than authentic, but what more would you really expect from a European replica in the American south? Regardless, it’s one of the most unique places I’ve discovered down here and totally worth a stop to gawk if you’re passing through.

My First Attempt at Felting: Project Plush Gnome

As an avid gnome collector and semi-obsessive enthusiast, I have a Google News alert set up to receive notifications about all gnome-related happenings in real time. Well one day recently, I came across an article from a local Vermont newspaper interviewing a woman, Susi Ryan, about her felted gnome products.

Felted gnome products?!

My ears instantly perked up. I headed over to Susi’s Etsy page, The Felted Gnome Knows, to learn more.

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There were lots of awesome things for sale here, including needle felted birds, hats, and of course, gnomes. But then I stumbled upon her Needle Felting Gnome Kit.

What if I could make my OWN gnomes?

Just like I’d always wanted to! Plush gnomes that I could carry around with my as I travel without fear of breaking!

However, I was confused and a bit nervous about the whole process. I knew what felt was, like those felt squares you buy in bulk packaging. But feltING? What exactly did that entail and was it feasible for a crappy crafter like myself?

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According to Susi, “Needle Felting is a unique art. It is not an old technique, it started in the 1980s when some artists found that by using a machine felting needle they could shape wool by stabbing it. It takes many stabs, hours and bleeding fingers to sculpt wool but the results as you can see are terrific. There is something magical about wool felt creatures and paintings. It emanates warmth, strength and evokes a time when play was innocent.”

IMG_3313So I pushed my crafting insecurities aside and placed an order for the gnome-making kit. It arrived quicker than expected and was very cutely packaged with everything one would need to make – not just one, but several – felted gnomes. Inside the kit I found:

  • Felting needles
  • Foam square base
  • Skewer,
  • Core wool,
  • Hand dyed green, red and grey or brown wool.
  • Hand dyed accent wool of blue, flesh and black.
  • Complete picture instructions

Most of the wool is sourced in Vermont and Susi hand-dyes all her own wool. Now that’s hardcore.

To get started, I emailed a crafty friend for advice and encouragement, and she sent me a few YouTube videos. I found the most helpful one to be Basic Tools and Techniques for Felting by GypsyFelting.

IMG_3314Before even having a chance to get started, I broke a couple needles in half just trying to get them out of the packaging. This taught me very quickly how fragile these needles really are…even though they don’t look like they’d be. Susi was kind enough to send me a few replacement needles in the mail. Now that’s what I call a great Etsy shop owner.

After watching a couple YouTube videos, I concluded that the basic idea of felting was little more than stabbing fluffy fabric with a sharp object onto a sponge. Seems reasonable, right? I’m not here to make it look glamorous; I’m here to share a really accessible craft that is quickly becoming one of my new favorites.

IMG_3315In an effort to bring more ethnic and cultural diversity to my gnome collection, I decided to create a handsome brown gnome, who I like to say is of the Indian persuasion.

I worked on shaping him for about an hour on a Sunday morning and then for another hour or so later that afternoon. Sure, he’s not that big or anything; but gosh was I surprised how quickly he took shape and began actually looking like a gnome!

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I finished this nameless brown gnome, my first felting project, in just a single day and couldn’t have been more pleased with the result. It was a warm sunny day in Atlanta so I took him out to pose on my Jeep for a mini-photo shoot.

Like most crafts, felting made me incredibly intimidated before I mustered up the courage to just give it a shot. But with Susi’s kind, encouraging words and a couple hours of free time on my hands, I’m sure glad I did. Felting has become one of my new favorite crafts now, and I love the idea of making fun, plush dolls to give as gifts.

In fact, just today I was researching monkey felting projects and found this fun felted chimpanzee pattern. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I think this might just be my next craft project!

Have you tried felting? I’d love to hear about what you made and how it went!

And if you don’t have time to try it yourself at the moment, I’d still highly recommend Susi’s Etsy shop. She has lots of ready-made stuff on there that’s super unique.

