Santa Fe neighborhood tour

The Santa Fe Arts District was one of the first neighborhoods we got to know in Denver, long before we even considered it as a place that we’d put down roots. We’d travel down from Boulder after work, for the “First Friday Art Walk,” during which the various art galleries along Santa Fe open their doors and the normally-quiet street comes alive with street performers, food trucks, live music and pop-up shops. Fast forward a few years, and when we made the move down to Denver, the neighborhood was an easy choice, with its close proximity to Downtown, relative affordability, and artistic vibe. We thought we’d stay in our rental for a couple years before moving to a different neighborhood when it came to buy, but instead fell in love with a house only a block away, and the rest is history.

When we first moved to this neighborhood, coming from quiet Boulder, we were aware of a certain grittiness, characteristic of many older neighborhoods close to a city center. It wasn’t exactly the “bad part of town”, but we knew it was far from a gated community as well. However, we fell in love with this ‘hood, and that love remains as the community grows and changes. While some of the housing is undergoing a revamp, and the real estate prices have skyrocketed in recent years (as they have all over Denver), I wouldn’t quite use that dirty word “gentrification” to characterize the change. After all, the culture that makes the neighborhood unique seems to only be getting stronger, and we have yet to be permeated with a bunch of hipster spots or chain restaurants. Local coffee shops and cheap Mexican restaurants still prevail, and the art continues to be the central binding presence throughout.

Anthony took these photos last fall of some of the various murals, old buildings, and galleries throughout the neighborhood, and we wanted to share them with you. If you ever get a chance to visit during the First Friday of any month, we’d love to give you a taste of the energy and artistic vibes that inspire us.

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Santa Fe theater, which hosted the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in its heyday, now waiting for it's revival.

Santa Fe theater, which hosted the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in its heyday, now waiting for it’s revival.

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Olive likes this one.

Olive likes this one.

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This sidewalk is packed on First Fridays

This sidewalk is packed on First Fridays

 

 

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Snippets of our summer

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to live here. We, like everyone I assume, sometimes succumb to the occasional dreaming of where we’ll be next. But with the beauty, adventure and company we have at our ready disposal, it’s hard to imagine anything much closer to paradise. Our summer this year was filled with the usual outdoor adventures like hiking, camping and backpacking, in addition to our gorgeous visit to Alaska. Throw in a little bit of biking with pals — both in town and out on the mountain trails, incredible concerts (especially at our favorite venue with those infamous red rocks), road trips, entertainment from our four-legged buddies, moonlit game nights in the backyard, brewery festivals, and general mountain-gawking, and we’ve got yet another unforgettable summer for the books. This year, I made a little montage for us to look back on, in hopes that I can make it an annual tradition. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Alaska trip: Exploring the last frontier

Alaska, as many of us know, is a land of extremes. This was made all too clear to us almost immediately upon landing in Fairbanks. As my cousin, Alex, drove us from the airport to their home on the Fort Wainwright Army Post, she remarked several times, “I can’t believe it’s dark! I haven’t seen darkness in so long!” It was 12:30 am.

We had heard the stories of endless sunlight in the Alaskan summertime, and extremely low temperatures in winter, but somehow it didn’t sink in until we saw the blackout curtains and plugs hanging out of the fronts of car grills — a necessity when you have to start your car in the -50° weather of Alaskan winters. Luckily, we had planned our trip to see Alex and her family in August, and we were greeted with mild (if drizzly, in Fairbanks) temperatures and only stories of the dark days of winter.

Alaska has always been on our list of trips to take, but only when Alex’s husband, Tim, was stationed in Fairbanks did we actually consider taking the trip sooner rather than later. Knowing some “locals” in a new and strange land can always make a trip more enjoyable, and Tim and Alex’s hosting abilities did not disappoint. We hadn’t made a list of must-see’s, but to our delight, our hosts were prepared for our indecisiveness and plotted out a full schedule for our time spent with them in Fairbanks. We awoke Saturday morning to a beautiful, home-cooked brunch, including local smoked salmon, as well as a deliciously adorable little addition to their family. Miss Samantha’s sweet smiles may or may not have been a highlight of our time in Fairbanks.

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After playtime, we set out to Chena Hot Springs, where Alex and Tim convinced us to head into the “ice museum” at the resort. While it felt thoroughly touristy to suit up into the provided parkas and enter the 20º building, moseying up to the bar for an appletini out of an ice glass, it was actually pretty cool. Originally built as a hotel a couple decades ago (but failing to be able to secure the permits necessary to house humans overnight), the sculptures enclosed within the small, cold building were really quite fascinating.

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After the ice museum, we met back up with Tim, Alex and Samantha and took a quick dip in the natural hot springs. As a cool drizzle moved in, we retreated to the local brewery for a couple of beers — a natural stop for us on a visit anywhere. After the brewery, we enjoyed a delicious dinner cooked by Alex and a game of Settlers of Catan, which we were delighted to discover was a mutual favorite.

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The next morning greeted us with more grey skies, so we decided to have a rematch of the prior evening’s board game, followed by a tour of the post and some highlights of town. We enjoyed a leisurely hike up the nearby ski hill to get a view of the post and Fairbanks, and  then relaxed back at the house for a bit before saying our goodbyes and heading back to the airport for the next leg of our trip.

