Discovering the World’s Largest Ball of Paint in Alexandria, IN


Every so often, Terri and I head different directions and wander off on our own. When I got invited to Madison County, IN, I think she was in Sweden or France or somewhere like that, but why she wouldn’t drop everything to rush back to see the world’s largest ball of paint, I don’t know. Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with that girl.

And yes, you read that right. The WORLD’S LARGEST BALL OF PAINT. Right here in the good old US of A. I was beside myself with excitement when I heard that it was only five and a half hours from Pittsburgh. Top that off with the fact that the county also has a Tenderloin Trail, and I couldn’t get in my Jeep, Lucille, fast enough.

My hostess for the trip, Maureen Lambert, didn’t seem to realize what a treasure they had in their midst; while she appreciated the artifact, she seemed a little surprised by my enthusiasm. Perhaps those Hoosiers get a bit jaded when they can see the hulking manmade attraction anytime.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Mike Carmichael shows off the world’s largest ball of paint–coat #25884

Have Roller, Will Travel

We drove to a white house along a rural road and pulled into the driveway in front of a large shed. Of course, I’m expecting lines of admirers—I mean, even Jay Leno and the Oak Ridge Boys have made the pilgrimage to see it. But it was just us for some crazy reason. We were greeted by Mike Carmichael and his wife, Glenda, who are the keepers of this canon of kitsch.

Mike:  So you ready to see the world’s largest ball of paint?

Me:  I am seriously so excited I can’t stand it.

After glancing at me a little uncertainly (I might have been drooling a bit), Mike unlocks the door, and there it is in all of its massive, electric yellow glory. A 5,000 pound, 14-foot wide ball of paint, hanging from a large hook in the ceiling. And It. Is. Beautiful.  Americana at its absolute best.

According to Carmichael, the ball of paint started as a little project that got out of hand. In 1977, he and his son painted a baseball with a coat of paint…and they just kept on doing it. Soon the ball took on a life of its own and became a roadside attraction. The ball has now made the Guinness Book of World Records twice!

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Let’s paint a baseball…and then some.

Curious about what it’s like to live with the world’s biggest ball of paint, I asked Glenda what she thought about the project.

Glenda:  It was fun for a while, until it got too big for the house. We kept it in a closet. When it got too big, we moved it to the porch. Then it wouldn’t fit, so we built it a shed.

Me:  To be honest, I might have thrown it away in those early stages, not knowing what a treasure it would become.

Glenda:  Believe me, I tried.

The Largest Grape Ever

One of the coolest parts of a visit to the World’s Largest Ball of Paint is that you get to add to its history. Mike had gallon cans of paint on the floor and you get to choose your own color and roller and repaint the ball—which is no small feat in itself. There’s even a mirror on the floor underneath to make sure that you don’t miss a spot.

While the most popular color is blue, I chose to go with purple, which was my grandmother’s favorite color. She lived just down the road a ways in Beech Grove, IN, so it seemed a fitting tribute. When my work was done, I had created a massive, lavender-hued hanging grape—perhaps not my most attractive art piece, but definitely one of the most fun to create. I then signed the wall, which all Ball-of-Paint artists do for posterity, and received a certificate (now framed and hanging in a place of honor in my house) commemorating my role in adding the 25,886th layer to the ball.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Maybe not my best work, but definitely my largest.

If You Go…

The World’s Largest Ball of Paint: You need to call for an appointment first, so reach out to Mike and Glenda at 765-724-4088. They’ll give you directions, and the signs in the yard also serve as a great tip-off to the giant gem hidden inside the storage shed.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Hmm. I wonder where the world’s largest ball of paint could be? Hint, hint.

Painting such a huge object can wear a person out, so it’s a good idea to get a bite to eat after this workout! Check out the culinary trails put together by the Indiana Foodways Alliance to find the best places for tenderloin (another reason to visit Indiana!) pies, burgers, fish, ice cream, and well, pretty much everything you can think of to eat.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
What a way to build up an appetite! Perfect when you’re also traveling The Tenderloin Trail!

There are a number of other cool stops in the area, so make sure to check out the listings on www.visitmadisonandersoncounty.com to see more. And tell Mo that I sent you!

No Mardi Gras This Year, but Treasured Memories from Lake Charles


Why write a travel story about an event no one can go to this year? It seems strange and somewhat bittersweet to talk about the joy of standing on a float throwing armfuls of beads to cheering crowds of children, or chasing ridiculously fast chickens through Louisiana farm country, or making purple, green and gold King Cakes when there are no Mardi Gras crowds to share them with.

A truck with a balloon dinosaur on top of it.
Everyone loves Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, LA

But that’s the beauty of travel: just because you may not be able to surround yourself with hundreds of your closest friends until a pandemic is over, you can still celebrate special places through the memories you’ve made. And you can look forward to the fact that while this year has put a damper on celebrations throughout the world, when it’s safe to travel again, places like Lake Charles, LA, will be ready to welcome you back.

A group of people dressed up in costumes.
Want to find a fun crowd? Just look for the nearest krewe.

Battling Back

Resiliency is actually the key word here, because not only has this small town in southwest Louisiana had to deal with the cancellation of events because of COVID, but they were hit with not one, but two massive hurricanes, six weeks apart, in August and October of 2020. And while they’re still removing debris and rebuilding what was broken, the one thing that stands strong is their can-do spirit.

A man sitting on top of a horse.
Hurricanes are nothing. You want a real challenge? Try to catch a fleeing chicken during the Iowa Chicken Run.

I was reminded of this strength when I got an email this week about how, despite the fact that there is no Royal Gala, or Krewe of Krewes parade or Iowa chicken run this year, the area’s bakeries still geared up to create King Cakes that they’re shipping all over the world. The city is still holding virtual celebrations, and everyone is making the best of a bad situation, letting the good times roll, even if doing so while social distancing.

A piece of cake with colorful icing on top.
Eating King Cake is a Mardi Gras tradition, even for those outside Louisiana. And you can have it delivered…

Though Mardi Gras may not be happening this year, I still want to send some big love to this fun, vibrant town, and all the people there who treat every stranger as a friend they haven’t yet met. I hope that the future brings many more opportunities to gather among friends, throw tons of beads, eat boudin, crawfish and a mess of gumbo, and celebrate everything that makes Lake Charles such a remarkable, memorable place.

A pile of crawfish with corn on the cob.
No need to wait until Mardi Gras to get some crawfish (or boudin…or gumbo….)

Laissez le bons temps roulet!

 

Only the Shadow Knows: Waiting on a Groundhog in Punxsutawney, PA


A mural of a dog with a hat on it's head.
You’ve got to love a town that celebrates its rodents.

So it’s 4 a.m., and I’m waking up to see a rodent. A famous one, but still, I have to ask myself if it’s worth getting bundled up in massive layers of clothing and hiking up a hill to Gobbler’s Knob to see if a groundhog will see its shadow.

