Seeing Santa Fe on Foot: Southwest Road Trip Series

My next post in this “Southwest Road Trip Series” is all about Santa Fe, a two-week destination that I enjoyed so much that I’ve considered moving there. There aren’t too many places that I’ve visited and thought I could see myself living for a while (Portland is another one of them).

So to get to know the city and surrounding area a bit better, we decided to spend a couple weeks at a campground in Santa Fe. Much of this time was spent on foot, hiking in the nearby parks and strolling around town with Monkey, adventure dog extraordinaire.

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Santa Fe weather was all over the place…this was taken one morning when we woke up to SNOW!

One awesome part about our home base, Ranchos de Santa Fe Campground, was that there was a half-mile wooded trail right behind the tent sites, yet still on the campground’s property. This was a great place to walk or jog Monkey first thing in the morning and as work breaks throughout the day before heading out for whatever activities we had planned.

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Dale Ball Trails

The big trail system in Santa Fe is named after Dale Ball, the lead guy who designed and constructed the trails, and our first hiking outing in the area was here. The Dale Ball Trails are a 22-mile network of trails managed by the Santa Fe Conservation Trust at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The trails here are also connected to the Atalaya Trails and Dorothy Stewart Trails.

We parked at St. John’s College and hoofed it on sidewalks to the trailhead.

P1060272We chose the route that led to Castle Rock, because well, that seems majestic enough right? The route was pretty steep and actually one of the more strenuous ones we’ve done in a while.

Oh, but the views!P1060293The approach to Castle Rock, which was an impressive exposed rock outcropping, involved scrambling up boulders and teaching Monkey the basics of rock climbing. She has a crazy amount of stamina, a severe lack of patience, and an obsession with all creatures from lizards to squirrels. But despite her little personality quirks, she proved to be a pretty solid rock climber.
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La Tierra Trails

A lesser-known hiking area lies outside the city, but apparently it’s a pretty popular spot with mountain bikers. La Tierra Trails extend over 25 miles and were formalized by Santa Fe less than a decade ago to develop a multi-use trail system northwest of the city.

We started this journey on La Cuchara Trailhead at the south, which was near a dog park we intended to visit but never actually made it to.

IMG_4588We nearly made it two miles and then had a work emergency and had to turn back to retrieve laptops from the campground and settle things. These types of emergencies don’t happen often, but when they do, unfortunately hiking has to take a backseat to the day jobs.IMG_4592This was a pretty rugged hiking area with downed dead trees and few trail markings. The trails were sandy, and my feet sunk in a bit with every step to make that 1.85 miles feel a bit more challenging than it really was.

We were all frustrated with having to turn around so soon in this remote and peaceful area, but fortunately a trip to Santa Fe Brewing Company picked our spirits back up when the work emergency had been resolved.
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Santa Fe Plaza

However, each one of our week-long (two weeks in the case of Santa Fe) area explorations include some urban hiking as well. When we first got into town, I took myself out on a solo outing to check out the downtown plaza and do some jewelry shopping.

Solo time is totally a must when you’re traveling and camping one-on-one with someone (no matter how cool they are) in a very confined space. I spent my Santa Fe solo time checking out local community/donation yoga classes at Yoga Source and wandering around town. I had read about the Native American Vendors Program of the Palace of the Governors, which is a government program that encourages artists from the nearby pueblos to “set up shop” on the plaza sidewalk to sell their treasures. I ended up buying a ring for myself and a necklace for my best friend here from a guy from Santo Domingo (a pueblo we actually visited on the way to Santa Fe), and he cut me a decent deal for buying two pieces.

IMG_2075There are tons of shops around the plaza, most of them out of budget but nice to look at anyway. I love the architecture in Santa Fe, which was surprisingly consistent in the churches, shops, restaurants, and homes in the local neighborhoods.

The Santa Fe Plaza is the central part of the city and has been the heart of downtown for over 400 years. Native American and Spanish markets are the centerpiece, and there are a lot of concerts and community events scheduled here at certain times.P1060394A lot of things appealed to me about the southwest: the laid-back atmosphere, the weather, the outdoorsy-ness, the artsy-ness, the lack of traffic, the abundance of good hair days. However, one thing left me a bit unsettled.

There were tragically few gnomes living in New Mexico…none in shops, none in front yards…nowhere.

This is my one and only gnome encounter from my month in New Mexico, which was at a Christmas shop of all places in Santa Fe’s downtown plaza. I’m convinced that it is not a Santa nor an elf, but a full-fledged gnome and an instant friend on a surprisingly cold southwestern day.
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Railyard District

Lots of cities have industrial areas that they’ve been trying to transform into the next trendy place to hang out. In Santa Fe, this is the Railyard District. The railroad has played a crucial role in Santa Fe’s history, and old-timey photographs of it were once pitched to East Coast-dwellers to entice them to come experience the Wild West.

IMG_4607The railyard was declared a blighted area in the late 1980s and started undergoing serious redevelopment. Today this area is home to a popular farmer’s market, arts and cultural organizations, shops, art galleries, and restaurants.

