5 Hidden Cultural Centers of the American West

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When we think of the American West, images of cowboys, deserts, rodeos, and NRA-supporters come immediately to mind. In my travels, however, I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon five spots that break the classic Western stereotypes. The destinations listed below are centers of subcultures, niche interests, and off-the-beaten-path, random experiences. These are the kinds of places that transform travel into adventure.

1. Elko, NV: A living celebration of cowboy culture

The 12-hour drive from Salt Lake City to San Francisco along I-80 is long and lonely, with great expanses of desert and salt flats that resemble the surface of the moon. Only two cities in Nevada dot the map before the California border: Elko and Reno. While my favorite cops in minishorts have told me all I need to know about the latter, the former city was a mystery to me. Less than four hours west of Salt Lake, I rolled up to Elko and found a classic, dusty western town of about 18,000 that sits at the foot of the scenic Ruby Mountains. According to Wikipedia, its principal economic drivers, gold mining and ranching, have been the same since the town was birthed by the railroad in the 1860s. But rather than crumble away like so many other cow towns in the West, Elko today is a center of celebration and reverence for cowboy lifestyle and culture.

The town is home to the Western Folklife Center, a non-profit organization that strives to raise public awareness and support for the traditional, expressive culture of the West. For the past 29 years it has hosted the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a two-week event that draws thousands of poets, artists, musicians and folklorists from all over the world. According to Kathy, the sweet middle-aged gift shop worker, last year the gathering garnered $8 million tourism dollars, sustaining the center itself and a variety of local businesses. Every theatre, cafe, church, community center, and backyard in town hosts readings and performances throughout the event, which takes place at the end of January/beginning of February.

It is plain to see the spill-over effect the success of the gathering has had on the town. The tiny hip coffee shop is full of vibrant local publications, the music store displays vintage guitars and banjos, and handmade leather goods peek out of several shop windows. The Ruby Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival fills the cornflower blue skies with color every September, and the National Basque Festival brings Spanish traditions of bull-running, dancing, and strongman competitions.

2. Slab City, CA: An off-the-grid hideaway of hitchhiking, road-dog, and fringe travel culture

Ever since reading and seeing Into the Wild, I’ve been fascinated with the unincorporated, permanent settlement in the middle of nowhere (where Emile Hirsche and Kristen Stewart sing “Angel From Montgomery”). Having no idea what we’d find there other than the Dr. Seuss-meets-Jesus-freak landmark Salvation Mountain, some sun-fried aging hippies and a bunch of RVs, my boyfriend and I went to check it out. It became evident immediately upon arrival that Slab City is a thriving cultural center for hitchhikers, road-dogs and fringe travelers. We were immediately invited to a campfire gathering, and upon stepping into the warm circle were questioned by everyone where we had come from, where we were going, did we need a map, a campsite, anything! The rampant friendliness was actually somewhat unnerving, like the permanent residents, or “Slabbies,” wanted to woo us into their desert hideout for good. But maybe we were just being paranoid.

The “city” itself lies about four miles outside the small town of Niland, CA just to the east of the Salton Sea. The landscape is utterly desolate; it is easily one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen. The camps, however, are a stunning example of innovation and creativity. Slab City has its own live music venue, outdoor movie theatre and senior center, all made from rescued junkyard materials. The wide dirt paths even have actual street names accessible from Google maps. It’s impossible to know the population, but from what we gathered most people just stay for the winter. One is only deemed a true Slabbie if they brave the blistering summers when temperatures reach as high as 120 degrees. At the campfire, the crowd was a healthy blend of residents, transients and young travelers.

Despite not staying long, I’m so glad I satisfied my curiosity of this outstandingly unique place. This is as fringe as fringe society gets, a culture born and raised completely outside of mainstream consumer capitalism. I know I could never handle the desert wasteland of the Slabs for long, but experiencing the welcoming community they’ve built from literally nothing was an experience I’ll never forget.

