Month #3 on the Road: A Full-Time Camper Life Update!

Today marks three months of life on the road…and finishing month #3 strong in this tiny camper home with the spouse and pup!

Unlike lots of other solo travelers and couples doing the full-time travel thing that I keep up with, my blog here is just a hobby and a personal outlet. Although a monthly update is about all I can manage with my work my schedule, it’s still something I’m holding myself accountable to on the 14th of each month. And BTW, work is going great…never a dull moment!

Places We’ve Been: Month #3

Month #3 marked a huge transition for this camper journey and a big move from the east to the west. After spending time just along the East Coast so far, we made a quick stop back where it all began (Atlanta) to swap out gear from the storage unit and put in some social visits. Now we’ve moved on to the West/Southwest and will be here for the foreseeable future!

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

  • Charlotte, North Carolina: Home on the Road #14
    • Highlights: Last kayaking & SUPing of the season at Lake Wylie, discovering Lucky Dog Bark & Brew (off-leash dog park + craft beer bar!), campfire storytelling
    • Lowlights: Police shooting riots downtown

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  • Atlanta, Georgia: Home on the Road #15
    • Highlights: Taco dinner & great conversation with my BFF, hiking up & camping at Stone Mountain, stocking up on Indian sweets for Navratri
    • Lowlights: Navigating all the excess stuff in our storage unit and wondering why we kept it

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  • Morrilton, Arkansas & Amarillo, Texas: “Passing Through” Homes on the Road #16 & 17
    • Highlights: Hotel stays to treat ourselves after 8+ hours of driving per day, nice trail behind the Amarillo hotel, soup on the side of the road, free Wi-Fi and breakfast!
    • Lowlights: Getting nauseous trying to work on a laptop in the passenger seat

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  • Albuquerque, New Mexico: Home on the Road #18
    • Highlights: Finally checked out the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, new alpaca sweater and hats, scenic dog park, started biking again – feels great to be back on a bike!
    • Lowlights: Weather prevented the balloons from launching on the one and only morning we had in ABQ, no dogs allowed at the festival

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  • Cortez, Colorado: Home on the Road #19
    • Highlights: 2 weeks in one place, Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients, Southwest hikes & landscapes, very comfortable town with pretty much everything I want, went to yoga and belly dancing (first ever!) classes, got a good haircut, fall festival in Dolores, boarded Monkey at doggie day care for the first time and that went ok
    • Lowlights: Low of 27-degrees at night with no good camper insulation, annoying locals, not many dog-friendly businesses

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Realizations & Ramblings: Month #3

In no particular order, these are some random thoughts that came to me over the course of month #3 on the road.

  • The East Coast was nice but isn’t long-term for me. I felt ready to leave it and head west.
  • Weather really affects my mood, motivation, and how I spend my days while living outdoors – Cortez has been full of sunshine 🙂
  • Clotheslines are incredibly useful in a campsite – especially if you’re by a beach or doing water sports and trying to avoid a mildew infestation.

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  • I love camping next to trails and have been trying to get into trail running, slowly but surely.
  • Despite all the new environments, I haven’t really gotten sick on this trip so far. Yay! But my immune system gets run down every once in a while with symptoms of a headache and a sore throat. Fortunately, it’s been going away within a day.
  • Bag salads with toppings and dressings are my favorite semi-healthy lunch.

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  • This lifestyle reinforces my lack of attachment to places.
  • The social interactions that every other travel blogger talks about being the “best part of travel” still mean very little to me. Random encounters bring me anxiety, annoyance, and disinterest. Perhaps it’s a phase. Or maybe just me getting older and working/living remotely for so long. Either way, I’m cool with it. And I feel like someone needs to share the perspective of how introverted long-term travel can be just as fulfilling, if not more.
  • Hotel stays are a fun occasional treat – especially after long driving days.

