Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things

I just spent three weeks in Europe and I haven’t written a damn thing about it. And it’s killing me.

Well, okay fine. That’s not entirely true. On my third day in Amsterdam, my husband (yup, I have a husband now) bought me a little paperback journal from the Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh Journal

At least every couple days, I jotted down travel notes about things that stuck out to me and random stuff I wanted to remember. However, none of it was anything fancy, and none it ever found its way to the interweb.

Documenting the trip has felt like a pretty overwhelming endeavor, to be honest. And my freelance writing day job is drowning me, which is by all means a wonderful thing when you’re self-employed, but doesn’t exactly make me motivated to saddle up for personal writing at the end of the day.

I’ve talked myself into and out writing Euro-posts a dozen times now, but for some reason, I stuck with it today. Perhaps it’s the surprisingly tasty Diesel Punk Stout that is helping the words flow from my fingertips, or the familiar return to normalcy that makes me crave another excursion.

Who knows; who cares. It’s happening today and I’m letting it.

But first a disclaimer: Travel writing for money has made me a bit jaded about the whole industry. I write things about places I’ve never been and will probably never go just to get paid. And the Internet is little more than a regurgitated mess of paraphrasing and repetition.

But I have to write something about my travels…SOMETHING! 

So today, I adhere to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. I’m just going to share a few of my favorite things from Amsterdam and leave it at that. Amsterdam is my new favorite European city, and I want to remember the things that made me fall in love with it.

This won’t be any literary masterpiece, but it will get me back into the groove of journaling for love of the game – not the love of the bling.

So without further ado, and in no particular order…

ALYSSA IN AMSTERDAM: A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF AWESOME THINGS

An 8-Person Hostel Room

One bathroom for eight people is kind of ridiculous, but somehow we made it work. Our most interesting roommate was a guy who woke up with two face piercings he didn’t remember getting.

We later found out that he wasn’t a registered guest and had actually just convinced another roommate to let him shack up so he didn’t have to sleep in a park. Ahhh…hostel life.

Hostel

Creepy Bunny Statues

I’ve always enjoyed these types of city-relevant/creature-themed public art displays. I remember the pandas when I lived in DC and the cows in Chicago.

I had no idea at the time, but these creepy bunnies are part of Nijntje Art Parade ~ Celebrating 60 Years of Miffy. It’s a kids’ book from the 1950s that was popular in the Netherlands. The more you know…

bunny

Cheese Sample Heaven

And just when I thought Vermont was THE place to be for cheese samples…I was wrong. The Dutch make some damn good cheese, and they aren’t stingy about handing it out.

My favorites were the non-standard varieties, like pesto and cumin, and Gouda…lots of Gouda.

cheese

More Bikes than Cars

I’ve always heard about how big “bike culture” is in Amsterdam, but it didn’t sink in until I was there.

Trying to cross the street as a pedestrian surrounded by hundreds of cyclists coming from all directions was utterly terrifying. But a place that has more bikes than cars is definitely my style.

bikes

Flowers Freaking Everywhere

The Dutch like their tulips, and although we arrived a bit late for prime tulip season, there were still plenty of pretty flowers to ogle at.

I wanted to buy some tulip bulbs from a city market and ship them back home, but I guess that’s illegal. The shopkeeper I inquired with told me they’d get stuck at customs, so I had to abandon my dream of growing Amsterdam flowers in Atlanta.

Oh well, the heat down here would have probably killed ’em anyway.

flowers

Europe is cold. You’ll see this same dumb blue jacket in pretty much every photo I’m in.

A Weird Cat Museum

A museum about cats…nothing but cats. I’m not even that much of a cat person, but this was too random to pass up. Kattenkabinet: a small, very specific, and slightly overpriced museum that will have you scratching your head for hours.

cat museum

Stupidly Cute Canals

The canals here are just stupidly cute. End of story.

canal

Space Cakes

Space cakes are nothing short of magical. Again, end of story.

My recommendation is Easy Times on Prinsengracht.

space cake

Coffee Shops with Pinball

These exist. Yep.

Pinball

Hemp Education

The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum is actually really historical, educational, offers a handy audio guide, and is worth the € 9.

Pro: One of the exhibits featured gnomes
Con: No free samples

hemp museum

The Lovely World of Delft

Even though this blue and white Dutch stuff is totally a Chinese knockoff, it’s beautiful.

