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.

Seclusion on Sapelo: A Poem

One of my favorite things about staying in a bed & breakfast is the guest book. Although most of the comments people write are pretty lame and boring (our hosts were so nice….blah blah blah), there’s sometimes a good one in there. As a writer, I feel a moral obligation to supply that occasional “good one.”

I recently decided that whenever I see a guest book, I’m going to write a poem in it. I don’t write enough poems these days, and this seems like as appropriate of a poetry venue as anywhere else.

So when I recently spent a weekend on Sapelo Island, I snatched the attic apartment’s guest book on my last day and scribbled down the lines that had been floating through my mind.

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Sapelo defied my expectations of an island getaway and presented challenges and rewards that no all-inclusive retreat ever could. That was the gist of it, and here’s how it went.

Seclusion on Sapelo – Written August 23, 2015

A secluded island escape,

A romantic ideal in mind,

A departure from routine,

A place to lose track of time.

 

Some islands have a tiki bar,

With cocktails crafted to taste,

And a full resort staff,

To show you around the place.

 

But what happens when

The roads aren’t paved,

And the extent of amenities

Is a half-hearted wave?

 

Suddenly your paradise

Requires planning and work,

And finding pristine nature

Is the one and only perk.

 

Have your last six meals

Been cold beans in a can?

Have you given up scrubbing

Off that wet, sticky sand?

 

Another thunderstorm rolls in,

Lightning spreads across the sky,

Wind erases sandy footsteps,

In my hazy line of sight.

 

Seclusion isn’t for everyone

But it’s exactly what I crave

Out here on Sapelo Island

The waves, the sand, and me.

Sapelo

Turning 32 on Sapelo Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

truck

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

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

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

Sapelo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A German Village Oddly Misplaced in the Hills of North Georgia

These days, pretty much all travel planning is done via the interwebs. I work for travel companies, write for travel blogs, and Google my way from one destination to the next.

However, this travel story begins differently than all the others. That’s because I planned this trip WITH A BOOK.

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I picked up this book at a local state park after a hike and flipped through it up occasionally while it sat on the coffee table. I picked out six or seven “quick escapes” from Atlanta that I wanted to check out, and one of them was the Helen/Clarkesville/Sautee area. Here are a few key points from the book that stuck out to me about this particular escape:

  • German alpine village
  • Waterfalls
  • International restaurants
  • Local wine
  • German beer
  • Boiled peanuts

Following the book’s recommendations, we started our two-day northern Georgia journey in Cornelia, a tiny town “famous” for having the world’s largest apple monument. It was pretty big, as far apples go anyway.

20150718_113810There isn’t a whole heck of a lot else going on in Cornelia (population 3,834), so we quickly moved on down US 23 to Clarkesville, another little town (population 1,250) known for mountain craft and antique stores. The book recommended a placed called Stephen’s for lunch, but Stephen must have lost in an epic battle to someone named Tucker.

I haven’t the slightest idea who Stephen or Tucker are, but this is when I realized my prized book was published in 1996. Whoops.20150718_130820

Lunch at Tucker’s was pretty alright – a fried green tomato sandwich and side salad, which hit the spot and seemed appropriately southern. Well, the fried part at least.
20150718_131021Then we mozied on over to a few of the little craft shops and watched cows paint other cows. Craft shops and festival booths always make me wish that (1) I didn’t have to have a full time job, (2) that I had unwavering motivation to keep up with crafts, and (3) that I was much, much better at crafts. Le sigh.
20150718_132107Old timey libraries with lots of books and grandma-style couches welcomed us in town…
20150718_135102…and so did little pathways around historic (abandoned?) cabins surrounding by strategically-placed statues. I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to a friendly statue.20150718_135159But statues can only provide entertainment for so long, and our next stop was Sautee, a town best known for its old general store.20150718_143502Inside the store were lots of old-timey relics…
20150718_143554…and even circus-style games that tested the strength of your love and let you watch a little peep show. I think I saw an ankle. I’m not entirely sure, but it still felt scandalous.20150718_144133By this point in the day, I’d worked up a hearty thirst. Fortunately, the Habersham Vineyards and Winery was on the way to Helen. The Southern Harvest label utilizes the distinctly Southern Muscadine grape to make sweet, fruity wines. I picked up a bottle of Peach Treat, which seemed only appropriate for a Georgia winery.

