Coffee Break: Swell COffee Co.

Mission Beach, California

by Samantha Adler

I finally found the perfect morning beverage. And an acceptable excuse to down a hoppy, cold drink at 10 AM on the beach.

San Diego’s Mission Beach is especially well equipped for this morning routine; with food vendors, cafes, a boardwalk, and little shops to accommodate surfers, locals, and wanderers (like myself). Colorful houses sprout off this main road on little alleys, with leafy and succulent-rich yards squished against each other. Walking through one of these alleys leads you from the main road to the beach.

I parked in front of one of these cozy little blocks and set off on to get my caffeine fix at Swell Coffee Co. Swell fits right in at Mission Beach, with its beach-y, chill vibes. The cafe is located completely outside, with several stools and tables located in an outside patio. I was pleased to find the bathroom even rode the beach-themed wave, with posters of Point Break serving as wallpaper.

I approached the counter eyeing their coffee options and yummy breakfast menu. Swell was also a roaster, and served it’s own coffee. They also have an extensive breakfast menu, with healthy noms and Mexi-Cali egg dishes. After only eating burritos for a week and getting distracted by several pups behind me in line, I quickly decided to go with a classic breakfast sandwich and a normal, black cold brew.

I found a sunny spot at the corner of the patio. I slurped down half of my coffee when my sandwich came out. While the egg, spinach, cheese, and bacon sandwich was the tamest option, it was so delicious that I ate it too fast to take a photo (I’m sorry!). The bread was fresh and lightly toasted, the bacon was super crispy, and there was plenty of melted sharp cheddar.

It was only after I sat down and took a closer look at the menu that I saw it: a cold brew brewed in hops. A beer ice coffee? My two favorite beverages joined together in a glorious liquid?

After polishing off my plate and my original cup of coffee, I ordered the hopped cold brew to go. I held the cold plastic cup in my hand and took off down a leafy alley towards the beach. Halfway down, standing in front of a tiny fenced yard, with surfboards and yard decorations strewn about, I took my first sip.

The familiar acidity of iced coffee filled my mouth, but then came a big hoppy punch. The flavor was strong, but pleasant for anyone who enjoys a hoppy, bitty IPA. It gave the cold brew a kick, with a hop-bite at the tail-end of every sip.

I would highly recommend to my fellow IPA and coffee enthusiasts. And if you can, drink it on the beach.

Gas Station Gourmet: Fried Chicken Gizzards and Livers

Disclosure: you can deep fry pretty much any quasi-edible-thing and dare me to eat it and I’ll do it (or at least try to). That may seem like an overstatement, but last year when I was traveling through Cambodia, I astounded and disgusted a small gathering of strangers by consuming ¾ of a fried tarantula.

What was on the line? My pride.

(I didn’t manage to swallow the last ¼ of the spider. I’d already eaten the head and legs, which were similar to extra-crispy French fries, just a tad hairier. All that was left was the abdomen. I took a bite of that rounded area and, as I did, bravely glanced at my food for the first time. The insides were the color of egg whites. As I begin to chew, the thickness of the body, soft but firm, like Gumdrops, stuck to my teeth. I found the nearest wastebin, spat it all out, and chugged a beer.)

Alas, a failure. But this episode provided me the courage to take on many a deep-fried mammal meat with elegance and grace. Or so I’d like to think.

The deep frier is the great neutralizer of the weird-eats world. Not only is deep fried food usually a safe bet (what bacteria can survive those high temperatures?) but, to be Gas Station Gourmet candid; what doesn’t batter and oil immediately make tastier?


Some of my favorite mouthgasm-inducing-masterpieces include fish-n-chips, fried oreos, fried crocodile, fried chicken, and corn dogs. So when I wandered through a gas station in backcountry Illinois and noticed a particularly-greasy smelling selection of hot foods, I couldn’t resist. And when I found out that I could purchase a paper baggie of deep fried chicken gizzards and livers for only $2.50 (and it came with a free dipping sauce), I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Not only did this dish meet my standards of gross and questionable, but a side sauce like jalapeño mustard can make any bad decision, at the very least, tolerable.

(And after my rendezvous with the tarantula, fried chicken gizzards and livers felt like mere child’s play.)

I paid for the goods, grinning maniacally, and hopped back into the passenger side of the car. Here, I unwrapped my prize.

I’d eaten plenty of liver, so I was prepared for the soft-but-thick texture that juxtaposed with the nuggety-crunch of the outside crisp. It was salty, with an earthy, musty flavor and smell. The insides were the predictable gray-purple hue. Nothing outlandishly gross, nothing special. But once dipped into the jalapeño mustard, the liver bite was delightfully creamy and spicy. The sauce, as expected, both enhanced the crisp and masked the chew.

I could already feel my snack lying heavy in my stomach after a single nugget and my fingers were slimy with grease. I wiped them down on a napkin, and shook the bag, attempting to distinguish livers from gizzards. They were all pretty nugget-like.

I can’t say with certainty that after my long, convoluted street food history, I hadn’t eaten a gizzard before that moment. But I was still surprised by the intense, never ending chewiness of my first bite, like ripping into a chunk of the fattie grizzle of a steak. It took all my perseverance to keep going at it. And some bits were harder than others, with a consistency and crunch similar to that of cartilage. I tore at the flesh, which was much drier than the liver. As I did, I re-evaluated my assumption that animal organs were mostly soft. And I realized I had no idea what a gizzard was.

(I’m kind of glad I found this definition after my encounter with fried chicken gizzards.)

Fast Forward Two Hours Later. I can’t stop. Every ten minutes or so I find myself digging back into the crinkly paper bag, my fingertips desperately reaching for those golden bits of texture-and-flavor-explosion. However, I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I’m almost out of jalapeño mustard, which is key to this experiment.

I’m also beginning to feel nauseous and sleepy. Like when I binge drink and go way past my limit and my body starts shutting down, forcing me to pass out and stop consuming alcohol before I hurt myself.

Can’t write more. Must sleep. When I wake up, I may regret this.

