“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

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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!

mimosa0

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.

mimosa1

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.

mimosa2

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!

What’s So Weird About Portland? (An Unofficial Investigative Report)

While it may seem like I’ve been on a bit of a blog hiatus lately, I’ve actually been gobbling up a ton of new travel and outdoor material to fill up my little page in cyberspace. I recently traveled to Portland for the first time and was stoked to check it out this place that friends always said would be perfect for me.

We’ve all seen the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers, and I was bound and determined to seek out the weirdest of the weird. But as I drove around the neighborhoods in all four quadrants, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Chicago I was desperately trying to get away from.

Keep Portland Weird

Photo credit: Gwyn Fisher

According to the Keep Portland Weird website, this is what “keeping it weird” is all about:

Keep Portland Weird is about supporting local business in the Portland Oregon area. We want to support local business because they make Portland stand out from other cities and make it a more unique place to live. They do this by providing consumers a wide range of products that represent the different cultures that make up Portland.

Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations or watched a few too many episodes of Portlandia, but for whatever reason, I assumed that “weird” would slap me in the face the moment I arrived in town. Although I had to scratch a bit beneath the surface, I’m pleased to report that I did find the “weird.” And although that “weird” wasn’t all that foreign to me, I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Without further ado, these are a few of my favorite encounters in Portland.

Breweries

With 56 breweries inside the Portland city limits and 76 in the metro area, Portland has more breweries than any city in the world. This particular flight was enjoyed at Lucky Labrador Brew Hall.

breweryDogs

Speaking of Labradors, Portland is crazy dog friendly. I rarely came across an outdoor patio at a brewery or restaurant that wasn’t inhabited by a few pooches. I definitely see a dog like Abner (who I fostered earlier this year) in my future so dog-friendly places catch my eye these days.

Abner

BrewCycles

With 56 breweries to tour and taste in town, some obvious safety concerns come to mind. Pedal off some of those empty calories while getting from Point A to Z a little safer. Current BrewCycle stops are the Lucky Labrador, Lompoc Brewing, Bridgeport, Pints, and Old Town Brewing Company.

brewery busWant to earn beer money for biking? Head over to Hopworks Urban Brewery to ride a stationary bike outside the front door to earn $1 for every 15 minutes you bike. Apparently you can burn off one 250-calorie beer with 30 minutes of easy biking. Who knew?!

bike for beerFood Trucks

After living in Chicago for nearly six years, food trucks aren’t much of an anomaly, but I was determined to scope out the Portland food truck scene for myself. Unlike the Chicago trucks that drive around downtown to feed disgruntled 9-5 workers, the Portland food trucks congregate in clusters in the trendy neighborhoods. I snapped this shot while devouring some dumplings along Alberta Street.

food trucksRose Garden

My favorite flower of the moment is the hydrangea, but roses are okay too. Unlike the nearby Japanese Garden, the Washington Park International Rose Test Garden is totally free to explore on a whim. And despite getting stung by a bee on the way into the garden (no allergies!), this was a totally relaxing stroll full of color and hushed voices.

rose gardenOutdoorsy Stuff

Speaking (i.e. writing) about beautiful places Portland’s location near amazing outdoor stuff is what really gives it a leg up on ole’ Chicago.

Multnomah FallsKeep an eye out for future posts about hiking the Columbia River Gorge (Multnomah Falls pictured below) and around Mt. Hood (Salmon River Trail pictured below).

Salmon River Trail

 Music & Art

It wasn’t difficult to find fun things to do after the virtual workday came to a close. One night, I checked out a free local bluegrass concert at a restaurant, East Burn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother night, I watched an outdoor showing of a 1960s Pink Panther film at a French pastry shop. And on another night, I joined a pub trivia game…and didn’t come in last place! PDX Pipeline was the best resource I found for random things going on around town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne afternoon I joined a pottery painting session at Mimosa Studios, which was (believe it or not) running a traveling gnome promotion. Here’s how my little lady turned out:

Portland gnomeStreet-side Oddities

There were other weird things I encountered while roaming the streets all week, like the Lodekka Double Decker Dress Shop. Unfortunately, it was closed by the time I strolled by. Because honestly, what better response is there to “I love your dress!” than “Thanks, I got it in a bus!”

weird busAnd I passed by the occasional “oompah band” waiting for chiropractic care…

oompahBut as with any city, I suppose, Portland had its fair share of unpleasantries as well. Take for example, the impenetrable line at Voodoo Doughnuts…

Voodoo DoughnutsOr the surprising lack of designated bike lanes…

bike laneOr the scary wildfires on the outskirts…

wildfireTraffic was irritating, public transit had mind-numbing delays, and locals seem to be totally fine with waiting in line FOREVER for their food. Watch Portlandia’s “Brunch Village” to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

But despite those annoyances, Portland gets a gold star in my book. My friends may be right about it suiting me well because I sorta kinda miss it already…and I still have lots more in Portland to explore.

