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Photo Log: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

Yeah, I know. “36 hours in…” is the NY Times format. But we really did have just 36 hours in Pittsburgh, so let’s just call it an homage, shall we?

This trip came about when we decided to spend my 35th birthday at a Steelers preseason game. We took off from Chicago on Friday after work and headed east, across Indiana and Ohio and into the hills of Pennsylvania, arriving late.

Saturday, we started early to beat the hungry masses to Pamela’s Diner, famous for their crepe-style hotcakes: crispy, buttery edges, soft in the middle, and filled with your choice of fruit and whipped cream.

The Strip isn’t really what it sounds like. Rather, it’s a congested strip along Penn Ave packed with old Pittsburgh character in the form of eclectic shopping, cafes, grocers, farm stands, and bootleg Steelers fan gear.

I bought a Terrible Towel for $8, after checking to make sure “Terrible” was spelled correctly. (Once I got to the stadium I found they sold way nicer ones for $10, but mine has… character.)

Highlights of the Strip were the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a true Italian grocer, a stop at Enrico’s for some biscotti, and Mon Aimee Chocolat, which had the largest variety of chocolate brands I’ve ever seen in once place.

We moved on to Lawrenceville, an “up-and-coming” area that’s undergone a “revival.” Now it’s a “hot” destination and a good place to invest in real estate. It’s always interesting to see a neighborhood in transition, with old dive bars and pizza joints next to craft beer shops and trendy restaurants. Having seen our share of hipster boutiques and restaurants, we found ourselves more interested in the hilly residential streets, as the home styles are different than anything we have in Chicago.

Next we headed into downtown and grabbed lunch at Winghart’s in Market Square. Winghart’s… looks like a dive bar, sounds like a dive bar (think: old Metallica blasting), tastes pretty great. We had their popular Shipwrecked Burger and the Pau’a (Hawaii’an) Pizza, and I would order them both again if we went back. If you want to avoid the loud music, try for a seat on the upstairs balcony overlooking the square.

We walked off our lunch by heading on foot to Pointe State Park, where you can observe the confluence of the three rivers (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela), the sports stadiums, Mt. Washington, and the cityscape.

We continued on foot to the Duquesne Incline, an old cable car that takes riders to the top of Mt. Washington, high above the city, where you get to look down on the sky scrapers. It’s a short, 0.75-mile walk to the Monongahela Incline, which we took back down. While waiting in line, we noticed that you can request a free transfer for the T, the city’s rapid transit train. So we gave our feet a rest and hopped on the T at Station Square and rode it back downtown.

After getting what we needed for the game, we headed on foot across another bridge, this time to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Fans lucky enough to have a boat (or a friend with a boat) can dock right along the river walk and tailgate. The great thing about preseason is you can get pretty good seats!

Sunday morning we headed to Squirrel Hill, a nice little neighborhood with a to-die-for little place called Waffallonia. Gooey inside, crispy outside, topped with a giant scoop of speculoos ice cream. Nom. If we had one here in Chicago, I’d eat there all the time until I needed a motorized chair to get around. That place has ruined me for waffles.

We drove though Oakland, where the universities and museums live, but it was move-in day for the students, so it was a little hectic.

We moved on instead to the Mexican War Streets, which was a highlight. The man who developed this real estate in the mid 1800s was a big proponent of the Mexican-American War, hence the name of the neighborhood. The streets are named after battles. It’s a little visited area, despite its proximity to the National Aviary, the zoo, and the Andy Warhol museum.

It was noon, now, and time to head home. On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, which has a very nice waterfall (Brandywine Falls) and some nice trails we didn’t have time for, like the Ledges Trail. But I’m glad we got to stop at the closest national park to Chicago.

You can research the heck out of a place, but once you get there, it still holds a bit of surprise and delight when you see it in real life. The delights for me in Pittsburgh were the dramatic hills and cliffs and the buildings tucked into every nook and cranny. The expansiveness of the rivers was another surprise; they were easily 5 times as wide as our little Chicago River and were a dominating feature of the city’s geography.

It was a short weekend, but we really crammed in a lot, and I’m so glad I got to visit!

