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

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

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

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

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Places We’ve Been: Month #4

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

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

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

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

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Colorado National Monument at sunrise

Montrose, Colorado: Home on the Road #20

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

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

Grand Junction, Colorado: Home on the Road #21

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

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

Vernal, Utah: Home on the Road #22

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

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Otherworldly rock formations at Fantasy Canyon on BLM land outside Vernal

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

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

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

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It’s great living right next to good bike trails

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

Observations & Random Ramblings: Month #4

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

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

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

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

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

Crappy gloves = love

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to Month #5

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

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Sadly, Moonshine Arch had no moonshine at the top.

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

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

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Freaking families out, one cheap mask at a time.

Related:

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:

Two Months on the Road! A Full-Time Camper Life Update

Two months down…??? to go!

Two months ago, we drove out of Atlanta with the Jeep and pop-up camper filled to capacity and have been touring the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states ever since. On or around the 14th of each month, I’m aiming to write a quick update about where we’ve been, where we’re headed, and things I’m learning along the way.

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Related: 

Places We’ve Been: Month #2

We slowed down our pace a bit and have been spending a week in each place to better accommodate our work schedules and see more in each place.

  • New River Gorge, West Virginia: Home on the road #8
    • Favorite Parts: Hiking around the gorge and bridge with beautiful views, coal mine & ghost town hikes

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  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky: Home on the road #9
    • Favorite Parts: Turning 33, meeting up with my parents, rock climbing and lazy floating on my birthday

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  • Claytor Lake State Park, Dublin, Virginia: Home on the road #10
    • Favorite Parts: Easy access to kayaking & SUPing, playing horseshoes, decorating for fall

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  • Roanoke, Virginia: Home on the road #11
    • Favorite Parts: Staying in a hotel (Labor Day camping is for amateurs), solo museum outings, Black Dog Salvage

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  • Virginia Beach, Virginia: Home on the road #12
    • Favorite Parts: Camping right next to the beach, beach yoga/running/swimming, meeting up with my buddy Dwight

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  • Surf City, North Carolina: Home on the road #13:
    • Favorite Parts: Still here, but so far it’s been surviving a crazy storm with flooding (bit of a rough start)

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Biggest Challenges: Month #2

A lot of the challenges that were really getting to me in month #1 have mellowed out as I’ve settled into a better routine. Overall, the weather has been more pleasant in month #2 and our campgrounds have been pretty accommodating.

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The single biggest challenge I’ve felt this month is finding good internet for working. We’ve had to upgrade our data plans to make up for crappy service at campsites and have even had to move sites within campgrounds for better reception. These distractions cut into my productivity and make it more difficult to enjoy the other aspects of camping life.

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The other big challenge that comes to mind is mold/mildew. After some rainy days in West Virginia, it started growing on our camper canvas above the two beds. We didn’t discover it until we were in the Middle of Nowhere, Kentucky where cleaning supplies were very sparse. Vinegar ended up working pretty well until we got to a bigger store and picked up some mildew spray. Fortunately, no one got sick.

Realizations & Ramblings: Month #2

Over the course of the month, I jotted down random thoughts as they came to me. Here’s what my month #2 list looks like:

  • I’m getting better at doing yoga in weird places and feeling better physically and mentally because of it.
  • I’m getting more tolerant of bugs and getting better at ending their lives when necessary.
  • Monkey needs social time even when I don’t. We met her perfect playmate at Arrowhead Bike Farm in Fayetteville, WV – a hound named Hank.

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  • Keeping the inside of a camper clean is hard, especially when you’re camping in mud or sand. We are constantly sweeping the floor with a tiny broom and dust pan.
  • I really crave my end-of-the-day beer or mug of wine
  • I don’t necessary identify with West Virginia culture, but the uncrowded/outdoorsy vibe really resonated with me.

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  • Having our own downloaded TV shows to watch separately makes for easy and refreshing solo time. I’m currently watching Girls, Scandal, and Wentworth solo.
  • We did an “art in the park” day that involved drawing in sketchbooks and painting on watercolor postcards. I want more of these days.

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  • It’s possible to keep up many favorite hobbies even without an apartment.
  • When one person in your travel party isn’t coping well, the other needs to pick up the slack. Take turns with negativity.