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  • We played a fun storytelling game one night that was really fun. It goes like this: Tear up pieces of paper and on each one, write (a) characters, (b) characters’ goals, and (c) an obstacle to characters’ goals. Randomly draw one piece from each category pile. Grab a small notebook and Person #1 writes one page to start the story. Person #2 only gets to read the very last sentence of what Person #1 wrote and then keeps the story going with one more page. Go back and forth 3 times and then read your story aloud at the campfire. Our story involved a park ranger who dreamed of making the best grilled cheese sandwich ever but had debilitating social anxiety.

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  • For the first time on this trip, we stayed somewhere more than a week: Cortez. We really need more than a week to get beyond the tourist highlights and get into a good work groove to discover local stuff. It’s nice to get to a point of comfort in a new place where I can do normal things like get a haircut, go to a yoga class, and try belly dancing for the first time (hip scarves are hot).
  • Small decorations for fall make the camper feel more festive for the season.

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  • I enjoy the hassle-free lifestyle of small towns but the anonymity of larger cities.
  • Playing disc golf with a dog is impossible – never again!
  • I have no idea how to dress for fall. Living most of my life in Illinois, hot summer basically turned into cold winter before I had a chance to think about fall clothes. I went shopping for some layered outdoor wear, but I still struggle with what to put on myself when it’s in the 60’s. I’m open to advice on this one!

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  • Desert landscapes make me feel peaceful.
  • Chief Surfs with Manatees, my Jeep, hit 88,888 miles (now over 91K) and is still going strong!

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Looking Ahead to Month #4

Month #4 will continue our exploration of the West in Colorado and Utah. We’re skipping the familiar parts of Colorado that we already know and sticking to the southwestern part of the state between Cortez and Grand Junction.

Other than an epic canyoneering trip in Zion a few years ago, Utah will be totally new to me. So I’m definitely looking forward to checking out Salt Lake City, Moab, Arches, and all the amazing landscapes here. I recently upgraded my iPhone to the 7+ so I’m also planning to snap some awesome photos to share!

A quick look at the calendar tells me that Halloween is also coming up, which is my favorite holiday of all time. So we’re planning to celebrate with a pumpkin patch visit, perhaps some cheap & easy costumes, and plenty of pumpkin-flavored desserts and beer!

Thanks for following our adventures and definitely looking forward to what month #4 brings!

 

Related:

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.

Dirty Bill’s: A (Sort Of) Gnome-Themed Dive Bar in Austin

Dirty Bill’s would be just like any other dive bar on the map except for one simple fact. It is filled with glossy photographs of a traveling gnome mingling with celebrities.

Dirty Bill's 1Tucked away from the blaring live music and pub scene on 6th Street, Dirty Bill’s is a tiny, dark bar in Austin’s Warehouse District. So how did a tourist like me stumble upon it, you ask? Well before I take any trip, I do a quick Google search for “[town name + gnomes].” Other than a couple quirky shops (which I obviously visited also), Dirty Bill’s was the only result I found.

This is the home of the “world famous” gnome, Dirty Bill, but sadly, no one seems to care anymore. I found my way the bar, late on a Saturday afternoon. The bar was empty, and the only sign of life was the bartender half-heartedly cleaning up a pile of puke on the sidewalk by the front door.

Dirty Bill's 2The walls were plastered with the most amazing photographs of an obscure variety of celebrities posing with Dirty Bill. This gnome has been held by everyone from Les Claypool to Bill Murray, Modest Mouse, Tony Hawk, Kid Rock, Courtney Love, and Alice Cooper. It seems he’s lived quite the live, considering shots of him getting tattooed, skydiving, and committing various forms of public scandal.

So who exactly is Dirty Bill, how does he get around so much, and why is he just sitting in a glass case right now?

Dirty Bill's 3Unfortunately, these questions remain largely unanswered.

After an initial look around, I introduced myself as a “gnome enthusiast” to the bartender, Crystal, and begged my boyfriend to snap as many photos (of the photos) as possible. Crystal seemed wholly uninterested in gnomes, but she was kind enough to entertain my obsession for awhile.