Of course, that groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, and he’s not just any marmot wandering about outside his burrow. He is THE groundhog—you know, the one that gives Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel a run for his money when it comes to predicting when winter will end.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, for the past 134 years, a Punxsutawney groundhog has prognosticated whether there will be six more weeks of cold and snow, or whether an early spring will give us all a reason for hope at the end of a long winter–based on seeing his shadow. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Worshiping the Whistle-pig

Surprisingly, when I went on the sojourn to see this wondrous whistle-pig, Terri was not with me. She probably had to be in Paris or Trondheim or something, not realizing that she was missing THE event of the season. She was also missing the chance to imbibe wines from the Groundhog Wine Trail, which is quite out of character for someone who not only appreciates quirky celebrations, but the chance to stay warm by imbibing in the early morning hours.

So, there I was, the night before the marmot moment of truth, sitting in a hotel bar. Beside a semi-drunk groundhog, or at least, someone in a groundhog costume.

Me: Wow, you really get into this!

Personified Groundhog: What do you mean?

Me: Wearing the costume even before the big event.

PG: What do you mean?

Me: Do you always dress like this?

PG:  What, you don’t like it?

At this point, I gave up, which is just as well because more groundhog-clad celebrators showed up. I was pretty sure that the conversation was going to be just as frustrating as Phil seeing his shadow, extending a PA winter far past its sell-by date. The good news is that this group, along with 32,000 other people, were up and ready to go before the 5 a.m. fireworks the next morning, providing the perfect atmosphere for what is truly one of the most bizarre yet strangely apropos events ever to grace the Pennsylvania woods.

Two people in bear costumes posing for a picture.
Why not wear your furry finery on Groundhog Day? At least you’ll stay warm!

The Benefits of Body Heat

There’s a reason that so many people dress up for the morning revelry. When I was there six years ago, it was 17 degrees, and you had to find your place in the crowd before the sun even came up. Suddenly all of those massive fur costumes and groundhog heads made sense. I might scoff at their fashion sense, but I did it while shivering uncontrollably. Of course, the celebratory flasks hidden under masses of faux animal fur might also have had something to do with their cheeriness.

(Just a note: Alcohol is not allowed at the event, though I expect it’s difficult to thoroughly search thousands of people in dozens of layers. Be respectful and leave your booze back in the burrow.)

A man in top hat and coat holding a stuffed animal.
Phil has his own entourage, who carry him through the cheering crowd. I need this groundhog’s life.

Welcoming the Seer of Seers

Phil’s arrival onstage was heralded with as much pageantry as you’d expect for a foreign dignitary or a duck-lipped Kardashian. He was ceremoniously carried through the crowd by a fleet of men in top hats and tails, with the crowd parting as if Moses himself were clearing the way. He was held up in front of the roaring crowd, and he surveyed his minions, knowing how easy it would be to dash their hopes by seeing his shadow, resulting in another month of exorbitant heating bills and bad backs made worse by shoveling.

I was lucky that during my visit, Phil did not see his shadow, causing the crowd to reach such a frenzy that people were calling in sick to work even before the announcement made it to the back row. After much celebration, everyone headed back down the hill into town. The crowd included a herd of deer running down the center of the street that were probably totally put out by that many crazy strangers coming to visit at such an inconsiderate hour.

A bunch of wooden bears are sitting on the ground
Everywhere you look, there are groundhogs. And you can even take one (or a bunch) home with you.

A Community-wide Celebration

Whether or not you believe that a groundhog can predict the end of winter, it’s well worth it to attend this eclectic event just for the experience. The whole town—which numbers about 6,000 people—goes all out to welcome visitors, hosting pancake and sausage breakfasts, holding souvenir sales in the historic Pantell Hotel, taking part in an outdoor festival in Barclay Square and an evening banquet in the Punxsutawney Area High School, and in general, just having a huge amount of fun in honor of a world-famous woodchuck.

For those truly committed to the cause, there’s also the opportunity to get married on Groundhog Day in the Civic Center by the mayor of Punxsutawney. While I was there, I watched five couples tie the knot. No word on whether they came back to the same place every year and did it again (ala Bill Murray’s famous movie.)

A statue of a bear wearing a top hat.
There are 32 Phantastic Phils all over town. It’s selfie heaven!

Of course, you can’t be in Punxsutawney without posing with one or more of the 32 six-foot-tall artistically painted groundhogs (known as Phantastic Phils) that can be found around town. You might even make it on TV if you stop in the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. There you can pose in front of an AccuWeather green screen and make up your own forecast to compete with the furred weather watcher.

While I missed Terri on this trip, I have to say that surrounding myself with thousands of whistle-pig worshippers made it a pretty fantastic experience on my own. So what does the future hold for this Feb. 2? Only the groundhog knows.

A crowd of people gathered in the snow.
Even if you don’t like crowds, you’re going to appreciate all of that body heat in one place.

If You Go:

Dress warmly…I mean really, really warmly. Typically, temperatures range from -5 to 32 degrees. And wear good shoes! You should plan on hiking all over the place because the easiest way to get anywhere is by walking.

Most of the nearest hotels sell out way in advance (especially when Feb. 2 falls on a weekend), but there are a number of close-by towns, including DuBois (check out Doolittle Station—another of our favorites!) and other locations in Clearfield and Indiana counties where you can still find reasonable rooms just a short drive away. Plan ahead on where to park (a lot of the streets are closed off), and purchase a ticket in advance for the shuttles ($5) that will take you up to Gobbler’s Knob from numerous sites around town. Note that the shuttles stop running at 6:30 a.m., so you’re hoofing it after that, and Gobbler’s Knob is a 1.5-mile uphill hike.

And if you want to dress like a groundhog, go ahead! You’ll be the warmest people standing on that windswept hill.

For more info:  www.groundhog.org and www.pawilds.org.

A painting of two men and a bear
See you next year!

 

Celebrating with Spirits (not the drinking kind) at Ireland’s Largest Halloween Carnival


A woman dressed as a nun holding a cross.

A nun.

They made me a nun.

And not just any nun, but one wearing the full-length habit, with headpiece, including wimple and veil, and a big gold cross hanging around my neck.

And did I mention that my outfit was covered in blood?

As you might have guessed by now, this was my costume for Halloween, which Terri and I celebrated last year in Derry, Ireland—the city where the holiday originally got its start. And while I hated to question the decision-making of our hosts, who put us in “fancy dress†as it is called overseas, I had to wonder what they were thinking when they handed a card-carrying atheist this costume in a country that has already had some issues with religion.

A woman in witch costume sitting on chair.
If there’s one thing that Terri likes, it’s a good hat.

Is she a good witch…or a bad witch?

Terri, however, had her own set of problems.

Terri:  I can’t wear this costume out.

Vanessa:  Why? You’re not going to get stoned by the masses for blasphemy like I am. You’re a witch. Which is certainly closer to true life than me being a nun.

