RV-Free Road Trip to the Midwest & Back: A Nonstandard Month #25 of Camper Life

It’s been a long, weird month. Most of month #25 on the road was actually spent outside of the RV and in other people’s houses, a tent, and on long drives in the Jeep instead.

What do I have to show for it? Lots fun times with family and friends, a crazy number of photos (brace yourself, readers), way more miles on the odometer, and a whopping seven more state stickers* added onto our camper life map.* The West: conquered.

*Note: we only add a state sticker if we have camped overnight in a state (hotels and people’s houses don’t count, nor does just driving through) since full-time camper life began on 7/14/16.

To attend a friend’s wedding in Chicago, visit buddies in our old stomping grounds, and put in my annual summer family trip to Illinois, we decided to make a tent camping adventure out of this journey. On the way from Montana to Chicago, we camped for one night each in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Iowa. Then on the way back from Arthur to Montana, we pitched the tent in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Sure, checking states off a list is a bit arbitrary, but having silly little goals helped make the long driving days more bearable and it was fun to see parts of the country that we probably wouldn’t be visiting otherwise anytime soon.

Here’s a quick recap of this past month’s batch of homes on the road.

Bozeman, Montana: Home on the Road #78

Back in April 2013, we stopped by the Bozeman Hot Springs for a much-needed warm-up and shower after tenting in Yellowstone National Park with no facilities and 19-degree temperatures. With fond memories of the place, we brought our RV here for two nights to treat ourselves before heading out on the cross-country road trip.

  • Highlights: Refreshing hot spring pools with live music, lovely sunsets, the chill and semi-dog-friendly Outlaw Brewing nearby, free campground breakfasts
  • Lowlights: Insanely expensive to camp here, crowded and traffic-y in town

After ditching our RV at a storage facility just outside of Bozeman, we headed east and made overnight stops in each of these places.

Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Monkey wasn’t a fan of braving a thunderstorm in a tent, but the storms resulted in an epic double rainbow and a peaceful hike around this crazy rock formation the next morning.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

This was our second time to both Devil’s Tower and the Badlands, both areas I really get a kick out of. In between these stops, we also checked out Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore Brewing, and Mount Rushmore.

We rarely get to camp in national parks and national monuments due to the lack of RV hookups for workweek convenience and internet reception for actually getting work done. But on these road trip days, we were getting in half days at best and most of that was done in the Jeep’s passenger seat between driving shifts.

Nations Bridge Park, Stuart, Iowa

Tenting here was a bit rough due to ruthless mosquitoes and no showers yet again. Iowa: check.

Chicago, Illinois

The main reason for this whole road trip was going to my awesome friend from college’s wedding in Chicago. A couple amazing friends in town let us stay over for a couple nights and soak up the luxury of a real bed, shower, and even a couple games of shuffleboard. Monkey particularly loved this part of the trip because she got to hang out with her new best friend, Moki, and coexisted with another dog quite nicely to my surprise.

In addition to two nights of wedding stuff, we managed to squeeze in a brewery outing with a bunch of friends, brunch with gal pals, and a visit to my favorite family in the ‘burbs. It was a whirlwind of visits and conversations that reminded me that I haven’t entirely lost my social skills just yet. This was also a great opportunity to show off our four- minute and 20-second “RV Life Film Festival” trailer that my crazy-talented husband finished on the way here. If you haven’t seen this epic video and would like to, send me a quick note!

Arthur, Illinois

After the wedding bliss came to an end, it was time for a family visit a few hours further south. My parents were cool enough to celebrate my birthday a month early and planned lots of things for us to do together, including an Amish buggy ride, lunch out with Grandma, a sightseeing tour of over-sized roadside attractions in Casey, Illinois, yard games, and a backyard spa day for my Jeep.

NOT GEORGIA!

When we set out for this trip, there a reluctant side trip to Georgia hanging over our heads. Last December, we made a special trip back to Atlanta to get an emissions test so that we could renew the Jeep’s license plate sticker and continue driving legally as nomads. Long story short, some idiot typed the VIN number wrong on the report, the DMV wouldn’t accept it, and no one would help us resolve the issue. However, that silly sticker was expiring at the end of August, so we had to take care of it ASAP.

After starting the eastbound journey, I had this strange feeling that I should make one final attempt to get out of driving all the way back to Georgia for the sole purpose of doing the test all over again. I got a different person on the phone who was strangely willing to help this time. We completed some forms, provided proof of campground stays and recent auto repairs, waited a few days, and magically, we were granted an exemption literally on the day before we would have begun the Georgia journey! What a relief not to have to waste 20 more hours on the road with two more back-to-back driving days!

Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

With Georgia off of our itinerary, we spent a few more days in Arthur and then headed north to Lake Wissota State Park in Wisconsin. Spending that extra time at my parents’ house was exactly what I needed to recharge and do nothing. Wissota was a spacious and wooded park that felt nice to call home and be back on the road again.