We visited the Railyard as a hybrid hiking/biking excursion after finishing the day’s work back at the campground. We biked to the Railyard and then locked up our bikes to check out the area on foot and venture into a few shops and indulge in some fro yo.

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Museum Campus Trails

The weather was all over the place in Santa Fe, and some days were just too cold and windy to be able to enjoy a good hike. But that’s okay because I also enjoy a good museum from time to time. The only issue was what to do with the dog because nine times out of ten, dogs and museums don’t mix.

That tenth time was the dog-friendly International UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico…more to come on that later!

So to solve our dog woes, my husband and I took turns going into a museum of our choice while the other walked around with Monkey. There’s a big museum complex on the outskirts of Santa Fe, so it’s easy to walk from one to the other. I decided to check out the International Museum of Folk Art, and the husband chose the Spanish Colonial Art Museum.

IMG_2083I definitely enjoyed the displays of miniatures and flamenco culture. Museums are a great place to soak up some solo time, especially if you like looking at certain things more than others or like browsing at your own pace.IMG_2097But something unexpected at the museum campus was an extensive set of hiking trails! What started as a crappy day actually turned out to be a pretty nice one. So when my museum turn was over, I took Monkey out behind the museums to do some hiking.IMG_2120The trails were pretty flat, but winding and not marked. I found it surprisingly easy to get lost (as my directionally challenged self usually does), but eventually found my way back to the Jeep before the storm clouds rolled back in.IMG_2115

Not far from Santa Fe, we also got off-the-beaten path to check out Chimayo, Ojo Caliente, and the Turquoise Trail. Details on those day trips coming soon, slowly but surely!

So is Santa Fe still in the running for a possible future residence?

Maybe. The big thing holding me back thus far is price. Santa Fe is not a cheap city to live in, or even visit for that matter. Rent is high, taxes are high, and restaurants and shops are pretty pricey too. We scoped out a bunch of Craigslist postings for houses and apartments for rent and drove around Santa Fe neighborhoods to see what they were all about. Even if you’re not super-serious about moving to a destination, this is great way to get an inside look into what a city really looks and feels like away from the tourist circuit.

But only time shall tell where the next long-term destination will be, or if they’ll even be anything permanent for a while. Life on the road is just too way much fun 🙂

Hiking around Albuquerque: Southwest Road Trip Series

So today marks day #29 of my Southwestern road trip and I’m just now getting around to my first blog post. Womp womp.

I’d almost forgotten how time-consuming it is to hold down a full-time job while exploring towns and natural sites in new places. But I must say that working in a pop-up camper is MUCH easier than seeking out pavilions, arcade rooms, and laundry rooms while tent camping.

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But to keep track of it all, we’ve been taking tons of photos and I’ve been keeping up with my trusty travel journal at least every couple days. Just this morning, my husband literally just sent me two dozen photo album links of our trip so far, so I thought it was high time to start writing about some of the awesome adventures we’ve been having so far!

This first road trip post is all about hiking around Albuquerque. After starting in Atlanta and briefly passing through Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, Albuquerque was the first destination on our list. Hiking is a big part of our travel style, so I’m aiming to highlight the best hikes we did in each of our destinations.

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Why Albuquerque?

Well as the largest city in New Mexico, it seemed like a logical place to start a month-long exploration of the state. Besides, we’re big Breaking Bad fans and were excited to visit as many film sites as possible around town.

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Sandia Mountains

While staying in Albuquerque, one of the first hikes we did was in the Sandia Mountains. We set out on the South Crest Trail and looped around the Faulty Trail and Upper Faulty Trail. This hike kind of reminded me of hiking in Georgia with its dirt/rock terrain and lush greenery. However, this hike was definitely hillier than most Georgia State Park trails, but they didn’t have much in the way of wildflowers.

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We hiked about five miles on this route since we still weren’t exactly sure what Monkey’s hiking capacity is. At this time, she hadn’t even been with us for two months, but already I’d noticed that she does quite a bit better hiking on trails than walking around in cities. Her excitement level is more chill without all those distractions, which is totally understandable. By the way, I’m also working on a post about what to do when your dog is more social than you are, because that’s definitely the scenario here!

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Read more: 

Old Town Albuquerque

Of course, we also did a fair amount of “urban hiking” as well to check out Old Town Albuquerque and the downtown area. This is a cute artsy area with lots of shops and nice for an afternoon stroll.

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This is where I first got in my head that I wanted to buy myself a silver and turquoise cuff bracelet as a souvenir. Shortly after making this decision, I discovered that the ones I liked were in the $1,000 range and totally out of budget.

Throughout this trip, I proceeded to browse shops for my dream bracelet. But in the end, I decided to give up and settle for a $19.99 knock-off. Whatever, it’s still cute and I got some other awesome turquoise jewelry too that I’m planning to chat about exclusively in an upcoming post!

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But moving on from my jewelry woes, there was also a pretty interesting sculpture garden that we checked out near Old Town ABQ as well. It was outside the city’s art and history museum on the other side of a pretty large park.

