Celebrating a Birthday While on Pause

I turn 41 today. Exactly one year ago, I woke up next to Lake Thunderbird on a beautiful sunny morning in Oklahoma, had a wonderful brunch, then drove to Amarillo, Texas while dancing in my seat to Lizzo, my birthday twin. That day overflowed with joy and sunshine and roadtrip tunes, capped up with a night of ice-cold Shiner Bock and jukebox deejaying at a zombie-themed bar. Late into the night, Kurt and I sat on the front porch of our Airbnb, drinking local beers and watching heat lightning zig-zap across the vast Texas sky. The next day, we’d be back on the road to Roswell, New Mexico. This year, I’m  grounded.

Cheers!

We always travel in the spring, due to the convergence of my birthday and our anniversary. It feels strange to be sitting at home right now, scrolling past Facebook memories and knowing exactly what place we were visiting on this day last year, two years ago, five years ago.

I’m someone that likes living in the shoulder seasons. I’m trying to appreciate the quiet, lean into the pause. I find a lot of contentment in burrowing into my home life and surrounding myself with books and hot coffee and dog nuzzles. Days turn into nights, nights turn into a wine blur. All time feels like airplane time, when you’re passing through time zones, warping ahead or falling behind, and you watch dumb movies during this weird slippery gap in time because it’s not really real life. It feels especially strange to celebrate a concrete mile marker like a birthday right now. Sometimes I daydream about catching a wormhole out of this weird, seemingly never-ending flight and traveling back in time to the beginning of 40, waking up the camper and peeking beneath the window shade to see the sunlight glittering on the surface of the lake.

I got to experience so many incredible things in my 40th year. I visited three new states and a new country. I stood inside the ruins of an ancient village that was last inhabited in 1000 A.D., and in the last few months, I witnessed the rapid escalation of a global pandemic that has affected the daily lives of nearly every person on this planet. If there’s one thing I feel confident in saying, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what to expect in my 41st year. I am so grateful for every moment, every place I visited, every person with whom I shared every minute of my year of 40. I feel grateful and lucky to be here now, however weird and precarious this stretch of time may be.

 

Doing the Most in Orlando, FL

Orlando, Florida is a place you go to for a reason–a sporting event, a theme park visit, a conference. It’s NOT a place you go just to check out the culture. Listen, I once lived in Las Vegas by choice so I am not against mass marketed entertainment. I LOVE me an entertainment complex where I can ride a mechanical bull, see Britney Spears perform live, and eat a steak for less than $10 all in the same night.

Orlando is a lot like Las Vegas, but instead of gambling and debauchery, they have theme parks galore. Both destinations encourage nonstop spending, have strip malls full of every chain restaurant you can think of, and attract the kind of tourist that likes to drink Jager bombs all night while still wearing their American flag swim trunks. On our first day in town, we ate back-to-back meals at chain restaurants, the second of which had a menu that included two full pages of Guy Fieri dishes.  But. But! I had a fantastic weekend, side trip to Flavor Town and all.

There were two very good reasons we ventured to Orlando, and they are Peak Kim Nelson:

  • attend the 2019 College Cheerleading National Championships, where Kurt’s niece’s squad was competing.
  • visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/Universal Studios
We had one day to see it all, so we bought the single day park-to-park ticket and planned for an early arrival. Obviously, spreading the Harry Potter-themed attractions across two parks is all a big scam to force you to buy tickets to both, but as soon we reached Hogsmeade, I no longer cared. I didn’t anticipate the wave of emotion I’d feel upon entering Hogwarts Castle, and I don’t care how nerdy this sounds, but I teared up a bit. My rational adult brain knew that I was walking through a fake castle replicating a made-up fantasy franchise, designed by engineers to push the right nostalgia buttons, all in the armpit of America. But in the moment, I had entered the memories of a beloved book that has given me escape and comfort and catharsis many times, over through multiple re-reads and movie viewing.

a cup of butterbeer in front of the rooftops of Hogsmeade

butterbeers in Hogsmeade

Though we never had to wait in line for longer than 40 minutes, the queues for the Harry Potter-themed rides in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were actually enjoyable to stand in because of the level of detail in the surroundings. Dumbledore’s pensieve! The Fat Lady portrait! Professor Sprout’s greenhouse! We wandered through the shops of Hogsmeade, drank butterbeer, and took the Hogwarts Express to King’s Cross. In “London,” we saw Kreacher glare through the window of 12 Grimmauld Place. I bought a Ravenclaw jersey with Cho Chang’s number and a Deathly Hallows enamel pin.

a dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank

the dragon atop Gringotts Bank

A few quick ‘n dirty Universal Studios travel tips:

