May 21, 2017

DC Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boat awaiting its oarsmen(and women).

Festival staff lining up to kick off the event.
I awoke to find myself with a free day on a Saturday with no plans.  In an earlier review of events for the day, I had found the DC Dragon Boat Festival was going on.  Having an old friend that races dragon boats, I was intrigued.  After a strong cup of coffee I made my way to the Thompson Boat House on the Georgetown Waterfront.  I arrived before 8am, and throngs of teams were already set up in the best spots along the Potomac with their canopy tents, custom team wicking shirts, fancy team names, and sustenance to take them through the two day event.

The blind can row to the beat of the drum too.

While a 2300 year old Chinese tradition, this festival is open to athletes from all backgrounds. Teams made up of mixed races, all women, government employees, corporate teams, and open teams (to include an all deaf team and a blind team as well), all were there to partake in friendly competition. The team names were slightly to mostly snarky, and could just make you chuckle out loud at times (Come on, "Out of Sight Dragons" for the blind team).

As the opening ceremony started, the sun broke through the clouds of the overcast morning as performances were given by the Formosa Music Melody Center from Taiwan to include a traditional Taoist Warrior trumpeting the start of the event to the music.  After remarks from the MC, organizer, the Ambassador from Taiwan, and a ribbon cutting ceremony, the event was on its way.

As the teams started competing, it was obvious that while competitive, this was more of a community the supports each other.  Smiles, greetings, and salutations could be heard back and forth between teams as they enjoyed the weather and the event itself.  This might be something I head to every year now just to watch.

The first two sets of teams ready for their races.

Crossing the finish line.

Returning from their heat.

January 06, 2013

Wilmington, DE: On the Brink of Revitalization

Looking north at W. 4th and N. Market St
On an impromptu day trip, I took off north for two hours from our nation's Capitol.  Just off Interstate 95 (if you avoid the NJ Turnpike and veer slightly west) you'll find Wilmington, DE.  On this chilly Saturday afternoon in January, the narrow one way streets leading to the Willington Square district were mostly empty.  There appeared to be many revitalization projects trying to beat the oncoming winter.  Partially refinished parking lots and buildings being refurbished looked as if they were longing for winter storms to hold off long enough to be completed, if budgets allow...
Delaware Historical Society

Walkway between
Shipley and Market
Wilmington's Grand Opera House

Wandering North Market Street, capturing photos of old buildings and getting odd looks from pedestrians as I snap photos in the middle of the street, I felt a sense that the town was trying to break free and live.  It gives a vibe that while it may be down, it's definitely not out.  From the historical society, to projects with advertising of the town's revitalization, there was a feeling of a town trying to thrive.

After a bit of photo snapping, I decided to get out of the cold.  I had passed an interesting looking place as I parked, and wandered into the Chelsea Tavern.  It was a little before 5 on a Saturday afternoon and the place wasn't that busy, but it looked like a nice pub to hang my hat in if I ever found myself in Wilmington long term: bartenders that knew their regulars, comfortable bar stools, and a good beer and whisk(e)y selection. I don't need much more than that in a bar.  You can see my full Yelp review of the place here. I had seen something about a micro-brewery in the area, so I paid my tab at Chelsea and made my way to the Iron Hill Brewery.  While I wasn't the biggest fan of all their beer selections (their pale ales were tasty), the food was excellent.  I can see why they were so packed.

As I drove away, darkness had fallen on Wilmington, but I knew that another trip might be in order this coming spring to see what blossoms in that city on the brink of revitalization....

The Chelsea Tavern

Iron Hill Brewery

February 11, 2012

The Back Roads of North Carolina

My day job sent me to Fayetteville/Fort Brag, NC for almost four months at the end of 2011.  I pondered the title of my would be blog about the area while I was down there... "Three Seasons in the South", "Four Months in Fayetteville", "Lost in Dixie"... I spent my time thinking and driving, a great way for me to escape and be myself: listening to music, stopping for random photos, exploring new little towns/restaurants along the way, and probably driving a little too fast while playing the theme to the Dukes of Hazzard (I thought it was appropriate).  All at once it hit me.  My peace in travel was (and often is) in the journey itself, not a destination.  So I will expand on what I've found on the "Back Roads of North Carolina" as I headed out and around Fayetteville, NC.