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While it was hard to say goodbye to family after such a brief time together, we were very excited to see some more of Alaska. To our delight, we were treated to some of those extreme views right away, from the windows of our flight. Between the late sunset (around 10:30 pm) and the low clouds, we were treated to a gorgeous view of the striking Denali (which only recently became the nationally-recognized name for this looming peak). As we sipped the complimentary wine and scooted between seats on the nearly-empty flight, in order to capture the best shot of the mountain that seemed to hover at the same height as our small plane, I was nearly giddy with excitement.

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The next morning, we woke up early in our hotel room to head to the train station in Downtown Anchorage. We had booked a glacier cruise in Whittier, and had opted to take the train through the mountains in order to take in the views, which did not disappoint. Not only did we check out a variety of landscapes on this short trip, but also got the chance to spot some beluga whales swimming off the coast.

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The glacier cruise, itself, was incredible, narrated by a very knowledgable and enthusiastic parks services member. We were blessed with gorgeous blue skies and mild temperatures to accompany the spectacular mountain and glacier views on the Prince William Sound. The cruise included a meal of local fish, and we treated ourselves to “glacier margaritas” (aptly named due to the radioactive color pumped into them — hopefully from blue curacao and not real glacier melt…).

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At one point, standing on the roof of the boat, I swore that I saw movement out in the water. Having spent the day scouring the landscape for signs of wildlife, I thought for a second I might have been imagining what looked like orca whales skimming the surface. However, sure enough, a moment later, the captain came on the intercom to announce that we were circling back to take advantage of a unique wildlife viewing experience. It turns out that they were not orcas, but dall’s porpoises, which were equally entertaining as they played together and leapt around the boat.

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As the cruise came to an end and the boat circled back to the dock, the captain announced one last wildlife view to our right. As the thousands of birds came into view, I quickly retreated back into the dining cabin, completely convinced that if I didn’t seek shelter I would bring this trip to an unfortunate end as one of the “kittewakke’s”, which were so fascinating to the rest of the cruise’s participants, would surely be divebombing me from my post. Nesting birds, in my extensive experience, are nothing to mess around with.

Anthony took this photo

Anthony took this photo

After my narrow escape from the glacier birds, we hopped a semi-private shuttle back to our hotel, for a quick freshen-up before heading to dinner. At the recommendation of many locals, we walked over to a brewery/pizzeria for a delicious dinner and drinks to end our day. While the pizza was good, we personally felt the beers at the Moose’s Tooth were the main attraction. Surprise, surprise?

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After getting up close and personal with the glaciers from the waters of the Prince William Sound on our glacier cruise, Anthony kept remarking how he was interested in seeing the glaciers from a different angle. Lucky for him, the next day we had booked a semi-private float plane tour to do just that!

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We took off from the water near the Anchorage airport, and were very quickly treated to some of the most amazing views either of us had ever seen. With a seasoned bush pilot as our guide and educator, we learned even more about the glaciers and were able to understand them a little better by seeing them from above. We were both intrigued by the vibrant blue hues created by light and color filtration, and the deep fissures caused by years of movement, melting and erosion. Above all else, the enormity and, yes, extreme-ness, of Alaska was overwhelming and beautiful.

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After our flight, we were shuttled back into Downtown Anchorage, where we were able to explore a little more of the town. Perhaps inspired by our adventures, we indulged in a little outdoors-wear shopping and took advantage of Alaska’s sales-tax-free merchandise. Afterward, we visited yet another brewery, Glacier Brewhouse, where we got our last seafood fix and indulged in some ultra-rich (but delicious) chocolate peanut butter pie. *Anyone who knows us knows that I devoured the dessert and Anthony humored me by taking a couple tiny bites. Good thing I have enough of a sweet tooth for the both of us!

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Alaskan Snow Crab and Rockfish

After these 4 short days, our trip was already over, and we headed back home the next morning. I have to say that the trip to Alaska definitely exceeded my expectations. While I hacw always heard great things about this far-removed northern state, I had also never really known what to expect. I live in a beautiful, mountainous state (minus the extreme temperatures and daylight hours), so I figured it would just be more views of snowy peaks and nice landscapes. Going into it with this mindset, I was blown away by the actual scenery that we took in, and I’m not sure the photos really do it justice. We only scratched the surface of this land of vast extremes, and I can’t wait to return and see more.

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Under Attack

Just a little update on my garden, for which I had such high hopes this summer after the bounty and lessons I gleaned from last year’s efforts. Not to be too dramatic, but so far, my hopes have been dashed.

After a storm on Mother’s Day (widely accepted as THE day to plant your garden in Colorado to be safe from future frosts), which accumulated over half a foot of snow and multiple days of below-freezing temps, I already had my concerns for the seeds that I optimistically placed in the then-warm soil the week before. However, after the melting of that late-season snow, as I saw some little green sprouts forcing their way out of the ground, my confidence in their perserverence was lifted.

Then, came Public Enemy #1: Commonly referred to as “slugs,” and known around these parts as “Erin’s Worst Nightmare.”

Artist Rendering

Artist Rendering

I saw a couple of the slimy, nasty little suckers in the garden last summer, munching the leaves of some late-season zucchini. They did some damage, but nothing that could slow the growth of the aforementioned relentless zucchini plants. I put out a bit of organic bait/killer, which seemed to have slowed them down enough for me to make it through to the last harvest without much loss.

This year, they came back with a vengeance.