Terri:  Ha Ha. I can’t wear this out because it’s too tight. I’m like a sausage in this dress.

Vanessa (snorting a laugh when she sees the full effect):  It is a little snug. Just don’t sit down. Or breathe. And for goodness’ sakes, don’t eat any candy.

Terri:  You’re not taking me seriously! I’m in pain!

Vanessa:  Wait until I slap your knuckles with a ruler.

Terri: ‘Nuf said.

A group of people standing under an arch.
Dancing and drumming skeletons? That’s not something you see every day.            Photo credit: Tom Heaney/Courtesy Derry Halloween

Celebrating with a different kind of spirit

Now the good news, other than the fact that Terri did not die of suffocation that night, is that there is so much going on in Derry during this festival that no one notices what you’re wearing. As Ireland’s largest Halloween carnival, Awakening the Walls attracts thousands of people from across the globe to take part in the three-day celebration that traces its roots back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain.

A crowd of people standing around a statue.
When the spirits cross the veil, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

No matter where you look, there is something magical to see. From fairies to fire spinners, to giants and flying, glowing birds that dipped and swirled above the crowd, the festival truly lived up to the ancient traditions of Samhain, which is considered the time of the year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Walking among the fairytale birds and beasts, and characters that almost defied the imagination, it wasn’t a big leap to feel that some of those walking among us weren’t wearing costumes at all.

A person in costume with a beard and green outfit.
You’ve got to be careful to stay out of the way of the giants.

Awakening the Walls

One of the most unique aspects of the festival is that it’s held within the walled city of Derry, which is in itself an almost mythical destination. Wandering along the 1.5-kilometer stone walkways above the city, which were first built in the 17th century as a way to protect English and Scottish Protestant settlers from Irish rebels, it was as easy to step back in time as it was to step into the spirit realm. As the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland, Derry has an enchanting charm of its own, no matter what time of year.

A crowd of people standing around trees at night.
There’s something truly magical about the Walled City, especially when celebrating Samhain.

Luckily for us, we blended right in with the crowd, which I realized while being served a cocktail by a waiter with an ax hanging out of his head. While I did have a few tense moments—I wasn’t sure if the explosions I saw were the fireworks over the River Foyle or a few lightning bolts being hurled my sacrilegious way—it’s impossible to not get swept up into the spectacle that is a Derry Halloween.

A man in glasses and a pink shirt is smiling.
Does this picture whet your appetite? See what I did there?

If You Go:

The festival is held every year, though there are different themes, so visit www.DerryHalloween.com to stay up on the latest news.

To learn more about year-round reasons to visit the Walled City, visit www.DiscoverNorthernIreland.com or www.VisitDerry.com. Despite my recent desecration, the walls are still standing.

On a Quest for Carbs: The Butler County Donut Trail Delivers


I’m not normally a person who would suggest setting an alarm on vacation. After all, isn’t the whole point of having down time to relax? So why would anyone in their right mind get up early?

One word:  Donuts.

A variety of pastries are displayed in trays.
You’re salivating right now, aren’t you?

As soon as I said it, you could smell them, couldn’t you? Right out of the fryer—sugary, creamy, heavenly scented, icing-decorated orbs of awesomeness that are packaged by the dozen because no one should have just one.

But you know what’s better than starting your day with a donut? Following a WHOLE TRAIL dedicated to this breakfast delight. In fact, in Butler County, OH, you can even earn a t-shirt for filling out a donut passport that features 11 savory donut stops throughout southwestern Ohio.

A coffee shop with many different types of coffee.
At Jupiter Coffee & Donuts, you can get both–as well as fun conversation.

The Early Bird Gets the…Donuts

I started out at 8 a.m., having been warned by those in the know that you have to get your donuts early because once they’re gone, they’re gone. And it would have been a horrible shame to miss the delicacies that I got at Kelly’s Bakery, The Donut Spot, and Jupiter Coffee & Donuts, as well as to forego the morning conversation with others on this jelly-filled journey.

A close up of several different types of donuts
There weren’t a dozen in this box when I started. But there were none when I was done.

People come from all over to enjoy strawberry yeast sprinkles, buckeyes, old-fashioneds, fried croissants, and the stunning Red Storm Roll—a masterpiece of cream cheese and raspberry filling—and they bring their friends with them. One couple I spoke to were with a motorcycle group who decided to turn the trail into a poker-run type event, hitting every spot on the same day. An older man probably summed it up best when I asked him if he thought the Donut Trail was a good idea.

“How could it not be?†he answered, looking at me as if I’d gone mental.

A green sign with two people walking on it.
There’s a reason you might need to go hiking after a morning on the trail…

The stops are marked with fun signs telling you that you’re on the trail and the addresses are on your passport, so places are easy to find even in a sugar coma. And while you can do it in a day, you aren’t required to do so, which is good if you’re planning to fit in the same pair of pants while driving between stops.

A statue of an elephant in front of a building.
Alexander Hamilton stopping traffic. And he wasn’t even singing.

Yes, I’m Fit. Fittin’ this Whole Donut in My Mouth

Speaking of, if you feel the need to walk around town to work off some of these hard-earned calories, the county seat of Hamilton, OH, is a fine place to do it. The city is filled with murals and street sculptures—earning it the title The City of Sculpture—not to mention tributes to namesake Alexander Hamilton (the man, not the musical). The Street Spark program, founded through a partnership between the city and the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, has so far funded the creation of eight large murals, including my favorite, Taking Flight, a design symbolizing a city reaching new heights.

A mural of an eagle flying in the sky.
Taking Flight. Mural designer Taylor Welch. Lead artist Nicole Trimble. Second and High St. at Rotary Park

Located on 300 acres, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, just a short drive from downtown, features a stunning array of work surrounded by nature’s beauty. And while you can wander along its well-kept trails, if you’re simply too stuffed you can rent a golf cart—cleverly known as Art Carts—and tool around while listening to an app that tells you all about the artists and their work. Make sure to stop in at the 10,000 sq. ft. Ancient Sculpture Museum in the park as well; located in a model of an ancient Roman home, the collection, with sculptures dating to 1550 B.C., is absolutely fascinating.

A sculpture of a dragon with trees in the background.
There are so many impressive sculptures to see at Pyramid Park that you may need a golf cart just to get back to your car.

A Bagel for the Road?

Before you leave the area, I’d suggest hitting up Bagel & Deli in Oxford, OH, which is also home to the University of Miami (named by Forbes as one of the Top College Towns) for a little food for the road. It’s one of the city’s favorite attractions, with more than 90 different cleverly named delicacies on the menu that covers every inch of the walls within the funky space. It’s hard to choose between the All-American, Earth Day, MILF, Big Gay Bagel and even a sandwich named for Burt Reynolds, and some people don’t. A photo wall immortalizes those who have eaten all of the bagels on the menu, earning them the coveted I Ate Them All t-shirt.

