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.

ABQ Ride 5

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.
ABQ Ride 6

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!

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

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

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

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

 

1. Kilbourne Hole – Mining for Peridot Gemstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. White Sands National Monument – A Surreal Sandstorm

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Organ Mountains – Baylor Pass Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta da!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3315What’s next for Little Miss Nameless Camper?

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

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

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

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.

Fall Road Trip Ideas for the Uninspired Traveler

Summer is little more than a fleeting memory in the rear view mirror of life, but that doesn’t mean that wanderlust fades away so easily.

Fall road trips are awesome because they renew the sense of summer adventure before having to worry about annoyances like ice, snow, and road closures. So quick, before winter sets in, hop in your ride and set off on a journey to somewhere…anywhere!

road trip Italy

If you’re feeling a little uninspired, check out these recommended routes on Tripbase:

Sure, driving is more time consuming that booking a flight, but it’s consistently my favorite way to travel to keep costs down and the randomness quotient up.

Cheers!

Gorillas in Georgia?! A Tour of the Dewar Wildlife Trust Sanctuary

Georgia sounds like the absolute last place on earth that gorillas would be living in the wild. But there they were, roaming around on a couple hundred acres in the mountains of northern Georgia.

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Over a decade ago, a software engineer decided to switch gears, follow his passion, and build a gorilla sanctuary. His name is Steuart Dewar, and he made a good chunk of his gorilla-funding fortune developing a calendar application for the Palm mobile operating system. After some other land deals fell through, one worked out – a plot near Blue Ridge and Morgantown in the rolling mountains of northern Georgia.

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Dewar’s goal was to build a facility to care for gorillas that couldn’t otherwise be kept at zoos because of their medical or social issues. He built 14-foot concrete walls that enclose about eight acres of green space and indoor enclosure spaces for them to sleep at night. By enlisting the help of well-regarded veterinary facilities and veterinary professionals, the sanctuary earned the approval of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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When I arrived at the gorilla sanctuary for my scheduled tour, I unknowingly expected to find lots of gorillas living behind these fences. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that only TWO gorillas lived on site. The current residents are Kidogo and Jasiri, and they’re both about 15 years old.

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A former resident, Joe, arrived at the Dewar Wildlife Trust (DWT) in 2003.  In July 2012, Joe had to be euthanized “at the conclusion of an emergency immobilization following a recent marked decline in his health along with ongoing chronic health conditions that included advanced periodontal and cardiac disease.” Although Joe was born in the wild in Cameroon in 1963, he was captured and contained in a series of zoos in Birmingham, Denver, and Brownsville, Texas.

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DWT took on a gorilla named Oliver in 2006, but he was later moved to Ohio to live in the Columbus Zoo and father his first child. Kidogo and Jasiri, the third and fourth residents, both arrived at the facility from Zoo Atlanta in March 2012 after causing a ruckus and fighting with younger gorillas in designated bachelor groups.

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This nonprofit organization isn’t technically open to the public, but they still offer tours and host school groups. To get in touch, I contacted Steuart’s wife, JoBeth Dewar, by calling 706-374-5109. You can also email her at [email protected] Keep trying and leave messages if you don’t get a quick response.

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These gorillas are tucked away in the absolute middle of nowhere, and your vehicle had better have four-wheel drive if you’ve booked a tour. Steuart and JoBeth don’t advertise the GPS location of the sanctuary until your tour is on the calendar because they’re afraid of high school kids sneaking in to mess with the gorillas. To respect their privacy, I’ll just say that the roads to reach DWT are dusty, windy, hilly, narrow, and a bit treacherous. There is absolutely no signage along the way to let you know you’re on the right track.

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After rerouting my Jeep a couple times, I called JoBeth to let her know that I had arrived for the tour. Apparently, my boyfriend and I were the only ones scheduled for this tour, which worked out well since the drive from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee took longer than expected.

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JoBeth and Steuart pulled up in a (much older and rugged) Jeep of their own and told us to hop in. They took us to the front office, which was unassuming and featured little more than a small TV set and a decade-old laptop. Steuart shared a PowerPoint side presentation with us about how he started DWT and the gorillas that had lived here. Then we hopped back in the Jeep to meet Kidogo and Jasiri.