5 Things: Louisville, KY

Art for sale in the NuLu neighborhood.

Before venturing into Kentucky’s belly at Mammoth Cave National Park, we spent a day hoofing it (pun totally intended) around Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby. If you want to judge a city by the quality of its cat art, then I’m sure you can already tell that there’s more to Louisville than southern charm and bourbon. So here are five things you may not know about Louisville, a very worthy weekend destination.

  1. American Pickers’ Antique Archaeology (in Nashville), step aside. You’ve got nothing on Joe Ley Antiques, which lived in the East Market neighborhood long before it became the fun, foodie-oriented and arty NuLu. This place is freaking enormous. It should be featured on a TV show, if it hasn’t been already. It’s three stories—and a basement—packed with antiques and reclaimed pieces from some of the area’s old Victorian mansions (See #3.) If I lived in Louisville, I would set aside a couple hours each weekend to inspect one corner of Joe Ley. And in a few years time, I may have been able to cover the entire store.
  2. Colonel Sanders was a real guy, and he’s buried in Louisville.
  3. Old Louisville has the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country, with some blocks that are pedestrian-only courts still lit by gas lamps. It’s an area in transition, with some homes that look like this:And others that have been parsed out into low-cost rental units, with sports paraphernalia that double as drapes hanging in windows. These are a renovator’s dream. If you’ve got some spare cash and a good hammer, there are some serious investment deals to be had here.
  4. Keep Louisville Weird” is a thing. Particularly along Bardstown Rd in the Highlands neighborhood, a multi-mile stretch of one-of-a-kind shops that seem more suited to Austin than to a city steeped in southern tradition.
  5. Being from Chicago, we’ve had our fair share of tasty burgers (I’m looking at you, Au Cheval.) But we found some serious competition in an unlikely place. In a very suburban, tree-lined strip mall on the outskirts of Louisville, you’ll find the reputed Mussel & Burger Bar. If you go, try the Breakfast Burger, with a thick piece of pork belly, a fried egg, maple syrup aioli, caramelized onions, and cheese. Can a burger alone make a weekend getaway worthwhile? It just might.

Stuck in the Mud: Dirt-biking in Cambodia’s Wet Season

[Guest blogger Toby Jacobs discovered Cambodia in 2007 while traveling the world. Having fallen in love with the place, he moved there permanently and set up a motorcycle touring company, Ride Expeditions, with his partner, Anna.]

Running a motorcycle touring company in Cambodia has provided me with some eventful stories over the years, but I feel particularly obliged to share about a certain tour I ran a few years ago. “Eventful” doesn’t come close to summing it up. Why?

This tour took place during Cambodia’s wet season.

Visiting Cambodia during the wet season has its perks—fewer tourists, temperate weather, and lots of greenery. Wet season also means the rivers flow high and fast. Dirt roads turn to mud. Ruts and pot-holes appear. Dirt-biking, while a popular adventure activity in Cambodia, is a whole other story during the wet season.

However, during the wet season of 2012, I was approached by a young and adventurous group of bikers who were keen to travel the country on a dirt bike. I pointed out that October is the wettest month of the year, and although a tour is possible, the conditions are far from perfect. There would be many parts of the country that would simply be impassable.

“Perfect!” they said. “The more challenging, the better.”

I explained further: We will get stuck. We will break down. We will have to camp out, likely in the rain.

Well, now they were more excited than ever.

The entire two-week trip was left me with a book’s worth of stories. For this post, I’ll share with you just one from early in the trip—a river-crossing on the very first trail.

We arrived at a river in Mondulkiri, a province of Cambodia, and tried to locate the local boatmen to ferry us across. After checking with the locals in the nearby village, however, it became apparent that there were not going to be any boats coming our way on this occasion. Not to worry though—we’d come prepared.

Giant truck inner tubes are the way to get yourself out of a situation like this. We inflated them most of the way using the exhaust of one of the bikes and then finished them off with a hand pump. And there you have it: a vessel capable of carrying a dirt bike!

A river, 12 bikes, and a truck inner tube.

I jumped in the river and swam to the other side to tie a safety line to a tree—easier said than done in a fast flowing river with steep banks on the other side and sharp bamboo bushes.

