Month #4 on the Road: Camper Life Update from Colorado & Utah!

Well I’ve officially been living on the road longer than I’ve been able to endure some jobs…four months! And it’s supermoon day!

Mid-October through mid-November has been a whirlwind for me in terms of work, and I’ve been so swamped that I haven’t even glanced at my blog since the 14th of last month. My workload has made it a bit more challenging to find balance day to day and not feel stressed out while making time to explore new places. I felt so scatterbrained just trying to put this post together that these photos are totally not in sequential order at all. But they’re all from month #4, so there ya go.

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Yet Colorado and Utah have been awesome and solidified my perception that I feel more at home in the West than the East. To start blending in with the locals, I’ve also begun to assume a new identity as well. I found this name tag on a hiking trail and am ready to pull it out whenever necessary for Mormon perks.

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Places We’ve Been: Month #4

Month #4 began in Cortez, Colorado and then began moving north and west. We’ve been taking our time and spending a couple weeks in places when they seem cool enough to warrant it.

The only exception was Grand Junction. Every private campground in the area had ridiculous dog breed restrictions that forbid pit bulls, rottweilers, and dobermans. Campground reviews shared that many campground owners would scrutinize dogs and hassle owners, and we just couldn’t justify giving money to close-minded and discriminatory people like that. However, we had friends driving in to GJ from Denver and already established social plans. So the solution here was to stay at an all-breed-friendly hotel in GJ just for the weekend and take advantage of a hot tub and hot breakfast. It ended up being pretty sweet actually and really fun to hang out with the Colorado gals.

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Not just a good band, also a solid fall day out in Grand Junction.

Here’s a quick recap of this past month’s batch of “homes on the road”:

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Colorado National Monument at sunrise

Montrose, Colorado: Home on the Road #20

  • Highlights: Challenging hike/climb to the bottom of Black Canyon, mini golf at our campground, bike paths & off-leash dog area at city park, clothing optional hot springs at Ridgway, exploring nearby Ouray, bowling alley next to our campground, art afternoon inspired by the canyon, Halloween shopping, finding creepy animal bones along a trail
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At the bottom of Black Canyon

  • Lowlights: No recreational shops for fun edibles like I’d pleasantly gotten used to in Cortez
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Disc golf course in Montrose

Grand Junction, Colorado: Home on the Road #21

  • Highlights: Meeting up with a good friend and getting to know two new ones, taking a camper break for a hotel stay, local pumpkin patch and corn maze, freaking people out with creepy Halloween masks, scenic winery after a day of hiking, Colorado National Monument at sunrise
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Corn maze shenanigans

  • Lowlights: Breed restrictive rules that banned pit bull mixes, treacherous jeep trail that led to a failed attempt at seeing arches
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Colorado wine country outside Grand Junction

Vernal, Utah: Home on the Road #22

  • Highlights: BLM land hikes to arches, finding a Mormon name tag on the trail, petroglyphs on private ranch, Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, real bones at Dinosaur National Monument, crazy rock formations at Fantasy Canyon
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Real dinosaur bones at Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry House

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Otherworldly rock formations at Fantasy Canyon on BLM land outside Vernal

  • Lowlights: Almost losing Monkey when we let her off-leash and couldn’t find her
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Creepy abandoned cabin 4 miles into a BLM land hiking trail near Grand Junction

Salt Lake City, Utah: Home on the Road #23

  • Highlights: Doing city stuff for a change, awesome campground with a hot tub and good WiFi, clean & reliable public transit, bike lanes everywhere, campsite yoga, seeing bison and the creepy scenery at Antelope State Park and the Great Salt Lake, checking out neighborhoods, learning that my ancestors date back to the 1500s at the Mormon Family Search Library
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The temple we couldn’t go into because we aren’t Mormon. But everywhere else here was fair game to check out.

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It’s great living right next to good bike trails

  • Lowlights: Failed comedy show attempt, trying to figure out Utah’s complicated brewery laws (some good beer though!)
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The masterpieces from art afternoon at the Black Canyon.

Observations & Random Ramblings: Month #4

In no particular order, these are some random thoughts that came to me over the course of month #4 on the road.

With the eerie fog and desolate landscape, the Great Salt Lake is super creepy

With the eerie fog and desolate landscape, the Great Salt Lake is super creepy

  • I hate sharing bathroom space with others. This is my personal time, not a time for small talk. RV parks tend to be better with this than state park campgrounds because RV people have their own bathrooms.
  • Having crappy campground internet makes me super cranky and stressed out for work. So far, campground internet in the West has been much better than on the East Coast.
  • I’m okay with heights, but not so much with steep drop-offs. The Lizard Head trail near Telluride was rough.