Welcome to Slab City

3. Chaco Canyon, NM: Discovering the ruins of a culture long gone

About a four hour drive from Santa Fe through wild, uninhabited desert, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is where the remnants of a highly advanced indigenous civilization still stand, revealing visions of the land’s pre-Colombian past. Populated from approximately A.D. 900-1150,this hub of ancient Pueblo trade and ceremony included massive, pre-planned complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. The early Pueblos, or Anasazi (a Ute term meaning “ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors”), were the predecessors of many modern southwestern tribes including the Hopi, Apache and Navajo. For a minimum of two centuries, the Chacoans used this space to commune from incredible distances to trade and pray. Artifacts like macaw feathers from Central and South America have been uncovered, and the nearly 200,000 trees needed to build the immense, 200-700 room structures originated in forests up to 70 miles away. Without wagons or horses, that meant transporting whole trees together on foot, through the desert. Damn. We in the United States think we must travel to places like Jerusalem, Giza, or Macchu Pichu to experience great feats of ancient societies, but in fact we have awe-inspiring relics of antiquity here in our own backyard.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of Chaco is the evidence of archaeoastronomy. Much like Stonehenge, some of the structures were constructed to coincide with solar and lunar cycles and solstices. This meant generations of careful astronomical observations, which were then applied to the eerily immaculate masonry. To this day, perfectly aligned windows cut through up to five layers of rock walls let viewers gaze out into the canyon. Experts believe that a 50-year drought beginning around 1130 AD forced the Chacoans to abandon this spiritual and cultural heart of the Southwest, but we’ll never truly know what caused them to build and then leave this beautiful place. As always, a picture’s worth a thousand words:

4. Jerome, AZ: Art on the mountaintop

The glowing red rocks, silhouetted cacti and yawning landscapes of the Southwest have inspired artists of all mediums since the time of the Pueblos. Towns like Santa Fe and Sedona are world renowned for their art scenes, and draw millions of tourists each year to their contemporary galleries, Native American craft centers and celebrated turquoise shops. Yet a mile high on a mountaintop 45 minutes from Sedona, a miniature, off-the-beaten-path version of the funky Southwestern art town sits drinking in the sun and welcoming visitors to explore its cultural charms and history. Jerome, AZ: population 450, was settled in the late 1890s a copper mining town and was once the fourth largest city in Arizona. Now dubbed “America’s Most Vertical City” and the “Largest Ghost Town in America,” the village has undergone a dramatic personality change, saying goodbye to miners and hello to artists, craft people, musicians, writers, hermits, bed and breakfast owners, museum caretakers, gift shop proprietors and fallen-down-building landlords.

The day I spent in Jerome checking out galleries, jewelry stores, backyard sculpture gardens and eating at the local haunted hamburger joint left me knowing one thing for certain: Jerome is an odd place with a weird vibe. So if you’re a lover of the bizarre like me, then get off the pink jeep in Sedona and give this strange, offbeat hermitage some love.

5. Marfa, TX: The next destination

I confess: I have never been to Marfa, TX. Yet I have heard it proclaimed by many a Southwest traveler (mostly bike tourists escaping the monotony of I-10) that this oasis of arts culture is a perfect stop for anyone crossing the great West Texas desert. Its hidden wonders include a mysterious paranormal occurrence called the Marfa Lights, its classic Texan architecture provides an enticing backdrop for Hollywood film crews (in 2006 alone, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men were filmed there), and the Chinati Foundation sustains a rich arts community through its permanent exhibits, annual Open House events and artists-in-residency programs. In recent years, writers, performers and artists have moved to Marfa en-masse from urban areas around the globe. The next time I’m driving the lonely I-10, this is one cultural center I know I won’t miss.

How Pedicabbing Filled the Void of Travel

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What’s happening here? I don’t really know. I love my job.

Today is my last pedicab shift of the summer, and on Thursday I blast off to Mendocino, CA for a new adventure. Here’s the story of how riding a giant tricycle for money distracted me from being stationary, and prepared me for many journeys to come.

“So… you’re just driving around the country alone right now, and you’re pretty athletic?” The unfamiliar male voice on the other end of the line asks. It’s hard to hear him over the crashing waves and squawking gulls of Ocracoke Island, so I roll over on my towel and do the ever-effective, finger-in-ear plug.

“Yup!” I say sprightly back, and then immediately regret saying ‘yup’ in a job interview. “I’m actually in North Carolina right now, but I’ll be back in Rhode Island in May.”

All I know about this job is the information in the Craigslist ad:

Pedicab drivers (Newport, RI): Looking for hard working, self-motivated, friendly people to pilot our bikes. Day and night shifts available. Flexible hours. Must be 21 and have a valid drivers’ license. Send resume and some info about yourself.