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Read more: 

Petroglyph National Monument

But my favorite place to hike in the area was Petroglyph National Monument. I few years ago, I wrote a post about petroglyphs and pictographs after checking some out on hikes in Montana and Wyoming. And I’m still a bit fascinated about ancient rock carvings and all that.

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Related: Pictographs v. Petroglyphs v. Graffiti

The trails of choice were Rinconada Canyon and Piedras Marcadas, which were both dog-friendly. On the first of these routes, we hiked about a mile to reach the petroglyphs and then they slowly started to reveal themselves. The carvings were bit far away from the trail but still totally visible and easy to point out. Round trip, Rinconada Canyon involved about 2.2 miles of hiking.

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Then we drove about six miles up the road to Piedras Marcadas, which was oddly located right in the middle of an urban subdivision. These people’s backyards literally back right up to the petroglyph trail, which was kind of cool and kind of ridiculous at the same time.

Between the two trails though, this one was definitely the better one to scope out petroglyphs. There are lots more of them, and you can walk right up to the rocks with carvings.

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Surprisingly, there really wasn’t much graffiti out here either, which was refreshing. Piedras Marcadas was a little over two miles round-trip as well and offered lovely views of the town down below and nearby mountains.

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Read more: 

A Dirt Road Near Cochiti Lake

One pretty random hike that we ventured out in in the Albuquerque area was along a dirt road near Cochiti Lake. This was actually a backup hike after finding out the hard way that Tent Rocks National Monument doesn’t allow dogs.

This is in an area full of Native American pueblos. We tried to stop by one, Santa Domingo Pueblo, but it was early morning on a Sunday and nothing was open and we felt kind of awkward just lurking around.

Anyway, the national park dude at Tent Rocks recommended that we just drive down the road and pull over wherever to hike with our dog without hassle and for free. So that’s what we did.

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We parked and hiked down a paved road until we hit a barricaded dirt road and turned down on it. There was only one other couple around and quite a bit ahead of us down the trail, so we actually let Monkey off-leash for a bit. As a recovering stray, she doesn’t go too far away from us and is slowly earning our trust.

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We hiked this route until we got to a dried-up river, which seems to be a pretty common occurrence in New Mexico given the climate. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and 70s. From here, we moved on from Albuquerque and drove to our next destination: Santa Fe, which we quickly discovered had plenty of awesome hiking spots of its own!

Active & Outdoorsy Adventures in Puerto Rico

For the first three decades of my life, Thanksgiving consisted of turkey, pumpkin pie, and sitting around staring at people I’m related to. This Thanksgiving, however, was a little bit different.

Flights to Puerto Rico were super affordable over the holiday, so we decided to switch things up and spend five or so days on the island. The week was packed with active and outdoorsy adventures, and these were some of my favorites!

DISCLAIMER: This is just a quick overview because my attention span and patience are running low today, but for more details on how to replicate these adventures, I’d recommend checking out the site, Puerto Rico Day Trips, which proved to be very useful when planning my trip.

Hike the El Yunque Trail to the Summit

El Yunque is a rain forest in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico and home to hundreds of species of trees and flowers. Take the steep, winding back-roads to drive here from Fajardo for a unique glimpse at village life.

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The guy working the front desk at the park warned us that the trek to the summit would take four hours, but we did it in three. We weren’t really hustling that much either. The hike to the summit is a moderately-strenuous 5-mile hike that ends at an observation tower riddled with graffiti.

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It was super foggy at the summit on the day we hiked here, but it honestly just added to the mystery and intrigue of the whole place. The better views were down a bit further on the mountain.

Hike La Mina Trail to the Famous Waterfall

Also while in El Yunque, make sure not to miss the famous waterfall that you see on all the postcards. Otherwise, who will ever believe you went to Puerto Rico?! Even the cruise ships take excursions over here to see it.

Take a Dip in the Waterfall along La Mina Trail

The ultimate reward for a strenuous day of hiking is taking a dip in the waterfall along the La Mina trail. Sunbathing is popular here, so bring your swimsuit and a towel if you feel like getting in. We opted to continue hiking in the rain instead.

Bike around San Juan

The city has been making efforts to become more bike-friendly, and there is a great bike lane between Condado and Old San Juan. The hostel I stayed at, Mango Mansion, rents bikes for $20 per day. Local rental shops charge around $30-$45 per day.

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Honestly, he bikes were pretty crappy and hard to ride, but we made do and arrived back in one piece.

Bike around San Juan

Just keep in mind that bike lanes here aren’t continuous, so you’ll need to be comfortable riding on streets, bridges, and the occasional sidewalk to get around too.

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Bike to the forts…there are two of them and you’re admission fee at one gets you into the other one too. The streets in Old San Juan are pretty steep and cobblestone-style, so you might want to lock up the bike and set out on foot for a while. The whole area is pretty walkable, although my feet were definitely killing me at the end of this day.

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Explore Caves at Parque de las Cavernas Del Rio Camuy

This is a beautiful park that offers guided cave tours following a trolley ride to see a huge sinkhole, stalactites, and ancient rock formations.