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Needle felted rabbit mask, anyone?

*A version of this article is scheduled to appear in the next edition of the International Gnome Club Newsletter! 

Mastering the Art of Haikus and Haibuns in Chicago’s Lurie Garden

At the suggestion of a couple of the fine ladies in my Creative Accountability Group (CAG) I started following events and happenings at the Poetry Foundation, an independent literary organization based in Chicago. I haven’t been to the actual foundation building yet, but apparently there’s a 30,000-volume poetry library there, as well as a public garden, exhibition gallery, and event spaces.

Each week, I would casually gloss over the foundation’s weekly emails, thinking, “Well that sounds like it might be interesting” or “I should really step out of my weekday routine and check one of these speakers or workshops out.” But I never did.

That is, until last Sunday.

One particular event caught my eye because of three key words: Haiku, Outdoor Garden, and Free.

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Photo credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

The Poetry Foundation hosted a discussion on haibun, an ancient Japanese form of poetry, followed by an informal poetry workshop in Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden last Sunday morning. I’d never heard of the word “haibun” before, but apparently it’s a form of poetry that fuses prose with haiku. And traditionally, it describes travel and landscape scenes through vivid imagery. Sounded perfect for me!

A nice young library assistant, Maggie Queeney, began leading the workshop in the Millennium Park Choral Room, which by the way, is pretty hard to find if you’ve never looked for it before. A group of about 10-12 wannabe poets gathered around a conference table with their eyes glued to 4-page handouts.

A Japanese poet named Matsuo Basho originally developed the haibun form in his 1690 poem, The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling.  The prose portion is supposed to describe a landscape that the poet moves through and end with a haiku that has vivid imagery and a 5/7/5 syllable pattern.

After reading and analyzing a few sample haibuns, we all trekked to the Lurie Garden with notebooks in hand. Maggie stopped us at six different points within the garden to scribble down objective observations and free write. Then we all regrouped in the classroom to put it all together.

Here’s how mine turned out:

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METAL WILDFLOWER MAZE: A HAIBUN

One foot in the shade, one foot in the sun. I listen for the comforting sound of creaky wooden boards beneath the feet of uninspired tourists carrying cameras they don’t know how to use. A perfect amount of breeze pushes back a wisp of hair so I don’t have to.

Surrounded by walls of leaves, trapping me inside and holding me close. The tallest of plants stand taller than me, shielding my eyes from what lies on the other side. Can I venture in further and get lost from it all? An aircraft hovers above and a train whistle blows to answer my question: “No.”

Rare autumn sunlight
Creeps inside a walled fortress
Prevents progress from entering

Life is wilting in all directions, yet clinging on with an ounce of hope. Brown twigs and shriveled leaves have been living in the shadow of towering giants, but what sort of life is that? None of the residents have names because no one would speak them anyway.

Fuzzy tan curlicues make me giggle at my own senseless self-reflection and melancholy rant. Will these tendrils fall off like the thinning hairs on my own head?

Bricks have been forced into the ground, shoving grass and dirt far below. Native residents attempt to emerge and remind us of how they once ruled this man-made land. Tiny purple flowers are the only ones thriving in the foreground with mustard greens lurking behind. A salad no one dares to eat because, well salad is not from nature!

Wilting wildflowers
Gasping for sunlight – through
Towering metal beams

A round spiky ball on top of a wavering stem too tired to hold its weight. Perhaps the spikes will make you bleed. Perhaps you could blow them gently into the breeze. Hands begin to feel numb as I scribble down thoughts that everyone else has already thought of.

An incessant beeping for no reason is stuck between my ears. Construction is a euphemism for destruction and my sense of smell is evolutionarily phased out. Foreign phases uttered between the sickly wails of sirens. Always urgent, always an emergency, always in a rush.