Tastings were $5 per person, but the most memorable part of this winery visit was the slushy drinks. Habersham had two slushy options: a peach flavor with white wine and a blackberry pomegranate flavor with red wine. Wine slushies…what a brilliant idea for a hot summer day!
20150718_151421Nothing really goes better with wine than chocolate, and fortunately, there are lots of sweet shops in Helen. Unfortunately, it rarely dips below the mid-90s here in the summer. So if you’re going to buy chocolate, you’re going to have to stuff your face with it right away or be prepared for a nasty mess in your pocket.

20150718_185851Unlike my typical travels that usually involve stays at campgrounds and hostels, I sprung for a full-fledged B&B this time. In Helen, we stayed at the Alpine Hilltop Haus, whose owners were kind enough to accommodate us for just one night. Most B&Bs in the area require a two-night minimum…even for last-minute bookings, which is annoying.
20150718_182624Our room had the most amazingly realistic mural painted on it. Seriously, nothing in this photo is real except the chairs, table and lamp. Mind = blown.
20150718_182336It was totally relaxing to hang out in the B&B’s living room, which was much more spacious than mine back at home. This is where I watched some ridiculous reality show about dating naked while flipping through old copies of National Geographic Traveler, while my husband started putting together a puzzle of an bland lighthouse.

This is also where breakfast was served the next morning, which was a tasty egg quiche, breads, coffee, and tea. There were four or five other couples staying here as well, but it didn’t feel crowded. The back yard overlooked the Chattahoochee River down below, which would have been quite peaceful if not for all those silly tubers.
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The big thing to do in Helen, which I quickly discovered, is tubing. Tourists stand in long lines waiting to board re-purposed school buses and be dropped off at the top of the river. They leisurely float down the gentle currents, bumping into each other and awkwardly getting out to swim from time to time.

The crowds, lines, and congestion made this an unattractive option for our relaxing, low-key weekend. But perhaps another time.
20150718_191657There were quite a few German restaurants around town in Helen, and although the food is hit or miss, this particular restaurant got my “thumbs up” for having cool steins. And the beer was pretty alright. 20150718_194200

But putting all the trip details aside, I find it absolutely bizarre that a German-themed village is tucked away in the hills of north Georgia.

Apparently, Helen was a logging town that was going downhill fast. To resurrect itself, some local business folks decided to recreate a Bavarian alpine village in its place and try to bring in some tourists. Even franchise businesses like Dollar General and Huddle House have that German architecture look.

20150718_202446And not surprisingly, this is also THE place in the area to party for Oktoberfest. On weekend evenings, this little town square area is filled with DJs spinning bad 90s dance-along tunes and vacation-minded southerners dancing-it-up with plastic cups of beer in hand. Then again, it’s also a total family-friendly area and kids are everywhere.
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After waking up in the B&B the next morning, we took the kayak out on Lake Unicoi, a 53-acre lake in Unicoi State Park. There isn’t a whole lot of water to paddle here, but it is pretty peaceful.

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Then we drove over to Anna Ruby Falls for a short waterfall hike. You only have to hike in a half mile from the parking lot to see the falls, which is created by the convergence of Curtis and York Creeks. Curtis drops 153 feet and York drops about 50.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this was my experience planning a weekend trip “by the book.” It started with a book, and then branched out into randomness from there. Helen is just an hour and a half from Atlanta, but it couldn’t feel farther away.

Sure, it’s more touristy than authentic, but what more would you really expect from a European replica in the American south? Regardless, it’s one of the most unique places I’ve discovered down here and totally worth a stop to gawk if you’re passing through.

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.

Sensory Deprivation and Strange Visions in a Flotation Tank

Where would your mind wander if left alone in a dark, silent compartment filled with 10 inches of water and 800 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts?

Unless you’ve found your way into a flotation tank lately, there’s really no good way to answer that question. I recently visited Space Time Tanks in Chicago to find out for myself.

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The unassuming Space Time Tanks center in an obscure medical strip mall.

What the Heck is a Flotation Tank?

Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks and sensory deprivation tanks, are designed to bring about a state of physical and mental relaxation and rejuvenation. They’re supposed to intensify your level of inner consciousness and boots personal powers of concentration and creativity.

According to the Space Time Tank folks, these are the benefits of floating:

  • Reduction of tension caused by stress and anxiety
  • An increased ability to visualize, create, imagine and problem-solve
  • Spontaneous reduction in or the elimination of habits, i.e. smoking
  • “Super-learning” by increasing the minds powers of retention, comprehension and original thinking
  • Peak-performance enhancement, i.e. athletic, creative, mental
  • Recovery from stress of peak output and virtual elimination of fatigue and “post-race letdown”

How Did It Actually Work?

Now keep in mind that I had no idea I was headed to the inside of a flotation tank until I actually stepped foot in the door. My boyfriend had planned the experience as a surprise for my birthday, thinking that I would be open-minded and utterly fascinated by the whole thing. He was right.

The flotation tank waiting room

The flotation tank waiting room

Believe it or not, Space Time Tanks has been in Chicago since 1982, making it the longest running flotation center in America. After removing our shoes at the door, one of the owners led us back to a small spa-like room with a shower to explain how the tanks worked. The concept was simple: get naked, shower, get in the tank, lie down, relax, and see what happens.

Because of the incredible concentration of Epsom salts in the tanks floating on top of the water is essentially effortless. The water is about 93.5-degrees Fahrenheit and completely still inside. We were told to put in earplugs so that water didn’t get in our ears and avoid touching faces because the salt would burn pretty badly.

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

The tanks don’t allow for any light or sound to enter, and after one hour, the owner would come knock on the side of the tank to advise that time was up. We were also assured that the tanks were fully ventilated, that tanks were sterilized after each use, and that it was impossible to drown even if you fell asleep.

My Experience in the Flotation Tank

I must admit that I was a little nervous as I shut the door of my spa room and stared at the coffin-like structure before me. What if it was uncomfortable? What if I got restless? What if I became panicky?

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

I pushed those questions aside, hopped inside, and pulled the door shut. I spent some time trying different positions for my arms and legs while lying down as my thoughts about work assignments and the upcoming weekend flowed through my brain.

It was so dark that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed after a while. It was so quiet that I my breathing sounded like a piece of heavy machinery. And floating was strangely effortless, just like I was promised.

Vision #1

The first odd sensation that happened inside that tank was the feeling that I was floating sideways for long distances. I began having a vision that I was floating in the ocean following a dramatic shipwreck. There was steady ringing in my ears that reminded me that chaos was all around. I envisioned people jumping from the ship and struggling to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I floated effortlessly, without a care in the world.

After aimlessly floating for a while, I was tempted to try to control the direction of my float. I wondered:

If I think about floating to the left, could I start floating left?

Turns out, I could! I practiced controlled floating for a while but really had no ideal direction or destination in mind. As I came to that realization, my mind shifted to vision #2.

Vision #2

My initial thought of the flotation tank was that it sort of looked like a coffin. That imagery must have stuck with my subconscious, because I began to envision that this is what death feels like.

tank2

C’mon, it does kind of look like a coffin…

Completely morbid, I know, but it’s the truth. My mind took me to a place where I started to believe I was dead – a place where my mind was active but my body couldn’t move a muscle. It was a peaceful place where worries had no relevance and my physical self had no purpose. I couldn’t DO anything, but I felt uncharacteristically okay with that.

Disclaimer: I’m conflicted and undecided about the concept of an afterlife and the notion that spirits live on after bodies becomes useless. But something inside that flotation tank was telling me that it might not all be gobbledygook. This vision was a little unsettling on several levels, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me.

Would I Do It Again?

In a word? Definitely.

I can’t compare my experience in the flotation tank to anything else I’ve ever encountered. After I dressed and returned to the waiting room, I tried to describe my first float experience in one of the public journals.

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Although I went in with no expectations, perhaps my subconscious was desperate to get something out of it. I often find it difficult to slow down my crowded and clouded mind, and perhaps my limited surroundings provoked a layer of mindfulness pushed below the surface.