A wall of posters with different types of words.
Donuts or bagels? The choice is yours. I chose both.

For those of you looking for a different type of food trail, Butler County, OH does not disappoint. For a brief, shining moment of sugar-laden bliss, I actually considered becoming a morning person.

But then I met their breweries.

Two glasses of beer sitting on a table.
Did I mention that they’ve got really good beer in Butler County? But that’s a whole other story…

If You Go:

There is a lot to do (and eat!) in Butler County, so the best place to help you make your plans is the Butler County Visitors Bureau. www.GetToTheBc.com.

If you’re in the mood for a nosh:

Bagel & Deli: 119 E. High Street, Oxford, OH 45056, www.bagelanddeli.com

Kelly’s Bakery:  1335 Main St., Hamilton, OH 45013

The Donut Spot:  5148 Pleasant Ave., Fairfield, OH 45014

Jupiter Coffee & Donuts, 5353 Dixie Hwy., Fairfield, OH 45014

Feeling Artsy?

The Fitton Center for Creative Arts:  101 S. Monument Ave., Hamilton, OH 45011, www.fittoncenter.org

Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum: 1763 Hamilton Cleves Rd., Hamilton, OH 45013, www.pyramidhill.org

 

 

 

RV Camping Redefines Roughing It


When Terri called me and asked if I’d like to go RV camping, of course I didn’t hesitate. Who wouldn’t want the chance to spend time outdoors without setting up tents, lying on the ground, eating out of a rank cooler, and searching for, um, facilities? Not to mention the opportunity to drive a big, honking motorhome like the trucker I always wanted to be. The added bonus of staying in not one, but two campgrounds in Virginia and Maryland had me headed out the door before I was even packed.

A white rv parked in the parking lot.
Not sure what to pack for camping? Just take the whole house with you!

I met Terri and another friend, Michele, in Weston, VA, at the headquarters of Go RVing, where our glorious ride—the Minnie Winnie—was waiting.

Terri: Wow. That’s really big. Like there’s nothing “mini†about it.

Vanessa: It is kind of intimidating.

Michele:  Thank god I’m not driving.

Vanessa:  Hold on to those prayers. You might need them.

A kitchen with a table and chairs in it
This whole area expands to make even more room. Wish my own house did that!

We were greeted by Kevin, who took us on a walk-through of the 33-foot-long RV, showing us how things worked. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that there were four beds—two of which converted from the seating areas in the living room—and that we had a shower and flushable toilet; items that I crave every time I go camping. Then he pressed a button, and the room started to expand—literally. Turns out that once you’re parked, you can make the RV even wider, providing even more room for those inside. Another button unfurls an outdoor awning, adding even more living space.

Terri: I think there’s more room in this RV than in my New York apartment.

Vanessa:  And you can’t expand the walls there.

Terri:  Not without a sledgehammer.

Michele:  Don’t ask how she knows.

Kevin then took us outside to explain how to hook up the electricity and the hoses at the dump station, where we adulted and refrained from making any references to Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And then we were on our own.

A woman standing in the doorway of an rv.
Michele was a natural at RVing. Doesn’t she look right at home?

Terri: Who wants to drive first?

Vanessa and Michele:  (dead silence)

Terri:  Seriously? Vanessa, you never let me drive. You’re never that nice.

Vanessa:  I’ve decided to become a kinder and gentler person. Starting now.

Terri:  So that I can wreck first.

Vanessa:  Don’t be silly. I have total faith! I’ll just follow along in the car, so I can watch how great you’re doing.

A woman sitting in the drivers seat of her car.
Who knew that Terri would become the world’s best RV driver? I’m still in shock.

Turns out, Terri was pretty darn good in the Minnie Winnie, and quickly got the hang of it. We practiced for awhile in the office park before deciding to hit the road, where we immediately made the wrong turn. And just as quickly learned how to back up our moving house, which requires about the same skills as landing a fighter jet on a aircraft carrier docked out at sea. No problem.

Having mastered that task, Terri then hit a traffic circle, which only resulted in a little bit of hyperventilation. It seems EVERYTHING is magnified when you’re driving a massive vehicle.

Endless Caverns, Here We Come!

Our first RV camping destination was Endless Caverns in New Market, Virginia, where we planned to stay three nights. We first stopped at Cracker Barrel, which has a huge parking lot for huge vehicles—you quickly learn to look for these things.  We enjoyed lunch and the Cracker Barrel store, where we took lots of camping-themed photos to set the mood. We reached the campground later that afternoon, with no mishaps and only a little sticker shock at what it takes to fill up a vehicle that big.

After checking in, we were guided to our lovely, shaded spot, where Terri had to back the RV in without hitting anything. I assure you that it sounds easier than it looks. Then we had to hook up the electricity and the hoses.

A woman holding an enormous snake in her hands.
It’s just as glamorous as it looks.

Terri: Time to hook up the shitter!

Vanessa: You’ve been waiting all day to say that, haven’t you?

Terri: It’s strange the things I look forward to.

Unfortunately, the hose didn’t fit. It wasn’t until about a half-hour later that we figured out that we were using the extension hose, and not the regular hose, which has different turny parts. In our defense, they both looked pretty much the same. And honestly, you really don’t want to spend a lot of quality time examining hoses that are used for things that you’d rather not examine.

Our night was spent catching up with each other and visiting with Terri’s parents, who stopped by while on their own road trip. Having spent several years driving across the country in their own RV, we thought they’d be helpful with set up. They weren’t. For them, this was clearly a spectator sport.

A fire pit with some sticks and marshmallows
Now that’s a fire! Cause you know it’s not camping without s’mores.

Next we attempted to light a fire to make dinner. All I’m going to say here is that you should probably never expect New York City girls to save you in the wilderness. Chances are you’ll starve before they get a flame going. Put your money on the western PA girls on the next episode of Survivor.

A woman in the pool with her feet up.
This is roughing it outdoors? Sign me up!

The next day, we toured the Endless Caverns, which (spoiler alert!) really aren’t endless, but are quite beautiful. The caves were a wonderful escape from the hot weather, as was the gorgeous pool at the campground, which we mostly had to ourselves since we were camping midweek. Insider tip—if you’re RVing without kids, this is the perfect time to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains!

Cruisin’ to Chesapeake Bay

After three days of complete relaxation, we had to get on the road to our next destination, Bayshore Campground in Rock Hall, MD. While we quickly figured out how to flush and disconnect the bathroom hose (a far cry from our struggle connecting it), we weren’t so sure about the electric. Luckily for us, a random guy walking through the campground decided to take pity on us and showed us what to do. You have to love a campground where a perfect stranger not only stops by to help but is willing to electrocute themselves on your behalf. And he gets bonus points for not making any jokes starting with “a brunette, a redhead and a blonde drive into a campground…â€

Three women smiling for a picture together.
Survivor: The RV version. We look a little worse for wear. Maybe we should have used that fantastic indoor shower?