After coming home from a week-long trip, I returned to find the leaves of my preservering little sprouts completely chewed up like swiss cheese. The hardiest of my plants – the kale and runner beans that generally sprout the quickest and seem to make it through anything, were struggling from the attacks. Other plants, like my watermelon, squash, zuchinni and spinach, were nearly all gnawed down all the way to the ground. What’s more, these normally night-dwelling creatures were bold enough to show themselves in the light of day, literally hundreds of them sliming their way through our yard, along the sidewalks, and across my plants, right in plain sight. Let me tell you – there is nothing more revolting than seeing these evil, slimy little creatures devouring all of your hard work and the beautiful home-grown produce on which you planned to feast all summer long.

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Immediately, I googled every slug killer and repellant tactic anyone had ever posted online. And then, I tried it all.

The most common advice was to trap the slugs in a vat of beer. In short, apparently slugs love beer, and the idea is to bury a vessel up to the lip in the garden near the site of the attacks, fill it with beer (preferably the cheap kind), and then let the slugs jump in, get their fill, and drown a drunken death. However, apparently my slugs have a very high tolerance because, while I caught a few of the little nasty guys, I saw several more climbing their way out of the beer vats. I guess they thought I was just setting out a brewpub alongside the produce stands, and were drinking on the house to wash down their stolen snacks.

After a few mornings emptying out nasty jars of beer filled with a couple slugs but way more beetles and potato bugs, I tried a couple other tactics. One suggestion was that slugs hate animal fur — something we have in no short supply here between the husky-type that never stops blowing her coat, and the gray diva cat who demands to be groomed — so I started collecting this hot commodity and sprinkling it around some of the slugs’ favorite foods. I’m not sure if the slugs were making sweaters out of the fur, or just collecting it for later, but it seemed to vanish gradually and the slugs continued eating the leafy greens. Similarly, other suggestions were that slugs hate crawling over rough surfaces, and I saved a bin of eggshells in my refrigerator, crumbled them up and scattered them in careful, witch-like circles around the bases of the plants. These super-slugs clearly were not deterred, and appeared to have moved the shells away to create paths into their plant prey for easy access.

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Eventually, I resorted to a more barbaric form of warcraft – I would wait until darkness fell, strap on a headlamp and some heavy-duty rubber gloves, and head out to the garden to take them on, one-on-one. Picking slugs off of plants and smashing them on the bricks with my garden shoes was a pretty gross yet disturbingly satisfying form of pest control, but an unsustainable one.

In the end, I’ve returned to the slug reppellant pellets that seemed to have made a dent in the slug population last year, and have been applying it faithfully. In addition, the relentless and uncharacteristic Colorado monsoons seem to have let up for the time being, and I think the slugs have begun to decrease in numbers as we return to the drier conditions that are more natural for this area. For now, the garden seems to be making a little progress, but nowhere near where we were this time last year, and we haven’t gleaned more than a couple strawberries and some (slightly holey) spinach leaves so far. Between the dirty little slugs and a nasty hail storm a couple weeks ago, my plants have a hard road ahead of them to start producing any fruit among their shredded leaves.

In short, I hate slugs. I hate them with all of my being. Of course, still not being dramatic in the least.

Our new hobby

I think I heard nearly two years ago about the climbing gym that would open in late 2014, just four blocks from our house. Ever since hearing this news, I was on pins and needles waiting for the first glimpse inside — scouring the gym’s facebook page and even taking detours on my running route with Olive to try and peer through the construction and imagine the routes and amenities that would await.

When the doors finally opened, Anthony and I didn’t even hesitate to cancel our other gym membership downtown and pay immediately for a year in full — knowing that the proximity and offerings couldn’t be beat. And we couldn’t have been more right. Not only has it already paid itself off and then some with the amount of times we’ve frequented the place in just the past 4 months, but it’s also given us an incredible new hobby that we’ve been able to enjoy together.

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Now, when I say “hobby”, at this point it may be a bit of an understatement. Anyone who is close to us might be a little tired of hearing us talk about climbing, but at this point we’re just so dang excited! I can’t even explain how much of a game-changer this gym has been for us. We’ve both kept a constant focus on exercise and fitness over the years, to varying degrees, but this is the first time we have found something that we both absolutely love, that we can do together. While I’ve had snowboarding, running, swimming and barre, Anthony’s been more focused on mountain biking, kayaking, snowshoeing and heavy lifting when at the gym. We both will go out on a hike to enjoy Colorado’s scenery, but that generally involves a bit of a drive and the rare, plan-free weekend morning or afternoon.

However, with the re-introduction of this sport that we had tried a handful of times before, we have the ability to both go at our own pace, each choosing routes that work with our individual skill levels, and cheer each other on several times a week. We get through our Mondays knowing that we’ll get to climb after work, taking the short bike ride over to the gym to conquer some of our challenges. We’ve both made marked improvement — more quickly than I had expected — and get a thrill out of making our way up the wall on routes that just a few weeks before would’ve seemed impossible.

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Personally, I can literally feel myself getting stronger, both physically and — sometimes even more so — psychologically. There is almost always one point in every route when everything in me says to give up. It’s too hard, I won’t make it to the top, I’ve gone far enough, might as well quit now. Early on, I gave into that emotion often, and when I made it back to the ground I would kick myself for not trying just one more time to push upward. As I’ve gained more confidence, as well as perseverance, I’ve been able to force myself past that inevitable point more often, finding myself capable of much more than I ever expected.

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Just tonight, for instance, I tried a route that had foiled me on 4 prior instances. There was one section that I just couldn’t seem to get past — an inverted ridge with the next hand-hold just past my reach. Every time I entered the gym, I’d watch people get caught up in the same place as I had so many times before, and I was determined to beat it before they took the route down to re-set it into a different configuration. But tonight, on my fifth try, I finally found the right footing and the burst of strength that I needed in order to get past my trouble spot, and triumphantly (and exhaustedly!) made it to the top. That sense of accomplishment, and the accompanying adrenaline, is enough to start anyone’s week off on the right foot.