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The trolley seemed a little bit silly; we could have totally hiked down to the cave. However, such hiking is not allowed so we reluctantly hopped aboard and squeezed in next to a bunch of other tourists.

See the Caves at Parque de las Cavernas Del Rio Camuy

Regardless, the Parque de las Cavernas Del Rio Camuy tour was pretty worthwhile just to learn some stuff about what you’re looking at. It lasts about 1.5 hours and is bilingual in both English and Spanish.

At the very end of the tour, our guide mentioned that we might be allowed to hike around the area if we found the director and got special approval. By that time, it was a little too late to work into our schedule. But something to keep in mind to ask if you visit and want to ditch the tour crowds for a while.

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Hike at Bosque Estatal de Guanica

This is a dry forest in southwest Puerto Rico, and the Fort Trail extends about 6 miles round-trip to give you a taste of the island’s diverse terrain. The Guanica State Forest wasn’t a big tourist destination when we visited, but it’s pretty quick and easy to get here from Ponce.

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The trail is honestly pretty boring, with not much to see along the way and really no other hikers either. But it provides a contrast from the El Yunque rainforest, and it was just nice to be outdoors in the 80-degree weather.

Fort Capron is a small watch tower that offers lovely views of the rolling hills, sea, and village down below.

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This is also a nice area to sit and enjoy a little peace and solitude.

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This was the ideal picnic spot that we found to relax for a while between two separate hikes in the dry forest area. I could literally just stare at crashing waves for hours.

Have a Picnic along the CoastDon’t be intimidated by little local shops in villages along the way. Something that surprised me while visiting Puerto Rico is that food and drinks are far from cheap.

It’s basically American prices paid for with American money. At this little local shop, I picked up a sandwich for $5 and a bottle of rum for about $7, and juice mixer for a couple bucks…perfect for picnicking!

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Watch for Wildlife in Unexpected Places

Iguanas are commonly seen around the fort areas and are a favorite photography subject for tourists.

Keep and eye out for iguanas

But apparently, Puerto Ricans have viewed the infestation of iguanas as a nuisance species that chews native plants and burrows under roads. I still think they’re kind of cute, photogenic, and slightly terrifying.

Kayak to Monkey Island

This was one of the main reasons we chose Puerto Rico for our Thanksgiving destination, and unfortunately, it’s the one and only outdoorsy activity that didn’t work out. Rain, high winds, and treacherous water conditions prompted our guides to cancel the trip on us. But I’m including it here to encourage you to give it a try when you visit Puerto Rico.

*INSERT NON-EXISTENT AWESOME MONKEY KAYAKING PHOTO HERE*

Read some of the TripAdvisor reviews from lucky bastards who actually got to do this since I can’t provide a first-hand report. The monkeys here have been used for research, which is totally sad and wrong, but they seem to be here to stay so you may as well stop by to say hello. Depending on the weather conditions, there are also snorkeling opportunities on this tour, but I’m pretty sure monkeys aren’t into snorkeling with you.

To book your tour, visit the Barefoot Travelers Rooms site and contact Keishya Salko at [email protected] or 787-850-0508 to schedule. She’ll send you directions, a list of what to bring, and tips of other fun things to do like the Guavate Pig Roast.

And by staying active in all these ways, you can have all the mojitos your heart desires! Right? Right? At least that’s that I keep telling myself.

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To learn about some more awesome things to see and do in Puerto Rico, check out my post, Incredible Ways to Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico (List-Style Highlights Published on Trips to Discover!).

Learning about Lemurs (and loving it) in North Carolina

I think I first learned about a community of lemurs living in North Carolina a few years ago while googling “monkey things” as a work distraction. Lemurs are the most threatened group of mammals in the world, and the Duke Lemur Center is home to the largest and most diverse group of the little critters outside of Madagascar.

The center was founded on 80 wooded acres a couple miles from the Duke University campus, and today it houses nearly 250 primates across 21 species. This is all part of a non-invasive/no-harm research and conservation program that’s a pretty big deal in the lemur world.

1Unlike some primate sanctuaries, this one is open to the public if you take a guided tour. There are several tour options available, including the most basic “Lemurs Live!” tour, Behind the Scenes tour, Walking with Lemurs tour, Painting with Lemurs tour, and the Lemur Keeper for a Day experience (that one sounds awesome but costs $350 per person).

On a Saturday morning in late August, we checked in at the visitor’s center and browsed around the little gift shop for souvenirs. A lemur shot glass seemed like a necessary addition to the bar collection back home.

IMG_8290The Walking with Lemurs tour sounded pretty sweet, so that’s the we did. It’s offered between May 1 and October 26, starts at 10:30 am, and lasts 60 minutes. This one costs $95 per person, but tour fees do go towards the care of the lemurs.

To get started, we walked out with our guide and a small group to a wooded area to witness feeding time first-hand.

IMG_8294It didn’t take long for the lemurs to hear their dinner bell and come running!

IMG_8325There were two kinds of lemurs in the area that we walked in: coquerel’s sifakas and the ring-tailed Lemurs.