  • Seeing both halves of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in one day is definitely doable. Plan to get to the park as soon as it opens and stay til close, and make sure to end your night back in Hogsmeade for the castle light show, which occurs every 20 minutes once the sun has set.
  • You can purchase an interactive wand which allows you to ‘cast spells’ in various parts of the park notated by a silver plaque on the ground. OR, you can save $60 and stand behind people who bought the wand to see what they do.
  • MUST DO’s: ride the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade and Escape from Gringott’s in Diagon Alley. Look for Kreacher in the window at 12 Grimmauld Place. Go to the wand fitting presentation (it’s pretty cute). Wear a costume if you feel inclined to do so. There were tons of people decked out in cloaks on a high 70’s day in Florida, and they were among their people. Get a butterbeer.
  • Non-Harry-Potter-related Must Do’s: since we only had one day, we prioritized the Wizarding World stuff, but the park wasn’t overly packed so we had lots of time to do other things as well. The Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster allows you to select a song that plays in speakers on your seat (I recommend going with Beastie Boys “Sabotage”). The Simpsons section of the park is a lot of fun; get a Duff beer and buy a Bort keychain.  Don’t bother waiting in line for the Fast & Furious Supercharged ride; it’s not worth your time (unless there’s no line and you have 20 minutes to kill). That makes me sad to say, as a franchise fan (“Family”), but it’s pretty dumb.
the light show at Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle during the light show

College Cheerleading Championships
When Kurt asked me if I wanted to go to Orlando to see his niece compete in the College Cheerleading and Dance Championships, that was one of the fastest YESes that ever came out of my mouth. I LOVE competitive cheerleading for reasons I can’t articulate. I wasn’t a high school or college cheerleader (though, ahem, my eighth grade squad was regionally famous on the north suburban  Chicago Catholic school circuit for our choreographed pom routines to Erasure songs) but I love watching cheer competitions on ESPN. They’re a highly entertaining mix of gymnastics, dance, and Jock Jams–I mean, what’s not to love here?? OF COURSE I WANT TO SEE BRING IT ON IRL.

2019 College Cheerleading Championships

Go University of Wisconsin – Osh Kosh!!

As we walked up to the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the grounds were packed with hundreds of cheerleaders in various bold-colored uniforms. Squads warmed up and practiced moves on every available open stretch of grass. I heard a man say as he walked past, “I don’t see any football players” and I immediately wanted to punch him in the mouth on behalf of all of the incredible athletes WHO DON’T NEED TO CHEER FOR NO MAN.

Inside the arena, I had flashbacks to my days of roller derby weekend-long tournaments. Young athletes huddled in corners, mentally preparing for competition while tuning out the world with their headphones. Teammates on crutches followed their squads, visibly heartbroken over not being able to participate. After finishing the first round, cheerleaders stood in the concession line with ice packs saran-wrapped to their legs. I dodged team prayer circles to get to the bathroom (OK, that never happened at derby tourneys, more like “Thong Song” dance circles).

a coed squad performs at the college cheerleadiing national championships

Division I competition

With our day passes, we were able to move around the grounds to check out various parts of the competition. We watched Division I and II Girls and Coed Cheerleading, Dance (jazz, hip hop, classical), and even a Mascot contest. Chip the Buffalo won my heart by twerking then lying down and refusing to leave the stage.

college mascot competition

Look I went to art school for college so I barely know what’s happening here

The whole day was a blast and I highly recommend going to a live cheerleading competition if you ever get the chance, especially if you enjoy Cardi B, because we sure heard a lot of her music that day.

All in all, Orlando, I enjoyed you! There was one morning we saw a theme park worker in full costume in line at Starbucks, and it struck me how strange it must be to live there full time. Those are the stories I’m always interested in–I want to see the dive bar where all the theme park mascots get loaded together after their shift ends. I want to hear what the chipper cashier in Hogsmeade who spoke to me as if I were the new Seeker on Ravenclaw’s Quidditch team actually thinks about tourists. How many times does the live actor in the Fast & Furious preshow have the same scripted, pre-recorded conversation with a videotape of Ludacris before she slowly loses her mind? I would read a full scientific study about the symbiosis of the Orlando theme park ecosystem.

Travel Pairings
I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting. For all of my future travel-related blog posts, I’m going to share a book, film, and music recommendation to pair with my destination.

Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Film: The Florida Project
Music: The Go! Team (cheerleader rock!)

New York, Loss, and Life

I arrive in New York City on a Wednesday morning. I’m traveling for a work conference, then staying through the weekend. Chicagoans tend to have mixed opinions about NYC; maybe it’s the chip on our shoulder from being labeled the “Second City” or “Third Coast.” For better or worse, much like the ubiquitous souvenir t-shirt, I heart NY. I’m staying in an Airbnb advertised as a ‘shoebox’ in Chelsea, and after work when I check in and look out the sole window in this apartment, I see the top of the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, all red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple against a night sky. My heart fills and I’m happy to be here. I heart NY.