Dirty Bill's 5Crystal revealed that one of the owners of the place shared my obsession and had been well-connected in the music industry. She said that Dirty Bill hadn’t traveled anywhere in quite some time and that the owner wasn’t really into it anymore. Most of Dirty Bill’s photos were snapped in the late 90s and early 2000s. Personally, I can’t understand how you can own/work in a bar full of gnomes and NOT be “into it.”

Although Crystal (the only staff member working at the time) didn’t seem to know much about the origins of the gnome or the intentions or whereabouts of the owner, she agreed to let me meet Dirty Bill up close and personal. He was covered in stickers, tattoos, scratches, and other common types of battle scars that gnomes suffer from while traveling. According to the bar’s Facebook page, Dirty Bill began traveling in 1999.

Dirty Bill's 6I made few more laps around perimeter to soak up each and every photograph in the bar, which to date, is the only gnome-themed bar I’ve ever been to. What I wouldn’t give to own and operate a gnome bar of my very own!?

If you read reviews of the bar, you’ll see a steady stream of complaints about bad service, impersonal staff, and cramped space. But some locals defend it for its unpretentious vibe and the jukebox.

Dirty Bill's 9Internet searches about Dirty Bill yield very few results, and the bar is clearly trying to move away from its gnome theme. They recently replaced the exterior sign, which had a gnome on it, to a dull, black sign that just says “Dirty.” They’re moving away from the name “Dirty Bill’s” entirely, and going for that whole overdone, generic dive bar theme instead. Check out the bar’s website and you’ll be hard pressed to find a gnome.

Dirty Bill's 10I left Dirty Bills that hot Texas afternoon with a bittersweet feeling. This bar has so much potential for eclectic patrons, but yet it falls so short. In exchange for $15, Crystal found me one of the last bar tank tops that bore Dirty Bill’s name and illustration (in a men’s large – the only size available.)

Perhaps Dirty Bill’s wasn’t all I’d hope it would be, but I sure am glad to got to meet him before the bar abandons him completely. Although he and I are mere acquaintances at best, I hate to think of him being retired to a storage bin to make room for something far more lame. You’d better bet that I’m keeping tabs on the bar though, because if it ever shuts down, I want first dibs on a couple of those photographs!

Yoga on the Road

I’ve been practicing yoga in random studios and living rooms for well over ten years now. In Chicago, where I spend most of my time, there is certainly no shortage of yoga studios. However, filling my weekly quota of downward dogs is considerably more challenging when living on the road.

I feel the beneficial effects of yoga when I’m traveling even more than I do when hanging around my home base. Trying to sleep on planes makes my neck stiff. Hunching over picnic tables to work at campgrounds makes my back ache. And driving for long stretches of road makes all my joints tense and fatigued. I’ve had my fair share of battles with anxiety, and yoga is one of the few things that brings me back to reality.

Yoga at Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C.

Yoga at Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C.

Much of my travel revolves around active adventure, which has a nasty tendency of making me feel like the age on my driver’s license. Certain yoga positions are better than others when preparing for or recovering from adventures, like rock climbing.

As I have begun to travel more, I’ve struggled to take my yoga practice with me. My yoga mat is bulky, Internet access is sketchy, and classes are expensive. But if there’s a will, there’s a way. And I found a way to practice yoga during my last two extended road trips. Here’s how:

National, State and Local Park Classes

Not surprisingly, my absolutely favorite place to do yoga is in the outdoors. This summer, I stayed on the outskirts of Acadia National Park for about a week and decided to search for outdoor classes in the area. I was excited to discover Yoga in the Park, a low-key community that offers public classes in the park’s most beautiful places.

I recently traveled to Miami and discovered that Bayfront Park offers free yoga classes every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. When I stopped in for a Saturday morning class, I was greeted with a warm welcome, a recommendation to nab a shady spot, and handed a spare mat to use.