Nude Barbies in the Front Yard? Only in Georgia.

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Gnomes, flamingos, concrete geese, gazing balls…these are the types of kitschy lawn decor you expect to find in front yards across America.

But Barbie dolls? NUDE Barbie dolls?

Only in Georgia.

I was first introduced to Barbie Beach back in 2009 by my best friend, Michelle, who had recently moved to Newnan, Georgia with her husband. She told me that Barbie Beach was “right up my alley” and that I simply HAD to see it for myself. She tried to explain the phenomenon to me to no avail. It is truly something you have to see for yourself to understand.

barbiebeach Fall 2009

Barbie Beach, Fall 2009

Steve and Lynda Quick own the Barbie Beach property on the outskirts of Turin, Georgia. From I-85, you can take Exit 41 towards Newnan and make a right at the Highway 16 fork. You’ll find Turin about nine miles after the four-way stop. To accommodate gawking tourists and locals, the Quicks have put up some signage directing passersby to a little parking area to avoid traffic congestion.

They started sticking Barbies (often naked Barbies) in the yard back in 2006. There’s always a theme, and some of them have been the Royal Wedding, the Final Four Playoffs, Winter and Summer Olympics. Random people bring Barbies to the Quicks for their display, often naked and with haircuts and tattoos.

Check out this incredibly interesting video interview by Rebecca Riley, Daniel Oramas, and Alessio Summerfield from the Chattahoochee Heritage Project:

These are some of my absolute favorite quotes:

It started with six naked Barbies, a ping pong net, a ping pong ball, and a homemade sign…

Three, four beers…your imagination gets crazy and you start talking it through, and you go, well we could do this, and we could do this, and well…we’ll do that!

The first thing that a child does when they get a new Barbie is take the clothes off.

To me, it is a form of freedom of speech.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

In 2011, the front yard beach was filled with Barbies painted up like zombies, in tribute to The Walking Dead. Barbie Beach has gained so much local notoriety that it even made its way onto Roadside America.

Barbie Beach June 2012 - Photo credit: Tom Magliery via Flickr

Barbie Beach June 2012 – Photo credit: Tom Magliery

A couple months ago, I paid a visit to Michelle and made a point to stop at Barbie Beach. There was an envelope along the fence containing informational guides to the history of Barbie Beach.

History of Barbie Beach - Handout from the owners

History of Barbie Beach – Handout from the owners

When I recently visited, it was Memorial Day weekend, so the Kens were decked out in military gear. I must admit that I was a little disappointed by the lack of Barbie soldier representation in this scene. But the plastic spoon headstones quickly made up for that.

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

Memorial Day Barbie Beach 2014

You can request to join the Barbie Beach of Turin, GA Fan Club Facebook Page, and I recommend doing so to keep up with all the latest themes and gimmicks. You’ll see updates posted a couple times a month.

Close up of the patriot Kens

Close up of the patriot Kens

Make me choose between a gnome and a Barbie, and I’ll take the gnome any day. But Barbie Beach is truly one-of-a-kind and I hope the Quicks keep it up for a long, long time.

If you have a yard, why not fill it with things that make you happy…even if they don’t make sense to the average critic? WHY NOT?!

We need to stop taking our yards (and our lives) so seriously and lighten up a bit. Barbie Beach has the right idea. It’s always brought a smile to my face and re-lit a creative, free-spirited spark that I sometimes forget is inside me. I hope to have a yard of my own in the near future, and you’d better bet it’s going to be really freaking weird.

The Day I Decided to Make Homemade Hair Products

I often only find the inspiration to write when I’ve recently traveled somewhere or had an awesome experience. But let’s be honest – most days are really not that blog-worthy. Today was one of those days. Today was also the day I decided to make homemade hair products.

A few days ago, I swept the floor and was appalled at how much of my hair came up in the broom. I frequently pull out a handful here and there, but during a particularly paranoid moment, I began to wonder…

Slowly but surely, am I going bald?

For the past year and a half, I’ve written for lots of natural health blogs like Navitas Naturals and Seagate but then hit the shower and continued to use my cheap-o, chemical-ridden hair products. I’ve come across plenty of DIY beauty product recipes but always wrote them off as too expensive and too much of a hassle.

But maybe, just maybe, 10+ years of dying my hair and slathering on stuff I can’t pronounce had taken its toll on these tresses. Perhaps something a little more natural would prevent me from sweeping so often and stressing middle-age baldness.

Thanks to a couple helpful recipes from my mom, I already have been making my own carpet cleaner, glass cleaner, eyeglasses cleaner, and granola bars for a little while now.

First thing this morning, I hopped on my bike and peddled over, in stereotypical fashion, to Whole Foods. Where else does one find things like guar gum and castile soap?

