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!

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!

 

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

 

 

 

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!

Finding Peace in Times of Troubles


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

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

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

Why are there Walls?

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

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

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

Leaving Our Mark

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

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

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

Vanessa:  Can I write on it?

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

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

Terri: What did you write?

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

Terri: And illegal.

Vanessa: Possibly unethical.

Terri: So move and let me read it.

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

You Don’t Have to Break the Law

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

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

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

A Guide to Walls…and Whiskey

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

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

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

If You Go

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

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

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.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
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.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
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.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
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.

A view of the sky from underneath a plane.
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.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
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


A child with a gorilla mask on.

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

Terri: OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!

Vanessa: What’d you do?

Terri: DID YOU SEE THAT?

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

Terri: It was Bigfoot!

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

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

Vanessa: Did you get a blurry picture?

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

Vanessa: Like your common sense.

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

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

Climbing, Hiking and Claustrophobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Bigfoot Got Eaten by a Dinosaur?

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

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

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

**Seriously, never travel to Belize with Terri.

 

If You Go:

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

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

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

 

 

 

Vanessa & Terri Taste Scotland…Literally


A man in a kilt and hat playing the bagpipes.

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.

A man in a kilt and a woman in a dress
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.

A boat is in the water near some trees.
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.

A fountain in the middle of a park with buildings behind it.
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.

A group of people holding glasses with alcohol in them.
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.

A view of the mountains from across the valley.
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.

A sign that is on the side of a road.
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.

A sign that is hanging on the side of a building.
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.

A castle like building with two towers in the background.
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.

A view of the city from above, with trees in the foreground.
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.

Totally Team Coyote


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

Lies. It was all lies.

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

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

 

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

So I run to tell Terri all about my morning.

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

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

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

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

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

Terri: You’ve done stupider things.

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

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

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

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

Me: No, but I do have video!

Of course, all was forgiven.

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

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

Next up, hiking with animals that can kill you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he is.

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

If You Go

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

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

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