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  • Colorado is a great place to be if you enjoy the occasional edible. However, Western CO is super dry (I’m looking at you, Grand Junction), so stock up when you can.
  • Cheap $2 gloves are a lifesaver for typing on a laptop with cold hands, hiking without losing grip, etc.
Crappy gloves = love

Crappy gloves = love

  • Command strips are amazing for camper storage, especially for winter coats and towels. I have about 9 hanging right now and could use a few more.
  • Interactions with strangers continue to feel burdensome and exhausting no matter where I am, and I just can’t wait for them to end about 90% of the time.
  • It’s often been too cold to do yoga outside at campsites lately, so I’ve checked out a few more local yoga classes. Some good, some bad. Unseasonably warm weather has made this easier.
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Much more treacherous than it looks, using a chain for balance

  • It’s hard on us, but Monkey has been doing well with her “practice boarding” experiences to get ready for five days without us over Christmas. We’ve gotten a good report about her on two day-boarding days and one overnight boarding trial run.
  • I wrote a short story last month but have been trying to write some travel-related poems this month. I’ve written three so far that aren’t great, but they’re something. Hoping to pair these with some photos and maps to create a travel book later on.
  • We almost lost Monkey one day while letting her off-leash in BLM land, where it’s totally allowed but she scared us half to death. We called out for her and searched for her for what seemed like an eternity before she emerged on top of the tallest hill in the area, limping a little but otherwise fine. Apparently, some legit dog training may be necessary after all.
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Monkey totally uninterested in these ridiculous rock formations at Fantasy Canyon near Vernal

  • I witnessed the exciting Cubs win for the World Series and the disheartening result of the Presidential election from a camper, tracking updates over WiFi with no TV access. These experiences would have felt a bit isolating except for social media, and for that my Facebook friends, I thank you.
  • Getting used to brewery laws in new states is confusing and frustrating.
  • Unseasonably warm weather has been awesome for us but devastating for skiers out here. Yet working outside in mid-60-degree weather in November has been awesome.
  • Mormons are nice and helpful to a fault. While visiting Temple Square, I was never approached about God or Jesus…only whether I had questions, needed a tour, or wanted to talk about architecture. Yet these persistent and overly nice interactions were incredibly draining and completely unavoidable. Seriously, what are these people on?
  • Salt Lake City has made it onto our list of possible “move to someday” destinations. We scoped out neighborhoods and have positive thoughts about Sugar House, The Avenues, and Cottonwood Heights.

Looking Ahead to Month #5

Month #5 will continue in Utah as we make our way to Moab and spend a week or two there. Thanksgiving will be spent in that area probably gorging ourselves on something delicious. But we’re on a deadline, and that’s because of Christmas. So we’ve got to make it down to Phoenix a few days before Jesus/Santa day to catch a flight back to Central Illinois. But not without spending some time at the Grand Canyon on the way down.

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Sadly, Moonshine Arch had no moonshine at the top.

Overall, I’m loving the west and the unseasonably warm weather is a much-needed relief here. However, our first chance of snow is Thursday, and I’m not looking forward to that inside these canvas walls.

We’ve still got these masks in the back of the Jeep, so if you see some freak shows lurking around in the off-season, it’s probably us. After all, Halloween is my favorite holiday and I was happy to celebrate it in a fun place with good people. Cheers!

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Freaking families out, one cheap mask at a time.

Related:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places We’ve Been So Far: Month #1

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

Biggest Challenges So Far: Month #1

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

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

Realizations Thus Far: Month #1

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

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

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Ramblings: Month #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to Month #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Fe Railyard

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3529 (1)Final Closing Tips for Dog Biking

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

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

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

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

Reminisce with me for a moment…

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Fe Brewing Company, Santa Fe

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

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

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

Second Street Brewery, Santa Fe

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

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

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

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

Spotted Dog Brewing Mesilla

Red Door Brewery, Albuquerque

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

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

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

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

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

Taos Mesa Brewing, Taos

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

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

Pecan Grill & Brewery, Las Cruces

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

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

Pecan Grill Las Cruces

High Desert Brewing, Las Cruces

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

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

High Desert Brewing Las Cruces

Don Quixote Distillery & Winery, Jaconita

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

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

Breweries and Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

(response #1) – Yep, sure do.

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

(response #3) – You wanna do WHAT?!

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

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

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

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!).

Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico (List-Style Highlights Published on Trips to Discover!)

