Sink or Swim: Houseboating Adventures on Raystown Lake

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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!

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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!

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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?)

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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).

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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.

houseboating in Pennsylvania
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!

 

 

houseboating in Pennsylvania
Where it began…no one warned the good folks at Seven Points Marina!
houseboating in Pennsylvania
Hot tubs and Houseboats go together like Cheerios & Milk!
houseboating in Pennsylvania
When you finally master tying the boat up to the trees, you can go for a hike!
houseboating in pennsylvania
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.

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.com
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?

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.com
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.

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.co
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.

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.con
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

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.co
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.)

Things to do in Beloit Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory.com
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.

 

Pinkies Up! Tea Time in Altoona

By Vanessa

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Ah, the tradition of afternoon tea. How civilized!

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

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

So Many Stunning Chapeaus

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Hats, hats and more hats! You know we had to try them all on.

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

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

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

Terri: Why do you even bother to ask?

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Once a southern belle, always a southern belle.

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
I might have been slightly unbalanced, but damn I look good while perusing my many tea choices.

Choose Your Teacup…Very Carefully

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Breakable items on every single surface. How there wasn’t an ‘incident,’ I don’t know.

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
A cranberry vanilla sugar scone with Devonshire cream. A girl could get used to this.

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Owners George and Pamela Wertman in the foyer of Bell Mansion

Of Course, We’re Taking Tea in a Mansion

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

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

Afternoon tea in Altoona
Our friend, Jennifer Fleck, who is a total natural at this hat-wearing thing.

If You Go:

Want to celebrate the Victorian Age in style?

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

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

What goes well with a hat?

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

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

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

Want to work off all those scones?

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

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

How Cheese Curds Saved My Life: A Girls’ Getaway in Janesville, Wisconsin

Often in our travels, Vanessa and I seek out ways to connect with the local community. Sometimes it’s through cultural events, other times it’s in cooking classes (which is a story for another day) and once in a while, it’s through crafts. We tried glass blowing in the Black Forest region of Germany where the language barrier almost cost me my front teeth—yet another story. In Texas, we were given paint brushes along with copious amounts of wine—I’m sure you can imagine how that turned out. Most recently, we were given pieces of glass and a myriad of sharp tools.

Seriously. What were they thinking?

Janesville Wisconsin for a cheesey girlfriends' getaway on EveryRoadAStory
Cheesy maybe? I. Don’t. Care.

There’s Nothing Like a Girlfriends’ Getaway…with Cheese!

We were in Janesville, Wisconsin for a girlfriends’ getaway. Our visit started off splendidly when our host and now dearest friend, Susan, arrived at breakfast carrying two bags of cheese curds—the best food known to woman. This was Wisconsin after all…the largest cheese producing state in the country.

In exchange for the cheese curds, we happily agreed to pose for a photo in the Cheese Head hat. When in Rome, right? And let’s face it; we’ll do almost anything for cheese.

More cheese curds magically appeared when we stopped for lunch at the Whiskey Ranch in downtown Janesville. This time they were deep-fried. Be still my heart. Of course, we happily indulged despite the moans from our soon-to-be-clogged arteries.

Janesville Wisconsin for a Girlfriends' Getaway on EveryRoadAStory
The utterly ridiculous & delicious deep fried cheese curds at Whiskey Ranch!

On to Something Healthier…Just in Time!

We followed all of this deep-fried decadence with a visit to Bodacious Olive where—in an effort to save what non-fat cells we had left—owner Bekki Kennedy introduced us to the many health benefits of premium olive oils and vinegars. There wasn’t a cheese curd in sight. But we sampled from a variety of flavors in the beautifully appointed, boutique-style store and vowed to change our eating habits.

Ah, such good intentions.

Janesville Wisconsin for a girlfriends' getaway on EveryRoadAStory
Healthier Options at Bodacious Olive

You Might Need Bigger Clothes

Afterward, we went on a successful shopping spree. Not because we had to (cheese!) but because we wanted to. Always in favor of supporting small businesses, we were delighted to spend time perusing the aisles of Carousel Consignments, where Vanessa almost passed out from sheer joy. Every inch of this 4,000 sq. ft. shop on Janesville’s Main Street is filled with treasures. Literally stacked to the ceiling! From housewares to retro phones to record albums to decades of National Geographic magazines, if you’re looking for it, it’s probably here. Heck, if you lost it at some point in your life, we can now tell you where to find it.

