Gas Station Gourmet: The Discount Burrito

Somewhere in South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

I like to think of myself as the apex predator of the cheap eats ecosystem. My collective experiences as a college student in Manhattan, a minimum-wage worker in Australia, and a backpacker have gifted me with a spidey-sense-esque ability to spot “marked-down” and “clearance” stickers at grocery stores. I have the patience and precision of a lion huntress going in for the kill when scanning the aisles. If there’s a good food deal out there, I will find it. And if it’s cheap and edible-looking enough (my parameters here are quite wide), I will buy it and I will eat it. 

I noticed (with the all-seeing gaze of a hawk that catches the movement of a mouse while flying over an open field) $1.00 scrawled in permanent marker behind the rural gas station’s hot food display window. Hello bacon burrito.

I reached into the warm, moist air of the case. My fingers curled around the wrinkled aluminum wrapper of the burrito. It felt just slightly above room temperature. I hesitated.

It’s not even ten o’clock in the morning. Why is this breakfast burrito 67% off? Unless it’s yesterday’s-

I shook the bad thoughts from my head. The discount outweighed the possible safety hazards. I bought it with my spare change, grinning and wondering if the disinterested-looking cashier was judging me as he rang it up.

I returned triumphantly to my two friends who were waiting in the car. When I slapped my prize on the dashboard, they both stared at it in horror.

“Are you really going to eat that?” One asked.

“Yeah, dude. It’s bacon. You can’t mess up bacon. And it was only $1!”

“But why was it only $1?”

I ignored that ridiculous question, unwrapping my breakfast prize and holding it before me. I couldn’t tell if the pale, flour tortilla wrap was cooked.

My first bite was mostly chewy tortilla. It wasn’t bad. Just very plain. My next mouthful revealed the intricate textures of the dish: half-melted strings of cheddar cheese; crispy, bite-sized microwaveable bacon bits (and yes I can tell if it’s microwavable or freshly fried); the mushed tomato liquid of Tostitos Mild Salsa; and a mostly flavorless, soft, crumbly substance that I couldn’t identify.

If anything, the burrito was true to its name; the thing was stuffed with bacon. Entirely enjoyable for a (sometimes excessive) carnivore like myself. The flavor was so bacon-y that it wasn’t until the third bite that I realized the soft crumbly chunks were overcooked scrambled eggs.

As we drove away from the gas station, I continued to munch. A well-packed burrito is a nearly perfect car food; it’s easy to hold and drive, every bite is an even distribution of flavor, and the wrapper usually makes an excellent impromptu napkin. And this bacon-laden pocket was no exception to that rule.

Fast Forward Two Hours Later. I’m in good shape; there are no unwanted aftereffects from my breakfast burrito! This has been a successful bargain meal adventure.

  • Cost: $1.00
  • Tastiness: **
  • Weirdness (Sights, Smells, & Texture): ***
  • Car-Safety: *****
  • Digestion: *****
  • Overall Edibility: **
  • Value: ***** 

Conclusion: Totally worth your $1. But not more. The original price of $2.99 was damn extortion. There’s just not enough flavor to merit more than a bargain hunt - because as we all know, it just tastes better when it’s an awesome deal. 

Q&A with Maureen and Larry Gelo: Nomadic Retirees and Road Trip Professionals

Unity, New Hampshire

by Samantha Adler

Florida palm trees, luxurious naps and bingo: these are the things retirement dreams are made of.

But, if you travel up to woodsy New Hampshire and ask Maureen and Larry Gelo they’d beg to differ. A couple of retirement rebels, these two fill their time seeking new adventures on America’s open roads, breaking away from the status quo of retirees.

The two lived, worked and raised their children in Connecticut. He worked as a police officer in a small town on the shore and she worked as a nanny. Larry’s a handyman who can fix all and create any device you’d ever need from scratch. Maureen’s gentle and loving with a dash of cheeky spunk. After retiring at age of 62, they bought a motorhome and set off on a series of spontaneous road trips in North America, driven by curiosity and an unfulfilled wanderlust. It’s been over a decade and they’re still going, insisting there is so much to see in this big, beautiful country of ours.

This pair of serial roadtrippers happen to be my grandparents (+10 cool points for me) and two of the biggest supporters of the road trip. I recently visited them in Unity, New Hampshire, their home base. When they’re not out on the road, Larry does woodwork with materials from the forest behind their house (Check out some of his amazing work), visit friends, hike and enjoy their rugged New England home.

Before settling down over the kitchen table, we went on a short hike in the nearby Quechee Gorge. A few remaining leaves hung off wiry branches, clinging on against the chilly late autumn breeze. We got home, tore off hiking boots and unbundled. After putting a log on the furnace, we gathered around a plate of brownies and they shared their stories, travel advice and all their coveted road trip knowledge in their usual hilarious banter.


First off, why the travel retirement?

L: There’s a lot of places we’ve never been and we’d like to go there.

M: That pretty much says it all. We just wanted to travel and see this beautiful country.

 

Why roadtripping in particular?

L: Because you can see a lot more. And with a camper you can stop wherever, whenever and for as long as you want.

M: To get off the beaten path and see things. We’ve had so many surprises, especially in these little towns along the way. [There was] one place in Nebraska we ended up. It was the end of the day and we were tired. We just about got into this parking lot, when we saw there was a museum. Well, we ended up staying there for three more days because this museum was blocks long. A man had collected everything from soup to nuts; from cars to buttons. And he had all these buildings with all these wonderful things, like the earliest telephone. We found out that he was the creator of bubble wrap! And he just collected for years and years and years. But like I said when we pulled into this place it looked like nothing, it was just a place we stopped at because it was the end of the day and we were tired. So that’s the wonderful thing about traveling across this country in a vehicle.

 

Did you travel when you were younger?

M: I think the farthest we ever went was to visit my father’s sister in New York. And that was about three or four times in my childhood. Neither of my parents liked to travel, they were homebodies. So that gave me the wanderlust.

L: When I was single in the service and my teenage years, I used to travel down the East Coast, and that was it. But I did get to go to college in Alaska and loved it. About forty years ago we got the chance to take a cruise up there and loved it. Then we went back and spent eight or ten weeks traveling around in the motorhome.

What was your first road trip?

M:  We had a trailer and we went up to Canada, Quebec and Niagara falls, on both sides. There again, we found this wonderful little town that we would have never found if we weren’t riding around.

L: We first started with a truck, we camped in the back of the truck, then we got a little trailer, then we got a little bigger trailer and then we decided [to get the RV] when we got close to retirement.

 

What was the best trip or route you’ve taken?

L: I think Alaska was probably the greatest. They’ve all been great. One time we went down Route 50 from the East Coast all the way out to California. It was the old 1950/60’s.  Most of it’s disappeared by now, but it was kind of nostalgic and off the beaten path. It was stuff we remembered from when we were young.

M: Route 66.

L: Yea, a lot of it was Route 66. Another time we went along the Canadian border all the way west, then down the coast to San Francisco and then back along the southern coast. That was an amazing trip.

 

What was the craziest thing you saw because you were driving?

L: We’ve seen just about everything. We’ve been in tornados, major thunderstorms, hailstorms, windstorms where we thought the camper was going to flip over. Anything you can think of we’ve been near it, too near it for comfort or right in the middle of it.

 

Have you made any friends along the way?

L: We’ve met all sorts of people. You never know who you’re going to run into. We stopped in one place in Canada and met people we’ve been in touch with for seven or eight years now.

M: All nice people from all walks of life.

L: Everyplace you stop you should talk to somebody. You’ll talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going and they’ll tell you what you should go and see. And if they’ve been to places you’ve already been, they’ll tell you about places you missed after you thought you’ve seen everything there is to see. We went to Wall Drugs a few times going across country. It’s a big, big drug store and big tourist attraction. And almost across the street, were the Badlands. We drove right by it. The third time we finally figured it out after chatting with people.

 

What are the best things you’ve picked up along the way?

L: She likes to shop. We had to go all the way to Alaska to go to Walmart.

M: No. My best souvenirs were in Sequoia National Park, we filled our trunk with great big pinecones.

L: Then we found out it was illegal.

M: And then I got a piece of wood from the Petrified Forest. Which was...another illegal thing.  Nothing I bought. I have a chunk of rock from the base of Crazy Horse. And that was legal! They said I could take it.