I plan to take a second float in the near future to see what happens when I better understand what I’m getting into. My boyfriend had an entirely different experience than I did, so I’m interested to see whether a second experience would inspire something similar, something entirely different, or nothing at all. What else is going on in my head that I have no clue about?

I’m also curious to try the center’s light/sound machines and NexNeuro multi-sensory relaxation system. Space Time Tanks is located at 2526 North Lincoln in Chicago and a float costs $50 per adult or $40 per student.

Perhaps it’s just my recent mood or state of mind, but I’m finding myself increasingly curious about new agey wellness treatments like energy healing, Reiki, hypnosis, and walking meditation. I’ve downloaded some apps, checked out some books, and Yelped a few highly-rated practitioners in the area. If you’ve ever tried out flotation tanks or any of these treatments, I’d love to hear about your experience and suggestions in the comments below!

My first flotation journal entry

My first flotation journal entry

A Solo Smokies Hike Along Grotto Falls Trail

Travel companions are nice and all, but if you’re anything like me, you secretly crave alone time just as much when you’re on the road.

There’s something to be said for finding solitude in nature, to control your own route, and push your limits without someone else’s influence. During my recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I decided to look into the trees instead of at the footsteps ahead of me. I set my own pace, stopped to take photos when I wanted to, and focused on listening to my jumbled thoughts.

Grotto 1

My solo route of choice was the Grotto Falls trail, and I drove from Pigeon Forge through Gatlinburg, and along windy, narrow uphill roads to reach it. I passed by the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, which was disgustingly crowded, and came to an abrupt halt at a road closure blocking my way.

The road to the Grotto Falls trail had been barricaded off, most likely because the National Park Service hadn’t yet opened all of the trails for spring. But since it was the middle of March, I was surprised to be greeted by orange cones and metal gates instead of an idyllic path.

It was time to improvise.Grotto 2

I parked my Jeep along the side of the road and made my way back towards the crowded trailhead I passed a bit earlier. After a half mile of roadside walking, I reached a different trailhead with a sign: “Grotto Falls 3.5 miles.”

Now I’m no sissy to a seven-mile round trip hike, but in the spirit of solo safety, I’d left word back at the RV that I’d be back (from a significantly shorter hike) within an hour or two. The mountains aren’t exactly known for their stellar cellphone reception, but I managed to squeeze a text through the void and provide a tip off that I’d be a little later than expected.

Grotto 3

And what an excellent decision that was!

Some sections of the trail were easy and flat, while others were coated in a fresh layer of mud from the previous evening’s snowfall. The light dusting of snow on the tree branches provided the perfect backdrop for a stereotypically introspective afternoon.
Grotto 4

Since there were really no steep cliffs along this route, my hike was more about endurance and less nerve-racking than I expected. There were a few fallen trees along the trail and a few streams blocking the path, but nothing that I couldn’t hop over with an ounce of grace.

I visually compartmentalized each category of thoughts into “folders,” filing one away when I’d sifted through it just enough to move on to the next one. While mental flickerings of my work stress, my relationship, and my enduring restlessness came and went, one thought persisted:

Wow, it’s taking me a lot longer to hike this than I ever expected!

Grotto 5

Keep trudging along…just 1.2 miles to go. Oh, and then the whole return trip.

As a kid, I remember watching stupid cartoons where a character was stranded in the desert and began to hallucinate, envisioning a mirage of water in the far distance. Well on this hike, a mirage of my own emerged…the elusive sounds of a waterfall.

I knew that my journey would be half done when I reached Grotto Falls, and I could have sworn to hear the falls miles in advance of their actual location. As I turned a corner with a glimmer of hope in my eye, I would come to find that the sound of rushing water could only be attributed to a tiny stream not even worth mention on a map.

Then the temperature began to drop. Noticeably drop.

Grotto 7A sound, much louder than any sound I’d encountered thus far on the hike, filled my ears to the brim. Finally, one turn I took led me to a totally mediocre waterfall.

“That’s it? That’s what I hiked four miles for?!”

But as I continued on, the small waterfall led to a much larger waterfall, and my bitching promptly subsided.