North of Fayetteville
Brunch Tostada w/Chorizo Sauce at Acme
Carrboro Mural
On one of my early journeys in September, I headed north (for some reason it seemed safer to me) along country roads through lush green tree lined back roads between Fayetteville and Chapel Hill.  The roads stretched over rivers, rolling hills and through small towns with roads named "Main" and "Broad".  This particular day was a Sunday and I wound up in Carrboro, next door to Chapel Hill and UNC.  Upon exiting my car, I could hear live jazz playing in a local park near the co-op market, and smelled food all over.  I was hungry and thought I might stop for brunch (snicker... in NC????!!! HA! Right).  Regardless of my humor laughing at the would be hicks, I found a little restaurant called ACME, and was quite impressed.  You can see my full review of their service here.  The rest of the little college town was very cool.  I found a variety of shops, people, and was quite impressed by the number of murals painted all over town.  The artistry and variety of them was absolutely amazing.

South of Fayetteville
Wooded Family Plot
In the fall, I took another little back-road trip south to try some wineries and explore the scenery.  I found one winery, but found their wines a bit tart for my taste.  They had won some state awards though, just not my cup of tea.  The second winery I "found", seemed a little too Deliverance-y for my tastes, and I hightailed it out of there before anyone could ask me to take a canoe trip, but I digress. The day trip was not a total loss.  I took even more obscure roads this day: making turns down autumn leaf lined roads not sure where I was headed, but I had maps, a somewhat trusty GPS app on my phone, and a confidence in my ability to drive my car as a getaway mobile if need be.  What I did find was amazing.  While whizzing along a state road, something caught the corner of my eye.  I flipped a U-turn and parked along the low shoulder.  I was not disappointed.  Venturing through some trees to a clearing was a small family plot.  In the middle of nowhere was a quaint, small cemetery.  I didn't venture too close as not to disturb.  I just marveled, snapped a few photos, and went along my way.

Lumber River near Wagram, KY
Old Farmhouse
Further along in my travels that day, I wove back and forth over the Lumber river a few times.  At one point, the curvy state roads of NC brought me over a small bridge at a quiet part of the river, so I flipped yet another U-turn to park and explore.  The serene beauty of the river with the spotted clouds was stunning.  I ventured along the bank of the river, snapping random photos and enjoying the quiet weekend afternoon.  Other spots found me snapping photos of old broken down buildings, farm houses, and enjoying the scenery.  The beauty I found along these country back roads was simply breathtaking, and well worth the price in gas and more to explore them.

Fayetteville, NC
Fayetteville's Old Town Hall Sq.
I was very hesitant about going to Fayetteville.  It conjured up images of a seedy military town comprised of dives, pawn shops, and other "establishments" of ill repute. Yes, there was some of that, but I found something else in the places I actually ventured: hospitality and good people.  The "downtown" part of Fayetteville hosted fairs and events, and was attempting to recapture a "Main Street America" that you rarely see anymore.  It even turned the old town hall into a traffic circle, where people could wander through as they shopped along Hay St. (the main drag) at the small coffee shops, knick-knacky stores, the impressive beer and wine store, or even catch a movie at the small, revamped theater.

Native American dance troupe at the
Fayetteville International Festival
Now, I'd be amiss if I didn't mention the two places (sets of people really) that truly made me feel welcome in this land south of home.  First, the staff at the Extended Stay Deluxe in Fayetteville.  They treated me as one of their own (even before getting halfway through my 4 month stay), made sure my pet was treated right, and looked out for me on local specials.  I have no need to stay anywhere else if I return. Last, but certainly not least, the Mellow Mushroom franchise in Fayetteville.  This establishment's parking lot backed up to that of my hotel's, so I could easily walk through there by cutting through paths and doors in the fencing system between them.  They not only have amazing food and a huge beer selection, but the staff and management treated me like family (and not just because they wanted tips either).  They became what I like to call my "family in Fayetteville".  They celebrated my little wins in life and listened to my woes as well.  The farewell I received from them is still overwhelming in my eyes, and I will never forget them.
Mellow Mushroom Club Mug

A Closing Thought

While for many, North Carolina creates imagery of muscle cars on blocks, tank tops, and missing teeth, it no longer does for me.  I think of the beauty and hospitality I experienced there a midst an less than wanted work assignment and smile.  So I tell you: head south, enjoy the scenery, experience the hospitality, and hoist your favorite beverage in toast of the gems of NC found along its back roads.