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Although Kidogo and Jasiri live behind a large concrete wall with a ton of open space, they stay in one place. JoBeth and Steuart brought a bag of apples and grapes to let us feed the gorillas between metal bars beneath windows in the concrete enclosure. Given their sheer size and power, I was surprised at how gentle the gorillas took food from our hands.

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Oh by the way, gorillas smell absolutely terrible. Apparently baths aren’t part of a gorilla sanctuary care regimen.

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Now you need to understand that my boyfriend and I aren’t just casual wildlife observers. We’re really into primates, having recently visited the Chimp Haven Sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, supporting the Born Free Primate Sanctuary in rural Texas, and watching every documentary out there. So we had a ton of questions about caring for the gorillas, and Steuart and JoBeth did an excellent job of answering all of them.

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At times, the sanctuary area made me feel like I was the one in the cage, while the gorillas roamed “free” in open space. To my relief, they don’t seem the least bit crowded and they get along marvelously. We watched Kidogo and Jasiri tease each other, play-fight, and even grope each other a bit. I suppose it gets boring without having any female gorillas around to play with.

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After feeding time, the couple took us to the upper “observation deck” area to watch the gorillas interact without our intrusion. Then we went down to the nighttime enclosure space, which has large cages, hammocks, and a few toys.

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We also got to see the veterinary hospital room, with its large operating table and medical equipment. Both gorillas recently underwent routine cardiac ultrasound exams to test them for cardiac disease, which is the #1 cause of death for gorillas living in captivity.

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According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Zoo Atlanta pays for two full-time curators, Horton and Bobby Fellows, to care for the 14-year-old gorillas, both of which remain property of the zoo. The zoo also supplies other in-kind support, including gorilla chow. Apparently, Zoo Atlanta remains interested in working with DWT to find solutions for some of their 21 male gorillas who don’t assimilate well with groups in the zoo’s small 3-acre space. The Dewars don’t live on site, but rather travel back and forth from Texas in their live-in RV for tours and other gorilla business.

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After it was all said and done, the Dewars spent a couple hours with us and really seemed to enjoy working with “the boys,” as they call the gorillas. Group tours cost $39 per adult and $19 per child, usually start at 1:00 pm, and last for 2-3 hours. These group tours are scheduled on select Saturdays from May through September, otherwise you’ll be paying $495 for a private tour scheduled at a date of your choosing.

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Aside from the small number of gorillas living onsite, two other things surprised me. There is a ton of underutilized space at DWT that has never been built out. Steuart indicated that maybe someday they would be able to take on other types of animals and use the vacant buildings and land spaces for unrelated conservation use. But for now, the buildings are empty and the construction materials lie in stacks.

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Finally, there is a thrift shop onsite. A full-blown thrift shop with dusty furniture, lamps, and knickknacks – I’m not even kidding. After JoBeth sold her six-bedroom home to live a gorilla-filled life on the road with Steuart, she had a lot of extra stuff at her disposal. Every DWT tour ends at the thrift shop in case you’d like to buy anything or make a tax-deductible donation of your own unwanted junk. All for the sake of fundraising!

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I must say that I absolutely loved spending a Saturday afternoon with Steuart and JoBeth, who were some of the most interesting characters I’ve met in a very long time. Although the need for a gorilla sanctuary isn’t incredibly great, there is still is a need. As someone who has come to hate everything that zoos stand for, I think DWT is making the best of these gorillas’ situations and helping them live out their adult lives more peacefully.

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Kidogo and Jasiri were sweeter, calmer, and more playful than I would have ever expected them to be after all they’ve been through. DWT has a Facebook page, however, most of the updates are about general animal conservation topics rather than what Kidogo and Jasiri are up to. But I still check in every now and then to see what shenanigans these teenage gorillas might be getting into. And I wish them both the very best!

For more information on visiting Dewar Wildlife Trust, visit Steuart and JoBeth’s tour page: http://www.dewarwildlife.org/tours.htm and register online.

A Gnome Pub at the Edge of the Smoky Mountains

On a recent road trip from Chicago to the Smoky Mountains I was delighted to discover that one particular pub would be a convenient pit stop along the way. The Roaming Gnome Pub & Eatery is located in Sevierville, Tennessee, just north of the tourism madness of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Walking into wonderland

But you see, I didn’t stumble upon this wonderland on accident. As an avid writer of all things gnome, I’m familiar with pretty every gnome establishment out there and even receive daily gnome Google alerts to keep up with it all.