Fergus Falls, Minnesota

I’ve been wanting to visit Minnesota really for just one reason lately: the Happy Gnome restaurant in St. Paul. This was an amazing spot all around: dog-friendly outdoor patio, 90+ beers and lots of Belgian ones, mutually agreeable food menu, and gnomes all over the freaking place. From there, we kept heading west to the tiny town of Fergus Falls to set up camp for the night at Delagoon Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Prior to this month, there were two states in the lower 48 that I had never been to: North Dakota and Idaho. After crossing into North Dakota for the first time ever, we stopped at in Jamestown to see the world’s largest buffalo and check out the roadside tourist shops.

From there, it was a Panera lunch and a brewery stop in Bismarck and then on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. By the time we rolled into the park, it was 100 degrees outside and since national parks hate dogs, so we took turns going on hot hikes and making sure Monkey didn’t melt back at the campsite.

Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana: Home on the Road #79

After another grueling day of driving, we finally got back to our RV in storage – safe and sound. To transition back to normal life, we spent the weekend at Lewis & Clark Caverns for our last Montana home. The caves were accessible by group tour only, which was a bit annoying but totally worth it. As an added bonus, the park provided free and shaded dog kennels onsite so we could do the two-hour tour together without having to worry about Monkey boiling in the heat.

  • Highlights: Felt so good to be back home and in the mountains specifically, awesome cave tour, great dog kennels, peaceful park
  • Lowlights: Super stinkin’ hot outside, still using public showers here

Arco, Idaho: Home on the Road #80

Our first-ever visit to Idaho began in the tiny town of Arco (population 995) to check out Craters of the Moon National Monument and the atomic energy historic stuff. This was a great place to fully transition back into standard camper life because there wasn’t much to do here, making it ideal for catching up with work and settling back into normal routines.

  • Highlights: Hiking at Craters of the Moon, pulling off the side of the road to take a dip in natural hot springs, learning about the disturbing world of nuclear testing and fatal meltdowns
  • Lowlights: Not being allowed to go in the caves at Craters of the Moon because of bat drama, most things are out of business and boarded up here


This Month’s Ramblings from the Road

  • Work, work, and more work – so much of it.

  • One out of three machines working isn’t too bad, right? Laundry on the road can be rough at times.

  • Monkey really gets a lot out of having a dog pal around. Having two goons in a camper sounds like a really bad idea, but she’ll get a dog sibling one day when camper life comes to a close. In the meantime, she’s literally the best road trip dog ever.


Looking Ahead to Next Month

We’re hanging out in Idaho a little while longer – Bellevue and Boise – before making our way into Eastern Oregon by Labor Day. Bellevue is a fun stop because we actually have a couple friends that live here – former full-time RVers that we met on the road last year. Then I’ll ring in the big 3-5 in the Boise area next week with apparently, some surprise shenanigans planned.

After that, we’ll try being Oregonians again in a different part of the state (the John Day and Bend areas) that promise to be much warmer and drier than our spring on the coast. Constant travel research and planning feel more tiring and burdensome to me than even before the road trip, which doesn’t bode well for keeping this lifestyle going for the long-term.

While tenting for a couple weeks was a fun adventure and reminiscent of the four- and six-week tenting trips we did back in 2013 and 2014, it feels damn good to be back in our comfy and cozy RV. The experience reminded me about all the things that make tent life harder: sharing a bathroom with strangers, walking outside to pee in the middle of the night after a few too many beers, trying to get work done, keeping devices charged, showering every three days at best, etc. It’s funny how the little creature comforts of this home on wheels make this lifestyle so pleasant and sustainable – little things like my amazing bed pillow, not having to say good morning to strangers on my way to release a morning pee, and not worrying how I’ll put in another long day of writing work. But while I’m not cut out for full-time tenting right now, I do still love it for a few days at a time so we can get off the grid in ways that RV life doesn’t allow.

On that note and before this rambling carries on any longer than it already has, I’m signing off. We have a lot more to see and do in this rugged wilderness of potatoes in month #26 and until Christmas before another RV-free road trip is in the cards.

Happy trails!


Catch up with the journey:

The Semi-Epic Life of a Rooftop Tomato Plant

It was Father’s Day 2014, and in an odd twist of fate, I found myself spending the day with my father. To keep the whole family entertained, I organized a quick trip to the Chicago Botanical Garden to look at plants and such.

But this isn’t a story about my father; it’s about a tomato plant that spent a wild and turbulent summer with me on a rooftop in the city.

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Much to my surprise, I didn’t just stare at plants from a reasonable distance at the botanical gardens. I actually got to bring one home with me! And for those of you who know me too well, NO, I did not secretly stash anything in my purse.

A couple of volunteers were handing out white cherry tomato plants in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden…FOR FREE!

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Apparently, white cherry tomatoes are native to the western coast of South America and the Galapagos Islands. Whatever the heck they’re doing in the suburbs of Chicago is a mystery to me. Too bad I couldn’t have justified a quick trip to the Galapagos to reunite this poor, lost plant with its family.

3Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - June 17, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – June 17, 2014

It sucks to acquire a free tomato plant and have nowhere to put it. I once had access to the roof adjacent to my second floor apartment. But ever since my weird landlord showed up one day to change the locks and board up a door, my personal space is entirely, and sadly, confined to the indoors.

So I meandered up to the 6th floor rooftop of my boyfriend’s condo and found a quiet little corner to transform into a makeshift tomato garden. It became an official garden when I stuck a gnome-on-a-stick and a laminated talk bubble into the pot. I figured this tomato plant would have an awfully lot to say to random passersby.

I named her Piddilywinks and she began to grow tall, strong, and beautiful. Based on the little handout sheet I received with her, she promised to produce tomatoes by my birthday. Good timing, Piddilywinks!

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - July 25, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – July 25, 2014

I tried to take good care of her, being my first real garden plant at all. I even trekked to Home Depot to invest in some stakes and twisty ties to hold up her branches. Piddilywinks began to enjoy a wonderful existence up on that rooftop…until I was reminded of one of the main reasons I don’t have a real garden.

I like to travel. And plants don’t like owners who travel.

On July 27th, I set out on a three-week adventure along the West Coast. Sadly, Piddilywinks wouldn’t exactly fit in my carry-on bag.

Related: Spelunking at California’s Lava Beds National Monument

Related: Resort Ruins and an Auto Graveyard: Rediscovering My Love for Hiking in Mt. Shasta

Related: Gnome Man’s Land: A California Fantasy Land 40 Years in the Making

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - July 27, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – July 27, 2014

When I returned from spelunking, hiking, and gnoming, I expected to find a dreadfully dead Piddilywinks waiting for me. But when I climbed the stairs to the 6th floor roof I found something entirely different…

MY PLANT WAS MISSING.

Totally gone. Without a trace. Pot, gnome, talk bubble, and all.

To me, this was worse than being dead. Where was my closure?!

Being the investigative sleuth he is, my boyfriend sent an email to his condo mailing list to get to the bottom of this. As it turns out, Piddilywinks was kidnapped.

I must admit, however, that she was kidnapped with good intentions. One dude in the building was concerned for her health and welfare and gave her to another dude in the building to take care. Why neither of these dudes bothered to respond to Piddilywinks talk bubble, I’ll never know.

After a semi-dramatic email exchange, Piddilywinks was eventually returned to her original position on the rooftop – and in great shape!

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - August 15, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – August 15, 2014

Dude #2 had clearly nursed her back to health, so I can’t really hold the kidnapping against him.

Piddilywinks had sprouted green tomatoes by mid-August. I was so anxious for them to turn white and taste like cherries. I was promised a white cherry tomato plant after all.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - August 21, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – August 21, 2014

Much to my surprise, there was nothing white or cherry about Piddilywinks at all! Her tomatoes came in yellow!

As to provide further evidence of my neglectful plant parenting, I abandoned Piddilywinks once again in mid-August to join a spontaneous concert road trip to New York City.

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

But this time, I left her in the care of my boyfriend, who snapped this photo of the first yellow tomatoes.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - September 25, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – September 25, 2014

Who needs a watering can when you have a large supply of brewery growlers on hand?

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - October 22, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – October 22, 2014

Piddilywinks continued to survive and thrive throughout September and even October. In the end, she supplied me with around 50 “white” (yellow) “cherry” tomatoes. Yes, I ate almost all of them myself. And they were delicious!

There is one crucial thing that I didn’t know until I sat down to write this blog. You’re not supposed to ‘fridge ’em! Apparently, cherry tomatoes lose their flavor and texture deteriorates under 54 degrees. So THAT’S why they always tasted better right after I plucked (i.e. harvested) and washed them!

But as some wise gardener probably said at one point, the lives of all good plants must eventually come to an end.

Piddilywinks final days were spent on the rooftop in early November, when the temperatures began dipping into the 30s. She showed strength and resilience until her final day, when I carried her down to the dumpster in semi-ceremonial fashion. Even when her leaves rotted and withered away, she still hung on to her last remaining unripe tomatoes – hoping the would feed me one day.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - November 15, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – November 15, 2014

Someday I won’t travel as much. Someday I’ll have a full-fledged garden. Someday I’ll read about the plants I intend to grow. And someday I’ll head to my backyard stead of the market for my produce.

But this year, I had a rooftop tomato plant. Her name was Piddilywinks and I miss her already.

R.I.P. Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant: June 17, 2014 – November 15, 2014.

Mastering the Art of Haikus and Haibuns in Chicago’s Lurie Garden

At the suggestion of a couple of the fine ladies in my Creative Accountability Group (CAG) I started following events and happenings at the Poetry Foundation, an independent literary organization based in Chicago. I haven’t been to the actual foundation building yet, but apparently there’s a 30,000-volume poetry library there, as well as a public garden, exhibition gallery, and event spaces.

Each week, I would casually gloss over the foundation’s weekly emails, thinking, “Well that sounds like it might be interesting” or “I should really step out of my weekday routine and check one of these speakers or workshops out.” But I never did.