Each morning, I take a 15-minute walk to the conference. I watch NY residents walk their dogs, which pee on the cement because there’s no grass for them to squat upon. I dodge rivulets of garbage juice leaking from overstuffed, leaking plastic bags left on the curb for pickup, and internally thank the universe for Chicago’s alleys. I wonder how anyone in New York makes the decision to wear any sort of open footwear. In my summery dress on an 84-degree sunny day, I get bombarded by catcalls (I had forgotten that NY is a whole other level of catcalling). And still, I heart NY. I heart the stream of different languages I hear around me at all times. I heart the Pride flag that hangs outside of the Episcopal church I walk past each morning. I heart the beardos on bicycles, the cop taking a smoke break outside his precinct shooting the shit with a passerby, the rumble of the subway rising up through the sidewalk grate, the late night tacos, the impeccably dressed woman on the corner who didn’t bat at an eye at the rat scurrying through the gutter. It’s all beautiful and gross and exhilarating and I’m glad to be here.

On Friday morning, I wake up and stretch out in bed while glancing at my phone and see the news that Anthony Bourdain is dead by suicide. My heart breaks into a million pieces. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I quickly see that I’m not the only one devastated by this loss. So many of my friends had similar reactions, have held similar appreciation and fandom for him. As a writer, I’ve always appreciated his wit, his intelligence, his curiosity about other peoples’ lives and cultures and customs. As a person desperate to live a life well traveled, I’ve been a longtime fan of his many TV programs, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. I’ve seen every episode of every season, many of them binge-watched in day-long chunks when I’ve been stranded to the couch by illness or hangover, wanting escape and yearning for adventure. Whenever Kurt and I need background television as we knock around in the kitchen or are pounding out work emails after hours on a weeknight evening, we put on an episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain helped fueled the wanderlust that drives me to live my own life the way I do.

I wrap up the final day of the conference, then head back to my Airbnb and hammer out some work emails. Once I’m done, I go back outside and walk to the High Line Trail. Alone, I merge into the steady stream of people. Up above the busy streets, on a path lined by greenery and beauty and life, I move among the skyscrapers. Up ahead, the path curves and I can see the summer sunshine glinting on the Hudson River and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I feel heavy with emotion because the world is so messy and dirty and convoluted and intriguing and explorable, and in this moment I am totally alone yet also surrounded by teeming, breathing, sweaty humanity. I get annoyed by the tourists who stop dead in their tracks right in front of me to take a photo and yet simultaneously feel like one of them because Holy Shit, this sunlight is beautiful and this place is amazing and this city is alive all around me.

High Line Trail, New York

I move through the crowds at Chelsea Market, and  duck into a bookstore for solace. The titles aren’t registering in my mind at the moment; instead, I walk through the aisles and run my fingers over the glossy covers, searching for comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore, a wave of emotion overtakes me and I want to cry for a man I never met. I want to cry because I know people in my life who have felt this pain and I have no idea how to help or to appease or to comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore amongst millions of words and miles of ink and countless stories that have awakened or inspired or incited, I stand and I breathe. The moment passes. I leave the store, walk outside, and merge back into the moving stream of people.

I still heart New York, and I heart you.

sidewalk graffiti that says "Protect Yo Heart"

Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.

 

 

 

Denmark Diaries: The Word of the Day is “Beer”

Monday, April 16, 2018

We woke up feeling the effects of our impromptu bar crawl, and a hefty breakfast was in order. Luckily, a delicious brunch place, Sokkelund, was in easy walking distance–and even better, they served coffee refills. I had scrambled eggs with salmon and avocado.

After fueling up properly, we were ready to start our day. The Carlsberg Brewery was a 20-minute walk away, most of it through a scenic park. One of the many things I loved about Copenhagen was the amount of green public spaces. The path wound its way past ponds filled with swans and a tree onto which dozens of people had tied handwritten cards and pacifiers with ribbons. In Scandinavian traditional folklore, once a baby gave up their pacifier  they would write a note thanking it for its service and tie to a tree in remembrance.

tree covered in handwritten notes with pacifiers tied to branches on ribbons

pacifier tree

The area where the Carlsberg brewery is located is currently being developed into a whole village complete with apartments, restaurants, and shops. We arrived at the brewery just in time to miss the tour, so instead, we bellied up to the bar for some samples. Our bartender told us that Chicago was his favorite U.S. city (second time in two days!) and it reminded him a lot of his hometown Glasgow.

