Finding Peace in Times of Troubles


Terri and I don’t do well when it comes to off-limits areas. In fact, if there’s a sign that says KEEP OUT or AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, chances are we can be found on the wrong side of it. It’s not that we don’t understand the message. It’s just that it’s so damn tempting to find out what’s so special that we aren’t allowed to see it.

We have the same problem when there’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity that may or may not be allowed, at least by civilized or legal standards. So imagine the attraction, nay, the overwhelming obsession that we felt when we were traveling through Belfast on a Black Taxi Tour, and our guide, Billy Scott, took us to see one of the art- and graffiti-coated Peace Walls. These huge chunks of concrete practically scream out for a writer to grab the nearest pen and go to town (or in this case, warring suburb).

A close up of the hand on a wall
There are all sorts of styles of art on display on the Peace Walls. Some happy…some not so much.

Why are there Walls?

The walls were built in response to the 1969 North Ireland riots that are most often referred to as “the Troubles,†in which upwards of 3,500 people died. About 38 such walls still exist in Belfast, separating the Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from the Loyalist and Unionist Protestant areas. Most are adorned with spray-painted art, quotes and slogans memorializing the struggle, remembering those lost or thankfully, encouraging peace and reconciliation.

The security-gated walls, some of which are 25 feet high and three kilometers long, were meant to be temporary. They were built to separate hostile factions and to help maintain peace in these areas, many of which still fly the flags of Britain or the Republic of Ireland. These platforms that divide the city also became canvasses for people’s thoughts, hopes and fears…making us want to share our own.

A tree is next to the side of a building
What do you do with a 25-foot tall wall in the center of your town? Why, write on it, of course!

Leaving Our Mark

Billy slowly cruised along the wall, sharing information about the paintings and stories of those who were lost. Stopping to watch an artist at work, he mentioned that some of what was currently being created was commissioned public art, encouraged by local arts agencies as a way to reach across communities.

Vanessa: Oh my god. This is just so beautiful. And so sad. And so heartwrenching.

Terri: I can’t believe how many people have written on it. There’s so much history here.

Vanessa:  Can I write on it?

Billy (handing me a pen): Well, it’s technically illegal to put graffiti on government walls…

Unfortunately, Billy didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, as Terri and I were both bailing out of the black taxi while ripping the pen caps off with our teeth. We may or may not have actually written on the wall (depending on who is reading this and if it will cause an international incident). While there are pictures, there’s not technically proof.

Terri: What did you write?

Vanessa: Write? Nothing, of course. That would be wrong.

Terri: And illegal.

Vanessa: Possibly unethical.

Terri: So move and let me read it.

A woman is painting on the side of a building.
I might or might not have written on the wall. Deniability is key.

You Don’t Have to Break the Law

Even if you don’t plan to leave your mark on the walls, you should definitely make plans to visit these monuments before they are gone. In 2013, the North Ireland Executive (a government branch) laid out a plan to remove the walls by the year 2023 “by mutual consent.â€Â This is still being met, not surprisingly, with arguments from all sides. Even if they do agree, there will probably still be some delay. Northern Ireland has been without a government for two years (can’t we all just get along?) so the wrecking ball probably won’t be swinging any time soon.

I personally would hope that the walls would end up in a museum somewhere, as the area’s history—both good and bad—is displayed so movingly through its artwork.

A mural of soldiers in uniform with guns.
While the Troubles are over, the memories remain.

A Guide to Walls…and Whiskey

As for whether to visit the area, it is safe for travelers. While memories of the Troubles are still strong, the rioting and civil unrest of those tumultuous decades is over. I’d definitely recommend going with a guide, though, so that you don’t miss anything. The Black Taxi tour drivers are well-versed in the area’s history and art, and can take you to areas of town that you wouldn’t know to visit. Somehow we ended up in a bar, and a whiskey shop, and a wildly painted courtyard on the other side of a pub. Let’s just say that Billy had a good grasp of what would interest us.

The bonus, of course, is that you also get to listen to beguiling Irish accents, hear some off-color jokes, and make lifelong friends. We stay in touch with Billy through his Facebook page, and I remain jealous that he’s drinking some fine Irish whiskey without us. (Save me some Writers Tears, Billy!)

A painting of people with one person holding up his fist.
Billy Scott, tour guide extraordinaire

If You Go

The walls can be found in numerous cities in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast. To learn more about things to see and do in the city, including Black Taxi Tours and walking tours, visit http://www.visitbelfast.com/. To hook up with Billy’s tour, visit http://www.touringaroundbelfast.com/. Just don’t believe any of the stories he shares about us.

A black taxi cab is parked on the side of the road.
Who wouldn’t want to ride in a Black Taxi? Even on the wrong side of the road…

Stalking Bigfoot through Bilger’s Rocks


A child with a gorilla mask on.

Hearing Terri scream on a trip is not unusual. In fact, it’s usually par for the course when she falls up a set of stairs or tumbles off a compost toilet* or trips over, basically, most anything. And since I’m about as coordinated, we rarely get alarmed when the other one lets out a yell. But I admit I was a bit taken aback when we were climbing through Bilger’s Rocks in Clearfield County, PA, because her husband, Greg, was on the trip with us. Unlike me, he doesn’t think it’s that funny when we hurt ourselves trying to act like we’re still 20.

Terri: OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!

Vanessa: What’d you do?

Terri: DID YOU SEE THAT?

Vanessa: What??? Snake? Bear? A snake and a bear? A snakebear?

Terri: It was Bigfoot!

Vanessa: Oh, for the love of all that’s….nope. You did not see Bigfoot.

Terri: I totally saw Bigfoot! It was right up on that rock. And then it ran.