I bought a Delft pendant and flower vase. Now if only I had those Dutch tulips to stick in the vase!

Delft

Museum Overload

Like many European cities, Amsterdam has tons of museums. We hit up some of the big ones, like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

I’m certainly not one to argue with getting a little exhibition education during my travels. However, I came to realize that I have about a two-hour attention span per museum, and that I will get pretty museumed-out if I try to visit more than two in one day.

museum

Biking to the Almost-Countryside

One thing that this Eurotrip taught me is that I can only handle so much city life before I get cranky and crave some fresh air and solitude. One of my favorite days was the day we took a bike trip outside the city limits to the “almost countryside.”

The leisurely ride was complete quirky Dutch guide, international strangers, a windmill, and a farm with cows, a cheese production facility, a wooden shoe shop, and an touristy gift shop.

bike

Staying Up Late for Window Hos

A trip to Amsterdam really wouldn’t be complete without scoping out the legal prostitution scene. One thing that I learned though is that the ladies don’t make an appearance until well after 10 pm.

Despite the fact that it stayed daylight until about 10 pm in Amsterdam, staying awake that late was rough. Blame the 10+ miles of walking per day, or just blame being 31.

redlight

Brewery in a Windmill

Although our next stop, Brussels, proved to be the best beer destination in Europe by far, Amsterdam had some decent beer bars too.

The most iconic and memorable one was Brouwerij’t IJ, which was neatly positioned inside some sort of windmill. This was one of our last stops before catching a train to Brussels, where much more amazing beer was to be had.

breweryAnd that’s the best of the best…or at least the best of what’s coming to mind right now. Amsterdam was an amazing place that I could actually see myself living in for a year or so.

Who knows whether or not that’ll happen or not, but at least the city inspired me to start writing again. Cheers!

Sweet Beach Towns along the Oregon Coast

When many people travel to Oregon, they fly into Portland and only venture out a short distance to Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. However, Oregon’s western coastline is one of the best kept road trip secrets in America.

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Drive along the idyllic Highway 101 to experience nearly 400 miles of jagged cliffs, pine forests, historic lighthouses, and sandy beaches.  This stretch of seaside towns barely resembles the bikini-clad beaches of sunny California, but that’s part of the beauty of this mystical and romantic terrain.

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I recently got to experience the Oregon Coast for myself and visit several of these towns. I’m saving the rest for a longer future road trip when I have a little more time to spend in the area!

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So if you’re traveling north from California on a road trip of your own, don’t miss these charmingly beautiful beach towns along the Oregon coast. From bottom to top, these are a few of my favorites. Just don’t forget to bring a sweater because the average summer high temperature along the Oregon coast rarely reaches 60-degrees!

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Brookings/Harbor

Brookings and Harbor are two neighboring towns that have a combined population of about 10,000 people. The Chetco River is very scenic and this area known as the Easter Lily Capital of the World, since most of the world’s potted lily bulbs are produced in this region. You can set up camp at either Harris Beach State Park or Alfred A. Loeb State Park in this area at any time of the year.

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North Bend/Coos Bay

The cities of North Bend and Coos Bay constitute the largest population center on the Oregon coast, so there are plenty of dining, shopping, and lodging options available here for road trippers. North Bend even has an airport with regular commercial jet service. Before you reach Florence, stop at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which spans over 40 miles and has easy access for day use areas and hiking.

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The Sunset Bay State Park and the Cape Arago Lighthouse are worth a stop as well. This lighthouse sands 100 feet above the ocean, and although it’s not open to the public, you can view it from an overlook just south of the Sunset Bay campground.

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Florence

The town of Florence is tucked away behind some sand dunes along the river, and dune buggy tours are a popular activity in this area. There’s a casino nearby if you’re looking to test your luck, and there are some restaurants and shops in town to explore as well.  This is a great place to sample locally-made saltwater taffy and search for rare antiques. To get more in touch with nature, the Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park offers year-around camping opportunities.

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Seal Rock

Although Seal Rock is a very small and incorporated community, it’s worth a stop because of the picturesque Seal Rock State Park. Here you’ll find huge rocks extending out into the ocean and excellent wildlife observation areas to scope out seals, birds, and sea lions.

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Newport

Newport is the most well-known and popular Oregon coast town to visit, so it becomes fairly congested during the summer months. There are two lighthouses in this area, the Yaquina Bay and the Yaquina Head lighthouses, and both are open for public tours.

