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!

 

Getting Cold Feet at Coldfoot Camp


A green light is shining on the mountains.
Photo taken by Vanessa with her Samsung phone: Imagine what she could do with a real camera!

“Looky, looky!†An elderly Asian lady excitedly tugged on my coat sleeve and pointed to the sky. Above us, the aurora borealis gracefully danced across the heavens, putting on a show the likes of which I’d never seen before. Vanessa and I (and it seemed roughly half the population of Asia) were in Alaska—high above the Arctic Circle in the tiny settlement of Wiseman, AK, where we all gasped in wonder as the night sky took on a life of its own.

After traveling the Dalton Highway all day and part of the night—our journey made longer by a jack-knifed truck—we had arrived at Coldfoot Camp, population 10. When word came that the northern lights were expected to make an appearance, we decided to travel to the old mining town of Wiseman, about 14 miles further north—or an hour’s drive—to experience this natural phenomenon far away from any manmade lights. So we hopped in a van to drive to this thriving rural metropolis…population 14.

Vanessa: We’ve been traveling north for nine hours. How much north can be left in this state?

Terri: Maybe we’re going to watch the northern lights with polar bears.

Vanessa: That would be awesome. At least we’d be snuggly warm.

Cold doesn’t begin to describe the bone-chilling temperatures this far above the Arctic Circle. Though we desperately wanted to see the lights, it’s hard to summon up a lot of enthusiasm when it’s negative 40 degrees…and you’re just starting your journey at 11 p.m. We decked ourselves out in more layers than an onion (and would happily have added more if we could have wrestled the outerwear off the other tourists.) There is such a thing as coat lust.

A clock on the side of a building in winter.
It warmed up to -20 by morning! Photo by Vanessa

A Tiny Cabin, A Warm Fire and an Unusual Man

We were welcomed to a one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere by Jack, a man right out of central casting if you were looking for a weathered, charismatic Alaskan character. It did make me wonder what it is about traveling that makes people (or at least us) forget to ask those safety questions we do at home. Things like, “Why are we going to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with strangers? And why are we eating and drinking the things that even stranger strangers hand us?â€

In this case, it was a good decision. (And trust me, often it’s not.) Inside that little cabin was a fireplace with a roaring fire, hot chocolate and cookies. And then there was Jack—who would (and should) be the mayor of Wiseman if there were enough people to hold an election. Jack embodies all that is interesting, unusual and quirky about rural Alaska. He lives in this tiny village, welcoming anyone and everyone who happens to visit. He knows everything that there is to know about the northern lights. And he patches his pants together with duct tape and rocks a pair of bunny boots.

A pair of white boots sitting on top of a table.
Bunny Boots, because you have to see them to understand!

About those Bunny Boots

For those new to the Bush, bunny boots are extreme cold vapor barrier boots, most often used by the U.S. military. And in Jack’s case, they were huge. This delighted the Asian contingent to no end, and Jack is now immortalized in hundreds of photos comparing tourists’ tiny boots with his massive footprint. Even if the lights hadn’t appeared, I’m not sure that our traveling companions would have minded since they were having the time of their lives in this cozy little outpost.

In addition to being fashion-forward, Jack also happens to be an expert photographer—especially of the northern lights. And he became Vanessa’s new BFF when he showed her how to set up a tripod and use her Samsung phone to capture the spectacle in the sky, something that she had not succeeded in doing up until this point.

There’s no way to truly describe what standing under the lights is like; we spent hours staring at the night sky, oohing and ahhing until we couldn’t stand the cold one more second. I knew it was time to leave when I stood so close to the outdoor fire that I burned my gloves right off.

Insider tip: make sure that you occasionally look down from the sky to check your surroundings, especially when standing near open flames.

A snowy mountain with buildings and trees in the background.
Coldfoot Camp in all its frozen glory. Photo by Terri

Who Stays at a Camp Named Coldfoot?

As the lights, and some of the other tourists, began to fade, we made our way back to Coldfoot Camp where we were overnighting before flying back to Fairbanks. One of three tiny settlements dotted along the northern end of the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot isn’t a place where people just pop in for a visit. If you’re heading up there, you have to be committed—or possibly running from the law.