Unfortunately, our next drive did not go so smoothly. We hit a massive storm on the way to the beach, which made my white-knuckle driving even white-knucklier. (Yeah, it’s a word.) We stopped to get gas, and according to Terri, I almost took out the gas pump in a way-too-tight turn. I think she was probably exaggerating: No explosion, no proof.

After seeing the near gas-pump miss, Terri volunteered to drive the rest of the way, including over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which terrifies me even when I’m not in a behemoth of a vehicle. Being my new, kinder and gentler self, I readily agreed, and she handled it like a champ. Of course, it didn’t hurt that for the first time that day, the sun came out and the flooded roads began to drain. Must be a reason I call her Little Mary Sunshine.

When we got to the campground, we pulled into a primo front row spot that overlooked the Chesapeake Bay. While registering, I mentioned that I was from Pittsburgh, and even before we could set up, people were coming by in their golf carts to say hi and to chat about other Pittsburghers they knew. Hyper-fast Internet has nothing on the communications network of an RV camp!

A deck overlooking the water at sunset.
Tell me you’re not jealous of this view. I won’t believe you.

The best part of this spot (other than the super friendly folks) was that we were in the perfect position to see stunning sunsets every night. We had two TVs in the RV, but we didn’t even bother to turn them on. Why watch television when you can see the most beautiful sights just by stepping outside?

A pink sky over the ocean at sunset.
Relaxing on the deck, enjoying crisp cocktails while looking at this view. Nirvana!

We did drive into town one day just to wander, and to spend some time on the beach. We also dropped into a nearby outdoor bar to enjoy a cold beverage and to chat with the locals. There we learned about one of their biggest festivals–Pirates and Wenches Fantasy Weekend–which sounds like the perfect reason to come back in an RV and drop anchor.

After five days of our RV road trip, we sadly had to take back our Minnie Winnie and return to the real world, which unfortunately included driving it back through the beltway around Washington. So much for relaxation!

Three women sitting in a car with one woman holding a cell phone.
We can give advice, because we’re now RV experts!

If You Go:

There are many things to take into account when RV camping, including rental costs, what you need to pack, and where you want to go. There are numerous campgrounds that accept RVs, with prices ranging from $25 to $80 or so a night, depending on when you want to stay. We’re big believers in weekday traveling if you can swing it; prices are usually lower, and you may end up with a whole pool to yourself!

The cost of the RV depends on a lot of factors, including the location, time of year, demand, size, amenities and more. A rough estimate is $80 to $200 per night, though again if you’re going to Coachella, plan to spend more. Check to see if the cost of insurance is included in the rental, or if that’s a separate fee you need to add into the budget.

Remember to also budget for gas! A vehicle this big only gets about 9 miles to the gallon, so depending on your destination, plan accordingly!

Ask about what’s included in the RV so you know what to pack. Our Minnie Winnie camp with outdoor chairs and a grill, as well as dishes, but we needed to bring our own linens, cleaning products, toiletries and more. And of course, food–but it turns out that you can live on s’mores and chardonnay if you want. Just sayin’.

Some extra thoughts:

  • Make sure the manual is in the RV. We referred to ours quite a bit; not for driving or hooking it up, but to figure out how to set up the beds. I’m still kind of upset that a fold-out mattress is smarter than me.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions at your campground. Everyone is super friendly and most love to share advice. And trust me; they’ve got stories galore.
  • Watch for low-hanging branches when pulling into parking lots or side roads. You have to look up as well as out and behind.
  • Remember that you are not driving a pick-up truck. It feels just like one, but you have to consider that the vehicle you’re driving has a 33-foot bed in the back. In case you have to pull up to a gas pump or something.

If you’re new to RV camping, we recommend visiting www.GoRVing.com to learn more about where to find rentals, where to go, and what to do. Happy camping!

On the Radio:

Now that you’ve heard my side of the RV adventure, listen in as Terri shares hers on the Travel Planner Radio Show. I wrote, she talked…imagine that!

RV Adventures, Part 1 & 2

 

 

The GMC Acadia AWD SLT-1: Taking Road Trips to a Whole New Level


So if you’ve read anything I’ve written about road trips, you’re probably familiar with Lucille, the Jeep that mostly runs…except if I have somewhere important to go. Named after the popular Kenny Rogers’ song, which starts with the words, “You’ve picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille…†she’s not known for her comfort, or style, or actual working parts.

The reason I mention this before writing my first car review is because I need to explain that some things I mention—like any technology made after 2009—gets me really excited. And while some of you may be used to things like satellite radio, Android Auto phone, heated seats and temperature control FOR EACH SEAT (clutching at my pearls, here), it is all new to me.

Three women are laying in the car and smiling.
We love a new car! And maybe we’re a little weird about it.

Meet the 2019 Acadia AWD SLT-1

GMC was kind enough to offer to let me drive their new 2019 Acadia AWD SLT-1 from Pittsburgh to western North Carolina for a visit to dad’s house combined with a girls’ getaway week. Joined by my sisters Jen and Holly, we set out to see what it was like to travel in style. And now we’re ruined for road trips, having discovered that the Acadia takes traveling to a whole new level—one that I don’t think we can live without.

A car dashboard with buttons and controls for the air conditioning.
So lovely and cool on the left. An arid desert on the right.

Not too Hot, Not too Cold, It’s Just Right!

Let’s start with the temperature-controlled seats. Every seat has its own complete ecosystem, programmed by the person sitting there. Since I am usually driving in shorts in a tank top while my sister is wearing three layers of clothes, sometimes gloves and always a large Russian-style hat, much of our road trip conversation is usually arguing about whether I’m trying to freeze her to death, or how hard it is to drive while dying of dehydration.

The fact that we could be comfortable for the entire eight-hour drive was no less than miraculous. And when we found that the Acadia had not one, but TWO sunroofs, it was just icing on the proverbial car cake. Jen loves nothing more than to take pictures of clouds. So instead of blocking my view with her camera, WHILE I’M DRIVING, she could just stare up at the sky, snapping away. It was nirvana.

Speaking of the sunroof, Holly, who is an avid knitter, loved the natural light and managed to complete two socks during the drive, putting her well ahead on her Christmas list and earning the Acadia a thumb’s up from the creative fiber community.

All the Bells and Whistles

A car dashboard showing the music playing.
Nothing like a car sing-a-long with satellite radio! You can tell how much we played with it by the fingerprints.

Now that I know what it’s like to have a vehicle with a back-up camera, side mirrors that flash when a car is in your blind spot, WiFi, push-button start and a crystal-clear navigation screen showing maps in a size I can read, I’ve realized just how much I’ve been missing. And having satellite radio and optional phone plug-in so that you can even get a station—or use your own playlist—driving through the West Virginia mountains is a lifesaver. A girl can only hear so much bluegrass.