November 17, 2011

A Drive Into Central Oregon

While I've been to Portland, OR a few times, I had yet to venture into the beauty of Central Oregon.  In the summer of 2011, I had the chance to visit some old friends that recently moved there after a visit in Portland.  The beauty of the northwest US is alive and well in the people, the natural beauty, and the food.

Portland, OR
When talking to people, Portland can be hard to explain for those that haven't experienced it.  Even harder for those that have never been to the west coast.  My best explanation to a Californian (like myself) would be to take equal parts San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and the western side of Lake Tahoe, mix them all up, throw in some cool weather, and out comes Portland, OR.  While this may seem like an insult to some Oregonians, I can assure you, it is a huge complement given that these are three of my favorite places ever.  To have them mixed into one spot is fantastic.

Voo Doo Doughnut's "Maple Bacon
Bar" & the "Oh Captain My Captain"
Portland isn't just a mix of mountain folk and hippies (though they aren't missing).  You get entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, and regular business types too.  My favorites would have to be the restaurateurs though.  Big surprise, since I love food.  Some of the most interesting stuff comes out of Portland, from food trucks, to classy meals, good beer, and doughnuts.  My quest to hit all the shops from Travel Channel's "Doughnut Paradise" continued in Portland with Voo Doo Doughnut, now with two locations.  While I've only been to the original spot, I noticed it got an upgrade on this latest visit.  I think they needed to accommodate all the visitors, and they're queue works a lot better now.  It's cash only there, so make sure you have some on hand for their standard, raised doughnuts or one of their other deliciously devious doughnuts like my favorite, the Maple Bacon Bar.
Steel Bridge, Portland, OR

Portland is more than food though.  Set along the Willamette River (right near the Columbia), it is a city of gorgeous bridges and sights as well. I've found that this city recharges my west coast battery just as well as the three California locales that I feel mix together to make this place.

Central Oregon
Departing Portland early on a Monday morning, I meandered my way to Bend over several hours.  Had I driven straight without stopping, the trip could take around 3-4 hours, mine lasted about twice that.  Between stops for random photos, breakfast, and just taking time to enjoy the gorgeous, wild wonder of this part of the country, the time was well spent.

Boone's Ferry Crossing
My first stop was just off Highway 5, south of Portland along the Willamette River to photograph the Boone's Ferry Crossing railroad bridge above a little mooring area in Aurora, OR.  The bridge caught my eye from the highway and I took the next exit, wandering little roads until I found the mooring spot.  The serenety of the river as well as the beauty of the aged bridge just captivated me, and the quietness of the little docking area set my mind at ease.

Shirley May's Kitchen
I soon headed east towards the forests and ranges of central Oregon along Highway 20.  While skipping along in my rental car, I passed an old A&W burger boy in front of a little roadside diner called Shirley May's.  I hadn't eaten and ventured in.  I was greeted by, what appeared to be someone's great-aunt's living/dining room area.  Knick-knacks and tchochkes filled the walls, part of the lunch counter, and the shelves throughout the establishment.  Locals sat at tables, looking at me warily, but friendly as they ate what I could only discern as pancakes, though the seemed to be more like hubcaps for a semi-truck by the size of them. I took a seat at the bar, perused the cash only menu, and settled on an order of biscuits and gravy.  What I was provided with for around $5 (to include my coffee) was a MOUNTAIN of food that I couldn't finish.  Not that it wasn't delicious, it was just so much.  I should have known to order the half plate when I saw the pancakes.

Fly fishing south of Foster Lake
Back on the road with a full stomach, I soon found myself in Sweet Home, OR.  Yes, that is the actual name of a city.  I took the name as a place to wander and set my photographic eye on things.  The man-made Foster Lake provided me with some gorgeous photos of fisherman and beautiful waterscapes.  I also stopped in at a little roadside market to pick up some wine and cigars as gifts to my soon to be gracious hosts in Bend.  There is nothing grand about this little town, except the beauty in the scenery and the freshness of the air.