  • Cost: $2.50
  • Tastiness: ***
  • Weirdness (Sights, Smells, & Texture): *****
  • Car-Safety: ***
  • Digestion: **
  • Overall Edibility: ***
  • Value: ****

Conclusion: It’s a great deal if you’re looking for a meal that’s a bang-for-your-buck and a taste of grease-heaven. But keep in mind that a power so mighty as that of the deep frier must be respected by us mere mortals. If you order a bag of these organ-nibbles, make sure to share them with an equally-curious-and-courageous friend. Otherwise you may fall victim to the tryptophan-nap, like myself.

Grand Canyon: An Expedition

Grand Canyon National Park

by Samantha Adler

If you want a reminder that you are just a small, little speck in a huge, titanic, wondrous earth, go stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

I had expected it to be beautiful (it is one of the natural wonders of the world after all), but wasn’t quite prepared for its mind-altering majesty. We pulled through the park entrance and barely parked before I leapt out of the car, ran to the edge, and leaned over the metal railing in complete awe.

It’s easy to get lost in the Canyon’s beauty and forget that it’s an awesome force of nature. You’re advised only to hike in the wee hours of the morning and evening, as the sun is too powerful during the day. Fliers are stapled every five feet, with photos of 25 year old marathon runners who expired because they refused to drink the recommended amount of water and take breaks. This Canyon is not to be taken lightly, even for the most fit of us mere mortals.

So I woke up at 5AM, hopped on the GC bus (yes, the park is so big they have a fully functioning bus system), and stumbled onto South Kaibab trail. The dusty orange path switched back and forth on the cliff face, inching slowly towards the bottom of the Canyon. With every turn my perspective of the Canyon would shift, but it never got old and it never got less intimidating.

Taking a break on a jut out, I sat beneath the one tree (and single source of shade for miles) and admired the view. Growing up I had seen this place in photos, in National Geographic, and all over geography textbooks. But, imagine tracking the southwest American wilderness in the late 1800’s and stumbling across this huge crack in the earth? I would have pooped myself (and they probably did due to dysentery).

Joseph Christmas Ives (cool name) set out to explore the Canyon via the Colorado River (what shaped this crazy structure and runs through the middle of Canyon) in 1857 on an expedition funded by the US government.

The area at the time was uncharted,  just a huge blank space on US maps, so the government paid Ives to chart this area. He gathered a crew and set sail on his steamboat the Explorer (very practical, Christmas). Unfortunately, they didn’t make it far; his boat crashed at a smaller canyon right outside and they continued on foot for thirty miles, reaching an overland view of the Canyon. He wrote:

"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

It’s hard not to think in poetic prose when starring out on this vast maze of canyons.

Next up was Jon Weselly Powell, a one armed curious geologist and Civil War vet. Set out to conquer the wild Colorado (this river’s rapids are so powerful I could hear them from the overlook) with four man made wooden boats, an extensive knowledge about Ives’ journey, and ragtag team of civil war vets and trappers. The team made it further than Ives, crashing at the Lodore Canyon.

They then spent three months explore the upper canyons, eventually entering the belly of the Grand Canyon. However, by then the team had run out of food. Out of the original nine crew members, only six completed the journey. Powell named several important landmarks including the Lodore Canyon, Disaster Falls, and the Flaming Gorge.

Not to be deterred by his previous hardships on his initial journey, he returned again in 1871 with a group of scientists, set out to study the geology of the Canyon. The majesty of the Canyon changed him, and he dedicated his life to uncovering its mysteries one rock at a time. Afterwards he became the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, taking a keen interest on the geology of the American southwest.

If you’re a fit and brave soul, you can still trek to the base of the Canyon and ride the rapids of the Colorado (under the supervision of an guide and in a floaty raft). Sipping my water under the shade of a tree, I looked around at the deep and wide crevices all around me. I had walked for hours on groomed trails and I felt like an explorer. It’s not not to, despite having a path leveled for you, a hike still means braving an aggressive heat, steep inclines, and a new mind-altering view on every switch-back.

While I had set off to see a pretty sight once pictured in my text books, Powell and Ives went to study rocks in an area the government was too lazy to explore. And we had all stumbled on something that shook our foundation and reminded us we hold very little power next to a beast like the Grand Canyon.

* To learn more about the Grand Canyon explorers visit the Grand Canyon site here.

Devils Tower: Beneath the Pine

Outside of Hulett, Wyoming

by Cassia Reynolds

Keep it chronological! Check out my other two installations on Devils Tower or risk a serious case of FOMO: Devils Tower: A Massive Mystery RockDevils Tower: The Perimeter


I heaved my torso up and over the boulder, my fingertips digging into rough stone, the rubber soles of my hiking boots bouncing off the slanted edge of a neighboring rock. When I’d dragged myself to the top, I turned to take in the view behind me: dark pine needles, crusty bark chunks, and far below, hikers milling about. The hot sun blazed down on the world, casting deep shadows in the crevices and browning my shoulders.

I dove forward, using all the momentum I could muster to throw myself across the gap to the next landing.

I’d been scaling boulders for at least forty-five minutes and I was only three-quarters of the way up Devils Tower’s rock fields, a graveyard of shed stone. As I moved further from the main trail, the wild hills of Wyoming became visible over the treetops of the pines. Near the highest point, I took a break, sinking down, my legs dangling off the edge of a boulder. I inspected the chartreuse lichen that grew on these Tower bits-and-pieces and wondered if this was what gave it the gray-green hue.

While resting, an unnatural glint of light caught my eye. When I turned toward it I could only see a single persistent pine wedged between the boulders off to my right. Before I moved away, the breeze came back and the reflection returned. There was something over there.


I clambered over to the skinny, twisted trees, ducked between the lowest branches, and pulled myself into their shade. And suddenly I was surrounded by colorful knots of fabric. Strips of faded red, yellow, and cream fluttered and fell with the breeze. And in the middle of it all, I found the light-reflecting culprit, a teeny dreamcatcher decorated with glittering green beads.