I had taken a pedicab in Austin before and had marveled at the drivers’ strength and ability to chat while riding three girls around the city. I had no confidence whatsoever in my physical capacity to do the same, but I knew I loved bikes and working outside. I had zero mind-map of the streets of Newport, and envisioned many disgruntled customers in the first few weeks when they realized their taxi driver didn’t know the most basic landmarks of such a small city. But hey, I was a seasoned traveler who’d spent the past six months navigating brand new towns, cities and wilderness areas pretty quickly– I would figure it out. Most of all, I knew I hated waiting tables more than anything in the world. I had to get this job.

“You sound like you’ll fit in great with us, you’re hired,” he said.

I started to dance on the sand, shimmying with the relief of gainful employment upon my broke-ass arrival home from this trip. And with that, I became a pedicabber.

*******

Rewind two and half years to April 2010, to another beach in a very different part of the world: Montevideo, Uruguay. On a weekend jaunt from our studies in Buenos Aires, a friend and I were walking along la playa discussing our post-college travel plans. Always having planned on backpacking through Europe like my mom, my head began to throb when countless Argentine, and now Uruguayan friends would say, “Ay, me encanta California, Arizona, Nueva Mexico, Colorado.” I would nod and smile, and feel ridiculous at never having ventured west of the Mississippi River. It felt wrong that I should marvel at the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice without having experienced the majesty of the Grand Canyon, the reliable spectacle of Old Faithful (also the namesake of my trusty Volvo S40) or the wind in my hair on the Pacific Coast Highway.

So in August 2011, I got in my car and started driving. That day on the beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks was seven months in to my nine-month, 25,000 mile, solo cross-country adventure. But this isn’t a story about the road trip, this is about the job that came after and how it eased the transition from untethered motion to (temporary) rootedness.

******

Bike taxi, rickshaw, velotaxi, pedicab, cyclo, or my favorite– giant tricycle. These are all the names for the increasingly popular mode of transportation in which one person cycles up to five others to a destination for money. No electric motor, just lungs and quads and force of will. Cycle rickshaws have been around almost as long as the bicycle, with the greatest prevalence in the urban areas of Asia. In recent years, however, the pedicab movement has officially arrived in the United States. Nearly every major city now has several competing pedicab companies, or independent contractors hustlin’ on their own.

In my obviously biased opinion, a pedicab is the single greatest way to experience a city if you’re too lazy/tired/drunk to walk. The riders are outgoing, fun young people with an intimate knowledge of the city, and they give you an experience, not just a ride. I have now worked for a pedicab company in Newport for three months, and I can easily say it is the best job I’ve ever had. The money is fantastic, I’m in the best shape of my life, there’s a built-in social scene, and I’m outside all the time. But by far, the best part is how much pedicabbing resembles travel.

*****

Our sexy green chariots.

First there are the obvious similarities: I talk to strangers all day and have to repeat my story each time. Travelers and pedicabbers both develop a spiel, a 15-second version of your life. On my trip it sounded like, “I’m Liza, I just graduated from University of Wisconsin. I’m driving around the country alone, in a loop starting and ending in Rhode Island. Yes, it gets lonely sometimes. No, I didn’t invite anybody else. Yes, I’ve read On The Road.

Now it sounds like, “I’m Liza (or Sally, often passengers are so wasted I give them a fake name for funsies). I graduated from University of Wisconsin a year ago. Yes, this is good exercise. Yes, riding this bike is difficult, but yes, I enjoy it. No, you are not too fat for me to take you up this hill. No, I’m not training for anything. No, you cannot touch my thighs.” The constant repetition of this conversation is extremely monotonous, but usually what comes after is great. I meet people from all over the world, a lot of them nautical folk who have been sailing for days or weeks to get to Newport. Their stories and backgrounds are wide and varied. It is bizarre being the tour guide instead of the toured, but in a good way. Bottom line: if you can’t be traveling, bring the travelers to you.

Pedicabbing is most like travel in that it injects an element of the absurd, the unexpected, and the unpredictable into every shift. Exactly like the beginning of each new day on the road, I go to work having absolutely no idea what could happen that night. Of course, the possibilities aren’t as great as out on the open road, but some pretty insane shit goes down in Newport during the witching hours when we are trolling the streets for rides.