Not only was I ecstatic to finally visit this gnome pub, but even more excited to pull into the gnome pub’s parking lot towing a popup camper. Just a couple hours earlier, I had picked up a popup rental near the Indiana/Kentucky border to tow behind my Jeep and spend some time in the Smokys.

Pulling camper

The Roaming Gnome used to have three locations: Sevierville, Knoxville, and Maryville. But sadly, only the Sevierville one is still in business today. Three gnome pubs in one regional area would have been too much for me to wrap my head around anyway, I suppose.

Gnome pubs are few and far between, but I am willing to go well out of my way to reach them. But surprisingly, they often let me down. Take for example Dirty Bill’s, a sorta kinda gnome-themed bar in Austin. Although the display of gnome photographs at Dirty Bill’s was nothing short of amazing, the place was clearly trying to phase gnomes out of their decor and become just another generic dive bar off of 6th Street.

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The Roaming Gnome, however, is keeping the gnome enthusiast spirit alive and well. The exterior of the building has nothing going for it, as it’s wedged into a strip mall across from a Wal-Mart. But as you approach the door, you’re greeted by a clever gnome window display and large gnome rug.

Table top

Some of the high top tables inside have huge gnome faces on them and there are gnome statutes scattered inconspicuously throughout the bar. Miraculously, there are even gnomes plastered upside down on the ceiling.

On the ceiling

The pub has a traditional Irish pub feel, with about 75 beers on tap, a no-nonsense food menu, flat screen TVs playing sports, and pool tables in the back. Add some gnomes to that mix and you’ll have a hard time dragging me out.

Inside shot

For dinner, my boyfriend and I settled on a few starters to share: the calamari, the Reuben eggrolls, and the mega nachos. I can safely say that each of them exceeded my pub cuisine expectations. I’m no food critic, but I am a gnome critic. So moving on…

But first – it was Sunday, and I have a really difficult time passing up Sunday Bloody Mary specials. So I gave in and ordered one. No harm done.

Hanging with my gnomies

It was a bit chilly that evening, so the back patio wasn’t open. However, chalk-drawn gnomes teased and tempted me into the “someday” possibility of eating outdoors after a seemingly endless winter.

Patio thadda way

The Roaming Gnome has been in Sevierville since 2007 and prides itself on being a local hangout among the tourist chaos. And it seems to be exactly that. A group of local 20-something guys popped in at 9:00 on the dot to take advantage of Pour Hour, a window of time where well drinks and domestic drafts can be chugged for just a buck each.

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There’s a drink special every night, just in case the gnomes don’t draw you in on a daily basis like they would for me if I lived nearby. For example, very Wednesday night (9pm to midnight) is Pint Night with normal people pints for $2 and hard core high gravity pints for $4.There’s also a decently sized stage in the front corner of the pub (in front of the gnome window display!), where local bands take the stage Friday and Saturday nights.

The Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area is just as touristy as you remember from when your parents dragged you there as an awkward pre-teen. Of course, I fell in love with The Roaming Gnome because well, there are gnomes everywhere. The bartender even let me pose with a huge gnome in a Guinness Hat who normally lives behind the bar!

New Guinness friend

But honestly, I would have dug this place even if there was no gnome in sight. The pub is spacious, which is a nice change from the obnoxious crowds everywhere else. The menu makes a lot of sense, the prices are spot on, and the vibe is laid back – without being so laid back that you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for a pint.

Bought the t-shirt

So if you find yourself in the middle of Tennessee for whatever reason, make a point to stop in and say hello to my newest gnome friends. I came, I drank, I bought the t-shirt…literally!

The Tent to RV Transition: A Camper’s Journey of Compromise

Despite the pesky inconveniences and irritating discomforts that go along with camping, I’d trade my bed for a tent almost any day. While waking in up a bed feels automated, waking up in a tent feels like an adventure. While cooking in my apartment’s kitchen feels like a hassle, making dinner over a campfire feels like a relaxing activity. While I repeatedly hit the snooze button at home, the sound of birds chirping and the first rays of sunlight motivate me for the day ahead.