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  • Inspired by scary campfire stories, I wrote a short fiction ghost story. Once I fix it up a bit, I’ll plan to share it here and perhaps write a few more too!
  • Once a month, it’s nice to treat ourselves to a hotel to switch up the routine. The Sleep in in Roanoke over Labor Day weekend to avoid crowds and the hurricane was really fun.
  • I love living by a beach.
  • Inspired by the beach I’m trying to start meditating again. I’m trying out guided meditations on this app, Meditation Studio by Gaiam.
  • I’m getting tired of wearing these same clothes and can’t wait to toss/donate them at the end of the season.
  • I have made more income so far this year than ever before in life!

Looking Ahead to Month #3

If you take a quick look at a map, you’ll see that we’ve made a big loop and seem to be circling back. But don’t be fooled because this trip is nowhere close to done!

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After stops in North Carolina and South Carolina, we are heading back to Atlanta for a few days. Here we’ll revisit that packed 10′ x 12′ storage unit and swap out water sports gear for biking gear, and summer clothes for fall and winter clothes. This will wrap up our tour of the Eastern U.S., and from here, we drive west!

For many years, we’ve wanted to go to the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, and this is the year we’re finally going to do it! So we’ll be putting in long hours in the car to breeze through Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas to get to the festival in time. Month #3 will be incredibly different from months #1 and #2 because it begins our journey of the west. I can’t wait, and as always thanks for reading and staying in touch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places We’ve Been So Far: Month #1

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

Biggest Challenges So Far: Month #1

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

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

Realizations Thus Far: Month #1

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

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

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Ramblings: Month #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to Month #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABQ Ride 5

This was an amazing trail for a first dog trailer ride because it was flat, smooth, wide, and not too crowded. With the equipment we have, the trailer only connects well to my bike, so we switch bikes halfway through the ride to break up the labor. This also gives Monkey a break to get out and stretch her legs.
ABQ Ride 3On this particular day, it was lovely weather in the low-70s, and we cranked out a total of about 26 miles round-trip. Afterwards, we let Monkey hike around a bit on a nature trail and then got drive-in milkshakes at Sonic. It was just too-conveniently located right off the trail and too tempting to just gain back the calories we’d just burned. Ice cream and fro yo are my ultimate junk food weakness.ABQ Ride 4 She was a real trooper on this ride, and I felt better about bringing her along than leaving her along in a strange campsite to fend for herself. I don’t believe in keeping dogs in cages at home, especially if they’ve already put in plenty of cage time in a shelter. But I hope the pretty scenery whipping by and the fresh air flowing in are fun for her inside that trailer…especially when we pass by other dogs huffing and puffing by with jealous looks on their faces.
ABQ Ride 6

The next time we broke out the bike trailer on the New Mexico adventure was in Santa Fe, on the Santa Fe Rail Trail. This trail posed a different kind of challenge because it was not paved and quite hilly.

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

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

Santa Fe Railyard

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3529 (1)Final Closing Tips for Dog Biking

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

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

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

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

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

 

1. Kilbourne Hole – Mining for Peridot Gemstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. White Sands National Monument – A Surreal Sandstorm

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Organ Mountains – Baylor Pass Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta da!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3315What’s next for Little Miss Nameless Camper?

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

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

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

How to Include Your Dog on Awesome Outdoor Adventures

Outdoorsy, adventurous dogs have been getting a ton of attention lately…not just from me, but from all of those crazy “Camping with Dogs” Instagramers too.

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

Roxy, the most chill dog EVER

It makes a lot of sense though, given that approximately 70-80 million dogs are owned in the United States and about 37-47 percent of all households in the United States have a dog. And seriously, why even bother getting a dog if you’re going to leave him home alone or with a stranger every time you do something cool?

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides...and at just a year old...everything else too.

Sasha is super excited for Jeep rides…and at just a year old…everything else too.

Check out my published blog written for a new startup called OutsideMyWay for tips on how to get your pup as ready and excited for the great outdoors as you are.

http://www.stories.outsidemyway.com/how-to-include-your-dog-on-awesome-outdoor-adventures

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn't more gentle.

At 160-ish pounds, Zeiger couldn’t more gentle.

Fall Road Trip Ideas for the Uninspired Traveler

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

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

road trip Italy

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

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

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorilla7

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

Gorilla8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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