Because we work entirely off tips, there is no predicting what will happen at the end of each ride. Another good axiom for travel and rickshaw riding– go in with a positive attitude and no expectations. In the three months since I started I’ve been paid more than a hundred dollars for a single ride four separate times. I’ve also been stiffed plenty. I can ride the exact same distance for the same amount of people with ridiculously disparate results.

More memorable than just erratic payment, however, are the bizarre and hilarious interpersonal exchanges we have with our customers. Last week a co-worker was paid $300 to party with someone after the shift. Last night another was vehemently propositioned for a threesome, actually a pretty frequent occurrence. We get invited to parties, to yachts, to hotel rooms. We also clean up vomit, call ambulances and alert police to bar brawls. We get tipped in pizza, beer, ice cream, and other random transactions in addition to or in place of cash. Us female riders endure verbal harassment about our bodies all night long, but the guys actually get pantsed, groped and slapped by bachelorettes in spike heels who think they’re doing them a favor. We are goaded to race each other, commanded to disobey traffic laws, and begged to let the customers ride the bikes, all of which are very against the rules. We prostitute our personalities, but as far as I know nothing else. It is, in short, a circus. Or a party hostel on wheels.

*****

What I’m trying to say to all you nomads, writers, photographers, cyclists, adventurers and other wanderers: pedicabbing could be the job for you between journeys. It certainly eased my throbbing emotional hangover over ending my trip, and is helping to pay for the next one too. You can do it anywhere, and in fact many riders in the U.S. travel around the country following the tourism money: Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, SXSW in Austin, summer in the Northeast, winter in southern California or Florida. Each city has its distinct culture and licensing laws, but you’re always getting paid to exercise, learn a city intimately, and talk to strangers. And as we say in Newport, “be a rickshaw, not a dickshaw.”

To find a pedicab company near you, check out http://www.ibike.org/economics/pedicab-usa.htm

Massive thanks to the Newport crew for making this summer absolutely ridiculous. It was beyond great meeting all of you, and I’ll be missin’ ya out West!

Thoughts on Endings

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My amblings in technicolor.

Final mile count: 24,730

It’s been two weeks since Old Faithful and I rolled on home to Narragansett, completing our grand adventure of nine months, nearly 25,000 miles, 38 states and incalculable memories. To be honest, I never dared to dream the old girl would make it all the way! I envisioned a fatal breakdown somewhere in Kentucky or Alabama six or seven months in, leaving me to Greyhound it the rest of the way. But she’s still truckin’ on, oil leaks be damned!

After plenty of time catching up on sleep, TV from the past year and time with my family, I feel ready to address the churning mixture of emotions regarding what it means to close this wild chapter of my life and begin anew. Looking back on the first post, I feel a profound sense of achievement of all the goals of this trip. In no particular order:

  • Visiting and spending time with scattered friends and relatives, gaining insight into the lives of people I know and love
  • Exploring every nook and cranny of this country that caught my interest, whether the obvious (San Francisco, Grand Canyon) or the obscure (Astoria, Ocala National Forest)
  • Making new friends, acquaintances and partnerships that are just now in their infancy
  • Developing new skills, mostly having to do with outdoorswomanship and sustainable practices
  • Consuming literature to my heart’s content
  • Utilizing every one week free trial yoga deal in the country
  • Chasing summer
  • Experiencing how others live in a kaleidoscope of circumstances and lifestyles
  • Listening to the ideas, hopes, dreams, travels, fears and concerns of random people every day
  • Using this blog to practice writing, share the journey with others and record it for posterity
  • Luxuriating in limitless freedom and independence
  • Balancing the line between loneliness and solitude
  • Discovering the physical capabilities of my body
  • Finding patriotism and a personal relationship with my nation
  • Traveling on a budget
  • Maximizing the time I had to experience each place to the fullest
  • Making the year I was 22 the most insane, extraordinary, freewheelin’ 365 days possible
There were, of course, some failings and regrets. They are as follows:
  • Two speeding tickets, countless parking tickets, one car towing
  • Sent two bikes to bike heaven
  • Lost a plethora of personal items
  • Wrote blog posts that were too long and too infrequent (like this one!)
  • Got to San Francisco one day late for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and did not see the Black Keys on tour when I had the chance.
  • Did not work up the courage to play music in the street for money, even in cities where I knew absolutely nobody
  • Started taking interstates instead of blue highways to save time and money
  • Did not hike nearly enough of the Appalachian Trail despite living practically on it for a month
  • Didn’t make it to: Glacier, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley or Great Smokies National Parks. Nor did I get to Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Napa Valley, Charleston S.C., Victoria B.C., Bozeman M.T., Olympia W.A., Monterey C.A., or a multitude of other places.