Vanessa: Did you get a blurry picture?

Terri: No. It was too fast. It was just there…and then gone.

Vanessa: Like your common sense.

Despite my best efforts, I could not convince Terri that she had not seen Bigfoot. I was a little surprised, in fact, that Greg agreed that something resembling the elusive Sasquatch had just run through the forest. I took this with a grain of salt, however, since having been born and raised in New York City, I didn’t quite trust his animal identification skills. And Terri is not a reliable source for animal encounters, either. She’s been known to chase after wild baby tapirs to pet them, thinking that no harm will come to her from the “little pig’s momma,†that will, in fact, disembowel her.**

A man and woman climbing up the side of a rock.
Not everyone is tall enough to scale the rocks. At least that’s what she says.

Climbing, Hiking and Claustrophobia

We continued on our climb through the rocks, and we learned a lot from our guide, who I’m sure was shaking his head at these city-folks—or just at our general lack of climbing ability. Bilger’s Rocks is a truly spectacular place to hike, consisting of 316- to 320-million-year-old sandstone formations that tower above the forest floor, some rising 30 to 50 feet overhead. Visitors can crawl through small openings, wander through barely-body-width passages underground, or just enjoy resting in the cool air. Bilger’s Rocks is actually cooler than the rest of the forest, which is wonderful surprise on a hot summer’s day.

A bear is climbing up the side of a tree.
The view looking up from the ice cave. Otherwise known as the stuff nightmares are made of.

Being somewhat claustrophobic and more than somewhat wide, I didn’t jump at the opportunity to tour the ice cave, a pitch-black passageway that wove underground for about 25 feet. You can see down into the labyrinth from up above, and trust me, that was as close as I’m ever going to get, except in my nightmares.

My favorite part of the hike was seeing where the trees took root and clung to the outside of the rocks, forming intricate patterns of natural art. And humans had left their mark in the area as well. As a history buff, I was fascinated by a map of the Americas that someone had carved into the rock shortly after World War I—you can still see the 1921 date, as well as the message of solidarity left behind.

A tree with many roots on the ground
Talk about clingy! Pretty sure that tree isn’t going anywhere.
A child with a gorilla mask on.
Legend has it that this was carved by a soldier recently returned from WWI. Respect.

And while there is so much there to see in what’s known as “Rock City,†what there is not…is Bigfoot.

Maybe Bigfoot Got Eaten by a Dinosaur?

Sasquatch hunters should not despair, however, as there is another place in the county where you can see the ape-beast, or at least his likeness, as well as other incredible creatures. Doolittle Station, located off Rich Highway, not only has Bigfoot replicas eating ice cream, but an entire animatronic dinosaur display that makes it a must-stop while in the county. The history of this place, owned by Dr. Jeffrey Rice, is actually a whole ‘nother story, which we’ll be telling you about soon (we can only write so fast). What you need to know right now is that it’s got dinosaurs, Elvis, Bigfoot, craft beer, train cars, amazing food, mini-golf, scratch-made pizza and more…and you can even stay in a renovated caboose overnight.

A child with a gorilla mask on.
Maybe stalking Bigfoot wasn’t such a good idea?

*Want to read about the toilet incident? https://everyroadastory.com/a-night-on-the-jaguar-preserve-a-k-a-the-toilet-incident

**Seriously, never travel to Belize with Terri.

 

If You Go:

Bilger’s Rocks is an amazing place to spend a day, and they also offer overnight camping. Learn more about this natural wonder, including how it was formed (you know, the science stuff) at http://www.bilgersrocks.net/.

If you prefer to spend the night indoors, hanging with Bigfoot statues while listening to live music and sipping on a local beer at a nano-brewery, check out Doolittle Station at http://www.doolittlestation.com/.

For a look at all of the cool things to do in Clearfield County, from monsters to mating elk (seriously—it’s a whole thing there), visit http://www.visitclearfieldcounty.org/.

 

 

 

Imbibing in Erie, PA


Erie, PA is no stranger to awards; recently, its National Natural Landmark, Presque Isle State Park, was named as the best freshwater beach in North America and as Pennsylvania’s top attraction. And while these are worthy accomplishments, we wanted to see what other types of attractions the area had to offer—the kind that don’t make the ‘best of’ lists, or fit exactly under family-friendly activities. So Terri and I set off on a drinking tour to check out local haunts where we could enjoy a variety of libations.

I should mention that these establishments aren’t dive bars—places where you might end up arrested or where I’ll most probably meet the next (temporary) love of my life. Instead, these are the places where the local color shines bright, the bartenders rock, and you can enjoy a sort of Cheers-like atmosphere even if you’re not in Boston. Let’s get this party started, shall we?

A picture of the steelers jersey hanging on the wall.
Steelers’ fan? We’ve got the place for you.

First Stop, The Cab

Because we’re big believers in getting  sustenance before getting our drink on, we started at The Cab Bar & Grille, which is the perfect place to pre-game, or actually game-game, considering that they have five flat screens, two projection screens and a massive TV viewing area in the back where you can watch your favorite teams play. They also have big portions of bar-type food to fill you up from Big Daddy’s BBQ ribs to wings with special “Cab-created†sauces, so you can establish the base you need before imbibing. Now in its 22nd year of business, The Cab attracts local Steelers’ fans for games as well as people who appreciate their daily homemade hot lunch specials. They get a special shout-out from me for having a non-smoking section since I’m a big fan of breathable air.

A sandwich and fries are on the plate.
Can’t go drinking on an empty stomach!

Why Do They Spell Dinor that Way?