Janesville Wisconsin for a girlfriends' getaway on EveryRoadAStory
Need anything? I mean ANYTHING???

Nearby, Angie’s on Main provided even more treasures of the collectible variety mixed with newer items like scarves and jewelry—which, of course, I had to check out…and purchase. The industrial-chic Velvet & Tulle was another favorite. Located in a former butcher shop dating back more than 100 years, this charming boutique offers a unique selection of clothing and accessories in a wide range of sizes. We did a little credit card damage for sure, but that’s what girls’ trips are for, right?

Janesville Wisconsin for a girlfriends' getaway on EveryRoadAStory
I wanted this hat. I should have bought it. I’m going back.

Shopping, Wine, Chocolate & a Spa: In Other Words, A Good Day!

We also stopped in at Raven’s Wish Gallery, where Vanessa picked up a turquoise squirrel bag for a friend. Because, of course, she knows people who love squirrels. These squirrel-lovers include a woman who feeds a three-legged creature named Captain Dan. I knew better than to even ask.

We rounded out the itinerary with a wine and chocolate tasting at North Leaf Winery where they make both the wine and chocolate in-house to create the perfect pairing. While imbibing, we even created our own wine stoppers and surprisingly, they turned out pretty well! (Craft machines…that’s us!)

We then soothed our tired muscles (you know, from digesting all those cheese curds) with wonderful massages at Bellasazi Salon & Spa. And finally, it was off to Glass Garden.

Janesville Wisconsin for a girlfriends' getawy on EveryRoadAStory
In our happy place at Northleaf Winery!

Take Cover: The Shards are Flying

Our class in making art from glass was to begin at 7 p.m. Due to a GPS that insisted numerous times that we should drive across a closed road, we arrived at 7:05 to find everyone in place, glass pieces and sharp tools in hand. Not the most welcoming look.

Note to self: being fashionably late is only acceptable in New York.

Due to our late arrival, Vanessa and I wouldn’t be able to work side-by-side. We were sent to separate tables—I’m not sure that Vanessa thought of this as a punishment. She settled in on the other side of the room. I choose the table closest to the wine and cheese curds. I know my gifts…crafting isn’t one of them. Wine and cheese curds I can work like a pro.

The instructions, while clear to everyone else, were like a foreign language to me. There was something about glue and placing decorative items here and there. And there was something about clipping the glass. The one thing I took from it all was that we were to keep our pieces of glass in our work boxes while clipping. Otherwise, the tiny glass shards can fly out and possibly hit someone working nearby. (Are you beginning to understand why Vanessa sat across the room?)

Cheese curds in Janesville Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory
It’s hard to be creative with cheese curds close by!

Making “Friends” with the Crafters

Having already disrupted class by arriving past start time, I made a mental note to be sure that I didn’t lift my glass and hurt anyone. I was there to mingle with the locals—not to injure them. The lady to my left, however, must have missed that little bit of instruction. Every time she clipped her glass, a shard would fly and hit me in the arm. After the third or fourth hit, I suggested that maybe she could consider clipping it a little lower in her box. She responded with more flying glass shards.

Concerned for my safety, I slipped away from the table to visit with Vanessa.

Terri: I don’t think the lady to my left likes me.

Vanessa:  Why? What did you do?

Terri:  I didn’t do anything! She keeps cutting her glass outside of her work box and the shards keep hitting me.

Vanessa:  I’m sure it was an accident.

Terri:  She’s hit me at least five times. No one has that many accidents.

Vanessa:  We have that many accidents before noon every day. Should I remind you about our painting class…or glass-blowing…or the time that you fell off a toilet…

Terri: Fine, we’ll call it an accident.