plate of oysters

We ate most of these oysters before we took a photo

For dinner, we went to an area called Kødbyen Meatpacking District, or “Meat City.” As the sun slowly set, we sat outside and ate oysters from Kødbyens Fiskebar, then crossed the plaza to check out Warpigs  Brewpub and their BBQ selection. As soon as we walked into Warpigs, I felt like I was in a Chicago bar (which makes sense, given Mikkeller’s partnership with Three Floyds). We got a few different beers, the pork shoulder, pork and beans, and pecan pie, and everything was fantastic.

plate of BBQ pork and beans

We also ate most of this pork before we took a photo

After two back-to-back meals (don’t judge, we’re on vacay), walking to our next destination sounded heavenly. Too bad we stumbled onto the next place we wanted to check out within 400 meters: Fermentoren Beer Bar. We descended the steps into the small, packed bar and knew that we’d struck gold yet again. The bar had an excellent selection of craft beers on tap, so we found an open table where we could squeeze ourselves and camp out for a while.

beer

beer

On the last leg of our walk home, we made one final stop at a bar that totally intrigued us from the outside with its Western-themed motifs and obscured windows, a place called HH Ranch. As we stepped inside, I could swear we just transported to rural kitschy America. The bar was decked out in wood paneling and log cabin decor, and the barstools were made out of western saddles. There was even a Johnny Mnemonic-themed pinball machine(!!).  The place was a total trip. We had one final lager and then called it a night; we had big plans for the next day.

 

Denmark Diaries: Towers, Roller Coasters, and Beer

Sunday, April 14, 2018

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. local time to the sound of chirping birds (apparently, the title of Happiest Country on Earth includes wildlife because those birds sounded chipper all night long). After tossing and turning for a bit, I managed to fall back asleep until…11:30 a.m. Oops! Kurt and I didn’t want to sleep away half of our first full day, but so it goes. We rose and showered, then met up with our friends. The kids were ready for lunch and Kurt and I for breakfast, so we took the Metro two stops over to Nørreport, in the heart of the city. Right by the train stop, we went to Torvehallerne, which is a large market with indoor and outdoor vendors and tons of food stalls, booths, and wares. I went for a traditional porridge breakfast made with fresh organic ingredients from Grød along with my morning (noon) coffee, and Kurt got a Danish sandwich, coffee, and a beer (a.k.a. vacation mode). After lunch, we said goodbye to our friends who had family errands to take care of, and Kurt I headed out to sightsee on our own.

Our first stop was Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, an architectural project of Christian IV built in the 17th century. The tower consists of a 209-meter long spiral ramp, built because the King wanted to be able to ride his horse all the way to the top. I love horses and tales of extreme hubris, so we needed to check it out. About halfway up the tower there’s a coffee shop and art exhibit, and then on the observation deck, you get a fantastic 360-degree view of Copenhagen. Selfies were taken.

skyline view of Copenhagen

Not a selfie.

We wandered around the shops of Strøget for a bit, then found a sidewalk cafe to rest and enjoy a beer. The table seated next to us consisted of two British men around our age, so we ended up chatting with them for a bit, commiserating on the rough state of our countries. When we told them where we were from, they got really excited and told us that Chicago is their favorite U.S. city, which is always nice to hear.

We did a bit more walking until we saw the top of the swing ride at Tivoli Gardens, so we headed in that direction. Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and our friends mentioned that it was a ‘must’ for our trip. We bought entrance tickets, then strolled the grounds and checked out the incredible gardens and classic rides and games. We saw the swing ride that lured us to the park like a beacon, and I couldn’t get over how high up it went. Definitely put the dinky swings at Six Flags to shame.

swing ride at amusement park

a hard nope for me as an acrophobic

There’s an extensive food court adjacent to the fairgrounds, so we got some desserts and hung out inside until a light rain passed through. As the evening grew later, the lights throughout the park turned on, revealing colorful lanterns. I tried getting a picture of Kurt under the lights using his fancy camera, but struggled with the shutter for so long that a random passerby approached and said to me “I can’t take it anymore; go stand next to him and I’ll take the photo.”

couple stands on walkway under colorful lanterns

photo taken by a man tortured by witnessing my ineptness

After leaving Tivoli, we continued our walking streak, burning off the calories from the schnitzel and chocolate mousse I’d consumed. We realized two key facts: we were less than 2 miles from our friends’ house, and there was a Mikkeller bar located on our direct route home. Wins all around! Our nighttime stroll turned into a lowkey pub crawl as we stopped for pints at Mikkeller, followed by a German bar, and ending at a neighborhood bistro.

man sits at small bar table attached to wall

Table for two

We returned home by midnight, the pints helping lull us to sleep (and onto a closer proximation to local time).