IMG_8398Their breakfast looks like a vegetarian’s delight (sign me up for this detox plan), and they neatly picked through the serving bowls to fill their bellies.

IMG_8386Well, some of the hungrier ones just put their faces in the bowls. Manners are overrated.

IMG_8509Unlike some of the tours that showcase lemurs that live inside cages, the Walking with Lemurs tour lets you get up-close and personal with the little guys. They’re incredibly used to humans, so as long as you don’t touch them, you’ll be just fine.

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It was fascinating just to hang out and observe the lemurs here…eating, climbing, drinking water, and just stretching out their legs.

IMG_8548However, there are several other kinds of lemurs that live at the center, including nocturnal ones that live inside a dark building in another part of the woods.

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Our guide ushered us inside, pulled open the blinds to their enclosures, and flipped on some dim red lights. They were a little hard to spot, but grey mouse lemurs, pygmy slow loris, and aye ayes were lurking about and lemur-ing around in here.

IMG_8637The tour was only an hour, and I wish I would have had a little more time to hang out with the lemurs, but I still had a blast on the tour. Having us around didn’t really seem to faze the lemurs, and I like to think they enjoyed the company.

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These lemurs were so playful and friendly, and it’s really impossible not to smile and laugh when they’re running and climbing around you. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever make it Madagascar, but only seeing lemurs in the wild over there would top this experience. What an adventure that would be!

So next time you’re planning to pass through the Raleigh/Durham area, consider giving the Duke Lemur Center a call to see if you can join a tour and start your day off with a dose of lemur shenanigans.

And since this is the time of year we’re all racking our brains for gift ideas, there’s an “Adopt a Lemur” program at the center that makes for thoughtful eco-friendly gifts. I made a donation last Christmas and my gift recipient received a really nicely presented “I Care” package with a certificate, photo, animal fact sheet, and window cling. And in my book, helping feed a lemur sure beats getting another unnecessary pair of socks.

And in other primate travel news, don’t miss: 

“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.

How to Include Your Dog on Awesome Outdoor Adventures

Outdoorsy, adventurous dogs have been getting a ton of attention lately…not just from me, but from all of those crazy “Camping with Dogs” Instagramers too.

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

It makes a lot of sense though, given that approximately 70-80 million dogs are owned in the United States and about 37-47 percent of all households in the United States have a dog. And seriously, why even bother getting a dog if you’re going to leave him home alone or with a stranger every time you do something cool?

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides...and at just a year old...everything else too.

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides…and at just a year old…everything else too.

Check out my published blog written for a new startup called OutsideMyWay for tips on how to get your pup as ready and excited for the great outdoors as you are.

http://www.stories.outsidemyway.com/how-to-include-your-dog-on-awesome-outdoor-adventures

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn't more gentle.

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn’t more gentle.

Turning 32 on Sapelo Island

As the days of August ticked by, 32 seemed like a pretty insignificant number, so I was half-expecting a pretty insignificant 32nd birthday. My creative husband who knows me all-too-well had something entirely different in mind.

Three days before my birthday, I was handed a packing list and told to be ready to leave at 10 am the next morning. Leave for where?

I had no clue….it was a surprise adventure and I was more than okay with that. There really aren’t enough fun surprises in life, so I wasn’t going to ruin this one by asking too many questions.

We took turns driving and five hours later, we arrived at this.

20150821_152232A ferry boat in the middle of nowhere. Okay…

I knew we were along the Atlantic coast in southeastern Georgia, and I remembered that there were some islands off the coast. I’d heard of these surprisingly situated islands, but had never been to any of them. That was all about to change.

P1040582With my trusty chimp sidekick, Ginger “Dunkey” Bromeliad by my side, I boarded the ferry and settled in for a short ride to Sapelo Island. Sapelo is one of the most remote and uninhabited islands along the Georgia coast, and actually it’s a national estuarine research reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources.

Sapelo’s history dates back 4,500 years, when Native Americans settled here, but it’s best known for Civil War and slavery times. When the Union army started attacking the Georgia coastline, slave owners bailed, leaving many of their slaves behind to fend for themselves.

Some slaves who left the island came back later in search of family members and ended up settling here. Almost all residents of Sapelo Island today are their descendants.

We stayed at a VRBO property called “Sapelo Island-Leave the World Behind,” and our host, Lucy, picked us up at the ferry. The drive from the ferry was a small taste of what was to come, with dirt road, potholes, forests, and an utter lack of civilization. The only real town here is Hog Hammock, which has an estimated population of about 40-50 people.

P1040751There are no hotels on the island, and no restaurants either. We rented an attic apartment above Lucy and Mike’s home, which was actually spacious enough to sleep six if you really squeezed in. 
P1040590It was a totally comfortable place to stay, surprisingly with functional WiFi and TV. There was even a little outdoor patio with a table and chairs upstairs that we could use.

P1040761To get around the island, our hosts loaned us “The Beast,” a clunky, nasty SUV that could somehow still manage to maneuver the Sapelo wilderness.

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After settling in and getting acquainted with the island on a map, our first order of business was….THE BEACH! After all, what’s an island trip without the beach?

