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Go Go Go Recommends…

[A second installment of our recommendations, because we are all too busy recuperating from Thanksgiving to write something else.]

Norway, because of Ylvis, Sondre Lerche, the fjords, and Pulpit Rock. No wonder it’s the second happiest country in the world.

Musk Ox vs. Wolves. Nature, man. It’s amazing.

Spending days creating a meal for your friends and family that is eaten in about 15 minutes and then spending the next few days feeling so lazy because you ate too much.

 

“They’re feeding the gator right now”: Mississippi Museum of Natural Science

[Today we bring you another installment of Mary Kate and Ray's grand southern honeymoon tour. Today: Mississippi.]

We snagged some waffles at the Waffle House and drove the next three hours to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. We walked in, and the lady at the counter immediately said, “There’s a reptile exhibit downstairs and they’re feeding the gator right now if you’d like to watch.” I pretty much jumped off the second floor to see that.

They had a dwarf alligator and the handler was throwing fish heads into the enclosure in front of a large crowd of children. We walked around the rest of the exhibit seeing venomous snakes, cool lizards, and a big ol’ python. A mother was showing her little toddler the giant twenty-foot snake when it came right up in front of the kid and rose up to stare at her eye to eye. The kid backed away a little bit, and I heard one of the guides behind me say, “She’s about the size of the rabbits we feed him.” Then, as we walked through the aquarium wing where they had tons of river fish, the guide appeared again suddenly and told us to be sure to see the two-headed snake. Duh I want to see the two-headed snake.

snakes

I then proceeded to show off my knowledge of freak animal statistics and the guide asked if I was a biologist, to which I replied, “No. Just a sideshow aficionado.”

The turtles were my favorite though. This dude was huge and super ugly in an awesome way.

turtle

And finally, a cool gecko dude saw us out.

gecko

 

The Dragons of Southern Illinois

[Ed. note: We are pleased to offer the first of a short series we're borrowing from friend-of-Go-Go-Go Mary Kate Rix. Mary Kate and her brand-spankin'-new husband Ray are on their honeymoon, and she's blogging their roadtrip adventures. You can check out the original story from which this is excerpted here.]

After a bit of a late start, we headed straight for the Kaskaskia Dragon [in Vandalia, Illinois, and you guys, it BREATHES ACTUAL FIRE], which ended up being right across the street from the drive-thru liquor store and was totally cool, despite Ray’s comments from the peanut gallery.

MK Dragon

Then we hopped over to the Dungeons and Dragons park, which was way cooler than expected. It’s off a tiny little road and fenced in so it’s kind of hard to spot, but once we were in we were pretty impressed. The park was built as a memorial to a teenage boy who passed away in a car accident in that spot by his father because the son was very much into playing the game. The park is entirely run off donations.

DungeonDragon

There are all sorts of cool statues standing about, a giant dragon and wizards. Totally up my alley.

wizards

Then, on the side there’s a huge castle that we ran around in. It’s meant for kids so there were a few hidden spots we couldn’t quite reach, but it was really impressive.

castle

 

Breaking Into Acadia National Park

[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]

When my boyfriend and I set off for Acadia National Park in Maine during the government shutdown, we had no way of knowing that such a disruptive event could make for such an amazing vacation, but that’s exactly what happened.

We had read some articles that made it sound like people were hiking in the park despite the shutdown, but we were still skeptical and were fully prepared to come up with a plan B if push came to shove. Much to our delight, upon checking in at Aysgarth Station, our lovely B&B in Bar Harbor, the host informed us that not only were people hiking in the park, the rangers were truly looking the other way—as long as you weren’t committing any flagrant violations. With this assurance and some excellent trail recommendations from the host, we set off to break into Acadia.

”Breaking in” might be a bit of an exaggeration. We parked on the side of the road outside one of the many entrances along with about 20 other cars and then proceeded to simply walk around the sawhorse barriers. Voila! We were in. There were no cars inside the park since the normally clogged Park Loop Road was off limits. This meant that hikers and bicyclists had the run of the place—truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Photo 1

Deserted Park Loop Road

We hiked the breathtaking Ocean Path first, which hugs the coastline along the Loop Road and opens up to numerous stunning views. There were a fair number of people here, which made us think the park would have been packed under normal circumstances. At one point, however, we were by ourselves on a side road, and a ranger suddenly appeared out of nowhere in an SUV. I thought, “This is it. We’re going to jail.” My boyfriend thought, “Maybe this ranger can help me open this dumb wrapper on my Clif bar.” Nothing. He drove by without so much as a glance in our direction.