I also appreciated being able to get my phone calls through the console; another feature that makes it so much safer to drive when you’re winding through the mountains and your 89-year-old father is calling to ask when you’ll arrive despite the fact that you told him what time you left. Because as he says, “It’s a dad’s job to worry.†Truth be told, he had a whole lot less worrying to do with us in this vehicle.

So How Does It Drive?

A view of the mountains from atop a mountain.
See that road way up to the right? That’s our route. Don’t mind Holly; she’s just bonding with nature.

We travel through a lot of mountains on our route, which includes I-79 South from Pittsburgh to 19 South through West Virginia, to 77 South through Virginia and North Carolina until we head west. Part of the route includes a six-mile hill climb of more than 1,500 feet, leveling out at Fancy Gap, which reaches 3,100 feet of elevation.

And the Acadia did not disappoint! This is the first time that I’ve made this trip and not felt every minute of the climb. The Acadia had all the power it needed and I didn’t feel, as I sometimes do on these roads, that I was going to have to get out and push the car to the top. The shifting was effortless. And the speed remained stable, even though we were climbing rapidly and rounding lots and lots of sharp curves.

A road going through the middle of a green forest.
It’s a climb, but it’s so worth the view.

We traveled up the Blue Ridge Parkway while in North Carolina, and again, the mountains were no match for the Acadia. The only drawback for me as a Jeep driver is that the big car couldn’t hug the curves like Lucille, and I had to really watch my speed on the downhills as the Acadia tended to get moving a lot faster than I expected.

A car is parked on the side of a road.
Taking a little break on the Blue Ridge Parkway. No wonder they’re nicknamed the Smoky Mountains!

Storage Space for Days

My dad also got to cruise around in the car with me, and I love that its design made it easy for him to get in and out of the car, and that he was surrounded in comfort for the entire drive. The easy tilt-up seating and the massive amount of storage space made it super easy to stock him up on everything he would need after we headed home—and did I mention how much I LOVE the remote-activated back door? So nice not to have to put packages down to find a key.

A woman leaning on the back of an open van.
So much room for storage and an easy-open back hatch. Now we’re spoiled.

Admittedly, neither of us knew what some of the fancy buttons did, but given time and the manual, I’m quite sure we would have been able to become almost as smart as the car.

You Seriously Want to Drive This

So what are some of the features that make the Acadia so special?

  • Three rows of seating, including second-row captain’s chairs or split-folding bench, offering greater flexibility with curbside seat sliding and tilting forward capability
  • Teen Driver standard on all models
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone projection capability (this completely rocks!)
  • GMC 4G LTE with Wi-Fi hotspot
  • All three rows offer USB charge ports for compatible electronic devices
  • 8″ diagonal GMC Infotainment System1 with Navigation
  • Rear Seat Reminder
  • The base price starts at $30,195. (The model we drove sells for $42,295)

And did I mention that it’s gorgeous, too?

A black jeep parked in the grass near some trees.
If only we could have run away together. Permanently.

 

Author’s Note: I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a loaner for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience—which was awesome! You can find out more about the GMC Acadia at www.GMC.com.

Sink or Swim: Houseboating Adventures on Raystown Lake


A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Seriously. It’s so big you can’t even get a photo of it in the frame.

By Vanessa

As Terri and I stood on the shore watching our houseboat slowly float away, we realized that we had made two grievous errors. The first being that at least one of us should have stayed on board. The second, thinking that the two of us could ever handle a 54-foot houseboat on our own, considering that neither of us has either boating experience or common sense.

Our adventure started when we were offered the use of a houseboat on Raystown Lake from Seven Points Marina, who had far more faith than us that we could handle the vessel after watching a 30-minute video, answering a short quiz, and getting a fast but thorough tutorial on how the boat worked by one of the marina crew. After taking us out of the dock and walking us through how to steer, what to do if the generator didn’t work, and showing us the most important aspect of the boat—the large cooler—our guide jumped off the houseboat onto another boat, and we were on our own.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
This should have just stopped at “You may not operate this boat.”

Terri: What are we supposed to do now?

Vanessa: Steer it, I guess.

Terri: Do we know how to do that?

Vanessa: I’m not sure. I know we’re supposed to keep it away from the shoreline until we’re ready to dock. Then we run it aground and tie it to trees.

Terri: We run it aground?

Vanessa: That’s what he said.

Terri:  I thought we weren’t supposed to wreck the boat.

Vanessa: And I thought we were smart enough not to take a 54-foot boat out onto a lake when there are other people whose lives are now at stake, but here we are. So the world’s gone crazy.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Note that there were no boats within miles of us. With good reason.

Who Runs Aground on Purpose?

I took the first try at steering the houseboat, which is kind of like steering my Jeep, Lucille. Neither of them goes where I want them to go. After a lot of cursing and yelling at Terri to stop taking my picture while I was focused on trying to keep us alive, I finally got the hang of it. Mostly. I was still struck with abject terror every time we came within a half-mile of another boat, though I think most locals are used to the fact that there are many beginning house boaters out on the lake, so they act accordingly and flee the area, choosing to fish somewhere safer like in another state.

Brimming with false confidence, I agree with Terri that we should try to dock our behemoth new home.

Terri: There’s a cove! And some trees! Let’s stop there.

Vanessa: No problem. How do we stop?

Terri: (madly rewinding her recording of our instructions as the island gets closer and closer). Give me a minute.

Vanessa: We don’t have a minute. We have an island. And it’s getting larger. In a hurry.

Terri: (clicking back and forth on the recording) I think it was sometime after he talked about the kitchen…

Vanessa:  Which won’t exist if we hit this island. WHICH IS RIGHT THERE.

A snake is walking on the ground in the dirt.
Even the snake knows this water is way too shallow. He and I were both screaming. (FYI, water snakes are harmless.)

In a sudden flash of inspiration, I pulled back on the handle (throttle? Magic boat-stoppie thing?) and we were able to gently drift into shore. And then the wind and current turned us sideways, where the water was getting shallower by the second.

Vanessa: This can’t be right.

Terri: But we’re on the island.

Vanessa: We’re supposed to be perpendicular to it, not parallel.

Terri: So just…um…move it.

Vanessa: How?

Terri: (pulling out her recorder again)

Vanessa: For the love of….

I pull the magic boat-stoppie thing again, and now we’re going backward. Which is good, because we were out of other directions. I make a second attempt to head straight into the shore and gently bump up against the land. SUCCESS!

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Terri trying to tie up the boat. Does she look scared? We both were.

Watching Our Hopes Float Away

Terri grabs the rope and not so gracefully climbs over the two kayaks we have at the front of the boat to make it to shore. In her defense, she’s only 5’2†and the kayaks are stacked about four feet high. She ties one rope to a tree and begins singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘round the Old Oak Tree,†not realizing that while she’s performing, the currents are once again moving the boat parallel to shore.