And that crick in my neck from sleeping on the ground? It’s much more likely to go away after a long morning hike than after staring at a screen and pushing letter buttons below it for eight hours.

One of my favorite campsites: Padre Island National Seashore

One of my favorite campsites: Padre Island National Seashore

For Valentine’s Day this year, my boyfriend escorted me to an RV show. Romantic, right?

I had hoped that the 46th Annual Chicago RV & Camping Show would have some cool tents and outdoor accessories, but it was almost exclusively RV-focused. Since we had already bought tickets, we spent some time looking at RVs. I instantly fell in love with the smallest pop-up camper at the show, which had a price tag of just under $6K. It seemed to be the perfect compromise between the tent camping I love and the RV lifestyle that sounded mighty appealing after a few miserable nights in the freezing cold and pouring rain.

Sadly, I was not surprised with the gift of an RV this Valentine’s Day. But I didn’t forget about that little pop-up back at the convention. A severe case of restlessness set in a couple weeks later and we started tossing out ideas for our next adventure. We didn’t feel prepared to make a major RV purchase just yet , but what if we could rent one…for just a little while?

A lesson in camper setup

A lesson in camper setup

A quick phone call to Greenwood RV Rentals settled the matter. We booked a pop-up camper, similar to the one at the convention, and drive down to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for a couple weeks. Although this rental shop’s two locations are in the Indianapolis area, Dave agreed to meet us with a rental closer to the Kentucky border, just north of Louisville. This way we didn’t have to battle Chicago traffic with it or run up the gas mileage as badly.

Surprisingly NOT a gas guzzler

Surprisingly NOT a gas guzzler!

Dave patiently waited in a storage facility parking lot as we rolled in with the Jeep nearly an hour late. The pop-up had two full-sized beds, a dinette table with bench seats, a two-burner propane stove, an ice box, furnace, and air conditioner. As long as it’s not a holiday or a local festival weekend, the standard pop-up rates are $73 per night, with a three night/four day minimum. It also had a 30 amp electrical adapter, cold running water from the kitchen sink, and with a 1,600 pound tow weight, my Jeep Wrangler was easily up for the challenge. Thankfully, Dave spent a considerable amount of time giving us a thorough rundown of how to tow, expand, and collapse the camper.

Campsite at River's Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge

Campsite at River’s Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge

I have previously made a reservation at River’s Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. After emailing several RV campgrounds, I chose this one because of its Wi-Fi/Mi-Fi Internet coverage, proximity to the national park, price, and responsiveness of the staff. Since our reservation dates were still considered “off season,” the rate was just $33 per night. That jumps jump to $45 per night between April and the first of January.

I learned a lot during the two weeks that I spent in my very first pop-up camper, and I loved calling it “home” for awhile. Some parts I expected to be frustrating and they weren’t, while other challenges were a total surprise.

1. Pop-up campers have crappy insulation. In most parts of the country, pop-ups are best suited for late spring to early fall weather. The windows are made of plastic and the walls of canvas. There is a small furnace, but it’s no match for 30-degree temperatures. Bring an electric space heater!

Pop-up working/sleeping situation

Pop-up working/sleeping situation

2. Backing up a pop-up camper is really hard. It really is, and I have no idea how anyone does it.

3. Pop-up campers are more spacious than you’d expect. I expected to feel at least somewhat cramped while working, cooking, playing games, and sleeping in the pop-up. It looks tiny pulled behind a hitch, but don’t be fooled! There’s actually a ton of space in there. Use the extra bed for luggage and make use of all of the interior cupboards.

4. It’s easy to cook, do dishes, and store a couple weeks’ worth of groceries in a pop-up camper. When we tent camp, we cook most of our meals with a Jet Boil canister. This translates to lots of ramen noodles, beans, and oatmeal. Although I’m far from a culinary chef at home, I loved buying and cooking fresh vegetables in the pop-up. The faucet only puts out cold water, so if your dishes are gross, you’ll have to head to the campground bathroom and hope no one catches you in the act.

The pop-up kitchen setup

The pop-up kitchen setup

5. Try attaching the stove to the outside of the camper. Why cook inside when you can cook outside?

6. Choose a pop-up with a fridge (not an icebox) if possible. An icebox is exactly what it sounds like, and it only keeps perishables cool for a little while. Ask your RV rental company if a mini fridge is available for rent if you plan on grilling out meat.

