Category Archives: US Travel

Getting to Know My Home Sweet Home: Grand Rapids, Michigan

There’s no place like home. Yes, that’s what they say. Even though the world is full of incredible places to explore, sometimes it is just as cool to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of your own hometown. Lucky for me, my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan has only been getting better and better. The city has been growing and developing, and has really put itself on the map, in more ways than one.  In the past few years it has set world records, launched an amazing annual international art competition called “Art Prize“, and has earned itself the title of “Beer City USA“. In 2014, The Lonely Planet even named Grand Rapids as the No.1 US Travel Destination!

Art Prize sculptures in the Grand River near the Blue Bridge, downtown, Grand Rapids.

For the first time in more than 4 years, I will have the opportunity to spend a solid six weeks here, and I can’t wait to reacquaint myself with my home sweet home. Sometimes when you are a from a place, you get used to doing what you always do. You can become comfortable with what you know, and in that comfort you can lose the drive to find what is new. In the past few years, I typically came home, caught up with my friends and family, hit up some of my favorite restaurants, hiked some of my favorite trails, and then I set back off to whatever location I came from. This time, I am going to explore my hometown the way I normally dig into other places I visit… I am going to become a local who is “in the know”.

The interesting thing about getting to know my hometown is that I already know quite a bit about this place. I know there is an awesome art scene, a plethora of delicious and different restaurants, and tons of places to get outside and get active. I am not as completely in the dark as I sometimes am when I am moving around and traveling. Here, I have a network of friends and I have years of history with the city. What I am looking to do is to simply brush up on what I know, and enhance my circles.

Typically when I arrive someplace new, I have a way I go about making connections… First: find local events. Second: meet new people. Third: follow up and have fun!

As I begin to reacquaint myself with my hometown,  I am embracing some of the tools I have learned in my times of travels. For example, I decided to see if anyone in the area is connected with my new favorite form of meeting people: Couchsurfing. It turns out Grand Rapids has a group of Couchsurfers who like to get together for dinner every other week or so. It just so happened that the day I discovered this was the day they were getting together for dinner. I met them right away at some hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurant in a part of town I never visit and poof! Newfound friends with great tips on the area, as well as a passion for travel. Perfect. Check, check and check.

Now, to continue enhancing my circles, I am beginning to look up places of interest like local museums, art galleries, yoga studios, theaters and concert venues to see when they have different events or community gatherings. The Experience Grand Rapids website has been incredibly helpful for all this. Through local events, I typically meet new people with different ideas of places to go and things to see, and voila! Soon I will have a whole list of “Must See” places, as well as an expanded network of interesting people to do things with.

Right now, it is only the beginning. I have only been home a week, and as always, it has been a whirlwind of a week… but I can’t wait to see what I find out about good ol’ Grand Rapids. I have no doubt that in the coming weeks I will be able to write several posts of praise to this city, and to my home state of Michigan. I look forward to getting to know my home sweet home of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions below… Let me know what you think I should see or do while I’m home in the mitten!

As Different as Night and Day – A Tale of Using Zimride to Get from SoCal to NorCal and Back

Travel can be heavily influenced by the people you meet along the way. Depending on who you come into contact with, your experience can be as different as night and day. As a traveler, I am always trying new and different things to meet people and save money while traveling. Please note that as I am adventurous, I am also cautious, and I take safety precautions to the best of my ability when I try out these various services. This past weekend I used a service called Zimride to make my way from Anaheim, SoCal to San Francisco, NorCal, and back. In a mere 48 hours I experienced both the best and the worst of what this site can offer.

I first learned about Zimride from a well-traveled friend who has made his way up and down the coast of California countless times. This site allows people to post their travel routes with the hope of getting either a passenger or a driver who is heading the same direction. It is not a free service, there is a price tag attached to each ride, but it is much cheaper than renting a car or taking a flight, and it is much faster than taking a train or a bus. When I decided I wanted to spend the weekend in San Francisco, I signed up for the site, got in touch with a few drivers, and eventually found a guy who would pick me up at Point A and drop me off at Point B. The guy, Caldwell, seemed like a decent person, but I still made sure we had another passenger as a sort of “safety precaution” so I wouldn’t be alone. As the story unfolds, it would turn out that the passenger would be both a blessing and a curse…

Caldwell picked me up from my floral design course on Friday, and from the get-go he was tense. He had agreed to pick up another girl in LA, but she was anxious about what time he was picking her up, and this was stressing him out. I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t pick her up if he was already getting a bad vibe from her, but he said he needed the money, so I didn’t argue. I wasn’t overjoyed about heading into the heart of LA on Friday at 5pm, but I wasn’t going to start questioning the driver.