Vanessa: Terri, tie the other rope!

Terri: (still singing and now dancing) What??

Vanessa: The other rope!

Terri: (going full-on Broadway)  What??

So I leap out of the boat since I can’t wait for intermission and grab the other rope to tie it to another tree. As I’m doing this, Terri finally stops her performance long enough to realize that the boat is slowly drifting away from us, and since our knots pretty much suck, the ropes aren’t stopping it.

Terri: GET ON THE BOAT! GET ON THE BOAT!

We both start to scramble toward the boat, and I get a leg on it before it gets too far away. Hoisting myself back over the kayaks like a broken-legged giraffe, I pull or push some mechanical thing, and stop the boat from leaving us ashore. Terri, after retying the ropes, gets back on board. And we hold our breath and wait. And nothing bad happens. The boat stays where we put it.

Vanessa: I think we’re docked.

Terri: (opening a bottle of wine) I think we’re drinking.

Vanessa:  Can you imagine if we’d had to call to tell them that we lost the boat on the first day and needed to be rescued?

Terri: I’d drown myself first.

Vanessa: We’re out here four more days. There’s still time.

I’m happy to report that the next four days were absolute heaven, and that no boats or humans were harmed during our excursions out on the lake (or into town). We started the mornings and ended the evenings basking in the hot tub on the roof of the houseboat and spent the days hiking wherever we were docked.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Aw…bliss! Talk about the perfect escape!

We even discovered a cell signal at the top of the mountain, which is one way to force us to get exercise.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Need a cell signal? Start walking! (We did later find a signal on the water, but let’s face it; a little hike isn’t gonna hurt us.)

The two of us also loved our time exploring the beauty of Raystown Lake, where we tried unsuccessfully to motor to the dam, which we never could find. I’m pretty sure that was because of our inability to read a map and not the fact that they might have moved the massive, many-ton structure.

If You Go:

Because we visited in April, it was a little chilly for swimming, but the houseboat is the perfect home base for families who want to spend all of their time on the water—it even has a two-story slide for the kids. The four bedrooms offer plenty of room, and a fully stocked kitchen, including a microwave and grill, means that you can bring your own food and never have to leave this vacation paradise. And you can change the scenery every day—just use the magic boat-driving thing to take yourself to a new location as often as you like!

A boat with a slide on the side of it
How much fun is this?

We were especially pleased with the wonderful Seven Points’ staff who not only bring you bags of ice if you radio in, but also take the boat in and out of the dock for you—saving untold thousands of dollars of damage in our case. They are always right at the other end of the radio, which adds a level of confidence much needed by newbie boaters like us, and they didn’t even laugh (too hard) as they watched Terri at the controls of the boat, which she drove like a drunken sailor on a four-day binge before deciding her talents lay in navigation (did I mention that we never found the dam?)

A row of boats in the water near some trees.
See that teeny tiny space between the boat on the right and the next one over? That’s where you’re supposed to fit your boat. Time to call in the experts.

If you do decide you want to go ashore, Huntingdon has a charming downtown area. Make sure you go to Mimi’s for dinner—the martinis and Italian food are delish! —and you should also stop at the Isett Heritage Museum atop Stone Creek Ridge to learn more about, well…everything. A collection of everyday items from at least the last 100 years, you can find everything here from toys to miniature railroads to barbed wire collections and Fred Harris’ barber’s chair. And that’s just in one building (there are three).

A room filled with lots of different items.
There are so many cool things at Isett Heritage Museum that you could spend a month wandering the aisles! My personal favorite was the poisonous baby doll. Seriously.

I also loved Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks, which was discovered 88 years ago during the construction of Rt. 22. Unfortunately for Terri, she missed this part of the trip (I think she was still looking for the dam), but it’s well worth a stop to see not one, but two stunning natural attractions.

A cave with many small holes in it
Stalagmites, stalactites, bacon….so many awe-inspiring structures to see at Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks!

To learn more about renting a houseboat in Raystown Lake, contact Seven Points Marina at www.7pointsmarina.com or call 814-658-3074. To learn more about all there is to do in Huntingdon County and the Raystown region of Pennsylvania, visit www.raystown.org or call 1-888-RAYSTOWN.

Pinkies Up! Tea Time in Altoona


By Vanessa

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Ah, the tradition of afternoon tea. How civilized!

I’ve always thought that the English tradition of having tea was lovely. Instead of grabbing something out of a vending machine or hitting up a fast food joint, stopping midday to have a warm drink and a scone or crustless sandwich just seems so damn civilized. So I was pleased while visiting Altoona, PA to discover that we were going to take a short break to partake in this afternoon repast. The break was well-earned after a morning spent hiking in Canoe Creek State Park and visiting the Fort Roberdeau Historic Site.

Little did I know that a visit to Pamela’s Victorian at Bell Mansion would combine two of my favorite things—tasty food and fancy hats! Because if you’re going to act like high society, you have to look the part.

So Many Stunning Chapeaus

Despite the fact that I was a tomboy growing up, I love, love, love, playing dress up. And there’s nothing better than vintage clothing to put a girl in the right mood for an elegant meal. So when owners Pamela and George Wertman ushered us into Bell Mansion and then guided us toward the back room with its plethora of divine hats, I was in heaven.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Hats, hats and more hats! You know we had to try them all on.

Vanessa: Terri, do you see what I’m seeing?

Terri: I see hats. Lots of hats. And I want that one. Or that one. No, that one. Oh my god, I look fantastic in all of them.

Vanessa: Maybe I can fit more on my head than one. Because I want to wear them all. That wouldn’t be weird, would it?

Terri: Why do you even bother to ask?

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Once a southern belle, always a southern belle.

While Terri found the perfect purple hat to match her outfit, because she is pretty much the pageant queen, I went with the mother of all vintage hats—one so large that it actually hurt my head from the weight. Because let’s face it: looking good doesn’t always mean feeling good.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
I might have been slightly unbalanced, but damn I look good while perusing my many tea choices.

Choose Your Teacup…Very Carefully

Pamela then told us that in addition to our hats, we should choose our own tea set from a huge selection showcased in an in-wall cupboard. We also got to pick our own flavors. Not easy decisions, considering that the shop offers 95 types of looseleaf teas, including black, green, white, herbal, decaf, honeybush and their own house blends. And did I mention the more than 100 unique teapots and cups?

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Breakable items on every single surface. How there wasn’t an ‘incident,’ I don’t know.

I chose a stunning white, pink and green teapot with raised roses, and a Royal Albert bone china cup and saucer commemorating the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother. Because , in my massive hat, I felt like a (slightly unbalanced) royal. It was a bit worrisome to try to move about the tea house in my chapeau. With almost every inch covered with something breakable, I narrowly avoided quite a few “bull in a china shop†moments.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
A cranberry vanilla sugar scone with Devonshire cream. A girl could get used to this.