L: Every place we’ve gone to I’ve gotten a walking stick emblem.

I know you’ve had some run-ins with pretty large critters.

L: We saw every animal you could think of in Alaska: mountain lions, moose, bears. I’ve walked up on a moose. Not intentionally. I was walking along the road and right next to me a moose started snorting. I said “oh that’s not a smart idea.” I kept walking and he went back on to minding his own business.

 

Advice for aspiring roadtrippers?

L: It’s the most exciting way in the world to go. You don’t have to go on an airplane and go through all that crap. Travel as much as you can. You get a whole, totally different outlook on the world. You see it’s more than this little town you live in.

M: Enjoy the ride and the surprises. In Saint Louis we ended up seeing the Clydesdales from the Budweiser commercials at Grant’s Farm. That was a surprise that we came upon. It was in this beautiful nature park that had all types of animals. And it was totally free.

L: Talk to everyone you can talk to.

M: I like stopping at visitors centers because you can get all the information you need. It’s always good to stop there.

L: If you see something interesting you should stop. The most important thing about traveling like this is being able to stop when you see something interesting and if you don’t make your destination, fine.

 

The one place you must see in the US?

M: Grand Tetons.

L: When we were traveling to a balloon festival in Arizona, we hit every presidential library in the country. That was amazing, I never knew the presidential libraries had so much to offer.

 

What route do you recommend for someone who wants to road trip for the first time?

L: I think Route 50 was one of the nicest. If you can stay off the main highways, do it. The interstates are beautiful things for when you want to get somewhere fast, but you miss everything.

 

There’s so much to see. What should someone base their route on when planning?

L: No matter what you’re interested in look for things that are in that area. Like history, if you’re interested in battlefields you could spend months visiting them all in the southeast. Or if you find a writer you’re interested in...anything!

M: Just seeing the country and riding along.

L: We’ve got friends who like to go to zoos. They just travel all around the country going to zoos. It’s whatever you’re interested in.

M: I wanted to go to Savannah because I heard there was a museum here that had Scarlett O’Hara’s dress from Gone with the Wind. I was so excited because that’s one of my favorite movies. I never thought i’d be able to do that. Especially because I never traveled when I was younger, so it’s amazing to be able to hop in the motorhome, drive down and see something as ridiculous as Scarlett O’Hara’s gown.

L: One time we tried to hit as many national forests and parks as we could.

Has anything you’ve seen changed your perspective?

L: It’s changed our outlook on life. Before we started traveling  the north east was basically it. Yea, I’d gone down south a few times for the service. But I’ve probably never gone more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s amazing. I thought everyone in the world lived in New York City; that was civilization. Then you find out Chicago is bigger. And the first time we went across country, to see how big this country is, where you’re driving and you can see fifty miles ahead, drive for hours and see nothing else. You can’t wrap your head around that or visualize that from reading a book or watching TV. You can’t appreciate it until you see it. And to see how different people live. It’s changing a bit now. But we’d hit totally different cultures and foods. I do carpenter work and I’ve seen carpenters make the same thing I make but in totally different ways, with different tools and different methods. That’s where you learn things.

 

So, you guys are the cool nomadic kids in your friend group.

M: Yea.

L: We dare a little more.

M: Some of our friends don’t follow us cause they feel we’re too old. They don’t want to get off the beaten path.

L: We’ll just go and if we stop, we’ll stop. We’re a little more daring, but everyone is different. It’s still nice to get home. Then regroup, reorganize and then take off again.

 

Mesa Verde National Park: The Wild Side

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

Check out my first Mesa Verde installment: Withering Heights

I stepped back on solid ground and gripped the metal fence separating me from the canyon below. I had just completed a heart pounding journey through one of Mesa Verde’s high-up cliff dwellings. I took a glance back at the man-made structure; brown solid walls, windows and tunnels, all nestled into a little alcove, carved out of a towering cliff, up high in a vast canyon, that cut through an even larger desert forest.

These man-made wonders of Mesa Verde spark so much curiosity and hold so much cultural significance, that they sometime overshadow the fact that Mesa Verde is a national park blooming with diverse plant and animal life.

I certainly forgot.  It wasn’t until after I wandered starry eyed from exploring thousand year old cliff dwellings, started up the car and drove up the windy road to the park’s campsite, that it hit me

I wandered into the camp store looking for snacks and firewood. While I had noticed a diverse array of plant life and trees on the drive, the smiling plush toys in the camp store seemed out of place. A mountain lion stuffed buddy? A smiling owl? A fluffy bobcat?

You guys don’t belong here.

I grabbed a rock solid frozen breakfast burrito and a bundle of wood and went to check out. The cashier handed me a list of guidelines and an event itinerary. A park ranger was giving a wildlife talk after sunset that night. I had to go because A. park rangers are the coolest and B. I was eager to find out what critters dwelled secretly in this park.

The tent site was set within a field of tall, tan grass. The sun was beginning to set in a cascade of striking warm colors when I started to put the tent together and defrost the block of ice, egg and cheese over the fire. I heard a rustle in the brush and shot up. All those little fluffy faces in the camp store popped into my head, only now they were muscly, toothy and hungry. I froze with fear and excitement.  I squinted in the dusk and saw a deer meandering in the hazy light, like she ran the whole show and I was zero threat.

After finishing off dinner and putting out a short lived fire, I grabbed a flashlight and made my way to the ranger talk at the amphitheater. The amphitheater was an outdoor semi circle of concrete benches, with a raised platform for a stage. The presentation had begun and I snuck into a seat amongst a crowd of children and a few parents. The ranger at the front had an image of a curious hare pull up on a large projector. She began explaining that the animals that lived in Mesa Verde have gone through some amazing adaptations to live in this climate.

Mesa Verde’s 5200 acres are sandwiched between the lush forests of the Rockies and the desert of the SouthWest. This gives the park a mostly a semi-arid environment at a 6000 ft elevation. While it seems like a tough environment, the park boasts 640 species of plants, 74 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 16 species of reptiles, five species of amphibians, six species of fishes (four of which are native), and over 1,000 species of insects.

This includes the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl. The park boasts several protected breeding areas for these rare birds. The unique climate here actually provides a rare pocket for niche animals, plants and insects to thrive.

The ranger clicked through photos noting adaptations such as camouflage, clawed footing for climbing and quick mobility to escape predators. I joined the kiddos in their Oooh’s and Ahhh’s. The ranger then pulled up the apex predator and one of the most beautiful animals in North America: the mountain lion.

It’s adaptations seemed more fitting for conquering than surviving: the ability to leap from fifty feet above, speed and strength. While beautiful, these animals were not to be messed with. However, sighting one of these big cats was rare as they keep to themselves in the canyon.

Then the presentation ended in the best possible way: baby animal photos. She knew how to win the crowd over. Suspense, danger...cute baby animals.

I walked with the crowd of giggling children, flashlight in hand to my campsite. The light shone a bright white circle in front of me. My peripherals were a black darkness and I chose to ignore any rustle, chirps or movement. I hopped into my tent and gazed up towards the sky. Now knowledgeable of ALL the possibilities that might lie in that brush, I closed my eyes, imagined the adorable baby versions and hoped to encounter them in the morning.


A reminder that the wildlife you learn about at national parks are indeed...wild. Follow the National Park Service guidelines when you're exploring, camping or hiking to keep things wild and free:

  • Feeding wild animals is dangerous to you and unhealthy for them.

  • Wild animals can carry deadly diseases, including hantavirus, plague and rabies.

  • Repeated human contact with wildlife may cause animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become aggressive.

  • Always view wildlife from the safety of your car or from a distance.

  • Do not approach animals to feed or take photographs, and teach children not to chase, tease, or pick up animals.

  • Please report any animal that may appear sick or injured.

  • Keep your food, cooking equipment, and garbage in your vehicle with the windows closed, hard-sided trailer, or food locker.

 

Q&A with Dave Imus: Cartographartist, Expert Road Tripper & The Inspiration for the Flyoverlands Logo

Eugene, OR to Myrtle Beach, SC

by Cassia Reynolds

Disclaimer: I know cartographartist isn’t a real word. But it should be. 

I first discovered the work of Dave Imus, the founder of Imus Geographics and winner of four top national awards for cartography (as well as six other runner up places), while on a mission to find a map to represent the Flyoverlands logo. 