It took us nearly 2 hours to pick up the other passenger, Lisa, and by the time we got to her Caldwell had worked himself up to the point of anger. As soon as Lisa got in the car he rudely demanded his money for the ride, which put her on the offensive because the site clearly says that you pay your driver upon arrival to your destination. I worked to diffuse the situation between the two, and Lisa ended up paying him so we could get on our way. Over the course of the next 3 hours I thoroughly enjoyed conversation with Lisa. She had traveled extensively in SouthEast Asia, and as she told tales of her travels I took notes on the many tips she was dispensing with every story. Caldwell did not join in the conversation at any point and I tried to have a few conversations with him, but in all honesty I hated how he would quickly go off on ranting tyrants, and I much preferred conversation with Lisa.

When it came time to fill up the gas tank, Caldwell asked if I would take over driving. I agreed, and when he got in the passenger seat he slammed the seat back into Lisa’s knees, causing her to exclaim, “Hey Man!” At that point, he turned around and went absolutely ballistic. He started screaming in her face and was saying that ever since she got in the car he hadn’t liked her, that she was the type of person who manipulated and disrespected people, and that he didn’t like how she was befriending me to make him look like the bad guy. I tried to diffuse the situation again, but failed this time, and when I suggested he calm down and take a rest, he instead demanded that he was going to drive, so I slid over to the passenger seat, unsure of what was worse: being left at a gas station 2.5 hours from San Francisco, or continuing with a ranting lunatic and most likely making it to my final destination. I chose the latter, but was silently preparing for the worst. I had come from my floral design class, and had packed my florist knife. I slowly reached for the knife to have it ready in case I needed to use it, and I made sure my bags were ready at my feet in case I needed to spring from the car. I sent my location to a few of my friends in San Francisco who were expecting me, and then I settled in to endure the worst drive of my life.

 The next two hours were horrible. Caldwell screamed like a psychopath, and Lisa proceeded to debate back and forth with him. There was no winning. If she would agree he would call her a liar. If she would disagree he would call he a spoiled bitch. He went on and on about the state of America, and his addictive personality, and his emotional instability. But the whole time he was yelling. I stayed out of it as much as possible, only piping in to confirm positive things, like when he would say, “I’m am ADDICT! I just want a fucking drink right now!” and I would reaffirm to him that losing his sobriety over this was not worth it… He seemed to listen to me, but I was still uncomfortable as hell.

When we finally got in to the city he had calmed. Lisa got out at my stop, even though it was not her destination. We hugged and she thanked me for “being an angel” during the situation. It’s kind of ironic, because during one of his rants, Caldwell was yelling, “And now you two will probably be friends and say things like, ‘Remember that crazy guy who gave us the ride to San Francisco?!'” And he’s probably right. When you survive a situation like that with someone, there is a bond. I honestly think if she had not been in the car, I would not have had a problem with him. Sure, I would have been bored to death with his conversation, but I would not have been scared for my life.

I had originally signed up for a ride there and back with Caldwell, but when he dropped me off, both he and I knew that there was no way in hell I was riding back with him. This meant that on Saturday I had to begin searching for a ride home on Sunday. I figured I wouldn’t have a “rotten egg” twice in a row, so I used Zimride again. Eventually I connected with someone and saw that he too had a passenger for the ride down to LA, so I confirmed.  I am happy to say that my ride back was fantastic.

On the ride back, we were all basically first time Zimride users, and for me, it was a perfect ride: safe, full of conversation and full of cultural exchange. The driver, Anish, was from India and I have just decided that I am going to start my travels next year with a trip to India, so he shared many things about his culture and his country. The passenger, Alex, is from Temecula, where I actually spent 6 months living back in 2010. He had just spent the past two years teaching English in Korea, and had a ton to share about traveling in Asia, which is exactly where I plan to head after India. The three of us were really happy to meet one another, and we all exchanged information so we could keep in touch. They were both full of supportive ideas when I told them I am getting started with blogging, so I’ll give them both a little shoutout right now- hey guys! It was great to meet you!

 The world is full of many different people, and that’s what makes it such an interesting place. The people you meet along the way can add such a different dynamic to your travels and your experiences, and I am happy to have ended my weekend trip on a positive note. I will never forget my first experience with Zimride. The differences between the first and the second ride were like night and day. I had a taste of the good, the bad, and the ugly, but all in all I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again.

Traveling is like being on a roller coaster – it can be a fun, yet scary, ride. Here at the top of the hills in San Francisco, you can feel as though you’re at the top of a roller coaster with hills and tracks like these.