7. The beds are surprisingly comfortable. Don’t be fooled by the flimsy mattresses. Unlike the cold, hard ground, you can actually get a decent night’s rest on a pop-up bed. Granted, our pop-up was brand new when we rented it, so the mattress hadn’t yet been weighted down by a Fatty McGoo.

Cranking out some work on the laptop in the pop-up

Cranking out some work on the laptop in the pop-up

8. A small propane tank only lasts four or five days if you’re running the heat. Ask your rental company if they have a propane gauge so you don’t unknowingly run out of heat in the middle of the night. A propane fill costs about $20-25 and you’ll most likely have to do a fill or exchange if you’re renting longer than three days. A small space heater can pick up the slack it unexpectedly runs out.

9. Things I wish I’d brought for my pop-up rental: broom, dust pan, candles, small space heater, floor mat for dirty shoes, bucket for gray water.

Although I’m not planning to run out an buy an camper right away, my first experience made me a believer in the RV lifestyle. Just because I sleep inside doesn’t mean I can’t spend time outside. And “roughing” it doesn’t always have to mean being cold, wet, and miserable. Maybe I’m getting older, or maybe just a little wiser.

As a minimalist, I don’t need the enormous RV with the flat screen TV and a fireplace. Instead, I’m excited to discover a “compromise camper” that equally suits my spirit of adventure AND the whiny little voice inside my head.

Road Trip Poetry: Haikus and Limericks from the Northeastern U.S.

In an effort to keep the creative side of my brain active during long stretches of road, I decided to write a poem every day (or so) during my last road trip. Short stories take too much time, blog posts become tiresome after awhile, and my Facebook friends don’t care to read every thought going through my head.

To keep things simple, I settled on the haiku and the limerick for poem structures. Let me take you back to junior high creative writing class for just a moment. A Haiku revolves around that odd 5-7-5 syllable structure, juxtaposes two ideas, and throws in a seasonal reference. Limericks have a five-line AABBA rhyme scheme and tend to be on the ridiculous side.

Without schooling you any further, here is my collection of road trip poetry…categorized by city and state. (Reader hint: each paragraph is its own poem!)

Michigan City, Indiana

Jeep in the service bay
On the way to Maine today
Engine light cleared

There once was a gnome driving a Jeep
“The engine light’s on!” he exclaimed with a squeak
Mechanic found a hose was bent

Jeep in the auto hospital

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Bare butts everywhere
Sketching by bikes in the sand
Monkeys on a beach

There once was a monkey from Toronto
I was traveling and he asked, “Hey, can I go?”
We biked through the sand
He said, “I’ll be damned!”
‘Cause that beach required no clothes!

Indian market
Beetle leaves and ice cream cup
Can’t find magic fruit

Toronto traffic
Reminds me too much of home
“Squeeze left,” a sign says

A girl was biking to Scarborough Bluffs
She rode a long way and had enough
Locked her bike to a tree
And scraped up her knee
Falling off the edge feels pretty tough

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Campfire burning
Old guitar songs sung in French
Sun sets later now

Biking to Mount Royal
Quiet amidst the chaos
Brakes screech, tires swerve

Fine arts museum
Windy day in Montreal
Textured canvas paint

Grand Isle, Vermont

Citronella light
Illuminates ferry boats
Mosquito bites itch

Working along Lake Champlain

South Hero, Vermont

Roadside antique store
Crafts and creatures on the shelves
Windy twisty roads

There once was a man from South Hero
Where the population’s practically zero
He shopped for antiques
‘Til his bike started to squeak
And he skidded right off the pier. Oh no!

Vineyard concert night
Locals drink and dance along
Sun sets on the vines

There once was a band that played covers
The vineyard lawn full with blankets of lovers
The drummer drank too much wine
Ate some raw grapes off the vine
And was carried off stage by his brothers