Tied to the dreamcatcher was a card with a print of a rose. It had been slipped into a plastic sheath to protect it from the elements. Drops of condensation stuck to transparent walls. And dangling down from the same bunch was a slender, metal branding tool with one end molded into a skinny “P.”

I admired the bundle as it spun around and around with the wind.

What I’d stumbled across was someone’s personal prayer offering to Devils Tower, a part of one of many traditional ceremonial activities still practiced by Native Americans in the Midwest, today. Over twenty tribes are connected to Devils Tower and many have their own creation story for this strange rock formation.

The foundation of many of these legends is similar: a group of children or a woman meet a gigantic bear in the woods. The bear chases them and they pray to the heavens, begging for help. The ground beneath their feet rises up, carrying them into the sky. The angry bear tries to climb the newly-and-spiritually-formed rock, dragging his claws down the sides and leaving the column-like ridges that still exist today.

In my favorite version of this tale, told by the Kiowa, it is a group of young sisters that runs from the bear. When they are lifted to the sky, they are taken so high that they become a part of night and survive today as the twinkling Big Dipper constellation.

Lying on my back below the pine, I squinted up at Devils Tower. From upside down, the ridges all along the sides really did look like claw marks.

As cool as my excursion across the boulder fields was, the real adventure-seekers visit this site to crack climb its steep, choppy walls. I’m talking 127-hours style, jam-your-fingers-in-gaps-between-the-rocks-to-propel-your-body-upwards climbing. The kind of special technique that has its own equipment and grading scale. Devils Tower has multiple crack climbing routes with varying degrees of difficulty, many of which are advanced.

I saw multiple hikers on their way to the top while I wandered around the boulder fields and along the mostly-flat trails. Their tiny figures were just blobs of bright color dancing between the ledges.

While the art of crack climbing is badass, the increase of climbers at Devils Tower has caused a stir over the years. Many Native American tribes consider this recreational climbing a desecration of the sacred site. To compromise, the National Park Service has set aside the month of June, in which many Native American celebrations surrounding The Tower occur, as “Voluntary Climbing Closure” month. It’s not mandatory to respect this tradition, but it’s suggested, and the the act has resulted in an 80% reduction of climbs during the month of June.

It’s a start.

The confusion and miscommunication between Native Americans and the American Government has been a long running theme (as we all know but especially) at this first national monument. Long before it was dubbed Devils Tower, it was known to Native Americans, among other names, as Bear Lodge or Bear Rock. The oh-so-Satanic namesake realised from a misinterpretation of the original name in 1875. A colonel interpreted “Bear Tower” as “Bad God’s Tower” which eventually led to “Devils Tower.” Still no explanation for that (aggravating) missing apostrophe, though.

The idea of a national monument, where the US government rushes to decree ownership over a piece of land or a memorial, offers a glimpse into the minds of American leaders of the past; what makes each one important and why? And most importantly, to whom are they important?

I sat up and brushed off the dust from my back, preparing to leave the little dreamcatcher and the prayer cloths, and as I did, I wondered if Devils Tower was less a tourist attraction and more a sacred space. And if this mini-sanctuary was hidden on purpose by its founders.

As I contemplated the teachings about Native American beliefs from my middle-school-days, I realized that ownership of this land didn’t matter. There was no “ownership” of nature, no real way to say that a rock was America’s besides a piece of paper with a list of “rights” on it. It was all Mother Nature’s, and that’s something that we need to respect.

A piece of paper can fade, can flutter away in the wind.

Drank in America: Bacchanal Wine

New Orleans, Louisiana

by Samantha Adler

What city can mix you the best drink, play you the smoothest jazz, and steal your heart? New Orleans, baby.

The Big Easy is easily one my favorite cities in the world. It has an electric energy that is unlike any other.

It’s a city that finds a rare balance of holding onto its past with a vibrant pride, while also pushing brightly into the future. Its Spanish, Creole, Caribbean, French, African, and American roots have influenced its food, music, and lifestyle. Not to mention, its the freaking birthplace of Jazz. And NOLA continues to grow, as it is becoming the most recent hub for film, media, and music.

I had visited NOLA once before my most recent trip. I saw, ate, and listened to all the “musts”: drank on Bourbon, listened to jazz on Frenchman Street, strolled the Garden District, and ate in the French Quarter.

This time around was a little more relaxed, but I was anxious to get back to that captivating city. I strolled the same neighborhoods and returned to Frenchman Street my first night there to listen to some jazz and grab a beer.

The next day I was set on breaking away from the routine of my last visit. After a morning of walking the Warehouse district (NOLA’s art district), my travel buddy said he had found a bar for us to check out later that night called Bacchanal Wine. 

Our cab driver overhead us and gave us the thumbs up via the review mirror.

“I love Bacchanal! That place is awesome.”

Yesss, we are actually cool.

After dinner we grabbed a cab and headed over to Bacchanal. The bar is located in NOLA’s Ninth Ward neighborhood, which was a little ways from our digs in Treme, a neighborhood next to the famous French Quarter.

It turns out that Bacchanal Wine is actually much more than a bar. Sitting squarely on the corner of two streets, it looks unimposing with a worn exposed brick exterior and forest green shutters. The inside is equally quaint...until you realize that you have a magical plethora of drink options. While it offers custom cocktails, glasses of wine, and bottled beer, its main attraction is its vast selection of bottled wine and cheese. The idea is to purchase a bottle and some cheese and to sit and enjoy the live music outside.

Its large fenced-in yard is dotted with iron picnic tables and a sea of mismatched chairs. During peak night hours the yard twinkles with bulbs strung tautly overhead and spotlights pointed towards an outdoor stage.

When we first walked into the small shop in front, my travel buddy started looking intensely through the wine selection.  Like the city, Bacchanal excluded no one from a good time, but didn’t eliminate the option of adding a little glamour to the night. With a sizable wine and cheese selection you could spend $15 or $150.

Not knowing much about wine, I scooted outside to snatch a table. I didn’t make it far before I ran into Queen Koldmadina. She stood behind a large folding table, tapping to the live music in the background. Piled in front of her were bundles of t-shirts with the words “Let Me” silk screened across the front and a stack of DVDs.