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Take some time to hike along the shore and out onto a jetty to watch locals fish for clams and crabs and to feel the cool ocean breeze on your skin. The recreation areas in this area are the Beverly Beach State Park and the Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site.

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Lincoln City

Lincoln City is another popular beach town, with a population of about 7,000 people and extending for about eight miles. Snap a photo by the world’s shortest river, the D River, and stop by the casino here if you need a short driving break.

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Stop by one of the local kite shops to pick up a uniquely designed kite to fly at the beach and take advantage of the steady winds. Devil’s Lake State Park is the nearest recreation site to explore at your leisure.

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Pacific City

If you’re craving a little refreshment at this point in the drive, make a stop in Pacific City to visit the Pelican Brewing Company, which enjoys an ideal location right along the beach.

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Pacific City’s beach resembles a postcard and is a common place to find surfers, stand-up paddle-boarders, horseback riders, and fishermen all doing what they do best.

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Tillamook

For something a little different along your drive of the Oregon coast, take a slight detour to Tillamook to see the region’s lush green pastures and samples some products from the local agricultural industry.

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One of the best places to stop is the Tillamook Cheese Factory, which offers free samples of cheese, sells ice cream, features a self-guided tour, and has a large gift shop.

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To sample even more local products, head down the road to Blue Heron French Cheese Company, which also has a petting zoo with fun creatures behind fences.

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Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach is an upscale community that’s most famous for “Haystack Rock,” the most photographed landmark along the coast. You can hop on the town’s free shuttle bus to check out the town, which has very few permanent residents but sees big crowds on summer weekends. Make sure to stop at nearby Ecola State Park, which is located just a couple miles north of town.

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Seaside

One of the most family-friendly beach towns along the coast is Seaside, which has an arcade, bumper cars, and a carousel for kids to enjoy. Take a walk down Seaside’s Broadway to check out shops, restaurants, and mini-golf courses along the way.

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When you’re in this area, look for Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, just 1.2 miles seaward of Tillamook Head south of Seaside. Although there is no public access to this lighthouse, you can catch good views from the Oregon Coast Trail near Seaside.

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Astoria

Located along the Columbia River at the Washington state border, Astoria is a busy port town with a history of logging, fishing, and shipping.

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You can visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum to learn more about the region’s history and Lewis and Clark’s Fort Clatsop, a re-creation of the explorers’ fort just south of town. If you’re looking for a bite to eat at the end of your journey, consider stopping at the Astoria Brewing Company, the Wet Dog Café, or Bowpicker Fish & Chips. If you’re looking to camp in the area, Fort Stevens State Park takes reservations through the year.

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*A version of this article is published on one of the online travel magazines I write for, Trips to Discover.

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!

How I Wrapped Up My 30th Year in New York City

While cranking out some sort of work article one afternoon, a random text message appeared from the void that read something like this: Hey, we’re road tripping to New York in a couple days to see The Unicorns’ 10-year reunion. Join us?

In a couple days? So soon. No way. Well maybe. Don’t be lame. Could be fun. Remember, this is a self-employment perk. Screw it, why not?!

The text came from one of my longest-time childhood buddies, who through all sorts of weird life events, has been my constant best friend for two and a half decades. At that particular point in time, he was halfway between a relocation from Japan to Ireland with his new(ish) wife (who I would have my stolen away as my new friend even without her marital ties). They were making lots of American pit stops along the way, and I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along.

And if convincing myself that spontaneous road trips were an essential occupational perk wasn’t enough, the trip was planned over my birthday weekend – a weekend that I had planned absolutely nothing. That sealed the deal, and off we went…in a Mustang!

In photos, here’s how I wrapped up my 30th year on this planet with two amazing travel companions in New York City.

mustang

A scenic vista in Pennsylvania beckoned the Mustang crew to pull off for a photo op and a leg stretch.

backseatwork‘Tis the rough life of a traveling freelancer. Over the past year and a half, I’ve pretty much mastered the fine art of switching on my work focus at the drop of a hat…or in this case, at the drop of a convertible top. Thank the Lord Almighty for tangled-hair-prevention bandannas.

hollandtunnel1$13 to drive through the Holland Tunnel? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. And I thought Chicago tolls were bad. hollandtunnel2The tunnel was pretty futuristic-rad, snapping pics in the backseat with the top down. But seriously, $13?nycThe sights, sounds and er, smells of NYC as we entered Manhattan through Chinatown. bridgedrive

(singing) New York bridges falling down, falling down, falling down. Fortunately not today.