By this time the sun was starting to get lower in the sky. There was no point starting the task of shipping the bikes across the river today, so we left the bikes and tube in the bush and walked back to nearest village.

In any other country, a big group of hairy, smelly, muddy bikers probably wouldn’t be greeted with much welcome. Here, though, the villagers were thrilled to see us. Everyone came to have dinner with us, sacrificing a couple of the village chickens and opening bottles of rice wine. A jungle party and a warming campfire was a very welcome surprise for us wet and muddy bikers!

The next morning we woke in our hammocks to the sound of the village starting to come to life. We threw a couple of coffees and some noodles down our necks, said goodbye to our new friends, and trekked back to the river to begin the floating the bikes over to the other side.

Now, the way you do this is to lay the bike flat on its side on the inner tube with the foot peg in the middle, tying the bike to the tube with rope. Next, you connect another piece of rope between the bike and the safety line that is attached to trees on either side of the river. This prevents the bike going on a tubing trip downstream. Next, you attach another long rope to the bike and have someone swim over to the other side to help pull the bike across. Two other people then swim behind the bike helping push it across the river. Slow going, but simple.We were way behind schedule, but no one seemed to care. It is an incredibly fun and adventurous way to cross a river. Needless to say, our group of riders were in their element!

This was just day two of a two-week adventure that, unbeknownst to our happy group, would include a ride in a near-sunken boat, a boot full of leeches, a bike getting washed down a fast flowing river, getting stuck in a swamp, trench foot, more camping in the jungle, and hauling all our gear, the bikes, and our group in small long-tail boats for a 3 -hour boat journey up the river. It was epic!

Ridding ourselves of leeches.

The riders loved every minute of it, but if I’m ever approached by a group who wish to ride a similar route in October, I tell them these stories. Two years later, I still have not come across another group crazy enough to go through with it.


Best Places to Ski This Spring

[Readers, please welcome guest blogger, Duane Allen! A winter sport enthusiast, Duane is passionate about skiing and snowboarding all year round. He has worked in the ski and snowboard industry since 1974 and prides himself on his ski knowledge and ability. You can find Duane at The Ski Bum, most likely gearing up for another ski adventure.]

Spring is approaching, and with it comes longer, brighter days and warmer weather. Not many people consider the notion of skiing in the spring, but spring is one of the best times to enjoy winter sports! It’s often cheaper than skiing in peak season, there are less crowds, and the sun is out a lot longer. If you’re not ready to let go of the snow just yet, read on to discover some of the best places to ski this spring.

Mammoth Mountain, CA
Located within the Inyo National Forest stretched across Madera and Mono Counties, Mammoth Mountain boasts 300 sunny days a year. The mountain was closed briefly in 2006 due to hazardous volcanic gases being emitted, as the mountain range was formed from a series of volcanic eruptions. Today, Mammoth Mountain is a safe place for skiers and open to the general public until mid-June. When you’re done skiing, be sure to check out some of the other sightseeing California has to offer.

Snowbird, UT
500 inches of snowfall each year takes a while to melt, which explains Snowbird’s prolonged ski season. Located in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains in Salt Lake County, Snowbird is projected to close Memorial Day this season. Opened in December of 1971, this multi-facility winter and summer sports resort offers fun for the whole family all year round. Snowbird is also home to the famous “tunnel,” which is quite literally a tunnel that allows skiers to transport up the mountain when high winds close the aerial tram of the resort. Come mid-May, the resort is only open weekends, so if you’re looking to book a weekday trip, do so soon!

Mount Bachelor, OR
Located near the artsy town of Bend, Oregon, Mount Bachelor is one of the best mountains to ski during the spring. Unlike a majority of the winter months, the entire mountain is open the most during the spring, providing ski enthusiasts with the opportunity to experience a number of skiing thrills. The various exposures the mountain has creates the perfect surface for skiers to glide down, unlike mountains with less exposure who’s snow can quickly turn into slush. An added trill bonus is that this ski destination is an active volcano!