Haggerty’s Tavern has been serving the Emerald city (who knew that Erie had this nickname?) since 1931. There’s a lot of history here, including that part of the bar is located in what was formerly Bob MacKendrick’s Boston Diner. You can still stand within the shell or enjoy some brews on the outdoor patio. The space bills itself as a tavern and dinor, setting my teeth on edge as an editor who really wants to take a red pen to that spelling. But it turns out that ‘dinor’ is a spelling unique to northwestern PA, and you’ll find other places using this same moniker. I’ll just have to suck it up when in that part of the country.

Big props to their very cool bartender, Meghann, who extended a warm welcome and was extremely patient when I wanted to take lots of photos of her awesome tattoos and eye makeup. I stalk her now on Facebook.

A woman standing in front of a counter with red seats.
Meghann has that quality that all bartenders need–patience!

 

Going Classic at The Plymouth

The Plymouth is a classic Erie bar where generations of people have come to hang out, from 21-and-over college kids, to girls’ night out groups, to families looking for a meal. It’s a big space made up of three buildings, including one that used to house the Erie Cut Rate Medicine Store. Since I consider my alcohol to mostly be medicinal, that seems about right. Though the buildings are over 100 years old, the bar has been in place since 1973, and has become somewhat of an Erie institution. For that reason, it’s often packed—and loud—so Terri and I fit right in.

Two women are posing for a picture at the bar.
Terri and I felt quite comfortable at the Plymouth. Note the alarmed guy in the left top corner. Cheers!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Gatherings Pub & Grille is a little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood tavern that serves awesome tacos. And I know that I already mentioned that we  had a big bunch of food at The Cab, but when you’re drinking and someone offers you a taco, you take it. Don’t judge. If you’re a craft beer person, this is a great stop. In addition to more familiar offerings, you can partake of a DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus or a Raging Bitch Belgian IPA, depending, obviously, on your mood. It takes a little time before people stop staring at you, because this is definitely a local’s place, but everyone was nice including the happily inebriated woman who kept sitting on my lap while trying to find her seat at the bar. Or maybe she was trying to grab my taco…good luck with that, missy.

A woman holding onto a red object in her hand.
This lovely young lady makes a mean drink. And served us tacos! We love her.

Bad Pick-up Lines…but Good Drinks

The first thing that struck me about the Red Fox Inn, other than the overpowering cologne of the drunk guy hitting on me and the fact that he was still using pick-up lines from 1985, is that the bar name is written on the ceiling—in three-foot letters—which caused us some consternation.

Terri: Look up.

Vanessa: Whoa! No needing Lasik to read that.

Terri: Why in the world do you suppose the name of the bar is written REALLY BIG on the ceiling?

Vanessa: So that if you fall down and need to call for help, at least you’ll know where you are.

Terri: That’s kind of….brilliant.

While we didn’t need to avail ourselves of this amenity, it was nice to know that it was an option. The Red Fox also has a machine hanging from the ceiling that lights up for Last Call/Bar Closed, which is another way to know when you’ve overstayed your welcome. We didn’t get to see it in action, though, because we had more bars to conquer—never let it be said that we’re quitters!

A close up of the ceiling with red and black letters
There’s no doubt where you are when visiting the Red Fox. Just look up! Oh, and the spider web and creepy crawly thing were just Halloween decorations. Thank goodness they’re not permanent fixtures!

Getting Our Drag On…well, sort of.

Our last stop of the night was the Zone Dance Club, where, despite its name, we did not dance, since at this point, standing was difficult enough. The largest gay bar in Erie, the Zone has another badass bartender who makes me want to cover myself with tattoos, as well as some of the most civic-minded staff I’ve ever met. At the time we visited, the room was filled with baskets they created for the next day’s Annual Pink Party to benefit breast cancer research. Unfortunately we weren’t there at the right time to catch a drag show, which they do the third Sunday of every month, but we’ve been told we’re welcome to return…and I think they actually meant it.

A woman with tattoos on her arms and wrist.
Did I not tell you that this town has the coolest bartenders?

Look at Us Being All Responsible

We usually suggest people not do what we do, but this time you really should follow our lead. Don’t drive. Call a taxi, Uber, Lyft or the transport service of your choice and let them do the driving so that you can live to drink again. Special thanks to our chauffeur who totally hung with us until she found a better offer (or at least someone who could speak coherent sentences) and our Uber driver who got us back to the hotel. We hope we tipped you well.

If You Go:

While we chose to go on a whirlwind bar tour, we highly suggest that you also enjoy all of the daytime activities that Erie has to offer from beautiful Presque Isle State Park to the Erie Maritime Museum. You may want to schedule your visit around some of their cool festivals as well—this year, that includes the Great Lakes Beach Glass & Coastal Arts Festival from May 4-5 (www.Relishinc.com) and Tall Ships Erie 2019 from Aug. 22-25 (www.TallShipsErie.org).

If you choose to follow (or fall) in our footsteps:

The Cab Bar & Grille: 5442 West Ridge Road, Erie, PA  www.thecaberie.com

Haggerty’s Tavern: 1930 W. 26th St., Erie, PA Facebook: Haggertys Bar & Dinor

The Plymouth: 1109 State Street, Erie, PA www.plymouthtavern.com

Gatherings Pub & Grille: 2902 Reed St., Erie, PA www.gatheringspub.com

Red Fox Inn: 1224 East 38th Street, Erie, PA Facebook: Red Fox Inn 76

The Zone Dance Club: www.thezonedanceclub.com

Note also that you can wander through Lake Erie Wine Country (www.lakeeriewinecountry.org) or traverse the Lake Erie Ale Trail (www.lakeeriealetrail.com). You know, in case you’re still thirsty.