The first people who thought it was a good idea to settle here obviously arrived in summer. When the harsh winter weather showed up, they got cold feet and headed south. Thus the name.

A close up of the side of a wooden pole
A not so subtle reminder that your toes could easily become icicles. Photo by Terri

Built by Truckers for Truckers

The toe-freezing cold may have scared off the first settlers, but it didn’t stop truck drivers. Coldfoot Camp is the northernmost truck stop in the world, and it is renowned for its commitment to those brave souls who travel the Dalton. It all started with Dick Mackey, whose claim to fame was the 1978 Iditarod win—the closest race ever. He literally won by a dog’s nose.

Mackey wanted to show his appreciation for the hard-working truckers keeping the Alaskan Pipeline project going, so he converted an old bus into a hot dog and hamburger stand in Coldfoot. The truckers appreciated it so much, they began dropping off their surplus supplies so that Mackey could build a permanent structure. It’s a place built by truckers for truckers, and there’s even a long table reserved strictly for these drivers—no tourists allowed.

A large wooden table with chairs around it.
Truckers only. No tourists. Photo by Terri

Vanessa and I greatly enjoyed dinner and drinks at the bar—not to mention hot showers and warm beds in the basic yet incredibly comfortable accommodations. In fact, she didn’t want to get up when I knocked at her door the next morning. Maybe she already knew what was coming.

The Flight Back—a Slightly Terrifying (and humiliating) Adventure

After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-warm camp rooms, Vanessa and I joined the truckers for breakfast. Surprised that we had never been given a time for our flight back to Fairbanks, I went to look for answers.

Terri: Hi, we’re flying back to Fairbanks this morning. Do you know what time we need to leave for the airport?

Laughing Man: Not sure when the plane will get here. We’ll call you when it does.

Terri: Don’t we need to be at the airport a couple of hours early?

Laughing Man:  Not exactly.

Leaving our fate in his hands, we went to breakfast, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. But when we saw our tiny toy plane land on the icy runway (which clearly doubles as an open field—or possibly a lake) during warmer months, we were sorry we had eaten anything…ever.

A small airplane sitting on top of an airport runway.
An icy runway, a step stool & a toy plane. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Terri

We walked out onto the runway, (yes, seriously), and waited for a few people to disembark and grab their luggage (no claim check here!) before getting on the plane. Before boarding, the seemingly nice pilot asked us our weight.

Terri: Well, that’s not polite.

Vanessa:  They need to know what you weigh to distribute the weight evenly on the plane. He’s trying to keep up alive.

Terri: What happens if we lie?

Vanessa:  We die.

Terri: That seems like pretty extreme punishment for shaving a few pounds off.

Shaking his head, he seated us on opposite sides of the toy plane. Then he flew us safely back to Fairbanks, along with a couple of other passengers. Vanessa took photos the whole way, so at least there would be a record of what happened when they found the wreckage among the jagged peaks.

In case I lied.

A view of the ocean from an airplane window.
Mountain peaks & a frozen Yukon River (a/k/a places not to land) Photo by Terri

If You Go:

Northern Alaska adventures typically start in Fairbanks, and for good reason. Fairbanks has a burgeoning art scene, diverse (& delicious) cuisine, a wealth of information about life in Alaska and hiking with reindeer. (More on that soon!) Check out some of the highlights at www.explorefairbanks.com.

When you’re ready for your arctic adventure, the good folks at Northern Alaska Tour Company will hook you up with a driver for a heart-pumping, fingernail biting trek up the Dalton Highway. They’ll also fly you back to Fairbanks after an exhilarating night of aurora chasing! www.northernalaska.com

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!

 

Alaska’s Dalton Highway: We Survived—by Letting Someone Else Drive


“No, you are not going to drive.â€

These are the first words that Vanessa said to me after learning that we would be traveling Alaska’s famed Dalton Highway.