Studios and Community Centers in Random Towns

You might be surprised that the po-dunk town you’re staying in for a couple days has a community center that offers fitness classes. It’s a no-brainer; run a quick Google search for yoga classes in the place you’re staying and show up. Maybe the class won’t be as fancy as the ones you frequent back home, but it’ll still get the job done. And if one of your travel goals is to meet like-minded strangers wherever you go, then you just got an added bonus.

Campground Pavilions

Financially, the only way that I can afford to travel so much is by staying in campgrounds. And unless the temperatures drop below 40-degrees, I prefer it that way regardless. I recently camped out in Texas’ Ink’s Lake State Park for a week and got the itch to do some yoga. Considering that the nearest town was a 45-minute drive away, I pulled out my Verizon MiFi and an iPad as an alternative. I am willing abandon my position of shunning technology in the outdoors for the sake of doing yoga.

I swept out the dusty floor of the campground pavilion as best I could, propped the iPad against a post, and pulled up a YouTube video. Again, not surprisingly, I gravitate towards yoga videos that were filmed outdoors. Here are a few good ones I’ve found:

Yoga in Costa Rica

Yoga in Costa Rica

Car Yoga

I came across the article published by the school I studied travel writing at, Matador U, and thought it was pretty creative. Alyssa (no relation) James suggests several yoga pose variations that can be done while sitting in a car on a road trip. Although you certainly won’t get the full effect of mountain pose, pigeon pose, or prayer twist in a seated position, they’re certainly better than nothing. This could easily be translated to “office chair yoga” or “couch yoga.”

I am by no mean an expert at doing yoga on the road, but I am getting better at making it work with each trip that I take. I’ve begun to research travel yoga mats to make my kneeling poses less painful and my carry-on luggage less awkward. As I learn tips and tricks by trials and error, I’ll be sure to share them. It’s time we stop thinking of yoga as a location-restrictive routine and start taking it out on the road!

Changing My Perception of Texas: Inks Lake State Park

George Bush worshipers, gun lovers, religious fanatics, pickup truck drivers, corrupt oil tycoons.

Those are a few of the Texas stereotypes I brought with me to Inks Lake State Park last month. I forgot about all of them by the end of the week.

Campsite #87

Campsite #87

After trolling the San Antonio-to-Austin circuit for the second time, I ventured a bit off the beaten path to explore some lesser-known parts of the Lone Star State. Inks Lake State Park is within a two-hour drive from both cities, and just north of Longhorn Cavern State Park.

The park takes up 1,201 acres along the Colorado River and has been open to the public since 1950. We chose this campground over nearby Pedernales Falls State Park because of the tent site area and the Internet situation. If I didn’t make a living working at campgrounds, I would shun Internet access entirely. But alas, something has to fund the nightly fees (which were about $20 per night, by the way).

Cliff jumpers at Devil's Waterhole

Cliff jumpers at Devil’s Waterhole

My absolute favorite places to camp are next to flowing water. We were able to secure a campsite next to the lake for the week, which was mighty convenient for frequent kayaking. Since we have an inflatable kayak, a trip on the water usually entails about 15 minutes of hand pumping. However, our Inks Lake campsite had enough space to leave the kayak sit out inflated each day.

Check out the campsites between space 85 and 91. These have lots of space and nice sunset views, although they tend to get crowded with RVs during peak times. There’s some small, but cutesy, looking cabins a few yards away too if you’re a little less hardcore.

Island picnic via kayak

Island picnic via kayak

Although the lake isn’t enormous, there are a few good kayak routes to check out. One leads to Devil’s Waterhole, where low-key thrill-seekers take turns cliff jumping. There’s also a small island off the coast of the pavilion on the northeast end of the park. This is a great place to kayak to for a secluded lunch or swim to, if you’re not worried about your feet touching the ground.

There’s really only one hiking trail inside the park boundaries, and that’s the Pecan Flats Trail. There are some unexpectedly nice vista points along the trail and a good number of cacti to scope out. Parts of the trail are severely overgrown, so you might have to turn around and head back if the insects are driving you nuts. Take a look at this trail guide to brush up on plants you’ll see along the way.

