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In North America/ Travel

24 Hours in Raleigh, North Carolina

raleigh-north-carolina-skyline

Raleigh is one of those cities you hear is cool without knowing why.

“Yeah, I heard they have… a cool craft beer scene or something…?” someone will say with a hint of uncertainty.

I wasn’t any different. I had an inclination that there was something special about Raleigh, but I didn’t know what. So, before leaving the country (again), I strung together an Amtrak route through Raleigh. My wife and I arrived on a scorching hot summer afternoon, the kind that reminds northerners just how blazing the south can be.

We had just the one night at the hotel, but I’ve always felt I could get a good grasp of a medium-sized city within a day’s walking. So to start, we had a short jaunt to the Raleigh Marriott from the Amtrak station. The station itself is deceiving with the white building resembling something of a modest country home or perhaps one of the smaller train stations in Europe. Nothing indicates that you’ve just arrived in a city of 400,000-plus. That is until you turn around and see the skyscrapers of a modern American city.

Things To Do In Raleigh in 24 Hours

Downtown Raleigh is by no means huge, but you’re in the city as soon as you march east away from the station. A number of the city’s more popular dining and drinking establishments start popping up around Cabarrus and Davie streets.

the-pit-authentic-barbecue-raleigh-north-carolina-sign

It didn’t take long after checking in before we turned tail right back to this area for a patio dinner at The Pit. There’s a neighborhood feel surrounding The Pit with a number of other businesses right off the sidewalk. I could hear live music around the corner, but my attention was firmly latched onto the shredded pork, green beans, baked beans, and Angry Angel Kölsch in front of me.

the-pit-authentic-barbecue-raleigh-north-carolina

I’m by no means a southern barbecue connoisseur, but my stomach and taste buds were plenty happy.

We then made the long walk across the street for a couple of beers at Crank Arm Brewing with a busy front patio offset from the red brick building with lines of hops growing along the side.

crank-arm-brewing-raleigh-north-carolina

It’s not difficult to get me to check out a brewery for the sake of going to a brewery, but the task is exponentially easier when there’s a bike theme. Bikes adorn the walls at Crank Arm and then there’s the Rickshaw Rye IPA, Peddlin’ Round The Pond American India Pale Ale, Unicycle Single Hop Pale Ale, Holy Spokes Smoke Porter, Big Wheel Brown Ale, Bike Lane Belgian-Style South–and so it continues among the brewery’s seasonal offerings.

That was our first taste of Raleigh, but we were right back a week or so later after a little family vacation on Bald Head Island. We scheduled a late flight to give us the day to explore a bit more of Raleigh, starting with a recommended visit to Big Ed’s City Market where I enjoyed a slightly burnt mammoth of an omelet—the kind you can expect to find at any Americana diner.

big-eds-city-market-raleigh-north-carolina

And Big Ed’s is most certainly an Americana diner with its red and white checkered tablecloths, simple wooden chair, and a yard sale decor theme. Almost anything you can think of being stored in an attic or shed was hanging down from the ceiling. Pots and pans were the least of it. I also doubly appreciated the sign at the entrance, warning guests that they take their time to cook their food, so folks in a hurry should come back another time.

historic-market-hall-raleigh-north-carolina

Big Ed’s is on Wolfe Street. It felt like we were in another time period with the cobblestone streets and red brick sidewalks surrounding densely packed lines of shops, businesses and restaurants. This felt like my idea of the south, which is admittedly inspired mostly by images of Charleston.

From there, despite the merciless summer heat, we attempted to walk off breakfast with a trek up to the statehouse. I will say this: Raleigh, in our short time there, appeared to do a great job in making walking appealing and comfortable even with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees thanks to nearly constant tree cover. It seems like a no brainer, but too many cities lay waste on their natural shade for one reason or another, usually in relation to making driving easier, so Raleigh deserves credit for making walking as comfortable as possible in the worst of summer.

north-carolina-state-capitol-building-raleigh

That said, we did enjoy the cool relief with a stop at the North Carolina Museum of History. Being a southern state, North Carolina has no shortage of particularly appalling history to work through with the sin of slavery and civil rights issues to march through.

The Civil War seemed to take a majority of the focus with surprisingly little on civil rights, though I did appreciate an image of a march blocking traffic as protestors made their way through the streets. This was at the same time suburban commuters around the country were complaining about Black Lives Matter protestors cutting off highway traffic to bring attention to their cause. The gist being, “Protest all you want about people getting killed, just don’t let it impact me!”

This, naturally, devolved for some into proclamations that, “Dr. King would never do that!” when of course Dr. King most certainly led marches that stopped vehicular traffic. So while it was disheartening to be reminded how little we remember from recent history, it was also a little comforting to see it hasn’t been completely forgotten.

share-the-road-cycling-raleigh-north-carolina

We ended our time in Raleigh on a lighter note, stopping for a beer Clouds Brewing. It’s a city I’d like to spend more time in. I felt like I’d fit in, particularly with what appeared to be a vibrant bike culture. That’s what I gathered by demands to “share the road” scrawled in colorful chalk on the city sidewalks alongside other pro-cycling messages.