Samantha and I had already spent a week searching for the right map to fit our vision. We wanted something detailed, readable, and representative of the actual landscape of the United States. Basically, we wanted the map to demonstrate what we hoped to do with our blog: explore America. We’d both noticed a trend in the maps we’d found so far; they were very colorful and overwhelmed with labels, but not particularly informative of the nature and distinctions in US geography.

The hunt led me to a Slate article about Dave’s most famous map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America, which won the Best of Show award by the Cartography and Geographic Information Society in 2012. From afar, it looked like a simple, 4ft x 3ft rendering of the United States. It was pleasing to the eye, a well-shaded illustration of geographic changes with clear lines marking state borders, rivers, mountains, and other important landmarks. However, the real genius of the map is in the attention to detail; I learned Dave illustrated and labeled his work over the course of two years. He included 1000 iconic American landmarks and did it all without sacrificing topographic detail for political information.

When I reached out to Dave about possibly using his illustration for the Flyoverlands logo, he not only agreed to it, but to an interview as well. And that’s how I got a little one-on-one time with the man who single-handedly beat out big companies like National Geographic and Rand McNally for this prestigious award in mapmaking. And I found out that not only does Dave not have formal training specifically in cartography, but that he really only started Imus Geographics back in 1983 because his lack of experience meant he couldn’t land a job as a cartographer. 

Over the course of a half hour, we discussed Dave’s love of road trips, his beef with geography in the American education system, and the DL on what really goes into making one of his mapsterpieces (BAM I’m on a roll today). 


Tell me about your work as a cartographer. 

I have very little in common with my colleagues across the country. I live in a pretty artistic community, Eugene, Oregon, and I have way more in common with woodworkers and painters and sculptors than I do with mapmakers. I’m an illustrator, an artist. And mapmaking is primarily a technical activity. It’s data manipulation and interpretation and once this data is somehow represented, it’s done. It’s like, “We have the data published!” And [I say], “Oh yay, that’s a good place to start. Now let’s make a beautiful illustration that really says something.”

What goes into making a map? Does it require you to experience the places you’re mapping out?

If I’m mapping a city I’ve never been to, I want to capture the essence of that city. So I read about it and I study large scale maps of it to see which of the principal routes I want to put on my map and what, if any, iconic landmarks are there that sort of identify it as a place. And so I experience the place whether I’ve been there or not. I’ve got to contemplate it and try to make sense out of it so that somebody who’s looking at my map will know the basic geography of the place just like people who live there.

What’s been your most difficult project and your favorite project?

The way that my career path has gone is each project is more difficult and more fun. For many years I have worked with a colleague in Massachusetts. And we were talking about how complicated we make things. And he said, “You know, if it were easy, we wouldn’t be interested!” And I said, “You know, I think you’re right.” But the US map took everything I knew about map making and geography to do it. 

What do you want people to know about your award winning map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America? 

The big thing really about that map is that it’s made with an entirely different standard of artistry than American cartographers embrace. I control every detail of the map so it’s all my interpretation of how best to communicate the geography of one area. I’m not letting algorithms do a dang thing. I use a computer but I use it as a drafting tool. So the map has far greater clarity. It’s just easier on the eye and more acceptable to the mind. And the other thing is that it’s the only map of basic geography. It shows where the country is forested and where it’s not. It has the principle populated places so people know what the important locations of an area are. And it’s got stuff like “the Bluegrass Country of Kentucky” on it. Because we care about these places but we don’t know exactly where they are.

Do you see your work as an education tool for others? 

In primary and secondary education, geography bores even me. It’s treated like some sort of abstraction. Look up a map by Rand McNally or National Geographic or United States Maps and they treat the world like it’s some sort of abstraction that doesn’t even really exist. [Their maps] might look like a moonscape. They’re just a whole bunch of bright colors but they’re not illustrations of the land. A good map is an illustration of the land first and it’s only a map because you put type tables on it. If you’re not illustrating the land with the artistic attention of a botanical illustrator or a medical illustrator, then you’re not illustrating the land in a way where people can actually make sense out of it. You don’t actually have to see a wild iris because people draw beautiful pictures of them. Nobody draws beautiful pictures of basic geography and puts these labels on them so we know what we’re looking at. 

As someone that’s spent so much time going over America’s geography, what are three pieces of advice you have for the American road tripper?

I’m an expert road tripper by the way - I’m exploring all the time. This traveling partner [and I] go on trips for a couple thousand miles and we don’t drive an inch on the freeway. You see so much more of America that way. I mean this is planet earth we’re talking about here! Which as far as we know is the most exotic planet in the universe. So you know whether you’re out in the middle of Kansas or you’re in the canyon lands of southern Utah, it’s beautiful and interesting.

  1. Growing up I made friends with places. I’d see a mountain range and I’d want to know about that. I’d look at a little town and want to know what makes this different. All these questions make life so much more interesting and people who are geographically unaware, to whom the world is just a series of interchangeable sceneries, that’s really boring! Enrich your life by noticing the world: the climate, the vegetation, the culture, everything that’s going on. And the world becomes a much more beautiful and interesting place. You can’t hardly get bored out on the road if you’re interested in what you’re looking at.
  2. Stay the Hell out of Denny’s and places like that! Find local restaurants and stuff that are some individual’s expression of what a restaurant ought to be. Now that’s a whole lot more interesting and varied than some corporate idea of what a restaurant ought to be. Every Denny’s across this country looks identical. So find local stuff! Check out local culture! It’s everywhere.
  3. Pick a US highway and just follow it. See where it goes, the in-and-outs. It might take you from the Texas hill country up through the sand hills of Nebraska and on up to the Turtle Mountains and you would have seen everything in between, you would have seen this cross section of America and would have a way better understanding of that part of the country.

Tell me something you love about the USA.

We have so much to learn from each other. I think that some time in the future, and I hope it’s not too long, people will come from all over the world to visit our Native American reservations. They don’t have them anywhere else. You can still go to the Hopi reservation and, man, people are living there the way they’ve been living for 2000 years basically. They’re still doing the same ceremonies and stuff and it’s really cool. 


Dave has now begun a quest to break down the boundaries further between cartography and fine art, transforming his geographic illustrations into high-quality canvas prints that highlight the beauty and intricacy of landscapes. His individual pieces focus on regions like the Great Lakes, or single states, like Iowa and Alaska. They expose the details of the cities, roads, forests, and mountains of these areas in a totally new light. 

Or, as Dave put it, “Every state looks cool. Iowa looks cool!” 

His current show, “ReEnvisioning Maps: The Cartographic Art of Dave Imus,” in the gallery space of InEugene Real Estate in Eugene, Oregon, began on November 6 and runs through December 2015. Check out the press release for more information, visit Dave’s website, and/or Like Dave's Facebook page, The Essential Geography of the United States of America

Coffee Break: Barista Parlor

by Samantha Adler

Every road trip/adventure has its ebbs and flows. You’re cruising down the interstate singing on the top of your lungs, skipping along the sidewalks of a new town or giggling gleefully at shenanigans you and your road trip buddy have gotten into. Then the adrenaline wears off and the three hours of sleep you got the night before becomes painfully obvious. You find your eyes crossing on a long stretch of highway, yourself shuffling zombie-style through that new city, and you begin to chastise your road trip companion for their song choice, boring stories and the reason they were even born.

Then you find it: coffee. That magical liquid that grants you the energy of a labrador and the optimism of Spongebob. And you’re back to singing, skipping and giggling.

In addition to it’s magical, life-giving powers, coffee is often surrounded by the culture, music, flavors and people of the place you’re visiting. Coffeehouses can transform into Friends-like hang out spots, unofficial work offices, low-key concert venues for local artists and your own mad scientist-esque laboratory for testing out experimental concoctions.

Here are a few favorite coffee break spots we've come across in our travels.


Barista Parlor

Nashville, Tennessee

I arrived in Nashville after several nights of camping and long days of interstate driving. I passed the famed Broadway, with neon signs screaming the names of famous live music venues like Tootsie’s and Honky Tonk Central. Even behind my car’s tinted windshield the lights were blinding and the faint sound of country music seeped in. I continued down several smaller streets before arriving at my destination: an Airbnb. I had chosen to stay with two super friendly girls, who were recent Nashville transplants and had a cute little house on the city’s east side.

I wanted to go out and experience the city’s famous musical allure, but after sitting on the pull-out couch and sinking into it’s feathery bed, a nap was more tempting.  