That is, until last Sunday.

One particular event caught my eye because of three key words: Haiku, Outdoor Garden, and Free.

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Photo credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

The Poetry Foundation hosted a discussion on haibun, an ancient Japanese form of poetry, followed by an informal poetry workshop in Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden last Sunday morning. I’d never heard of the word “haibun” before, but apparently it’s a form of poetry that fuses prose with haiku. And traditionally, it describes travel and landscape scenes through vivid imagery. Sounded perfect for me!

A nice young library assistant, Maggie Queeney, began leading the workshop in the Millennium Park Choral Room, which by the way, is pretty hard to find if you’ve never looked for it before. A group of about 10-12 wannabe poets gathered around a conference table with their eyes glued to 4-page handouts.

A Japanese poet named Matsuo Basho originally developed the haibun form in his 1690 poem, The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling.  The prose portion is supposed to describe a landscape that the poet moves through and end with a haiku that has vivid imagery and a 5/7/5 syllable pattern.

After reading and analyzing a few sample haibuns, we all trekked to the Lurie Garden with notebooks in hand. Maggie stopped us at six different points within the garden to scribble down objective observations and free write. Then we all regrouped in the classroom to put it all together.

Here’s how mine turned out:

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METAL WILDFLOWER MAZE: A HAIBUN

One foot in the shade, one foot in the sun. I listen for the comforting sound of creaky wooden boards beneath the feet of uninspired tourists carrying cameras they don’t know how to use. A perfect amount of breeze pushes back a wisp of hair so I don’t have to.

Surrounded by walls of leaves, trapping me inside and holding me close. The tallest of plants stand taller than me, shielding my eyes from what lies on the other side. Can I venture in further and get lost from it all? An aircraft hovers above and a train whistle blows to answer my question: “No.”

Rare autumn sunlight
Creeps inside a walled fortress
Prevents progress from entering

Life is wilting in all directions, yet clinging on with an ounce of hope. Brown twigs and shriveled leaves have been living in the shadow of towering giants, but what sort of life is that? None of the residents have names because no one would speak them anyway.

Fuzzy tan curlicues make me giggle at my own senseless self-reflection and melancholy rant. Will these tendrils fall off like the thinning hairs on my own head?

Bricks have been forced into the ground, shoving grass and dirt far below. Native residents attempt to emerge and remind us of how they once ruled this man-made land. Tiny purple flowers are the only ones thriving in the foreground with mustard greens lurking behind. A salad no one dares to eat because, well salad is not from nature!

Wilting wildflowers
Gasping for sunlight – through
Towering metal beams

A round spiky ball on top of a wavering stem too tired to hold its weight. Perhaps the spikes will make you bleed. Perhaps you could blow them gently into the breeze. Hands begin to feel numb as I scribble down thoughts that everyone else has already thought of.

An incessant beeping for no reason is stuck between my ears. Construction is a euphemism for destruction and my sense of smell is evolutionarily phased out. Foreign phases uttered between the sickly wails of sirens. Always urgent, always an emergency, always in a rush.

Leaves spiral around before touching the ground and peer through metal beams towards the ominous, never-ending sky with one last blink.

A walled maze of leaves
Traps me willingly inside
Shields me from the world

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Lurie

Photo credit: Drew Saunders

If this post sparked your interest, check out the Poetry Foundation’s upcoming events and think about mustering up the courage to show up for something like I finally did. The Lurie Garden also has a few more random workshops for adults this year.

Maybe it’s no masterpiece, but I feel like I really got something out of this particular poetry workshop: a little time in nature, a little mindfulness reminder, and a little motivation to keep on writing creatively – even if it’s just for my own sanity.

Sensory Deprivation and Strange Visions in a Flotation Tank

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

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

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

What the Heck is a Flotation Tank?

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

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

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

How Did It Actually Work?

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

The flotation tank waiting room

The flotation tank waiting room

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

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

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

Waiting room fish tank, NOT a flotation tank

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

My Experience in the Flotation Tank

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

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

Hop inside! Your float is waiting!

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

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

Vision #1

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

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

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

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

Vision #2

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

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

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

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

Would I Do It Again?

In a word? Definitely.

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

Flotation journals in the waiting room

Flotation journals in the waiting room

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

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

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

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

My first flotation journal entry

My first flotation journal entry

The Night I Gnomed Myself – Chouffe Fest Chicago

Brasserie d’ Achouffe, or the Achouffe Brewery, is the only gnome-themed brewery in the world. Therefore, it also happens to be my favorite brewery in the world.

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Founded in 1982 (a year before me!), Achouffe is nestled in the green hills of the Belgian Ardennes and brews superb-quality Belgian beers. Brother-in-laws Pierre Gorbon and Christian Bauweraerts began brewing ales as a hobby in the late 70s. Their spearhead product is La Chouffe, a golden blonde ale with a pleasantly fruity taste and hints of coriander. McChouffe (which is in no way related to McDonald’s), is a dark and full-flavored Scottish ale and is one of the brewery’s best-selling products.