Grotto 6

Although the rocks leading up to the falls were frozen and slippery, the falls flowed fast. There are quite a few waterfall hikes in the Smokies, but very few that you can actually walk behind. This is one of them. The rocks were glistening with ice crystals and the mist would have only been refreshing if it was 40-degrees warmer outside.

Since this is an out-and-back hike, rather than a loop, you have two options to get back to your car. You can either backtrack exactly what you just did, or you can walk along the road about two miles to the barricaded gate. Since I knew there’d be no traffic along the road, I chose that route for a change in scenery.

grotto returnSome might call this downhill route “cheating,” but it did offer some amazing mountain views. And I’m okay with that. After 7+ miles and 3+ hours, I made it back to my Jeep with a heightened sense of confidence and way better attitude about the rest of this Tennessee road trip.

Solo Hiking Tips from a Pseudo-Expert

  • Decide on a specific trail and let someone know what it is
  • Read some online trail journals to learn about what previous hikers encountered on your route
  • Take a GPS or two-way radio because cellphones are worthless on hikes
  • Keep a record of how many miles you’ve hiked in the past (and on what type of terrain) and be realistic about how hardcore you are
  • Memorize some maps to get an overview of the area in case you make a wrong turn
  • Don’t underestimate your need for basic stuff like granola bars, water, a first-aid kit, and extra layers
  • Pay attention to what time of day it is and plan to be back before sunset
  • Take a million pictures because you’re the only one seeing thisGrotto 8

Horses on the Beach: Corpus Christi, Texas

After my recent trip to Texas, I successfully doubled the amount of times I’ve ridden a horse. Yep, you guessed it – I’ve gone horseback riding a whopping two times now!

Kettle Morraine Horseback 1

I took my first ride in the summer of 2012 with Dream A Horse in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Park. My guide took me on a one-hour trail ride, which involved some slopes that felt scarier than they should have and plenty of branches to scratch me up along the way.

Kettle Morraine on horseback 2

Texas and horseback riding seemed to go hand-in-hand, so I was determined to “play cowgirl” when I set up camp down there for a couple weeks. There are a couple horseback riding options around Corpus Christi, but I settled on Horses on the Beach (clever name, right?). It was located near the Padre Island National Seashore, where I was camping, and it got decent customer reviews.

Horse instructions

I called ahead to reserve my spot for a 1 1/2 hour sunset ride, which came with a $65 price tag. I mean, how do you NOT choose the “sunset ride” over the “sunshine ride?”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who thought it would be fun to ride ride a horse along the Texas coast in the setting sun. There were about 20 other aspiring cowboys and cowgirls in my tour group, all with varying degrees of skill and experience. I’ll just say my confidence level was on par with that of the 10-year-old first-timer riding next to me. Unsurprisingly, the operation was a bit touristy, but horses seemed to be treated well.

Follow the leader

Based on my (lack of) experience and my height, I was paired up with a horse named Titus. While on the beach ride, I was amused to learn that Titus was famous. Our guide, Brennan Wells, told me how Titus was recently cast for a role in a local Western movie that was called something to the effect of “Red and Yellow to Kill a Fellow.”

Oddly enough, people are allowed to drive cars ON the beach in the most areas of the Padre Island National Seashore. This was a little disconcerting atop a horse.

Nervously holding the reins

On a somewhat related note, I run the blog for the adventure experience company, FunSherpa, and recently wrote an article about good places to go horseback riding and tips for first-timers. Now more than ever, I understand that I’ve got a lot to learn about horses before venturing to one of these destinations atop a horse. First of all, I need to learn how to relax, loosen my grip, and trust in the fact that people have been successfully getting around on these things for thousands of years.

Sun has set, cars drive on the beach

But for now, I’m simply pleased with myself for not falling off of Titus and not causing a majorly embarrassing scene on the beach. Perhaps my next ride will be a little more relaxing and little less nerve-racking. Or perhaps a little more secluded and a little less crowded. But it’ll be hard to beat the sound of waves rolling into the shore and the sight of birds soaring high above the gulf.

Titus and I on the beach

So this post goes out to Titus: my second riding partner, my little movie star, and the horse who gave me one of the most beautiful and memorable sunsets I’ve ever experienced.

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

photo (3)

Portsmouth, Rhode Island

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

THE END