 

Denmark Diaries: Arriving in Copenhagen

Friday, April 13/Saturday, April 14, 2018

On a lovely Friday the 13th evening, Kurt and I embarked on a trip to Denmark to visit some friends living abroad and explore Copenhagen. We wrapped up a hectic work week, then took a quick Uber to O’Hare Airport where we’d be departing from on IcelandAir. On the plane, I watched The Greatest Showman  and tried to nap, then we had an hour-long layover in Reykjavík (oh hai Iceland!) before landing in Copenhagen around 12:40 pm the next day.

At the airport, we ran into some confusion when, after picking up our bags and reaching the exit doors to outside, we thought we missed Customs entirely and accidentally snuck into Denmark. (Later, we learned that since we went through Customs in Reykjavík during our layover, we didn’t need to show our passports again in Denmark because both countries are in the Schengen Area.)

We bought train tickets at the billeter machine, then took the Metro to Fredericksberg, a residential area within Copenhagen where our friends live. Once we arrived at the correct Metro stop, we ducked into a Starbucks to get some free wifi and find the directions for the 5-minute walk to our friends’ home.

image of Copenhagen street and a bicycle parking area

Copenhagen!

After settling in and then catching up a bit in our friends’ living room, we all took a walk together around the neighborhood for a tour of some local food, coffee, and bar options. With their two young kids in tow, we grabbed a hot dog and coffees and sat in a park where the kids could play and draw for a bit. I observed two young girls taking turns rollerblading on a 4×8′ apartment building balcony.

For a late lunch/early dinner/whatever meal was closest to mine and Kurt’s whacked-out internal clocks, we went to the Laundromat Cafe. Kurt and I instantly recognized it because we had had a drink at their Iceland location a year earlier. The great thing about visiting friends with kids is that everyone’s up for getting ice cream after a meal, so we followed lunch with a trip to Social Foodies, a dessert shop with philanthropic interests in helping marginalized communities in Africa. (Even more of a reason to eat ice cream every day!)

IMG_9437

Fredericksberg, Copenhagen

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the house, and Kurt and I said goodnight to our friends who began their bedtime routine for the kids. We did some light unpacking, then passed out pretty quickly ourselves after a long day and night of traveling into a time zone 7 hours ahead of Chicago.

Wearing My Traveling Pants: Las Vegas and New Orleans

In the early months of 2018, I planned weekend trips to Las Vegas and New Orleans within 3 weeks of each other. If you are thinking to yourself, this sounds like the best idea ever, you are correct. Traveling as much as possible is on my 2018 vision board (see last post!), and though visiting these two cities in particular did nothing to forward my healthy-eating-and-living-related goals, they were super fun trips and #NORAGRETS. Each trip had a particular in mind–a journey, a quest, a DESTINATION:

Las Vegas
The trip’s main quest was to see Magic Mike Live. Believe me when I tell you that it’s not what you think it’s going to be–it’s one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen in recent memory. You can read the full review over at Heauxs Magazine.  I lived in Las Vegas the year I turned 21, so it’s a city near and dear to my heart, full of fuzzy memories, bad decisions, and fantastic stories. This past trip is no exception.  Plus, I got to ride a mechanical bull which is my fave thing in this world (shout-out to my former Urban Rodeo League team, the Buckle Bunnies).

Vegas highlights via foto:

Art-O-Mat – local art vending machine

Year of the Dog

Neon Boneyard


New Orleans
The New Orleans quest involved taking an overnight train from Chicago to Louisiana and singing a whole lot of karaoke. I’d never traveled in a sleeper car or eaten in a dining car before; it was very White Christmas (but with no snow and lots of beer) and I loved it. I’d been to New Orleans once before and was eager to revisit it. We hit two karaoke bars (Cat’s Meow and Kajuns Pub), toured an historic cemetery, and ate a ton of amazing food. In Airbnb adventures, I now know what it sounds like when someone drops a 5-lb wad of Mardi Gras beads into a steel drum.

Feast your eyeballs on these NoLa pics:

I made a lot of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” references for you fellow theater nerds

a surly local

tour of St. Louis Cemetery

omg we ate so much delicious food

Furreals, if I could visit both these cities every year until the day I die, I’d be so happy (but only during the winter because I can’t handle extreme hot weather, I’m basically a Stark).  Both cities are all about celebrating in the moment and indulging every whim. The kale salad in the fridge at home can wait for me.

Maine Diaries: Living that #VanLife

Saturday, September 16

Kurt and I, plus our dog River, packed up our Chevy Astrovan for a week-long road trip to Maine. We spent 12 hours on the road, ending up in the Finger Lakes National Forest in New York to spend our first night in the van. The sky had already grown dark as we reached the campground, and since the only available site was a walk-in, we ended up sleeping in the parking lot. It was a warm night, 80 degrees and sticky. We pulled down our window shades and slept on top of our sleeping bags with the roof fan cranking.