One of the coolest part about the Texas State Parks is the free fishing. Never have I encountered another recreational area that lends you fishing poles and tackle for free. As someone who occasionally (and impatiently) dips a pole in the water but who has never actually caught a fish, “free” is essential.The park staff isn’t all that concerned about you keeping the gear for a few days either. I was simply asked to bring the pole back at the end of the week when I check out. The park general store sells live bait for a few dollars, as well as souvenirs and snacks.

That general store also rents out kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats by the hour for about $15-20. Since we have our own kayak, we decided to take a paddleboat out on day for a lunch break from work. There’s no way around it – paddleboats are really dumb. However I justified the experience by smuggling a couple beers on board and declaring the peddling to be an adequate leg workout for the day.

I felt simultaneously more work-productive and more relaxed at Inks Lake State Park than anywhere else in a long time. Since I’ve returned home to my home base in Chicago, I haven’t been able to find anywhere near the motivation or focus I had while working and playing here. Not only was Inks Lake a breath of fresh air for my confidence and my state of mind, but it was also instrumental in changing my perception about the state ofTexas.

Whip In: Austin’s One-Stop Brewery/Indian Restaurant/Concert Venue/Grocery Store

I can’t think of another single place in the world that combines the best aspects of craft beer, Indian food, live music, and grocery shopping. Whip In does exactly that, and does it pretty well.

Roadside sign

Roadside sign

My boyfriend, who happens to be Indian, and I came across Whip In’s website while searching for breweries to sample in the Austin area. We were intrigued at the unlikely combination of Texas comfort food, traditional Indian food, and craft beer. From what I understand, Indians aren’t exactly known for their breweries.

The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern even did a little piece on the place, however, I don’t feel he does it justice. Sorry to call you out, buddy, it’s going to take more than footage of your chewing to convince me of Whip In’s awesomeness.

Scoping out the menu

Scoping out the menu

Back in 1986, the owners, Amrit and Chandan Topiwala, bought a convenience store in the Travis Heights Neighborhood and made a living off the gas pumps and B-movie selection.

For whatever reason, beer sales began to outweigh gas sales and priorities were shifted.

Texan-Indian Cuisine and Brews

Texan-Indian Cuisine and Brews

 

The convenience store was transformed into a dhaba (traditional Indian/Pakistani roadside restaurant) pub with a full kitchen and homemade brew house. The menu features a mind-boggling fusion of Texan comfort food and authentic Gujarati cuisine. And since it’s in Austin, Whip In practically had no choice but to service local and organic fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Whip In is big on brunch and it has a big section for it on the menu. We settled on a combo dhaba bowl with chana masala, masoor dal, and Zambian corn. We also got an appetizer of samosas and a follow-up entree of dal sliders. With their warm naan, spinach, and mushrooms, the dal sliders were definitely my favorite pick.

Namaste Brewing

Namaste Brewing

Appropriately, Whip In calls its in-house brew house, Namaste Brewing. They had a surprisingly number of beers, although several of the taps had run dry before we showed up.

You can order a sampler of four beers for $10, and we did exactly that. Our picks were the Brahmale, Sitas Revenge, Austinerveisse, and Vishnavi Triple.

 

Outside seating space

Outside seating space

  • Brahmale = postcolonial IPA made w/goodflow honey, grapefruit peel & lemongrass 9.5%abv
  • Sitas = french saison made w/striselspalt&aramis hops 6.5%abv
  • Austinerveisse = berlinerveisse style german sour wheat made w/peaches 4.5%abv
  • Vishnavi = strong triple brew I seem to have misplaced my notes on
Feast time!

Feast time!

Nearly all the beers on tap were high in alcohol content, with 8% and 9% being totally common. I must admit, the combination of strong beer and strong flavors did do a number on my unsuspecting stomach after awhile.