Girls Gone Wild! A Story on the Pleasure of Snapple While Hiking the Wilderness

I recently had the pleasure of seeing “Wild”, an inspiring movie about the strong-willed feminist, Cheryl Strayed, who walks 1000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in order to get her life back on track. Apart from the breathtaking scenery, the tear-inducing dark memories, and the moments of joy that the audience shares with Cheryl along the way, one more thing stuck out as I watched this movie: Cheryl’s craving to quench her thirst with a Snapple each time she reaches a destination point after hiking hundreds of miles in the wilderness. When I saw this trend over and over throughout the movie, I couldn’t help but smile and be reminded of the time my mom and I came to an oasis in the middle of a hot desert hike and all we wanted to quench our thirst was an ice-cold Snapple….

It was early July 2010 and we were on a road trip from Michigan to Southern California. I had just graduated college and accepted my first job, which was leading me out to Temecula, California. My little yellow Mazda Protege was packed from window to window, with a small space open in the passenger seat for my mom, and we set off on the 2000 mile drive to move me to my new home. As always, we were going to enjoy the journey, and this is what brought us to Bryce Canyon National Park on that hot July afternoon.

We rolled up to the Fairyland Loop hike around 1pm, and after preparing our bag with food, water, sunscreen and a sarong, we set off on the 8 mile hike in the 90 degree heat. The hike was absolutely magical. We started up high, on the canyon’s rim, and then descended down into the canyon. Right from the beginning we were awe-struck by the beauty stretching out before us and into the distance.

The sparse brush and pine added a necessary touch of life to the scenery, but what we didn’t know then was that soon the rock formations would take on a magical life all of their own.

The natural rock formations of the area are called “hoodoos” and as you walk above, alongside, or below these magnificent wind-swept spires you see so many shapes and figures that you would think this is where Disney came for his inspiration.

From above, on the canyon rim, you feel as though you are looking down on a castle town, and from below, the hoodoos reach up into the sky like giant chess pieces marked with the intricate etchings of the wind.

The best part of this hike is allowing your imagination to run wild. As you walk the winding path through the desert, let your mind wander and create all sorts of different fairyland creatures in the rock formations.

Nature’s color scheme in Bryce is beyond perfection, with the earth ebbing from cream to orange to deep rust red. We were lucky to have a robin’s egg blue sky and cottony white clouds. It felt as though we were walking through our own Fairyland Desert Paradise.

However, after a few hours of hiking in the direct sun, we were getting hot, and our energy was being zapped a lot faster than it normally would be. We drank our tea-warm water sparingly and continued to be amazed by the magic in which we were engulfed.

About 6 miles in to the hike, we were making our way up and out of the canyon and back to the rim when we came across another entrance to the hike which we didn’t know existed.

There we found a massive convenience store, with a porch patio and dozens of people eating and drinking before or after their hike. We had not brought a dime with us on our hike, so this oasis was bittersweet. We still had a few miles left, and decided to enter and refill our dwindling water supply with some tap water. However once we entered the store, the crisp and cool drinks made us salivate. Before I knew what was happening, my mom had approached two strangers and was half way into her pitch, “I know we don’t know you, but if you could buy us a drink and give me your address, I would gladly send you the money!”

The couple was from Denmark, and at first they weren’t sure what was being asked of them, but once they understood they laughed heartily and agreed to buy us a drink. That’s when we each selected an ice-cold Snapple from the cooler. I don’t know what it is about hiking through the wilderness that makes you crave a Snapple, but it is what we both reached for without thinking twice.

My sweet yet adventurous mom, Lori, refreshed from her Snapple break.

After that, the story is history. We made friends with the couple, and they told us about the fantastic hike they had embarked on the day before- The Narrows- in Zion National Park. This changed the course of our road trip, because we had been thinking about that very same hike, but had written it off…until we heard what this Danish couple had to say. I will forever be grateful for the kindness of those strangers, because that drink rejuvenated us, and their recommendation to hike The Narrows took us to the most memorable hike of my lifetime.

After our Snapple break, we finished up the last few miles of our trek with smiling faces. Bryce Canyon’s Fairyland Loop was more magical than I could have ever imagined. If you are ever making the drive near Bryce Canyon National Park, or Zion National Park, I highly recommend checking them both out, and make sure to do the Fairyland Loop hike in Bryce and The Narrows hike in Zion. These two hikes will forever live on in my memory.

Have you ever been to either of these beautiful National Parks? Or do you have a hike that will forever live on in your memory? If so, I’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments section below.