River ready to go

Sunday, September 17

We got on the road early. I entered two new states for the first time–Vermont! (where I ate a turkey sandwich with cranberries and stuffing on it) New Hampshire! (where I bought a box of wine), and then, finally, we crossed the bridge into Maine while passing through a misty rain. We traveled down dark roads lined by forests, and I told Kurt to slow down (“You’re gonna Stephen-King someone!”).  We pulled into Bradbury Mountain State Park just before nightfall, and enjoyed the quiet solitude of nature and “got away from it all” by watching the Packer game on the iPad using the campground wifi.

entering Maine

Monday, September 18

Now that we had reached Maine, we could spend less time driving and more time wandering and exploring various coastal towns. Our first stop was in Boothbay, where we found a restaurant on the water with dog-friendly outdoor seating. I had my first Maine lobster roll with a Bloody Mary. After lunch, we walked through town and checked out a few stores; every single one allowed dogs inside, so Maine is definitely a dog-friend travel destination. That night, we stayed at Camden Hills State Park in a secluded site at the end of the loop, far from any neighbors. The sky was misty with intermittent drizzling rain, creating an otherworldly backdrop of trees that could pass for Dagobah. We cooked burgers on our camp stove and tucked into our box of wine. When I walked to the restrooms near the main road,  the forest was still and quiet, with no sign of any other humans. I held my breath as I darted back to our site, expecting to see Pennywise lurking just beyond the reach of the beam of light coming from my headlamp.

#vanlife

Tuesday, September 19

We drove from Camden to Acadia National Park, stopping in Bucksport to buy groceries and check out John Buck’s Memorial in an old local cemetery. Legend has it that Colonel Buck had sentenced a witch to death by burning at the stake, and after his own passing, a black mark in the shape of a woman’s leg appeared on his monument. When we arrived in Acadia National Park, we stopped near Thunder Hole to see our first views of the ocean. A thick fog hung in the air, obscuring most of our view but creating an autumnal ambiance. We took a drive to the quiet side to see the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and when the skies cleared, I had to quote The Little Mermaid– “A fine strong wind and a following sea; King Triton must be in a friendly-type mood.” We settled in at the Blackwoods Campground where a steady rain kept us inside the van most of the night. We stretched out on the unfolded bench-turned-bed, and I read my book (Pet Sematary) while drinking boxed wine from our camping cups. River curled up on her doggie bed on the shag rug, sleeping peacefully while I read about pets being resurrected and coming back “not quite right.”

no one was forced to be in this photo. nope.

Wednesday, September 20

We spent the morning in Bar Harbor, eating breakfast in the dog-friendly patio area of That Way Cafe. As the sky cleared up, we drove back into the park for an easy first hike, going 3.2 miles around Jordan Pond and getting a nice view of North and South Bubble Mountains. The first half of the trail was an easy dirt path, but coming around the other side of the pond (which is actually a 150-feet-deep lake), the trail traveled over large rocks and boulders, and included a series of planks lifted off the ground to protect vegetation. River scrambled easily over the rocks but it was a little tricky to keep her on the planks when she would rather jump onto the forest floor.  That night, we drove back to Bar Harbor (we did lots of back-and-forth between the town and the campground since it was only 6 miles away) and had a lobster dinner–my first! River snoozed under the table as I learned how crack the shell and slurp out all the inner buttery goodness. She *might* have been given a little sample so she could brag about it upon her return to the dog park back home.

les poissons les poissons

Thursday, September 21

In the morning, we had breakfast at the campsite–eggs scrambled with hamburger and hashbrowns, and instant coffee. After, we packed up a daypack with water, snacks, and dog bowls, put River’s little doggo backpack on her, and set out from Blackwoods to the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail.  Roundtrip from our campground to the summit of the tallest mountain on the U.S. eastern seaboard, the hike is roughly 9 miles total over 1,500 feet of elevation gain–a nice, moderate day hike with nothing too crazy thrown at us. At the beginning of the trail, we wound through forest, hopping over tree routes, then started a gradual climb over rocks and boulders. River acted like she was half mountain goat, gamely jumping up rocks with a big doggo grin. As an acrophobic, the south ridge of Cadillac is my kind of mountain—no steep drop-offs that make my heart pound in fear, just gentle slopes where, even if I tripped and fell, I’d slide to a safe and easy stop instead of plummeting to my death. Once we climbed over the tree line, the views were incredible, giving us an 180-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean. When we reached the summit, we entered a swarm of tourist who either drove to the top or arrived by tour bus. We bought blueberry soda and ice cream bars in the gift shop and sat on a bench, resting our feet and refueling with sugar. My past knee injuries make descents tougher than ascents, so I was a little nervous about the return trip over the rockier parts of the trail, but we got back to camp without incident. River was equally adept hopping down giant rocks as she was going up. Once we got back to camp, we made a stop at the coin-operated showers down the road to wash up, and then had a final meal in Bar Harbor while River snoozed under the table, dreaming of adventure. That night at camp, through the windows of the van, we could hear the crash of the ocean, the waves dictated by the moon.