*clap to the face*

My road trip buddy shook me.

“We’re only here for twenty-four hours. You need to wake up.”

*low guttural growls*

“Let’s get coffee. I read about a great place called Barista Parlor. We can walk there.”

After a fifteen minute zombie-shuffle through Nashville’s green, hip east side we turned the corner to Barista Parlor. The coffeehouse was built inside a renovated auto-repair shop, which gives it its industrial look and feel. The large blue, concrete building sat in the back corner of a large asphalt lot, with outdoor seating and massive carnival style block lettering.

Barista Parlor is no stranger to coffee-fame. The cafe has been written up on several best coffeeshops in the US lists, due to its ingenuity, stylish interior design, fresh baked goods and array of coffee techniques and quality.

Once your step inside, it’s not hard to see why. The coffeehouse is modern, industrial and warm. The space is wide and open, a sign of it’s former car-fixin’ days, with vintage-bulbs dangling from the ceiling, expansive warm wooden tables, metal piping, modern art pieces on the walls and two coffee bars with busy, bustling baristas who were busy as bees. The baristas wore mechanic-style aprons to protect from splattering coffee.

Stepping up to the metal bar, my tired mind was entranced by the baristas’ efficiency.  I ordered an espresso and a homemade strawberry poptart that caught my eye last minute. It looked too good to walk away from, golden with a drizzle of frosting and rainbow sprinkles. Who can say no to something with sprinkles? We sat down at the wooden bar adjacent to the barista station. Priding themselves on the variety of their menu and attention to detail in brewing, the barista station mirrored a mad scientist’s lab.

The poptart was flakey, buttery and fresh with a hint of lemon. I devoured it before my name was called for my espresso, which was a beautiful, dark, earthy, tasty sip of energy. Along with my little cup, I was served a small chewy caramel which was infused with sea salt. It was the perfect post-espresso treat.

We returned the next morning, after a day of romping about Nashville, eating hot chicken and a night of seeing a few live shows on Broadway. This time I ordered the cold brew and a breakfast biscuit, while my buddy ordered a house made "BP Soda Pop" made from carbonated cascara, vanilla and orange. 

Unlike the previous morning, we didn’t beat the rush. The line circled outside the garage doors, with young families, hand holding couples and the tired pre-work individual.

Sitting at the same wooden bench, we got our cold drinks. My cold brew was chocolaty and earthy, served in a printed glass. My buddy’s orange soda was tangy and fresh, both perfect for the hot Tennessee day ahead of us.

Then the biscuit came. It was served on a wooden slab with a bandana for a napkin. The buttery biscuit sandwich was hot, fresh and smelled like breakfast heaven with ham, a sunnyside up egg and cheese. The food definitely mirrored the attention to quality and detail of the coffee.

As the crowd died down, and we sat on out wooden bench sipping cold drinks slowly. Several people stared intently at their laptops, friends greeted others in lines and the few kids munched on fresh cookies.

Barista Parlor mirrors the young, trendy feel of the east side. And like its city, it pays a heavy attention to music. The shop has a stage outside for occasional live performances. The coffeeshop also recently opened another location in an old recording studio downtown in partnership with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach.

If you’re in Nashville and feeling a little sleepy or want a tasty treat/ well-brewed coffee make sure to hit up Barista Parlor.

  • Atmosphere: *****
    • Amenities included:
    • Good, chill working music
    • Quiet and polite patrons
    • Plentiful seating
  • Coffee: ****
    • Caffeine Power: Happily Hyper
    • Flavor: Dark, Earthy
  • Creativity: *****
  • Food: ****
  • Workspace: ***
    • Amenities included:
    • Wifi
    • Outlets

Un-Patriotic Reflections on Mount Rushmore: My People

Black Hills, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

My friends and I stared at Mount Rushmore for the recommended 10 minutes (how long can you really look at a statue in the distance?). After we perused the equally gigantic maze of the accompanying gift store, we wandered back onto the crowded walkway where I immediately lost my buddies in the mob of tourists. I couldn’t see over the sea of shoulders (thanks again, genetics) so I climbed on top of a stone post for a better view. After a few futile minutes of scanning the masses for familiar faces, I gave up and sat down on the pedestal to wait for them.

While I waited, I flicked through the images on my camera. I noticed I’d only taken a few snapshots of the actual monument. This didn’t concern me; it was like photographing the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty. Pictures just don’t do justice to an in-person visit to such a grandeur piece of history.  

Instead, my memory card was chock full of photographs of random tourists who were hanging out at the national memorial. And that’s when it hit me: a profound understanding of why I felt that visiting Mount Rushmore was such an important cultural experience. The actual presidential portraits were just happenstance. It was the swarming hordes of American people who, like me, had flocked to this place, drawn by a desire to witness this historical landmark. It was the fact that though we came from totally distinct parts of the country and lifestyles, we all somehow felt so connected to Mount Rushmore that we traveled (sometimes for weeks) through plains, forests, mountains, and deserts to see it. This place was truly a crossroads of American life.

And so to conclude my Mount Rushmore series, I give you my interpretation of this American cultural experience through a collection of scenes:

The Bud Light Retirement Fund

The Classic Unhappy Toddler

The "Road Tripper Burnout" Stance

moments of reflection

New Orleans' Afterlife

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, Louisana

by Samantha Adler

Un-Patriotic Reflections on Mount Rushmore: A Kooky, Racist Visionary

Black Hills, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

Check out my first Mount Rushmore installment: Unnatural Habitats.

The sun’s rays shone bright on the pale, creamy stone faces set against the Crayola Cornflower Blue backdrop. Afternoon shadows accented an overhanging brow, a stern jawline, a pensive gaze. A soft, surreal daze settled over me as I stood on the viewing platform before Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, ruminating on the postcard perfect scenery.

Do these sculptures feel so familiar because they’re accurate representations of the presidents whose faces I’ve memorized over the years? Or has Mount Rushmore so shaped my mental image of these presidents that looking at it in person just affirms my vision of these men?

It wasn’t until later that I learned the incredible efforts undergone to position Mount Rushmore to leave viewers like myself so spellbound: the visionary’s tireless quest for the landscape with perfect lighting and texture; the two full years of sculpting that went into the original bust of Jefferson, just to be dynamited and repositioned on Washington’s right; and the thousands of measurements that were calculated and then multiplied by twelve to recreate the original model of the four figures. (Check it out.)

But in the present moment a vivid but brief movie clip materialized in my memory. It was a scene from the 1994 Macaulay Culkin classic, Ri¢hie Ri¢h. Ri¢hie and his mother were perched on the edge of one stone eye socket in Mount Ri¢hmore, clinging desperately to each other. Ri¢hie’s dad dangled perilously (and ironically) from the carved glasses on the nose of his own likeness.

I squinted hard at Mount Rushmore, wondering if my childhood truths could possibly have grounding in reality. But if there were any doorways set in the pupils of the monoliths, they were invisible from this distance. The sixty foot replicas of America’s great leaders stared blankly ahead, unwilling to give even the barest of hints.

So instead I Googled. And not only did I find out that in 1998 the National Parks System constructed a Hall of Records within the memorial that contains sixteen porcelain enamel panels detailing the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other historic records, but also the background of one of America’s most iconic national memorials.

As with most wildly passionate, ambitious projects, a crazy man was at the center of all the fuss. In this case, a crazy Dutch-American man named John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum: an Idaho-born, eccentric perfectionist, Ku Klux Klan sympathist, nativist, painter, and (of course) sculptor.

Borglum was, while extremely qualified to construct larger-than-life replicas of famous national figures, also known for being hot tempered, egotistical, and more than a little batshit. He’d actually quit the last project he’d been commissioned to work on in Georgia (a memorial to the heroes of the Confederacy with a side altar dedicated to the KKK) in a rage after a dispute with the association, smashing all his clay and plaster models during his dramatic exit.

Side note: As unfortunate and disrespectful as it is, given Borglum’s history, it makes sense why he chose the American presidents for his work instead of the Native American leaders whose sacred land he worked on.

Borglum was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Mormon bigamist. His father worked as a woodcarver before attending Saint Louis Homeopathic Medical College and opening his own practice in Nebraska. When he was sixteen, Borglum studied art in Los Angeles, specializing in painting, and married a divorcee eighteen years his senior. After a few more years training in Paris, Borglum made a sudden switch to sculpting (rumors go that it was just to compete with his younger brother, Solon, who was already an established sculptor). For more information on Borglum, check out his biography on PBS.