At least I left with a better understanding of exactly why Raleigh is, indeed, cool.

Disclaimer: Visit Raleigh supported this trip in part. As always, all opinions are my own.

In North America/ Travel

Pilsen: The Beating Heart of Mexican-America in Chicago You Need to See

Chicago skyline from the 'L'

The name “Pilsen” doesn’t exactly inspire images of Latin America. That’s the place where that beer comes from, right? Some city in the Czech Republic?

Yes, immigrants from that corner of the globe were the original inhabitants of this lower west side Chicago neighborhood, but overtime it has shifted identities. This is no longer an Eastern European enclave. This is firmly a barrio of Mexican-American immigrants and their second generation kids. The art is Mexican, the food is Mexican, you place your order aquí and you pick it up over ahí. Only Miami transports you to Latin America within the United States like Pilsen does, except the layout remains distinctly Chicagoan. You’ve got your rows of densely-packed single-family homes just outside the main strip, Calle 18 where there’s everything from the lavandería to modest-looking taco joints for a quick yet filling bite.

Artistic sign in Pilsen ChicagoI lived in Chicago for something like two years. In that time, I never made it to Pilsen. Never knew it existed, in fact. The idea to visit came from my wife Melanie’s cousin, who didn’t even necessarily suggest checking it out. She just mentioned it was someplace she spent an afternoon in recently. So rather than retrace familiar territory, I opted to hop on the ‘L’–that screeching, glorious piece of rail transit that screams CHICAGO–and get off where Google told me Pilsen is. To give us some direction, we first headed to the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Who doesn’t love Mexican art? Find the most xenophobic asshole in your neighborhood and I’ll bet you the entirety of their Toby Keith memorabilia that even they enjoy the vibrant colors and stylings of Mexican art. While I’m hardly an art connoisseur who can rattle of the names of personal favorites, I will go out of my way to check out some Mexican art.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, this country’s largest collection of works by Mexican-American artists, tells the story of the Mexican experience in the United States from abused migrant farmers and César Chávez to today’s bilingual second generation. The whole collection is housed in an otherwise unassuming building. From the outside, this could easily be the local intramural sports venue. But given what is inside, I’d say it’s an obligatory visit for anyone stopping through Pilsen and with an interest in hearing their story through one of this world’s most absorbing artistic stylings.

Besides enjoying some Mexican art, the visit accomplished a second task swimming in the back of my mind: working up an appetite. Mexican cuisine, too, has always held a special place in my heart, or more accurately, stomach. Screw that, it’s more than what’s going into the stomach. Mexican food hits all the senses. I can damn-near smell it now; the sizzling carnitas and pollo, the tortillas, the rice, the peppers, the fried beans–all of it.

Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen, Chicago

Luckily we didn’t have to wander around long over the simmering concrete under the sweltering July sun before we came to Carnitas Uruapan on Calle 18. Melanie and I were the only Gringos inside and Spanish was the dominant language between staff taking counter orders and the waitress shuttling around food. This felt like any something-ería joint back in Central America, and so I was quite pleased.

Carnitas Uruapan Pilsen Chicago

Now I intended to take the obligatory travel writer picture of my food to better jog my memory later on when it came to providing flowery language to wholly describe my meal. Looking back through my photos, it appears I only took a photo after clearing my plate. Based on the smudges, I’d say it was a solid plate of tacos de pollo with guacamole and a healthy helping of refried beans.

Pilsen, Chicago train station

Belly full and sufficiently zapped thanks to ninety-degree heat, we strolled back to the train station where the staircase from the ground to the elevated platform is covered in Mexican art. Bright yellows, greens, purples, reds and a dash of pink filling in countless intricate designs. A neighborhood that started out Eastern European is now a reflection of where demographics say this country is heading. If this is what the U.S. is destined to look like, then count me excited. After all, it certainly beats the Walmart parking lot and boilerplate designs that plague so much of modern America.

2 In North America/ Travel

Traveling Pittsburgh Shines a Spotlight on the New American Dream

I learned to hate Pittsburgh at a young age. Growing up in exurban Cleveland, not quite far away enough from the city limits to avoid the flaccid grip of the Browns’ television radius, I suffered irrational fandom. This fandom taught me to loathe a city 134 miles away because of an event that happens twice a year — the Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers for 60 minutes of professional football.

Embarrassingly, it took me until adulthood to realize how indescribably silly it is to judge any city off of sports alone, let alone a one-sided rivalry that — fantasy land car commercials and male anatomy-hardening ads aside — happens annually for 120 minutes. Yet there I was in my youth, referring to Pittsburgh as “Pittspuke” with the same vitriolic hatred I should have reserved for Shredder like a normal kid.

Boy, how wrong I was about Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Steel City

Truth is, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are siblings in the Eastern Rust Belt family that stretches to Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown in between. There are far more similarities that bond the cities than separate them.

Case in point, both were abandoned by the American Dream that sent highways into their respective urban cores to suck select residents and jobs out and into the suburbs. Both have a history in demanding stricter environmental protections from the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland to the plumes of smoke covering Pittsburgh during the heyday of the steel industry.