Airbnb

Our first Airbnb experience: We stayed in a nice 1-bedroom apartment/condo in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It completely suited our needs, especially since all we did here was sleep and stash our stuff.

walkingbrooklynWandering around Brooklyn with no destination in mind…my favorite way to explore a new place.

brooklynThis was my fourth trip to New York City, so I was more interested in exploring random neighborhoods that revisiting the crowded tourist circuit. Brooklyn was perfect for experiencing that sort of local, unpretentious vibe, with plenty of creative street art along the way. Brooklyn gnome muralThis photo goes to show that I have the uncanny ability to uncover gnomes absolutely ANYWHERE. You can’t imagine my surprise when I strolled past a garage door painted with climbing and roller skating gnomes. These particular gnomes belonged to a craft studio, Baked in Brooklyn. crappypretzelsStreet side dining has a nostalgic appeal that often sounds better in our heads than tastes in our mouths. Exhibit A: crappy soft pretzels in the park. sodabear#peopleleavingdrinks – I never found out what this bear did to warrant incarceration, but at least he seems to receive a steady flow of soda.
creepyfencecreaturesI have no idea why this exists, and I find it wonderful. miscellaneousbookstoreOne of couple Brooklyn bookstores that deserved a bit of browsing time.

oldcheeseAfter hopping on a subway with the Lower East Side and East Village in mind, we wandered around a few unique parts of Manhattan. The oldest cheese store in America apparently exists in Little Italy. I’m still curious how old their oldest cheese block really is though. shoe shopThere’s no time for a busted flip flop in New York City. Rj patiently waited as an aggressive cobbler ripped a dying flip flop in half before making it whole again. mosaic trailAlthough I was only able to follow the Mosaic Trail for a few blocks before getting distracted by something else, I’m sure it leads somewhere really colorful.
weirdasianstuffCreepy scenes never cease to amuse me. Anyone: what’s a “crust jacket”?

Brooklyn Bridge pic

After what seemed to be a never-ending journey to stroll across the elusive Brooklyn Bridge, we found it! Skillful photo credit goes to Sarah for capturing our next album cover.

Arcade Fire picSpeaking of album cover, the entire point of the road trip was this concert! Equipped with not-so-real tattoos x3, our photo booth shot was nothing shy of epic.

theunicornsThe Unicorns! Those mythical creatures do exist! Apparently this indie band hasn’t performed in a decade and reunited, at least in part, because of a 2004 “joke song”  called “The Unicorns: 2014.” The lyrics go a little like this:

“I looked in into my crystal ball – See gummies in the sunny – Riding moonbeams into money.”

DJ Dan DeaconAfter dancing our way through The Unicorns set in sadly empty stands at the Barclays Center, a DJ named Dan Deacon took control of the back stage. The highlight of his performance was when he called out the “people dancing to the Unicorns way up in the stands”. THAT WAS US. Five seconds of fame were OURS and no one else’s.

Dan’s crowd-interactive dance-off circle was fun to watch as well…a distant second highlight.
ArcadeFireThen came Arcade Fire, which was a ridiculously glitzy stage set with no less than a dozen people on stage at any given time. I knew a good number of the AF songs from radio play, some more catchy than others. But ultimately, they put on a super entertaining performance up down there.
expensiveboozeGetting too concert-drunk was a non-issue because one mixed drink cost a whopping $14.75. I expected to find chunks of gold at the bottom of my Jack & Ginger, but alas…nothing more than a few chips of melted ice.

JerseyCity

Hellooo, Jersey City!

And in the true spirit of a whirlwind journey, we were back on the road again in the blink of an eye. So what if we spent nearly as much time going below speed limit on the interstate and taking rest stop breaks than actually in the heart and belly of New York. Road trips are about the journey more than the destination, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

About a decade ago, Rj and I attempted to road trip from Arthur, Illinois to Canada. However, we didn’t even make it past Beloit, Wisconsin. So in that regard, I consider this trip a huge success.

I loved getting to know Sarah over these quick and random road trip days and meeting her welcoming friends who kindheartedly fed us snacks and wine and engaged us in clever conversation one evening in their flat. A trip to visit the newlyweds in Ireland next summer is definitely on my travel to-do list.