Although I haven’t yet found a way to teleport myself to Belgium, the Internet tells me that visitors can take a tour of the brewery while wearing gnome hats. It really doesn’t get much better than that. Tours include a professional guide, introductory film, 45-minute tour, visit to the gift shop, drink samples, and souvenir gifts.

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In recent months, Achouffe has been hosting “Chouffe Fests” in cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In honor of LaChouffe Gnome Week, which was September 18-21, the brewery organized community events, handed out red gnome hats, and encouraged fans to “gnome thyself” with a fun mobile app.

Finally, (FINALLY!) a Chouffe Fest was scheduled in my home base, Chicago. It was held at the Logan Square Auditorium on a Thursday evening in late March.

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Chouffe Fests are one-night events that transform boring old event spaces into gnome-inspired realms using larger-than-life entrance ways, eight-foot tall gnome throne photo booths, and big-scale versions of classic games like checkers, Jenga and Connect Four. Scattered stations offer live screen-printed posters, on-site letter pressed postcards to write and send, coloring book pages to scribble on, and a gnome-i-fying caricature artist.

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Tickets were just $10 each and I bought mine the day I heard about the event.

Although I found the set-up to be quite wonderful, the execution was quite excruciating. I arrived before the gnomes even opened the doors and quickly nabbed my first beer. Tickets included five drink tickets and free food, photos, games, and music.

But there was a catch.

Who knew SO many people in Chicago loved gnomes? Or maybe it was just the beer.

Hundreds of people began flooding into the close-quartered event space. Within an hour, it took more than 30 minutes to get through the beer line. Yes, there was food at the end of the tunnel, but I began gnawing at my own arm during a painful wait for my miniature slider and bag of chips.

Holding cariacture

Since I arrived so early, I was able to get my caricature drawn – which was what I was looking forward to the most. In a totally weird way, I’ve always seen myself as a gnome, and now the rest of the world could too. This was the night I gnomed myself.

I was also able to get a couple professional pics taken in the oversize chair and snag a poster and a few postcards (hey did you guys get them? I’m always worried about the reliability of postcard mail). My patience ran too thin to stand in additional lines to play the oversize games, but I’m already pretty good at using my imagination to pretend I’m gnome-sized.

A DJ spun some unremarkable tunes during the bulk of the event, but then in truly random fashion, an oompah oompah band seized the back balcony. Every gnome hat spun 180-degrees.

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It’s a crying shame, but I wasn’t even able to use up all my drink tickets because of the ridiculous lines. Despite the wonderfully gnomish quality of this event, I was reminded of a timely and important fact: I DESPISE CROWDS AND FESTIVALS REALLY AREN’T THAT FUN ANYMORE.

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Maybe that feeling comes from living in an overpopulated, stressful place for too long. Or maybe it comes from turning 30. But in the end, this was a gnome-themed event and there was beer. And if you have any inkling of how much I enjoy these two things individually – let alone together – putting on a happy face really wasn’t all that much of a challenge.

Regardless of the gnomes Brasserie d’ Achouffe makes really amazing beer, and I hope these nationwide events spark people’s interest and lead to more local bars serving their brews. I gotta cut the Chouffe-sters a little slack about the organization and crowd issues since it is their first year. Chouffe Fests are selling out all over the country (Brooklyn and D.C. just wrapped up last week) and good for them!

Oh, and on my way out, I didn’t forget to stock up on few extra gnome hats. There were plenty and don’t judge me….I know I have a problem. And I now have four gnome hats to accompany my other two. Obscure costume needs? Send ’em my way!

Why Glow in the Dark Mini Golf is Still Totally Blog-Worthy

How did you celebrate Valentine’s Day this year?

I spent my February 14th in a psychedelic black-lit room fighting sensory overload while trying to make a connection between metal and rubber.

No, my boyfriend didn’t buy me an acid trip to show his affection…he took me glow-in-the dark mini golfing!

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Located in the near North Chicago suburb of Norridge, Putting Edge is a 18 hole fantasy land of vibrant color and surreal themes. Sure, I went mini golfing for my fair share of childhood birthday parties back in the day, but decades of time have worn down any natural skill I could have once claimed.
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I know what you’re thinking. Mini golf = LAME. In many cases, I’d totally agree with you, but not this place. Putting Edge is a total departure from logic, an escape from reality, and a cure for the average date night.

Feeling mind-numb from your 9-5? Stuck in a relationship rut full of quicksand? Tired of looking at the same *#[email protected](% walls surrounding every single day?

Go glow golf and make it all better…at least for an hour or so.

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Putting Edge is an 18-hole mini golf course that’s reasonably challenging for the novice golfer, without being too predictably dull. Then again, there’s nothing really predictable at all about mummified eyes lurking in the shadows or an octopus with oozing brain matter hovering over you.