In better news, both have their place in the trite but true narrative of revitalizing urban cores. People are moving back to cities like Pittsburgh, shunning the traditional idea of the American Dream in favor of historic, walkable neighborhoods, and culture beyond the strip mall. It’s a new American Dream and Pittsburgh has excelled arguably better than any other city in the United States considering where it once was.

So what better way to celebrate this new American Dream than by traveling to Pittsburgh for the Fourth of July?

Next Stop, Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Point State Park

My wife Melanie and I came into Pittsburgh on the Greyhound — that beacon of mid-20th Century American travel.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.

Greyhound? Really? Was it safe? What were the people like on there?

First, how Greyhound got this reputation for being any more dangerous than driving a private vehicle is beyond me. Second, yes, I have actually been asked about the people who ride Greyhound. Guess what? They’re people. Human beings with a pulse. I’m honestly not sure what folks asking this question expect to find on board.

For us, it was a relaxing, stress-free option to arriving in Pittsburgh within walking distance of our hotel at the Renaissance Pittsburgh. Perched on the edge of downtown, this monument to early 20th Century American architecture looks over the Allegheny River, the Simpsons-colored Roberto Clemente Bridge, and PNC Park of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While my finely tuned architectural sensibilities could spend hours appreciating the historic nature of the old Fulton Building, inside and out, we had an appointment with Venture Outdoors at Golden Triangle Bike.

Bike Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Train

Did you know Pittsburgh has trains? I didn’t until I killed a night watching Russell Crowe’s The Next Three Days where Mr. Gladiator outruns the bad guys by ducking in and out of the Pittsburgh “T.”

Fortunately, we had the opportunity to warrant a ride on the T when heading over to Golden Triangle Bike, located just around the corner from the First Avenue Station. Even better? Rides within downtown are free.

Donna Bour, Director of Development and Communications at Venture Outdoors, met Melanie and me at Golden Triangle Bike where a number of riders had already been taking advantage of the sunny summer day. We were joined by Jennifer Brown, an urban cyclist and Venture Outdoors volunteer who regularly leads bike tours around the city.

Jennifer took the lead with Donna trailing in the back, leaving us Pittsburgh novices protected in the middle of our small pack. The Eliza Furnace Trial picks up right from the bike rental, though we quickly hopped on the Smithfield Street Bridge to pedal south over the Monongahela River to Station Square and along the edge of the river to more industrial corners of the city. This, now the South Side Riverfront Trail, runs right through South Side Riverfront Park with the occasional shade of forestry planted adjacent to the paved path. It surely makes for an interesting juxtaposition when in less than a mile you go from industrial decay to something that feels removed from the city.

Pittsburgh Skyline from Hot Metal Bridge

After a pit stop on the Hot Metal Street Bridge for Jennifer’s favorite view of the remarkable Pittsburgh skyline — her favorite because it’s lesser known, even to locals — we returned downtown to take advantage of the recently christened Penn Ave. protected bike lane. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has been at the forefront among American cities of promoting and implementing cycling infrastructure. Their mayor, Bill Peduto, actually cycles himself and has said he wants to “Copenhagenize” Pittsburgh, a reference to Copenhagen, Denmark — arguably the cycling capital of the world.

Indeed, I can say without hesitation that Pittsburgh instantly became a personal favorite for cycling.

Pittsburgh Drinks

Pittsburgh Maggie's Farm Rum

There were other things on our agenda besides cycling. To be honest, cycling was to an extent merely a means to an end. That end being getting our hands on some local booze.

First, it was a stop at the East End Brewing Company growler shop in the Strip District’s Pittsburgh Public Market. (Now closed, but their “Taproom in the Strip” opened June of 2016 in the same neighborhood.) Then it was further east into the more residential Lawrenceville for a stop at Roundabout Brewery at the edge of the Allegheny Cemetery. Well into the afternoon heat, it was standing room only here.

As if more booze were needed, Jennifer led us to a final stop at Maggie’s Farm, an independent distillery and the first of its kind in Pennsylvania since the American dark ages — Prohibition. While I admittedly know as much about good rum as I do astrophysics, I do know that I enjoy a well-crafted glass every now and again. Maggie’s Farm did not disappoint before sending us back to Golden Triangle Bike for the end of a 17-mile jaunt around the city.

Car-Free City

Pittsburgh Roberto Clemente Bridge Party

I won’t travel for football or basketball, but I will for the right baseball stadium. Pittsburgh, one can easily argue, has one of the best stadiums in major league baseball. It also just so happened that Cleveland was in town for a game, allowing us the full game day experience.

Before game time, however, we opted for a little walk north to West Park for a taste of urban greenery before turning back south to Point State Park where Independence Day and Three Rivers Regatta festivities were well underway. This meant large, happy crowds with musket weaponry demonstrations by costumed revolutionary soldiers and a little game of frisbee among a small pack of competing dogs.

So far, Pittsburgh was shaping up to be a preeminent car-free city in the United States.