I rejoined my table and decided to make friends with the lady to my right since the woman on the left seemed intent on killing me. She was lovely. We chatted about her family and her travels. She inquired about my life in New York and even gave me tips to make my “artwork” better.  Most importantly, she clipped her glass without injuring me. So I shared my cheese curds with her.

Janesville Wisconson for a girlfriends' getaway on EveryRoadAStory
Vanessa’s Masterpiece! Mine would have been better if I wasn’t dodging glass shards!

All’s Well That Ends Well

Seeing that I had made a new friend, the lady on the left stopped her glass clipping long enough to comment on my artwork.

Lady on Left:  You know, that doesn’t look like much right now, but after it’s fired in the kiln, I think you’ll have a nice piece of art to put in your New York apartment.

Terri:  Thank you. That’s kind of you to say.

And I handed her my last cheese curd. Now that’s Midwestern hospitality.

Janesville Wisconsin on EveryRoadAStory
Charming Downtown Janesville!

If You Go…

From charming downtown shops and eateries to a fabulous botanical garden, Janesville makes an ideal place for a girlfriend getaway. Here’s a list of the places we visited. All of these received our seal of approval—and that’s the highest honor any establishment could ask for, right?

Angie’s On Main is an eclectic gift and consignment shop occupying 12,000sq ft over three floors. You’ll find amazing handmade items, furniture, antiques, jewelry and more. Angie even sells artwork by local children—I love that! Located at 37 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Carousel Consignments is THE place to go to find anything and everything! I’m not kidding. It’s 4,000 sq ft of housewares, collectibles and more. Or in Vanessa’s case: It’s heaven. Located at 31 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Raven’s Wish Gallery & Studio features contemporary art from over 75 locally and nationally known artists while encouraging everyone to live an artful life! (Good advice.) It’s also THE place to find gifts for your squirrel loving friends—apparently. Located at 101 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, WI 53548

Velvet & Tulle is an absolutely charming boutique with a variety of stylish, fun pieces from clothing to accessories—all of it housed in a beautifully restored historic building. Located at 217 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, WI 53548

Bodacious Shops of Block 42 includes Bodacious Olive, Bodacious Brew and So Chopped under one industrial-chic roof. Located just steps from the Rock River in downtown Janesville, you’ll find healthy choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Settle in at Bodacious Brew with a cup of your favorite tea or coffee. Indulge in something other than cheese curds at So Chopped. Be sure to stop in Bodacious Olive for an incredible array of premium olive oils and vinegars along with kitchen gadgets. 119 N. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Lark is an excellent choice for dinner while you’re in town. Focusing on seasonally driven, locally sourced dishes, we found the menu to be inventive and delicious—and that’s an excellent combination. You’re guaranteed to leave “happy as a lark!” 60 S. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Whiskey Ranch Bar & Grill is a classic. Taking bar food to a new level, you’re certain to find something to please your palette. And you simply MUST order the deep-fried cheese curds—there’s really no way around it. 24 N. Main Street, Janesville, WI 53545

Bellasazi Salon & Spa has been a part of the Janesville community for more than 20 years. A proper girlfriend getaway must include massages at this tranquil oasis. Besides, everyone needs a break from cheese curds if only for an hour or so. 1423 Plainfield Avenue, Janesville, WI 53545

Northleaf Winery for wine and chocolate—is there a better dessert? We think not. 232 S Janesville St, Milton, WI 53563

The Glass Garden is the place to go to test your crafting skills. I’m not saying it made either one of us a better artist, but we’re beyond help.  25 W. Milwaukee Street, Janesville, Wisconsin 53548

 

 

 

How To: Take Pictures of the Aurora with a Cellphone

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

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
The aurora over A Taste of Alaska lodge in Fairbanks. No tripod, pure luck.

Step 1:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphone photography
Sometimes the lights just take your breath away. Or maybe that’s the -33 temperature.

Step 2:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
I feel like I’m about to be beamed up in this one. Guess they didn’t find signs of intelligent life…

Step 3:

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

Step 4:

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

Step 5:

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

Step 6:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
Reminds me of a whale’s tail. Another super cool Alaskan thing to see!