I can’t remember my putting score offhand, but it wasn’t too embarrassing. I’m sure this place gets packed with families on the weekends, but it was nice and peaceful on a “holiday” weekday evening.golf4

When I scoped out the Putting Edge website to reference on this blog post, I learned that’s actually (but not surprisingly) a chain. So if you’re sitting in Denver, Orlando, St. Louis, or Detroit right now, you could be glow-in-the-dark mini golfing right now instead of reading this! Glowing golf must be a big deal in Canada, because the chain has a whopping 10 locations up there.

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My absolute favorite part of the Norridge golf course was the glowing monkey section at the end. Not only did grinning monkeys serve as obstacles on the course, but they also formed a bonus hole after hole 18.

What I wouldn’t give to deck out a room in my apartment with a blacklight some of those neon glowing monkey cut outs. Maybe one day….when I “grow up” and have a home of my very own.

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There are a ton of glowing arcade games that stand between the front door and the golf course, which you can scope out as you walk in. They all take tokens, so you’ll have to exchange some cash for some at the front desk to play.

The good news? There’s a ton of different games here.

The bad news? Most of them are broken.

The redeeming news? Some of the machines accidentally spit out way more tickets than you deserve.

The comforting news? If a machine cheats you out of tickets, hunt down one of the kids working nearby and they’ll get you what you deserve.

Now stop mulling it over and go redeem those tickets for a few silly plastic trinkets that you’ll cherish for all of five minutes before relinquishing them to a dusty drawer you’ll never look in again.

golf7The Putting Edge in Norridge is open from 1pm to 9pm Monday through Friday, 1pm to midnight on Friday, 10am to midnight on Saturday, and 11am to 8pm on Sunday. You’ll have to fork over $10.50 to play if you’re in your teenage years or better.

After succumbing glow-in-the-dark fever, I began searching for other glow-worthy spots around the city. A few weeks later, I headed over to Space Golf in Orland Park. This place defines awesome in a whole other way. Alien planets, giant robots, flying saucers, and space creatures are the norm at this retro course that’s tiny in comparison to Putting Edge.

Some of these holes are next to impossible, while others are ridiculously simple. Pay the extra $1 for 3D glasses and try to golf with them on for a truly trippy night out. No 1980s-style golf course would be complete without an outdated arcade and some cheap eats. The guy working here will heat up a frozen pizza for you for half price Mondays through Thursdays, and there’s usually a 2-for-1 golf special that runs on Tuesdays.

After staring at a computer screen day-in and day-out, these silly little golf courses nudged my senses and woke up part of my brain that never gets used. There’s something about the cheesiness factor of these places that appeals to my inner desire to let loose, get competitive, and be a kid again. And there aren’t too many cheap thrills that I can say the same for.

Inside Chicago’s Polish (Possibly Therapeutic?) Salt Cave

They say 45 minutes in a salt cave is as good as spending three days on the beach. Chicago in February is just about as far from the beach as humanly possible. As a more feasible Tuesday evening alternative, I drove up and over to the Dunning neighborhood to scope out a little place called Galos Cave.

Entrance to Galos Cave, next to the Jolly Inn Polish buffet

Entrance to Galos Cave, next to the Jolly Inn Polish buffet

What the Heck Is a Salt Cave?

Salt caves are designed to expose people to salt therapy, sometimes referred to as halotherapy or speleotherapy. The thought is that exposure to the minerals in the salt produces natural health benefits.

The concept actually dates back to Medieval times. In 1843, a Polish physician by the name of Dr. Feliks Boczkowski wrote that the miners who worked in caves lined with salt didn’t suffer lung diseases. Crimean salt, derived from the mysterious Black Sea, got a lot of attention at the 1912 World Exhibit in Paris. Dr. Karl Hermann Spannage started using salt for therapeutic purposes after noticing improvements in the health of his patients who hid in the Kluterthöhle cave during heavy World War II bombings.

Although salt caves are largely an Eastern European thing, we have one right here in the Chicago city limits. The Everet Company has been building other Galos caves in Poland since 2000, and the Chicago one’s been around since 2005. For you suburbanites, you can also check out Timeless Spa and Salt Cave in Naperville.

Unleash your healing powers upon me, salt cave!

Unleash your healing powers upon me, salt cave!

What Magical Things Are In That Salt?

There are natural deposits of the mineral, halite, in salt caves, which is allegedly derived from ancient seas and lakes. Specific minerals are unique to individual salt caves, however, all salt caves are supposed to have a stable air temperature, humidity, and a lack of airborne pollutants. Here’s what Galos Cave has:

  • Calcium to stabilize the nervous and skeletal systems
  • Sodium to balance bodily energies and pressures
  • Potassium to improve neuromuscular functioning and motor skills
  • Magnesium to calm muscle groups
  • Copper to improve blood flow and prevent inflammation
  • Bromide iodine to control fat transformation and protect against radiation
  • Fluorine to strengthen bones and stimulate immunity

According to the website, the temperature of Galos cave is 70-75 F, and the air humidity is 35-45%.

Does It Actually Work?