Adding, or perhaps even cementing the argument, was the fact that Pittsburgh closes off to traffic on game day the iconic Roberto Clemente Bridge that leads right to the ballpark. This means people, bikes, food trucks, and small shops instead of a mess of 5,000-pound metal death machines blowing poison into your lungs. Why doesn’t every city do this?

Pittsburgh Market Square

Celebrations continued after the game over at Las Velas Mexican Restaurant on the pedestrianized Market Square, complete with live music and more happy faces. Suffice it to say Las Velas provided the sufficient, tasty calorie boost we needed to get back to Roberto Clemente Bridge for the night’s firework display.

Rust Belt Envy

Pittsburgh Monongahela Incline

Opting for the afternoon return to Cleveland, we decided to spend our morning with a ride up the Monongahela Incline up to Mount Washington. Besides the opportunity to walk around this historic Pittsburgh neighborhood, it’s also the place to go for those postcard shots of the Pittsburgh skyline. Though it’s never been a notably large city, Pittsburgh lucked out on geography that demands density, so you see less of the heinous sprawl here that plagues so many other corners of the country.

However, like so many other Rust Belt cities abandoned by the American Dream, Pittsburgh remains half its 1950’s peak size at 304,000. But when you actually visit Pittsburgh, you can’t help but wonder how they’re still losing people — even if, thankfully, at a much slower rate than at the zenith of suburban sprawl.

Pittsburgh is a wonderfully dynamic, cultural, and walkable city with what appears to be a progressive eye toward the future. Who wouldn’t want to live here? I certainly left envious.

Meantime, I’ll settle for visiting my Rust Belt sibling whenever I can and as much as possible. Lord knows I’ve only scratched the surface.

Disclaimer: This trip was supported in part by Visit Pittsburgh. As always, all opinions are my own.

In North America/ Outdoors

Dog Sledding and a Day on the Alaska Railroad

Read part one from Anchorage here.

Train travel is without question the most comfortable and sexiest form of long-distance travel.

Yes, sexiest.

Luckily for my travel preferences, this year just so happened to be the centennial celebration of the Alaska Railroad, launched in 1916 in time to fuel the gold rush. Today, it’s still a beauty of a rail line that travels between Fairbanks and Seward, a distance of 470 miles, with Denali National Park in between.

Riding the Alaskan Railroad

Stops are limited in the winter, but still well-worth the experience, especially if like me you’re going from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Though the train is mostly tourists and local skiers these days, it’s also popular with Alaskans who have built cabins off the road network. They’ll board, let the train engineer know which “whistle-stop” they need, and the train will come to a stop so they can hop off and start their trek to the cabin.

I saw the sun rise and set on that train, yet it hardly felt like a day went by over the nearly 12-hour ride. The experience was mesmerizing throughout (when I wasn’t busy napping off a Great Alaska hangover). I could’ve stared out the window for hours. In fact, I did. I never once got sick of those mountains, forests, and rivers. Who in their right mind could?

Luckily I had nothing else on my itinerary when arriving to Fairbanks, so I could collapse into bed.

Chena Hot Springs

I met Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks for breakfast before a mini-tour of the city and heading out to the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is what you do when you’re near Fairbanks. During the drive, we recorded a podcast and I learned that he’s also a standup comedian. He’s opened for the likes of Louis C.K. (before Lucky Louie) and Jim Gaffigan.

At the Chena Hot Springs Resort, we started off with the first trail we could find and hiked up as far as we could before our ill-equipped footwear could no longer handle the piles of snow. Still, it made for yet another breath of fresh Alaskan air.

Speaking of that air, it certainly is noticeably colder in Fairbanks. Whereas we had 20’s in Anchorage, Fairbanks floated between -10 and 0. Even that’s considered warm based on averages and the time of year. Again, climate change is the culprit. An earlier acquaintance said it best.

“I’ve lived here my whole life. Nobody can tell me something’s not going on.”

Back to the air, it’s cold. Damned cold. So cold, you can feel your snot freeze when inhaling through your nose. I found it to be a fascinating sensation. I guess what I’m saying is, your city isn’t that cold until you’ve been accustomed to your snot freezing over upon every breath.

Chena Hot Springs Resort in Alaska

The whole point of heading out to Chena is for the aurora borealis or northern lights. They also have an outdoor hot spring where guests will amuse themselves by briefly dipping their head underwater and coming out to freeze their hair in any number of silly stylings. There’s also an ice museum with an impressive array of ice sculptures housed year-round in a giant igloo. I happened to be the lone American tourist among a throng of Chinese tourists, who by the way, were loving every moment of the experience as evidenced by their constantly clicking cameras.

People tend to mock the Chinese tourist for traveling in their groups, wearing matching colors so nobody gets lost. But they clearly are enjoying themselves. We should be so lucky to ever experience life as a Chinese tourist.

Then, it was decision time. You see, catching the aurora borealis requires departing at some point around 9 p.m. into a military-style tank of a vehicle to go out into the middle of nowhere until approximately 2:30 a.m. Natural phenomenon aren’t really my thing. I enjoy experiences, not sitting and waiting. Many do enjoy waiting for that rare bird to fly out or for the sky to show a burst of green. If that’s you, fantastic. Go for it.