While we still have our individual workout goals — I hit the gym bright and early every day so that I can still get in a run or a spin class, and Anthony still fits in strength training away the climbing wall — and passions for mountain sports here in this outdoor athlete’s holy land, I can see climbing continuing to be a big part of our lives here. Our goals continue to evolve as we see what our bodies are capable of, and we hope to be able to transition these new skills to the outdoors as soon as possible. In the meantime, our standing date at the climbing gym 3-4 times a week is one that we’ll both continue to keep and look forward to. And if you ask what we’ve been up to lately, and we give our new standard response of “well, we’ve been climbing a lot” — you’ll know why!

Garden growth… and overgrowth

Seeing the first flowers pop up and buds on the trees are some sure signs that spring has come. While I’m not fooling myself into thinking that Colorado has hung up its winter hat for the year (we will inevitably have another snowy day or two), it’s getting me excited for another season of warm sunshine, hammock lounging, backyard game playing, al fresco dinners, and tending my little plot of land in the backyard.

After several years of missteps and straight-up failures, I finally felt like I’d hit my stride last year, and ended up with about 20 bunches of leafy greens, 14 harvests of lemon cucumbers, 15 baskets of pickling cucumbers, 8 rounds of tomatoes, 5 yellow squash, 9 rounds of beans, 3 okra harvests, and a whopping 59 zucchinis.

But who’s counting?

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I meant to do a roundup of “things I learned” last year after my most successful yield yet, but I apparently spent my fall getting a little wrapped up in planning our Australia trip and it all fell by the wayside. So now, as I sort my seed packets for this year, I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned from last year’s experience.

Lesson 1 – Water consistently

In the past, the most consistent killer of my little garden veggies was that famous Colorado sun. I’d have to get up before the sun every day to water my plants, being ever so careful to lift the plants off the ground and water only at the roots, while still sometimes spraying a leaf that would inevitably become fried by the sun that same day. No matter how often I was doing it, I couldn’t get the schedule just right, and my plants would wilt and die away. Especially after leaving for a weekend trip, we’d return home and find our crops withering away.

Last year, I decided to take my hydrating to the next level and installed a drip system, on a timer, that I think made all the difference in the survival of my garden goods. By having a consistent, two-a-day drip, right at the roots, my plants got all the h20 they needed, even if I chose to sleep in. In return, I got a thriving, green plot that grew with minimal watering effort.

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Lesson 2- LESS ZUCCHINI!

As you can see from above, my zucchini crop went wild. Having never had any success growing zukes before, I had no idea how many were going to grow on each plant, and how big the plants themselves would be. For that reason, I thought it was a good idea to plant 12 zucchini plants in the front third of the garden. Needless to say, this is way too many. I started pulling the extra plants at the beginning of the summer, but still had more than I could handle. It was hard pulling a thriving plant from the ground, but knowing that the extra veggies were becoming more of a problem than a low yield, I knew it was the right thing to do, and by the end of the summer I only had 2, but was still left with my zucchini than I knew what to do with.

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I brought the excess to work, distributed them to neighbors, shared them at social gatherings, and froze a ton, but I still could hardly keep up with the zucchini yield. We ate zucchini at nearly every meal — I felt like a version of “Bubba” from Forrest Gump, but instead of shrimp I was extolling the virtues of zucchini stir fry… zucchini au gratin… zucchini noodles… zucchini boats… zucchini muffins… You get the idea. We got a little burned out, as you can imagine, and I even freezed so much that we are still enjoying the zucchini today, 6 months later.

I had to pick at least 4-5 every day or they would grow to radioactive proportions. While it was fun comparing the size of the zucchinis to my cat, this year I think I’ll stick to a reasonable-sized zucchini crop and will try to start the year with just one plant or two.

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Lesson 3 – Less is more

Zucchinis aside, I learned that I need to a better job of thinning out my garden as a whole, early on. This is a problem I never had before, but when the garden starts growing out of control, it can be very difficult to keep up on. In addition to the awkwardly-large zucchinis, I also got some disproportionate pickling cucumbers that had stayed on the vine for two long, and became too seedy to become delicious dills.

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The crowding of too many plants also became a problem with my tomatoes. I actually have no idea how many tomato plants I had in a small space, and they turned into one giant shrub by about mid-summer. I trimmed them back, but at that point they had become so intertwined that it was too late, and I had to just see what would happen. To my dismay, despite the mass amount of tomato leafage, I really didn’t yield too many tomatoes off of them, and my hopes of jars and jars of homemade tomato sauce and salsa were dashed. However, at the end of the season, I pulled the mess of tomato plants and found hundreds of rotting tomatoes underneath the roughage. My tomato plants had, indeed, been producing in excess, but I just couldn’t find them among the overgrowth. Next year, I’m determined to keep each individual plot much more manageable, and will thin things out early on.

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Lesson 4 – Weed early and often

This one, I suppose would be something any gardener would tell you as it seems like a Gardening 101 lesson. But, it’s one I learned this year the hard way. I’d see little weeds pop up early, and instead of nipping them right away, I would debate whether they were my plants or invaders, and leave them in place to “wait and see.” Of course, anyone who has dealt with weeds knows what happened — the weeds grew much faster than the veggies and took over before I knew it. There was also a “pretty” weed that had tiny little leaves and wove little vines around the edges of the garden fencing and popped up between the brick edging. Anthony and I both thought they looked kind of pretty, so I used it as a good excuse to leave the weeds in place. However, within a matter of just a couple weeks these adorable little vines crisscrossed their way across the entire garden, and I had to take on a major excavation project to unwrap them from my seedlings. This year, the viney weed will not trick me with her pretty little face!