Rambler Rose

Rambler Rose

 

 

 

For a Saturday night, Whip In was busy, crowded, and a little chaotic. As a first timer, I was a little overwhelmed trying to wrap my head around this place. Fortunately, we found a seat at the bar, so there was no wait time. If you aren’t so fortunate, you can push your way to the back and browse the couple aisles of groceries that seem wonderfully out-of-place. The owners have traded in their convenience store snacks for hippie fair like tofu-turkey and Tom’s Natural Toothpaste.

Namaste, ya'll!

Namaste, ya’ll!

Whip In has indoor and outdoor seating, and each space has its own stage. Rambler Rose, featuring a 8 1/2 month pregnant lead singer/percussionist, took the stage while we were finishing up our dinner.

Whip In definitely offers a unique dining/drinking/listening/shopping experience you can’t find anywhere else. Upon first impression, the spot seems to be a bit all over the board, and unable to decide what it is and what it wants to be when it grows up. But whatever it is, I like it. And I hope to visit another place like it some day.

Pre-Shutdown Weekend at Padre Island National Seashore

Tent site above the beach

Tent site above the beach

Undoubtedly, there are thousands of blog posts flying around in a political uproar over the federal government shutdown. Although there’s a political science degree hanging on my wall, this is not a political blog and it never will be.

But as I sit here on Shutdown Day 2, one particular closure hits close to home.

Sunset stroll

Sunset stroll

 

I spent last weekend at Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, Texas. I packed up for home on Monday, as scheduled, which happened to be the day before the Shutdown. I must admit I’m having a hard time believing that the beautiful place that I called home for four days is now barricaded and vacant.

Pavilion setup - #24

Pavilion setup – #24

I wish I could provide you with a link to the campground I stayed at, but as with all of the national parks, the Padre Island website has been replaced with this ominous closure message:

Due to the lapse in appropriated funds, all public lands managed by the Interior Department (National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management facilities, etc.) will be closed. For more information, FAQs, and updates, please visit www.doi.gov/shutdown.

 

Malaquite campground

Malaquite campground

So until those idiots pull their heads out of their asses, I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Malaquite Campground is the main campground inside the national seashore boundaries, and it’s situated along the dunes of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a semi-primitive campground with fifty sites: eight are tent-only and twenty-six can accommodate RVs. You can’t make advance reservations here, so you have to take your chances and show up to see what’s available.

Sites cost $8 per night here, but you do have the “luxury” of flush toilets and cold-water pump showers. In actuality, these are the most luxurious campsites because the other camping areas have zilch for amenities.

Bird!

Bird!

The best place to kayak is Bird Island, but head to the windsurfing area and not the boat launch. You can put in anywhere along the shallow shore, and the waves are much calmer than over at Malaquite.

You can also camp over here at Bird Island, which has a couple pit toilets and a kayak rental shop, but not much else. Be prepared to shell out $5 at the front gate to do any of the above at Bird Island.

If you’re looking for a deal, you can camp for free at North Beach, but you’re pretty far from the facilities if you’re shy about pooping outside. It’s also totally acceptable to drive ON the beach, so your tent could very well come in contact with a Ford F-150.

Footsteps in sand

Footsteps in sand

When I asked a park ranger for hiking suggestions, I was reminded that there are seventy miles of undeveloped coastline to tread along. Silly me. Turns out, this was my favorite part of the park. The sand wasn’t too hot, the waves refreshing, the beaches uncrowded, and the water clean(ish).

Apparently, there are 380 species of birds here, but I can’t recall seeing more than four or five. You can find lots of crabs in the sand and along the shore here. They come in a variety of colors and sizes, and I even had the pleasure of chasing one of out of my shower with a flashlight!

Crab!

Crab!

There’s no denying that the mosquitoes were horrendous. Spray yourself with insect repellent ’til it seeps from your pores, but it won’t even make a difference. It’s also crazy windy here, especially when setting up a tent, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rogue tree in the gulf

Rogue tree in the gulf

Padre Island National Seashore felt like one of the last undeveloped places of its kind. It could have easily turned into another Miami Beach, with sprawling hotels, cocktail bars, and tourist shops.