But it’s not me. And it’s especially not me when the aurora borealis forecasts (yep, they exist) say it’s unlikely to be visible that night. So, I opted to call it a night and instead headed back to Fairbanks early the next day for dog sledding. Lucky me, my gamble seemed to have paid off when the next morning I was told I hadn’t missed anything. Most say you need at least three days that far north to guarantee an aurora sighting, which I duly noted for future reference.

Dog Sledding

Black Spruce Dog Sledding in Alaska

I met with Jeff Deeter of Black Spruce Dog Sledding who Jerry described as one half of a “hip young couple.” I admit I didn’t know what to make of dog sledding. I’m not a rah-rah PETA type, but I do feel animals should be treated ethically. Were dog sledding dogs being treated ethically? I wondered.

I can’t speak for all dogs, but these dogs are assuredly in good hands.

After introducing me to some his dogs, Jeff began to assemble his team of eight for our ride. The males are stronger, but the females make for better leaders, so they generally should go in front, I learned.

“Just like in everyday life,” Jeff quipped.

The dogs could barely contain their excitement, barking and some even pounding on the ground with their paws like a bull ready to charge a matador. On Jeff’s call, the dogs went from a standstill to a healthy run.

Riding as a guest (i.e. not doing any of the work or directing) felt like an amusement park ride with the occasional hard bounce and sharp turn. Before long we settled into a nice trot as we meandered through the narrow trails in dense forest.

On cruise control, Jeff shared more of his dog sledding experiences, including riding with the temperature as low as -68. He’s also done the famous Iditarod and plans to again, but first will tackle the Yukon Quest next year, which many in the dog sledding business say is more difficult than its celebrity cousin. For those keeping score, the Yukon Quest is 1,000 miles between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon.

Dog gets ready to go dog sledding

Jeff has clearly come a long way since starting as a handler at a kennel in 2003. Now he’s running his own business and hopes to expand with other activities and welcoming guests to spend the night at the property. The trails would make an obvious match with cycling, cross-country skiing, and hiking on top of the night tours and dog sledding they already offer.

As promised, Jeff gave me an opportunity to stand on the skis and give this dog sledding thing a whirl. To start, I was instructed to keep my right foot on the drag between the skis. This would keep our pace relatively slow and easier to control as a beginner. Then on my call, we were off.

Again, slowly.

We moved so slow to start that the snow piled up to my shin as I put most of my bodyweight on the drag. Eventually, however, Jeff gave me the go-ahead to lay off the drag and stand on the skis. I have to say, it was a blast. I still prefer human-powered adventure, but I certainly left understanding the appeal of dog sledding. There’s something romantic about the idea of heading out into the unknown with a team of man’s best friend, and there’s a clear sense of camaraderie between Jeff and his dogs.

Not So Bad

I started my trek back home that night, knowing everyone’s first question would be some iteration of, “How cold was it!?”

For me, the cold was a non-issue. Personally, I’d rather bundle up than melt. You can only take off so many clothes before you’re breaking the law (with the exception of some progressive European beaches, I suppose).

So I bundled up and saw Alaska in a way most in the lower 48 never will. I cycled on a river, drank good beer, marveled at the snowy landscapes, felt my snot freeze over, and spent an afternoon hanging out with a field full of giddy pups.

Yeah, Alaska in the winter isn’t so bad.

Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska. As always, all opinions are my own.

In North America/ Outdoors

Traveling Around Anchorage, Alaska in the Winter

Everyone wants to go to Alaska. It’s certainly on the top of any North American’s travel wish list and is incredibly popular with Asian travelers, particularly from Japan, China and South Korea.

However, the 49th state is generally portrayed as a barren wasteland during the winter months when daylight is minimal to non-existent. Of course this perception is based on little more than assumptions. It’s north, ipso facto, it’s cold. But as I’ve found in my travels, assumptions are almost always a steaming pile of, to stick with the Alaskan theme, moose crap.

So, I purposely traveled to Alaska for a Matador Network story this past January to see what exactly one does in an Alaskan winter.

Anchorage

Alaska's Chugach Mountains

I had little idea of what to expect, my Alaskan knowledge based solely on a reading of One Man’s Wilderness, Richard Proenneke’s diary-turned travelogue on his 16 months building a cabin and surviving in the, as the name suggests, Alaskan wilderness. Oh, and I knew Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame died up there.

Unlike Proenneke, my Alaskan travels began in the city — Anchorage, the city most outsiders (Alaskan for residents of the lower 48) mistake for the capital (it’s Juneau). After my flight, gliding in over snow-capped mountains out of a coffee table book, I met with Jeanette of Visit Anchorage. Jeanette is the kind of person anyone wants to meet after a long flight with what felt like a motherly affection for all, even strangers such as myself.

Driving into Anchorage, Jeannete started giving a basic background on Alaska and her own upbringing in the state. To begin, she explained that people like her are native Alaskans whereas Alaskan Natives are those with indigenous roots, harboring a variety of cultural groups and languages. In fact, the local school system counts over 100 languages among its students, including Russian, Korean, and Japanese alongside English and Alaska Native languages.

