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In North America/ Outdoors

Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A First Timer’s Trek Into The Woods

Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dark, ominous clouds snaked across the sky over 187,000 acres of old growth forest as the threat of a thunderstorm loomed. Ahead of the dense, hardwood forest was 18 miles of backcountry trail to be covered over three days. Yet all I could think of as a first-time backpacker was the sign warning, “You are entering bear country.” Indeed, I was entering the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was fairly certain a black bear was about to have its way with me.

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In North America

Appalachia Adventure on the New River: White Water Rafting West Virginia

I said something stupid about West Virginia once. I’m sure you have, too, and for that, we both deserve a proper backhand upside our respectively thick skulls.

My buddy and I were driving through en route to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a backpacking trip. We stopped in Charleston looking for breakfast. Nothing local was open, so we ended up at a First Watch before continuing on. Back then, I wrote whatever was on my mind without much thought. I was the despised blogger who shared every thought he had, thinking himself rather hilarious. I wrote, in a post since removed, that West Virginia could be a special place, an outdoor lover’s paradise, but I implied that it wasn’t much of anything at all.

Though I suppose that post wasn’t entirely worthless as it caught the attention of someone from Visit Southern West Virginia who saw through my BS and invited me down to eat my words. And eat I did.

We begin in downtown Fayetteville, West Virginia.

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In North America/ Outdoors

Legendary: The North Dakota Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read part one on things to do in Bismarck and the surrounding area.

I’ll admit that my initial interest in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was merely the park’s namesake (and, of course, my general love of hiking and cycling the outdoors). I’ve admired the 26th president of the United States since I read River Of Doubt on his post-presidency adventures through the Amazon River. This led to additional reading of arguably our country’s most badass head of state. Sure, in retrospect he had some pretty wacky beliefs, but on the whole, the guy was pure American steel and had no problem calling out the corporations of the day that were taking advantage of the common man. Plus, he once took a bullet in the chest and finished his speech before getting it looked at. How can you not admire that?

So what does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with North Dakota? Quite a bit, apparently.

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In North America

Gateway to the Land of Legends: Things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota

I was invited up by North Dakota Tourism to talk to a group of writers about my career and thoughts on digital storytelling. Besides officially somehow crossing the threshold of “person worth paying attention to,” I was excited for the opportunity to explore a new state. Not to mention this was my first stop in my return from Costa Rica.

What’s in North Dakota anyway? Land? Yes, lots of land. 183,272 square kilometers worth. Sure, that’s only 19th in the nation, but it’s made to feel all the more overwhelming when you consider the lack of density — 3.83 North Dakotans per square kilometer, 47th in the country. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t take long in North Dakota to find yourself staring over a vast, quiet horizon, which I did many-a-time. Continue Reading →

In North America

The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit is a Juggernaut That Makes You Feel Important

Westin Cadillac Detroit Entrance

An overwhelming sensation sweeps over me when I first step onto the sidewalk in front of the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. I look up and feel a sense of awe. This is a Detroit, Neo-Renaissance landmark. This is an American landmark — a beacon to the country’s 20th Century prosperity and optimistic outlook on the world. Nothing could stop the United States. Nothing could stop Detroit.

Important people stayed at this hotel, the tallest in the world when it was built in 1924. Stars of stage and screen, musicians, authors, statesmen, and eight U.S. president all stayed at the Hotel-Book Cadillac as it was then known. I feel tangentially important, if not in reality, for staying here.

Downtown Detroit feels enormous, far greater than anything else I had experienced in the U.S. Maybe because it’s quiet. In Chicago and New York City, you’re almost constantly surrounded by people. People who are busy, hurrying to their next spot, and texting on their phones to let people know they’re hurrying to their next spot.

Detroit is another story. Detroit is the story of the American Dream gone wrong. It’s been well-documented elsewhere and I certainly can’t do the topic justice in a few paragraphs. Plus there’s a fair bit of skepticism among Detroiters when outsiders spend a few days in their city and rattle off analysis with an air of expertise, like someone going on cable news with the oblique title of “Political Commenter” to talk about some election. I won’t do that.

Downtown Detroit

But here’s the thing. I love Detroit. I love being in Detroit. I love getting into arguments with people who look at me funny when I say such things.

I especially love the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit, because it tells a significant chapter in the story of Detroit — at least to this outsider. They closed their doors in 1984 back when things couldn’t possibly look any more bleak for a Rust Belt city like Detroit. Suburban flight was so ingrained, the kids of the sprawl generation had moved even further away from the city, surrounded by their parking lots, Walgreens, and McDonald’s.

Now bear with me here. I know the comeback narrative is tired and selective. While it’s debatable how thick this chapter truly is in Detroit’s story, it does exist and the Westin makes an appearance in 2008 when it reopens after 24 years. This is also a time when city-living is becoming trendy again. The third generation of suburbanites are starting to move back into the city — Detroit included.

There is still no shortage of empty storefronts when I walk around downtown Detroit, even on the same block as the Westin. I’m skeptical of passersby because there are so few. There’s something about a busy city that makes me more trusting of strangers. Safety in numbers, I guess.

After a short evening walk, I’m happy to head back into the hotel and have a look around. It’s hard for me to visualize $200 million in renovations, but Westin Cadillac appears to fit the bill. Maybe this is why I feel important staying here. All that money poured into an American landmark — and I get to sleep there.