Mountain crossroads west of
the Willamette National Forest
Further east along Hwy 20, I encountered the grandeur of the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests.  This is what I expected from the "Great Northwest".  Between the beautifully treelined mountainscapes and snowcapped mountains in August, I realized how much I missed the western US' natural treasures.  I smiled to myself the whole way through as I stopped randomly at campgrounds, scenic overlooks, and even at small spaces along the road to admire and photograph things that have barely changed in thousands of years.  I drove through towns like Sisters, OR, that could have been the setting for an 80's B-level comedic ski comedy, but it was the genuine thing.  The shops had the look of a western town, but were not constructed to just "look" like that.  They had the feel of the real thing.

Snow peaked Mt. Washington
Trout River Campground,
Willamette Natl. Forest
Bend, OR
The next town over was my destination for the day: Bend, OR.  One of my oldest and best friends recently moved his family there and they were kind enough to house this nomadic citizen for a couple evenings and take time out of their week to show me the beauty of Bend.  The downtown area was filled with walkers and is a much slower pace than an East Coast like NY or even DC.  I had to remember my West Coast roots and slow down while walking through town.  People smiled as they walked by, the sun was shining, a slight breeze flittered by, and I could breathe.  It was nice.

The people themselves were much less "granola" than I expected for a mountain town in Oregon.  Instead they were relaxed, yet entrepenurial 30-somethings that were more outdoorsy than crunchy.  I was impressed by the number of micro-breweries in town (more than a handful), and loved that many offered brew-pub options (FOOD!).  My friend and his fam took me to McMenamins Old St. Francis School for appetizers, dinner, and beer sampling.  It did not dissapoint.  My one shout out (besides the fantasticly large beer sampler) was for the Cajun Tater Tots... they're like warm, crispy BBQ potato chip flavored tastiness.

Tumalo Falls, Bend, OR
My short trip to Bend was highlighted with a visit to Tumalo Falls, a gorgeous waterfall fed by the Deschutes River.  I've always been in love with rivers and waterfalls.  I think my time camping in the Sierras as a child contributes to this.  Their power and beauty captivates me.  A short quarter mile hike up to a scenic outlook from the parking area is nothing to scoff at.  Make sure you take water and don't push your lungs a this higher altitude if you live closer to sea level (like I do).
Deschutes River, Bend, OR

The remainder of my trip was spotted with a visit to the Bendistillery (some of the best gin and vodka I've ever tasted), a hike along the Deschutes, and more great food and company at my friends' home.  I definitely see another visit in the future to this hidden gem of a city.

More photos from Oregon can be found here.

October 02, 2011

People: The True New Orleans

New Orleans Resident
When I used to think of New Orleans, a few things came to mind: Mardi Gras, drinking on Bourbon Street, debauchery, gumbo, and flood/hurricane damage.  While on a work trip in March of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend a long day in the Big Easy and experience what I wanted to.  What I found during my wanderings of the streets and sounds of this old port town was that it wasn’t restaurants, parties, or even the restored buildings that give New Orleans its true character; it is the people that do.
Sugar Covered Beignets

As I stated, I was in the area for work, so my day started with a peer.  Our first stop was at Café Du Monde, just off Jackson Square; the only touristy stop that I made.  I had to stop for the doughy, sugary goodness that I had seen on Travel Channel’s Doughnut Paradise. We found a seat rather quickly (surprisingly due to the crowd), and my coworker ordered for us. You see, he and the majority of the wait staff are both Vietnamese.  As he explained on the drive in, many Vietnamese people came to New Orleans during the early and mid 70’s because of their experience in fishing and shrimping.   The port town offered many opportunities for them to work and make a run at the American dream. He was able to order for us in Vietnamese, and that got us very quick service.  I would highly recommend visiting this establishment for the beignet and café au lait.  Regardless of how you take your coffee, just drink it their way.  It complements the pastries in a way that is music in your mouth: sweet, strong, and just beautiful.