And she was right, I wasn’t driving. But this time, neither was she. Hell, even ice road truckers don’t want to drive what is not only one of the northernmost highways in the world but also one of the most dangerous—especially in winter when ice and snow make it even more treacherous.

We were leaving the driving to the professionals—in this case, Ken Anderson, a 17-time Iditarod competitor. Having ranked in the top four in a few of those races, Ken knows a thing or two about handling ice and snow. Of course, that was with dogs and we were heading out in a 15-passenger van. But training is training, right?

A woman standing in front of a sign that says " welcome to the dalton highway ".
And we’re off!

The Dalton Highway Explained

Starting in north-central Alaska near the town of Livengood, roughly 80 miles north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway winds along a 414-mile route heading north to the Arctic Ocean. Built in 1974 to help support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this highway brings an entirely new perspective to isolation.

There are only three permanent towns along the way: Coldfoot, Wiseman and Deadhorse. The biggest is Deadhorse—population 25. We were heading to the aptly named town of Coldfoot. And, there are no towns between Livengood and Coldfoot, so we were on our own if anything happened. As Ken said, “We’ll be traveling at our own risk.â€

The man is a master of understatement.

Knowing that Vanessa would need to keep a close eye on the road because she’s a control freak, I ceded the front seat to her. She sat quietly staring through the already-broken windshield, counting down the miles. Which passed oh, so very slowly.

A truck driving down the road in the snow.
Should we be worried about the crack in the windshield?

An excellent tour guide, Ken had plenty of anecdotes to share along with insights into the locals. “The further out from town you go, the crazier the people,†he told us happily. It wasn’t the most comforting thought, considering we might need some of those lunatics should we run into trouble.

He told us not to worry, though, because he had plenty of extra food and supplies should we get stranded along the way. This did add a bit of comfort, as I figured Vanessa’s silence was probably due to her thinking about who she would eat first if we couldn’t get help until the spring thaw.

Isolation and Abandonment—We Have a Theme!

While we’d been warned that there would be few people along the route, it didn’t strike home until we began following the Elliot Highway from Fairbanks to where it intersected with the Dalton Highway and saw our first sign.

Olnes, Population 1.

A sign in the snow that says " entering olmes city."
Why bother? Photo by Vanessa

Seriously, why even bother to put up a sign when there’s no one else there to read it?

Fifty miles up the road, Ken stopped so we could check out the former homestead of Joe and Nancy Carlson, who were locally famous for parenting five children and adopting another 19 or so. The Carlson family homesteaded in what was known as Joy, Alaska, and operated the Arctic Circle Trading Company. But don’t expect to see any signage acknowledging the Arctic Circle Trading Company—the main building is labeled the Wildwood General Store…which bothers no one but very literal writers.

And don’t expect to meet any of the Carlson family, either. They’re long gone. But for some reason, their possessions stayed behind. There’s a truck in the garage, furniture in the house, who knows…maybe even beer in the fridge. But not a soul in sight.

Vanessa: There’s something really strange about a family moving and leaving everything they own behind.

Terri: I’ve moved a time or 10 in my life, and I’ve taken along most of my possessions. Although I did leave an ex-husband behind once.

Vanessa: Making him the happiest man ever?

Terri: You know, you could get left behind, too.

A building with many clocks on the side of it.
Welcome to the Carlson’s homestead! Photo by Vanessa

And then…the Outhouse

As we wandered around taking in the intriguing sights, including an old auto repair shop mounted with license plates from all over the world, Ken mentioned that we could use the outhouse if we wanted. Considering that our one-way trip was scheduled to take nine hours with rest stops few and far between, we definitely felt the need.

I’ve never been a fan of outhouses and the suggestion of using one when the outside temperature was -33 was less than appealing. Not to mention having to remove copious layers of clothes just to do the deed. I’m pretty sure it was the fastest outhouse visit ever—and I can assure that there was no sitting down on the seat because neither of us wanted to explain how we got frostbite on our butts.

A wooden outhouse with snow on the ground.
Cute, right? Maybe?