Helpful gnome mixing companion

Helpful gnome mixing companion

After scoping out a few recipes on WikiHow and Frugal Living, his is what I picked up for my homemade shampoo:

  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: 18-in-1 Hemp Tea Tree Pure Castile Soap, 8 oz. ($5.99)
  • NOW brand rosemary essential oil, 1 oz. ($7.99)
  • Chamomile tea bag (found in the cupboard)
  • Olive oil (found in the cupboard)
Making shampoo

Making shampoo…not too bad.

Apparently, this recipe is supposed to provide hair with extra moisture and keep it from breaking and getting frizzy. The original recipe recommended tossing in peppermint oil and tree tea oil too, but essential oils aren’t cheap so I eenie-meenie-miney-mo’ed it and stuck with just rosemary.

And here’s what went into the homemade conditioner I made

  • NOW brand 100% natural coconut oil, 7 oz. ($6.49)
  • Bob’s Red Mill premium guar gum, 8 oz. bag ($5.69)
  • Rosemary oil (tapped into the shampoo purchase)
  • Water (found it in the tap)
Making condition...what a mess!

Making condition…what a mess!

I had also considered a conditioner recipe with apple cider vinegar and honey, but this one promised more “deep conditioning,” so I went with that.

Making the Shampoo

My only challenge in shampoo-making was math. You see, my recipe called for 12 oz. of castile soap, and my bottle only held 8 oz. So this Poli Sci and English major whipped out a calculator and did a series of ratio calculations…not exactly my idea of a good time. In the end, my super-scientific proportions looked like this:

  • 8 oz. castile soap
  • Just under 3 tbsp. chamomile tea
  • Just under 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Just under 1 tbsp. rosemary oil
The weird film that developed on top

The weird film that developed on top

After heating the soap for a minute in the microwave, it immediately developed a weird film on top. I wasn’t sure whether to scrape the film off or try to mix it with the liquid. So I compromised and did a little of both.

Even the funnel is homemade

Even the funnel is homemade

Both the soap and the tea were pretty hot, so after letting the mixture cool in a mixing cup, I poured it all back into the original 8 oz. soap bottle.

Making the Conditioner

Unlike the shampoo recipe, this conditioner required no math and no heat. Therefore, my only challenge in conditioner-making was trying to get the mixture into the bottle for storage. This stuff was thick, sticky, and stubborn. Here are the proportions I used:

  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 tsp. melted coconut oil
  • 1/2 tsp. guar gum
  • 10 drops rosemary oil
Gooey glop of conditioner

Gooey glop of conditioner

After relentlessly and unsuccessfully trying to use a knife, a spatula, and a turkey baster, I discovered that the good ole’ fingers worked better than anything else. If you use a tiny 3 oz. plastic bottle like I did, it’s best to use your pinky to push the mixture down and pop the air bubbles.

First Use

After cleaning up the huge mess I made in the kitchen, I headed to the shower to give my new concoctions a whirl. The shampoo was much thinner than your average store-bought shampoo, so I had to be careful to not squeeze out too much or let it run off. But surprisingly, the thinness did not affect the lather. This soap actually lathered really well!

The finished products

The finished products

Maybe it’s the type of castile soap I bought, which had hemp and tree tea oil, plus the rosemary oil, but the shampoo smells heavily of menthol. This may be a deal-breaker for some shampooers, but I didn’t mind having my sinuses opened up a bit.

The conditioner came out a bit clumpy, but the consistently was very similar to an average conditioner. Perhaps I slacked on my whisking a bit. I’m pretty sure I over-did it on the application though, because after blow-drying, my hair was a bit greasier and more weighted-down than usual.

The Verdict?

Is all this fuss really going to make my hair fall out less? Who knows.

Aside from a little extra grease from over-conditioning, it looks pretty much the same as it always does. It’d be silly to try to gauge these products’ effectiveness after just one use, so I’m planning to use them exclusively for awhile until I can make that judgment call and either stick with these recipes or give new ones a shot.

Homemade hair

Homemade hair

The point is that I finally tried it and I felt good about trying it. I love the idea of using stuff from nature on my body and putting stuff from nature in my body. And although it’s often feels too expensive or time consuming to bother with, I’m excited to try something small out from time to time.

This is a great example of one of the things I miss doing when I’m on the road traveling. Campground bathrooms aren’t exactly the best place for mixing up things like this. Sewing and playing piano are a couple other good examples. I love to travel, but I also long to find a place to call home that feels right to me. It’s a hypothetical place where I can mix up whatever I want and that I’m excited to come back to after a long trip. I have yet to find this place, but I haven’t given up that it exists somewhere.

So I’ll just leave it at that for now, keep on washing my hair every couple days, and circle back on the concept of home when I’m a little bit closer to finding it.