Lesson 5 – Plant garlic in the fall

The year before last, I had read about planting garlic cloves in the fall before the first frost, and yielding plump bulbs of garlic in mid-summer the next year. I gave it a shot in 2013 and was thrilled to pull up plump heads of garlic in June of last year. The homegrown garlic became the perfect addition to the dozens of jars of cucumbers I was able to pickle, along with dill grown in the plot as well.

However, I didn’t heed this lesson last fall as I was still basking in the glow of my gardening successes (as well as the aforementioned Aussie trip planning), and totally forgot to shove some garlic cloves into the ground. This year, my pickles will not have the honor of being fully homegrown, but you can bet I will not miss the timing for garlic-planting next year!

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Holding up a braid of freshly-pulled garlic bulbs. Also note that “pretty weed” decorating the edging…

 

Lesson 6 – Double your efforts

Chalk this one up to a Pinterest tip that worked out perfectly for me. Knowing that our garden area gets pummeled with sun all day every day, I’ve always had difficulty growing lettuce and spinach, which thrive on a little cooler shade. Bring in the cucumbers! These climbing little creatures soak up that sun, and cover the area with leafy shade, so I harnessed that power and trained them to go up and over the lettuce and spinach section. The trellis was held up by a couple of bamboo sticks that were the perfect structures for the climbing beans.

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This year, I hope to make the trellis a little bit bigger, to make a better use of the space, but I’ll definitely be employing a similar tactic.

Lesson 7 – Grow things you like to eat

Clearly, this should be a no-brainer, but for whatever reason, had to be something I learned on my own. In addition to the plethora of zucchini plants in the first plot, I also included a couple of yellow squash plants. Turns out, neither Anthony or I like yellow squash at all. We’d blend it in to the stir fries and veggie dishes, and they were fine, but we weren’t getting excited to eat them. Instead of continuing to scour the internet for a recipe with enough cheese to make a yellow squash more palatable, I finally just decided to give up on them and pulled the plants before the height of gardening season.

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I’m sure there will be many more lessons to be learned this summer, but hopefully I can enjoy the same fruits of my labor once again. Looking forward to building meals from my backyard, and enjoying some fresh produce in these summer months to come!

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Love that is ever steadfast…

When I was a freshman in college, the first thing I did was pledge a sorority. I realize it was such a stereotypical move for a former high school cheerleader who came from the suburbs, but at the time it seemed only natural. My parents had regaled us with their Greek college stories all our lives, especially since that was how they had met, in neighboring houses, and I had always seen myself being a part of something that I saw as being so integral to the college experience. In addition, coming to a school several states away from my high school, knowing only one other person (who also happened to be in a fraternity), I was eager to meet as many new faces as possible.

I ended up in Delta Zeta, which did, indeed, play an integral role in my college life.

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Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t all amazing. My sorority experience was full of ups and downs and threatening to quit and getting some space and coming back to this giant group of girls who were both crazy-fun and made me crazy. Spending money on dues and fees every month, which is so sparse anyway to a college student, and being required to go to organized functions (only half of which were mind-numbingly fun) — I will admit that I actually questioned or regretted the choice often.

However, looking back now, I don’t think I’d make a different choice if I had it all to do over again. These girls became my sisters, and (to my surprise, I admit) have become a support system for life. We’ve seen each other through marriages and divorces, moves and job changes, babies and tragedies. While the distance may cause some of us to lose touch from time to time, we still rally with the best of them when one of our sisters needs us.

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A select few of these girls have remained to me, as the Delta Zeta creed labels, “those closer ones.” The two sorority sisters that stood with me at my wedding have continued to be the two that I can always count on as lifetime friends. We have a tradition every Christmas, to make a point to see each other while I’m in the state of Indiana for a fleeting moment to catch up, see the husbands and kids, and exchange our annual Christmas ornament gifts. It warms my heart that Kristen and Julie both rearrange their holiday schedules to drive to wherever I am and make time to keep this tradition alive.

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This year, the tradition was a bit delayed due to my own tight travel schedule, and I made an extra trip out to the midwest on my own in January, making it a girls’ meetup with the added bonus of seeing Kristen’s boys as we stayed at her house outside of Chicago. Again, they still rearranged their schedules to work with mine, drove through hours of horrendous Chicago rush-hour traffic to pick me up (with all four five-and-under boys in tow, bless their little hearts!) so that we could have our traditional weekend of catching up like we had never skipped a beat.

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The next night, a few more of our sorority sisters made their way up and we had a post-bars slumber party just like the good old days. We all caught up on each others’ lives — all of us in different places with our families, careers and general lifestyles. Despite the fact that we are all in incredibly different places — both literally and figuratively — we still shared this connection that made it all so comfortable.

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I think Kristen said it best when she commented that there is just something special about spending time with the people with whom you became an adult. We know each others’ histories, our mistakes, our triumphs, the good, the bad. No matter how much time has passed, we know each other to our cores and we know what made us into the people we are today. We all obviously have friends that we have met since we entered adulthood, but there is just something about the familiarity of close college friends — who you don’t have to fill in on the backstory or explain anything — that allows you to really relax and be yourself.