Once we were seated at the beautifully appointed table, we were served a wonderful meal prepared by Chef George that included salad supreme (baby greens, cranberries, walnuts, tomatoes, grapes, cheddar cheese and a balsamic-basil vinaigrette), wedding soup, and a chicken salad sandwich on a croissant. I chose the house blend, Berry Berry Good Good Tea, to accompany my meal. I have to say it was very very good good. And of course, we enjoyed cranberry vanilla sugar scones with Devonshire cream, because when in England, or in this case, Altoona, you have to have your tea with the traditional treats.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Owners George and Pamela Wertman in the foyer of Bell Mansion

Of Course, We’re Taking Tea in a Mansion

While we were dining, Pamela caught us up on the history of the Georgian-style Bell Mansion, which was built by Edward Bell back in 1822. For a time it served as an assisted living home before the couple began remodeling it, turning it into a tea room and bed-and-breakfast that has two upstairs guest rooms, a gift shop and a music room where Pamela gives piano and voice lessons.

Well-fortified for the rest of our day, we headed off to Baker Mansion, a Greek Revival-style home built by Alleghany Furnace owner Elias Baker in 1849. Who knew Altoona had such an abundance of fantastic historic buildings? While I felt a little naked leaving my hat behind, once I got the feeling back in my neck, I appreciated the wonderful break that Pamela’s had given us during such a packed weekend.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Our friend, Jennifer Fleck, who is a total natural at this hat-wearing thing.

If You Go:

Want to celebrate the Victorian Age in style?

Pamela’s Victorian at Bell Mansion, One Main St., Bellwood, PA. 814-822-2223, http://www.pamelasvictorian.com/

Baker Mansion: This 1849 Greek Revival mansion is now the home of the Blair County Historical Society. Tours offered of period rooms and historical exhibits. 3419 Oak Lane, Altoona, PA 16603. 814-942-3916, http://www.blairhistory.org/

What goes well with a hat?

If you feel the need to accessorize, there are some wonderful places to shop in the area.

Charlotte’s Trove: A very unique boutique (check out that wooden wall!) where you can also get lunch if you so desire.  819 East main St., Roaring Spring, PA. 814-414-3700, http://www.charlottestrove.com/

LaVintage Décor: Studio, antiques and gifts. Local artisans and vendors provide shiny objects nestled among vintage treasures. 601 N. 4th Ave., Altoona, PA. 814-934-8928, http://www.lavintagedecor.company/

Want to work off all those scones?

Canoe Creek State Park: A 958-acre park featuring a lake, wetlands, and the remnants of kilns from the 1900s. 205 Canoe Creek Rd., Hollidaysburg, PA. 814-695-6807, http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/canoecreek/index.htm

Fort Roberdeau: A Revolutionary War lead mine fort is the westernmost Revolutionary War site in America. Open for tours. 383 Fort Roberdeau Rd., Altoona, PA. 814-946-0048, http://www.fortroberdeau.org/

How To: Take Pictures of the Aurora with a Cellphone


Now, we don’t normally have ‘How To’ stories on Every Road a Story, because let’s face it, Terri and I are the last people in the world who should be giving advice. But I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to use a cellphone to take photos of the aurora after our recent Fairbanks trip, so I’m going to tell you want the pros up there told me. Because I can occasionally follow instructions.

A big shout out to Drew at Borealis Base Camp, and Jack Reakoff up in Wiseman, Alaska, who, as part of Northern Alaska Tour Company, helped me “master†this ability. While my photos are not National Geographic quality, they did turn out pretty well, considering what I was working with (the cellphone and my complete lack of technological talent). So here we go…

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
The aurora over A Taste of Alaska lodge in Fairbanks. No tripod, pure luck.

Step 1:

Do you have an iPhone? Yeah, forget about it. As Terri unhappily found out (and she’s still bitter), these phones are not particularly good for photographing an aurora. The best thing you can do is find a friend with an Android and offer to buy them alcohol in exchange for pictures. (Hint, hint)

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Sometimes the lights just take your breath away. Or maybe that’s the -33 temperature.

Step 2:

If you have a fairly up-to-date Android, you should be able to capture the Northern Lights. I used a Samsung Galaxy S9. No, they aren’t paying me to say that (though guys, if you want to hit me up for an affiliate deal, we can talk.) You will also need a tripod, because even if you have nerves of steel, your hands are going to move too much holding the phone for it to stay in focus. Especially if it is 33 degrees below zero and you don’t have your mittens on.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
I feel like I’m about to be beamed up in this one. Guess they didn’t find signs of intelligent life…

Step 3:

Go into your camera settings and put it on the PRO setting. (I know, right? It’s so easy to become a pro at something!)

Step 4:

Set your ISO to 800. On my camera, it’s the listing on the far left. Hit the button and then slide the scale. No, I don’t know what an ISO is, either. I just know it has to be on the highest setting.

Step 5:

Set your F-stop to 10. Again, I don’t know what an F-stop is, but it’s the second listing to the right and is labeled F1.5.

Step 6:

Set the Manual Focus (MF) as far to the right as possible.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Reminds me of a whale’s tail. Another super cool Alaskan thing to see!

Step 7:

Put the phone in a tripod, with the lens facing up. Trust me when I say that I had to learn this the hard way—no one needed to see that many horrendous selfies. Terri also had a problem with this when I asked her to take a photo of me under the lights. And yes, we will soon be starting a “really bad photos†gallery.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
This is why you have to point the camera the right direction.

Step 8:

Take your phone and tripod outside, aim it in the general direction of the lights, and start snapping. At this point, if you’re like me, you will realize that when you put the phone into the tripod, you covered the button that lets you take pictures, so you will have to reposition it again. You may or may not choose to use a few swear words at this point. (I did, but work at your own comfort level.) While it’s awkward to have to get underneath the phone to take photos, trust me, it’s worth it.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
The aurora above Wiseman, AK.

When you first see the aurora, you may be surprised that it is white and not the greens and purples you see in photos. This is because the human eye does not see the same thing that the camera does—and you are going to be blown away when you look through the lens.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
We stood under the aurora for about three hours, and it just kept getting better. And colder.

Step 9:

Send pictures to all of your friends and post on social media to make everyone jealous.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
There’s a reason why you hear that the Northern Lights dance.

Some added hints learned from experience:

  1. Wear lots of layers, and put handwarmers in your pockets. It’s almost impossible to snap the photos wearing gloves, so you’re going to need to get heat on your fingers as much as possible.
  2. Bring an extra picture card. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your camera fill up and not being able to take photos after all this trouble. (Again, swearing level is up to you.)
  3. Don’t spend your entire time taking pictures. Seeing the aurora dance is an incredible experience, and you need to soak it all in. It looks a lot more impressive when viewed through your own eyes, so savor the moment and don’t worry so much about social media.