Toilet Paper Holders: It’s Called a Roll for a Reason


Most times, people send us products to review, and we’re happy to tell you our opinion of them. In some cases, however, I feel a NEED to review items that no one has asked me to talk about, simply because there are things that have to be said.

Case in point: Who thought it was a good idea to create a toilet paper roll holder that doesn’t secure the roll in any way? You know the kind—it’s just an arm that the roll slides onto….and slides off of just as easily.
I’ve seen this trend—known as an open design—at numerous upscale hotels lately, and it’s got me completely flummoxed, not to mention irritated. Oh sure, the roll hangs there daintily as long as no one actually needs to use it, but when you do attempt to tear a strip off the roll, not only does the paper come off, but so does the roll…and let’s just say you’re not in any position to play catch.

A roll of toilet paper is hanging on the wall.
When this flies off the handle (as it invariably does), I fly off the handle.

So let’s talk design flaws

I’m sure that tens of thousands of dollars were spent studying the efficiency of these toilet paper holders and how much time they save the staff, who instead of having to spend .01 seconds removing the toilet paper roll tube simply slide the new roll onto the arm without losing a beat.

And in theory, it’s a lovely concept. Less time spent in each bathroom, on each roll, surely adds up to enough time at the end of the year that hotel owners think that it’s a good investment.

But that’s because they aren’t the ones crawling around on the floor in the dark. Dripping.

While I appreciate whatever efficiency expert convinced hundreds of hotel chains and even independent boutique hotel owners to buy these hanging arms, what they didn’t take into account was that what goes on…more easily comes off.

This isn’t a good thing when you’re doing your business and in no position to lunge after the roll as it takes off like a shot across the room. It’s even worse when you have to crawl under the counter to retrieve it after it has merrily rolled to the farthest corner under the cabinet. And good housekeeping aside, does anyone really want to see what’s under there? Ewwww.

A roll of toilet paper sitting on top of a counter.
THIS would even be better!

Consequences of a Flawed Design

I’m hoping that the hotel owners who have saved so much money on this model use their earnings for soundproofing, as the amount of swearing that I do when the roll escapes can surely be heard throughout the corridors. This is especially irritating in the middle of the night when I have crept like a ninja into the bathroom so as not to wake a roommate, which I now have to do since I can’t exactly jump up and retrieve the errant roll and need the help of a recovery team. Not surprisingly, people are really annoyed at being woken out of a sound sleep to help, causing even more bitching and the need for extra soundproofing in a room where you wouldn’t think you’d need to worry about heated discussions at 3 a.m.

It’s time for this design trend to end. While I appreciate the form, these types of holders fail in function, unless their true purpose is to get guests to check out the cleanliness of the deep, dark corners of the bathroom. Gack.

Totally Team Coyote


So we all grew up watching Roadrunner cartoons, right? And that silly little bird, while definitely having a sadistic streak, doesn’t seem all bad. In fact, he’s kind of cute, which makes rooting against the coyote, who is admittedly trying to make a meal out of him, seem like the right thing to do.

Lies. It was all lies.

Little did I know how bloodthirsty these angry birds were until I watched one kill a tarantula in front of my motel room door in Big Bend, TX. You read that right…a tarantula. And perhaps you also noticed how I said RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY ROOM, where one would hardly expect to see a cage match of such colossal proportions.

A bird standing on the side of a stone wall.
Don’t let the cartoons fool you, this bird is evil!

 

Now I’m all about wildlife, but staying at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only accommodations located within 900,000-acre Big Bend National Park, takes animal viewing to a whole new level. Not only did I get to watch a life-and-death struggle within inches of where I was sleeping (though obviously not through the night once I knew that there were tarantulas out there), but I also got blocked from returning to the hotel by a pair of mule deer that were locking horns alongside the hiking trail, reminding me that while I might think I’m at the top of the food chain, my chewed-up fingernails are no match for a set of hooves or horns.

So I run to tell Terri all about my morning.

Me: You won’t believe what I just saw. A roadrunner and a tarantula were fighting outside my door.

Terri, totally skeptical: Right. And then the coyote showed up with a delivery from ACME.

Me: Seriously. It was horrible! I wanted to save the spider, but I couldn’t figure out how to grab it. Cause it was big. And hairy. And the bird was really mean!

Terri: You were trying to grab a tarantula? Aren’t they poisonous?

Me:  So maybe it wasn’t my smartest move.

Terri: You’ve done stupider things.

A bird is walking on the ground in the dirt.
Roadrunner 1; Tarantula 0

Note that at this point I didn’t bring up the fact that Terri tries to pet every young furry creature we come across, without ever considering that their large and angry mommas might not appreciate her fondling their offspring. I was still too excited about the deer.

Me: And then I was walking up the trail and found myself surrounded by a herd of deer! And two of them started head-butting! I had to wait until they stopped fighting to get around them.

Terri: You have literally been gone like 15 minutes. You’ve tried to pick up a tarantula and been accosted by angry deer. Do you have some kind of death wish?

Me: No, but I do have video!

Of course, all was forgiven.

At this point, our guide, Mike Davidson, shared a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife around Big Bend, which is home to 3,600 species of insects and animals, and 450 species of birds. He shared the fact that tarantulas, while poisonous, aren’t really going to kill you, and that roadrunners, despite their good Warner Brothers’ PR, are actually really vicious birds that will fight just about anything, including lizards and small rattlesnakes, which they kill by bashing them with their beaks. Starting to make you feel kind of bad for the coyote, isn’t it?

A large rock formation on top of a hill.
Big Bend’s Rugged Landscape

Next up, hiking with animals that can kill you

I have all this in mind the next day when Mike says that we’re going to take a hike up the Lost Mine Trail. But I didn’t need to worry about the creepy things and killer birds, because there are bigger things to be concerned about.