It was a wonderful weekend of catching up and getting small glimpses into each others’ lives. Also finding out that we are now the “old ladies” at the bars and that we start to fall asleep before getting too much alcohol in us, while still making sure to order a “wounded turtle” before making a pre-midnight exit. Our college selves would be utterly disappointed in our lack of party power, but I can’t wait until the next time we get to be the even older ladies at the bars, talking about where our lives have taken us next and reminiscing about the memories that will never be forgotten.

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Australia Part Four: St. Kilda

Knowing that we would be in for two weeks of nonstop adventures, we had deliberately planned for a low-key last few days in Oz, and St. Kilda, a popular beach suburb close to downtown Melbourne was the perfect place to decompress and soak in the last few days of vacation.

We left Apollo Bay after a lazy morning, strolling around the town and grabbing breakfast, and then hit the road to head back into Melbourne. Once we got into St. Kilda, we had some time to kill before our next Air BnB would be ready, so we stopped at a little joint around the corner for some appetizers and drinks. When we checked into our place for the next few days, we were treated to a cute little art-filled studio in the heart of the neighborhood, walking distance from everything we planned on doing for the next few days.

St. Kilda

St. Kilda

After settling in, we went to a local Mexican joint recommended by our hosts for margaritas, and then continued down the main drag until we stumbled upon a Thai restaurant that beckoned us in with its affordable (and, as it turned out, delicious!) noodle dishes. After dinner, we took a little walk down to the pier to check out the evening windsurfers.

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The next morning, we awoke to our second rainy morning of the trip (we know these are excellent odds). We said our goodbyes to Jules and returned the rental car to the CBD, just as the drizzles began to subside. We hopped on a couple of bikes again and made our way back to the previously closed South Melbourne Market. We wandered around the many booths, grabbing a few souvenirs and finally found ourselves in the extensive fresh food market. We grabbed some dimsum and dumplings as we discussed cooking a dinner in the studio that night, and what we would choose out of the many offerings on site. We eventually settled on some lamb kabobs, giant prawns, asparagus, and entirely too many cheeses for two people.

The dinner was simple to throw together in the simple kitchen, and we used some of our hosts’ provided olive oil and spices for flavoring, paired with some of the wine picked up earlier in the trip. After so many days in a row of eating out, which we hardly ever do at home, it was quite fun and rewarding to cook a meal together with local ingredients on foreign soil, and we were so glad to have given it a try.

Prawns the size of your head!

Prawns the size of your head!

Soooo many cheeses. This was only a small fraction of them.

Soooo many cheeses. This was only a small fraction of them.

Prawns, lamp kabobs, asparagus... and wine.

Prawns, lamp kabobs, asparagus… and wine.

After dinner, we set out to catch a glimpse of one of St. Kilda’s most endearing attraction – the fairy penguins. Now, I know what you’re saying: “But Erin, you hate birds. You’re terrified of birds. You think birds are flying demons.” Yes, reader. Yes, this is all true. However, penguins — FAIRY PENGUINS — are quite different. These little guys have webbed (non-talon-like) feet, the tiniest beaks ever, and their wings do not provide looming flight. So, with all of the fear-factors removed, penguins get the unique honor of being the only bird I would consider as a friend. So, when I heard that there was a small colony of penguins that lived at the St. Kilda pier, there was no way we were going to miss it.

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Peekaboo — I see you!

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This little guy was just standing behind us, grinning away, while we all looked the other way for penguins. It’s hard not to giggle about turning around and seeing this face staring back at you.

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These little guys were literally just a couple feet from us.

 

 

After a while of ogling the babies that were waiting ashore for their returning parents, we decided that we didn’t need to wait another hour in the wind for the sun to set and the rest of the colony to arrive. Also, knowing my night vision (or lack thereof), I figured I wouldn’t be able to see them after dark anyway. So instead, we headed out of the crowds and back down the pier.

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We are not the only tourists  in search of a few little penguins

We are not the only tourists in search of a few little penguins

We decided to pop into a local icon, the Esplanade Hotel, or “the Espy.” We were able to catch a few unsigned local artists — many of which were very good — in the setting of an old, and untouched venue, where the pitchers of beer were cheap and cold. This ended up being one of our latest nights out, as we kept saying to each other — “let’s watch just one more act.”

The "Espy" during the day

The “Espy” during the day

Not the greatest shot but you get the idea of how our night looked

Not the greatest shot but you get the idea of how our night looked

The next morning, the last of full day of our trip, we set out to catch the last glimpses of the city, of course, from the seats of the Melbourne bikes. After a delicious breakfast at Il Fornaio, the restaurant across the street, we grabbed our bikes from the nearby station. We were headed back to the South Melbourne area, to a local yarn shop that had been recommended to me by another vendor I’d met at the Market. I was able to get some local merino wool yarn (I tell myself it came from all of those sheep we had passed during our drives), and a kind lady helped me choose a knitting pattern for a scarf that I could make with the yarn. Having picked up what I consider to be one of the most fun souvenirs (call me an old lady, if you will…), we headed back to the bike path and rode our way far down the city’s edge. We made it all the way to a little suburb called Brighton, with gorgeous houses looming over the water’s edge.

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After the bike ride, Anthony retreated back to the studio for a nap, while I couldn’t resist the urge to take my nap on the sunny beach. After wandering around the neighborhood on my own for awhile, and grabbing some more sushi rolls, I settled into the sand for an hour or so of sunshine.

Kinda creepy... Apparently modeled after Coney Island and erected by the same businessmen.