I’ve been writing for Trips To Discover for a couple years now and just published some list-style highlights from my Puerto Rico trip. Here’s the link and intro!

http://www.tripstodiscover.com/incredible-ways-to-spend-your-vacation-in-puerto-rico/

Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico

By: Alyssa Ochs  
On 

Puerto Rico enjoys a very unique place in the world, since it’s a U.S. territory and a Caribbean island at the same time. On one hand, Puerto Ricans use U.S. money, no passport is needed for visitors from the mainland, and English is widely spoken. But on the other hand, the island has a laid-back vibe, beautiful beaches, and fascinating history that feels a world away.

For U.S.-based travelers, Puerto Rico is an accessible destination that offers wonderfully warm 80-degree year-around weather and affordable accommodations. Since the public transportation system here leaves a few things to be desired, the best way to get around is by renting a car to explore all parts of the island. It’s not too difficult to do that either, even if you only have a week to spend here, because it’s only about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide!

These are some of the most unbelievable places to visit in Puerto Rico, which are some of my own personal favorites.

People-Watch at La Plaza del Mercado in Santurce
More details to come about this awesome trip soon!

Adventure Cycling Guest Post! How to Pull Off a Bike Overnight on a Budget

Just a quick share to kick off the weekend…

The Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association published my guest post today about my first overnight bike experience and some budget-friendly tips!

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http://www.adventurecycling.org/resources/blog/how-to-pull-off-a-bike-overnight-on-a-budget/

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Check it out and mad props to ACA for featuring my ride!

48 Hours in the World’s Most Romantic (eh?) City: Paris

By the time I reached Paris by train, I had already spent five days in Amsterdam, three days in Brussels, and visited the world’s greatest gnome-themed brewery in Belgium. That’s a solid trip right there, but my journey was only half complete.

I had just 48 hours to soak up Parisian culture and see for myself if the city lived up to the hype.

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PARIS: DAY 1

The Gare du Nord train station in Paris was super close to our hostel, which served fresh croissants, coffee, and juice each morning. Vintage Hostel is on rue de Dunkerque and was a pretty sweet place to stay, with 1 Euro Heinekens during happy hour, a foosball table, and good Wi-Fi. We had booked a four-person dorm and found ourselves shacking up with a guy from North Carolina and a girl from an undisclosed location in South America.

It was also just a short walk to Sacre Coeur.

P1020658This was a huge cathedral with a lonely carousel outside. Mysterious armed guards met our acquaintance as we walked up the stairs and beggars flocked toward us from all directions. It really was a beautiful church though….and those views! P1020667This was a great place to snap a panoramic shot of the city…which is clearly what every other tourist quickly discovered too. Next up: the Arc de Triomphe! P1020699And what a triumph it was! I was feeling a bit under the weather during my entire time in Paris, mostly due to a weird bubbled lodged in my right eye. (It’s not contagious, I swear!) So the walk to reach this classic landmark was a bit of a doozy.

A doozy yes, but also an insightful glimpse into the real streets of Paris. These were streets filled with trash, traffic, tow trucks, and sporadic yelling. It all kind of reminded me of a European version of New York City…but with more motorcycles and scooters.

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Marching on, we looked tirelessly for that elusive hunk of scaffolding that everybody’s always talking about.
P1020761Well I finally found it (I’m totally pulling your leg…it’s completely obvious) and those were my first words, “That’s it? It looks like a bunch of scaffolding!” To me, it seemed like an unfinished piece of construction, but it sure is big.

The park around the Eiffel Tower was really nice though. We stopped by a local Soup & Juice to pick up lunch to-go and plopped down on a nearby bench. It was a weekday, so the crowds were totally manageable. The lines to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower were not manageable in my opinion, and I’ve seen enough vistas from high places lately, so we skipped that whole thing.

An interesting part of the visit was that a large screen was placed on the lawn and played a tennis match. Tennis fans rooting for Robert Federrer and the other guy perched themselves on the lawn to watch. The temperatures were finally warming up and the sun was shining. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon!

But the minutes of our 48 hours in Paris were ticking away, so onward we plodded into the city…

Everyone knows that Paris is full of a ridiculous number of museums. Some people handle museum days better than others…

P1020788Like these tourists who I busted passing out mid-day outside one of the military museums, I was starting to get museum-ed out myself. This fact coupled with the time constraints were enough reason to simply view the museum’s architecture and sculptures from the outside rather than actually going inside.