In a selection from a Smithsonian article on the history of Mount Rushmore, his son, Lincoln Borglum, describes his father’s perspective on art.

Borglum was of the mindset that American art should be “…built into, cut into, the crust of this earth so that those records would have to melt or by wind be worn to dust before the record…could, as Lincoln said, ‘perish from the earth.’” When he carved his presidential portraits into the stable granite of Mount Rushmore, he fully intended for the memorial to endure, like Stonehenge, long past people’s understanding of it.

As I learned about Borglum, I began to think of his as a true American frontiersman tale, one that follows the age-old rule of the Wild West where he built his tribute: there are no rules in Freedomland. If you’re crazy enough to dream it and persistent enough to find a way to fund it, you can do it...even if your dream is to construct presidential portraits that withstand written human history. Though it’s still to be seen if Borglum’s work survives past modern American textbooks, to one day become as mysterious in origin as Stonehenge, it is already as internationally renowned.

I’m left wondering what’s really crazy here. Is it Borglum’s grandiose dream? Or that almost a century after the artist first laid eyes on this piece of granite, I’m standing before it, contemplating how Mount Rushmore has shaped my perspective on American patriotism?


Mesa Verde National Park: Withering Heights

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

Visiting Mesa Verde was a very last minute decision inspired by a curiosity stemming from foggy memories of middle school history books and the fear conjured by my neighbor of the previous campsite: a single man/possible serial killer who stayed up all hours of the night scribbling his manifesto in the middle of the Colorado forest armed only with a pen, piles of paper and a hatchet.

Located near the Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico), this “green table” is nestled at Colorado’s southwest pocket, at an elevation of 7000 - 8500 ft (psh, not high at all).

The drive up to Mesa Verde was steep and precarious, with the dusty grass as the only barrier separating road from cliff edges. When I finally rounded the last terrifying turn, I got a breathtaking glimpse of why this park was vital aspect of every middle schooler’s history lesson.

This elevated destination is not only a National Park, but is the largest archeological preserve in the United States.There are over 600 cliff dwellings still standing within the park’s limits, the most famous of these being the Cliff Palace (the largest cliff dwelling in North America and probably the one pictured in your history book!). And a few of these preserved ancestral homes are open to visitors.

This mountainous park is bursting with history, wildlife and opportunities for adventure seekers.


The Height You’ll Go for History

I was late as usual. When I arrived at the park in the afternoon, the summer sun was still beating down heavily. But small herds of smiling families, linked together by vice-link hand holds, meandered the parking lot in search of their vehicles as I swerved into a spot.

I ran into the information center, almost knocking into several of those little chain-linked families, in search of a map and a bathroom (the drive in was very long). I grabbed a map, Spruce Tree House was open to the public. Spruce Tree House was one of the only self-guided dwellings open, due to it’s proximity to the ground and easy-footed terrain. And I had an hour before the site closed. Since many other dwellings open to tour were very high up in the cliff and didn’t have infrastructure built around them to hold large groups, you had to be brought in by a ranger.

While less hazardous than other sites, Spruce Tree was still a trek in the heat of this summer evening. Starting from the peak, I had to take several staircases and switchbacks down the steep incline. However, this first glimpse of Mesa Verde’s rich history was worth it.

It was something you read about and heard about, but didn’t quite imagine it in its reality. Nestled within an alcove of the cliff, warm brown stone walls stood erect and seemingly sturdy.

Spruce Tree House would inspire the most apathetic of persons to transform into a history nerd. This wasn’t a decrepit fossil that you had to squint in concentration to imagine the life it once breathed, but a still standing, perfectly preserved home used 1400 years ago by a badass people who braved cliff faces and soaring heights.

The occupants were the ancestral Puebloans, otherwise known as the Anasazi. They built communities in the cliffs of Mesa Verde and thrived for about 700 years before moving on and settling elsewhere. At the time the cliffs provided shelter, safety and access to water.

I had definitely joined the end of the day rush. By the time I reached the bottom, crowds buzzed around the site snapping a few last photos and catching the tail-end of ranger-led tours, pointing out handprints in the clay and explaining the function of different rooms.

I started back up the steep pathway to my car, falling in line next to a park ranger. I told her I wanted to go into one of the ranger guided houses the next day.

“Definitely go see Balcony House! It has the best views and you’ll get to see a kiva* and a lot of climbing.”

“Cool! Thanks!”

“Wait...but are you OK with heights? If not, DO NOT do it. Although I saw a three year old on the tour last week...eh you’ll be fine.”

She sped on ahead of me to unlatch the gate and yell instructions to the stragglers. I couldn’t be more clumsy that a three year old. Balcony House it was!

My tour began at 8AM the next morning, so I left my campsite around 6:30. The drive up the mountains from the Mesa Verde campsite was about forty-five minutes of the steepest, twistiest roads I had encountered thus far. When I was brave enough to break focus and look, the views were extraordinary.

I joined the group of about thirty who were standing by the trail entrance on the parking lot pavement. The group spanned all ages; from a middle-aged couple snapping photos in their hiking gear, to small families loading up on snacks and water, to a group of European twenty-somethings laughing about the night before. Our ranger guide appeared and beckoned us to come closer for instructions. She warned us that it was a hike and it was imperative that we keep drinking water (the desert climate is hot, dry and it is very easy to become dehydrated).

“If any of you are afraid of heights this is not the tour for you. We will get to a steep ladder, this is your last opportunity to turn around. Do not be embarrassed about 50% will head back.”

Intimidating. In my peripheral a five year old was jumping off his father’s back onto the asphalt, oblivious to any potential dangers of the day.

If this little nugget can do it, so can I. I mean come on.

We began down the steep trail, which lined the edge of a large canyon. Eagles circled above, soaring across the epic crevice. What a kingdom.

The trail began to elevate as we inched toward the peak and the hike became harder and hotter. The ranger stopped us and we circled around, taking deep sips of water and wiping sweat from our brows. When I mustered the energy to look up, we had reached a giant ladder scaling the cliff face.

“This is your chance to turn back. Just don’t look down if you climb.”

Looking down meant looking down the depth of the huge canyon this dwelling was built into. The little five year old and his dad started to scale, his dad behind him for support. I approached the ladder and took the first step.

Not so bad.

It was a slow climb. The ladder was super-sized to fit the cliff face so there was a wide gap between each step. You wanted to be sure about your footing. The ranger assured us that even if someone launched themselves backwards we would be fine, but not to do that. By the time I was two thirds up the ladder my stomach turned. I looked down. This was not for the faint hearted.

I reached the top and someone held out a hand to pull me up. I hugged the stone wall of the cliff, so happy to be on solid ground. But then I turned around. The view was spectacular. We had a glimpse of what those surveying eagles see everyday.

We rounded the corner to Balcony House, a group of dwellings nestled into the rock, with nothing separating them from the cliff drop off. Like Spruce Tree, the walls were preserved in a similar style. However, Balcony House was obviously much higher up, and had a kiva dug into its foundation and sticks protruding from the stone wall. While you might think it’s the view, the sticks are what inspired the name. These were used as foundations for little balconies outside the windows, where people would sit and take in the view.

The Balcony House is believed to be a middle-sized dwelling with about ten rooms, plazas, kivas and tunnels. It was a community built for several families.

Though still erect, these walls are delicate artifacts and the oil from our hands can be detrimental. If touched often the oil can erode the rock, leaving a blackish smudge. The ranger gave close instructions on where to touch and step. After taking in the views, we were led through a tight tunnel used to enter different family homes. I had to squeeze through and at one point crawl on my hands and knees through a damp dark hallway.

After walking through several rooms, we made our ascent up to another ladder. It was smaller, thank god. Climbing quickly, only looking ahead I pulled myself up to the stone floor. I was now on a cliff face, a foot wide, with only a chain-link fence between me and the edge. This was far more terrifying than any ladder. I turned facing the cliff, heart beating through my throat and inched toward the first switchback. Tour mates ahead of me stopped, breathed deeply and exclaimed about the beauty of the view. I shot them a fiery look.

MOVE ALONG. I WANT TO LIVE.

After about five minutes of terror scaling, I reached the peak. This was where you safely admire the view people. To my surprise we were only a few steps away from the parking lot where we had met. On shaky legs I walked over to the fence and looked over the horizon, and listened to the next tour group get their warning.