mountain goat doggo

Friday, September 22

I always get a little sad whenever we leave a National Park. Even when I’m eager for strong wifi, strong running water, and strong coffee, a part of me still wishes we were sleeping in the forest like little woodland creatures. We made a quick stop at the visitors center at the park entrance to get a sticker for the van, and got back on the road towards Portland. On the return trip, we took a small detour through Bangor, in small part so we could drive past Stephen King’s house. It was obvious when we found it; besides the handful of other tourists who had stopped to take a picture of his wrought-iron gate designed to look like a spider web, a large red balloon hovered just above the fence in homage to IT. We stopped to take a quick photo and walk River on the parkway; as we stood outside, we saw a car pull into the driveway and it was obviously Stephen King himself! So that was cool, though at that point we felt like obvious gawkers so we quickly got back into the van and on our way. In Portland, we had booked an Airbnb for two nights in town. We checked in, napped and cleaned up a bit, then went out for a night of dinner and drinking with a local friend, David (and Drinker with a Writing Problem!) who showed us around to some fun bars including the Thirsty Pig and the Great Lost Bear. We had plenty of good local beers and one impressive platter of nachos before we stumbled home and slept in a real bed for the first time in a week.

camping hair don’t care

Saturday, September 23

We slept in at the Airbnb, with no sounds of camping neighbors packing up cars in the early a.m.  For brunch, we checked out a recommendation from our friend, Hot Suppa, and I had one of my top-five-all-time-favorite Bloody Marys. It was a perfectly sunny, surprisingly warm afternoon, so we took River to the beach and played fetch in the water. We wrapped up the day by having some flights at Shipyard Brewing (their Pumpkinhead is an especially good pumpkin beer), dinner at Liquid Riot, and a few nightcap beers on the back porch of our Airbnb.

boat crazy!

Sunday, Sept. 24 – Monday, Sept. 25

We got an early start for our drive home, leaving the Airbnb at 7 a.m., flying through Maine and New Hampshire, then making a quick lunch stop in Massachusetts. Another state first for me! A friend of mine and I once tried to define what counts as having been to a state–my personal rule is that layovers don’t count unless you leave the airport, and driving through counts as long as you stop at some point and your feet hit the ground. We reached Cleveland around 7 p.m., where we spent the night with our good friend Becky at her house and hung out with her adorable son, dogs, and foster cat. On Monday, we drove the final stretch back to Chicago and it was pretty uneventful except for one magical moment. The backstory: in 2009, I drove to New York City with my sister to help her make a cross-country move. We left Chicago in a rental car packed to the brim at around midnight. By the time we reached Ohio, we were cracked out on coffee and energy drinks, and made a rest stop at a gas station. We were both shocked and delighted to find a very random poster of Romeo + Juliet-era Leonardo DiCaprio mounted on the wall in the women’s restroom. Because we were so tired, the memory of it seemed surreal, like perhaps our dreams were incepted by the same Tiger Beat editor. Years passed; I’ve made the Chicago-to-East-Coast drive multiple times since, and never came across that poster again….UNTIL NOW. When I walked into the women’s restroom and locked eyes with Leo’s baby blues, I died. I had stumbled across the same mirage in the desert, that magical Brigadoon.  I texted my sister immediately and her reaction was as expected: “OMG!!!!!!!!” I asked Kurt if there was a matching Claire Danes-as-Juliet poster in the men’s room, but he said no. Must’ve been sold separately.

Leo 4-eva

Anyways, a few hours later, we finally reached home. Maine’s lovely and you should check it out.

Iceland Diaries: Homeward Bound, Final Thoughts

Sunday, Feb. 19

The morning was spent packing our bags and cleaning up the Airbnb. We finished exactly at checkout time, 11 a.m., then made the 10-minute walk with our bags to the bus terminal, where we had 40 minutes or so to kill before our Flybus departed. As I was sitting and enjoying my coffee, one of my friends pointed out a girl walking through the station to me: “She’s got the same bag as you.” Sure enough, she also had a bright blue Deuter pack. I noticed her briefly before turning back to my phone and coffee. When we eventually boarded the Flybus, it was packed, with every last seat taken.