However, this place was a true example of nature at its finest. To me, there are few finer things in life than waking up on the sand to the sounds of crashing waves and the first rays of morning light.

Political commentary aside, I truly hope that this and the other national parks will be reopened soon so we can continue having these experiences and loving the good parts of our country.

Sunset on Padre Islanad

Sunset on Padre Islanad

The First (of Several) Texas State Parks: McKinney Falls, South Austin

When choosing a campground, you can usually go one of two ways: private or government. State and federal park campgrounds tend to be cheaper, but often at the expense of no privacy and no amenities (i.e. Internet). Private campgrounds come with a higher price tag, but often aren’t tucked away in the most beautiful places.

Camp site #15

Camp site #15

However, McKinney Falls State Park proved to be a little bit of the best of both worlds. Located in South Austin, this 726-acre park has been open to the city-dwelling public since 1976. It’s named after Thomas F. McKinney, who was one of Texas’s first colonists and made a fortune off of racehorse breeding, flour mill production, and slave labor.

Spiders as neighbors

Spiders as neighbors

Campsites range from $15 for walk-ins to $24 for spaces with water and 50-amp electric. The sites book up fast, even after Labor Day, so we secured the very last one for the weekend. All the sites are separated from each other pretty well, so you won’t feel cramped next to neighbors with monstrous RVs.

We were initially worried about camping the first night because it was raining, there were flood warnings, and the campground is near Onion Creek. However, each site has a “tent pit” that’s outlined with logs and we didn’t experience a single pool of water. Some sites shade trees and others have none, so choose wisely based on your tendency to sunburn.

Hiking trail map

Hiking trail map

The campsites have a wide open feel and there are plenty of cactus to make you feel like you’re camping in the desert. There are a couple visitor centers in the park and the staff will kindly talk your ear off if you let them. The grounds are incredibly well-maintained for a government facility and I had no complaints about the shops, bathrooms, or site grounds.

We went hiked a few of the McKinney trails, which are okay or biking but definitely better for hiking. Since “hill country” isn’t really all that hilly, the trails are pretty easy but still scenic. One pit stop along the way is “Old Baldy,” which is a 500 year old, 103-foot tall cypress tree along the trail.

There are two waterfalls, upper and lower falls, that are easy to get to and worth a stop. They aren’t very tall, but gazing into a waterfall is always relaxing, regardless of their magnitude. Due to recently heavy rains, we weren’t able cross over the falls and access the other side of the trails.

Suspicious footprints

Suspicious footprints

Texas state parks don’t require a fishing license to fish and much to my surprise, they loan out fishing poles for free. It’s a totally laid back transaction and some locations even have fake bait to give out too. We settled on an inopportune fishing spot under some shade trees and spent more time untangling the the line than actually casting out. It was a learning experience, that’s for sure.

One of the coolest things about McKinney Falls was its proximity to Austin. It was only about a twenty minute drive from downtown, which made it easy to sightsee during the day and camp at night. However, I never felt like I was right outside a large city while I was camping here: no traffic noise, no bright lights, and plenty of nature in all directions.

Tangled in fishing line

Tangled in fishing line

My final recommendation is to spring for a Texas State Park Pass if you’re going to camp for more than a couple days. It sucks parting with $70, but it starts saving you money on about day #3 of camping. The pass gets you out of paying the $6+ daily park fee, gives you 50% off your second night at any state campground, and gives you 10% off any supplies you buy at their stores.

Before this trip, beautiful parks were the last thing that came to mind when I thought of Texas. Believe it or not, there are 93 state parks here, and I look forward to visiting as many of them as possible during my trip.

Brew-Fueled Serenity Outside Austin: The Jester King

If you want a good brewery recommendation, ask a guy running the food truck. Anyone who’s been to Austin knows there are a ton of breweries in the area. But since most their brews don’t make it across the Texas border, it’s hard narrowing down your options if you’re only got a few days.