In regard to that last bullet point– a major discovery I made is that traveling is one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. The more places you go and the more people you meet, the more incredible places and adventures you hear about and want to experience. This is not in any way a bad thing, just overwhelming for us who want to do and see and hear and taste and touch it all, but know that it’s a lovely impossibility…

The Cascade Mountains in Washington. Taken the third week of the trip last August.

Two weeks ago in New York City, I was in Times Square thinking about–what else–time. I was in the capitalist and cultural epicenter of the nation, relishing in the utter anonymity of the most crowded street corner in the world, and beginning to get powerfully depressed about the impending end of the journey. Side note–this is another thing I love about New York, you experience emotions at their utmost extremes. Anyway, I was thinking about time and how there’s no way to stop its relentless flow. No matter how much we try to savor and preserve a moment (or nine months in my case), it constantly moves forward, never back. For us humans living in this world defined by Newtonian physics, time moves at the exact same pace every single second of every single day of every single year of every single millenium. Until we discover time travel or a rip in the fabric, that’s just the way of it.

Like death and taxes, the unshakeable truth of time steamrolling ahead and getting older is something we cannot change. Almost always, the things we cannot change or influence are the hardest parts of life to grapple with and understand. So, understandably, we distract ourselves with the earthly dealings and processes that fill our lives with pain, joy, and everything in between. While we cannot change or answer the Big Questions, we can change the way we spend our time on this earth: where we live, what we eat, how we make money, who we love, how we empathize with others, how we interact with the natural world. This journey has taught me to accept the things I cannot change and refuse to accept the things I can.

This journey has taught me that people way overvalue physical comfort. Human beings are tough and resilient, not just sacks of mostly water and carbon. Sleeping on floors or the ground, doing manual labor in the sun, traversing the land, not eating three huge meals a day– these are things our bodies can not only accomodate, but are better for. You will be better for it. I’m not insane, I do like warm beds and hot showers and extravagant meals. But knowing deep down that those things are a want and not a need is incredibly liberating.

This journey has taught me how preposterously large the United States of America is. Politically, it has made me a believer of state’s rights and libertarianism, a far cry from the classic liberalism I started out with. I think trying to govern 313 million ideologically disparate people over 3.8 million square miles of topographically diverse land is absolutely absurd. It’s just too. damn. big. Everything about the U.S. is too big– our debt, our government, our army, our waistlines, our greed. We need to think smaller. We need to worry about what’s going on in our regions and communities, and invest in our local land, businesses and people. The strength and spirit of the local food and sustainability movement has blown me away, and I know it will continue to grow and provide hope for the future.

Finally, this journey has reinforced the best piece of advice I ever received: “Fake it ’til you make it.” Just taking a leap and pretending like you can do something, even if you’re freaked out and don’t think you can, is better than not doing it at all. If you fake your way through a beginning, all of a sudden you’re in the middle, rapidly approaching an end. Jump, and you’ll swim.

Road in the rearview. Badlands, SD.

I’m terrified that it’s all over, for now my future is 100% unscripted. This summer I’ll be living in Narragansett, RI working two jobs and an internship that I would not have gotten if not for the knowledge and experience acquired on this adventure. I’ll be putting my newfound agricultural skills to the test for a landscaping/fine gardening business, integrating my love of bicycling and talking to strangers as a pedicab rider in Newport, and writing/editing/marketing/blogging/social media-ing for Edible Rhody Magazine, a publication dedicated to celebrating local food. Freewheeling will not die, however. In what little free time I do find this summer I’ll be trekking and exploring northern New England as much as possible. After that? Who knows.

I’ll bid farewell with a little help from some literary greats.

John Steinbeck, in the final chapter of Travels with Charley comments on the “life span of journeys. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.”