Salt cave believers say that just ten 45-minute sessions will treat your respiratory tracts, thyroid condition, heart condition, skin problems, anxiety, exhaustion, and obesity. Not surprisingly, these health claims are met with a fair bit of skepticism.

One cave believer, Merle Golden, told ABC News, “My breathing, my lungs, my sinuses, and energy and just aches and pains…it just seems to help with everything.”

However, most doctors agree that there is little hard science to back up claims like Ms. Golden’s. “From my perspective, there really is no risk to being in a room full of salt as long as you are not eating it,” said Dr. D. Kyle Hogarth, a pulmonologist at University of Chicago Medical Center. “If it helps you breathe better, you know in addition to the medications you are on , I got no problem with it. It’s your money and if you want to spend it to go sit in a cave, go ahead.”

Kids salt boLounging around in the salt cavex

Lounging around in the salt cave

So Honestly, What’s It Really Like In There?

Personally, I was a little nervous about my first salt cave experience. So naturally, I asked the woman at the front desk a few questions while surrendering my credit card. “It will all be explained to you inside,” she replied.

So with no comforting words of advice, I entered the strangely lit room with my wonderfully open-minded boyfriend at my side. I’ll admit, the aesthetics of the room are pretty amazing. Walk in and you’ll see colorful lights, salt sculpture formations, a salt-crusted floor, a ring of lounge chairs, and a stack of towels.

I must admit that I didn’t fully pay attention to the recorded voice talking about the benefits of the salt cave once the door closed behind us. Although the salt cave could have easily accommodated 10-12 guests, we were the only ones there. Like true kids at heart, we excitedly busied ourselves by touching the walls, snapping pictures, tossing salt around the room, and exclaiming what a totally trippy place this really was.

After the initial excitement wore off and the lights dimmed, we settled into lounge chairs and got comfortable. New age-ish music played to the sound of crashing waves and chirping birds. I guess you’re supposed to silently sit still and relax. However, my self-diagnosed ADD got the better of me, and I found myself reading my Kindle and browsing Groupon deals after about ten minutes. After 45 minutes, the colorful floor lights pop back on: the universal cue to get out.

Kids and Salt Caves

One of the things that I found most surprising about Galos Cave was that children are invited to come in. There is a sand (er, salt) box in the corner of the room with tiny shovels, buckets, and beach toys. Although there were no children present during my time in the salt cave, I would imagine the sound of squealing kids throwing salt at each other would cancel out any relaxation benefits that the cave may offer.

Kids' corner salt box with toys

Kids’ corner salt box with toys

The Logistics

  • Located at 6501 W. Irving Park Road in Chicago
  • Open 7 days a week from 10 am to 8 pm
  • Call 773-283-7701 to make an appointment before showing up
  • A 45 minute session costs $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, and $8 for children ages 4-12, and free for kids under 3.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and socks

So is going to a salt cave worth it? For a one-time experience, definitely! Galos Cave is truly unique to the Chicagoland area, and I learned a lot about a therapy that I never knew existed. For a pretty reasonable price, this was an awesome excuse to get out of the house on a snowy Tuesday evening. Clearly, some other Chicagoans agree with me, because Galos Cave just made Chicagoist‘s “9 Best Spas in Chicago” list.

The Jolly Inn next door also serves up some mean buffet-style Polish cuisine. I can rarely turn down a good potato and cheese pierogi.

However, I don’t see myself going back to another salt cave anytime soon. Granted, I only went to one session and not the recommended ten, but I sure didn’t notice any sort physical, mental, or spiritual health benefits. I’m not sure how much I believe in the hype, but I do believe in seeking out and taking a chance on random experiences. Places like Galos Cave spice up the routines of daily life and remind us how much there is to learn about in the world.

Have you ever been to a salt cave. If so, what did you think? And if not, would you consider going to one now?

Sipping Spirits at the Chicago Distilling Company

Visiting and reviewing breweries is one of my favorite pastimes while traveling. And although I’ve begun to throw winery tours into that mix, I feel that I’ve neglected our fine friends who produce spirits.

So as I found myself between trips and struggling to stay warm in my home base of Chicago, I came across mention of a new distillery opening up in a local blog for my neighborhood, Logan Square. The Chicago Distilling Company opened up on January 10th and started giving tours of facility on the 11th. I booked my tour online that weekend to scope it out for myself.

Distillery outside

This distillery was founded in 2010 by the DiPrizio family, and creates handmade organic spirits from Illinois grains. After several months of government bureaucracy and approval setbacks, brothers and co-owners Jay and Vic DiPrizio, were finally able to open their doors.

Distillery bar

When I toured the new distillery, they had just two spirits ready: Ceres Vodka (80 proof) and Shorty’s White Whiskey (90 proof made from 100% Illinois corn). The $10 tour fee includes a small tasting of both spirits, which tasted much smoother than I expected or than either of them smelled. I’ve never been a big fan of sipping spirits straight, but even I must admit that the after-bite was impressively minimal for both.

Explaining distillery machines

“What we like about it is the smoothness of the finish, so you don’t get the burn at the end that you sometimes get with vodka,” Jay commented, adding that he likes his spirits neat or with a single ice cube.