Eventually we split off onto the Gorham Mountain trail and left most of the people behind. The trail wended its way up the mountain across flat boulders dotted with dwarf conifers and bushes. We opted to take a detour through the Cadillac Cliffs, which our guidebook described as a moderate hike. We quickly discovered that “hike” was a misnomer and “scramble” was more accurate. There was no trail to speak of, just giant rocks we had to climb over in a generally upward direction. We saw no one here or on the rest of the Gorham trail as we ascended the mountain and only encountered a few people at the top. The view of neighboring mountains, fall foliage, and the ocean was stunning enough to make anyone want to linger.

Photo 2

The view from the top of Gorham Mountain

Late in the afternoon, we drove to a different section of the park to get to Jordan Pond, one of the most picturesque trails there. The trailhead would normally have been accessible by car, but because of the shutdown, we had to park about a mile away in a quaint neighborhood and then walk in to access the trail. A small price to pay given that we basically had the place to ourselves. There were a few people near the start, but most of them didn’t continue onto the trail itself. By the time we started hiking around the 3.3 mile loop, we were alone. The sun was going down, so the trees on the opposite shore were ablaze with color. The water was absolutely still, providing a perfect reflection of the trees, and later, the rising moon. We stopped at one point so my boyfriend could set up a shot with his tripod, and it occurred to me that I had never experienced that kind of silence in my life. There wasn’t a single sound: no water lapping, no birds chirping, no leaves rustling, nothing. Just absolute and unforgettable stillness.

Photo 3

Jordan Pond

The following day we decided to hike up Cadillac Mountain via the south face—one of the most popular trails in the park. We passed some slow-moving German hikers at the beginning but saw no one else for the first couple of hours. Eventually, an older couple from Boston caught up to us. The wife commented that this trail is usually like “Grand Central Station,” so it was a great one to be doing during the shutdown. The reason for the trail’s popularity is clear: amazing unencumbered views once the trail leaves the woods and continues onto flat boulders that make the area seem a bit otherworldly.

Photo 4

Hiking up Cadillac Mountain

At the summit, there’s a large parking lot that’s normally filled to capacity with cars and tour buses that access the top via the Loop Road. That day it was completely empty. Rather than the usual hundreds, there were maybe 20 people at the top. We saw more people on the descent and ran into the couple from Boston again near the end of the trail. The wife seemed to be lingering as her husband continued on ahead. As we passed, she said, “I’m trying to make this last as long as possible, because once we get in the car we have to drive home.” We knew exactly how she felt.

Joshua Tree: A Honeymoon for the Poor and Weird (Part 2)

[Hayley and Scott Rockit are poor, weird, and married. They do art stuff in Chicago and are parents to a dingo and have super cool hair. Yesterday they were telling us about how to get to the Joshua Tree area and where to stay. Today the adventure continues...]

5) Eat at Pappy and Harriet’s.

This place used to be a burrito bar for bikers in the ’60s. Then the kids inherited it and turned it into a honky-tonk bar/BBQ place. Gram Parsons used to frequent the joint before he died and got kidnapped (yes, in that order for folks who don’t know what I’m talking about). The food is amazing. Hell, I’ll use a word I hate–it is amazeballs. I am still dreaming of their salsa. If you like meat, and like it smokey and flavorful, this is your place. If you like veggies, you will also have an excellent meal (I originally wrote “you will also have excellent meat” in the finest of Freudian slips). They also have both kinds of music: country and western. While I’m not a big fan of the genre, the musicians who play here are good. Really good. Like, even their open mic night was amazing (and I hate open mic nights). If Gram Rabbit (the official band of Joshua Tree) is playing while you’re in town, drop everything and see them. Gram Rabbit is the band that leaves these amazing/bizarre little rabbit/pentagram signs all over the highway in that area. Keep an eye out for ‘em.

If you go there during the day, I suggest you nose around Pioneer Town, right next door. It was a permanent set built for all the western TV shows of the ’50s. Take pictures–your dad will think it’s great.

6) Integratron and Giant Rock

Whether you’re at all familiar with American UFO lore or have just always liked odd things, you’ll definitely want to check out two of the weirdest extraterrestrial-esque sites in California, if not the world: the Integratron and Giant Rock.

Before I explain what to expect from these sites, I’d like you to follow me back in time, to that golden age of weird, and allow me to introduce you to an inspired character named George Van Tassel.

George Van Tassel, of the Ohio Van Tassels, moved to California around 1930 to work as an aircraft mechanic. While he was there, he met Frank Citzer, a German prospector who lived under a giant rock. I’m not making this up. It’s a rock so big, it’s just called “Giant Rock.”