Terri: There sure are a lot of mountain lion warning signs around here. That’s kind of scary. What do we do if we see one?

Me:  We run. And I hope I run faster than you.

Turns out that we needn’t have worried about the mountain lions either, because the people coming down from the mountain stopped to tell us about the black bear they saw…about 20 feet ahead.

Terri: Dear God. Is there anything in this country that won’t kill us?

Me: Well, I’ve heard the tarantulas are pretty harmless.

A bear proof food storage box on the side of a road.
Oh look, a place to hide from the bears!

We make it to the top of the 6,850-foot peak with about 100 stops on the way to take photos of the stupendous landscapes, and to double-check that no large carnivores are waiting to take us down as we are obviously far easier prey than any creature that lives in such a contentious environment.

Vanessa: So Mike, are there any other animals that we need to know about—any other creatures unique to Big Bend?

Mike: Well, there is a goat. But he’s harmless. He’s the mayor of Lajitas.

Of course he is.

A goat with horns and a sign in the shape of a map.

If You Go

There are numerous places to stay around Big Bend, TX, but for a truly authentic experience, make reservations (well before you want to visit because it books up fast) at the Chisos Mountains Lodge located within the park. In addition to wildlife viewing, there are also 200 miles of trails within the park for every level of ability, so you can get your exercise (especially if you end up running from a bear or mountain lion, or even a raging roadrunner).

Chisos Mountains Lodge: To learn more about accommodations within the park, check out www.chisosmountainslodge.com. Reservations for 2019 (that is not a typo) are now open. While not fancy, the rooms (which run about $148 a night) put you right in the center of a whole lot of animal action.

For more information, www.visitbigbend.com, or call the Brewster County Tourism Council at 432-386-5635.

Learning to Ski (When We Can Barely Walk)


Neither Terri or I are known for our grace—she actually fell up a flight of stairs in a New York subway, and I am still, five years later, recovering from a fractured ankle caused during what we refer to only as “the chocolate martini incident.†And don’t even ask me how I managed to dislocate my knee slipping on my own front porch.

So when we were asked if we wanted to travel to Tucker County, WV, to spend a day on the slopes, of course we said yes. Just because we’re not coordinated on dirt doesn’t mean that we can’t handle plummeting down a hill on two sticks and a bunch of snow, right? What could possibly go wrong?

We arrived in the Canaan Valley full of snow-bunny spirit, and after several rounds of cocktails, had deluded ourselves into thinking that when we hit the slopes the next morning, Picabo Street would be asking us for advice. Terri was confident, as she had skied one time before; I was a little more hesitant, seeing as how I’d made it to age 50 without ever donning a ski, despite living in western Pennsylvania.

The next morning, we drove to Timberline Four Seasons Resort, one of three skiing areas in the Canaan Valley. The weather was perfect, and our instructor, Don, seemed extremely pleased to see us. We knew it wouldn’t last.

Don: Hello, ladies. This is going to be fun!

Terri: Oh, it’s going to be hilarious. At least for you.

I was still quiet at this point, having been semi-traumatized at The Ski Barn by the fact that you have to list your weight on the form when you rent skis. You know what I don’t need to see first thing in the morning? THAT.

Anyway, Don taught us how to start (important) and stop (even more important), and soon we were ready to hop onto the ski lift and head up the bunny hill. Terri grabbed Don to ride up with her, which gave me the perfect vantage point behind them to watch as they gracefully exited the lift, and Terri continued to latch on to Don despite his best efforts to shake her, until both of them toppled over in the most amazing slow-motion skiing accident ever. I mean it. EVER.

I couldn’t stop laughing, which was unfortunate, as I still had to get off the lift and ski down the small ramp at the top of the hill. Where they were still entangled.

Fortunately for those flailing on the ground, I demonstrated my usual grace, and instead of dismounting appropriately, my skis hit the snow and I immediately flew backwards into the air, landing spread-eagled UNDER the lift, which continued to travel on its merry way as I watched my dignity disappear along with my seat. This could only have been more embarrassing if someone else were trying to get off the lift behind me…or if Terri had been able to get her camera out of her parka in time to record the events for posterity.

We finally made it to the edge of the slope, which BTW, is far less bunny-like and more rabid rabbit-like from this vantage point.

Vanessa: This is the smallest hill they have?

Terri: I know, right? Maybe we can get back on the lift and go down.

Vanessa: We couldn’t even get off the lift; now you want to try getting on it in the opposite direction?

At this point, (it might have been days—fear makes you lose track of time), Don gently encouraged us to get moving.

Terri: We should go.

Vanessa: Go ahead.

Terri: No, Don said you should go.

Vanessa: He meant you.

Terri: Why would he mean me?

Vanessa: Because he’s afraid that you’ll grab onto him again. Notice that he’s not coming anywhere near us.

Terri: If we die, he’s not going to miss us, is he?

Vanessa: Not a chance.

We continued to stare down the slope, trying to build up courage.

Terri: You know that there’s a bar at the bottom of the hill, right?

Hearing the magic words, I pushed myself off the cusp and started down. And I skied! Really, honestly, skied! And it was amazing! And I felt all athletic and everything, and the disastrous dismount was forgotten! Scarily, for a few panicked seconds, so were the instructions on how to stop, but it came back to me before I hit the ski shed at the bottom of the hill, thus preserving Don’s reputation and my ability to harm myself another day.

Terri arrived soon after, all in one piece, and Don, while still staying an arm’s length away, congratulated us on surviving our ski lesson. We even went up one more time just to prove that we could do it, and managed to make it down alive. While I don’t believe that we are ready for the Olympic team trials yet (okay, ever), we were both pretty proud of ourselves and I’m sure that the next trip we’ll be ready to take on the White Lightning run. Have the video cameras ready.