P1020801The stroll took us past Ecole Militaire, Musee de L’Armee, Musee de Orsay, the Louve, and the Seine.P1020814All this urban hiking was making me thirsty, so we decided to stop at a fancy French cafe for an afternoon treat.
P1020822Our waiter was only moderately snooty, and after some time passed, he brought us a bottle of their cheapest white wine on the menu (30 Euros and decent) and a lemon/strawberry dessert (14 Euros and tiny).

With a little French sustenance in our systems, we continued on to explore yet another stereotypical French tradition…shopping!
P1020851This was the huge indoor luxury shopping complex known as Galleries Lafayette. In our not-so-luxurious outfits, we browsed all sorts of counters Tiffany, Coach, etc. and didn’t buy a damn thing. Le sigh.

That evening was pretty low key…I cranked out an article for work and we used a couple free drink coupons at On the Road Pub that our hostel handed out. Then we took a stroll around the neighborhood in search of by-the-slice pizza and failed miserably. I guess it’s not a French thing.

PARIS: DAY 2

My eye condition had worsened by the morning, but I was still convinced to see the sights of Paris. Passing through the Indian part of town, we walked to the Marais neighborhood, which is raved about in the all the guidebooks.

Instead of just walking by and snapping pictures of museums, we actually went into one on Day #2…the Picasso museum. I’ve always enjoyed a good abstract/cubist creation.

P1020879Even if you arrive a Paris’ museums before they open, it seems there is always a line anyway. The line only took about 30 minutes to get through, which wasn’t too bad. There were four floors to check out here and it was pretty interesting to see all of his non-cubist works and sculpture work in addition to the well-known paintings.

We had packed a picnic lunch to take to Vosges, another famous Parisian park, and snagged some gelato at a little shop on the way out. We also took a walk to Bastille, another big monument here, but no one takes photos excessively of it like they do the Arc de Triomphe.
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After a quick nap back at the hostel (when in Paris…), I got all dolled up for a fancy night out on the town. 
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Dinner was at Petit Canard, which translates to The Duckling. It was my first pleasant dining experience in France, as the staff was nice, the service was good, and the restaurant was cute but not crowded.

It seemed that no trip to Paris, no matter how short, would be complete without seeing a show. So we booked tickets for a cabaret show at La Nouvelle Eve.
P1020936Photography wasn’t allowed during the show, but let me assure you, the evening was filled with plenty of singing, dancing, costumes, champagne, and perky breasts. It was all a bit cheesy and touristy, but definitely a fun time.
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Okay, I guess my math is bad because we actually had a couple more than 48 hours in Paris. On the morning of third day, we woke up early and walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery, to see row-after-row of elaborate gravestones and mausoleums.

P1020967The big tourist draw here is the site where Jim Morrison was buried, and there are fences surrounding it so you don’t bother him too much.

Morrison’s great and all, but this was one of my favorite gravestone. Well done George…you’ve epitomized every horror movie fan’s nightmare-come true.P1020968

But before catching our flight to the UK, we had one last stop to make in Paris. After one last stroll along the Seine (because that’s what you’re supposed to do in Paris, right?), we finally found the elusive Ile Saint Louis, which is an “island” with an ice cream shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain. 
P1020974I must admit, Berthillon did serve up some pretty delicious ice cream…my ultimate food weakness.

Paris is one of those overrated places that you visit and expect to be wowed in an instant. But what I remember most is how burnt out I felt on city life. In the short amount of time I spent here I felt beyond irritated with the crowds, the lines the noise, the smells, and just people in general.

I grew up in a town of 2,000 people and dreamed of big city life. But by now, I’ve been there, done that, and moved on. I certainly don’t want to move back to that tiny town, but I’ve come to really appreciate solitude, the sight of trees outside my window, and the sounds of birds chirping in the morning. Sometimes the best part about traveling is coming to new realizations about yourself.

I wouldn’t say that Paris is at the top of my “must visit again” list, but I wouldn’t mind seeing less-touristy/more-quirky areas of the city someday. Although Paris was technically part of my honeymoon, I didn’t see the romantic appeal that’s touted in all those movies and storybooks. But then again, I’m not all that romantic of a gal, so what I do know?

As with most cities, I’m sure that there’s a neighborhood or two that I would have fallen in love with. But those will have to wait a little while because there are plenty of other places to discover for the first time.

Next stop: the English countryside! Au revoir!

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.

An Afternoon in Clovelly, A Step Back in Time

After spending a dream-come-true afternoon at The Gnome Reserve in the WAY remove countryside of England, I found myself searching for something else interesting to do in North Devon.

Something…oh I don’t know…England-y, something country-ish, something off-the-grid. Something like Clovelly.