Queen is a Ninth Ward local and a hip hop musician. She was also the star of the Academy-Award nominated documentary Trouble The Water, which chronicled her heroism during and after Hurricane Katrina. We started chatting, she told me the doc gave her a platform to make a difference and she was fundraising for the New Orleans Women’s Shelter (Queen continues to raise awareness about Katrina’s continuous effects on her community. Look up her album here.)

“What does ‘Let Me’ mean?”

“It means just let me be who I am, do what I want, what I dream.”

After buying a t-shirt, I snagged a table and guarded two chairs. My buddy came out, wine and ice bucket in one hand and two glasses in another.

The acts switched and we sat back, wine in hand, listening to Dixeland jazz until we polished off the bottle of white.

A little wine drunk, with fairy lights twinkling above, and jazz swinging through the summer air, Bacchanal was NOLA perfection: music, drink, and community.


Devils Tower: The Perimeter

Outside of Hulett, Wyoming

by Cassia Reynolds

Check out my other installations on Devils Tower or risk a serious case of FOMO: Devils Tower: A Massive Mystery Rock & Devils Tower: Beneath the Pine

Devils Tower: A Massive Mystery Rock

Outside of Hulett, Wyoming

by Cassia Reynolds

A Little Background

When I think of American national monuments, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial come to mind. But these are just a few of the United States’ 120 protected landmarks. And after some digging, I’ve come to find that they’re more like child pop stars than proper representations of the average American national monument (read: overhyped, overwhelmed with paparazzi, and a lot smaller in real life).

A little background before we get into this: a national monument is a protected area, man-made or natural, that has been established by a US president by proclamation or through the Congress by legislation. These declarations preserve public lands from private development and allow the federal government to name any place on US soil not-to-be-fucked-with in the name of historical or scientific interest.

Basically, the government is that super anal coworker who doesn’t like when other people misplace his stuff, so he takes out that label-maker he keeps in his cubicle (you know who I’m talking about) and goes around sticking his name on every stapler, pen, and coffee mug he has laid claim to. And if he catches you with any of it, it’s all dirty looks and a call later that week from HR.

“Hey Dana. Just got off the phone with Fred, again. I know, I know. I hate his label maker, too. But please don’t hide it in the freezer...or hang it from the ceiling above his desk...or (sigh) replace the label tape with a roll of images of Nicolas Cage. It really upsets him. If you touch it again, I’m going to have to call a mediation meeting. And neither of us wants that.”

But, in the national monument world, instead of a mediation meeting, you end up in prison. Which is probably worse?


The more research I’ve done on American national monuments, the more I’ve learned that these are way cooler than just historical statues. They’re more like Government Sanctioned Ultimate Celebrations of the Weird. (Yay, Science!) And the prime example of that is the first named national monument, an unnatural, natural thing (because, seriously, I don’t know what to call it) out in the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming: Devils Tower.

Good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed this first national monument when he visited Devils Tower in 1906. He traveled for weeks to get to Wyoming in response to reports he’d heard of a strange rock formation out in the plains.

Think about that for a second; the President of the United States took a month out of his presidency to go visit a “strange rock formation.” That’s crazy! And it’s not like nothing was going on in 1906. That same year, the San Francisco Earthquake and the Atlanta Race Riots happened, and then Teddy took a trip to Panama to oversee the building of the Panama Canal, and on top of that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize just a couple months later!

That man was hella busy.

I do wonder why, out of all of America’s wild landscapes, this is the one he chose to name the first national monument. Maybe it was the mystery of the place that caused it and drove Mr. President to see Devils Tower. Even in the age of the Internet, this tall, cylindrical mass of Phonolite porphyry is mysterious as fuck. There is still no certainty about the history of it, though scientists have theorized that it may be the leftovers of a mega-volcano or a laccolith (an igneous rock that protrudes through sedimentary rock). The Kiowa, Lakota, and Sioux tribes all have their own legends about Devils Tower, as well. But nobody really agrees on a single explanation for it.

And here I am, over 100 years later, paying tribute to this same strange rock formation that Teddy did, with just as little scientific understanding of it, and just as much passion for the weird and wonderful of America. Sometimes I think the United States’ motto should be changed from In God We Trust to Let Your Freak Flag Fly.

How I Got Involved

I stumbled upon this grand American freak-scape by accident, as it goes with most of the best experiences.

I was a few days into a two-week road trip to Montana. I’d packed up camp in the Smoky Mountains and pulled the pickup into Knoxville for a break before another long day of driving. I stretched in the shadows of the tall, old brick buildings that lined the quiet street, waiting impatiently until the bars began the day’s sales.

After what seemed like forever (about 15 minutes), I was sitting in a creaky leather booth between some arcade machines and brightly painted guitars, cracking open a local Tennessee Stout (I’d had a rough night and my travel buddy, Diego, had already promised to take the first driving shift).

It was then, as I swallowed that first gulp of delicious deliverance, that I received that fateful, automated call from the National Park service in Montana.

“Your reservation at Glacier National Park has been cancelled due to high levels of negative bear-human interactions in the park. You have been refunded for your deposit. Have a good day.”

That was it. I stared at my phone in shock, half-expecting the robot voice to let out a metallic chuckle and say “just kidding - be sure you check in before noon on the date of your arrival!”

It was almost insulting, the finality of the message. There was no call back number, no person to even ask questions to. It was over. I was halfway across the country with a fully-packed truck bed of camping gear to a no-go. I had a friend, Mara, in North Dakota waiting for me to pick her up...but no destination.

(Side Note: this was one of the few trips I’d planned extensively instead of just jetting off. And look at what happened. The world is obviously telling me to give up on any notion of planning and to just roll with it.)

But the road trip must go on. And, as we continued our journey up through the deep Midwest to meet Mara, Diego and I began to Google the “best camping spots” before we hit the Rocky Mountains.