Life as an Ice Road Trucker

Despite the danger that the Dalton Highway presents, approximately 250 truckers travel the road every day in winter. Portions of the road are concrete, others are gravel, and all of it is covered in ice and snow. Just to make things more interesting, it’s also only two lanes. So, it should come as no surprise that when there are accidents, you can be stuck waiting for hours for the road to clear.

As we were merrily rolling along, a call came over the radio warning us of a jackknifed truck ahead that was blocking the highway. Since there’s no alternate route, we rolled up to the scene like everyone else. Ken jumped out to lend a hand.

Since he left the radio on, I wanted to talk to the truckers, but Vanessa wouldn’t hand me the mouthpiece. She provided some lame excuse about them already being annoyed enough. Watching as everyone came together to put a massive chain on the wreck and yank it to the side of the road was pretty cool. It turns out when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for AAA is not an option.

A man standing on the side of a road near a truck.
Trouble ahead! Photo by Vanessa

Hot Food and Frozen Rivers

After making it past the wreck, we stopped at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop, a trailer-type building full of surprises. Though we expected “trucker†fare, instead we got incredibly delicious Asian food and all the convenience-type store amenities you’d expect—including, thank God, an indoor bathroom.

A bowl of food with meat, beans and rice.
Lunch at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop! Photo by Vanessa

Ken suggested we take a minute to run down to the Yukon River for photos.

Vanessa: We can stand on the Yukon River? It’s that frozen?

Ken: It’s -33 degrees. Everything is that frozen.

So of course, Vanessa and I scrambled down the snowy hillside to the edge of the mighty river. Never taking into consideration that -33 on land could mean -40 on a frozen river, we ran out to take the ultimate selfies. Vanessa ventured further than me because I couldn’t move. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was frozen…literally. All the way from my toes to my eyelashes which were individually separated—each coated with ice.

A woman with blue eyes wearing a winter hat and scarf.
Frozen! Photo by Vanessa

After Vanessa snapped me off the river like a rogue icicle, we made it back to the toasty van to continue our journey north. (Admittedly, the van could have been 20 degrees—it still would have felt like a sauna.) Knowing that we would be stunned by the landscape to come, Ken couldn’t wait to share the next stop. In the deep winter, the twisted trees of the boreal forest are covered by feet of snow that hang off of every branch, creating characters right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Completely entranced, we spent a long time taking pictures, only stopping because the sun went down. Reminding us that we were in the middle of nowhere with miles more to go to reach the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot Camp—the next leg of an incredible journey.

A group of snow covered trees in the middle of a field.
Little Cindy Loo Who, where are you? Photo by Vanessa

If You Go…

The Northern Alaska Tour Company provided our above the Arctic Circle experience. They greatly impressed us with their ability to get travelers to such a remote destination so safely and efficiently. And they make it so much fun!

We signed up for the Arctic Circle Aurora Fly/Drive Northbound Adventure, which is one of a number of packages they offer. The package included an overnight stay at Coldfoot Camp and an incredible aurora viewing experience in the Native village of Wiseman (more on that coming up!)

For the return trip, we boarded a teeny tiny plane, and although we had to swallow our pride and share our weight for balanced seating, the views of the frozen landscape below were worth the minor embarrassment!

To learn more about all they have to offer, visit www.northernalaska.com.

For more information on all the really cool things to do in Fairbanks and beyond, visit www.explorefairbanks.com.

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

 

 

Sink or Swim: Houseboating Adventures on Raystown Lake


A train is traveling down the tracks near trees.
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 speedometer with instructions on how to read it.
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 body of water with trees in the background
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 woman holding onto a rope tied to a tree.
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 hot tub with a view of the mountains.
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 woman in black shirt walking on trail near trees.
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.

Let’s Talk Houseboating


 

Sometimes we take our stories on air for the world to hear. It works well for me since I LOVE to talk! Here’s a link to my recent appearance on Travel Planners Radio Network where I share my version of the tales from our mishap-filled adventures while houseboating in Pennsylvania. No doubt Vanessa will have her own version to share, too. But, I’m jumping in first!