Pouring tour samples

Tips for Tours

  • Make reservations on a Thursday – Saturdays and Sundays book up quickly
  • Arrive a few minutes early so you can purchase a drink at the bar and carry it with you during the tour
  • Learn a little about the distilling process before you go so you can ask questions that don’t make you sound silly
  • Take the Blue Line to California or the Milwaukee bus – parking can suck and you probably shouldn’t be driving anyway
  • Eat something before you come since there’s no food served here

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The space is impeccably clean, shiny and uncluttered – as it should be since it just opened. With those telltale ceilings and garage doors, it looks as though the space was an auto shop or car wash in a former life. The bar area is spacious, with long community tables up front and red cushy bar stools in back. The drink menu is limited and every cocktail is $8. They sell merchandise too, including hats, t-shirts, patches, and dog collars.

Merchandise

What stood out to me during my visit to The Chicago Distillery is how honest, genuine, and passionate the owners are. My tour guide, Jay, had no problem telling the group how he had put his life’s savings into this business, how it all started by experimenting in the garage, how challenging it was to get around the state’s red tape, and how he was pulling it all off with a new baby at home. The environment is professional, casual, friendly, and non-pretentious.

It’s also refreshing to be among bartenders who actually know something about mixing drinks. I recently visited a bar in the South Loop, for example, where the bartender couldn’t even recommend what went well with bourbon. The distillery seems to specialize in the bloody Mary, mimosa, old fashioned, and Moscow mule.

Vodka bloody mary

They’re still working on a distribution scheme, but in the meantime, you can only buy their spirits at the distillery. Vodka goes for $28 and white whiskey for $22 a bottle. A sign on the wall promises that gin, bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, cordials & liqueurs, and specialty spirits are coming soon.

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It seems that this place is trying to be a “jack of all trades” – bar, distillery, tour operator, distributor, local hangout, and tourist attraction. Whatever it evolves into, I think it’s a great addition to the neighborhood and I wish Jay and Vic the best of luck.

The Chicago Distillery is open Thursdays 4-10, Fridays 4-11, Saturdays 3-11, and Sundays 11-5.

Working on a Farm, in the Middle of the City

CityFarm 1For the past few months, I’ve been writing for an organic farming company that produces all-natural nutritional supplements based in San Diego. Basically, this means that my days are spent sitting on a couch in front of a computer reading about productive things going on outside. I recently wrote an article about urban farming, and how cities are turning vacant lots into miniature farms to provide locally and sustainably-grown produce for city dwellers.

Although I grew up in Southern/Central Illinois with farmers in my family, I never had an interest in the business when I lived there. But my new line of work has piqued my interest in seeing what this urban farming business is all about on the other side of my laptop.

CityFarm 3I decided to volunteer at Chicago’s City Farm to see for myself. The organization turned a vacant lot at the corner of Clybourn and Division into a green space to provide organically-grown produce to local markets and restaurants. Lots of the city’s top restaurants attract environmentally-conscious diners because of labels like “locally grown” and “farm fresh.” If you see those labels at a restaurant in Chicago, there’s a good chance your produce was grown here.

CityFarm 2The group, One Brick, had actually organized a volunteer event on the day I decided to check out the farm, so there were about fifteen volunteers there to help out. The day began with a tour of the farm, to get everyone acquainted with the growing phases of the in-season vegetables and how the urban farmers maintained each crop.

The volunteer work mostly consisted of picking the flowers off of basil plants and pulling weeds from the fences. Basil plants are harvested for their leaves, not their flowers, and the flowers steal the nutrients away from the parts people want to pay for and eat. The work was easy and mindless, allowing volunteers to strike up small talk with each other as they picked. My hands smelled like delicious basil even after several washes and a shower!

CityFarm 4The outer fence bearing the City Farm sign had become tangled in weeds that blocked sunlight from the crop and created a less-than-attractive appearance. The coordinator gave us each a pair of gloves and a couple wheelbarrows to pull and discard the weeks. The work wasn’t glamorous, but it needed to be done, and that’s farming for you.

The folks at One Brick were really welcoming and I’ve since signed up on their mailing list to see what other similar events I could learn about through them. It seems to be a really casual, non-committal way to volunteer, usually ending in a restaurant or bar stop. But you can stop by City Farm on your own to volunteer as well: Wednesday and Saturdays at the Clybourn Farm and Saturdays and Sundays at the Perry Street Location.

CityFarm 5I suppose since I showed up in the middle of August, the crops needed more maintenance than anything else. It felt therapeutic to get up early on a Saturday morning, bike to a farm, get my hands dirty, and feel a little sore biking home at the end of the day. It also felt right to split my work time between the computer and the field.

My research has led me to several other urban farms throughout the city including Urban Habitat Chicago, Chicago Lights, and Growing Power. If any of you have an experience working on an urban farm (positive or negative, Chicago or elsewhere) I’d love to hear from you and get more involved.