Step 7:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
This is why you have to point the camera the right direction.

Step 8:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
The aurora above Wiseman, AK.

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphon photography
We stood under the aurora for about three hours, and it just kept getting better. And colder.

Step 9:

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

Northern lights, aurora borealis, Fairbanks, Alaska, cellphone photography
There’s a reason why you hear that the Northern Lights dance.

Some added hints learned from experience:

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

 

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).

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
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.

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
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.

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
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.” 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.

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
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!)

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
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.

Belfast Peace Walls, Black Taxi
Who wouldn’t want to ride in a Black Taxi? Even on the wrong side of the road…

A Night On the Moon, Sort Of

When you’ve arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in January and your host asks if you would like to spend the night at Borealis Basecamp, you say yes…even before you know what that means. And then you look it up and realize you’re not just heading to a destination, you’re heading straight into an experience—one that you’ll never forget.

Situated on 100 acres in the snowy boreal forest just 25 miles outside of Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp feels as if it’s worlds away from civilization—in a good way. Guests stay in geodesic domes with expansive clear ceilings that provide unobstructed views of the night sky and if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights. And you can see all of this without ever leaving the comfort of your warm and cozy bed. Considering that the temperatures in the region can dip as low as -35 or more, the ‘not leaving the warm bed part’ of this equation is especially enticing. And we were lucky enough to snag a typically sold out dome—which pretty much looks like an igloo or a pod…or maybe an egg.

Borealis Basecamp on EveryRoadAStory.com
Borealis Basecamp a/k/a the Moon!

Capturing the Sights

As we headed out on the ice-covered Elliot Highway and climbed up the mountain—Vanessa’s teeth gritting the whole way and me just admiring the scenery—the snow clouds we’d been under all day began to clear. Our chances for seeing the aurora borealis were improving. YAY! Along with those vast blue skies came a spectacular sunset that warranted a stop for photos.

We were snapping pictures like mad when we arrived at the property, which resembles nothing so much as a compound on the moon with pods dotting the monochromatic, snow-covered landscape. We were greeted by Drew, the head of maintenance, who had an abundance of tips to help us capture the aurora by cell phone…well, some cell phones.

Drew:  Are you planning to take photos of the aurora?

Terri:  Absolutely!

Vanessa:  But we don’t have a clue how.

Drew:  What are you using?

Vanessa:  I’ve got a Samsung cell phone. A Galaxy 9.

Drew:  Excellent! I can show you a few tricks.

Terri:  I’m planning to use my cell phone, too. It’s an iPhone.

Drew:  You’re outta luck.

Turns out that iPhones can’t capture the aurora (thanks, Apple!) so I spent the next few minutes listening to Drew explain to Vanessa how to set up the Pro setting on her phone. Seeing as how Vanessa is COMPLETELY technologically challenged, I had my doubts. Yet, she eagerly listed to Drew’s advice, even following him into a dark bathroom to test out the settings. She was quite excited by whatever she was seeing in there, leading some other visitors in the lobby to look questioningly at the sounds coming from behind the closed door. Ah, the lengths we go to for our art.

Interior of dome at Borealis Basecamp on EveryRoadAStory.com
Inside our cozy dome/igloo/egg

A Lesson in Toilet Technology

Photography lesson concluded, our lovely hostess Rachel led us to our dome. Inside we found wood floors, stylish furnishings and a cozy, warm atmosphere. If this is off-grid living, sign me up!

She showed us how to adjust the Toyo heater and then suggested that we follow her into the bathroom. We were starting to wonder if this was a thing here since this was the second shared bathroom request in less than an hour, but who are we to question the locals?

The three of us stood in the bathroom looking down at the closed toilet.

Rachel:  So I need to explain the toilet to you.

Terri (looking at Vanessa worriedly):  Um, okay. You know we’ve used a toilet before, right?

Rachel: This is a dry toilet. It’s environmentally friendly and very important when you’re living off-grid.

Then she opened the lid. We both stood there in amazement—our toilet was filled with aluminum foil. Then she flushed it.

Vanessa:  What the fresh hell? That looks like Jiffy Pop!