 

 

A group of boats in the water at a dock.
Where it began…no one warned the good folks at Seven Points Marina!
A hot tub with a view of the mountains.
Hot tubs and Houseboats go together like Cheerios & Milk!
A woman in black shirt walking on trail near trees.
When you finally master tying the boat up to the trees, you can go for a hike!
A woman in blue jacket leaning on tree.
If you’re going to tie a houseboat to a tree, you need to show it some love!

Battling Big, Bad Zombies in Beloit, Wisconsin


Badgers are described as “ferocious fighters with an attitude that should not be bothered.†I mention this because Vanessa and I recently spent a few days in Wisconsin—the badger state. Coincidence? I think not. Although we are generally harmless—when left alone—there are times when our tendency to be ferocious fighters comes in handy. One such time was during our visit to Beloit.

A bar with many bottles of alcohol on the wall
Cocktails at truk’t – The only way to start a visit!

It All Began with Cocktails, of course!

The trip started off in excellent fashion with cocktails at truk’t—one of Beloit’s newest trendy and delicious hot spots. Our host and friend, Stacey, was eager to introduce us to truk’t’s margaritas, and who are we to argue when cocktails are involved? 

As we sat chatting about our planned itinerary for the next few days, Stacey mentioned a couple of changes.

Stacey:  Ladies, it looks like the weather isn’t going to be very cooperative this weekend so I thought I would suggest we replace one of the outdoor activities with a visit to our state-of-the-art indoor golf lab.

Vanessa:  That’s probably not the best idea. Terri and I are terrible at golf.  Like really, really terrible. Catastrophically, in fact.

Terri:  She’s right. We suck. We tried to play at Old Kinderhook in Missouri, and no one has seen or heard from the golf pro since.

Vanessa:  We broke him.

With a slightly concerned look, Stacey explained that although the Ironworks Golf Lab has an HD simulator that lets you choose from more than 80 golf courses from around the world, it’s also an entertainment center offering several other types of games.

When you think about it,  watching Vanessa and I attempt to play golf on any of the 80 plus courses  would make the Ironworks Golf Lab an entertainment center even without other attractions. But it would likely involve a considerable amount of cursing. Which, of course, would be totally inappropriate for this family-friendly venue.

Stacey: You can use the Visual Sports Simulators and choose between other games, including baseball, football, basketball, zombie dodgeball and many others.

Vanessa:  Wait. Stop. Right. There. Did you say ZOMBIE dodgeball?

Vanessa’s hands began to twitch. Hoping Stacey wouldn’t notice, I jumped in.

Terri:  Stacey, I think you’ve found our entertainment. Vanessa’s years of preparation in anticipation of the Zombie Apocalypse have brought her to this point. She may stink at golf, but she’s an Olympian hopeful at zombie dodgeball.

Vanessa (salivating):  I’ve actually never played, but I’m ready. Yes, I’m definitely ready.

Her hands were still twitching, and I could have sworn her fingernails were turning into claws…maybe badger claws?

A badger is standing in some grass looking at the camera.
The Infamous Badger (a/k/a Vanessa)

Prepping for Battle

After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-chic Hotel Goodwin, we woke to a rainy day as expected. No worries though, because our first order of business was to get a massage at the WM Day Spa. Everyone needs a little deep tissue work before terrorizing zombies, right?

To fortify ourselves, we stopped into Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar for lunch. This delicious little spot has burgers stuffed with all kinds of cheese. I chose the Wisconsinite; a decadent burger stuffed with cheddar cheese and topped with beer cheese and brats. Vanessa chose the Mac & Cheese, which is exactly what it sounds like—a burger stuffed with mac & cheese. If that doesn’t get you badger-ready for battle, I don’t know what would.

Oblivious to the upcoming bloodshed, our server was adorable. Besides being friendly and attentive, she and the other servers wore outfits inspired by one of the most popular pin-up girls of WWII. Lucy Winslow was nicknamed #7 by her dad when she arrived in the family after her six older brothers. The Wisconsin farm-girl served in the USO as a nurse during the war and later became a starlet. Fun tributes to her, including a life-size mural, abound throughout the eatery.