One of the first things I noticed on that short drive into Anchorage was a bumper sticker protesting the controversial Pebble Mine. I would’ve known nothing of the controversy had I not just watched PBS Frontline’s piece on the matter. In short, it would have been the world’s largest mine causing unspeakable environmental damage by the estimation of most experts. For now, the project has been put on hold after losing its funding base, marking the rare win for indigenous and environmental groups in this world.

Anchorage, Alaska Town Square Park Ice Sculptures

Anchorage is tiny. You can walk it easily within 30 minutes, an hour if you stop to look at some things. One of those things to look at in the winter are the ice sculptures in Town Square Park, left behind by professionals of that craft following ice carving championships. Otherwise, given the cold, most aren’t toddling around. Others, however, are out running and cycling regardless of the temperature.

Now speaking of the temperature, it really isn’t that bad in Anchorage. It’s on the water, after all, making for comparatively warmer temperatures than cities more inland. I bundled up, sure, but I never felt uncomfortable walking around outside. In fact, I welcomed and enjoyed the brisk, fresh air, something I got plenty of when fat tire cycling the next morning.

Fat Tire Cycling

Fat Tire Cycling Alaska with Dan McDonough

Dan McDonough of Lifetime Adventures met me for an hour ride around Winner Creek. Granted said ride started late as I spent a solid 30 minutes layering up in the park restroom, grunting like a 300-pound man suffering from constipation as I sat on the toilet, sweating through feeble attempts to pull my skin-tight bike kit over my long johns.

Fat tire cycling was a thrill. It combined the aspects of mountain biking I enjoy, which is scenic cross-country cycling, with the ability to trudge over obstacles that would typically send me flying over my saddle.

Most novel of all was cycling on top of the frozen creek itself. Dan assured me we were perfectly safe, though we did eventually make a turn for dirt trail when the ice seemed oddly thin. Sadly (yet unsurprisingly), Anchorage and the whole of Alaska have been suffering from climate change, experiencing temperatures far warmer than typical for the season. Several locals shared that the prior year had been the warmest winter for Anchorage on record with this year’s shaping up to be the second warmest.

Fat tire cycling in Alaska

All told, we only covered two miles within our hour together, including time to stop for some photos of the surrounding mountains and snow-covered forests. But I learned that fat tire cycling in Alaska is something I would enjoy doing for hours at a time through the remote countryside. Dan, who has directed fat tire races such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational, assured me that I could come back and shuffle across the landscape from cabin to cabin.

It struck me as a romantic notion, being alone in the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but my bike and panniers full of clothes and supplies. Romantic, so long as I don’t get myself eaten by a bear a la the Grizzly Man.

Alyeska

Hiking at the Alyeska Resort in Alaska

With a morning of fat tire cycling under my belt, I meandered through the rest of my day with stops at the Anchorage Museum and Anchorage Distillery. In between, I caught a cloudy sunset over the Chugach Mountains that dominated the Anchorage skyline.

The next morning I got a taste of a local breakfast favorite with the Snow City Café. All I recall is seeing a breakfast option combining chorizo and eggs, so I was happy. Then, it was off to Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood for some snow-shoeing.

Unfortunately, thanks to the aforementioned climate change, the snow hadn’t really accumulated enough to warrant snow-shoes on the trail. Instead, the dirt trails had been iced over, forcing my hiking companion Shannon and I to skid along the trails rather than hike. Nothing makes a human look more unathletic and uncoordinated than catching oneself from slipping on ice. Arms flail, eyes bulge, breaths are held, and legs go in opposite directions. I lost track of how many times I almost completed a Looney Tunes-style wipeout before finally reaching a snow-covered portion where firmer footing was possible. On the return, we opted to cut up the side rather than risk sliding down the trail.

Ice aside, it was nice for this city guy to get back-to-back retreats into the woods.

Alaskan Beer

Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival

That night, it was time for something truly only available in the winter when traveling to Alaska. I’m talking of course about the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.

The festival was conveniently located right in downtown Anchorage with my hotel crawling distance away. I forget how many beer tickets came with admission, but I know it was enough to put any reasonable liver in the hospital.

What can I say? I love a good beer fest. This was a good beer fest with drinkers excited to support local beers of the Alaskan variety. It’s not that guest beers were ignored, but the Alaskan half of the venue resembled something of a popular rock concert. I had a blast, complete with traditional German singing and lederhosen (watch the end of the video).

Suffice it to say, I was sufficiently put on my ass and into bed for an early wakeup call to catch the Alaska Railroad up to Fairbanks.

Part two in Fairbanks.

Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska. As always, all opinions are my own.

2 In North America/ Travel

Traveling Arizona Reveals Two Very Different Sides

Arizona

I landed at Phoenix’s SkyHarbor airport straight from Belgium. If you want a jarring juxtaposition of American life versus European, fly straight from a city with roots in the Middle Ages to a state just finished celebrating their centennial. The differences are unavoidable, stabbing you in the eyes with every turn.

First, I’m picked up because the light rail goes to Tempe and I need to get to Scottsdale. Then you roll onto massive highways. I’m talking as many as seven lanes in one direction whereas Brussels, essentially the capital of Europe, seemed to limit themselves to three lanes on their highway.