Leaves spiral around before touching the ground and peer through metal beams towards the ominous, never-ending sky with one last blink.

A walled maze of leaves
Traps me willingly inside
Shields me from the world

——————————————————————————————————————–

Lurie

Photo credit: Drew Saunders

If this post sparked your interest, check out the Poetry Foundation’s upcoming events and think about mustering up the courage to show up for something like I finally did. The Lurie Garden also has a few more random workshops for adults this year.

Maybe it’s no masterpiece, but I feel like I really got something out of this particular poetry workshop: a little time in nature, a little mindfulness reminder, and a little motivation to keep on writing creatively – even if it’s just for my own sanity.

A Night Out in Miami’s Little Haiti

Most people who go to Miami for the first time make a point to visit Little Havana, the well-known Cuban neighborhood with authentic cuisine, local art, and domino players in the park. I know I did when I first visited.

Related: Miami: Beyond the Beach and the Bar

But there’s another “little” neighborhood in the city that often stays in the shadows. Little Haiti is South Florida’s cultural heart for the Haitian Diaspora, and unlike Little Havana, it retains an entirely un-touristy vibe.

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On the third Friday of each month, the Little Haiti Cultural Center hosts a festival from 6-10pm that’s open to the public. The main goal is to provide a space to bring together people and ideas, while showcasing and supporting Afro-Caribbean culture in Miami.

It’s called “Big Night in Little Haiti” and it’s an evening of music, art, food, drinks, and opportunities to learn a little bit about Haitian history. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up and thought it could have been anywhere from a tiny neighborhood gathering of resident families to an all-out street bash.

It was somewhere in between…and totally worth a visit. Unlike pretty much anything else you’d choose to do on a Friday night in Miami, this festival is free to attend and has free parking nearby.

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There were some local artists doing their thing and even an inviting classroom to wander into and create a sub par masterpiece of your own. The art instructors were doing an exercise using gold paint on black paper and invited me to come in and paint whatever I wanted.

As to not miss out on other festival happenings too much, I hastily painted an obscure nature scene, with of course, an awkward gnome lurking in the background.

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Also inside the Little Haiti Cultural Center, there was a presentation/fundraiser going on to highlight the work of a famous Haitian jazz singer from a few decades ago. This was a place to bid on professional photographs positioned on the walls, listen to the artist’s music through headphones, and sip some free wine in a plastic cup.

And then there was the food. A cafeteria-style line formed outside beside a long table with Haitian home cooked foods like chicken, fried fish, rice, tostones, and spicy coleslaw. I washed my delicious dinner down with some rum punch with fresh pineapple!

The large meal was $10 and the generously-sized drink was $4. By Miami standards, this was an absolute steal. I’ll sit on the sidewalk and enjoy an authentic meal like this over an overpriced, over-hyped restaurant almost any day.

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The monthly festival has been going on for a few years now and music is a huge part of the whole thing. A reggae-style band played during the entire festival and made me remember how much I really do enjoy a good reggae tune to bop along to in a crowd of strangers. Recently featured bands have included Moksha Roots, Harmonik, Tvice, and Zenglen.

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Aside from the super-nice cultural center, other highlights in the neighborhood are the Haiti Sweat Records Building, Little Haiti murals, Churchill’s Pub, and small local shopping centers. A bronze statue of General Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence, stands at Northeast 2nd Avenue and 62nd Street.

The Little Haiti neighborhood is totally off the beaten path of the tourist circuit and would be hard to pinpoint without a GPS. In fact, Miami residents have long been debating what to call this neighborhood because it has no formal boundaries or designated cultural protections. Some call it Little Haiti and and others swear it’s Lemon City.

“Nobody has a true definition of Little Haiti because there are no formal boundaries. It’s pretty subjective,” said historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George.

“Every day you hear of a new group encroaching into what we know as Little Haiti,” said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian activist pushing for the designation. “These groups moved into Little Haiti, so I don’t understand why they don’t want it to be named Little Haiti anymore.”