If You Go

One of the coolest things about visiting West Virginia’s high country is that the people who live and work there really seem to want you to have a good time. They love the outdoors, and they want you to enjoy yourself, too.

Timberline Four Seasons Resort

The resort boasts 41 diverse trails, including two terrain parks, and the highest average vertical south of Vermont (we weren’t quite ready for that). Last year, the resort had 200 inches of snow, so you should have no problem getting out on the slopes. Oh, and they have awesome instructors! (Do you forgive us yet, Don?) www.timberlineresort.com, 1-800-SNOWING

The Ski Barn

Need to rent skis? These folks know their stuff, and they are very kind (other than the weight question) to beginners. www.skibarn.net, 304-866-4444

Canaan Valley Resort:

Recently renovated with 160 new lodge rooms and suites, the resort includes the Hickory Lodge dining room and Season’s Café for when you build up an appetite. And for some serious fun, check out their super-fast snow tubing track—we howled the whole way down. www.canaanresort.com, 304-866-4801

Blackwater Falls State Park

One of the most gorgeous places on earth, even when the falls are iced over. The park also has the longest sled run on the East Coast, featuring a quarter-mile of fresh-groomed mountain snow. And you don’t have to walk back up the hill thanks to a Wonder Carpet conveyor system. The park also offers more than 10 miles of cross-country skiing trails. www.blackwaterfalls.com, 304-259-5216

White Grass Cross Country Tour Center

Check out 37 miles of trails, including a steep, 1,200 vertical rise. And their restaurant serves homemade soups and sandwiches to die for.  www.whitegrass.com>, 304-866-4114

Watch ‘Is! Off-roading on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails


There are many things that you bring back from a great trip:  stunning photos, memorable moments, friendships that will last a lifetime. But when Terri and I got to travel to southern West Virginia’s coal country to go four-wheeling on the Hatfield-McCoy trails, we brought back something that stuck with us even more.

Mud.

Lots and lots of mud.

Now, I own a Jeep, so I’m no stranger to a little off-roading. But spending the day flying through the West Virginia mountains on all-terrain vehicles brings getting dirty to a whole new level. Admittedly, we could have missed a few of the puddles (our guide suggested that more than once), but what’s the fun in that?

When we first got to town, it was all quite civilized. We had a lovely lunch at Soho’s Italian Restaurant in the Capitol Market—a renovated 100-year-old rail yard that now houses stores and restaurants—and wandered the shops of downtown Charleston, West Virginia’s capital city. We visited the Spring Hill cemetery, which is unique in that it not only features unique graveyard art, including Celtic crosses, monolithic obelisks and my favorite, stones carved into tree stumps in the Stump family plot, but also an amazing view of downtown, including the gold-domed capitol building. Another highlight is the hollow zinc monument that marks the graves of the Thayer family; the story goes that it used to be used by bootleggers as a hiding place for their “product†during Prohibition.

We toured the very impressive West Virginia State Museum in the Capitol Complex, and also visited The Coal House in Williamson, WV, made of 65 tons of bituminous coal—since 1933, it has withstood four major floods and even a raging fire. While we were there, we got the chance to hold some bullets that had recently been discovered at a new Hatfield-McCoy dig site—nothing like having a bit of history in your hand!

But the real highlight of the trip was the chance to follow in the Hatfield and McCoy families’ footsteps—all of the parts except the shooting—as we careened though West Virginia hills and hollows.

Our host for the day, Jacqueline Proctor, introduced us to Mike from TrailsHeaven, who asked us if we’d be comfortable going out on UTVs (utility type vehicles). We could even drive them if we’d like. Sooner than Terri could say, “Watch ‘is!†we were helmeted up and heading out.

Terri (to Mike):  So how dangerous is this?

Mike: Just pay attention and you’ll be fine. And don’t get too close to the side of the cliff.

Vanessa (looking at the 30-foot drop):  We’re going to die.

Terri: Hush. We won’t go over the cliff.

Vanessa: Not willingly, at least.

Mike pales slightly, but keeps a strained smile on his face. And then Terri hits a huge puddle. Full speed. And we are covered—head to toe—in mud.

Vanessa (howling with laughter): Do it again! Do it again!

Mike: If you go slower, you won’t splash as much…..

Drenched. We are now drenched with mud. We stop to clean off our goggles, and Jacqueline pulls up in her ATV, also covered in mud and still looking like a fashion model. We snap a photo for posterity, just in case we somehow end up over the mountainside and our memory needs to be used as a cautionary tale for future riders. Now it’s my turn.

Terri: Do you need any advice? I’m good at this, you know.

Vanessa: You might just want to stay quiet—I swallowed mouthfuls of mud while I was in the back seat.

Terri: This was your plan all along to stop me from talking, wasn’t it?

And so we head down the hill. Fast. Slip-sliding every bit of the way and plowing into ever deeper puddles, spraying mud and guck and goodness knows what else. When we pull back into the parking lot and shut the machine off, it’s suddenly quiet, except for the sound of sucking mud detaching itself from the machine’s undercarriage and smacking to the pavement. The ATV, once a cheery yellow color, is now as brown as….well, mud.

We walk into the ladies’ room to clean off and dissolve into laughter when we look in the mirror.

Terri: I don’t think a handful of single-ply paper towels is going to do much.

Vanessa: I don’t think a pressure washer would do much.

Jacqueline, brilliant as ever, hands us large garbage bags that we proceed to wear—with pride—over our filth-covered clothes as we walk through the gift shop and back out to her car.