SUVs and trucks fly by at speeds in excess of 80mph like they’re on the run from Johnny Law. Except here, 75mph is usually perfectly legal and 80-85mph is accepted.

Point is if anyone wanted to prove that Americans like things bigger, they need only to point to Greater Phoenix. Like Dallas, everything is super-sized to twice the amount an average American probably needs.

Loud

Hungry after crossing an ocean and most of another continent, we stopped at the first appetizing place we could find in Old Town Scottsdale — basically a downtown-type environment. But again, this “downtown” is split by a road four to five lanes wide. Strange even for me coming out of Cleveland. Simply put, you generally shouldn’t have to get a First Down to cross a city street.

Anywho, back to the food, which continued my European-American culture shock.

We headed into RnR Restaurant and Bar. And Holy raging Hell, was it loud. To be fair, the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship was on and apparently, there were people who cared — a lot — about teams from Connecticut and Kentucky. This being a transplant town, that’s not entirely surprising.

The food was good based on my hazy recollection of, “Did I eat it or not?” It was probably close to 9 p.m. locally at this point, meaning 6 a.m. in Kortrijk where I had just gotten used to the time zone. Suffice it to say, I needed a bed — STAT.

Next up, Flagstaff.

“Awesome”

I’ve wanted to go to Flagstaff for quite some time even though my knowledge was limited to my brother saying he liked it years ago during a college backpacking trip. Unfortunately getting to Flagstaff inevitably involves renting a car. Or I guess hitchhiking. You’ll see a decent amount of thumbs up along the way.

Transportation seems limited in Phoenix beyond driving, though there is talk of light rail to Tucson. So that’s something. But I want a stress-free trip to Flagstaff. And there’s nothing stress-free about crisscrossing five to seven lanes through Phoenix alongside cars that look like they grew out of the same stuff that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Plus there’s that pesky speed limit drivers seem to think is optional.

Alas, the negativity ends there. Because Flagstaff is, in a word, awesome.

My first taste of Flagstaff came in the form of a hike around Walnut Canyon National Park. Five bucks gets you onto the Island Trail, which is basically the point of visiting Walnut Canyon as it takes you 185-feet below into ancient Native American cliff dwellings. You can almost imagine when the area was a full-fledged community with kids running around, living as humans did for centuries around here before Europeans showed up.

The trek is just over a mile round-trip with plenty of guardrails for those not so keen on heights. When you’re done, you’re just about 12 miles away from Flagstaff where you know you can enjoy yourself for the rest of the day without having to drive again.

Walkable and Historic

On my shuttle from the hotel to Downtown Flagstaff, I’m immediately reminded of Boulder, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina with the presence of college students, cyclists, and mountains on the horizon. Something they also have in common is a respectable craft beer scene, which was why I came to town.

I started off at Diablo Burger for lunch with Joanne, who works for the local tourism bureau. She gives me the rundown on the Flagstaff Ale Trail — the story I came to cover — while we chow down on damn fine eats.

Joanne walks me through life in Flagstaff. She says they get all four seasons. Not that I doubt her, but the beaming sun and nearly 70-degree temperature was hardly the spring I had been experiencing back home. Perhaps that just means Cleveland gets something more like eight seasons — an awful version of each followed by an okay-to-good version.

Flagstaff reminded me more of what I had come from in Belgium. Very walkable, historic downtown. Preservation clearly matters here. The streets are narrow, so cyclists can feel safe from cowboy motorists speeding through. At the end of the day, it was hard to believe Flagstaff and Phoenix are in the same state.

Of course, once you leave the heart of Flagstaff, America still happens. Wide roads, gas stations, drug stores, and fast food are plentiful. But there’s an easy answer to that — just stay in Downtown Flagstaff.

After lunch, Joanne left me to explore and meet with brewers from Mother Road, Lumberyard, and Flagstaff Brewing — all members of the Flagstaff Ale Trail. The reason I was interested in the story, in part, was because I liked the idea of breweries marketing themselves together and being within walking distance, as one would expect with a “trail.” But that story will go up later at CraftBeer.com.

The similarities between Flagstaff, Boulder, and Asheville only continued while chatting with the brewers. All are proud of their hometown (or adopted hometown) and are dedicated to making Flagstaff a well-known beer town. Hell, it already is if you ask them. And after visiting, I certainly wouldn’t argue.

What I particularly liked about Mother Road and Lumberyard — besides the suds, obviously — is that their respective buildings are reuse projects. Mother Road’s chipped, gritty exterior certainly looks like it’s seen a few decades, and you can guess what Lumberyard used to be.

Michael at Mother Road tells me they specifically opened on the south side of the train tracks to help continue Downtown’s growth. Based on my walk around the area, it’s working. And once frequent train travel inevitably returns, Flagstaff’s scenic, Dutch-looking Amtrak station is going to be one of the most popular rail hubs in the country.

Well done, Flagstaff. I can’t wait to get back.

Is This Mars?