And that’s how I eventually stumbled upon a review for Devils Tower, a kind of watering hole for wanderers in the empty expanses of plains that otherwise make up the western Midwest. I did a single Google image search of Devils Tower and was spellbound by this massive middle finger to gravity. In less than a week, I’d picked up Mara and me and my two buddies were in Wyoming, rocketing along a worn, windy trail to a new destination.

The Tower became visible miles before we actually reached the monument; it rose up from the valleys and sloping hills of Wyoming’s rolling landscape like some gargantuan, prehistoric tree trunk, chopped clean through by an axe. The way that the afternoon light hit it left the other side encased in shadows. It was creepy and magnificent.

The road ended at the base, where a KOA Campground had set up shop - it was one of those fancy campsites with a general store, showers, and even an ice cream stand. I guess it’s necessary to have the essentials when you’re stranded a good hour from the nearest grocery store.

Once we arrived, we constructed our tent, admiring the burnt red clay beds that surrounded us, the deer running through the camp in broad daylight. It seemed like a bit of a paradise from society. It was quiet, there was no cell service, and Devils Tower rose up beside us, colossal and confusing. It was so big that the sky seemed even bigger surrounding it.

I remembered a favorite quote of mine from that cowboy classic, Lonesome Dove. And I smiled to myself when I realized that in the book, the main characters, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, began their adventure on a wild journey to Montana.

Full Disclosure: I fell in love with the character of Augustus McCrae for a short while. If you haven’t read Lonesome Dove, do yourself a favor and get lost in this lost land of cowboys and frontiers.

Augustus’s words rang in head as I looked across all of Mother Nature’s bright colors engulfing me and the green-gray shadow of Devils Tower.

“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”

As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe, still reeling at my good fortune of grabbing the parking space in front of the building. People crowd around little tables that have been pushed together to make room for more little tables and I have organized all my things so they take up as little room as physically possible...and still it seems like I’m exploding into the space of my neighbors. I like working here with the noise and the business and the aroma of coffee keeping me wide-eyed and alert. Sometimes it’s nice having a private moment in the crowded public sphere. But it’s strange comparing this world to the endless emptiness of Wyoming, with its infinite skies and equally vast green landscapes.

The idea of space is just...different out there. Everything is bigger because it can be.

And still, Devils Tower appears larger-than-life, a jaw-dropping vision of Earth’s most unbelievable possibilities. And sometimes, you just need to see this kind of thing, a reminder of the power of Mother Nature and of the smallness of humanity in the expanse of time, space, and life itself.

If there’s one thing that looks small compared to Devils Tower, it’s people.

Our first night we snuck in late to the campground’s daily showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was pretty awesome; they had a television plugged in right in front of Devils Tower, so we were facing the real deal even as we saw it in the movie. Meta, huh?

We snagged a few plastic chairs in the front and as the movie began to play, we could hear the muffled hops of rabbits in the grass, the odd hoot of an owl, and the wind rustling leaves. As the aliens began to communicate with the Earthlings and the night darkened to a purple-black, it felt like the 1970’s-poor-quality of the film was made up for by the real thing surrounding me. The depth of stars above me, the way that Devils Tower blocked a portion of the sky, sucking in the light.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Close Encounters, and I was thrilled by the campy-ness, the very ET-esque feeling of interacting with aliens, of optimism and celebration of the believer, the weirdo.

In that glittering, glowy evening, I couldn’t help but think, “you know what? We can’t be the only ones out here.”

Maybe that’s what Teddy was thinking, too.

Check out my other installations on Devils Tower or risk a serious case of FOMO: Devils Tower: The Perimeter & Devils Tower: Beneath the Pine

Scenic Drives: Sailing the Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge Parkway, Tennessee & North Carolina

by Samantha Adler

Cassia & Sam Help You Survive The Zomb-Pocalypse

So this conversation happened.

And it got the road warriors in us thinking about where we would want to end up in the United States if (read: when) the inevitable zomb-pocalypse actually happens.

Here are the results, because, as resident America cross country travel experts (read: enthusiasts) we’ve scoped it out for you. And we don’t want to leave the good people hanging when the undead come a-knocking.

Samantha’s Vision:

I’ve been binge watching an unhealthy amount of The Walking Dead. While Georgia is gorgeous and the forests provide good cover from the swarms of zombies, the cast always looks hot (sexy and sweaty), hungry, and far from everything. zombie apocalypse go-to would have to be the California coast. Why you ask?

A. Climate

A mild climate seems huge for survival...and comfort. If you’re low on water you don’t want to overheat and if you’re without shelter or fire you don’t want to be somewhere with tons of snow fall. Also I think we’re allowed to enjoy the ocean breeze if were running from zombies all day, am I right?

As you travel south to north, the climate changes but stays pretty temperate. This allows you to change up the scenery, but never run into extreme weather.

B. Shelter

California is heavily populated with tons of places to set up camp. There are more houses, factories, schools, hospitals...etc. The coast is also diverse in that you can bop into a city or run inland to a forested area for cover.

Also (taking a hint from Woody Harrelson in Zombieland), you could always pop over to the Hollywood Hills and set up camp in an A-Listers mansion. Big fences, lots of space, and probably well stocked.

The ocean is also HUGE. If things get too crazy on dry land, steal a boat and anchor for a few weeks.

C. Food

Walking corpses roaming the earth should not stop you from enjoying a trendy avocado toast once in awhile. California’s climate is great for growing fruits and veggies. And with an abundance of farms, you can load up and learn how to grow them yourself. You also would have the ability to fish on the ocean.

WINE. There are a ton of wineries on the California coast. The vineyards might be abandoned, but wine only gets better with age right?

The zombie diet: wine, fish, fruit, and veggies. I feel like Gwyneth Paltrow would be really into this.

D. Weaponry

Dotted with cities and highly populated towns, the coast will have restaurants full of knives and guns abundant. The ocean is again a huge asset here. There are several marine army bases on the coast. Big guns on boats? Yes.

So if the dead start walking the earth, head west. We’ll get a tan on while we kick zombie ass.