Little Haiti gained its name as Haitian migrants, fleeing the regime of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, moved into the neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Haitian pioneer Viter Juste wrote a letter to the Miami Herald calling the area “Little Port-au-Prince,” and the newspaper headlined the letter “Little Haiti”. And the name stuck.

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I’m all about finding authentic non-touristy things to do in places I visit…especially if it isn’t my first time in the area. Some of those ideas work out great and others are a total bust. The Friday festival at Little Haiti tops my list of recent undercover finds.

It’s pretty obvious that I’m not of Haitian descent, but I loved learning a little about Haitian history and joining such a specific celebration of local culture. So consider this an addendum to my previous blog post about non-transitional things to do in Miami and check it out next time you’re in the area!

Curing the Post-Travel Blues with a Dose of Fantasy: A Renaissance Fair Story

I’ll be the first one to admit I’m not immune to post-travel depression. I love the excitement and the uncertainty of being on the road, but being a homebody has never really been my thing.

After spending a couple weeks on the West Coast, immediately followed by an extended weekend on the East Coast, followed by my 31st birthday, I found myself seriously struggling to settle back into routine life.

Instead of getting down in the dumps and taking the notion of “routine” too literally, I opted for a dose of fantasy instead. It was the last weekend of the Renaissance Fair in Bristol, Wisconsin, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.

Ren1A Renaissance Fair is like an amusement park for history buffs, fantasy freaks, and costume nuts across America. The first of its kind was the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Agoura, California, and that kicked off back in 1963. Ronald and Phyllis Patterson, both school teachers, are credited with developing the fair as a simple school project, and dozens of replica events have popped up from coast to coast since that time.Ren2Renaissance fairs are set up resemble a fair or market day during the Renaissance Era, and they do a darn good job of doing so. Actors and actresses position themselves around the fair grounds singing, playing music, and engaging with festival-goers in wonderfully awkward ways.
Ren3Unfortunately, Renaissance Fairs don’t exactly offer Renaissance Era prices. Although everything is enticing and presented in clever ways, the event is a total money suck and there’s no way around it.

Regular adult admission tickets cost $23.95, but I was able to snag an online discount for $19.99. As as you make your way through the “town,” you’ll find more souvenirs, fair games, and food and booze stands than you can shake a valiant sword at.
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First stop: the hookah tent! Who would have thought that a Renaissance Fair would have a comfy spot for flavored tobacco smoking situated right next to the entrance? In this shot, I’m patiently waiting for my watermelon hookah to arrive and sneakily people-watching between the tent poles.

This was an optimal people-watching spot because the lively Bristol Pub Crawl had gathered nearby. For $35 per person, fair-goers could join a raunchy Rated R pub crawl that comes with a traveling bartender, four drink tickets, and plenty of dirty stories and jokes along the route. There were about 20 beers on tap, as well as mead and a gluten-free cider.

Maybe next year?Ren5There were plenty of trolls around for sale, but no gnomes in sight. What a crying shame.
Ren6Of all the adorable booths selling unnecessary things, this one tempted me the most. How awesome would it be to walk around drinking beer out of a horn attached to a satchel?

Alas, my better judgment won out and I talked myself out of buying one. So sadly, my mediocre beer was drank out of a plastic peasant cup.
Ren7Now this I didn’t expect to see…a climbing wall! The scene seemed to be dominated by very small human types and I winced at the never-ending line. So I simply observed the spectacle that lay before me and critiqued the youngsters’ climbing skills…harshly.Ren8For whatever reason, turkey legs are a big deal at Renaissance Fairs, and it seems almost like a requirement to messily chomp away at one. Meat on a stick doesn’t really appeal to me, so I bought one for my carnivorous boyfriend and chose an artichoke for myself.