Jacqueline (with a straight face): Don’t get my car dirty, k?

We are so screwed.

If You Go

Seven trails make up the Hatfield-McCoy Trails system, totaling 630 miles through five southern West Virginia counties. The trails wind through the mountains and a number of ATV-friendly small towns, and vary from easy to extremely difficult routes, all of which are clearly marked. You must have a valid user permit before riding (WV resident $26.50, nonresident $50) which is good until Dec. 31 of the year it was purchased. While 99 percent of riders bring their own transportation, there are four companies that rent ATVs and UTVs, and you can also get guided tours. The trails are open to UTVs, ATVs and motorcycles.

Other attractions in the areas including motorcycling and kayaking. Motorcyclists should make sure to pick up a new map showcasing 1,000 miles of on-road motorcycle routes through southern West Virginia provided by www.trailsheaven.com. The site also provides information on kayak and off-road equipment rental, lodging, activities, restaurants and more.

Renting a Car in a Third-World Country


Terri and I are all about supporting local businesses when we can, so when it came to renting a car for our road trip through Belize, we took the advice of a friend who lived near Belize City and rented from a local company. Excited to get on the road, we were perhaps not as cautious as we should have been when we signed on the dotted line.

Car guy: You are ready to go. Here is a cellphone, a cooler and a map.

Terri: We get a cooler!

Vanessa: We get a map!

When we go to get in the car, we notice that ALL of the inside indicator lights are on—important ones like the engine light, brake light, oil light…you get the idea. So, discretion being the better part of valor, we get back out of the car to talk to the car guy, who is studiously ignoring us, despite the fact that we are standing in front of him.

Terri: We think there’s a problem. All of the car lights are on.

Car guy: It’s fine.

Vanessa: I’m pretty sure it’s not fine.

Car guy: It just got checked out. My guy says it’s fine. If you have any problems, you have a cell phone.

Terri: And a cooler.

Vanessa: Maybe it’s just an electrical short?

Car guy: It’s fine.

Vanessa: Or maybe it will stop in the middle of nowhere, and we will die a horrible death.

Car guy: You have a cell phone.

Terri: Thank God we have a cooler.

So still dubious but pretty much stuck, we take off on our road trip, which involves driving Belize’s four major highways—which are, in truth, its only highways. The scenery is gorgeous, which is a problem, because it distracts me from noticing that Belizeans LOVE speed bumps, which I hit, hard, at almost every opportunity. And each time that we hit a speed bump, the radio comes blasting on, which we find hysterical for the first hour, and not so much after that. The car, which should have been repossessed, is simply possessed.

Terri decides to distract us by pointing out landmarks.

Terri: Hey! There’s a G&T Bar. Maybe that stands for gin and tonic.

Vanessa: I’m thinking Gutted Tourists.

Terri: There’s a sawmill….and a slaughter house…..

Vanessa: There are far too many weapons on this road.

Terri: There’s a guy on a bike. And he has a shovel. Seriously, why is the guy carrying a shovel?

Vanessa: Normally, they’re carrying machetes.

Terri: I’ll go with the shovel.

We make good progress across the country, relieved that no new lights have come on while we’re driving (as if there were any lights left), until we come to Punta Gorda in the Toledo District, where we’re planning to spend the night. At this point, we’re not even surprised to see a prancing herd of goats in the road coming toward us, as well as a car in the other lane.

Terri: Aww, look at the goats! They’re so cute! You should probably slow down a little bit.

Terri: Seriously, you’re getting really close. You’re going to hit the goats.

Terri: VANESSA! WHAT THE HELL? YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN.

Vanessa: (lots of cursing) WE HAVE NO BRAKES!

Through some miracle, the car coming toward us (and its panicked driver) passed us just in time for me to swerve into his lane, narrowly missing sideswiping a goat, whose hair is probably still embedded in the frame of that cursed car. We drift into a parking lot of an auto supply store—the only auto supply store in southern Belize, mind you—where we try to use the cellphone. Which doesn’t work. And did I mention that the cooler was empty?

After a slight tantrum in the parking lot (mine), Terri suggests we go in the store and borrow a phone. I call the car rental agency, who informs me that we have brakes. I tell them we do not. They tell me that we do. I repeat that we do not. Then Terri, who is normally Mary Sunshine, puts out her hand.

Terri: Give me the phone.

Vanessa: But I…and then they…and I….

Terri: Give. Me. The. Phone.

So I’ve heard the expression “going all New York on someone,†but I’d never actually seen it in person. And it is scary. Like nuclear plant meltdown scary. I’ve blocked most of the conversation out of my mind at this point, but some choice bits included “Do you know what would happen if we’d hit those goats? I’m in the car with an animal rights activist!†and “No. We will not wait here to make sure that your car will not get stolen. It NEEDS to be stolen. I HOPE it gets stolen. It DESERVES to get stolen.â€

So we catch a ride to our eco-lodge and wait a couple hours for their mechanic to come pick us up and trade us cars. Which he does.

Leaving us with a battered SUV with 100,000-plus miles. And no transmission.

If You Go

Rental Cars

Should you decide to tackle the roads of Belize and prefer a vehicle with brakes, a working transmission and without warning lights blazing, we suggest checking out these websites where you’ll find reputable internationally known rental car companies that are conveniently located at the Phillip Goldson International Airport in Belize City. Seriously, check them out so the poor goats in Belize have a fighting chance:

Hertz

Phone: +501 225 3300

Hours of Operation:

Mon – Fri 8:00AM – 5:00PM

Sat 6:00AM – 8:00PM

Sun 6:00AM – 5:00PM

Alamo

Phone: +501 223 0641

Hours of Operation:

Mon – Fri 9AM-6PM

Sat 9AM-6PM

Sun 9AM-6PM

Budget

Phone: +501 225 2280

Hours of Operation:

Mon – Sun 8:30AM–4:30PM

The Veto Factor


There’s a reason that we’re starting this site with an article on the Veto Factor—it’s the only reason that we’re still alive.