High(?) Wire Violinist
Mid Air Spin from a Dragon Master
Cowboy Guarded Smoke Break
We wandered less than a block southwest along Decatur from the café to an outdoor ampitheatre attached to the French Quarter Visitor’s Center.  A huge crowd was gathering to watch a few young gentlemen from Dragon Master Showcase put on a street gymnastics performance that blew me away.  They mixed humor, showmanship, and pure athleticism into a crowd pleasing show for all ages.

Meschiya Lake & Band
From here, my compatriot from work and I went our own ways.  I wandered the streets to find a mix of sights and sounds I could never have imagined.  It was like vaudeville had never died; it has only moved to the streets of New Orleans to thrive and live peacefully among the artists and shopkeepers of the city.  My favorite of the day was this Zydeco Jazz style band performing on the street behind St. Louis Cathedral. A tattooed, pierced, and slightly hipster looking group of rag tag musicians had such a full sound in the open air that it made me feel just happy.  They were fronted by Miss Meschiya Lake; a petite woman with a voice that could fill the souls of the masses of New Orleans.  I will definitely seek them out if ever down there again. More photos of their street performance can be found at this link.  

Trombone Soloist
Balloon Artist

After purchasing a CD in thanks for letting me take their photos (I HIGHLY recommend tipping or purchasing things from street performers if you’re going to take their photos; it’s only fair), I continued along my way. The rest of the afternoon I found various other bands, musicians, and even a group of skateboarders using planters for their thrills. By the time dark rolled around, I had taken hundreds of photos, listened to some amazing music, and ate some great local food. All provided by the heart, soul, and lifeblood of New Orleans: its people.

Heavy Brass Sounds
Musical Couple
Amateur New Orleans Skater
If you'd like to see more photos from this day in New Orleans, please visit the following link:

June 28, 2011

Hagerstown, MD and the Quad State Area: Just Holding On

Picture from Quad State Tourism I-81
In February of 2011, I was planning on attending my company's annual ski trip in Pennsylvania.  While plans for that fell through, I had already paid for a hotel nearby in Hagerstown, MD and found that I needed a long weekend away from work and my normal routine.  This area is also known as the "Quad State" area because of the proximity of Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

I drove up on an unusually warm Thursday afternoon in winter to check in to my accomodations at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. The hotel had an old school feel about it with large comfortable rooms, though it was generally new or perhaps recently remodeled.  The staff checking me in looked at me funny, almost as if I didn't belong, or maybe it was because there was a stamp collecting convention scheduled for the next day and they thought I was a part of it.  Regardless, they were still friendly.  The hotel itself isn't far from some retail outlets and across the highway from a mall, but I wasn't in the mood for a retail weekend.  I needed to explore and immerse.

In my room, I connected to the free wireless internet and did some searching for a place to go for dinner that was more "local" than the Olive Garden across the street.  I found a place that looked interesting and mapped out some directions.  I got in the car and drove through what I can only assume is the downtown area of Hagerstown to get there.  Despite numerous highways intersecting in the city, the downtown area almost seemed like an area that was barely hanging on: old buildings (some boarded up), a few businesses, and hardly anyone walking the sidewalks.

The Corner Pub, Hagerstown, MD
I found the Corner Pub on (yes, you guessed it) the corner of E. Mulberry and Baltimore streets. Parking was easy to find across the street, and I wandered in past the patrons outside enjoying a smoke.  Inside was exactly what I was looking for: a quaint dive with plenty of regulars.  A seat was found back in the corner with a view of the bar, the front door as well as the pool table area.  There was a local business having a happy hour get together around the pool table, and I swear I could pick out each of the Dunder Mifflin employee personalities as they caroused together.  The staff behind the bar knew their regulars and took care of them, but they didn't forget the outsiders either. The waitress helping me had teased hair, a friendly smile, and was on top of thing even though she was at the end of her shift. As for the drinks, I was impressed with not only the amount and variety of craft beers, but the selection of single malt Scotch and Irish whiskeys available too.  Their menu seemed like simple pub grub, and when the food arrived, it was quite delicious.  I would have liked to sample one of the 21 year old single malts, but I did want to get back to the hotel safely and without incident.

Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a cigar outside on the mild winter evening, listening to two other tobacco types talk in the distance about a variety of topics mostly centering around women at their office and some car troubles.  I eavesdropped for a while, then headed inside to the restaurant attached to the hotel.  There I found the lounge portion of the Fireside Restaurant and Lounge for my nightcap.  There were both locals and hotel guests sitting at the bar and small tables, and I found a place at the bar to make my order.  The older gentleman tending orders was friendly and snarky (much appreciated since I'm generally the same way).  We exchanged pleasantries and I ordered myself a double bourbon (which was poured as at least a triple).  I left a hefty tip for the big pour and headed up to my room for the evening.
Firehouse in Martinsburg, WV

I awoke the next day to enjoy a decent (and complimentary) continental breakfast spread in the hotel restaurant.  I was still hungry for something else though.  The drive through the lonely town the previous night left me yearning to see more of what the area had to offer.  I hopped in the car and just started going. I found myself first in Martinsburg, WV.  It's another small town hanging on, but there the locals looked at me like I was invading their personal space.  Even from across the street.  It was odd, but I needed to take photos there.  After snapping a few up and down the main drag, I got back in my car and headed out.

I continued south along Route 11 through shut down retail areas and past dilapidated homes and buildings.  I realized that while we all have rough times, there are always people out there doing worse.  Living as close to the city as I do, I hate to admit that I sometimes forget how rough it is in some of the rural parts of the country.

The Grove Restaurant, Clear Brook (?), VA
While I watched the scenery move past me, I caught view of a sign stating I had just entered the Commonwealth of Virginia.  What?!?  That quad state thing was no joke.  Soon after I passed a run-down diner that used to be.  Pulling a quick couple of U-turns, I stopped and explored this shut-down relic in what I think is the north side of a town called Clear Brook.  Old buildings and structures like this always call to me when I'm out taking pictures.  I imagine what stories they hold from when they were open and since they've closed.  Around the back, windows were broken and I could see in.  Lights with bulbs still in them hung from the ceiling, the restroom still had a toilet installed, but the ground was covered in dirt.  In the storage entrance through the back a newer child's bicycle was leaning against a wall with flat tires.  How did it get there? Were there drifters that frequented the spot for a free roof, or perhaps teens there to drink (evidence of the empty beer bottles strewn about)?  Who knows.  Only my imagination could make up the story at this point.

Waffle House Coffee Cups
I was a little tired from driving and hungry as well, so I headed back north along 11 to see what I could find.  I wound up at a Waffle House back in Hagerstown.  It wasn't anything special, but was nice to sit in a booth, have some waffles for lunch with bacon and hash-browns (scattered and smothered with Casa de Waffle salsa on top).  Oh, don't forget the coffee either.  There's something so comforting about a visit to the Waffle House for me.  The predictably diner'ish food, the no-nonsense service, even down to the regulars and wait staff giving each other a hard-time about one thing or another.  You'll find this in any of their establishments across the country.

After lunch, I was wiped.  I headed back to my hotel for a nap and some relaxation.  After an hours sleep, I edited some photos and didn't feel like going anywhere else.  The hotel was quite comfortable and I wound up ordering room service.  The size of the burger was insane and overall quite filling and tasty.  After a couple months of busy days at work and busy nights and weekend with school at the time, just relaxing with my email off was perfect.  I did wind up wanting something sweet a couple hours later, and the dessert menu/vending machine wasn't going to cut it.

Waffle Cones at Superior Ice Cream
Back online, I found something that might suffice, and I headed a couple miles down the road to pick up some ice cream.  Within a small neighborhood in Hagerstown I found the Superior Ice Cream & Snack Bar.  The little place was a bit hard to find in the dark, but I got there.  Once inside, the bright glow of fluorescent lights hit me almost as hard as the sweet smell of hand dipped ice cream and fresh waffle cones. It brought a smile to my face remembering other little shops I'd been to similar to this. An older couple was enjoying dessert in the corner while two younger women discussed their love lives at a table in the middle of the shop.  None of them really paid me any attention as I ordered my sundae to go and hustled back to my room to enjoy it before drifting off to sleep.

The next morning I awoke early and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast again before checking out.  I loaded my back into the trunk and easily merged onto the highway back home.  These major highways crisscrossing our United States are convenient, but sometimes they help travelers conveniently miss a small town.  A small town that may need your patronage to hang on...