There are two beaches on Sapelo Island….the north beach and the south beach. But technically, they’re both on the south part of the island since the whole northern part is DNR territory and off-limits to cars.

Never before in all my days have I witnessed a more secluded and surreal beach. This shot was taken on Sapelo’s south (main) beach, Nanny Goat Beach, right before a ridiculous storm hit. And for the record, there were only three other people on the entire beach before the skies turned all dark and crazy.

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Every morning I spent on the island started with yoga…
P1040606…and then a beach walk to discover strange creatures that called this place home.
P1040617Plenty of time was spent in a rare state of relaxation on the beach…reading, writing, playing Frisbee, sketching, and drinking wine. Sapelo is the best place I’ve found that really takes me away from it all.

But there are some local “tourist attractions” that we checked out during our time here too. One of them is the Reynolds Mansion, which actually offers tours if you show up at the right day and time. We did not, but we did check out the grounds and eat a can of beans on the sidewalk.

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It’s named after big tobacco heir Richard Reynolds who purchased the property in the 1930s and started letting the University of Georgia use the facilities for marine research. In its heyday, the 1920s, the mansion was used to entertain rich and fancy guests in the automotive industry.

Lucy and Mike also let us use some rusty old pink beach cruisers that they had in the garage to explore the island on two wheels.

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We pedaled to the nearby African Baptist Church, which has a service once a month.

P1040645Although cars aren’t allowed on the north part of the island, bikes are. So we set off to see what the more remote areas of the island were like. Sapelo Island is about 10 miles long and 4 miles wide, which makes it larger than Bermuda!
P1040644All seemed to be going so well on this little self-guided bike tour….until we hit the massive puddles.
P1040648The night before, very shortly after that picture of me on the beach with the crazy sky was taken, a torrential downpour hit and made a big mess of Sapelo’s dirt roads.

After walking our bikes around entirely too many flooded sections of road, we had to give up on the northbound route and head south instead. Fortunately, there was plenty to see down there too.
P1040655Sapelo’s lighthouse was built in 1820 by Winslow Lewis and repaired extensively after the Civil War and also an 1898 hurricane.

But a trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without spending time at BOTH beaches, so after a much-needed shower, we headed to the north beach, Cabretta Island, to scope out the scene. 
P1040694Just when I thought Nanny Goat Beach was remote, I discovered Cabretta Island and my mind was blown. The “roads” to get here were questionable at best, and we passed through was an abandoned campground on the way. Camping here would have been amazing, but apparently it only takes reservations for large groups for staffing purposes, not parties of two.
P1040707Ahhh…another secluded beach afternoon before a storm. A gal could really get used to this.

But alas, I had two more islands to briefly check out before heading home and accepting the fact that I’m a 32-year-old human being. The next stop was St. Simons island, which is far more inhabited and touristy. Don’t get me wrong…it’s still really nice though, and I’d move there in an instant.

I kicked off my actual birthday day by stand-up paddleboarding in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of St. Simon’s Island.

20150824_090526We met up with a local guy to accompany us since it was only our second time SUP-ing and the last time was two years ago. Compared to the last time in Lake Michigan (Chicago), this time was a breeze! I didn’t fall…not even once…and I even pulled off a couple easy yoga moves on the board.

After an essential ice cream stop post-SUP, we only had a little bit of time to spend on Jekyll Island. This is a built-up island with lots of new hotels, restaurants, and shops….and also a sea turtle center. My favorite part about this particular place though was the driftwood beach.

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This beach is located on the north end of the island and is pretty much a tree graveyard. It’s a bit sad actually, because the north end of the island is slowly eroding away and leaving the trees like this. But for now, it’s a surreal, haunting, and beautiful place that’s unlike any other beach I’ve ever seen.

It was really hard leaving the islands and coming home, as you might expect. A true getaway, far away from technology, obligations, and responsibilities, was really what I needed and spending a four-day weekend here really cleared out a lot of mental clutter.

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For the longest time, I haven’t had a huge “draw” to a particular place where I could see myself plopping down for a while. Now all I can think about is living in a chill beach town…where my days start with yoga in the sand and end with sketching in the sunset.

I guess turning 32 wasn’t really so insignificant after all.

Everything You Need to Know About Hiking With Your Dog

As an avid hiker, writer, and dog sitter, it only seemed perfect that I write an article for DogVacay about hiking with your dog.

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I’ve learned a TON about how to prep for dog hiking trips and care on the trail while working a side gig with this company over the past year. Hiking is such a wonderful way to spend time with dogs…whether your own or someone else’s that you need to tire out to get some sleep!

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Check out my publishedpost on the DogVacay blog. Pictured here are a few of my favorite hardcore hiker pups Abby, Aro, Lily, and Emma!

http://dogvacay.com/blog/hiking-with-your-dog/

*Photos and words by Alyssa Ochs, a DogVacay Host in Atlanta, GA.

Hiking to the Tallest Waterfall in the Southeast (with a Dog): Amicalola Falls, Georgia

One of the best things that I’ve discovered about living in Georgia is that there are lots of decent hiking trails within an hour’s drive.