William Least Heat Moon ends Blue Highways with Lines from a Navajo Wind Chant
Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten
returns to the circling winds.

 

The Last Stop: New York City

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Sunday afternoon watching street performers in Washington Square Park.

Mile count: 24,297. BUT I have 400 more to drive today, bringing the grand grand total 24,687. We can call that 25K, right?

In a state of unbelieving surreality, I type the following sentence: Exactly nine months ago today I set off on a journey around the country, and today I am going home. I’m going to leave all the symbolic conclusions, culminating thoughts and epiphanies for my next post (the adventure may be over but this blog sure ain’t!) after I sleep for a week in my own bed. Rather, I’ll use this time to muse on the greatest metropolis in the United States of America: New York City.  

Now that I’ve spent an entire academic year as a road scholar in the University of Life, I feel qualified to make such a strong assertion. Like it or not, it’s just true. If anybody in the world asked me, “I’m coming to America for one week and I only have time to see one place, where should it be?” It’s NYC, no doubt about it. Before you get your collective panties in a bunch, let me clarify a bit. New York is by no means the prettiest, the easiest, the friendliest or the sanest. It certainly isn’t the most comfortable, and the flaming hoops one has to jump through just to exist and live there every day are mind-boggling and overwhelmingly frustrating. But it is unquestionably the greatest, in the truest definition of the word. 

New York City is unrivaled; incomparable in human diversity, energy, intensity, and dynamism. As an avid outdoorswoman, the concrete jungle Kurt Vonnegut called “Skyscraper National Park” does thoroughly freak me out when there for long periods of time. However, when I’m inside the belly of the five-headed beast, Walt Whitman’s words ring truer still: “There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.”  

New York swallows you whole, chews you up, and makes you forget about everything on the outside. There’s simply too much going on within a ten block radius to imagine what could possibly be happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. Every rooted mode of existence (i.e. not nomadism) does this to some degree. No matter where you live, life in that unique geographic locale is its own bubble of norms, relationships and possible choices. Throughout the past nine months I have tried to examine and explore as many of these bubbles as possible, experiencing the unquantifiably diverse lives of Americans. New York just happens to be the biggest, shiniest and bounciest bubble. 

So what did I do inside this effervescent, undulating bubble for the past seven days? Essentially three things: 1. eat 2. walk 3. catch up with family and friends. My dad and Sonia spontaneously decided to come for the weekend and celebrate my birthday, and we had some truly spectacular meals and strolls. The eating and walking gloriously cancel each other out in an endless cycle of pleasure, and seeing so many familiar faces was the best homecoming I could ask for. Thank you all for the meals, drinks, smiles and laughter- it is the fascinating, ambitious and hard-working/hard-playing people that make the city truly great.  

I also celebrated my 23rd birthday and the end of my trip by getting a pair of wings tattooed on the outside of each foot. They are a permanent reminder to keep my feet light and moving, and a memento of this adventure of sheer freedom. My best friend and hostess for the week, Amy Greds, went with me to the tattoo parlor in the East Village. We were both incredibly nervous (it was my first time) but got through it hand in hand, using our normal chattering to distract me from the exhilarating pain. I couldn’t be happier with how they came out, and now my outsides reflect the permanent change this trip has caused me on the inside.

Ok, now I’m starting to get emotional. So I’ll wrap it up with the final freewheelin’ fotos from the Big Apple:  

New York Public Library

May Day protests in Union Square.

The NYPD busy policing the protests don’t seem to notice or care about the people selling marijuana paraphenalia on the street behind them. Ha!

30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski rehearsing a song and dance routine for the show on the street at Rockefeller Plaza. I just happened to walk by!

The perfect Jew York bagel. It’s good to be back.

Getting my first ink at Thicker Than Water Tattoo in the East Village- highly recommended. Photo by Amy Greds.

Now I can “teach my feet to fly” just like Joni said.

Boston girls in NYC

Children playing on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.

Amy and I at the Highline, an old elevated railroad that’s been re-purposed as a walkway of gardens and recreational space.

Now I’m off to Philly to pick up a friend, then home to Narragansett, Rhode Island at last. Gonna sleep wellllll tonight!

Wandering Women in the Old Dominion

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"Oh Shendandoah, I long to hear you..."