Rachel:  Well, it kinda does. But I wish you hadn’t said that out loud.

Terri (sighs):  No more Jiffy Pop in our future.

I realize that we’re starting to sound like toilet freaks at this point. But seriously, just watch the toilet flush video (yes, of course, we stood there and took one) and you’ll understand why it’s so fascinating.

Rachel:  Just one more thing. The foil lining is actually a cartridge, and there are about 12 in each set. When you see the line at the bottom of the toilet, call me, and I’ll come replace it for you. I’m here until about 2 a.m.

So now we’ve got a quandary. Have you ever tried to keep track of your flushes? Yeah, me neither. And I have to admit, it’s a little stressful. Even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you suddenly do when someone tells you that you have a limited number of chances…and leaves you wondering at 3 a.m. if you should spin that roulette wheel and use the bathroom, possibly leaving your roommate with no facilities, or hold it until you explode. The struggle is real.

Anyway, we finally pulled ourselves away from the toilet to go take photos of the lunar-like landscape, and then headed to the dining room for a delicious three-course, chef-prepared meal that included the choice of flat iron steak, Alaska sockeye salmon or Alaskan king crab as entrée options—no complaints here! Housed in a large yurt with floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room was just as impressive as our dome/igloo/egg. There was also a lounge area with a fireplace and comfy sofas where guests could hang out and play games, read and use toilets that flushed without the benefit of Jiffy Pop linings.

Dining in the Yurt at Borealis Basecamp on EveryRoadAStory
Dining in the Yurt

Starry, Starry Night

That evening, we stretched out in our warm beds and looked up at the sky above us. The stars did not disappoint. The Big Dipper was center stage from our beds, and we watched numerous shooting stars in a sky that seemed to go on forever. We anxiously awaited the aurora borealis—and at one point, it started to rise.

Terri:  This view might even surpass the toilet.

Vanessa:  Unless you take into account that we may be eaten by a massive hawk because we’re sitting in an egg.

Terri: Hopefully, hawks don’t hunt at night.

Vanessa:  Or an alien might beam us up. We are sleeping in a pod.

Terri:  Please tell me that you’ll be asleep soon.

Inside the domes at Borealis Basecamp on EveryRoadAStory.com
Skyview from our Beds–waiting for nightfall!

The Elusive Aurora

The Northern Lights show up when they’re good and ready, so it’s common to ask for a wake-up call when they begin to show. We had just drifted off to sleep when my cellphone rang…you know the one that would do me absolutely no good when taking photos. #bitterpartyofone

Rachel: Hi, Terri! The aurora is starting!

Terri:  Excellent, thank you.

I hang up the phone and have no idea who that was or where I am. I mean, it’s not your typical hotel room since you open your eyes to look straight up into the sky.

Vanessa:  You look confused.

Terri:  Because I’m in an egg in Alaska. Waking up at 2 a.m. to see the sky change color. Because that makes perfect sense, right?

Vanessa:  Some people are just not morning people.

We watched, waited and eventually began to see a little bit of light rising above the horizon. Vanessa ran outside numerous times to try to get photos, only once making the mistake of going out in her long underwear without remembering to put on pants.

Alas, a brilliant aurora wasn’t in the stars for us that night. (See what I did there? ) However, we did spend a night sleeping under the stars, in a dome/igloo/egg-pod, possibly on the moon with a dry flush toilet that still had cartridges available for use. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Borealis Basecamp on EveryRoadAStory.com
Off-grid & Loving It! Or as our friend, Sue said: “You’ve Hatched!”

If You Go:

Reserve early because the Borealis Basecamp has approximately 95 percent occupancy during aurora season from August 21st through April 21st.  In addition to viewing the night sky, other activities are available that include sled dog rides, snow machining and walking tours.

www.borealisbasecamp.net

Stalking Bigfoot through Bilger’s Rocks

Bigfoot in the Bilger's Rocks on EveryRoadAStory

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.**

Bigfoot at Bigler's Rocks
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.

Bigfoot at Bigler's Rocks
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.