Kinda creepy… Apparently modeled after Coney Island and erected by the same American businessmen.

We ended our last day with happy hour together, followed by seafood at a highly-recommended restaurant called Clay Pots. With only a limited amount of seafood listed on their boards, based on the local catches, we knew we needed to be there early to get the tastiest pick. We got a couple seats in their beautiful garden area, and enjoyed a dinner of garlic chili prawns (the sauce was the stuff of dreams… I still haven’t been able to enjoy a piece of bread not sopped with the buttery goodness), blue crab, mussels and veggies.

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Clay Pots restaurant

Clay Pots restaurant

The next morning, we headed to the airport and said our goodbyes to Australia. Of course we enjoyed the trip immensely, but after a couple weeks abroad, it’s amazing how excited you are to see your home, your bed, and most importantly your pets! We were lucky to have some great friends watching Gizmo and Olive, and sending us occasional emails to let us know how well they were doing. But all the same, getting home after the 30+ hours of travel from door to door, and snuggling with our fur-babies, helped ease the pain of the end of vacation.

So that concludes our dream trip across the world! It’s difficult to sum it all up in just words and pictures, because the feelings and fun we had during the trip cannot be described. We always return from foreign travel with a different perspective and slightly larger worldview, and this trip was no different. However, it did all feel strangely American, with a few distinct differences. For that reason, it never felt like we were that far from home, and yet we were nearly as far away from it as physically possible. Regardless, as usual, we returned home with our travel bug not eliminated, but only fed and hungry for more. Needless to say, we are already dreaming of our next trip.

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Australia Part Three: The Great Ocean Road

We had always dreamed about Australia, but it was such a far-off, mystical land to us that I had no idea where we would start exploring it. When Anthony brought up the idea of area Victoria/Melbourne (mainly for its temperate climate, to start), I started looking into the area. The first thing I came across, was a set of spectacular images from the Great Ocean Road, and it became my obsession throughout the planning of our trip. Finally, the day had come for us to see it for ourselves. Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed.

Our eventual destination was to be Apollo Bay, where we had Air BnB reservations for the following night. Somehow, with the difference in our (American time) Google calendar, we had failed to account for all our days and our first day on the Road was our “lost day.” We decided to hit the road anyway, take our time as we checked out all the sights, and hopefully stumble upon somewhere to stay.

We left charming Warburton after another stop at the café we had so enjoyed the day before for brekkie, and made our way to the coast. After meandering back through Melbourne, we finally hit open highway and it wasn’t long until we started seeing signs for the coastal towns. Before we knew it, we were in the little surf town of Torquay, where we got our first glimpse of the ocean via Bells’ Beach.

Of course, I had to hike up my skirt to go dip my toes in the water, which was warmer than I expected, this far south and with Antarctic waters flowing relatively nearby. Sure enough, there were plenty of surfers and beach bums and kids floating around in the waves, enjoying the sunny day.

Our first view of the ocean at Bells Beach, Torquay

Our first view of the ocean at Bells Beach, Torquay

Bells Beach, Torquay

Bells Beach, Torquay

We did a little wandering through the shops and grabbed lunch before we were on our way, ready to really get a taste of this scenic road trip. After heading out of Torquay (pronounced “tor-KAY”), the coast line did open up and we were treated to a blue sky day that only magnified the turquoise water crashing against the cliffs of the coast. Anthony and I had done a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in California a few years ago, and we had been expecting something similar with the GOR. I would say there are definitely some similarities between the two coastal highways, which are both so beautiful, but the GOR is unique in its massive rock outcroppings and incredibly jagged coastline. Plus, the blue of the water in Australia (for which the photos don’t even do adequate justice), was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

And now, I will give you a photo dump of some of the views we got along the way. Forgive the repetitive nature of the images — every time we turned a corner the views took my breath away and I couldn’t help but snap dozens of photos. I had a hard time choosing some to post here, and now that I look at them they all look very similar, but just indulge me. 🙂

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Our friend at the winery the day before had offered us some advice to stay in Lorne, about a quarter way along the road, so we stopped in this charming surf town to check it out. We quickly learned that there were many “Schoolies” visiting — similar to American “spring break”, college and high school kids in Australia take some time off to celebrate finals on the beach in December. We didn’t find it to be the typical “Girls Gone Wild” atmosphere typical with many American spring break destinations, but more of a chill celebratory atmosphere (at least where we observed).

We traveled through some of the shops in Lorne, until we got to a resort at the end of the main drag. We stopped in to check for vacancy, and learned that this higher end hotel did not accept the Schoolies and therefore had a few rooms left. They gave us our keys to a “very nice room” and we headed up to check it out. We were shocked at the massive size of this suite, and wished we had some friends nearby who could come and help us enjoy it! But, we did just fine with a glass of wine on our balcony, taking in the ocean views, and finally heading out to dinner on the beach. We enjoyed some calamari and chili prawn risotto as we took in a warm sunset over the pier, and then headed back to our large, unexpected suite to tuck in for the night.