A woman holding a plate of food in front of her face.
Just too cute! Our adorable server at Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar!

Time to Annihilate the Undead

With relaxed muscles and full tummies, we headed off to the Ironworks Golf Lab. This 8,000 sq. ft. entertainment center is housed in the renovated industrial site of the former Beloit Iron Works foundry. Murals within the Ironworks complex pay tribute to the workers who kept the business alive for more than 100 years.

We arrived at the golf lab and stopped to give our names at the desk, where the manager asked what games we wanted to play.

Terri: I’d love to try football, and maybe baseball.

Vanessa:  Zombies. We. Want. Zombies.

Obviously unnerved by her intensity, the manager led us straight back to the room and showed us how to activate the zombie dodgeball game. We never saw him again.

At that moment, the room-sized screen came to life, and the ever-so-creepy zombies determinedly marched their way toward us; slowly at first, and then faster. Grabbing the dodgeballs, we began throwing them at the screen. And I began screaming.

Terri:  Why don’t these suckers fall down when I hit them? They just keep coming and coming.

Vanessa (throwing balls madly): You have to hit them in the head! Have you never seen ANY zombie movies?

I kept screaming as the zombies crept toward me, faster and faster. Until I started knocking off one, then another…then another.

Terri (screaming):  DIE, ZOMBIES DIE!

Vanessa:  Jeez, Terri, are you ok? You seem a little…wound up. You know it’s just a game, right?

Terri (yelling):  I AM THE QUEEN OF THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!

And that’s why we’ll probably never be invited back to Beloit.

A carnival ride with a clown statue in the middle of it.
Zombies: They just keep coming!!

If you go…

First, you have no choice but to go to the Ironworks Golf Lab to either work on your golf game or annihilate zombies like we did. (You know which one to choose, just do it.) www.ironworksgolflab.com

While you’re in Beloit, don’t skip a visit to Beloit College’s Logan Museum of Anthropology. Inside, more than 350,000 objects from more than 125 countries and 600 cultural groups are housed in a glass cube. On campus, you’ll also find Native American burial mounds—seriously, who knew? www.beloit.edu/logan

Also on campus, the Wright Museum of Art is home to more than 6,000 pieces of work from a range of cultures and art movements, including American Impressionism, German Expressionism and Japanese modern prints. www.beloit.edu/wright

You have to eat…

No matter where we go in this world, eating and drinking are part of the experience. We don’t care if it’s a lopsided part of the experience…we’re just doing what we need to do. (That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.)

truk’t – For tacos, whiskey, margaritas and much more, check out truk’t. Tell them we sent you but if they suddenly seem reluctant to serve you let them know you’ve only heard about us but never met us. Works every time.  www.trukttacos.com

Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar – I’ve already told you why you need to go here. Just do it! www.l7burgerbar.com

Clara Bo & Gatsby Wine Bar – OK, the food is delicious. But that’s not all. As soon as we walked into the door, we felt as if we’d wandered into the 1920’s. We’re old, but not that old. Nevertheless, we totally enjoyed the food, the opulent décor, the music…well, actually, everything. Do not miss this experience! www.clarabo.com

A woman drinking from a glass in front of a wall.
Martinis and more at Clara Bo’s! (Also known as ‘research’)

You have to sleep…

There was a theme throughout our time in Beloit: unexpected. It began (obviously) with the chance to throw dodgeballs at zombies, but it was a defining thread during our visit. Beloit offers an ingenious blend between the city’s tried and true traditions and modern luxury. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Hotel Goodwin. This impossibly chic boutique hotel is inspired by the 19th century Goodwin House. Each room is distinctive with eye-catching art, turntables and unique record collections. (Sadly, we’re old enough to know about turntables. If you’re not, ask your grandparents.)

A record player sitting on top of a rack.
Hey Kids! This is a turntable!

Don’t miss dinner at the hotel’s Velvet Buffalo Café where there are 120 bottles of wine to choose from. Seriously, they actually booked us in a hotel that offers 120 bottles of wine. What were they thinking?www.hotelgoodwin.com

 For more information visit www.visitbeloit.com.