The Jester King

The Jester King

I recently tagged along to my boyfriend’s conference outing in San Antonio and found myself waiting for free grub in food truck lines outside the Alamo. To pass the time, we struck up a conversation with a friendly food truck guy about local brews, and promptly received a recommendation for the Jester King.

Although I visited Austin a couple years prior, I wasn’t as obsessed with breweries then as I am not. So we took his suggestion and ran with it…all the way to brew retreat bliss.

Patiently waiting for beer

Patiently waiting for beer

The Jester King is as “out in the middle of nowhere” as you can expect with an Austin city zip code. The roads leading to it are hilly, and it’s a surprisingly scenic drive.

After initially missing the entrance and turning around in a ditch, we spotted the unassuming sign that leads down a ranch-style road. This ranch, however, is filled with rows of cars instead of livestock, and it looks like it will be really busy from the parking lot.

Testing the taste buds

Testing the taste buds

You’ll pass by Stanley’s Farmhouse pizza, which is worth a stop, but do yourself a favor and find beer first. The brew house on the hill looks huge, but the tasting room is actually pretty quaint. It’s just a bar, with no place to sit and no tables to lean on.

But the service is great, and the guys working bar are both friendly and know their stuff. The parking lot led me to believe I’d be waiting in a long line for a taste and shouting over a crowded bar to put my order in. Although the tasting room had a steady stream of tasters, it was a far cry from annoying or cramped.

Tree top chandelier

Tree top chandelier

I still can’t stop raving about Black Metal. It’s a Russian imperial stout, and it weighs in at a whopping 9.3%. The beer has a predictable black-brown color, strong aspects of chocolate, peppery overtones, and a hint of coffee accents. It’s strong, it’s smooth, and it has a warming boozy mouth feel from start to finish. I had a sample, then a pint, and finally a bottle to go. Yep, it was that good.

My second favorite brew was Mad Meg, which is a saison farmhouse ale and golden in color. Apparently Mad Meg was a peasant woman from Flemish folklore who led an army of women to pillage hell. While that’s pretty hardcore, the beer was pleasantly smooth with citrus influences, herbal spices, and an aftertaste unique to this type of beer.

Mmm...pizza goes in here

Mmm…pizza goes in here

Otherwise, I tried the Noble King and the Wytchmaker, neither of which left a lasting impression, and Boxer’s Revenge, which was far too sour for my taste. I understand that sour beers are the new rage with the “kids” these days, but I can’t manage to jump on the sour bandwagon just yet.

Although I was a big fan of Jester King’s beers, I fell in love with their brewery set up even more. In my opinion, this is what a brewery should be: plenty of outdoor seating space, laid back vibe, a stage for live music, simple food on site, manageable crowds, and a festive atmosphere that makes you never want to leave.

As the sun began to set, chandeliers hung from tree branches lit up to illuminate picnic tables scattered through the rolling hills. The brewery was run well, without being pretentious, family-friendly, without crawling with kids, and situated in a peaceful atmosphere that temps you to be social.

Devour in 3...2...1...

Devour in 3…2…1…

I should also mention that Jester King, as well as most of Austin, is really dog-friendly. Dogs aren’t only tolerated here, but they are expected and admired. Dog ownership sounds a lot more manageable to me if you can bring your pooch to the pub.

We ordered a pizza at Stanley’s before they closed at 9pm; it came out quick and although it wasn’t huge, it was pretty delicious. Softly playing classic rock radio provided the accompaniment, but apparently they sometimes host live music on Saturday nights. If you like Jester King’s labels, which are pretty clever, you can pick up a poster print of one for $20 to $25.

On the drive back to the campground from Jester King, I started pondering how different some breweries are from one another. As I mentioned, ones like this always rock my socks off. But the footwear of other brew fanatics probably flies off at the sight of warehouse district or gastropub competition.

I’ll save that debate for another article (coming soon!) and continue riding the wave of Black Metal and the mellow vibe I took with me from the Texas countryside.