It was an exhilarating step through time. And unlike that middle school history lesson, it will definitely stick.

* "Kivas is a Hopi word used to refer to specialized round and rectangular rooms in modern Pueblos" (http://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/chcu/slideshow/kivas/kivasintro.html)

 

Un-Patriotic Reflections on Mount Rushmore: Unnatural Habitats

Black Hills, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff.

I still visited Mount Rushmore. It was one of those you’re-in-South-Dakota-and-you’re-NOT-going-to-do-the-one-thing-people-do-in-South-Dakota-and-for-the-love-of-the-friggin-bald-eagle-aren’t-you-American things. The image of those four dead guys chiseled into that rock has been carved into my brain since I can remember. It’s not just a national memorial. It’s the (excuse the pun) commander in chief of national memorials.

So I waited in the 45-minute car line with every other freaking road tripper in South Dakota, chipped in for the $11 parking fee, and made my way up the stone walkway to have a little face time with Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

And in the few hours that I spent at and around the Mount Rushmore national memorial, I had several revelations. Here’s the first.


Unnatural Habitats

It was a long, crowded walk from the megamall-esque parking garage to the memorial. I was attempting to dodge a herd of screaming children when a woman’s gasp pierced the air. Mutterings of awe echoed through the congregations. I peered ahead and glimpsed a large creature with shaggy white fur, sharp, curved horns, a long snout, and a heavy-set, muscular frame.

Yeti!?

And because my natural instinct when I think that I finally have the chance to meet the Abominable Snowman is to say ‘hi,’ I scrambled past the people in front of me. I was so focused on my possible encounter that I didn’t notice the wide berth everyone else had given this furry visitor. Then I heard a child cry out, “billy goat!”

Forgive my ignorance of America’s wildlife, but I’d only ever seen mountain goats on Discovery Channel. And they just didn’t look this monstrous. Maybe because they were clambering over steep cliffs and enormous mountains, not standing in a pedestrian crosswalk. But I couldn’t help thinking in that moment that damn, I know nature in essence is beautiful, this is one ugly product of evolution.

Now that I knew it was just a goat, I was fearless (In hindsight, I’m an idiot). My camera was out and I was snapping away, quickly closing the distance between it and myself. When I was about ten feet away, I crouched down for a better angle.

The goat heard the incessant clicking of the shutter or maybe just smelled my arrogance and it turned toward me. I lifted my eye away from the viewfinder and found myself staring into the those bottomless, jet pupils.

And that’s when I heard the security guard behind me shouting at the top of his lungs. “Don’t take another step closer! Everybody stay back!”

Oh, shiiiiiiit.

I kept eye contact, slowly lifted my left foot, and scooched backwards. The goat took a step forward.

How sharp are those horns?

Another step toward me. And because if nothing else I am a documentarian, even if it’s of my own possible death, I noticed that the lighting was fantastic at this angle. I lifted my camera back up to my face to take another photograph.

When I dropped eye contact, the trance broke, the goat lost interest and continued on its way. I scrambled backward, dodging the annoyed security guard and shaking off the chills running down my spine.

In all seriousness, meeting this mountain goat was no joke; no encounter with a wild animal is. In the past few years, there have been more and more reported incidents of mountain goats behaving aggressively toward people. Though the first and last report of death-by-mountain-goat-goring was in Washington in 2010, the reality is that encroaching on the territory of wild animals is stupid.

I’m not sure why this mountain goat decided to wander up to a crowded memorial site (possibly for salt, which these critters are known to scavenge for), but it had obviously been around humans enough that its natural skittishness was gone. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. A huge part of what makes America’s national parks and natural landscape so incredible is the ecological diversity, the one that isn’t domesticated. Bears, mountain lions, eagles, deer; all these creatures have their own niche that defines the larger environment.

Mountain goats were introduced to South Dakota’s ranges in the 1920’s when several escaped from an enclosement in Custer State Park. Within twenty years, they had grown from a population of 10 to upwards of 400. Still, this region is technically new to these creatures. Even though men brought them to this area, it’s probably best for them to find their place in this unnatural habitat with as little extra human interaction as possible. And for the sake of science, it’s even more difficult to study the effects of an invasive species on a site if there are outside influences affecting the activities of that species. Here are some tips from the United States Department of Agriculture if you ever find yourself hiking in a goat’s environment:

  • Keep your distance! Stay at least 50 yards away from them – half the length of a football field.
  • If a mountain goat approaches, slowly move away from it to keep a safe distance.
  • If it continues to approach, chase it off by yelling, waving a piece of clothing, or throwing rocks.
  • Never surround, crowd, chase, or follow a mountain goat.
  • Do not feed the mountain goats or allow them to lick your skin or backpack.
  • If you need to urinate while hiking, please go away from the trail to avoid leaving concentrations of salts and minerals near the trail.

Just in case you do find yourself face-to-face with an especially irritable creature, Slate wrote an article on what you should do if attacked by a mountain goat. And as my last piece of mountain goat love, here’s a gift of absolutely adorable baby animal goodness: a video of a baby mountain goat braving rapids.

Elk, Horses and Saturn...Oh My? : The Land Between the Lakes

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Kentucky

by Samantha Adler

My drive across country was anything but straight; it was filled with loops, turns and zigzags according to where the next mini-destination lay. I had just left Nashville for Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, hoping to reach Memphis in a few days. My road trip buddy and I decided to make our descent back into Tennessee a bit creative by taking I-80 through the Land Between the Lakes.

This epically named plot of land is a long, skinny national recreation area placed between two large lakes, located half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee. If the name wasn’t incentive enough, I found that the area had several campgrounds and amazing wildlife scattered about its 170,000 acres.

We reached the bridge linking the Kentucky “mainland” to LBL around midday. The large metal structure was sturdy but narrow and the only way to access our destination. The car clanked over the metal grid as trucks sped by in  loud gusts of wind.  I held on tightly to the side of my seat as I looked over the metal bars at the large body of blue water beneath us.

The car hit a bump and we were back on solid road, cruising along the two-way I-80. There was little other than wild, green vegetation when we first began driving along the main road. The Land Between the Lakes was lush and wild.

Eventually we came across a sign for the visitor’s center. The signs were government created, and still were drenched in 1960’s style from the area’s inception; dark wood and light brown bold script (think any Disney font).

The visitors center was seated at the top of a hill, with a large dome extension. Children buzzed around us pointing at the taxidermied animals mounted on the walls and chasing each other. While we waited in line to ask the front desk for campsite recommendations, I read the local wilderness facts and event fliers nailed on the wood-paneled wall. I learned the dome was actually a planetarium and research center, and there was a free Saturn viewing party that night.  I tugged on my buddy’s shirt in excitement as he approached the desk. The woman who assisted us opened a brochure and circled a few campgrounds with open sites and campstores (as we were out of food).

The woman then pointed out the Bison and Elk Safari. This was a definite Samantha-approved activity. I had been waiting to see a bison in its natural habitat, to me they were a quintessential part of the american wild. We bought a ticket for our car and planned to head over at dusk, in hopes to catch a glimpse at some of these huge critters.

We hopped back in the car and went over our campsite options. I was all about the names on this trip and picked the most niche sounding one: Wrangler. We took off back down I-80 towards our campground.

At first glance Wrangler seemed quaint, friendly and a good fit for us. Their sign was etched in a western-inspired font and had an image of a cowboy and his horse. The land was mainly flat, with a small entrance hut at the front adorned in a few hanging flowers. The stable was adjacent to the hut, and horses used for tours galloped through their little field. As we purchased a tent site from the women in the entrance hut, a long trailer pulled up aside us. Three horses stuck their heads out in greeting. Thinking this was a rare sighting, I snapped a photo and cooed at the horses as they whinnied a hello.

We drove down the gravelly path towards our campsite. The tent sites were nestled in the back in a tiny little valley behind a wall of trees, beyond the campstore and bathrooms. As the car rumbled along the path, I gazed out at our fellow campers. Every single one had an equestrian companion.

The name Wrangler wasn’t niche, it was literal. We were the weirdos with no horse. Realizing our oddity, we choose a spot towards the back of the secluded valley. After setting up the tent I unfolded a lawn chair and opened a beer, waiting for dusk and bison. Sitting cross-legged facing the open field, I watched as strangers trotted by. 