Now, Citzer was determined to find gold in the bizarre piles of boulders that pass for hills in the area, and to this end he’d carved out a little house beneath Giant Rock. Why, you might ask, would someone intentionally live beneath what looks like a menacing oversized prop from a Roadrunner cartoon? Well, the answer to that is the answer to a lot of similar questions from the 20th century: Germans be crazy.

Citzer’s time living beneath this ridiculous affront to all decently sized boulders came to an abrupt end during the Second World War when, suspicious he was a German spy,  policemen clumsily raided his crappy boulder-house and somehow managed to set off a pile of dynamite in the process–yes, he didn’t just sleep underneath a hundred tons of boulder, he slept next to a bunch of dynamite–and that was the end of Herr Frank. Upon hearing the sad news, Van Tassel, admirer of the living-beneath-seven-stories-of-doom lifestyle, snatched the place up and moved his bewildered family into the multiroom hovel Frank had burrowed out beneath the thing.

He proceeded to give his newfound home the standard folksy improvements of the era, such as a dude ranch and an airstrip, and in 1953 engaged in the usual mid-century family pastimes of holding group meditations in an underground chamber to contact Venus.

Venusians, it is said, proceeded to pay him a visit. They took him aboard their spaceship and instructed him in the construction of a fabulous structure, one which would heal people and facilitate time travel and gravity research and all that kind of thing–the legendary Integratron. It was made mostly of wood and financed with UFO conventions at Giant Rock and donations from Howard Hughes (yes, that Howard Hughes). Finally, as you’ve probably guessed, a bit of Tesla technology was thrown in, as was the custom at the time.

Today, the Integratron’s current owners don’t confirm or deny that it allows contact with Venus or anything like that. Instead, they claim it uses sound waves and crystals, in “sound baths”, to calm and soothe people, which in this author’s opinion is a waste of perfectly good Venusian-inspired Teslatronic superscience, but whatever. If you visit their website, you can arrange for a paid appointment to get into the thing or find the next date for an open group visit. When we went, it was closed (it usually is), so we had to content ourselves with missing out on the “sound bath” and have remained sonic-ly filthy to this day.

Even when it’s not open for a visit, you can still get pretty close to it… but not too close. As I now assume to be typical of Venusian architecture, there’s menacing fences and No Trespassing signs all around the property. However, you can get right next to the giant historic-places plaque on the corner (pretty cool!), and you can also get some pretty good pictures from the road. While I can’t describe the experiences offered within, I can tell you that if you’re a paranormal history buff, just seeing it in person is kind of a thrill. I mean, it’s the freakin’ Integratron!

From the Integratron site, you can proceed to Giant Rock… if you dare. It’s actually not far, but to get to Giant Rock from the Integratron you’ll have to take some truly questionable roads. These roads have names and are on Google Maps, but they are otherwise almost invisible. We honestly depended more on Google Maps than our eyes for navigation.

NOTE: You WILL need a very sturdy vehicle for this. I cannot stress this enough. Hayley has already advised a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle for the area in general, but to get to Giant Rock, this is not simply a suggestion. It’s brutal.

We made it there eventually, and wow. It’s the largest free-standing boulder on Earth, and once you get up next to it, you’ll believe that factoid without hesitation. At this point in history, it’s become covered in graffiti and surrounded in a pile of broken glass and other debris–desert rats have parties there, rock-climbers and campers hang out there, Venusian scum have scandalous space-raves there. It’s kind of a mess, but when you stand back and see the rock itself, it’s just surreal and totally worth the trip.

PHOTO 3

Oh, and another thing: a giant slice of the rock spontaneously split off in the early 2000s, supposedly while some hikers stood and watched and presumably pooped themselves. Somehow, this makes it look even cooler. You can walk between the main rock and the piece that split off, and it’s pretty hairy, because there’s just a million pounds of immense boulder all around you–and who knows, it could split again…

7)  Cabazon Dinosaurs

So, you’ve seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, right? [Ed. note: Erm...] If you haven’t, I don’t want you here anymore. Please leave this website until you’ve watched this fine film.

Anyway, remember the part where Pee-Wee and the waitress are sitting in a fake dinosaur’s mouth and she talks about how she wants to go to Paris. THOSE DINOSAURS ARE REAL. They’re only an hour away from Joshua Tree, and I thought they were worth it. Built in the ’70s by a man who wanted to attract tourists to his truck stop, the land (and dinos) were sold to Young Earth creationists (I s**t you not) some time in the early 2000s.  If you are a creationist (Young Earth or otherwise), you might want to avert your eyes for the rest of this article.