The thing is, both of us love adventure, and we like going where no man (or woman) has gone before. Which means jumping off a cliff into a bottomless pool in Belize (yeah, I did that). Or swimming (unintentionally) with piranhas in Peru (great idea, Terri!) Or hanging out behind the NO ADMITTANCE sign on a secure military base in Central America (probably best not to mention that location).

In other words, we do stupid things. A lot. But every so often, we call on the Veto Factor to prevent ourselves from doing something so epically idiotic that we may not ever recover, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to keep traveling, or writing, or sharing our adventures with you.

On every trip, each of us gets a total of three vetoes—chances to say no, without explanation, to the other person’s idea. So a typical conversation goes like this:

Terri: I got the map from the rental car guy. There’s a road here that’s marked off in big red X’s that says, “DO NOT ATTEMPT.†I think we should go find it.

Vanessa: No. We will not go find it. We have already been on four roads that they call ‘highways’ here, including one being built while we were driving on it, and one that actually ended up in a stream.

Terri: But it will be fun! How bad could it be?

Vanessa: We just drove over FISH. On a highway.

Terri: Right. And we did fine. So let’s take this road.

Vanessa: AAA doesn’t work here, Terri. And I’m not driving on a road that even people who live here—who use machetes to access their highways—will not use.

Terri: But think of the pictures.

Vanessa: The last photos our parents ever see?

Terri: Seriously. It’s only about 40 miles out of our way…

Vanessa: VETO.

So you see where I’m going with this (which is not on that road). We will occasionally not tell you stories, of places that we have not been, because they have been vetoed. But otherwise, this site is pretty much a free-for-all of amazing places, great people and epic adventures that we’re lucky enough to experience as travel writers. And we’d love it if you’d join us on our journey.

Getting that Sinking Feeling: Kayaking in the Nation’s Largest Sunken Ship Graveyard


So it’s bad enough when Terri and I get in a car together, especially if she wants to drive. She considers my need to have hold of the steering wheel at all times the sign of a true control freak; I see it more as the need to not spend my last moments on earth dying in a fiery inferno caused by her inattention to small details—like which side of the road she’s supposed to be on.

So I was a little hesitant when we went on a trip to southern Maryland and were paired together in a two-person kayak to explore Mallows Bay Park in Charles County, home to the largest sunken ship graveyard in North America. There were a few things that made me balk, like the fact that Terri literally had no experience kayaking. And that a kayak has no brakes. Not to mention that we would be weaving through the rust-covered ribs of centuries-old boats in water that was over our heads.

And did you see the part about how this was a SUNKEN ship graveyard? I wasn’t looking forward to its claiming another victim.

Common sense aside, we decided to check out this part of the Potomac River Water Trail, so we put on our life vests and got into the boat.

Terri: Should I sit in the front or back?

Vanessa: That depends. Do you want to run us into things, or do you want to try to stop us from running into things, probably unsuccessfully?

Terri: The first?

Vanessa: Sit in front.

So with Terri as the navigator (two words that should never be together in a sentence), we launched our craft and started paddling through an eerie, spectral landscape. The waters of the bay cover more than 100 sunken or scuttled ships, including an 18th century schooner, a Confederate blockade runner and a Revolutionary-era longboat. Almost 100 wooden ships, part of the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet, also met their end here, and you can still wind through their rust and barnacle-encrusted ribs that rise out of the water as if signaling their surrender.

Terri: This is unbelievable!

Vanessa: The fact that we’re paddling over an entire underwater fleet, or that we haven’t dumped the kayak yet?

Terri: Actually both.

There was something surreal about coming up alongside the Accomac, a massive, steel-hulled ferry that served in World War II before finding its way to the bay. More surprising was realizing that what looked like a bunch of tangled branches on the bow was actually a huge osprey nest… with a very vocal and protective bird inside.

Terri (paddling forward): Look at that ! Let’s get closer!

Vanessa (paddling backward): Not a good plan.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) Why aren’t we moving?

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) Because I don’t have a death wish.

Terri: (continuing to paddle forward) I just want to see the nest.

Vanessa: (continuing to paddle backward) And I just want to see tomorrow. Did you seriously never see the movie, The Birds?

Realizing that we were not going to go either forward or backward, we called a truce and just floated, which gave us the opportunity to check out more of the area’s wildlife. Despite being a ‘graveyard,’ the bay is teeming with life, from tiny little turtles smaller than the palm of your hand to elegant herons and even bald eagles that thrive in this area nominated as a Natural Marine Sanctuary.

Despite my initial misgivings, Terri and I did survive our first kayak excursion together, and we’ve since been on a few more. The secret, I’ve discovered, is easy—make sure to wear a life jacket.

And ask for your own kayak.

If You Go

Unlike a lot of areas where it’s difficult to get into the water, Mallows Bay Park has a boat ramp that provides easy access to the Potomac River. You can rent a kayak and paddle through the area on your own, but hiring a local guide is a great way to learn more about the history of the fleet, as well as the landscape that was once a fishing and hunting ground for the Piscataway Indians.

We greatly enjoyed our time with Judy Lathrop of Atlantic Kayak Company, who is a wealth of knowledge: www.atlantickayak.com, 301-292-6455.

If you want to learn more about the area’s maritime history or take part in even more outdoor adventures, visit www.charlescountymd.gov/tourism or www.visitmaryland.org.