Bigfoot at Bilger's Rocks
Talk about clingy! Pretty sure that tree isn’t going anywhere.
Bigfoot at Bilger's Rocks
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.

Bigfoot at Bilger's Rocks
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/.

 

 

 

Vanessa & Terri Taste Scotland…Literally

Bagpiper on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story

Somewhere in Scotland…

As bagpipe music pierced the air and young Scottish lasses swirled on stage, I was distracted by a somewhat more annoying, persistent sound.

Vanessa: Psst. PSST!

Terri (whispering): What?

Vanessa: What’s that on my plate?

Terri: Some sort of Scottish food. Taste it.

Vanessa: I don’t know what it is.

Terri: Just eat it!

Vanessa: Give me one good reason.

Terri: Because we’re on a Taste of Scotland tour, so you should taste things. Now please just put it in your mouth so I can hear the music.

Vanessa: Not until you identify it.

Terri: It’s haggis!

Vanessa: You mean sheep parts?

Terri: Pretty much. It’s like an American hot dog. With unidentifiable parts of unidentifiable farm animals. Except Scottish.

Vanessa: There’s a real future for you in menu writing.

Welcoming the haggis…but, why?

While perhaps not the most appetizing food, haggis has a big role in Scottish traditions. In fact, it sometimes even gets its own ceremony, as we learned at a true Scottish dinner, where this “delicacy” was escorted by a bagpiper in full regalia, accompanied by a kilted man with a thick accent who sang the praises of haggis in a very moving tribute that we completely couldn’t understand. But while tasting haggis is certainly an option on a CIE International Taste of Scotland Tour, it’s not a requirement. In fact, the only thing required of you on this type of tour is that you show up…and relax.

Loch Ness on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story
Lovely Loch Ness

Let someone else do the work

Vanessa and I tend to be independent travelers. We’ve set out on our own in countries like Belize—where renting a car from a local in less than stellar condition (the car AND the local) landed us in the middle of a herd of goats. Tackling Germany with its mind-boggling road signs also comes to mind as one of our less than thought-out decisions. And, we’ve been known to book lodging in locales with frightening amenities…or lack thereof. But this time, we let someone else do the planning—and the driving—as part of the Taste of Scotland motorcoach tour with CIE International.

Although this is not our typical style of travel, choosing this trip turned out to be the best possible experience for our first foray into Scotland for many reasons. Not only did we get to experience the highlights of Scotland including Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands, St. Andrews, Loch Ness, Edinburgh and points in-between—but we got to do it while drinking whisky. And seeing really large, hairy cows.

Glasgow on Every Road a Story
Stunning architecture in Glasgow

No One has to Drive (or Die)

One of the best parts of touring on a motorcoach is that you don’t have to figure out how to drive in a foreign country. On the other side of the road. Or with someone who, according to Vanessa, might be easily distracted.

Terri: I can totally drive on the opposite side of the road. I did it in Ireland once…for about 15 minutes. And then there were sheep.

Vanessa: And I’m sure there are now less sheep in the world. You’re not driving. And since I’ll be sampling whisky, I’m not driving either.

Terri: And the sheep rejoice!

My husband, Greg, joined us for this adventure and has opposite-side-of-the-road driving experience…sort of. But that would mean I would be constantly navigating, and Vanessa would be clenching her teeth and holding on for dear life in the back seat.

Not to mention, we had whisky to drink.

Whisky tasting on the best tours of Scotland for Every Road a Story
You can’t do this & drive!

It Turns out we Actually Like Other People (Sometimes)

One of the highlights of a group tour is often the group itself. On board the motorcoach we were entertained by our lovely guide who shared not just the history of the places we visited, but also plenty of folklore—all with a delightful Scottish brogue. And there was music…melancholy songs about the ‘bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’ along with peppier bagpipe tunes.

One thing that impressed me was the age range of all of the people traveling with us. For some reason I expected to be surrounded by lots of retired couples in their 70s and 80s. I would have been fine with that, but it was cool to see a young lady in her 20s sharing the experience with her grandmother. We also hung out in the hotel bar one night (OK, every night) with a couple celebrating a 40th birthday. When I asked what made them choose this mode of travel, convenience was certainly part of it. But it was more than that. They said that they didn’t like to research a destination. They preferred to show up with in-depth experiences laid out before them. Now I totally get that.