Mile Count: 23,518

A week and a half ago, three wandering women set off for a week of renewal and relaxation in the woods of Virginia, the state nicknamed the “Old Dominion.” The three: me, my cousin Alex (our new staff photographer here at Freewheeling), and her roommate from college Maggie, who took a week off from her job as a cartographer for National Geographic. Since we left on a Saturday, we were accompanied by another car full of hardworking Washington D.C. young professionals eager for a respite from the pressures of the nation’s capitol. So altogether, eight of us took to the trees, hills and streams in style, opting to rent a cabin and bring extravagant food and booze. This was a stark contrast to the packaged noodles and blustery beach camping of the Outer Banks. Alex put it best as we heaved out of the grocery store under the weight of bags loaded with ribeye steaks and pineapple for grilling, hummus and cold cuts for wraps, and bottles of Sierra Nevada beer and Knob Creek bourbon: “this is gourmand camping.”  This was an entirely novel experience for me– being in the outdoors has always been an all-or-nothing type situation. However, a sturdy, rustic cabin in the woods completely cut off from civilization and cell reception, yet still stocked with every kitchen utensil imaginable and some decently comfortable bunks was a pretty damn great happy medium.

I’m really not sure how this happened, but nobody before or during my trip informed me of the sheer enchantment that is Shenandoah. I mean, I sang the song about it in sixth grade choir and I knew there was a National Park and everything, but I was not anywhere close to adequately prepared for the majestic resplendence of this valley. Words completely fail me. All I can do is present these nauseatingly adorable photos that look like they’re for the R.E.I. spring catalogue:

Cousin love ❤ Me and Alex B'stein.

Taking a quick snooze in the midst of a nine-mile hike.

"the oldest technology in the world"

Spring awakening.

The cabin we rented was built in 1800 and had survived the Civil War! And only cost us $9/night each. Score.

Mango pancakes in cast iron make for happy mornings...

...and lazy massage trains even happier afternoons.

Unfortunately, no matter how still and silent the woods are, regular time moves forward and the magical weekend had to end. Melancholily, five of the crew returned in D.C., leaving Maggie, Alex and I to continue resting and roaming. We three moved to a smaller cabin a little north of the National Park where we cozied up cooking, reading, writing, doing morning yoga and afternoon hikes and bike rides.

I think because the end of my trip is nigh and there’s not much else brand new to look forward to (I’ve already to been to D.C. and New York), I felt the most at peace during those three days than I’ve felt…possibly ever. The combination of the tranquil forests, with soft sounds of spring awakening throughout the valley and the flowing, nurturing female energy in the cabin made for 72 hours of utter serenity and grace. Even when I was blissfully tending the vegetables at my wwoofing jobs, or zenning-out on the Pacific Coast Highway, or staring at the abyss of the Grand Canyon, I was always thinking ahead to the next place. The days in Shenandoah were different. It is such a rare blessing to be completely present in any given moment, I am so grateful, especially to Maggie and Alex, for making it happen and being there with me. It was certainly one of the loveliest pieces in the patchwork of memories I will quilt together in my mind when I look back on this adventure.

The view from our deck at the Glass House near Front Royal, VA.

After five days in the woods, we were ready for some arts and culture in the Old Dominion. Following a tip from my man Matt, we headed to Staunton where the American Shakespeare Center performs Shakespeare and his contemporaries in an exact replica of London’s Blacksfriars Theatre. We had the delight and slight discomfort of watching John Ford’s “‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore,” a Game of Thrones-esque saga of incest and violence. The excellent troupe of eleven actors delivers the half-a-millenia-old works to modern audiences in the boisterous Shakespearean style– lights on, no sets, multiple actors playing different parts/sexes, and lots of emotion. We even got to sit on the stage! The ASC pulls off three shows per season, often with two performances a day, for a reasonable cost (our on-stage tickets were $33/ea). In between acts, the actors perform musical interludes with songs from the likes of The Avett Brothers and Tom Petty while vendors sell candy and $2 beers on stage. This is Shakespeare in the South.

After a great night Couchsurfing in Staunton, we decided to check out Charlottesville, VA before ambling back to Washington. Like all huge public university towns, of which I think I’ve been to about 16 by now, Charlottesville (home of UVA) was charming, buzzing with young energy, and had delicious FOOD. A belly-rub-worthy brunch at the Bluegrass Grill & Bakery was the perfect way to end another wondrous week of wandering.