The Brontosaurus is closed and seems to be permanently so (it might have some structural issues or some “not in line with their half-assed beliefs” issues, since I heard the original owner had some amazing, evolution-based murals in there). The T-Rex is still open, though you have to walk through the “dinosaur garden” to get there.

The first stop is the gift shop/parade of crappy animatronics. Apparently some dino-show that paraded through U.S. malls in the 1980s went out of business, and these guys snapped up all the leftovers. Please enjoy this video to give you an impression of the “quality” of these animatronics.

Did I mention this was now run by creationists? Everywhere you turn you see the phrase “not by accident, but by design,” and really questionable logic is thrown at you throughout.

the mighty derpasaurus rex

the mighty derpasaurus rex

They’re not only illogical; they’re cheap. They bought a bunch of old posters about the prehistoric eras and then just lazily scratched out the parts that didn’t apply to their version of history:

An upright citizen has brought the truth to light.

An upright citizen has brought the truth to light.

It is worth it, though, because there is just something marvelous about that original, handmade roadside Tyrannosaurs. Sitting in the T-Rex’s mouth is awesome. And kind of terrifying when the wind is whipping through those teeth.

I am posing for my life.

I am posing for my life.

9) Watch out for Art.

Joshua Tree is delightfully infested with old hippy outsider-art types, which the husband and I find grand. Every once in a while you’ll be driving along and then suddenly pass an epic art installation on somebody’s front yard. They go from beautiful to fascinating to terrifying to wtf. There’s a few of them over by the residential part of Pioneer Town. It is for sure worth a look-see.

PHOTO 7

10) Joshua Tree National Park

We didn’t go. I hear it is lovely and the reason most people go to this area in the first place. Go and hike and tell us about it.

We were clearly busy with other things.

We were clearly busy with other things.

Joshua Tree: A Honeymoon for the Poor and Weird (Part 1)

[Hayley and Scott Rockit are poor, weird, and married. They do art stuff in Chicago and are parents to a dingo and have super cool hair.]

Scott and I were determined on one point: we could not go back to our jobs the Monday after our epic wedding. [Ed. note: It was epic.] The thought was too depressing to consider. We wanted to go to Europe–perhaps a few weeks split between England and France. Then we remembered that we’re a couple of those artsy-fartsy types and are therefore irregularly and questionably employed. So travel abroad was out. Then, one night my amazing fiance remembered a place we had always wanted to go. He reasoned that our honeymoon might be the perfect time to go to Hicksville.

Some background information: I have been listening to Devil’s Night Radio (an online radio station) since 2008, when my friend and roommate Leah turned me on to it. It has a near perfect mix of music if you’re, well, Scott or me. The owner of Devil’s Night, Morgan Higby Night, is a filmmaker, lover of music, and seemingly all around cool guy. He also has a deep love of the desert and trailer parks, so accordingly created Hicksville Trailer Palace in Joshua Tree, California. Originally an artist’s retreat, he opened it to the general public a few years ago. Scott and I have been ogling the online photos of the over the over-the-top trailers since. It was a done deal.

We had a wonderful time at Hicksville and the Joshua Tree area and now have some suggestions to offer folks.

1) Vegas is almost always cheaper to fly into than LA.

It is either two and a half hours from LA (through LA traffic, which is not delightful) or three and a half hours from Vegas. Save some money. Fly to Sin City, play a slot, and get out of town. Just land there early enough where you’re not driving through unfamiliar desert at night.

2) Rent an SUV-type vehicle. 

First of all, if you’re going out into the desert, you’re going to need a car. It isn’t quite the middle of nowhere, but it is next door to the middle of nowhere. We saw some bus lines, but they seemed few and far between. Some of the really cool places you want to check out will involve “roads” that are just areas of sand plowed flat for cars to drive on. The desert is a shifty beast, and it is always looking to take back what’s hers, which might lead to some bumpy times. For the first time in our lives, a four-wheel drive utility vehicle was justified. A Rav will probably give you the traction you need without feeling like you’re driving a tank or guzzling up half of Venezuela’s resources.

That is a "road" behind me. Somewhere.

That is a “road” behind me. Somewhere.

3) The interstate is for losers.

Have an adventure, ya jerk. Go through the Mojave National Preserve. As somebody born and raised in Chicago, I’m used to some very flat terrain (Illinois, I love you, but you are the most boring), so the mountains just blew me away. Also, as somebody who enjoys driving, I found the ride VERY fun but never scary. If you break down, you probably won’t have to wait long for help, but it still felt pretty empty out there, car-wise. Watch out for tortoises crossing the road–they’re not very good at getting out of the way. There aren’t very many places to stop, so pee before you hit the road and bring some snacks. We got our directions here. (I realize that getting directions from a five-year-old website might be a little questionable, but we can confirm that these are still accurate.)