Rj and SarahAnd for my birthday? At the stroke of midnight on August 24, 2014, I was half passed out in the backseat of the Mustang rolling through uber-depressing Gary, Indiana. But at that point, I had already celebrated to my heart’s content and had no idea that another adventure was planned for me back in Chicago when I returned home.

howoldareyouWhile passing through a middle-of-nowhere town in Ohio on the return journey, I popped into an antique shop in search of you guessed it…gnomes. Although I didn’t find any, I was entirely amused by this antique cloth print that read, “How Old Are You?”

Although 31 sounds like a totally insignificant number, I’m determined to make it an incredibly significant year. So pour me a glass of brandy and keep the adventures coming!

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

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

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

Keep Portland Weird

Photo credit: Gwyn Fisher

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

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

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

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

Breweries

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

breweryDogs

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

Abner

BrewCycles

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

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

bike for beerFood Trucks

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

food trucksRose Garden

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

rose gardenOutdoorsy Stuff

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

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

Salmon River Trail

 Music & Art

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

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

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

Portland gnomeStreet-side Oddities

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

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

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

Voodoo DoughnutsOr the surprising lack of designated bike lanes…

bike laneOr the scary wildfires on the outskirts…

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

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

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Specials banner

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

Casual Judgements in Toronto

After spending a few days in Canada’s largest city, I couldn’t help but make some observations along the way. Here’s a few things that I found scribbled in a notebook from those days as I worked, played, and remained casually judgmental.

1. Biking is okay in Toronto, but not great.

Before even crossing into the city limits, I had the impression that Toronto was a bike-friendly city. With a permanent residence in Chicago, I had high expectations for the Canadian equivalent. I will say that a few areas around the city are great for biking…Toronto Island in particular after the ferry ride. However, a majority of the streets downtown don’t have bike lanes, so you have to squeeze between cars in heavy traffic. To save on hotel bills, I stayed in the semi-nearby Scarborough Township. Biking to the downtown area required either a bus-yellow line subway ride or a blue line-green line transfer subway ride, which became a pain in the ass after a couple days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2. I’m a minority.

I see enough white people on a daily basis, so Toronto was refreshingly diverse. Never have I seen so many mixed-race couples and bi-racial kids running around in public parks.

3. You can smoke weed wherever you want. 

A whiff here, a whiff there, a passing breeze to bring back cloudy memories of college days. Unless my nose steers me wrong, Toronto isn’t all that hung up on public use marijuana laws.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA4. 90’s grunge isn’t dead.

If you lived out your adolescent years in the 90s you might feel right at home in Toronto. While biking the city streets, I saw a greater than average number of flannel shirts, baggy jeans, mohawks, and camouflage.

5. Folks are cool with being naked. 

I had the pleasure of experiencing my first nude beach near Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island. There were a good number of fully nude dudes, a couple shirtless chicks, and a surprisingly un-weird vibe. This beach was incredibly peaceful, despite all the “stuff” hanging out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA6. Traffic is just as bad, or worse, than Chicago.

Since I live in a city, I typically don’t enjoy vacationing in a city…especially another one with similarly stressful traffic. Getting around the highways can be difficult when your GPS doesn’t understand where Canada is and your cell reception cuts off at the border.

7. People aren’t overly friendly, but cordial. 

After my last road trip through Montana, I became accustomed to strangers being friendly to road trippers. Toronto struck a middle ground in this regard. Locals didn’t exactly go out of their way to say hello, but they weren’t assholes either. I met a guy named Walter who lived on Marcos Street and had an exquisite collection of gnomes in his yard. Naturally, I introduced myself. He was kind enough to let me snap some shots and even see the backyard collection.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA8. The Scarborough Bluffs don’t exist. 

I read about the Scarborough Bluffs on Trip Advisor and thought it’d be a cool place to check out for some cliff-side biking. I found that the bluffs (if they do happen to exist) are pretty inaccessible by bike. After some dead ends and treacherous roads, I didn’t even catch a glimpse of any jagged peaks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA9. Shit’s expensive.

Just when you thought things were expensive back at home, Canada gives you a swift slap in the face. A one-way bus ride cost me $4.35, a mediocre six-pack of beer costs me around $13, and if I could figure out the metric system I’d tell you what an exorbitant rate I paid for gas.

Those are the nine random things that I’ll probably remember most about being in Toronto? I can’t say that I felt at home there and I’m not sure if I’ll be back anytime soon, but it definitely was an interesting place that was fun to spend a few days in.

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.

photo (1)

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!