I had totally forgotten about the whole concept of artichoke, and they really are delicious when drenched in garlic and melted butter. As are most things.Ren10A feast fit for a king and queen, perhaps? Ren11Despite the crowds and the lines, I found myself incredibly relaxed and at ease strolling around the Renaissance Fair. Performers walked timidly across tightropes, ate burning flames atop sticks, and flipped around wildly in the air.

This type of sensory overload experience was exactly what I needed to feel alive and excited about the world around me.Ren12And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.

I FOUND A GNOME.

According to pretty much every historical account in the books, gnomes weren’t around during the Renaissance. But here they were…selling mushrooms.

I asked the man behind the counter if he knew of any other gnomes lurking in the vicinity. He revealed to me that he used to run an entire shop full of gnomes at the fair. After I picked my jaw up off the dusty ground, I begged him to bring it back.

Maybe next year?
Ren13In other noteworthy sightings, someone had put together a really extensive medieval Lego village. How anyone possesses the patience for all this is beyond me.Ren15One of the most intriguing characters that I encountered at the Renaissance Fair was the Dragon Hatchery lady.

Here’s how it works: A kid puts a token into a box, it rolls around for a bit, and POOF! A puff of smoke fills the air and a dragon egg emerges into the world. I did always wonder where dragon babies came from.

Ren16It wouldn’t have been a complete Renaissance experience without attending a joust. Several sets of jousters battled it out on the field as sections of the audience joined forces and chose sides.

My section’s knight didn’t win, but I must admit he was pretty hot for a Renaissance dude. Eye candy is a form of winning, right?
Ren17 So in the grand scheme of things, my Renaissance Fair story is more about a story of coping with things staying the same and remaining unchanged. Had I confined myself to my Chicago apartment on that Labor Day weekend Saturday, I would have drowned myself in sorrows of restlessness, discontent, and probably a couple bottles of wine.Ren9

But instead, I forced myself to keep exploring and to find unfamiliar things in too-familiar places. I took incredibly fond memories away from my first Renaissance Fair, and the only thing that would have made it better is a kick ass costume.

Maybe next year?

Gnome-Painting…at a Craft Studio near You!

While traveling along America’s West Coast and East Coast this summer, I was reminded that gnomes (and the people that create them) are absolutely everywhere.  I always enjoy scouting out gnomish trends across the globe, and I recently discovered a new breeding ground for our little friends…local pottery craft studios!

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I was exploring the trendy stop and restaurant scene on Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon one evening when a gnome in the window caught my eye. The window belonged to Mimosa Studios, a paint-your-own-pots ceramic studio and handmade gift gallery that was promoting a traveling gnome contest.

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To kick off the summer, Mimosa Studios encouraged gnome, art, and travel enthusiasts of to paint a gnome (eight sizes available!), receive a gnome adoption certificate, and snap traveling gnome photos to enter and win prizes.

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I spent an afternoon painting this little beauty with a suitcase and a fistful of dollars, who I promptly named Pennifer Pennypincher. To start building up her travel portfolio, I invited her to join me on a hiking expedition in California’s Lava Beds National Monument for a little photo shoot and caving adventure.lava beds

Just a few weeks later while strolling the streets of Brooklyn, New York, I glanced over to see a beautifully painted mural. Now there is plenty of street art to observe in Brooklyn, but this particular one was special because there were gnomes in it! The mural belonged to a ceramic craft studio called Baked in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg neighborhood.

Brooklyn gnome mural

Along with a lovely array of mugs, plates, and bowls, this studio has gnomes available to paint inside. Unfortunately, the studio was not yet open for business when I stumbled upon it, but I made sure to have my friend snap a quick picture of me excitedly pointing at the mural gnomes.

So when you have some time this fall, browse your neighborhood to see if any local craft or pottery studios are hosting gnome painting events in your area. They seem to be popping up all over the place these days and they’re loads of fun for all ages of gnome fans!

*A version of this story is scheduled to be published in the upcoming International Gnome Club Newsletter!