Before my living situation brought me to the southeast instead of the northwest, I put a high priority on living in a hiking-friendly area. Although the mountains aren’t quite as tall or the parks as vast down here, Georgia continues to surprise me in pleasant ways.

Did you know that there’s a 729-foot waterfall just 90 minutes outside downtown Atlanta?

Well there is! And I recently had the pleasure of checking it out with my fiancée and a random English Setter named Lily.

Amicalola Falls State Park is located in north central Georgia, smack dab in the middle of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Newcomers be forewarned: this is one of the most popular state parks so arrive early in the morning to beat the annoying line of cars waiting to get in the parking lot by noon. Parking costs $5 unless you have a state park pass.

The drive to get here is quite nice – it’s hilly, windy, and redneck-y. As soon as you see the gentle rolling mountains in the distance, you’ll soon forget about the perils of Atlanta traffic. Wear layers and bring a jacket because the temperature drops at least 10 degrees by the time you arrive from the city.

IMG_7889There are several different trails to choose from when you arrive at the park. Hardcore hikers (with hardcore dogs?) can venture out on the 8.5-mile route to Springer Mountain, which leads from the park to the end of the iconic Appalachian Trail.

From the visitor center, we started on the 0.6-mile Creek Trail (yellow), past the reflection pool at the base of the falls. From there, you’ll find the Appalachian Approach Trail (blue), which leads to the top of the falls. This trail is marked in blue on the map and follows the creek on a series of steep stairs.

I was dog sitting Miss Lily, a 5-year-old English Setter, through my part-time gig as a DogVacay host. She seemed like a pretty agile pup, so I figured a nice long hike would do us both some good.

IMG_7903“Amicalola” takes a few attempts to pronounce correctly and means “tumbling waters” in Cherokee. The whole park spans about 1,000 acres and is considered one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. A quick Google search informed me that these are the seven wonders…two down, five to go!

  • Amicalola Falls State Park
  • Okefenokee Swamp
  • Providence Canyon
  • Radium Springs
  • Stone Mountain
  • Tallulah Gorge
  • Warm Springs

IMG_7927This stunning waterfall reminded me of the best ones I saw while hiking through the Smokys…which I guess makes sense because they’re really not all that far from each other.

In addition to the waterfall, there’s a 56-room guest lodge, a 24-campsite campground, 14 cottages, and even a dining room with banquet facilities. This is one fancy-pants state park!

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It’s about a mile from the base of the stairs to the top of the falls, with few open areas to stop and take a break. I don’t think Lily had ever seen stairs quite like these, and considering that she has anxiety issues that warrant doggie meds, they were a bit nerve-racking for her.

But we went slow, stuck with it, and eventually reached the top! It was about 10 or 11 in the morning on a Saturday in late March, so although we were greeted by some fellow stair-climbers, the route wasn’t over-crowded.
IMG_7940Brave Lily was the only dog on those stairs that day and she did a great job sticking with it. If it would have just been my fiancée and me, we would have likely continued hiking after reaching the top to check out some of the other trails. But this was enough for our day with Lily, and I’d packed a picnic lunch to relax and enjoy the scenery and the beautiful sunny day.

Much to Lily’s relief, we didn’t have to backtrack down those steep stairs to complete our journey back to the Jeep. We took the East Ridge Trail down, which was wooded, rocky, and had a moderate down-slope. Lunch at the top had re-energized us and the air was feeling warmer with each step.

IMG_7991Just before making this little trip up north, we picked up and installed a new (to us) soft top on my Jeep, “Chief Surfs with Manatees”. What better way to enjoy the fresh (pollen-filled) southern air than with the top down and my crazy hair blowing in all directions?!

This was the first day we put the new soft top to use, and lil’ Lily seemed to love the open air as much as I did.
IMG_8005If you’re looking to grab a beer on an outdoor patio after a day of hiking (my favorite kind of reward!), head to Dahlonega (another hard-to-pronounce name) and check out the Bourbon Street Grille for a well-deserved brew and a bananas foster dessert to share.

Dahlonega is a super-cutesy and historic town that’s the site of the first major gold rush in America. Step down, California!

There’s some tourist shops to check out in the downtown square, a growler fill shop, and apparently some wineries in the area that unfortunately, I only learned about later on.

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Hiking with a dog is a relatively new thing for me; however, I’m getting better at it every time. I’ve provided dog sitting and dog boarding services for about 20 dogs now, which I’m hoping will make things go smoother one day when I have a pup of my own.

These are a few dog hike considerations that I’ve learned so far, and the list continues to grow with each trail…

  • Understand your dog’s physical limitations
  • Scope out specific trails, trail distances, and terrain beforehand
  • Call the park to make sure it’s dog friendly
  • Leave early in the morning for a slimmer chance of crowded trails and hot temperatures
  • Have a reliable leash/harness setup
  • Bring water, a water bowl, food, and poop bags
  • Bring plastic bags, paper towels, and hand sanitizer for poop messes
  • Take breaks if your dog looks like she’s struggling or turn back early if you’re reasonably worried
  • Check the pup for ticks and fleas after the hike

A Cabbage Patch Dream-Come-True: Babyland General Hospital – Cleveland, Georgia

This is a story about how five-year-old Alyssa’s dream finally came true…26 years late.