When dusk hit we got in the car and drove a few miles to the pasture where the deer and the buffalo graze (get it?).  The cashier at the campstore assured us in a thick accent that we’d see bison and that they would probably serve as a lazy road block.

The “safari” was a driving tour of the pasture and a three mile paved road looped in a circle. We began the crawl, slowly inching forward behind a handful of other cars. Head out of the window, eyes glued to the dimly lit brush, I watched closely for any sign of life.

After about five minutes we came across a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us. Using my camera as binoculars I spotted a female elk grazing and popping her head up to check out the noise (noise meaning me squealing).

We continued the crawl around the paved circled and stopped when we saw the red glow of brake lights ahead of us. Two huge racks of antlers appeared from the horizon, gazing at the new vehicle in line. It was a huge male elk grazing close to us spectators.The elk were shy, peaceful and would never mess with the metal beast of a car.

We rounded the loop three more times at my request, seeing wildflowers and a handful of elk having an evening meal, but not bison. It was hard to be disappointed with all we had seen.

As the sun set, we left the elk’s valley and drove back to the visitors center in hope of meeting Saturn. Hopefully he wouldn’t allude us like the bison. We walked around to the backyard of the center where a crowd gathered, staring up at the sky. A back door was swung open to the dome, and a warm light spilled out. The self-identified scientist announced we had about twenty more minutes until we could line up for the telescope.

As my buddy stepped aside to take a quick phone call, I sat in the dewy grass. A grandfather sat on the dark lawn, with his little granddaughter in his lap, both gazing up at the stars. They were two people at very different points of life, with the same hungry curiosity, asking the same questions, with the same look of awe on their faces as they clung to each other.

We were all called in to line up for the telescope. Children scrambled up, and their parents who lifted them up to see, had an equally wondrous reaction. The scientist watching over was stiff and nodded at each group as they left the building.

To reach the massive telescope, you had to climb a few steps and brace yourself on the railing. When it was my turn I wobbled up, grasped the railing for support and narrowed my eye to focus. I was prepared to ask the scientist to point out exactly what I was looking for, but there was no need. Smack-dab in the middle of the lens was saturn, with it’s famous rings visible as day. It looked as though someone just stuck a sticker on the inside of the glass.

I stepped down from the ladder, wide-eyed and smiley. The stiff scientist gave me wink and I stepped back out into the starry yard.

The Kentucky night was hot and sticky, as we settled in for bed. I laid up looking through the tent at the stars, listening to the clicky-clack of our neighbors’ nighttime ride. I might not have seen a bison, but I got to peek into space. You never know what you’ll find when you stray from the ordinary. When you look for one thing, you usually find something much weirder and more extraordinary.


When in the Wild, Wild West

Deadwood, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The Wild, Wild West still thrives, albeit commercialized, in the teeny towns sprinkled along Interstate 90, which runs between the border of Wyoming and South Dakota. There are several almost-famous stops here: Rapid City (the gateway to Mount Rushmore), Sturgis (home of one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world), and Sundance (the namesake of the Sundance Kid and the film festival). It’s a strange place, both because of the rolling, open landscapes of next-to-nothing and the surprisingly abundant, random tourist attractions. (Including: Dinosaur Park, Bear Country USA, and The World Famous Corn Palace.)

And then there’s Deadwood, South Dakota: population < 1300. I’d never heard of it until I was actually on I-90, driving past it.

My friend (a North Dakota local) and I were searching for a good fishing spot when we saw a billboard for one of its gaming resorts.

“What’s a gaming resort? It sound so snazzy.” I asked, oh-so-naive.

“It’s a kind of all-inclusive casino with bars and food and stuff. It’s awesome.” She told me.

“Oh. You know, I’ve never been to a casino.”

“What?” Her voice pinged sharp with a hint of incredulity. It was then that I began to understand how integrated the gambling culture was in this part of the country.

“Not a real one. Never even gambled before.” I shrugged it off.

“Then let’s go.”  She said. It wasn’t a question.

When we pulled up to Deadwood, all thoughts of fishing long forgotten, we found ourselves in an unexpected wonderland of outlaw debauchery. I kid you not, downtown is ½ gaming resorts, ¼ Harley Davidson accessory stores, ⅛ specialty cigar shops, and ⅛ cowboy outfitters. It’s as niche American as it gets. Everything’s packed together on the winding main street, which is so outlandishly decorated that if someone had told me I had actually taken a wrong turn and ended up in Disney World’s Frontierland I would have been less surprised. All that was missing was Big Thunder Mountain and a sweaty man stuffed into a rodeo-style Mickey Mouse costume.

I wasn’t really sure where all the people had come from, seeing as we were in one of the least populated states in the USA, but Deadwood was bursting with tourists. Tattooed biker gangs in matching leather outfits, booted-and-hatted cowboys with legitimate bolo ties, families with crying children, and groups of elderly poker-aficionados swarmed the sidewalks. We were the ones out of place; two twenty-somethings wandering slack-jawed down the street, unable to comprehend this hedonistic paradise we’d stumbled upon. The question on our minds wasn’t what to do - it was what to do first.

We climbed down a metal staircase and through a dank stone hallway to the basement cigar and bar (really - there was a set of beer taps and everything) of Deadwood Tobacco Co.

Intricate etchings of Day-of-the-Dead-style skulls decorated the walls and the boxes that lined them. It was quiet down there, dark, cold, and the air was heavy with the smell of tobacco. A woman behind the counter watched in amusement as we perused the wide selection of Sweet Jane, Crazy Alice, and Fat Bottom Betty cigars, Deadwood Tobacco’s specialty. She gave us a you-total-newbies onceover before helping us pick out two mild, hand-rolled stogies.

Our next stop was a biker shop, where we browsed through piles of clearance-deal Harley Davidson paraphernalia. The 2015 Sturgis Rally had ended earlier in the month and the sales were glorious. They had everything a motorcycle enthusiast with a Harley fetish could desire: branded shot glasses, bandanas, corsets, belt buckles, gun vests, and assless leather chaps.

I couldn’t help myself and ended up snagging a particularly kitschy (or badass, depending on your taste) men’s 2015 Sturgis Rally cut-off vest with frayed sleeves with an image of a half-Native American half-wolf face superimposed on a dreamcatcher. I’m not a big souvenir person but this addition to my wardrobe felt particularly triumphant.

When in Rome, right? I thought to myself.

We finally made it to the gaming resort, smashing a couple of beers in the connected Irish pub before heading to the Blackjack tables. The casino was teeming with older folk, flashy machines, and waitresses wearing shiny dresses and balancing trays of free cocktails above their heads.

When I traded in my $20 for chips, I mentally prepared myself to lose it. I had no idea how to play Blackjack. But it turned out that I didn’t need to know how to play Blackjack to play Blackjack because everybody wanted everybody to win. It was a no-competition gambling experience, just me versus the odds. The whole table gave me sympathetic looks every time I lost (which was more often than not). I still walked away $20 poorer, but with a pleasant smile on my face.

On our way back to the parking garage, my friend and I waded through a crowd of people watching a dramatic duel reenactment. Men in old-timey Western outfits shouted at each other on the street and fired off fake guns that made very realistic noises. Children watched with wide eyes and parents clapped. I briefly wondered where all those kids went while the adults gambled in the casinos.

In conclusion, Deadwood is a funny little place paying homage to the great pioneers of old, the lawless gunslingers, and the badass Western stereotypes that we all want to channel a bit sometimes.

Gas Station Gourmet: Cajun Style Hot Boiled Peanuts

Somewhere in Wisconsin

by Cassia Reynolds

You’ve spent the last eight hours locked in a car. Everything has begun to bleed together into that endless interstate continuum. When the fuel indicator flashes an insistent red, a wave of relief passes through you. You pull under the neon awning of the next gas station and as you open the car door, you flop out onto the cement.

Your body is heavy with that special lazy kind of soreness. Your mind is completely fizzled, half-stoned with that long distance driving daze. And as you fuel up, a tender pinging flutters through your stomach, soft but tugging. Feed me, it whines.

When you enter the gas station you’re assaulted by an artillery of smells: preservatives, grease, freeze-dried eggs, and tile cleaner. But in your weakened state you can’t tell if your nose is tingling because it’s warning you of possible poison or if it’s lusting for the source of those sterile-but-greasy fumes.

Are you hallucinating or do those grayish sausages on that open grill smell really good?