Spending time in the company of such a diverse group of travelers really enhanced the experience for us. I’m sure they felt the same way about traveling with us…maybe.

Scottish Highlands on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story
The moody landscapes of the Scottish Highlands

A ‘Taste of’ Just Whets the Appetite

Vanessa and I are both of Scottish descent, so visiting our ancestral country was a dream come true. In fact, we were so overwhelmed with all the places to explore that we couldn’t decide what to do when. We wanted to see it all!

Typically, I would figure out a way to cram 4,572 experiences into a 5-day trip, which would give Vanessa a headache, and me the feeling that there was still something else I missed! Thankfully, the itinerary for the Taste of Scotland tour offered an excellent overview—and just made us hungrier to plan future visits to our homeland.

We began our tour in Glasgow, a city with a unique blend of old and new architecture and fabulous murals. It was a wee bit soggy for our drive alongside Loch Lomond, but it was beautiful even in the rain—and the weather actually worked quite well with the melancholy lyrics being piped through the motorcoach’s sound system. The rain subsided enough in the Scottish Highlands for us to get a few photos of the stunning landscape, and during the ride we continued to enjoy viewing the awe-inspiring vistas and tumbling waterfalls–while staying completely dry.

Later we boarded a boat and cruised Loch Ness, searching for everyone’s favorite sea serpent, Nessie. She, unfortunately, failed to make an appearance, but I’m quite certain she was lurking somewhere deep in the cold waters—probably just waiting for the loud, laughing tourists to go away.

The Blair Athol Distillery on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story
Blair Athol Distillery – A must sip destination

Did I mention whisky?

We stopped at Blair Athol Distillery in Pitlochry, where we toured the facility while breathing in as much of the whisky-laced air as possible. And we tasted their delicious 12-year-old single-malt whisky—one of the best things to come out of Scotland (besides us, of course.) You have to love a place where you not only get to enjoy a fine product but also get to spend an hour in such a bucolic, serene setting—there’s something absolutely charming about a distillery where instead of modern machinery, there are signs to remind you that the malt whisky lies sleeping while Mother Nature and Father Time do their work.

Blair Athol Distillery on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road A Story
Shhh!

Let there be sun

On our sunniest day, we explored the golf mecca of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was better for everyone if we didn’t attempt to play (the one and only time we tried to learn, the golf instructor actually threatened to quit, but that’s another story). Instead, we wandered the cobbled streets of the town, past shops selling custom-made kilts and, of course, whisky. The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral beckoned us to the top of the hill, where we wandered through a medieval cemetery to see breathtaking views of the North Sea; we followed the road back down toward the beach, walking along the edge of the sea past what was once St. Andrews castle.

Ruins of St. Andres Cathedral on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story
Ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral

Our final destination was the historic city of Edinburgh, where we toured the stately castle towering above the city center. The afternoon included wandering the Royal Mile, where medieval houses still stand and roaming the ancient cemetery of the Parish of Saint Cuthbert where a watchtower was built to keep a lookout for grave robbers—an occupation I’ve never quite understood. It’s just so….gross.

Which brings us back to haggis. While in Edinburgh, we greatly enjoyed the Spirit of Scotland dinner, where despite that offering (no one lining up for seconds?) there were actually many other edible options, all served with a wonderful side of Scottish dancing and storytelling.

So yes, we’ve tasted Scotland and we’ll be back for more. Probably not more haggis, but definitely more Scotland.

Edinburg Castle view on the best tours of Scotland by Every Road a Story
View from Edinburgh Castle including the Dog Cemetery

If You Go…

CIE International offers tours in several destinations including Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Iceland. There are several themes too—from family tours to castles to whisky tasting. There are also self-drive options for those who are competent. Check out all the options at www.cietours.com.

 

Disclosure: We were the guests of CIE International for our tour but all opinions, shenanigans and whisky consumption are our own–we claim it all.