Detroit American Flag from Westin Cadillac Detroit Hotel

A rush of guilt sweeps over me. I know I’m privileged in almost all the ways one can be privileged in the United States. I know that where I’m sleeping would be a fantasy for so many in the country, let alone those who actually call Detroit home. But as quickly as the thought came, it disappears as the view from a hallway window of downtown Detroit in an evening gray distracts me. I fixate for a moment on a waving American flag. The colors are as bright as the flags they use before baseball games to please the patriotic crowd and the folks watching from home. Not a single thread looks faded.

In North America/ Travel

Where to Visit in Ohio: Cleveland vs Cincinnati

West Side Market Cleveland

Cleveland and Cincinnati. They’re both in Ohio, but which one is on the lake? One of them’s south, I know that. Like near Kentucky or something. Or is it Indiana?

Such is the geographical dilemma many find themselves in when Cleveland and Cincinnati are brought up in the same conversation. It seems preposterous to the locals, of course. These are two inextricably different cities with their own respective stories. Once more, they look completely different. Cleveland is flatter than a pancake run over by a steamroller and Cincinnati has hills on hills on hills on hills.

It must be said from the get-go that both are uniquely fantastic cities. Still, it’s worth jumping in and looking at what makes each one special. What separates them, what makes them tick, why you should want to visit, and most importantly for the traveler, where specifically to go.

Cities Of Immigrants

Both Cleveland and Cincinnati are cities of neighborhoods with strong roots to their immigrant pasts that lead into the present. Cleveland has objectively one of the greatest Little Italy neighborhoods in the country on the east side of the city with pockets of Polish, Irish, and Hispanic immigrants on the west side in Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, and Kamm’s Corner, respectively. For more specifics on Cleveland neighborhoods, check out the Off The Tourist Trek Guide to Cleveland.

In Cincinnati, the first thing that comes to mind is the German legacy of Over-The-Rhine. This is a gorgeous neighborhood dripping with history. Speaking of dripping, the Germans did more than bring themselves and their ridiculously long words to street signs (though these street signs were changed with the outbreak of The Great War). They brought beer. Lots and lots of beer. If that tickles your fancy, then you need to sign up for a Brewing Heritage Trail tour.

When those German immigrants weren’t busy brewing brews, they built what is believed to be the largest collection of Italianate Architecture in the United States. Thanks to recent revitalization efforts, Over-The-Rhine is easily one of the most fascinating and enjoyable neighborhoods to walk around in the whole of the country — full stop.

Bon Appetit

You won’t be hard-pressed to find good eats in either city. Cities across the United States are experiencing some level of return migration coupled with a renewed importance placed on having local, fresh food readily available at markets and restaurants. Chefs are among the crowd leaving the oversaturation of big city competition to open something up back home. Cleveland and Cincinnati are no exceptions in that regard, but they both at least have some exceptional standouts in the restaurant department, each with a food scene anchored by phenomenal marketplaces.

In Cleveland, the anchor is the West Side Market. Google it and you’ll see quotes from renowned chefs across the country singing its praises. Indeed, the early 20th Century market is worthy of all the adulation and then some. You can find it in the aforementioned Ohio City neighborhood, one of the first to receive the “cool” stamp in the city’s recent revitalization efforts. Inside you’re treated to a cultural cacophony by way of food. (It’s the best kind of cultural cacophony, after all.) As a former resident, I frequented Dionne’s Meats often for their chicken chorizo — still the best stuff I’ve had anywhere in all of my travels.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, has Findlay Market — the oldest continuously operated public market in Ohio and a member of the National Register of Historic Places. Go on a Saturday or Sunday through March to December for the farmers’ market surrounded by street performers and other special events. Baseball fans will want to visit for the Cincinnati Reds’ annual Opening Day parade. (The Reds were officially the first team in Major League Baseball and continue to hold the honor of throwing out the first pitch of the season.)

Given the market’s Over-The-Rhine location, it makes for a great destination after a long walk. Then again, the new Cincinnati Streetcar has its own stop for the market on Race Street just past the Brewery District. It’s a great walk into the city, but tired legs can save energy by taking the streetcar through Over-The-Rhine and into the Banks of Downtown Cincinnati where you can spend a sunny afternoon hanging out along the banks of the Ohio River or check out a live show at Fountain Square.

For more on Cincinnati food, check out Serious Eats’ 10 recommendations.

Bon Voyage

Read my piece on things to do in Cleveland at trivago Magazine.

Ideally, Cleveland and Cincinnati could be paired together nicely in one trip. Unfortunately, plans to connect the cities with rail were foolishly scrapped, leaving travelers with Greyhound (there’s nothing wrong with Greyhound!) or five hours of yelling at traffic as they make their way through typically clogged I-75.

Until the state catches up with the 21st Century, you should plan weekends in both cities separately. Besides, there’s no shortage of wonderful places to stay in Cleveland or hotels in Cincinnati that you’ll want to make the most of. I can personally recommend the Symphony Hotel in Over-The-Rhine and the Metropolitan at the 9 in Cleveland.

In North America/ Outdoors/ Travel

Sailing to the Sea of Cortez with UnCruise Adventures

Originally published at Travel World International Magazine.

I am not a cruise person. My association with cruises has always been negative. They usually make the news when a virus breaks out, causing excessive diarrhea, and then the ship inevitably fills up with too much human excrement and starts sinking.

At least, that’s been my interpretation of the news.

Ultimately, it never sounded like my kind of vacation. Nothing seemed relaxing about cramming a small city onto an obscenely large vessel to be ushered around like cattle and call it “seeing the world.” For this reason, and the previously stated excessive excrement, I signed up for an UnCruise Adventures to the Baja Peninsula’s Sea of Cortez last December. Continue Reading →