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

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The next morning, I awoke early to go for a run along the beach, commencing on the pier to take in a different view of Lorne. On my way back, I grabbed us some coffee and croissants from a café and we threw on our swimsuits for some morning time at the beach. Anthony went for a walk to collect some shells, while I watched the surfers battling the waves, my interests piqued. I ended up finding a place to rent me a board and wetsuit cheaply, while there was no one around to serve us an instructor. With a few tips from the guy at the surf shop, as well as the small amount I could remember from the surf lessons during our honeymoon in Mexico 6 years ago, I was determined to give it a try. Anthony, not wanting to risk another knee injury, was content to watch me from the beach and provide encouragement and photography.

some of the shells Anthony collected on the beach

some of the shells Anthony collected on the beach

Trying my best to look like a surfer girl

Trying my best to look like a surfer girl

You will not see any photos of my actually “surfing” — as my time actually standing was miniscule and I wouldn’t say I really “rode” any waves (unless you count sitting on the board and bobbing up and over the surf). The waves were larger than those in Sayulita, and without anyone telling me what to do I spent more time underwater than over it. Despite my failings, however, it was a blast. At one point, I was sitting on the board, waiting for a suitable wave, and looked around me in awe. I am in Australia, I thought. On a surfboard. Enjoying the trip I’ve always dreamed of. It was perfect, indeed.

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Almost up!

Almost up!

Wave-beaten but happy

Wave-beaten but happy

After I had had my fill of the waves, I cleaned up and we grabbed some fish and chips before hitting the road again. We continued up the road, seeing more little towns and gorgeous coastal imagery, and hit our destination of Apollo Bay before we knew it. There was more of the road past this town, so we decided to keep driving and see it all before checking in to that night’s accommodations. As we passed through the town, Anthony remarked that we should probably have stopped for gas there, but I assured him that there “had to be” another town coming up where we could fill the dwindling tank. More on that later…

Soon after, we entered into the Great Otway National Park, where we saw some very interesting flora and fauna, as well as our first glimpse at those cute little koalas in the wild. Knowing that this was the place to spot them, my eyes were pealed, and I managed to glimpse about a dozen different little guys in the crazy-looking trees. For Anthony’s sake, I only made him stop the car once for photos. We also saw a wombat on the side of the road, which was almost as exciting as the koalas.

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At this point, after this little diversion from the road, we were running pretty low on fuel. The gar said we had about 60 km left before empty, and there were signs saying that the next town with fuel was about 30km away. No problem.

The problem arose when we entered this much-heralded town, pulled up to the only gas station in town, which boasted two old pumps that looked straight out of the 50’s. We examined the pumps, only to find a couple of faded, handwritten signs taped on them stating that they had no fuel and the closest was in 50 km in either direction. Enter: a little panic.

The little signs were not specific as to where the gas stations were, so we decided to rely on Jules and her navigation to save us. We typed it in and were routed to a station in a town called Simpson, supposedly 27km away. We crossed our fingers that Jules knew what she was doing, and headed off on the route. Almost immediately, the route became a dicey, one-lane backroad through the forest, but which was thankfully mostly downhill. Anthony took it very slowly (accelerating very judiciously, to save gas), and the 27km took almost an hour to cover in these completely abandoned backroads. Our nerves were on edge, we drove in silence, but hoping that Jules was not steering us astray. With no signs of life, it was difficult to hold on hope to the fact that there would be a gas station buried deep within this wilderness, and I had no service on my phone to confirm her directions.

In the midst of our nerve-wracked journey, however, we did get a glimpse of the only kangaroo we’d see in the wild during our whole trip — a little joey of a ‘roo who hopped out in front of our slow-moving vehicle, and then quickly hopped away back into the bush. A bit of happy excitement among our anxious nerves.

When we finally made it into the ghostly town of Simpson, with about 10km worth of gas left Jules joyously announced, “Your destination is on the left.” We looked left, where an old abandoned factory stood. We looked further down the road and saw fields of crops and nothing to the right. More panic. Jules had lied to us.

We found a little stand advertising Coca-Cola, where we quickly pulled up and shouted at someone “Do you know where we can get some Petrol?” Fortunately, the friendly man pointed us down the road “about 2 kilometers down” to a gas station, which thankfully truly did exist, and we were finally able to breathe again as we rolled into the station on the last dregs of our initial fill-up.

So, with that little “adventure” behind us, we made our way back to the GOR to once again revel in the sights. We quickly came up on a couple of the icons of this area, the 12 Apostles and Loc Ard Gorge (which has an interesting shipwreck story). Both are filled with tourists, but for good reason as the views are absolutely incredible. I will let the images speak for themselves.

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Loc Ard Gorge

 

Loc Ard Gorge

Loc Ard Gorge

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Loc Ard Gorge

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Loc Ard Gorge

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Loc Ard Gorge

 

I got a kick out of these signs on a tourist bridge -- be sure to leave your cat in the car for this hike.

I got a kick out of these signs on a tourist bridge — be sure to leave your cat in the car for this hike.

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

After we had finished our drive down the GOR, we made our way back, enjoying the return trip a little easier without the imminent threat of a breakdown. We enjoyed the rolling green hills that covered the landscape less than a kilometer inland, and dotted with grazing sheep and cattle.

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When we returned to Apollo Bay, we checked into our accommodations, a lovely place in town called the “Captains Quarters.” A two story cottage that we had all to ourselves,attached to a large home, it was an adorable place to stay along the ocean. We got cleaned up and then went into town for dinner, in search of seafood and/or local fare. We found both at a nice little restaurant where I enjoyed a tasmanian hapuka fish filet and Anthony indulged in seared kangaroo. Both were absolutely delicious. After dinner, we returned to the Captains’ Quarters and settled in, still awe-struck by the sights we had seen.

Captains Quarters in Apollo Bay

Captains Quarters in Apollo Bay

Next up, we’d return to Melbourne and wrap up our trip in the beachy suburb of St. Kilda. Stay tuned!