Cassia’s Vision:

As indecisive as I am about what I want to eat for dinner on a daily basis (but is there really a straightforward answer when you’re choosing between tacos at the Mexican place down the street, Southern barbecue, and Chinese leftovers?), I have thought long and hard about where I would want to be if the zomb-pocalypse ever became a viable threat to my safety. Zombies aren’t difficult to study; watch the movies and you learn enough about their undead nature to construct a tentative sketch of their strengths and weaknesses (i.e. strength: can smell human flesh miles away, weakness: not very good at walking up stairs). And so it is without a doubt that I can say at the slightest hint of this cannibalism-disease bearing down on America, I’d drop my life in Atlanta (apologies in advance for betraying you, my lovely city, and your cult-like following of The Walking Dead) and make my way to Charleston, South Carolina.

A. Climate

It’s simple geography. Charleston is a city built almost as if with the intent to prepare for the zombie-pocalypse and protect inhabitants from these mutants. The seaside provides mild winters to prevent frostbite during a long, electricity-less winter (though the smell of rotting corpses in the summer may be a bit of a con). It’s also surrounded by farmland and maintains perfect weather for growing vegetables and fruits.

B. Shelter

At the city’s core is a marina, where there is a bounty of oysters to dig out for food and plenty of snazzy yachts and boats just waiting for someone in need of escape from the undead. The marina itself is framed by historical, pastel-colored, colonial-style mansions (read: mini-fortresses). These gated, four- and five- story homes of yesteryear boast fireplaces, tons of staircases, and lots of rooms to barricade oneself in. There are big windows on the upper floors to open up during the sweaty summertimes and I’m sure at least a few of them still have an outhouse in the backyard (you have to prepare for everything).

C. Weaponry

Charleston’s has deep South roots. It’s the kind of place where one can pretty easily find the #1 Zombie-Re-Killing Weapon (according to the resident experts; 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, World War Z, and Warm Bodies): the shotgun. I figure that in Charleston, not only am I going to be able to access plenty of shotguns and ammo at the nearest Wal-Mart Superstore, but I’ll be able to find a few other survivors who already know how to hunt (or attend Charleston’s military school, The Citadel) and can bring down a zombie while wasting the least amount of shells per undead monster (thanks for the lesson in survival, Zombieland).

D. A Fortress

And last but not least, there’s the fortress on an island just a little ways offshore. Yeah, that’s right. If the zombies overcome all your blockades and you run out of ammo and you’re in a pinch, you can just steal away on one of those yachts and make your way to a fabulous island paradise for fun-in-the-sun while you wait out the end of the world as we know it.

Selfie Shame

by Samantha Adler

Tis the age of the selfie. That iPhone front camera has created a world where the duck face is a coveted skill and Kim Kardashian is a bestselling author.

While it’s easy to lose patience with the selfie and its rule over your social media feeds, it’s not completely evil. A selfie can be the ultimate tool for a solo adventurer looking to document their travels. And no, you do not have narcissistic stockholm syndrome.

I’m admittedly a culprit of the selfie epidemic (hey, sometimes you can’t let a good hair-day slip by unnoticed). But, my real internal, ethical struggle lies with the selfie’s trusty sidekick: the selfie stick.

A tool used only for the most serious front-cam-glam, I didn’t think we’d ever become acquainted. But, when strolling down the aisles of the Target picking up supplies in preparation for my roadtrip, there it was on sale for $5.

Memories of New York City tourists huddled together, smiling creepily too hard, blocking the sidewalk with a metallic stick stretched out above them were seared into my brain, telling me to walk away if I wanted to maintain any sort of dignity. But, the humor of owning one was too good and I caved.

Tucked away in the corner of my ratty backpack, I forgot about the selfie stick until I was well into my roadtrip. I had left the familiar landscape of the Northeast and the cities along the way, and was now immersed into the vast landscape of the West. Here nature was grander, bigger and sprawling.

I snapped photos on my camera and a few on my phone, to send to family and friends. But as far as I stretched or jumped or climbed, I couldn’t capture the titanic landscapes and natural wonders. One of the most challenging to capture was the Grand Canyon. After trying to snap a photo of me with the canyon behind me, I was frustrated. The photos were 70% my sweaty face and 30% beautiful landscape.

Frustrated, annoyed and hot, I furiously wrestled through my bag for my water bottle when my hand hit something cold and metallic: the selfie stick. I pulled it out, slid my phone into the grip and connected the cord. Holding it close to me, I scanned the ledge for fellow judgmental hikers. I was safe to test this baby out.

Stretching out the metal pole, I lifted it up so the camera was well above my head and started clicking away. The grip wasn’t screwed in tight enough, the camera whirled upside down and swung its weight to the side.  I lost balance of the over extended metal rod and fell over. This tool I had mocked was now testing me.

I checked the photos I snapped before securing the grip. While I hadn’t figure out how to get the entirety of the pole out of the photo, it captured a large part of the landscape behind me. After several tries with happy results, I was giddy. I didn’t even wince when other hikers passed and giggled. With a handful of approved selfies on my camera roll, I set off the path grinning with my new selfie-stick-pal.

I had underestimated the usefulness of the stick. It proved to be a really helpful tool for documenting adventures that are bigger than an arm’s length. Go forth, adventure and selfie away.

The Yogi-ssentials

The Great Midwest

by Cassia Reynolds

Let’s talk zen.

For those of you that aren’t acquainted with casual yogi-lingo, zen is that special headspace that you can discover through relaxation and meditation. The official definition, as dictated by the great-and-all-knowing wordsmiths of Merriam-Webster, describes zen as an approach to an activity, skill, or subject that emphasizes simplicity and intuition rather than conventional thinking or fixation on goals.

I’m all about the zen life, whether that means diving into deep-deep-thought while driving down a long stretch of Interstate emptiness; staring out over a morning mountainscape, soaking in the soft, ethereal joy in the dewy mist; vibing to Kurt Vile’s latest album while banging out a blog; or filling my lungs with air to prepare for the all-encompassing hum of the classic yoga “om.”

Zen is everywhere, all the time, just waiting for you to reach out, grasp it, and pull yourself into its illuminating embrace.