Still not adjusted to the nine-hour time difference between Arizona and Belgium, I rolled out of bed around 5 to 5:30 a.m. No problem. Just more time to get a big breakfast in before a big hike.

I met Robin of Oak Creek Brewery down in Sedona to work out a carpool to the morning’s hike. Robin thought a hike in Coconino National Forest would be more interesting than yet another tour of a brewery. Not that I don’t appreciate the tours, but between the tanks and sweaty gals and dudes mixing ingredients, they all blend together at a certain point.

We started on the Jordan Trail, just north of Uptown Sedona, hiking toward a sinkhole known as Devil’s Kitchen. It’s an apt name, considering this landscape looks like Hell to a Midwestern. Except, of course, without the eternal torment. Hiking Sedona is actually pretty damn enjoyable.

From Devil’s Kitchen, we continued along Martian-esque red rock to Soldier’s Pass, Seven Sacred Pools, and on up to Brins Mesa, which led to a side trail with the reward of Native American ruins and petroglyphs. Sketches of animals, humans, and what we’re guessing are time-telling markings lined the walls around the ancient homes.

Short for time, we hustled back to the Brins Mesa trail, passing through an area where a wildfire clearly wreaked havoc on the landscape. Burnt out trees stood in the foreground of the sunny Red Rock Wilderness like a beached whale in the Caribbean.

After a jog back to the trailhead, we hightailed it back into town for lunch and beer at Old Creek Brewery — also, curiously, a member of the Flagstaff Ale Trail. But again, more on that later at CraftBeer.com.

Granted my stay in the city of Sedona was limited to a quick lunch and beer, but you can quickly tell this is a tourist town. 70 and 80-year-olds were everywhere, shuffling out of their cars wearing short khakis and a polo as if a senior citizens committee planed some sort of fashion coordination. I almost expected them to break out into dance, like one of those mall flash mobs.

Alas, no dancing was to be had. Now back to Scottsdale.

“Screw You, Kid”

The remainder of my stay was spent generally wandering around the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. Highlights include hiking Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail and generally stuffing my face with good food.

Everyone who lives or has been to Phoenix says “you gotta hike Camelback.” You see it pretty consistently in the horizon, a giant lump that resembles some sort of animal’s back. The name escapes me.

Cholla is 1.6 miles each way with a majority of the climb well-marked along fairly easy desert trail that ascends over 1,000 feet. Toward the summit, you come what almost looks like a man-made platform for sightseeing. Many significant others have smooched here underneath an Arizona sunset, I’m guessing.

Signage from this point on is a bit less ubiquitous. It seems you can continue. After all, there’s more mountain to be climbed. And whereas the trail thus far had been pretty easy for a decent hiker, now you’re crawling up the mountain with your hands, embracing the animal within. Unless, of course, you’re one of the local 10-year-olds with absolutely no concept of danger, running up and down the rocky ridges like a staircase to the Christmas tree.

Eventually, I lost track of where to go. The wind had picked up and the ledges were looking awfully steep for someone who does have a firm grasp on the concept of danger. I decided my fiancée would prefer me walking down the aisle in a few months and not hobbling or being wheeled in on a casket, so I turned back to play it safe. Of course, as soon as I head down, I see a father with two young boys further ahead than when I turned back, easily making their way around.

“Screw you, kid. You should be terrified like a normal person!”

My ego dinged a bit, it was time to replenish with some good eats.

The Disappearing Enchilada

Two places whose food you must consume if you ever find yourself in Scottsdale — U.S. Egg and Barrio Queen. The former is a simple breakfast joint with damn fine skillets and their secret weapon, protein pancakes. Filled with wild Maine blueberries, granola, cinnamon and almonds, U.S. Egg simply nails pancakes. None of that gooey fruit syrup crap you’ll find at IHOP.

But assuming you’re hiking in the evening hours, you’ll need something filling to replenish all those calories you just burnt climbing up a freakin’ mountain. That’s where Barrio Queen comes into play.

Nestled into walkable Old Town Scottsdale, Barrio Queen is authentic Mexican food right down to the “Día De Los Muertos” theme of the restaurant. I went with the Suiza Enchilada, featuring hand-pressed corn tortillas filled with pulled chicken and quesillo cheese, topped with diced onion, cilantro, crema fresca, and my personal favorite, chorizo. And let me tell ya, I made that enchilada disappear like Penn & Teller.

“Monument To Man’s Arrogance”

At the end of it all, I come back to this question.

Should this place exist?

The Phoenix metro is home to just 4 million people who live on borrowed water. After all, this is the desert. I’m reminded of an anecdote Robin shared while hiking. She told me that historically a Native American civilization did exist in the region centuries ago, well before European settlers.

So why did they leave? Because it was unsustainable.

Anyone visiting or living in the area has to ask themselves the same question. Is this place sustainable? Should 4 million people be living in the desert without natural access to water? And should those people be watering lawns and golf courses simply because those were the things they actually liked about their Midwestern homes?

Whatever you believe, it’s hard to argue that there’s a battle between man and nature going on in the desert. And it seems to me, nature has and always will win.

Featured image courtesy of Ken Cheung at Unsplash