4) Stay at Hicksville.

Seriously. This place makes me spring a million (metaphorical) boners. If you are in a band, you can record music here. If you’re a filmmaker, you can edit your film here. If you’re just a cool kid, you can just hang out here for a few days with your friends floating in the pool, sitting around the campfire, and shooting bows and arrows.

Scott is not good at bows and arrows.

Scott is not so good at bows and arrows.

The owner and the property managers are super nice. The accommodations are clean and comfortable and unlike any other room you’ll sleep in. The music on the jukebox that plays on the property (for free) is so very excellent. The hot tub is so warm and amazing and, yes, clean. It was a joy to just soak in it during a dark desert night and stare at the stars. If you end up in one of the trailers that doesn’t have a personal bathroom, do not worry: the public one was immaculate.  

It seems to have some sort of jerk-deterrent device, because everybody we ran into there was really nice and personable. We even met Exene Cervenka from the seminal punk band X (she was recording some music in the studio that’s on property). One of the best parts is, nobody knows where you are. They don’t give you the directions until the day before you get there. It is so quiet out there, and, if you’ve ever gotten married, you’ll know that quiet is appreciated after all that hoopla.

Finally, despite warnings, we never saw any snakes or scorpions. I was happy about this.

[The adventure continues on Thursday with things to see and do and eat!]

Skiing in Norway: When You Know Nothing, There Is a Lot to Learn

Edge of run Hemsedal

[Ed. note: Our writer today is British. Translate all references as necessary, Yank-centric readership.]

OK, we’ve only just met, but I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t even know that there were ski resorts in Norway. In fact, the words skiing and Norway had never cropped up in the same sentence. My only knowledge of the country was that they used to have Vikings, so it was with a sense of adventure that I booked a trip there.

The only problem was that after booking I didn’t bother to do any research. Every time I fired up the laptop to research my destination, I got distracted. Instead I ended up trawling YouTube for cat videos. So when I landed in Norway my expectations were nonexistent. And when you know nothing, there is a lot to learn, including:

Cross-country skiing is a big deal.

In Europe, if you say that you want to spend the day cross-country skiing you’d be called a chicken. You would slide toward the course with the sound of clucking ringing in your ears. Not in Norway. It’s not because they are more mature or civilized but because cross-country skiing is their national sport. Where we would have footballers [Ed. note: Remember the first Ed. note?] or basketball players on our cereal boxes, they have skiers. Cross-country skiing is no joke for them.

Lift queues don’t exist.

Being British, queues have come to be a part of my national identity. We pride ourselves on our ability to queue and then complain about the fact we have to. Without doing either, I was a bit lost. With an unnerving sense that I was cheating, I would just hop on the lifts. Toward the end of the week, I managed to adapt. The problem was, I didn’t ever want to go back to the long snaking lines of the Alps. I didn’t even want to face the twenty-minute queue for my morning caffeine fix.

Hemsedal lodge

It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be.

My only knowledge of Scandinavia (except for that they have Vikings) is that they have short daylight hours. So I was expecting to get up at the crack of dawn, flying about the mountains trying to cram in run after run. But it wasn’t like that at all. The daylight hours were like that of the United Kingdom, and unless you count overcast as being dark, then it was pretty light.

Scandinavians are seriously laidback.

Think how laidback people in the Caribbean are, then multiple that by 100 and you will have the Scandinavians. They are as cool as the air they breathe, and with a winter season that last approximately six months, that is pretty cool. That type of demeanor can’t help but rub off; I started the week wound like a ticking clock and finished as loose as a toddler’s shoelace.

The Norwegians invented skiing.

It is probably one of the reasons that I enjoyed my trip so much. Skiing is part of their history, and because of that it has become a huge part of their culture. Their passion and love for all things ski-related is unrivaled. It is probably one of the reasons why they are the leading county for spending money on ski equipment. If someone loves something as much as you do, then you will always feel at home.

So there are just a few of the things that I learned from my trip skiing in Norway with Crystal Ski. The most important thing is that Norway is more than the sum of its parts. With its rolling hills, rustic villages, and welcoming people, it is a Mecca for escaping commercial ski resorts. It taught me that taking a chance on the unknown is never a bad thing.

[Martin Nolan is never more at home than when he is up a mountain. Spending his winters at altitude and his summer on sand, he loves to talk about all things travel and travel related.]