Breckenridge, CO
A popular destination among avid skiers, Breckenridge is a great spring ski destination. Breckenridge is a town is rich in mining history, and also offers a number of nightlife, shopping, and dining activities to enjoy after a day on the slopes. The mountains at Breckenridge are so large that they create their own weather patterns. This allows the mountains the ability to create some of the best skiing conditions anywhere in the United States. The area totes a 50% chance of perfect ski weather, not something you’ll find every day at a ski resort.

If you’re seeking some serious ski thrills this spring, check out any one of these U.S. slopes.

Very Tiny Voyage: Gerritsen Beach

[Guest blogger Leslie Griffin is an editor doing her third tour of duty in New York City. This time around, she is determined to visit places that are off the beaten path. Today she brings us to one of New York's lesser-known neighborhoods.]

Throngs of people, incessant noise, the stench of garbage, hustle and bustle—if these are the things that come to mind when you think of New York, you’re not wrong. In many parts of the city, these annoyances are ubiquitous, especially the closer to Manhattan you are. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise when my boyfriend and I discovered Gerritsen Beach last weekend—a charming waterfront community from a bygone era that is very far from the madding crowd (two trains and a bus, to be exact). Where is this unique place, you ask? Brooklyn.

Gerritsen Beach is in the far reaches of the borough on a peninsula bordered by Marine Park to the east and Plumb Beach Channel to the south and west. It was named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a mill owner who lived there in the early seventeenth century. The area remained sparsely populated until around 1920 when a firm called Realty Associates started constructing a summer resort. Modest bungalows sprang up over the next decade, and the neighborhood soon became suitable for year-round residents, most of whom were of Italian, Irish, and German descent. Most of the people who live here now have a long lineage in the neighborhood.

As soon as we hopped off the bus and walked into the neighborhood, we could tell we had left behind the Brooklyn we knew and had entered a different world—a fishing village, perhaps. Most of the original bungalows are still intact, though some are being rebuilt due to damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Many of the houses, which range from kitschy to charming depending on your feelings about lawn flair and Easter decorations, are on the water and have docks and boats out back. We passed by people sitting on their porches chatting with neighbors as kids played in the small front yards. A few cars drove by lazily; gridlock is clearly unknown here, and parking is ample.

It was apparent that we weren’t locals, but no one seemed to mind. In fact, it was as if we had been transported to a small town where being neighborly is the norm. We walked by a man who was giving detailed fishing advice to some other newcomers. And later, another guy went out of his way to help us with directions and explain the alphabetical layout of the streets. Cold and unfriendly New Yorkers? Not here! These folks give southern hospitality a run for its money—but with heavy Brooklyn accents.

After walking by someone’s pigeon coop and a house with several honking geese, we headed to Tamaqua Marina, which has been owned and run by the same family for decades. We were taking some pictures of the tuna fishing boats outside the restaurant there, when a local inquired, “National Geographic?” We laughed and explained that we were on a mission to explore different neighborhoods in the city. He seemed eager to chat, so we asked him about the area.

“We’re still recovering from Sandy,” he said. “You only see a storm like that once in a lifetime. The water rushed in like a river and out like a river.” At its peak, the water rose about six feet above street level. It only stayed that high for fifteen minutes, but by then the damage was done. “At that point, any of these boats—even these commercial fishing boats—could have sailed down the street,” he added. He gestured to the road on the other side of the channel. “A lot of these boats ended up on top of that street over there.”

As a veteran fisherman (40 years and counting), he’s seen it all, but the most memorable event he witnessed happened last year when he was fishing off the coast of New Jersey early one morning with a friend. In the distance, they saw a huge black cloud of birds that looked about a mile wide. “As we got closer, we saw the birds diving into the water, and we realized what was happening. It was a giant school of sardines! Every predator around was congregating right there to feed: birds, sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, everything.” He said it was amazing, and they’d never seen anything like it. “I asked my buddy if we should take pictures, and he said, ‘Nah. Fuck ’em; they’re not here to enjoy it, but we are.’”

Fortunately for us, our newfound friend wasn’t as unwilling as his buddy to share his experiences. As we headed on our way, he said, “There should be more people like you who come here.” So, if you find yourself in Brooklyn one day and want to venture off the beaten path, consider a stop in Gerritsen Beach, where you’ll leave the stereotypical side of the city behind.