At the airport, we climbed off the bus and went to pick up our bags. We were near the back so most of the passengers had already grabbed their belongings. Kurt got his bag and pointed at the blue Deuter bag left in the cargo hold. As I picked it up, I spotted two Nalgenes tucked into the front pockets. I didn’t have two Nalgenes. My heart leapt into my throat and I froze in panic. “Wait, this isn’t my bag!”

“You better find her fast!” Kurt said, snapping out of my shock. Wearing the stranger’s backpack, I sprinted inside the airport and scanned the crowd for my pack. Finally, I spotted her in line at the WOW Airline counter, just about to check in. I ran over and tapped her on the shoulder, saying breathlessly “I think you’ve my bag.” She looked at my pack and hers.

“Oh my God! I am so, so sorry. Wow, that would have been terrible!” she said. We traded backpacks back.

“No worries! I’m just glad I found you!” I said. My heartbeat began to slow back down as I made my way back to my friends, relieved. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the duplicate bag back at the bus terminal, I might not have looked as closely when I picked up the bag and wouldn’t have realized until we got back home.

view of Greenland from our plane

Major bag crisis averted. We checked in, did some final shopping, got some food, and made our way to the gate. It was the beginning of the end of our smooth, uneventful journey back to Chicago. I stayed awake for the return flight, and took advantage of IcelandAir’s movie selection. After considering Frozen, I stuck with the Arctic theme and watched The Golden Compass, followed by the musical Chicago to bring it on home. I was sad that our amazing vacation was over, but was eager to get home and be reunited with our dog and two cats.

A few closing thoughts on our trip: Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. The people are friendly. It’s expensive as hell, but an easy trip to make (only a 6-hour flight from Chicago, no language barrier, etc.). The country has a population of 323,000 and tourism is on the rise, with an estimated 1.5 visitors in 2016. That same year also saw the first time that American tourists outnumbered Icelandic residents. The people of Iceland were nothing but hospitable to us during our trip, and have talked of the economic growth and job boom due to the surge in tourism. But on the other hand, there’s the common complaint that Iceland is turning into ‘Disneyland’ for American tourists. Another local talked to us about the rising cost of food and nightlife; prices increase because tourists will pay it, but it is pushing out the locals who are finding it harder to go out to dinner that often. And then there’s always the issue of tourists who behave poorly (thankfully we didn’t witness any of this, except for a table full of British women who dine-and-ditched at a restaurant in Hella). Hearing and seeing these things is a bummer because it is a fantastic destination and I’d hate to see it change too much. I can’t imagine the solitude of the southern coast overrun by a rash of brand new hotels popping up and down the beach to accommodate the masses.

All that being said, I’m definitely glad we went, and I would still encourage others to visit. It was like living in a beautiful storybook illustration for a week. Here’s a few tips I’ll share:

  • Don’t be scared off of traveling during the winter; the crowds will be smaller and there’s still so much to do and see! But you will need to maximize the daylight hours so schedule your days smartly, or plan for a longer trip in order to pack everything in.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too much about seeing the Northern Lights, especially if you only have a week or less. You need a combination of the right conditions (a moderate or strong Aurora forecast and a clear night sky). It’s a matter of luck.
  • If you’re planning to drink, load up on booze at the Duty Free store at the airport as soon as you land in Iceland. It’s time to revisit the pregaming days of your twenties, because drinks at bars and restaurants are $$$.
  • Get out of the city. Reykjavík is a fun place to visit and you’ll surely enjoy the restaurants and bars, but at the end of the day, it’s a small town and you’ll get the feel for it quickly. Rent a car or book a seat on a tour bus and drive out of town for as much of your trip as possible to view the stunning sights and geographical wonders.
  • If you rent a vehicle, don’t mess around and get the gravel insurance.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle. All of the tap water is safe to drink and tastes great (just let the tap run for a minute if the hot water has been on recently, and the sulfur smell will disappear).
  • You can use credit cards everywhere, so don’t worry about converting USD into ISK. I didn’t touch cash once for our entire trip, and used my credit card for everything from taxis to beers to a single cup of coffee. And don’t look at your credit card bill until you get home; you’ll have more fun that way.
  • We turned off our cellular data on our phones and got by easily just using wifi, as it’s found in pretty much every hotel, restaurant, tour bus, bus terminal, horse farm, you name it.
  • Hang onto your shopping receipts because you can get VAT (value added taxes) refunds when purchasing goods for 6,000 ISK or more.
  • Bring your own towels and flip flops to the swimming pools to save some money (or in case they don’t have any). Consider a waterproof phone case or electronics bag if you want to take a lot of photos at the pool or in Blue Lagoon.
  • Wear layers and make sure the top ones are waterproof, especially on days when you’re hiking around waterfalls.
  • Don’t be afraid of Harpa; she’s a good horse. Rub her neck just under her mane; she loves it.

Skál!