Waterbury, Vermont

Vermont tasting day
Cider, cheese, chocolate, ice cream
Rain makes trees greener

Twin Mountain, New Hampshire

Tensions in the air
Tear drops fall like pouring rain
Let’s go get Thai food

Cold beans in a can
Styrofoam instant noodles
Sleeping bags are damp

Rainy campground day
Clothes swirl ’round the washer
Bad TV plays on

KOA pizza
Sketching by campfire light
Internet goes out

Toes dipped in the pool
Soothes itchy ankle bug bites
Dark clouds rolling in

Stir crazy working
Caught up and getting ahead
Rain motivation

Rainy day for monkeys

North Conway, New Hampshire 

There once was a climber from North Conway
He searched for good routes all day Monday
Finally set up some climbs
Mostly 5.8s and 5.9s
A bit scraped and sore, but he’s doing okay

Bar Harbor, Maine

Lobster between bread
Clam chowder and blueberry pie
Rainy day delight

There once was a moose from the state of Maine
He crossed where he wanted, which felt like a game
He ignored the road signs
Was ticketed for his crimes
‘Til he was put behind bars. What a shame!

Lighthouse on the cliff
Bell rings and red light flashes
“Click” goes the shutter

Calm breeze makes ripples
Water droplets splash my skin
Kayak on the lake

Firewood burning
Embers travel toward the sky
A hole in my shoe

Swollen drippy eye
Fishes take revenge on me
Shellfish allergy

Waves crash on the shore
Wind and flies test my balance
Yoga on the rocks

There once was a mosquito from the Harbor of Bar
I swatted him away, but he didn’t go very far
Felt him land on my skin
Sucking blood out again
Screw the tent – I’m sleeping in the car

Acadia National Park

There was an old hag at the campsite next door
Her dunkies would cry, and she’d scream some more
Tossed a burning log in the air
Bowed my head, said a prayer
Now all I hear are waves on the shore

Parade candy thrown
Lobster races to my gut
Fireworks so bright

Shift gears up the hill
Wipe the sweat, pedal faster
Cycling carriage trails

Gnomeless antique shop
Rusty junk out in the rain
Creepy man peers out

There once was a sand pail on Sand Beach
It used to make castles, now tangled in seaweed
Someone left it behind
Swept away by the tide
Rake and shovel too far out of reach

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Portsmouth, Rhode Island

Chicago to Maine
Many stops along the way
Camping from a Jeep

THE END

Road Tripping with the ‘Check Engine’ Light On

Today marks Day #4 of our second workcation. We started calling this trip “The Vermainshire Workcation,” but then we ended up in Canada and name combinations just became too confusing.

I write today from a dorm-like motel in Scarborough, on the outskirts of Toronto, as I knock out some projects to pay for the days ahead. Things are going smoothly so far, but they didn’t start out that way.

On Saturday morning at 7am, we stuffed the Jeep full of seemingly useful crap, attached a couple bikes, and secured the hitch rack cargo bag. About an hour into our drive, my Jeep (who goes by “Chief Surfs with Manatees, if you were unaware) dinged a foreboding ding.

The dreaded “check engine” light was shining brightly back at me from the dash, mocking me.

A debate of the options ensued, and we considered driving back to Chicago to get it taken care of. We settled on pulling over in Michigan City, Indiana to take Chief to the automobile emergency room.

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We first attempted to buy a scanner to diagnose the problem at an Advanced Auto Parts. The dude there was kind enough to scan Chief with the company scanner for free, which saved us at least fifty bucks. Woot! The diagnosis indicated an EGR (exhaust gas re-circulation) issue, and while a treatment plan couldn’t be determined from that, it was clear we needed some professional help.

A crap-hole shop called Apex Auto Care advised they couldn’t even diagnose Chief, let alone fix him because he was “too new”. Apparently, all the cars they service are from 2009 or older, which is weird and lame.

Fortunately, another shop, Chris’ Car Care, ran a $45 test and told us that the EGR valve sensor had been set off, but that no immediate fix was needed. Even after explaining that I needed this Jeep to get me to Maine, the dude reassured me that it would drive just fine. I can’t say I understand his explanation very well, but I guess I am apprehensively relieved. Fingers crossed!

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We’ve made it to Toronto so far and have been hanging out in and around the city, which reminds me of Chicago but nicer, greener, friendlier, and equally expensive. Stay tuned for future blog posts about our adventures, which will hopefully be about fun things rather than Jeep drama.

Posts about biking Toronto Island and the Bellwoods Brewery are coming up next! I’m also creating a road trip poetry book that will feature haikus, limericks, and other forms of random poetry that I decide to Google and learn how to write.

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Happy trails!