Islands of Change: The Outer Banks

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North Carolina's Outer Banks, a 200-mile stretch of extremely narrow barrier islands stretching from Virginia Beach down the N.C. coastline.

Hello dear readers,

I know it’s been an inordinate amount of time since my last post. Even though it’s really not her fault, I’m just going to go ahead and blame my blogging absence on my attention-grabbing adoration for my co-pilot of the past two weeks: the one and only Alex Braunstein. Also, my beat-up old laptop was stolen in Madison, but that’s besides the point (joke’s on you, thief! Have fun with the cracked screen and water damage!) A fellow solo traveler who just returned from a six month around-the-world journey and sharer of my DNA, my cousin Alex has made April fly by on a sea of crab cakes and love. All the stunning photos you’ll see in my next few posts are her doing– you should notice a dramatic spike in quality from my usual photographic blunderings.

The territory we conquered together earlier this month was some of the land the first English settlers of our country laid eyes on. The Outer Banks series of islands nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the enormous amount of shipwrecks caused by their hazardous waters. From north to south they are Bodie, Roanoke, Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, with free interconnecting ferries and hordes of tourists in the summer months. As we drove through Roanoke Island, home of the mysteriously lost Roanoke Colony, I looked to the almighty Wikipedia for information. It benevolently bestowed upon me the knowledge that the very first English baby to be born in the Americas was born there in 1587. Her name was Virginia Dare, and nobody knows what became of her or the hundred or so other colonists who attempted to settle these wild, windswept coasts. Although Alex and I were not fleeing religious persecution nor claiming indigenous lands in order to rape the earth for natural resources, we did feel something in common with the early colonists: embarking on brand new lives in unknown territory.

We also shared their task of surviving the elements. On our first night camping on the beach on Hatteras Island, we kept warm by a blazing driftwood fire. The flames licked the salty air and danced on steadily galvanizing gusts, which began to relentlessly assault and contour the tent into shapes far past what I believed its flimsy materials capable of. If only the English settlers could’ve gotten their paws on some Mountain Hardwear products, they would’ve been golden. Even so, not much sleep was had that night; we were quite sure the tent would blow right off its stakes with us in it. Later on, I read that unlike most barrier islands, the Outer Banks aren’t anchored to any offshore coral reefs. This combined with their placement jutting into the Atlantic Gulf stream uniquely predisposes them to damage from hurricanes and Nor’easters. The Banks are ethereal, constantly shifting and eroding. They refuse to stay in one place– the storms make them ebb and flow just like the tides.

Three days of camping and exploring in the chilly springtime Banks was just the right taste of what could be fully realized in its summertime sweetness. Although we couldn’t really enjoy the beaches to their full potential, the lack of tourists gave our time there a lovely solitary, local feel. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever return to these shifting shores, but it was incredible to experience a land as unrooted and evolving as me.

Me on a sand dune, looking out at our campsite by the sea.

 

Midwest Surprise!

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Gorgeous Lake Monona in Madison, WI

Mile Count: 21,560

What’s a homesick vagabond to do when she has a week with no plans and misses her friends so badly it hurts? Drive 800 miles overnight to her college town for a surprise visit, of course! Last Sunday I left the farm in North Carolina, drove 16 hours and ended up on my best friend Cara’s doorstep in Madison, Wisconsin at 9 30 a.m. After ringing her doorbell three or four times, she finally came to the door, robe astray and bleary eyed. The hilarious look of utter shock and disbelief made every minute in the car worth it a hundred fold. Monday was spent letting my many dear friends around town know I was here, and since then it’s felt like I never left. I’m even staying in my old house, which remains nearly exactly as I left it eight months ago. Meeting incredible and fascinating people in every corner of the country has enriched and enveloped me every single day on the road thus far, but there’s just nothing like the comfortable laughter of old friends.

I’ll be staying in Madtown til Friday, then heading to Chicago for the weekend. On Monday, I’ll do another 15 hour drive back to Raleigh to pick up my cousin Alex who’ll be joining me for an April of adventures in N.C.’s Outer Banks, coastal southern Virginia, Shenandoah Valley and Washington D.C.

Now excuse me, I need to go eat some fried cheese curds and drink a beer.