And if this sounds like big talk, it’s because zen is bigger than big; it’s transformative. Especially when you’ve been on the road for 14-hours, hunched over your steering wheel and all you can think about is the sore-itchy-stabbing sensations in your lower back. And that’s where all this yoga-talk comes in.

I guarantee that by adding a little yogi-goodness to your road trip routine, you will not only feel better at the end of those long hauls, but you’ll also gain a little bit of zen in your life.

So here’s the 101’s of my stretch-life routine, one that has, on many long drives, evolved my physical, mental, and spiritual self from a grumpy, butt-ache low to a grinning, walking-on-sunshine-effervescence-for-life high.

Why? Because my body has been twisted, stretched, and strengthened. And my mind has been wrung out, mellowed, and soaked in a big old dose of zen (it’s pretty much my athletic version of pouring a frosty beer into a tumbler on a hot summer afternoon and plopping down in a rocking chair in the shade, listening to nothing but the birds chirping and the breeze in the trees).

The Sun Salute

It’s the break of day and you have a long way to go, too much to do and see. There’s not time to get into a whole hour-long yoga sesh. Instead, I recommend a quick, painless-but-tingly, wake up routine: the sun salute. Warm your muscles up, get your mojo going, and put a smile on your face in 15 minutes or less.

I was first introduced to the three-step sun salute by an Australian snowboard-enthusiast with a never-healed-right knee injury. He said that this routine had made sports possible for him again. We used to practice them together before we would head out surfing on the weekends in Newcastle, NSW. And there’s nothing better than warming your body up a little before leaping into some icy Pacific waves.

A fun fact about yoga: all it requires is a mat and an area wide enough that you can stretch your arms out fully and lay down flat. Nothing else. I’ve seen people practice in jeggings (seriously!) so you have no excuse. Clear a space on your campsite, in your hotel room, behind your car at a rest stop, beside your friend’s couch, and remove your shoes, close your eyes, and breath.

The steps are basic, but effective:

  1. Mountain Pose
  2. Full Forward Bend
  3. Step Backward
  4. Up Dog
  5. Down Dog
  6. Step Forward 
  7. Mountain Pose (and repeat 2x)  

To check out my favorite Sun Salute playlist, see my Guide for Strange Travels.

The New Classic View

Standing poses and headstands are a funky, heart-thudding way to appreciate a breathtaking view. What can I say - I’m a thrill seeker. And nothing gets my blood pumping faster than balancing myself on the edge of a cliff and seeing the whole world flipped upside down before me.

If you’re new to yoga, headstands are not something that’s immediately mastered - but they’re doable with practice, patience, and a growing comfort with one’s own body. They need to be worked for, just like you worked to hike up that mountain and witness that beautiful landscape.

Evening Benders

It’s nighttime and not only are you sore and exhausted, but you head is throbbing with that so-much-activity-in-one-day daze. Well, this next move can get you back into your groove. Work your back out with camel or bridge pose, and, if you’re up to it, a full backbend.

So there you have it - a little bit of zen-fabulousness to crack your road trip routine. And I am no expert! I’m just a girl that loves that one-with-nature-vibe and gets a rush from standing on my head on cliffs. If I can do it, you can too. I hope this inspires you to follow your own zen flow - and let me know if you find your own favorite travel move!

Om out!

Food for Thought: Some (All of Nashville) Like it Hot

Nashville, Tennessee

by Samantha Adler

Recently Colonel Sanders has been taking over American Television with his announcement of the new KFC recipe: Nashville Hot Chicken. Now I love fast food to an unhealthy degree. Love it. So it breaks my heart to say: sorry KFC, I’ve had the real thing and you don’t stand a chance.

Hot chicken is a Nashville food staple, and Prince’s Hot Chicken is where it all began.

Story has it that one night over 70 years ago, playboy Thornton Prince stayed out a little too late. His woman, having none of it, decided to play a trick on Thorton and his friends. She sneakily added a hefty helping of spice to their late night fried chicken, thinking it would burn a lesson into her man’s tongue. However, Thornton loved it and opened a restaurant with this hot, new recipe. His great-granddaughter, Andres Prince Jeffries, now runs the restaurant and is the keeper of Prince’s secret family recipe.

I stopped over at Prince’s my second day in Nashville. This famous foodie pitstop is tucked away in the corner of a strip mall. The restaurant’s name spelled out in fiery crimson and orange window paint is the only indicator that you’re in the right place. I stepped inside to a line that stretched to the door, originating from a small window connecting the dining room to the kitchen. A woman leaned over with a notepad scribbling orders down and handing them behind her.  The interior was a bare bones white, with one aqua-blue painted wall and several picnic tables against the left hand side. I tried to read the faces of the munching patrons at the tables as I shuffled in line: wince in scalding pain, euphoric satisfaction, wince in scalding pain.

Hot chicken came in three levels of spice, ranging from mild to extremely hot. The crisp, juicy chicken is served with pickles atop a slice of white bread to soak up extra hot juices and provide a small relief to the tasty fire poultry.

It was finally my turn to approach the window.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

“What will you have?”

My buddy went with a milder, but hot chicken. I, a notorious spice wimp, ordered plain.

“Ohhhh come on,” The woman exclaimed.

“I’m a baby! I know.”

*turns to my buddy*

“You have to toughen her up. Plain...”

*laughter echoes through the kitchen as my order is passed around.*

After snagging a coveted table, we waited for our number. The dining room was packed; people slumped against the walls holding their order tickets, eyes darting up when there was any movement around the seating area. The white walls were spotted with a few framed mentions in magazines and newspapers (one with Guy Fieri's grinning face and spiky, frosted tips). We ended up sharing our seats with a pair of locals, who were also here for their first taste. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, our new friends informed us they had moved from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, finally landing in Nashville. And they were no stranger to hot food. They were two engineers who chased the flame. It came as no surprise that they ordered extremely hot.