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I think I first learned about Clovelly from TripAdvisor. It’s a small village in the Torridge district that’s intentionally stuck in time in the mid-19th century. It’s known for steep cobblestone streets that allow donkeys, but not cars. It’s also known for it’s lovely coastal views over the Bristol Channel.

Interestingly, Clovelly is a privately owned city that’s been under the control of the same family since 1738. In fact, it’s been run by just three families since the middle of the 13th century – nearly 800 years! According to the most recent census, around 443 people call this place home today.
IMG_2128Visitors are required to park at the top of a hill and enter through the Visitor’s Center. It costs £6.95 to get into Clovelly, which goes towards building maintenance and historic restoration.

We caught the last 5 minutes of the 20-minute video that tells about the village’s history and picked up a brochure to fill in the gaps. After passing by some resident donkeys, we took a stroll to check out the silk and pottery craft workshops before they closed for the day.

IMG_2136The cobblestone streets here are too steep for cars, so donkeys were used as the primary means of transportation for centuries. Now it seems that the donkeys are more of a tourist attraction than a source of hard labor, but motor vehicles are still prohibited. Everything from groceries to building materials are now hauled up and down by sledge.
IMG_2167The buildings here are ridiculously cute, from old-timey inns to chapels and houses that you swear people must not truly live in…but they really do.
IMG_2192It was about 5 pm when we were talking around, which is when many of the shops were closing. But I didn’t mind. Closed shops meant less temptation to break the Eurotrip budget, and it’s not like any more trinkets would fit in my backpack anyway. Closed shops also meant less crowds…which is perfect in a place like Clovelly.

IMG_2206However, a few restaurants and bars remained open and we were able to snag some traditional English grub and a couple beers before heading home at the end of the day.
IMG_2227But what I loved most about this place was the seascape. I’ve always been a sucker for little towns along the shore, and this was by far one of most serene and beautiful ones I’ve visited. Clovelly used to be a fishing village, which isn’t surprising, considering its perfect location and plethora of boats.
IMG_2263One thing that surprised me though was the waterfall. As if this village wasn’t beautiful enough, someone had to stick a waterfall in there too.

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You have to hike across some medium-sized pebbles and stones (a little rough in flats with minimal support) from the main cobblestone path to reach it, but when you do, you can walk right up to the waterfall. Behind it is a cave, where it’s rumored that the Arthurian magician Merlin was born.IMG_2347Speaking of magic…the air was warm (finally!), the sun was shining bright, and funny blobs of clouds dotted the sky.
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Author Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child, and the town inspired him to write Westward Ho and The Water Babies. Over a century and a half ago, here’s how he described the village:

Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden.

IMG_2410And these boats aren’t just for decoration either. If you have a little more time to spend here than we did, you can book a fishing trip or a boat excursion to nearby Lundy Island at the Visitor’s Center.
IMG_2435There are two hotels in town…one at the top and one at the bottom. The one at the bottom is called the Red Lion, which used to be a coal store and tavern back in the day. There are a couple cottages that offer bed and breakfast accommodations too. IMG_2441 There’s a bar inside the Red Lion where I snagged this beer and took it outside to sip by the dock in the sunshine.IMG_2449After a little beer-fueled relaxation, there was really only one way to go…back up. So I begin retracing my steps and climbing the cobblestone stairs back to the top of the village.

Little did I know at the time that I’d left my wallet down by the dock and actually had to run all the way down and back up again to find it. Fortunately, it was right where I left it…passport and all. A little extra exercise never hurt anyone.
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Sure, Clovelly may be categorized as a tourist attraction, but to me it was one of those really unique places I’ll never forget. It’s easy to find historic villages all over the world, but this one had a uncommonly authentic vibe that’s hard to describe.

Clovelly made me forget about checking my smartphone, forget about the conjunctival cyst that was stuck in my eye, and forget about being in a hurry to get anywhere. To me, it felt like a fairytale, but it’s nothing more than real life for hundreds of people who call it home…which is fascinating to me.
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The whole concept behind Clovelly intrigues me and honestly creeps me out a little bit. The village has inspired me to write a fictional short story about the alleged deep, dark secrets of the village’s owner family and why its residents have stayed for so long.

I’m not the first one to have this bright idea either. An 18th century fiction book called The History of John Gregg and his Family of Robbers and Murderers tells the story of cannibalistic bandits who lived in Clovelly and committed over a thousand murders while living in a cave by the sea.

Does Clovelly really have deep, dark secrets? I guess you’ll just have to visit for yourself…or read my upcoming hypothetical novel.