Every kid has a favorite toy, whether it’s a teddy bear, Lego blocks, or a plastic truck. As an only child, I was somewhat spoiled with toys, but hands down, my favorites were Cabbage Patch dolls.

Babyland General Hospital is a Cabbage Patch museum/factory/showroom of sorts, and I finally got to see it for myself…with my parents in tow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My grandma bought my first (of six) Cabbage Dolls back in 1983, when they were the hot ticket item on everyone’s shopping list. Her name was Isabelle, and oddly enough, I’ve taken Isabelle to live with me every time I’ve moved. She’s quite the well-traveled lil’ thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo when my parents planned a road trip from Illinois to Georgia to visit me in my current home, a trip to Babyland General Hospital was a MUST.

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It’s located in the tiny town of Cleveland, Georgia…northeast of Atlanta at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the huge, white plantation-style home surrounded by 650 acres of green space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike any decent kitschy attraction, a fair number of famous people have walked through these doors and/or collected Cabbage Patches themselves. You’ll be greeted by their signed photos as you make your way inside to the admission desk past the bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore there were Cabbage Patches, there were Little People, plush dolls that date back to 1977 and that were Xavier Roberts’ first creations. This is the oldest one of them all…valued at a whopping $37,000!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were plenty of good photo ops for Isabelle and me as we toured Babyland General Hospital. To me growing up, Cabbage Patches were more than just silly dolls. They were my siblings. Weird, huh?

Being an only child can get lonely, so Isabelle, Netta, Jerry, Martha, Henrietta, and Lara kept me company by playing school, pretend cooking, going on road trips, and hosting birthday parties. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow it’s important to note that my parents were just as much into this whole experience as I was. They’ve finally accepted me for who I am, and they don’t (outwardly) judge me for playing with creatures and dolls instead of my own unborn offspring. Thanks, Mom & Dad 🙂
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne thing that caught me slightly off-guard was that everyone working at Babyland General Hospital was dressed like a nurse and totally in character. I really think some of these old women believed they were delivering actual babies in a real hospital. But I can support that.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I expected a bit more of a “museum” aspect to this place, but it ended up being more of a sales room than anything else. Practically everything inside was for sale! I would have loved a few more informational plaques, factory photos, and maybe a little video presentation to add to the experience though. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADolls were carefully positioned in “nurseries” and play areas, and even separated by girls’ rooms and boy’s rooms. I’m sure this was to avoid the dreaded case of the cooties.
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Apparently even Andy Warhol got in on the Cabbage Patch craze at one point because a few of his paintings lined the “hospital” walls. 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut by far, the most interesting thing that happened at Babyland General Hospital was the BIRTHING.

I’m not even kidding…a head of cabbage gave birth to a doll while a “nurse” delivered it….and I saw it all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to a little audience participation, this head of cabbage turned out a baby girl and all the gross parts about birthing were edited out of the show. WHEW!

When the nurse asked the audience to name the new baby girl, my dad called out, “Alyssa!” And thus, a new baby me was born this day.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThroughout the course of the morning, I learned that there are many different types of Cabbage Patches and they don’t all look like Isabelle. However, she still had to wear a visitor pass so that she wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the residents.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor a Cabbage Patch fan, this was total sensory overload.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could have probably spent all day hanging out with these little buggas, but alas it was a work day, and there’s only SO much time that “free admission” will buy you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was an onsite birthday party room that I would have absolutely died for when I was a kid. Aw what the hell…maybe I’ll see if it’s available in late August for the big 3-2.
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My parents made it known that they were bound and determined to buy me a brand new Cabbage Patch doll to celebrate this magical day. But with hundreds upon hundreds of glistening, adoptable painted eyes staring at me, how was I to choose just one?!
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After a requisite bout of indecision, I settled on a little brown baby boy wearing monkey pajamas and smelled of talcum powder. But this was no ordinary store purchase…this was a full-fledged adoption!

And you questioned my motherly instincts….heh!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith one look into those abnormally large brown eyes, I signed my life away…with Isabelle as my witness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the adoption process didn’t end there! I was required to raise my right hand and repeat after the nurse that I would be a kind adoptive mother to the little guy for as long as I shall live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd with that it was done! I was too ecstatic at the moment to focus hard enough on choosing a name for my new little guy. So he’s still nameless…any suggestions? I need to write it on his birth certificate (yes, there IS actually a birth certificate) before he realizes that his adoptive mom is a flake.
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And just so Isabelle didn’t feel left out with all this new baby madness, I got her a little “candy striper” dress as a souvenir. They seem to be getting along pretty well so far.

And both 5-year-old Alyssa and 31-year-old Alyssa deem this latest Georgia adventure an overwhelming success! If you could belatedly fulfill one childhood dream trip right now, where would you go?