Our number was called and I returned with a tray of steaming fried chicken, laid out like a casual picnic spread...a picnic that would kick you in the ass with heat. My plain jane fried chicken was amazing, crispy and flavorful. I snagged a bite of my buddy’s low-level hot. It was delicious with a hard kick. The chicken is super crispy, with the spice laid into its fried exterior. We sat back satisfied with our new friends, as they wiped away pepper-filled tears.

So try KFC’s new hot chicken. But I guarantee Andres didn’t share any secrets.

Drank in America: Firefly Hollow

Bristol, Connecticut

by Samantha Adler

What’s more patriotic than sipping a cold glass of American beer? And it’s becoming easier and easier to do. With breweries popping up in cities all over the US that delicious new lager is that much closer to the the keg at your local bar or on the shelf at your corner liquor store.

I have to say I’m pretty proud of my growing appetite for craft beer (while mildly ashamed at the quantity I consume), especially considering how far I’ve come from my collegiate chugging of Nattie Lights.

A few weeks ago I came across one of the best beers I’ve had in a while, maybe ever, brewed right in my little state of Connecticut! Of course, this title is totally based on my taste. But if you love hoppy, citrusy IPAs, get ready to fall in love at first sip.

I had gone to grab dinner at the local pub in town, Celtic Cavern in Middletown. It’s a small gastropub that has an ever-changing menu of yummy beers on tap, many from local breweries. A floor to ceiling beer list greets you as you step into the basement entrance. The large array of brews are etched in colorful variations of chalk. After squinting at the chalky scribbles for a few minutes too long, the owner approached and excitedly suggest I try an Imperial IPA called Cone Flakes. I agreed, partly because anything with a name somewhat resembling the delicious, golden Corn Flakes cereal had to be good, right?

Exactly right. I took my first sip of the golden Imperial IIPA and was blown away with flavor. This beer is not for the hoppy light of heart. It’s pack full of flavor, and it takes a minute to explore all the levels of it’s hoppy-goodness. It has the normal punch of a strong IPA with a strong flavor of hops, but the added citrus and malt gives it a unique and extremely satisfying complexity.

Firefly Hollow became first on my list of Connecticut breweries to check out. The next weekend I took a drive out to the Bristol brewery. The brewing company is located near train tracks in an industrial area of town, tucked behind what seems to be an abandoned warehouse. The tasting room has a similar feel, with a lot of open space, industrial piping and large garage doors leading to an outside seating area. Iron framed paned glass allowed the late afternoon sun to pour into the open room and reflect off old growlers, glass 32 and 62 ounce jars used to transport draught beer, now used as lampshades and wall decor.

The brewery boasts more than the magical Cone Flakes, it has several different stouts, IPAs and lagers to try. I swiped a sip of the Imperial Choconaut Porter, a dark beer with hints of chocolate and oats, and the Red Lantern, a traditional red ale with a caramel and cherry kick. However, I was a bit un-adventurous and ordered Cone Flakes again AND got a growler before leaving (I’m obsessed, ok?).

The brewery was surprising crowded, for something so tucked away. Friends sat in circles of leather couches, parents fed toddlers snacks as they took a much deserved cold sip (weirdly kids are regular, legal visitors of most breweries) and regulars gathered at the bar. The seating area was spacious and airy, but held the local comfort of a neighborhood watering hole.

Firefly Hollow was my first visit to a local, hometown brewery. I encourage you to try out yours. You might get lucky and find a match made in beer heaven.

Further North than Fargo

Grand Forks, North Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

The word “quaint” is thrown around a lot these days. But by God, I’ve found a place so quietly charming that I can’t help but use it anyway. What is this little otherworld? It’s the riverside town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and it’s not even 100 miles away from the Canadian border. (Yes, it’s further north than Fargo.)

Grand Forks has less than 60,000 residents (it’s the third largest city in the state); 30% of the population consists of students from University of North Dakota; downtown is a single, well-kept string of squat, brick buildings; and the handful of pubs where locals hang out function as all-in-one-sports-bar-mini-dance-club-casinos.

(I did visit one bar much removed from the main strip: a dingy, converted trailer on the outskirts of town that sold $2 shots from one-use plastic cups and offered free DiGiorno-style pizzas to groups of 5 or more customers. It was a Monday night and the round tables were mostly empty except for members of a rowdy adult co-ed softball team celebrating their latest victory.)

Woven into Grand Fork’s backstreets are all the quirks of Small Town America: honest expressions of individuality that break the monotony of daily life and define so many communities spread across America’s flyover states.

A hidden statue garden between apartment complexes boasts a little book exchange and wooden benches. An asphalt parking lot has been made over with bright street art. One optimistic restaurant offers an outdoor patio that can’t possibly be useful between the snowy months of September and April. The stone memorial by the bridge leading into Minnesota marks the height that the river reached when it flooded in 1997 and destroyed most of the historic, downtown area. A traffic light near town center has been out of service for months, the adjacent street blocked off by a plastic, orange barrier. At a locally owned coffee and tea shop called Urban Stampede, students in sweatpants mingle with farmers in blue jeans and dusty work boots. 

Shared smiles are frequent in this oasis of concrete, a cluster of humanity surrounded on all sides by endless big skies and flat farmscapes. The remoteness has fostered an underlying kind of solidarity of the stranded between residents; many locals are are friendly without prompting, welcoming and simply excited to meet visitors.

“So what brought you to Grand Forks?”

The question was never asked as a formality of small talk; people genuinely wanted to know why I was there. And I’m left wondering whether the curiosity flows from breathing in the crisp, unpolluted air of upstate North Dakota or tugging feeling that, when you stand at the city’s edge and stare into the plains of unknown nature before you, that you’re far, far away from the rest of society.

In this age of constant information overload, processed foods, and corporate sameness, it only makes sense that we end up craving the quaint: craft beers, pop-up gift stores with unique trinkets, simplicity, and fresh air. Things happen fast and the ability to slow down and relax is becoming more of a luxury. So when you’re looking to escape the modern rush, to travel far away to a land that will provide a special kind of culture shock, try out a place like Grand Forks.

Mardi Gras: The Ultimate Party

New Orleans, Louisiana

by Samantha Adler