And suddenly you’re standing in front of that bacteria-infested grill, a set of plastic tongs in one hand and a paper sausage holder in another. Your mind snaps awake and you drop the tongs, stepping back in horror.

The sausages taunt you, bulbous and speckled unnatural colors. Several are oozing a pus-like yellow liquid onto the grill. Fuck no. Then you take in another deep whiff of hot, meaty goodness. Your stomach is growling. But the fear is too much. Your mind is lost, your decision is unmade, and you leave with just a packet of chips in hand, your true hunger unquenched.

If this sounds familiar, don’t be ashamed; we’ve all had our moment in the gas station, weighing the pros and cons of a questionable food product. And it’s time for someone to take a stand against the uncertainty!

This food pioneer has embarked on a noble quest for the betterment of mankind: to venture into the unknown hazards and test the smelliest, the most mysterious, and the least appealing of all the pre-packaged and quasi-edible. Just for you. And for science, of course.


Cajun Style Hot Boiled Peanuts

At first glance, the mini-cauldron filled with steaming peanut soup confused me. I’m Southern and I’ve eaten boiled peanuts plenty, but they’ve never been soaked in some strange, glowing orange broth. Seriously, this stuff radiated the kind of alluring glow that gold coins did in that old cartoon, Ducktales.

As if to counter the inedible-like ambiance, it also emitted a pleasant, spicy-salty scent that reminded me of gumbo. I attributed it to the cajun seasoning.

I picked out the smallest foam cup and dipped the soup ladle deep into the pot, stirring up the layers of orange-speckled, peanut lumps. Before I dumped a spoonful into my cup, I drained a bit of the hot liquid out. That just seemed damned unsafe for a car snack; I envisioned burnt thighs, stained seats, and a forever lingering smell of cajun seasoning.

Back in my car, I placed the cup in the drink holder beside me. I knew I couldn’t eat this snack and drive; it was way too messy. The first peanut I picked out of the bunch burned hot between my fingertips and I had to drop it and wait a moment before digging in. When I did, I wasn’t sure how to eat these things; I know you don’t normally consume the shell of a boiled peanut, but this one was particularly soft. I decided against it, peeling it open. I dug one meaty half out of a shell and popped it in my mouth.

It was hot, with a smooth, thick texture just a degree away from mushy. It fell apart without resistance between my teeth. As it did, the juices burst across my tongue. The flavor was intense and on the saltier side, but held heavy overtones of pepper and creamy nuttiness that came in waves as I chewed and swallowed. This was no snack to take lightly; it had an explosive, fiery zest.

I only made it through a few peanuts before I had to stop and take a break, fearing a sodium-overdose. The aftertaste held strong and didn’t fade until several sips of coffee later.

The peanuts came with a major downside: every bite meant wiping my fingers on napkins. I couldn’t possibly drive and eat these things at the same time. The smell also lingered forever, even after I closed the lid on the cup and wrapped it up in a trash bag.

Fast Forward Two Hours Later. My stomach is feeling fine, no problematic after effects, except for a slight salty taste in my mouth. 

  • Cost: (for a small) $2.86
  • Tastiness: ***
  • Weirdness (Sights, Smells, & Texture): ***
  • Car-Safety: *
  • Digestion: *****
  • Overall Edibility: ***
  • Value: **

Conclusion: This is an offensive, awesome visual and olfactory experience. It’s also quite tasty, with a distinct cajun spiciness. However, if you’re the one in the driver seat, it’s just not a viable snack. You will get cajun peanut drip all over you and it will smell up the whole car. It’s also not very filling for the price.

Where Did You Come From, Sand Dunes?

The Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

by Samantha Adler

The farther west I traveled the more awestruck I became with the wilderness of the US. The space was vast, untamed and unpredictable. Here nature was an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. These forces challenge our perception and how we’re used to understanding our home turf; The Great Sand Dunes is one of these wonders.

I was late to arrive at the southwest Colorado park. It was dusk as I pulled into the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance and I sped down the dusty, long road, eager to claim my campsite before the ranger station closed. My laser focus waned when I turned the corner and saw the dunes. I had researched the park a bit on my phone and marked as a must see, but the preparation didn’t make it any less extraordinary.

As the sun set behind the mountains, everything had a misty tinge of blue. Light leaked between the mountains’ peaks illuminating the varying curves of the giant sand dunes at their base. Even in the bewitching glow of twilight, the dunes seemed magically out of place. They resemble those of a typical desert, ones you would find in the Middle East or Northern Africa, but plopped at the base of a mountain range in Colorado. The contrast between the sandy mounds and the sharp mountain peaks was striking.

The Great Sand Dunes is one of the lesser known national parks, located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range in the San Luis Valley of southwest Colorado. Geologists are still studying the dunes’ origins, but believe that sediments and water from the creation of the nearby mountain range fell into the valley. The valley was originally a large lake, but due to climate change only the sediments remain. Wind tunnels from the mountain ranges helped to then create the shape of the dunes we see today (for a much better description and animated visuals narrating the dunes’ creation, check out the NPS geologists' research).

dunes3.jpg

I woke up around daybreak to hike the dunes. While located within the mild tempered Colorado, the dunes hold many qualities of a normal desert. It’s only recommended that you hike in the early morning and early evening, due to the varying degrees of the sand. During midday to late afternoon the sand becomes scorchingly hot from the sun. During the summer the dunes' surface can reach 150°.  The hot sands can burn any skin that comes into contact with it.

Standing at the base of the dunes I felt like I was in the middle of a desert, somewhere across the ocean. Turning away from the mountain range, I could only see the curves of the white sand against a baby blue sky.

This was, to my surprise, the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done. There are no trails on the dunes, it’s a free for all, and you can explore freely like it’s your own huge sandbox. I started up the closest dune at a quick pace and quickly began to realize this wasn’t going to be an easy frolic. Climbing sand is incredibly difficult; your body weight pushes you into ground sometimes causing you slide and swerve. I felt like an eager golden retriever, out of breath in a matter of minutes but starry-eyed and excitable by everything that surrounded me.

I continued on up the dunes, taking many breaks, panting heavily and plopping atop of peaks to take long sips of water. Other hikers bounded on nearby dunes. Some genius individuals brought sleds, to slide back down the slopes when they reached the highest one. As I hiked up and down endless mounds, scaled edges of peaks and slid down sandy mountains this small dollop of sand seemed like an endless world.

The Great Sand Dunes is often shadowed by bigger parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But don’t underestimate it, the Sand Dunes is one of those wonders that reminds you that you’re a little piece of a much bigger world.

Left to Rot: Exploring a Ghost Town

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

by Cassia Reynolds

Food for Thought: Christa's Country Corner

Newland, North Carolina

by Samantha Adler

I had taken the Blue Ridge Parkway from Virginia to Tennessee to meet Cassia in the Smokies. The scenic route is one of my favorites with misty mountain views, lush wooded landscapes and loads of wild flowers. However, the nature of the windy mountain road added about two hours to my trip (sorry Cassia!) and didn’t offer much in terms of lunch options.

The Parkway boasts a few country restaurants and eateries amongst its vast forests. These are few and far inbetween and are mainly tourist sites like Little Switzerland, a pitstop filled with restaurants and shops imitating a Swiss mountain town. But, just off the parkway on Highway 181 in North Carolina, lies Christa’s Country Corner. The perfect stop for a quick, delicious lunch.

Christa’s resembles a small log cabin on the side of the highway; humble and warm. This pitstop serves as both a country store and deli. Before turning off the parkway, I had read raving reviews about their yeast buns and daily BBQ specials. Unfortunately, it was a bit too late in the day for the yeast buns. So I got a pimento cheese sandwich on a freshly baked potato bun.

It ruined pimento cheese sandwiches for me. For the rest of my road trip through the south, no other sandwich came close to the mouthwatering one at Christa’s. It’s a combo made in sandwich heaven. The cheese is perfectly salty, creamy and full of flavor, while the bun is light, toasty and a little sweet. I’m drooling while I write about it.

The store also has a variety of local sodas, jams, candies and other food goods to accompany a tasty sandwich. The staff was extremely warm and helpful, eagerly offering  sandwich suggestions and asking about my trip. They gave me my first dose of southern hospitality.

Christa’s Country Corner is the perfect stop for a cheap, delectable, best-sandwich-of-your-life lunch break!